Saturday, September 5, 2009

Note to President

I just sent the following to Pres. Obama:

Every time the right denounces you, you should view it as an opportunity to completely change the debate by criticizing the awful rhetoric they use. Your doing this could change our political life for the better for years to come. We have all been waiting for years for a democrat to do that, but we keep getting weak democrats. Please be strong for our sakes. Everybody wants a strong, courageous advocate.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Questions on Healthcare for President Obama

Why have you not been emphasizing the "same insurance that members of congress get", rather than the "public option?" Or, why not simply expand the availability of medicaid or medicare, and charge premiums pro-rated to income? Why not sell the whole thing as a reduction in bureaucracy, and a simplifying of an overly complex system, by combining medicare, medicaid, VA, federal employees, and the armed forces health system into one system. You would then have the rhetorical upper hand in all these discussions. The idea of extending coverage would be less of a focal point.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I am starting a new project called PianoBlog, consisting of recorded, mostly extended technique, piano improvisations.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Doctrine and Covenants 104
16 [B]ehold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.
17 For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.
18 Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Information Technology and Freedom

Iran is showing that information technology, from movable type, to mobile phones and the internet have always played a pivotal role in the march of freedom. I think I remember President Kimball saying that the Lord had provided inventions to enable the gospel to be preached to more and more people. This has been dramatically shown to be true over the years. Now I am seeing that information technology is opening up formerly closed societies, hopefully bringing about their access to the gospel.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Winners" and "Losers"

I am continually shocked at the cavalier way the terms "winners" and "losers" are used in public policy debate, particularly regarding healthcare in the United States. If someone dies because of a healthcare snafu, isn't everyone a loser? Isn't there any sense of collective responsibility or collective benefit, or collective loss. Is the vestigial anti-communism so deep and so compulsive that we our discourse on public policy has to assume we are all monads, or nuclear family groupings. The terms "winners" and "losers" come directly from sports. The mythology in America is that participation in organized sports by children is the highest and best way to foster "values." But there is no query into what these values are. The most fundamental value that underlies organized sports (i.e. that lead to tournaments, etc.) is the zero sum gain, that there is one winner and one loser. This concept is behind all the problems I see in America (and increasingly, the world) today. It justifies greed, and doing horrible things to other people and the earth. We believe competition is a positive in itself, a cure-all, and you can't get in its way or you will cause all kinds of problems.

When I was a kid, I loved to play sports mainly for the exhilaration of various types of physical activity, the miracle of motion of bodies, balls, wheeled vehicles, etc. Friendly competition could make it fun and a little more urgent. But organized sports were always unpleasant to me, not so much because of the competition between teams, but because of the negativeness within a team--getting benched, etc.

I would suggest that the collaboration involved in creating new things is a much better way to teach values to children. Collaboration, working with people toward a common and creative goal, being respectful of what others have to offer, these are what children need to learn to foster a better society.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Coming Up: My Problems with Hip Hop

Automation and Utopia - The End of Jobs

What happened:
We have automated most of our work. We don't need to do much work anymore. At first we used technology to create more work for ourselves. During the past few decades, while most actual work was shipped overseas, most of the labor of the bourgeois was spent in speculation, trying to work the system to amass more resources. Information technology enabled/forced us all to become bankers/accountants/attorneys, etc. But eventually the "winners" won out. They amassed the most and there is not really any work to be done for hire. The result of automation was supposed to give us huge amounts of free time, resulting in a flowering of the arts, leisure, good deeds, etc. Mankind has been developing technology with the eventual goal of utopia. What other possible goal could/should there be? But, because of the cold war, any kind of macroeconomic cooperation or planning is branded as "socialism" and we are frozen in dogma. I just don't see jobs returning to our economy, and they shouldn't. We need to accept that the essentials of life need not be tied to work. Everyone has to work, but we need to come up with another model for how to incorporate work into life.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Debussy's Clouds

I just played Debussy's Clouds for my theory students today. In my older years I am blown away by how evocative his music is. It really grasps sensations - sight, sound, kinetic energy, smell, temperature, moisture, etc. I always thought that was corny and preferred absolute music. I told my students I used to think his music was effeminate. Now I love natural sounds and sensations more than ever and see a bit more the divinity in them. I think L. taught me the concept that there is divinity in the earthly and even the worldly. Humans are children of God, and thus what they do is always touched with the divine.

