Friday, July 31, 2009

Children, Parents, and the Rest of Us

If you have children, don’t complain.  About anything.  More specifically, if you’ve chosen to have kids you also need to accept the fact that your children will probably consume the best years of your life and that you have no right to inconvenience complete strangers with them.  In other words, please stay at home. 

If this all seems a bit insensitive let me explain: my college newspaper has recently published several letters arguing about whether it’s appropriate to bring small children into public spaces.  Not surprisingly, those against bringing children to places like movie theaters have pointed out that they are noisy and disruptive to other patrons.  What is surprising, however, is that those on the other side of the issue seem to feel that their actions are justified simply because “parents sometimes like to go out and do things.”

Obviously, I side with the former, but it still always surprises me when I come across people who act like they’re doing all of us a favor by having children and we should all be accordingly sympathetic.  Don’t misunderstand: I do believe that having children can be a rewarding experience and it’s something that I look forward to doing someday.  Yet, when people choose to have kids it also seems like they should be realistic about that choice.  Obviously, that means doing fewer fun things, but it also means that a lot of people without children aren’t going to want to have you and your family around very much.  When it comes to movie theaters, restaurants, etc., I frankly don’t think children should be allowed.  Or at least, they shouldn’t be allowed during prime hours when everyone else is trying to spend a night out.  If that means parents have a harder time, so be it; that’s all part of the job.

Certainly this isn’t a black and white issue and society benefits by being accommodating.  I know, for example, that if I go see a matinee of Harry Potter there are going to be noisy kids there.  On the other hand, I would never go see a matinee of Harry Potter.  In fact, when it comes to movies, I generally try to avoid anything that could be remotely described as “family oriented” because nearly every time I go I end up paying more attention to the crying babies and talking toddlers than the actual movie.  This is particularly frustrating because there are “family oriented” movies I’d like to see.  My solution has been to go late, as I’d expect 11 PM showings of these movies to be kid-free.  Alas, that is so rarely the case.             

There are, of course, many people in the world who have children due to unfortunate circumstances: rape, teen pregnancy, faulty birth control, etc.  These are sad circumstances.  However, if the victims of these events were the only ones bringing their children to places they ought not to be, it’d be rare that we’d hear crying babies at inconvenient times.  The problem, in reality, is that there are many people who have chosen to have children who also impose their children on unsuspecting strangers.  I’m sure those children are beautiful and wonderful.  I’m sure they bring great satisfaction to their families.  I’m sure they’re the apples of their parents’ eyes.  But please, don’t force the rest of us to participate in your parenting woes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Staying Home… For a Gender Fantasy?

Every once in a awhile my church’s magazine, The Ensign, will include something alarming and objectionable.  Unfortunately, the upcoming August issue includes just such an article.  Covering a short three pages, “Staying Home…Again” (by “name withheld”) relays the story of a mother’s struggle to balance child-rearing and work.  While the subject matter is timely, the point of the story—that women have an inherent responsibility to stay at home and take care of kids and accordingly should sacrifice careers to do so—isn’t simply wrong, it’s offensive. 


The article begins innocently enough by describing how the anonymous author was essentially forced back to work because of the economy.  While her husband ran one business she had to assume the responsibilities of a second one when they were unable to successfully sell it.  Eventually, she began to enjoy work more than being home and struggled with how to raise her children. 


If the first page or so paints a refreshingly complex picture of the challenges facing modern parents, the rest of the article clings to painfully outmoded gender stereotypes.  Once the author realized that she was enjoying work more than home life, she felt guilty and, more disturbingly, described herself as having “veered” from the “path.”  Things only get worse from there: she decided to pray for forgiveness for “straying so far from my divine role” and asked God to help her to want to fulfill that role and provide her with a way to do so. 


Throughout the article I was astounded at how little was mentioned about the husband/father.  Why wasn’t he helping raise the children?  Why was it only the woman’s job to fix dinners and attend to household duties?  Why didn’t he feel guilt about not being at home enough?  Maybe he did feel these things, but what stands out is the fact that the author never indicates her husband was shirking his responsibilities.  Instead she insinuates that her “divine role” is to be completely domestic, while his is to gallivant through the professional world having a good time.  Not surprisingly, the article ends with a return to gender stasis: the mother stays home raising the kids and the father continues to be a semi-absent figure.   


