Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I believe in Santa Claus...

'Tis the season when many atheists, Christians, and Pagans alike are asking themselves whether to tell their kids that Santa Claus is a real person or just a story.

This question is a stock theme in Christmas movies and specials, and I've always been fascinated by the treatment of it. In particular I spent way too much time as a kid contemplating the solutions found in Christmas specials such as The Year without a Santa Claus and that Rankin-Bass cartoon special with the mice of Twas the Night Before Christmas.

In The Year without a Santa Claus, I love the part where Santa Claus -- incognito -- heartfully sings "There's no question in my mind that he does exist!" That has got to be one of my all-time favorite lines anywhere in all of the literary arts just because it's so surreal. It's as if I were reading along in Pride and Prejudice and during one of their garden walks Elizabeth turns to Mr. Darcy and says "Wait a minute... Do we really exist or are we just fictional characters?"

I don't know if all of you have seen that cartoon with the mice as many million times as I have, so since it's less famous, I'll give you a quick run-down: The nerdy poindexter too-smart-for-his-own-britches brainiac mouse writes a letter to the editor of the local paper explaining that Santa Claus doesn't exist, and Santa Claus takes offense and decides he won't be giving any presents to anyone in the whole town. (Nice, huh?) So the others convince poindexter to believe in Santa and to fix the town's special clock that was built to placate Santa with Christmas music.

The mouse cartoon has an interesting musical number that gives an intriguing argument against skepticism. (I'm typing this from memory, so feel free to correct me if I've made any errors):

There's more to the world than meets the eye,
when doubt's in your mind give your heart a try,
let up a little on the wonder why
and give your heart a try.

What would Spring be without the Easter Bunny?
Like a rainbow that doesn't end in money.
And a Valentine would certainly look stupid
without a cupid
so let his arrow in your heart.
That would be a start.

The musical number "I Believe in Santa Claus" (from The Year without a Santa Claus) has a similar theme. The skeptical kid's dad sings about seeing Santa himself as a kid and hearing Santa say to him the following:

"So you're too old for Santa Claus?"
he said with a smile,
"Then you're too old for all the things
that make a life worthwhile.
For what is happiness but dreams,
and do they all come true?
Look at me and tell me, son,
what is real to you."

Like I said, I've spent way too much time trying to figure out what these songs could possibly mean. I think it's very likely I've spent more time contemplating them than the songwriters did before they were recorded. And the more I try to figure them out, the more I feel like I'm Mr. Spock trying to make some sense of these unfathomable humans.

On the one hand, the two songs above seem to take a very negative and dismissive attitude towards people who refuse to let a little magic into their lives. Yet interestingly they seem to be arguing that you should believe your cherished myths even though they're not true. In other words, their argument against the skeptic is not that he's wrong, but rather that by pointing out that the myths are fiction, he's being a big spoil-sport and raining on everyone's parade.

The Polar Express is a more recent movie covering this same question, and one that -- thanks to my kids -- I'm well on my way to having seen and contemplated as much as I have these other two.

The Polar Express also seems to make the point that you should believe for the sake of believing. But it doesn't belabor the point with a musical number like the other two. This one takes an entirely different strategy, one which I find about a hundred times more hilarious. I don't know if they're just following the book or what, but these writers basically seem to have observed the following:

"Hey, if our goal is to convince the skeptical characters to believe in Santa Claus -- and we've set the story in a fantasy universe where Santa Claus really does exist -- why bother persuading the skeptics to overlook the lack of evidence? Why not just show them the evidence?"

So that's what they do. The doubting kids get a free train ride to the North Pole where they get to meet Santa in person, and see all of his magic in action -- the flying reindeer, stopping time at midnight, fitting billions of presents into a magic bag -- the works!!!

The result? The doubting kids are convinced that, yes, Santa Claus really does exist. I think that's the best solution ever to this problem!!! Hell, that'd be enough to convince me!!! :D

(As long as it was reproducible...)

Personally, I don't think it makes Christmas any less fun to realize that the Santa story is just fiction like many other fun stories we like to tell at Christmas time. That's what it was to me as a kid. I don't have any recollection of ever having thought that Santa Claus was real or of discovering he's not, and I'm certain that's the sort of thing my anecdote-oriented brain would have saved.

Even though my Dad wanted all of us kids to believe Santa was real, as far as I recall none of us ever did. I suspect that my mom may have been secretly slipping us hints that it's really just a fun story. My mom is a bit of a natural skeptic in that she's not shy about her opinion that it's absurd to believe in things like superstitions, astrology, ESP, etc.