We also listened to the first page of all 24 Preludes. Such a wealth of textures, and, again, so evocative.

Yesterday we listened to Sirenes from the same set as Clouds (Nocturnes). I couldn't get the vocal melody out of my head all night and into the morning. Again, an almost magical feat, considering the subject matter. I'm saying this because, again, I have never really "gotten" Debussy, and I think I'm starting to.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Bird and Insect Sounds

Last night I slept on our back porch for the first time this season. I love falling asleep and waking up to the beautiful sounds of wind, rain, insects, and, at dawn, the birds. Last night was a full moon which made it a bit tricky to fall/stay asleep, but it was worth it. Try as we might, we will never measure up to the beauty created by God.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Better Days

When I was in high school I was turned on to reggae by friends. I couldn't afford new records, so I bought various obscure reggae/rock steady compilations from used record stores. One of them had a really beautiful song on it by an artist I had never heard of before, nor have I since, in fact I had to intuit it from google. The artist is Carlton and his Shoes, and the song is Better Days. The groove is one of the best in existence, but there are some very out of tune backup vocal interludes. I still like it. But the really amazing thing is the lyrics which kind of sum up so many aspects of our sojourn here on earth. The lyrics include the following:

God made man and he made us all
An equal share of blessing.
Some men want to take it all
And keep the rest of the world
In bondage and oppression.

What more can one say. It starts in kindergarten, I guess. Perhaps the "some men" learn it from their fathers who do it in their homes. The song ends very optimistically, though, with "Better days are coming for you and for me."

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Millennium


I’ve been teaching the Sunday School lessons in the LDS services in the Forensics Unit of the Utah State Hospital lately. Today’s topic was the Millennium. I’ve always been fascinated by the millennium. I wonder if I have a fascination with the kinds of topics that people of my demographic subgroup, the liberal intellectual Mormons, tend to shy away from? I’ve never been much for Unitarianization of Mormonism. I’m becoming a bit more Unitarian as I age, but I still like the quirky, memorable concepts/events/images that radiate other concepts.

I tend to use a Socratic method and I tend to challenge the students more than some might think is advisable. My theory is that everyone is susceptible to thought and changes in their thinking, and that most people are smarter than we think. I also don’t mind if some students don’t get everything, I guess because I tend to “get” about 60% of what I read or pick up from talks, graduate seminars, conference presentations, etc. I find that I think about things I don’t quite get off and on for long periods of time. It often results in a cumulative epiphany which is the source of a lot of what I come to know.

Here is a bit of an outline of what we discussed today. First, I asked them to list the things that are wrong with the world. They included war, disease, economic problems, greed, natural disasters, pollution, etc.

Second, I asked them to list things they would like to change about the world. They included peace, generosity, kindness, no more disease, a hospitable climate with clean air, water and land, etc.

Then I asked why things are the first way and not the second way. We kind of determined that most people want things the second way, but it takes just a few ill-intentioned people to bring about things in the first list. There’s a reggae song by Someone and the Shoes, that I remember from a record I had in high school that said something like “God gives all men an equal share of blessings. Some men want to take it all and keep the rest of the world in bondage and oppression.” There’s a really interesting scripture in Alma 46 about Amalikiah who makes a goal to conquer both the Lamanites and Nephites and comes pretty close, causing untold suffering and upheaval along the way:

9 Yea, and we also see the great wickedness one very wicked man can cause to take place among the children of men.

Of course he doesn’t do it all by himself. But the important thing in discussing macro problems involving countries in the world, is the source or the impetus of mischief, which always tends to be a few really bad apples. Nevertheless:

10 Yea, we see that Amalickiah, because he was a man of cunning device and a man of many flattering words, that he led away the hearts of many people to do wickedly.