The problem with this article isn’t that a woman stayed home to raise kids while a man worked (both valid choices, of course, if people find fulfillment through them), but rather that the author claimed that God required her to behave in ways that were mentally and emotionally damaging. What a person (male or female) does professionally and domestically is a private decision and shouldn’t be determined by wrongheaded social proclamations on gender roles.  In this case, the author didn’t just give up work, she also sacrificed her psychological health (and, I’d argue, her spiritual health) in favor of an absurd and unsustainable fantasy about motherhood.  In the end, I can only imagine that if this story ever had a sequel, it would resemble “The Yellow Wallpaper” more than the hollow “faith promoting” rubbish that it aspires to right now.


Ultimately, if The Ensign’s usual emphasis on simple hagiography is understandable, its inclusion of marginalizing gender propaganda is not.  Forcing people into roles that leave them unfulfilled will not increase anyone’s well being, nor will it bring them closer to God.  (The editors also apparently missed the irony of including in the same issue articles on computer addiction and postpartum depression.)  As a practicing Mormon myself these aren’t the values that I believe in and it saddens me when a publication that has so much potential to help people instead stoops to misguided didacticism.  

Sweltering Suburbia

When my parents asked Laura and I to stay at their house in Cedar Hills and watch my younger siblings for a few days, we were excited.  Finally, we thought, we could get out of our AC-free house and cool off with modern climate control.  Unfortunately, we’ve been disappointed; my parents home actually gets hotter than ours (in Provo), and if we do choose to turn on the AC it requires massive amounts of energy just to cool it down to the mid 80s. 

Cedar Hills—like so many recently constructed housing developments—is a disaster for many reasons, but probably one of the biggest is the community’s utter disregard for energy use.

One of the biggest problems with Cedar Hills is the design of its neighborhoods.  For the most part, the small community is filled with McMansion style track homes.  Aside from the fact that these homes are ugly and poorly constructed, they’re also spaced just far enough apart to miss out on the (numerous) advantages of being close together.  For example, though they all have pathetically small yards, none of them actually shade each other (and obviously, because they don’t share any walls, heating and cooling from one home doesn’t benefit others).  The flaws in this design are painfully apparent when compared to old communities in southern Europe and the Middle East.  In that part of the world many towns have narrow lanes and closely spaced structures.  This design didn’t arise because the builders hated privacy or wanted quaint towns for future tourists; rather, they knew that closely-spaced buildings shade each other, thereby making them all cooler.  In the centuries before AC this was especially handy, but what’s even more amazing is that many of these buildings still stay cooler than a typical McMansion with its AC running at full blast.  Narrow lanes also stay cooler in the summer (and dryer in the winter) than the moronically twisting streets and superfluous culs-de-sac common in American suburbs.     

Related to the macro-community issues in Cedar Hills, each structure experiences an array of individual problems.  For example, even if something was shading my parents’ home, its floor plan would still make cooling nearly impossible.  The home has three floors and each one is always a drastically different temperature because there is almost no airflow.  This means that to get the ground floor comfortable the basement ends up being cold but the upstairs is still too warm.  If this problem was confined to my parents’ home it wouldn’t be much of an issue.  Instead however, vast numbers of relatively new homes are inefficient energy hogs.  In turn, they cost their owners more money and negatively impact the environment.

The American dream seems to include an almost obsessive drive to own a home.  Unfortunately, this drive has produced communities with long-term energy consumption problems (in addition to simply being eyesores).  Hopefully the contraction of the housing market will force developers to reconsider building cheap, environmentally unsound homes.  

Friday, July 17, 2009

Attack of the Killer Allusions!

About a week ago Laura and I saw Monsters versus Aliens.  As fans of vintage sci-fi, the experience was a rewarding one; nearly every scene included some allusion (sometimes subtle, sometimes not) to an old 50s or 60s B movie.  


After the movie ended, however, I had to wonder: are allusions, by themselves, entertaining?  The producers of Monsters versus Aliens are betting so, and to some extent I have to agree with them.  The movie opened at number one and has since made well over $300,000,000.  More importantly, like being a part of an inside joke, I enjoyed recognizing the visual references to The Blob and The Thing From Another World, among others.


Still, I can’t imagine that re-watching the film would be very rewarding.  Yes I’ve seen Dr. Strangelove.  Yes, I’ve seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  And, yes I like those movies.  But why refer back to them?  Are the filmmakers trying to raise any thematic questions by alluding?  What would happen to the story if the reference were cut?  (In the case of Close Encounters, the movie would only lose a strange scene that highlights Stephen Colbert.)  In the end it actually seems like the plethora of references and allusions were included merely for their own sake, as if the filmmakers wanted to show off their vast knowledge of film history.  Of course it’s great that they have that knowledge, but ultimately who cares?   