You may be protesting right about now "But isn't she a believing Mormon?" It turns out that's a big part of it. The thing is that my mom likes to maintain a wall of separation between "Mormon truth" and other types of supernatural-not-backed-by-evidence beliefs that many people hold. She doesn't like people to notice parallels between the two.

After all, if we notice that the Santa story isn't real -- but we believe it just for the joy of believing -- there's a danger of wondering "Hmm, and what about that other Christmas story...?"

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!!!

I like to call this one "It's the tradition that counts..."

Here's a shot of me attempting to pass along the joyous Christmas tradition of "rich roll cookies" to my son Nicolas. I've made this recipe tons of times, and this year was the first time I royally screwed it up.

This experience demonstrates the perils of baking only once a year. I tracked down as many of my American measure measuring cups as I could find (most were in various toyboxes), but all of the labels had rubbed off saying which one was which. I thought I'd be able to figure out which was which just by eyeballing it "Is this a half-cup or a cup? Guess it looks like a cup..." and I was very, very wrong. And even though the dough had the wrong consistency as I put it in the fridge to chill, I still didn't realize how badly I'd messed up until I tried to roll out the dough and cut it and bake it. And all the little shapes (that had been so much trickier than usual to cut out) liquefied and ran together.

I went ahead and baked them all anyway, and the result was almost tolerably edible if I do say so myself!!!

I think a lot of culinary innovations are the result of "serendipity" (a.k.a. errors ;-) ), so I thought of patenting this new recipe and marketing it as "Little Baked Pats o' Butter," but then it hit me that I'm probably not the first to make this mistake, and really they weren't very good.

Anyway at least I felt festive in my red-and-green-plaid Christmas apron!!! And I'll do better next year.

If anyone has forgotten my position on the whole Christmas thing, here's the explanation: Tradition! :D

Friday, December 22, 2006

The latest from exmo-lit's master of suspense: Behind Closed Doors by Natalie R. Collins

This January will bring us another exciting thriller from the exmo community's own Natalie R. Collins!!!

The same author that wrote the unforgettable Wives and Sisters has a brand-new novel about to hit the shelves: Behind Closed Doors!!! This new novel is a complex mystery that kept me in suspense right up to the end. And it was scary enough that it actually gave me a nightmare!!!

Since murder mysteries aren't my specialty, I was a little worried when I picked up this book that it might just be a reworking of the same material as Natalie's earlier novel. After all, how much can you do with a Mormon-themed murder mystery?

Oh me of little faith!!! ;^)

It should have been obvious to me that LDS culture is rich enough to provide plenty of different situations for setting up a dark and shadowy thriller. And Collins has done a great job here of exploring a different segment of the LDS community and different facets of Mormon doctrine to create a new mystery with an original flavor.

In terms of criticism of Mormonism, Collins' earlier novel (Wives and Sisters, discussed here and here) dealt with the fact that repentant abusers are sometimes shielded by the church hierarchy and hence given the opportunity to strike again. In her new novel (Behind Closed Doors), Collins explores the theme of how LDS victims of date rape are affected by the teaching (especially from S. W. Kimball's The Miracle of Forgiveness) that one should fight to the death rather than "lose one's virtue" by being raped.

Now some of you are probably thinking that this must be some sort of anti-Mormon book. Well, that depends on your definition of anti-Mormon. It is certainly not complementary to Mormonism. The protagonists are Mormon apostates and the villains are Mormons. The book portrays domestic violence taking place in LDS homes.

However, this time the author was careful to explicitly state (I think twice) that domestic violence exists in every type of community and isn't something unique to Mormonism. Reading Natalie's blog I can't help but think she spelled it out this time because she was tired of getting angry emails from Mormons accusing her of portraying Mormonism as having some sort of monopoly on evil, abusive people.

Really I think it's more that the author's specialty is suspenseful thrillers -- which require evil villains by definition -- and she sets them in Mormon country because, well, write what you know. And it's not as if nothing bad ever happens in LDS communities...

The point I think has the most potential to offend LDS readers is that the novel opens with the main character in the temple thinking about how she'd been freaked out and traumatized by her first experience with the endowment ceremony. I've never been through the temple myself (except baptisms for the dead of course) so I'm not sure if her description of the ceremony is sufficiently detailed to qualify as "anti-Mormon." But from what I've read of people's temple experiences on exmo blogs (and even on LDS blogs really), I think her character's reaction to the ceremony isn't so far-fetched as to be unrealistic.