Then I asked why the few are allowed to ruin everything. I got two different lines of thought on this. One is that, because of free agency, some people will end up doing dumb, bad, and often very damaging things. The other was that their actions fulfill our need for opposition in all things. One remembers the parable of the wheat and tares, that tares (weeds) grew up next to the wheat. The workers asked the master if they should pluck up the tares who told them not to, because they would likely also pluck up the wheat with the tares. Better to let them both grow up together and separate them at reaping time.

What starts to take shape is the very clear tripartite division of the world into celestial, terrestrial, and telestial people, each of which has a role. I think that terrestrial people make up a majority of the world. These are the basically decent people who don’t join the Church, but are guided by ethical and/or religious principles, that listen to their conscience, that are reverent and basically kind to other sentient beings. Then there are the few to whom I have alluded, who bring most of the mischief, suffering, etc. into the world. The people who seem to want to spread violence, immorality, dishonesty, inequality, etc. and who are largely successful, inasmuch as Satan gives them power over parts of his realm. These are the telestials. Because of them, the world is essentially a telestial place. Mankind has always dreamt of reaching a terrestrial state, but it seems like it is impossible as long as there are telestials here to muck things up. Celestial people should focus on working with the terrestrials more, because we have essentially the same goals. And we will be living together in the millennium.

I was reminded of a study recently of foreign aid by country as a portion of GDP. The top countries were all Scandinavian. The U.S. was at the bottom of the industrialized countries (though, I should say, at the top in actual aid dollars). Scandinavia, and Western Europe in general, seem to be essentially terrestrial societies. They are mostly secular and not very open to the restored gospel, but they seem to be working toward, or to have achieved aspects of terrestrial life. America seems to be more of a mix of the three types.

We then talked about characteristics of the millennial (or terrestrial) world, which matched up pretty well with the things we had discussed earlier. The one that interested me was in D&C 101:
26 And in that day the enmity of man, and the enmity of beasts, yea, the enmity of all flesh, shall cease from before my face.
Imagine if the conflict not only among humans, but among all life forms disappeared. What a remarkable, fascinating place the world would be.

Then I asked if we know when the second coming will happen. The answer is, of course, no, and the scriptures state that neither we, nor the angels, nor even Jesus know the day or the hour. I then asked why not. My idea was that maybe there is no set time for the second coming. Maybe it is contingent on human events and human will to some extent. What is interesting is that the events to precede the second coming involve an increase in wickedness on the part of the telestials (wars, pollutions, etc.) and an increase in righteousness on the part of the celestials (preaching the gospel to the whole world, etc.)

As for the “tribulation”, or the dangerous events that precede the second coming, I suggested that we not worry too much about them specifically, any more than one should worry about death in general, or auto accidents, or cancer, etc. World War II alone would certainly be anyone’s definition of fulfillment of the negative signs of the times. I’m not saying things won’t get worse, but I think there is a lot to be hopeful about. For example, the gospel will be preached to every nation. Well, every nation that has had the gospel has moved toward democracy and away from oppression. We can expect the most oppressive regimes to go away as they did behind the former iron curtain. One thought is that while freedom is creeping over the earth, I don’t see a lot of will to solve environmental problems. I also see a lot of economic inequality that no one seems that interested in getting rid of. We’ve all got to die some time and some will die in auto accidents, cancer, and other ways that are more or less unpleasant. The righteous (i.e. the terrestrials who are, as I said, more than half of the world) are promised a great degree of protection.

In other words, I think the day or the hour is unknown because it is yet to be determined, for the most part by the actions of the celestials, i.e. in bringing about the great work of sharing the gospel, perfecting the saints, temple building, etc. We should never assume anything is a done deal. The story of Jonah proves that prophecies are always contingent.

A couple of other questions I asked were:

Do we have to wait for the millennium to live a terrestrial life?
We can certainly make our homes and communities better. Again, I think that while Scandinavia is not celestial, or on the way to being so, it seems (from my limited vantage point) to be pretty close to terrestrial in some ways. Our homes can certainly be terrestrial or even celestial.