To be fair, Monsters versus Aliens had a likable, if uneven and somewhat choppy, story.  In this sense it was at least as entertaining as other recent entries into the genre of allusion-laden CG films.  Others, like the Shrek franchise, seem to have devolved into banal pop culture pastiches based on the (mistaken) idea that allusions are the only thing a movie needs to be engaging.


In the end then, what’s the point of constantly alluding to older, more venerated movies?  Whereas a film like Enchanted seems to be both an homage and a deconstruction of its genre, Monsters versus Aliens and other recent animated movies simply flaunt their cinematic lineage.  In turn, these movies come off as fairly shallow, especially when compared to just about everything made by Pixar.  Finally, then, if CG filmmakers started worrying less about being cheeky and more about conveying a story, they might produce more films that are memorable and genuinely profound.  

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Why travel?


As I see it, people usually do one of two things: “take vacations” or “travel.”  While these two expressions are often used interchangeably, they actually imply very different kinds of activity.  First, the word “vacation” comes from the late Middle English/Old French word “vacare” which means to be unoccupied (so “vacation” shares roots with words like “vacate” and “vacancy”).  Of course, while we’re not speaking Middle English any more, “vacation” still preserves some of its original meaning; it implies an emptying out, not a filling up.


This meaning of the word is problematic for me in a couple of ways.  First, it focuses on the place of origin as opposed to the destination.  In that light, cultural immersion becomes difficult because activities are engaged in simply because they aren't at home.  Second, however, “vacationing” is essentially a negative phrase.  It emphasizes absence, and constantly reminds the vacationer that she or he exists in relationship to a lack of something.  Thus, even if the word connotes positively for most people, it still signifies emptiness.  Yet another problem with the phrase “taking a vacation” is that it reveals an underlying selfishness; you don’t “give” a vacation, or “learn” a vacation.  Instead, “taking” suggests personal gain without any particular responsibility.  


If “vacation” isn’t quite a satisfactory way to describe the trips we take, “travel” might be a better fit.  Surprisingly perhaps, “travel” actually comes to us through Middle English from the word “travail.”  Of course this root then implies hardship, toil, and work.  While most people would want to avoid these adjectives when describing their trips, they also facilitate a greater payoff.  If, for example, I “take” something, I get that thing.  On the other hand if I “toil” or “travail” for something, I've gain both the thing as well as the valuable experience I had while getting it.  In other words, travailing is harder than “taking” or “vacating,” but also provides more fulfilling experiences. 


To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all trips be grueling exercises in voluntourism.  That kind of trip has its place and probably accomplishes a lot of good, but even leisure trips have opportunities for rewarding travail.  Sometimes it'll be intellectual travail (visiting an art museum), linguistic travail (struggling through a foreign language), emotional travail (visiting a concentration camp or war memorial), etc.  The point is however, that on every trip a traveler can either challenge her/himself, or give up and take an easier path (like going on a cruise or sticking entirely with guided tours, etc.).  What’s more, in most cases trying to travail through new experience is going to provide insights into the culture that can’t be acquired any other way.  


Ultimately, “traveling” seems to convey a sense of toiling toward cultural immersion and personal enlightenment.  “Vacationing,” on the other hand, just means getting out of the house and snapping a few pictures to post on Facebook.  Though it’s unlikely that anyone will ever fall completely in one camp or the other, if the goal of a trip is anything more than momentary stimulation, I suggest we start talking about traveling more often than vacating. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Men’s Fashion Tip For July

If you live anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere summer is now in full swing.  That means it's time for less clothing, lighter colors, and a more relaxed look.  While that’s probably not news to most men, what may be surprising is that July and August are not designated as two months for looking like a douche.   


First, I’ve always felt that the hot summer months are the hardest to dress for.  Warmer weather means fewer layers, which means that A) even fully clothed, the body is more visible, which for most of us is a mixed blessing at best, and B) clothes are what they are (in other words, you can’t use a classy scarf to dress up some grubby shirt—in the summer its just going to be a grubby shirt).  Still, the summer offers a bounty of fashion possibilities, even if they do require some creativity and awareness of common faux pas.  Try taking a holistic approach to your look as you balance comfort with flattering clothes that tell the world what you want to be saying.     