Even so, the fact that the book contains a negative perspective on the endowment ceremony is probably enough to make this book offensive to some Mormons. So I'm glad she put it right at the beginning so that if you're going to be offended by the book, you can get your shot of righteous indignation from the very first chapter -- indeed the first line -- and then put the book down. That's much better than having to read the whole book, getting angrier and angrier as you go, until by the end you're so pissed-off that you can't help but send Natalie one of those "Why are you so mean and angry?" emails. If you do that, all that will come of it is that Natalie will find your message amusing, and she'll post it in full to her blog surrounded by wry comments. And really, you don't want to waste your time (and Natalie's) on such a pointless exercise. Actually, if you think you'd be offended by reading about someone being spooked by the temple ceremony, then do yourself a favor and don't even pick up this book at all.

One detail from this book that really jumped out as hilarious was the fact that the author created a male apostate character who has the misfortune of being named Moroni. The reason this detail made me literally laugh out loud was that the exact same ironic detail -- an apostate guy saddled with the name Moroni -- makes an appearance in D. Michael Martindale's new book Brother Brigham!!!

It just goes to show that "Mormon Literature" and "post-Mormon Literature" are really just two faces of the same thing -- two different real, human, valid views of the exact same culture.

It hit me that because Mormon lit and anti-Mormon lit are two totally separate and unrelated categories -- everywhere except on my blog ;-) -- I think it's very likely that I may be the only person in the world at this moment who has read both of these hot new books on the Mormon lit scene: Brother Brigham on the faithful side of the Mo-lit divide (discussed here) and Behind Closed Doors representing the apostate side. Yay me!!! :D

Now you're probably wondering how it came to be that I've already read Behind Closed Doors since it doesn't come out until January 2, 2007.

So, would you like the true version or the improved and embellished version? ;-)

The true version is that with this photo I won in the "farthest away" category of Natalie's book-sighting contest. And when she wrote me to ask what book I would like as my prize, I asked her to send me one of her own novels, so she sent me a coveted "advance reading copy" of this new book.

The improved and embellished version is that I'm one of those influential, trend-setting, book-reviewing bloggers that publishers like to send their advance reading copies to!!!

Yep, I'm really moving up in the blogs-about-books world!!!

Fictionally speaking. ;-)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Mr. White Christmas: The fabulous world of Heat Miser and Snow Miser!!!

The Year without a Santa Claus has got to be hands down the most entertaining Christmas special ever made for television. I know some of you are probably partial to some of the other classics from the golden age of Christmas specials, works such as Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the cartoon version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas -- and I'll admit that both of those beat out The Year without a Santa Claus in terms of overall artistic merit -- but neither can hold a candle to it in terms of random, wacky fun!!!

The Year without a Santa Claus is the show that proves that colorful characters and memorable scenes are far more important than trivialities such as internal consistency or a plot that makes sense.

Who could forget the sweet, clever, and conniving Mrs. Claus? Or the cordial yet no-nonsense Mother Nature (who starts by using gentle persuasion to get her kids to help out, but -- when that doesn't work -- doesn't hesitate to threaten them with lightning bolts, yikes!) Or the Miser brothers? What a pair!!!

Snow Miser controlling the Northern part of the world turning everything into icicles, and his nasty brother Heat Miser keeping the South so hot there was nary a snowflake a year! With their theme castles, their identical miniature dancing minions, and their high-camp rivalry for Mommy's affection, these guys have definitely earned a spot in the canon of beloved Christmas characters. Right up there with the Grinch, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Santa, Rudolph, the baby Jesus, the li'l drummer boy, etc.

Some of you are probably wondering -- given that I claimed that James (from Thomas the Tank Engine) is gay -- if I will also claim that Snow Miser is gay. Because if James the Red Engine is gay, then Snow Miser is really, really gay. Just compare his "I'm Mr. White Christmas" number with his brother's "I'm Mr. Green Christmas" number, and you'll see what I mean. Snow Miser just sparkles with fabulosity!!!

But I think we concluded here that while there's a correlation between gayness and fabulosity, they aren't one and the same. So who knows? Maybe Snow Miser is gay, or maybe he just happens to be fabulous. ;-)

Regarding the plot holes, I'd always assumed that either the writers were on drugs when they wrote this script or they decided to forgo the script thing altogether and just wing it.

Then, while watching the opening credits a couple of years ago, I saw the key that made that little light-bulb of comprehension light up over my little head: the special has a songwriter, plus a screenplay writer, plus it was based on a book by someone else.

This was my answer for why big chunks of the special are written in rhymed verse but most of it isn't. I'd thought they'd started in verse but decided it was too much work and switched to prose, then for fun went back to verse at the end. But maybe it was really that the parts written in verse are quotes from the original text.