I didn’t get to the two really nice quotes:

President Gordon B. Hinckley taught: “How do you prepare for the Second Coming? Well, you just do not worry about it. You just live the kind of life that if the Second Coming were to be tomorrow you would be ready. Nobody knows when it is going to happen. … Our responsibility is to prepare ourselves, to live worthy of the association of the Savior, to deport ourselves in such a way that we would not be embarrassed if He were to come among us. That is a challenge in this day and age” (Church News, 2 Jan. 1999, 2).
Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve gave the following counsel:
“Teenagers also sometimes think, ‘What’s the use? The world will soon be blown all apart and come to an end.’ That feeling comes from fear, not from faith. No one knows the hour or the day (see D&C 49:7), but the end cannot come until all of the purposes of the Lord are fulfilled. Everything that I have learned from the revelations and from life convinces me that there is time and to spare for you to carefully prepare for a long life.
“One day you will cope with teenage children of your own. That will serve you right. Later, you will spoil your grandchildren, and they in turn spoil theirs. If an earlier end should happen to come to one, that is more reason to do things right” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1989, 72; or Ensign, May 1989, 59).

Monday, April 6, 2009

Hospital Branch

I recently wrote responses to a few questions regarding my calling with the LDS branch at a state mental hospital:

1) What is special about the branch?
There are really two branches within the branch:
1. The adults in the main building and the youth and children
2. The people in the Forensics Ward.
Having church is very basic. Patients have to work pretty hard and overcome opposition to attend meetings and stay focused. Meetings tend to be shorter. The concerns of branch members are very real, very basic, sometimes harrowing, sometimes humorous. The gospel becomes very real and very practical. Spirituality is not an extra. It's not superstructure. Spirituality is something that many of our patients crave in a visceral way. They are reduced to a cathartic state for many reasons, including the large amount of self-reflection, the feeling that they are not in control of their lives and bodies because of the hospital's structures and because of medication. It brings to mind Alma 32: 6
6 And now when Alma heard this, he turned him about, his face immediately towards him, and he beheld with great joy; for he beheld that their afflictions had truly humbled them, and that they were in a preparation to hear the word.
In the forensics ward, many of our patients are visibly contrite and maybe a bit harrowed by things that they have done.
One of our principle duties is to escort patients from their units to the chapel or conference room (depending where the meeting is being held). This is sometimes a mildly tedious process, having to go through security checkpoints, convincing patients to join us, being told that certain patients have not "reached their levels" and therefore cannot leave the unit. Once they are off unit, we are technically responsible for them and for their safe return. Someone will sit at the back and maybe follow patients if they go out. The reason I mention this is that the volunteers in the branch are "shepherds" in a kind of literal way, leading groups of people here and there, preventing them from getting lost. The "quality of instruction" or discourse etc. in our worship services can vary, but we are more focused on creating an experience and environment for the patients that choose to and are able to attend.

> 2) What have your learned working there?

I have learned a lot, but I am still in the thick of it. I have learned that many of the formal aspects of the church don't matter that much, and that once those aspects are gone or are in flux, it can be very disorienting, yet liberating and uplifting. You get so that you focus on more basic things. I have been very interested as an artist lately in intimacy as a means to reach the unseen, as opposed to pageantry, which I think sometimes blinds us to the unseen by providing a kind of surrogate. Our meetings and interactions are intimate and basic. Our goals are certainly very basic, but I think this enables or forces us to encounter the unseen as a way to accomplish these very basic goals.
I have also learned how teach lessons in a more engaging and universal way. We have such a diversity of intellects and attention spans that it forces you as a teacher to come up with lessons and strategies that work for a wide variety of people.
I think the thing that I have learned most is not to judge other people. This is a hard fought lesson, because I have a problem with judging. This particularly comes up in the Forensics Ward where we have people who have killed people and committed sexual crimes. We also have people who have committed pretty minor offenses while a bit loopy, trespassing, petty theft, etc. Because of the unusual nature of our branch, we don't have disciplinary councils and we don't withhold the sacrament from anyone. At first it was a little strange, but then I came to find it very liberating and it helped me to realize that God is the only judge and that we don't need to worry about other people's worthiness. It's really not our concern, and thank heaven for that.
> 3) How has it shaped your ideas about forgiveness and accountability?
I remember someone asked me if I felt the spirit in the Forensics meetings, considering the nature of some of the attendees actions. I think I replied that it was hard not to feel the spirit there. The people that attend the Forensics meeting are very humble and often want to bear their testimony and express their gratitude. They are reaching out for deliverance from pain, and, I think, struggling with complex issues of accountability relating to their own actions vis a vis their mental illnesses and mistreatment they have gone through as children and adults. These are things that I have not had to deal with. It means that their search for redemption is much more urgent and heartfelt than anything I have experienced. It also means that they grapple with riddles more complex and yet more basic than the ones I grapple with. It has taught me that, while obedience is better than forgiveness, forgiveness is more miraculous than obedience.