Specifically, for this month’s fashion tip it might be most useful to concentrate on the lower body.  While most upper body clothing can go over well (or very badly, depending) in the summer or any other season, July is the month for shorts.  Unfortunately, however, most guys have hairy, spindly legs that, depending on your ethnicity, may also be astonishingly white.  (At least, that’s what my legs look like after a long cold winter.)  While one of the best things you can do for your legs is to exercise and tone them, the second most important thing is wear flattering shorts.  Given the recent popularity of guys slim/skinny jeans, I’m guessing we’ll be seeing more and more slim/skinny shorts this summer (and next) as men begin cutting them off.  Given that a sleek look is also still relatively fashionable, this is probably a safer bet than, say, khaki cargo shorts from several years ago.  (Quick tip: just don’t wear khaki.)  Indeed even if you aren’t Michael Phelps or Lance Armstrong, avoid shorts that are too baggy and hide your figure; unlike many women, men’s narrow hips can actually be emphasized by tighter clothing to make even heavier guys look slimmer.  On the other hand, shorts that are too baggy can make a guy look thick and out of shape, even if he’s relatively fit. 


When it comes to the kind of shorts you wear, I’d suggest avoiding cargo shorts altogether.  Like everything, this point is a matter of taste, but I know that I got my first pair of cargo shorts in 1997 which means they were probably out of style at least eight or nine years ago.  If you have a bunch of little things to carry around maybe you need them, but I can’t say I’ve met many people who use the extra pockets enough to warrant looking so passé.  What’s more, most cargo shorts I’ve seen simply aren’t flattering.  They hit at awkward places (like the middle of the knee, which is a terrible place for shorts to hit), and are almost always too baggy.  Wear them camping if you must, but when you return to civilization put on civilized clothing. 


The other big area for summer fashion is the foot/ankle area.  For many men, this is an area with great potential: low cut socks (or no socks at all), can flatter slim ankles and, consequently, make calves look more athletic.  If you don’t have great ankles however, avoid some of the more obvious summer shoe/ankle mistakes.  For example, if you wear tall socks with shorts, bring a sense of irony to the outfit.  Get socks with a retro stripe somewhere on them or that are atypically tall.  In any case what you cannot do is simply wear the same socks you’ve been using all winter with long pants.  Short socks with low cut shoes will probably be more flattering than tall ones, but if you go that route be aware that it’s a fashion statement.  If you aren’t wearing socks at all, you’re probably in good shape too (just deodorize your shoes now and then).  (I’m not going to get into sandals here, but certainly there is a lot of potential there.  Just don’t do obviously stupid things with them.) 


Finally, as I said in June, for a little money you can look a lot better.  Summer is great because less clothing means even less money.  And remember, your clothes really are a statement.  There is no fashion neutrality.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sex, Equality, and Rock and Roll

This coming weekend my band, Electron Deception, is playing at a show featuring all female-fronted bands.  For a lot of people, it’ll probably just seem like another local music show in Provo.  What many won’t realize, however, is just how remarkable it is to get three female fronted bands together.


Despite the superficially liberal leanings of many musicians, rock music critics have widely observed trends of masculine dominance, anti-feminism, and even misogyny.  Indeed, rock and roll is a “male form” and rarely, if ever, points to gender equality.  (If you want more information to support these assertions click here, or if you have a BYU ID, here.)  If this research isn’t enough, just watch some music videos.  Ask yourself A) how many feature women in lead roles (probably fewer than feature men), and B) how many of those that feature women don’t depict them as sex objects (probably close to none). 


Of course, gender inequality in music (as in most industries) is nothing new, but what is surprising is that these trends are as easily observed in local music as they are on the national stage.  In fact, at least in Provo (and despite the city’s strong music scene), the gender gap is even wider than it is in the larger music community; very few bands include women, and many of those that do give them minor roles or even seemingly use them as “eye candy” for male fans.


In light of all this, my band’s upcoming show seems like a significant assertion of femininity. Despite the fact that male performers will still outnumber females, women will occupy the most prominent positions and the whole event was organized by one of the band’s female vocalist.  Yet while these facts lead me to believe that music (and specifically local music in Provo) is moving toward greater gender equality, this particular show still includes some strikingly examples of machismo.  What’s even more alarming is that I have probably been the biggest culprit of this. 


Probably the best example of this phenomenon is the poster that I made for the show. 

Though it’s not particularly racy, it obviously relies Laura’s image and sexuality as a marketing tool (the design was admittedly inspired, at least partially, by classic pin-up posters).  In addition, the fact that the female lead singers of the bands are called “girls,” as opposed to “women,” further calls into question the show's claim to gender equality.  If other posters of ours have been less extreme in this regard, they've also worked along similar lines. 