> 4) What should people who have never attended a ward like this know?

Wards are too big to really do the kind of service for their members that is needed. It is hard not to shake someone's hand in our branch. If you have something to say, you will get a chance to say it. If you have a concern, it will be heard and answered by a friendly, helpful person. All of the fancy programs that are enabled by the economies of scale inherent in large wards are of little benefit, compared with the personal interaction afforded by a small unit.
"When 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there am I..." is literally true. That phrase says nothing about worthiness, only about multiple people gathered in the name of Jesus. That's it. And that's enough. There is inherent virtue in gathering in Christ's name at any time, with anybody, under any circumstances. Any time the accessories of these gatherings bog down the fact of gathering in Jesus' name, I think we have a problem. Any time we start to experience such gatherings as performances, concerts, lectures, programs, etc., I think we have a problem.
> 5) Describe three memorable experiences from your time there.

There are so many that it is hard to pin 3 down. We have given many blessings to people after meetings that have been very powerful. Fast and testimony was the first meeting I went to. Fast and testimony in any ward or branch is usually an opening for nuttiness. But maybe that's the way that God intends. Maybe the crazy run-on testimonies are what we need to hear. Well, as you can imagine, testimony meeting at a mental hospital is extra nutty, but I think it goes over the top to a new sort of transcendent level. We had two native american men in the Forensics Ward who really bore their souls and documented the kinds of mistreatment at the hands of people and institutions, including what can only be described as torture at the hands of the criminal justice system, as well as redemption and the reality of spiritual forces. I have noticed that our patients are apt to get up twice in a testimony if they feel they have forgotten something the first time. With some exceptions, they don't tend to go on very long, though. Their testimonies can be nutty but strangely put together. You know me. Not very strong on the narrative/story telling side. Prone to abstraction. I wish i could get some of your narrative mojo, make things come to life, show don't tell...

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Electric Cars and the Detroit Bailout

I just sent this message to the White House:

Have you seen the movie, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" This was an amazing all-electric car, the EV1, made by GM, that got more than 100 miles per charge, that was essentially destroyed by GM and, I suspect, the Bush administration in 2001. Electric cars have been around as long as gasoline cars. They are quieter, more efficient, non-polluting, etc.. They have many advantages over hybrids, in that they don't carry all the weight of a gasoline engine. Possibly the most important advantage is that they would generally be charged at night when most electricity gets wasted. Why not make GM bring back the EV1? This could completely change the equation for US automakers, if they created truly transformative vehicles that gave their brands more prestige. And, for heavens sake, why are our corporations paying for health care when the government covers it elsewhere. That has to be the main reason our companies can't compete in a global market.
Thank you for bringing sanity back to this country and for being so open.
Christian Asplund
Associate Professor
Brigham Young University