In the end then, what started out as a potential night of feminist assertion has shaped up as a night to watch hot chicks.  If that wasn’t an obvious enough problem by itself, a bigger one might be that everyone has loved our posters, men and women alike.  I love our posters, and I’ll probably make more like them.  Though I’m readily willing to admit that making posters like ours—or calling something a “girl show”—might not promote gender equality, the bottom line is that it is effective.  People like it, remember it, and if our end goal is to get people to listen to our music, it’s something we almost have to do. 


All this then begs the question: can women not be objectified in rock/pop music?  (For that matter, can men?)  I know that as Laura and I have discussed stage presence, for example, I’ve been surprised to realize there are significantly fewer things for a female to do on stage than there are for a male.  Basically, it generally boils down to something like “be sexier” or “wear sexier clothes” or “do heavier make up” or something like that.  Most of these options are actually open to male rock musicians (at least within a certain genre), but for females they’re often times the only options.  Again, like the posters, these things may represent a questionable ideology, but they’re also effective. 


Ultimately, this upcoming concert will come and go without many people thinking about these issues.  It’ll be just one more local show (albeit a fun one).  Yet even as a “girl show” it will still be an anomaly (as everything else must, by implication, be boy shows) and in that light, it probably signals a trend toward something.  Whether it’s toward greater equality or objectification remains to be seen.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Lady Gaga/Parodic Pop

Lady Gaga is a joke.  Not a joke like she’s-so-bad-she-shouldn’t-be-taken-seriously, or a joke like a comedy act (like Flight of the Concords).  No, Lady Gaga is a joke in the sense that her career is a carefully plotted parody of popular music.  And lest I be unclear here, I love that about her. 


The Lady Gaga aesthetic is infused with doses of playfully self-referential pop culture packaged in typical dance pop.  If the music itself appears fairly superficial, so does just about everything on the mainstream side of that genre.  However, Lady Gaga’s music brings a bizarre added element to the mix.  For example, the lyrics for “Just Dance” include lines like “How does he twist the dance?/Can’t find a drink, oh man/Where are my keys? I lost my phone.”  The rest of the song pretty much keeps up the same tone, but the point is that it isn’t just about the triviality of teen love or losing a boyfriend or whatever, its about losing phones and keys.  Its about forgetting the name of a club.  Its about all sorts of extreme trivialities that are just too superficial to be taken seriously.  This isn’t Britney Spears singing about whatever Britney Spears sings about, but rather Lady Gaga making fun of whatever Britney Spears sings about.  


Other songs take on pop music’s biggest theme: sex.  For example, take “Love Games” which includes the lyrics “Lets have some fun, this beat is sick/I wanna take a ride on your disco stick.”  Repeat over and over and you get one of the most deliciously idiotic choruses I can think of.  Yet that’s exactly what Lady Gaga does and the result is simply too ridiculous to be accepted at face value.  Instead, this song is a kind of absurd postmodern crescendo more common to silly mainstream hip-hop than teen driven dance pop. 


It’s only natural that the current music environment would produce someone like Lady Gaga. After Roy Lichtenstein, for example, comic books would never be the same and eventually the medium turned out Watchmen as both a self-commentary and the best example of itself. Similarly, Lady Gaga both epitomizes pop music while exposing its frivolities.  Once someone like Britney Spears (among others) appears completely naked in a music video there isn’t really anywhere to push the envelope except into either straight-up porn or postmodernity.  Lady Gaga goes postmodern then (though some might argue that postmodernism and porn have a lot in common).  


Other recording artists have attempted what Lady Gaga is doing, but to varied results.  A group like Flight of the Conchords certainly shows affection toward and understanding of popular music, but still get written off as a “comedy act.”  Other bands produce isolated crititques of pop culture, but devote their careers to making more traditional music (for example Mates of State have an excellent video that parodies the conventions of rap music videos).  What makes Lady Gaga stand out, on the other hand, is that she produces music that appeals to pop fans while still including a deeper, more critically engaging layer.  (Even if that layer is critically engaging because of its uber inanity.)


Obvioulsy Lady Gaga isn’t Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol.  She isn’t another Madonna or even Britney Spears.  Still, she has managed to produce marketable music while operating in the distant shadow of these early pop art predecessors.  In this sense she may have more in common with Stephen Colbert or Sacha Baron Cohen/Borat/Bruno as she blurs the boundary between reality and fiction, music and postmodernism.  Still, that’s enough for me to lean toward the speaker and start tapping my foot every time I hear her music on the radio.  

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Commuting/A Big Problem

One of the best things we could do as a country is reduce the time we spend commuting.  Of course this would require people to adjust their priorities, but in the end it would result in more free time, better environmental conditions, and a general increase in the standard of living. 