Monday, March 16, 2009

Big Love/temple

I didn't see it, but I personally think it's an outrage. We don't get to decide what other people consider sacred and in an undertaken so incredibly capitalized, public, etc. as internationally distributed television, there is no ethical reason for something like this to happen. I just don't believe in giving these hacks a pass on everything for supposed aesthetic grounds.
I guess I currently don't view the medium of television as an art form, and thus am not willing to grant it a lot of leeway. As an artist, I am pretty saddened that what we used to consider to be mass-produced disposable popular culture designed to sell stuff has now substituted for art, simply because the sets, cameras, and editing are more sophisticated.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Everything's gonna be alright

I have to apologize for some negativity. After the elation of Obama's election, I was disheartened by some of his appointments, but maybe I was so inspired by the inauguration. What a beautiful man, and what a beautiful moment for this great country. I always kind of knew in the back of my mind that America would come through, although, as Churchill said, after they had tried everything else. The more I live in this country, the more I see racial shadings to almost everything that happens here. And they are much more complex that simple racism. And I am constantly amazed by what people will go through to try to save face. There are many reasons Obama won. After Bush, I figured that any democrat would be a shoe-in, but there was the nomination. People talked about the whatever-effect, you know, the African American candidate, I believe it was for mayor of L.A. who polled well but lost the election because white people either couldn't bring themselves to follow through when in the booth, or because they were embarassed to say what they really thought to pollsters. Of course, we were all scared that the election would be stolen as in 2000 and 2004. I think Katrina was the watershed moment in public distaste for Bush and all he and his era represented. To my mind it felt more tragic than 9/11. More people were killed on 9/11, but we did everything we could to help. Katrina was a tragedy of blatant disregard for the lives of poor people of color. I think it cast a mirror on the ugliest and most hidden racisms that were both institutional and personal in America. And I think that America didn't like what they saw and started coming around. And I think that elections have a bizarre way of expressing a collective unconscious, of communicating things that are difficult to articulate collectively. Obama is an incredible man, a poet, a statesman, a strategist, a man of faith. We have been assuming that his one-in-a-million qualities enabled him to overcome the racial biases of white voters. Can we interpret his election and his unprecended popularity as our collectively subconscious response to Katrina, and all of the ugly racism that led up to it. Electing Obama does not atone for atrocities committed against African-Americans since the 17th century, but it does represent something very hopeful. When Barack talks about the "unlikely story that is America," race is the undercurrent, the backstory, the hidden plot behind everything else. Like many great stories, this one has had its harrowing moments; the last 8 years stands out, but ultimately it looks very hopeful. I wish there could be an Obama for Israel, Russia, Africa, Iran.

Another item came up regarding race, this one having more to do with people of northern european descent. I was reading an article about white people being ashamed of their bodies. This is nothing new, but maybe something not explored sufficiently. White Americans hate their bodies. If you read fashion magazines, they have many articles describing how to hide or distort different parts of the body. Eating disorders are the ultimate body hating concept, trying to make the body disappear. We don't like like the body to have any shape or any features that protrude, buttocks, hips, breasts, nose, ears. Whenever the subject of singing or dancing come up, we are at pains to point out how awful we are at both, or how we are not professionals at either. I was listening to "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" this morning, and I found that most jokes were deprecating some physical aspect of white people. We basically don't sing, dance, dress up, or do anything that involves sharing our physicality with others. I know this goes back to the puritans, etc., but I have found this tendency growing geometrically since the 1980s. The article alluded to pointed out how African-American and hispanic-Americans are much more comfortable with their bodies, and more willing to show them off. Disparaging comments were made on "Wait Wait" about Aretha's hat, and Michelle's dress. It seemed like these white people were unable to relate to adornment in any kind of positive way. Critique was the only mode of discourse. There was Aretha, certainly over 300 lbs., pretty old by now. Her features were never classically pretty. Yet, how can you critique anything she does. It's not really possible. She's fascinating and beautiful and an artist, powerful and expressive, and wonderful to look at, listen to, and watch. Objectively the bow on her hat was absurdly large, but who cares.
There's too much picking apart, analyzing, not enough holistic experience, of process, of living. People should do a lot more singing, dancing, dressing up for each other, and less critiquing. We should start to enjoy our bodies, instead of trying to figure out how to hide, punish, or get rid of them. After all, we are in God's image.