People commute for a lot reasons but one of the most common seems to be home prices.  While the American dream apparently includes homeownership, most people tend to find cheaper homes farther from their places of work.  Right now, for example, I live in Utah and it’s much cheaper to buy a house in West Jordan than it is in downtown Salt Lake City or even Sugar House.  Both Laura and I grew up in Southern California and the situation is even more extreme there.  Either you live in a “rougher” neighborhood in the city, or you live in a suburb and drive into town.  (L.A.’s notorious traffic leads me to believe that everyone in Southern California lives quite a distance from their places of work).


Another big reason people commute is schools.  When my family moved to Utah, for example, they chose to live farther from my Dad’s work so that the kids could attend the better school.  I can’t argue with the numbers that say which school districts are better, but I do question just what “better” means.  Obviously if you’re choosing between Glendora (where I grew up) and Compton,“better” probably means fewer gangs and drug problems.  On the other hand, if you’re choosing between Provo and Alpine, “better” apparently means a more homogenous student body.  In any case, many people aren’t choosing between a great school district and a terrible one.  Instead they’re choosing between an okay district and a slightly better one.


There are a lot of other reasons that people commute, but in the end I haven’t found any that are particularly compelling.  If you’re buying a house, a smaller, more centrally located home could be just as satisfactory.  For that matter an apartment could also probably work.  The point is that we could shift our values so that they no longer include big houses (that sit empty while we drive around all day).  The same goes for schools; we could choose to attend schools with slightly lower rankings and accept the fact that the degree to which a child succeeds at school mostly hinges on the home environment.  Better yet, we could try to improve the communities and schools closest to where we spend most of our time. 


Ultimately, whether people choose to shorten or eliminate their commutes for altruistic reasons or not this problem needs to be addressed.  I suspect that people would be generally happier if they weren’t in their cars so much.  Even if that’s difficult to prove, the environmental impact of commuting is not.  Just because a person rakes in a decent salary doesn’t mean that they should have the right to pollute at will.  (I don’t care what kind of car you drive it still pollutes more than walking or biking.)  Instead, I suggest we invest in our happiness, our future, and the future of our planet and start living closer to where we work. 

Guru's Cafe

A few nights ago Laura and I got dinner with some friends at Guru’s.  It had been quite a while since I’d eaten at Guru’s so I was excited to try it out again. 


For the sake of experimentation, on this visit I ordered the Pan Seared Salmon Bowl.  It was good.  Not great, but good.  Appropriately, the salmon was the highlight of the dish but unfortunately everything else didn’t quite measure up.  The vegetables, for example, were acceptable, but bland.  I also went with brown rice, which, to my great disappointment, apparently meant white rice that was faintly brown.  Note: the words “brown” and “white,” when describing rice, as supposed to indicate distinct flavors and textures.  Still, I enjoyed my meal.  It wasn’t good enough on its own to bring me back, but if (or when) I find myself at Guru’s again I won't completely rule out an encore.  


This visit reinforced my feeling that if I could only recommend one meal at Guru’s it would be a quesadilla.  Specifically, I’d suggest the vegetarian Santa Cruz Quesadilla.  It’s been a while since I had this particular dish, but it's still the best thing I’ve ordered at Guru’s.  Much more importantly, it’s one of the best quesadillas I’ve had (and indeed it was tempting to simply order it again on this most recent visit).  Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way; Laura and I noticed that a large plurality of diners around us (including our friends) had also chosen one of the quesadillas.  Though I haven’t tried them all, each one appears to be coming from the same culinary family, which also seems to be where the restaurant excels the most.  Unfortunately none of the rice bowls or pasta dishes that I’ve had shared this distinction, all of them ultimately having been pleasant but bland and forgettable.  (If you’re less hungry try stopping in for an order of sweet potato fries.  This well-known and distinctive side-dish comes with a special house fry sauce and is probably one of the reasons Guru’s is still in business.  They can make an odd combination with some of the dinners, but they’re definitely worth trying.)


If Guru’s food isn’t enough to make a repeat customer out of me, the ambiance is.  To be honest, the décor of the restaurant has always bugged me, so I was surprised to find myself liking it so much this time.  In the past I’ve felt like everything was loud and trying just a little too hard to be hip.  I also questioned the tastefulness of the large Gandhi wallpaper in the corner.  (Sure, its called “Guru’s,” which might imply some sort of India connection, but is it really appropriate to use Gandhi’s image to sell burritos?)  This time however, the lighting was much lower, deemphasizing some of the venue’s incongruities.  As an added bonus a jazz band was performing while we ate, which (to my pleasant surprise) radically altered the atmosphere, making it feel far more urban than anywhere else I’ve been lately in Utah County (yes, including Spark).  If none of these changes are wholly original (even in a city like Salt Lake the bar might be terminally higher for a restaurant like Guru’s), they also helped the restaurant stand out in an area dominated by chains and family restaurants (like Brick Oven). 


Guru’s is well worth a visit.  The food isn’t the best in the world (or even in Provo), but the experience is unique and unrivaled by other local eateries.  Between the menu and the décor Guru’s has managed to attract both the hip(ster) and mainstream crowds, and (to my surprise) I’m looking forward to my next visit. 

Friday, July 3, 2009

Patriotism verses Politics

Is patriotism inevitably political?  As I’ve learned what Provo has in store this year for its annual Freedom Festival I’ve been surprised at how political it all seems.  Though I initially wished the city had gone in a more ideologically neutral direction, I’ve also been wondering lately if such a direction even exists.   


This year’s Freedom Festival includes a few things that strike me as overtly political.  For example, when I received the free Freedom Festival Magazine in the mail I was surprised to see the words “Family, Freedom, God, Country” printed just below the title.  In retrospect I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.  Provo, Utah, is supposedly one of the most conservative places in the nation, and I know there is a whole segment of the population that has no problem whatsoever with intertwining ideas about God, family, and country.  Moreover, while some people might make the argument that these words aren’t in themselves all that political, I would disagree.  They are keystones of the conservative lexicon and thusly connote the ideology that lexicon is commonly used to propagate.  If nothing else there are also many people who would feel that “God” shouldn’t be construed with “country” (atheists are only one, obvious example), and I think the recent controversy over Proposition 8 has revealed the political weight of a word like “family.”


If the language used to describe Provo’s Freedom Festival left a faintly sour taste in my mouth, the performer list for the Stadium of Fire (which is a concert, firework show, and big part of the Freedom Festival held in BYU’s football stadium) left me in stunned silence.  Of course the event includes the usual list of generic pop stars (this year it’s the Jonas Brothers), but in this case it also includes Glenn Beck.  When I discovered this fact I realized I had apparently been under the wrong impression all these years; I thought the Stadium of Fire was supposed to be wholesome family fun.  Bringing in Glenn Beck (a kind of poor-man’s Rush Limbaugh who, like Rush, peddles in the basest kind of demagoguery) clearly politicizes the event.  I don’t care what he says during his performance, as a political figure he inevitably brings all the baggage of his public persona.  In that light, I would never bring my family to listen to someone like Beck and its no wonder that this year’s event still isn’t sold out. 


Despite my personal frustration, the point here isn’t really to single out Provo’s Freedom Festival but to use it as an illustration: one person or group’s idea of a  (non-political) celebration can also be another’s definition of an offensively partisan activity.  In this light it’d be easy to see other, less overtly political, performers at the Freedom Festival as expressions of one ideology or another.  Someone like Miley Cyrus (who came in 2008) may seem fairly benign, but she does represent certain values and those values would be both painfully apparent and offensive to people who don’t agree with them. 


So is it possible to celebrate patriotism without politics?  More specifically, is it possible to find activities that accurately represent all, or at least most, members of a given community?  I don’t know, but as I perused the list of performers from previous Stadium of Fire celebrations the answer seems to be a qualified no.  In each case I can easily imagine people whose values would not be represented by the performers.  (In fact in almost every case I can think of specific people in my actual community who would object to the guests and what they represent.)  Because every statement, public figure, or event brings with it an ideological baggage, and because no community is ideologically homogenous, celebrations that purport to represent “our values” or “our community” end up being political statements that alienate people as well.  In the end then, patriotism and politics may not be the same thing, but if recent events in Provo are any indication, they are inextricably intertwined.

Reading, Books, and Things That Are Way Better

There’s nothing inherently good about reading.  Especially literature.


A few days ago some of us graduate instructors were talking about what we were going to do after we finished school this summer.  I mentioned that didn’t think I wanted to become an English professor because books just aren't any more important than other kinds of media.  For example, reading “The Wasteland” is fine, but in the end there doesn’t seem to be any reason why that's better than watching Kill Bill.  In fact, if we see the point of reading literature as making us more critical thinkers, more understanding of the human condition, more active participants in our culture, etc., “reading” other media (like film) actually seems better than reading books. 


Obviously reading literature is a good thing.  It can be both fun and enlightening; however, I also haven’t seen any reason why it should be privileged over other activities.  When pressed to give good reasons why literature is better than TV, for example, I’ve heard people say that reading engages the mind more, that TV rots the brain, that TV is passive and books active, etc.  Obviously certain kinds of media are different from one another, but the reasons for elevating literature generally seem both vague and unsubstantiated.  Why is one more active than another?  Are the ways we approach different media inherently embedded in that media?  Might some people approach media differently than others?  In the end I’d take something by Alfred Hitchcock over something by Herman Melville any day.  Frankly, I’ll also get more intellectual stimulation (as well as all those other things that supposedly result from reading literature) from watching The Office than I ever will from reading “Beowulf.” 


All this isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy reading.  I do.  Probably quite a bit more so than a lot of people (after all, I did get a master’s degree in English).  My point however, is that there’s no reason to fixate solely on literature.  Some people like it and others don’t and it appears that the value of literature boils down to personal taste.  Whatever we’re trying to get out of reading can also be accomplished through other means, and those means ought to be given the same esteem.  On the other hand, if we claim that literature is the only way to achieve certain ends (like critical thinking, or better citizenship, or greater empathy, or whatever), then those people who end up disliking books may also end up disliking those ends as well. 


For example, I once read an essay about teaching poetry to high school students.  The author of the essay wrote that she told her students to read a classic poem and if they didn’t understand it to read it again.  If they still didn’t get it, they had to read it over and over until they did.  This approach to teaching paints a romantic and mystical image, but ultimately just alienates people.  It implies that there is something to get, and that that something will eventually reveal itself to the worthy disciple.  Yet, imagine if this was the way English speakers were taught Russian or Chinese.  The teacher would give them some text in the language and tell them to stare at it.  If they didn’t get it just keep staring until they did.  Obviously that would be ineffective and would probably lead the students to lose interest in the learning process altogether.


As a reader of literature and other media, I hope that we begin to see literature as simply one of many valid forms of discourse.  It is good, but so are a lot of things that also need to be taught, read, and discussed.  Hopefully in the future things like TV, movies, fashion, food, etc. will get just as much attention as traditional books.  In the meantime, I just can’t see how insisting that literature is great will ever prove that it is.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Chain Restaurants/Don’t Go There

From time to time on this blog I’ve reviewed local restaurants.  I hope to keep up that trend but right now I’d like to look at the operative word in that first sentence: local. 


By and large I believe that, if you have the choice, it’s better to eat at a local restaurant.  There’s a few reasons I believe this.  First, there is the distinct possibility that the food will be better at a local place, and if it’s not it will still probably be unique.  If you want a sandwich, for example, and decide to go to Subway, you know what you’re going to get.  On the other hand, a local sandwich shop has the freedom to experiment with its menu and try new things.  Those experiements may be delicious, but even if they aren’t better than Subway (which by the way isn’t bad), they’ll offer a one-of-a-kind eating experience.  This idea seems to apply across the board; whether its local Italian verses The Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill, or the neighborhood diner verses McDonalds, Carl’s Jr., etc., my experience is that in each case the smarter culinary choice is to avoid the chains.  


Besides the potential for better food, local restaurants almost always have a better environment.  I always laugh/cringe when I walk into a Chili’s, Applebees, Red Robin, TGIFridays, take-your-pick-of-generic-Americana; they all look exactly the same (both from location to location, as well as from company to company).  I remember ending up at one of these restaurants on my first visit to New York and wondering why it would be decorated exactly the same there as it was on the West Coast.  How can there be so many restaurants filling the same bland niche?  (Of course, the food at these places isn’t necessarily bad, they just tend to offer so much less in the way of environment than most local places.  Also, the food at these restaurants isn’t particularly memorable.)  Local restaurants, however, often have quirky environments that, if varying in their success at creating a desired ambiance, are usually much more stimulating than the props chosen by corporate headquarters to decorate chain restaurants.  


My point here isn’t to argue for the complete elimination of chain restaurants but rather to suggest that when considering where to eat, thinking local should be the first response.  Obviously there will be times when availability, price, or (bafflingly) even taste will lead people to choose chain restaurants.  Also, most chain restaurants probably started out as local businesses and hopefully retain some of the spirit from their earlier days.  Still, local eateries provide an experience that larger chains can only meagerly and unsuccessfully imitate.  What’s more, eating local pumps more money into the community, which of course means more growth, opportunity, and progress locally.


Whether or not you believe in the “buy local” movements sweeping across the nation (and the world), eating at local restaurants is a way to have a rewarding culinary experience while supporting people who are probably your neighbors.  I know that the next time I go out, I’ll be walking down the street to find a place instead of driving to the nearest chain.