What an epiphany! A lot of things that had never made sense were explained by the fact that there were three writers who were not at all on the same wavelength. For example, take a basic question like: How did the kids of the world react when they heard Santa Claus wasn't coming this year? Were they sad? Happy? Indifferent?

Let's ask the song lyrics:

And the children they cried,
they thought Santa had died,
every eye shed a blue Christmas tear.

And what does the rhymed text have to say about it?

Fast as a hurricane children hurled
the happy message around the world.
Over each continent, isle, and isthmus:
"Let's give Santa a Merry Christmas!"

And the screenplay?

Iggy: Hey, you're dressed up like a couple of Christmas elves! Haven't you heard the news? Santa's taking a holiday.
girl: Yeah, it was in all the papers.
Jingle (elf): Well, you don't seem to be very upset about it.
Iggy: Upset? Why should I be upset?
girl: Yeah, what's the big deal?
Jangle (elf): You mean you don't care if Santa Claus comes or not? None of you?
kids: Nah!

I was thrilled by this new insight, and immediately wanted to use textual analysis to divide the special into the components written by the different authors the way the Biblical scholars isolated the "book of J" from the sections written by the other anonymous authors of the first part of the Old Testament. (Yes, I know, I should be telling this to a psychiatrist and not to a blog, but blogging is cheaper...)

This idea explained annoying contradictions like the fact that the opening song recounts what Santa says when he wakes up on the day decides to cancel Christmas. Then the prose dialog shows the same scene, and it's completely different!!

Plus the one that bugged me most as a kid: Mrs. Claus does this whole song-and-dance routine explaining her plan to dress up as Santa Claus -- saying specifically "I'll make sure they only see me from the back!" Yet (in the spoken dialog) when the elves recognize her from the front she immediately decides she might as well scrap the whole plan and move on to plan B...

I developed a whole elaborate theory about which parts of the script were paraphrased from the original, and which parts were made up by the screenwriter. As a guide, I assumed that original made sense, and blamed the screenwriter's additions to explain oddities like "Why is it Heat Miser and Snow Miser instead of Heat Miser and Cold Miser? Why does Snow Miser say they're 'step-brothers' if they have the same mom? Why are they called misers since they don't hoard heat or snow for themselves but instead do exactly the opposite?"

I know, I know, you've got the shrink's number handy, but hear me out. The thing is that once you notice this show is treasure-trove of non-sequiturs, it becomes a fun game to try to find as many of them as you can. I'll be listing some more below, so if you want to play, stop reading now and go watch it again!!! See if you can find more of them than I did!!!

I especially hoped to figure out an explanation for the fact that the main reason they go see the miser brothers in the first place is to free their reindeer from the dog pound. Yet Santa takes care of that problem before they even set off. Also, after they make such a huge deal about the bargain being "one day of snow in Southtown in exchange for one Spring day at the North Pole," how come it was snowy for more than one day in Southtown? And whatever happened to that warm day at the North Pole? Oops...

After devising an elaborate theory about which parts of the prose screenplay were possibly paraphrasings from the book (and posting the theory in even more excruciatingly boring detail than this to exmo-social), it hit me that the division was simpler than I'd thought: Now I suspect that none of the prose dialog was based on the book. I got this idea when I noticed that if you just take all of the verse parts and paste them together, they make a complete and coherent story alone. I think the writers of the special basically copy-pasted the whole book into the script, but since it wasn't nearly long or interesting enough for a special, they just made up that entire sub-plot about the elves going to Southtown and then meeting the Miser brothers and Mother Nature and all that.

This second realization meant that to explain the truck-sized holes in the screenplay I'd have to go back to my "on drugs" and "making it up as they went along" theories. One of my favorite non-sequiturs is entirely confined to the prose dialog: Upon arriving in Southtown, the elves get a citation for (among other things) "wearing funny looking suits on a Sunday." From there they go to the school to talk to the kids. And there they find the all kids of the town in attendance. But wait, wasn't it Sunday?

You end up so confused by the story that you don't even notice the weird ethnocentricities like the fact that "the northern part of the world" is cold and the southern part hot, or that children of every country celebrate Christmas, or that there are no black people at all in Southtown, U.S.A. Or even random weirdities like the fact that when the mom discovers some strange man talking to her young son, her immediate reaction is to invite him in and offer him some tea. Um... Okay....

Now if you've read this far without ever having seen The Year without a Santa Claus, you're probably wondering why I would find it amusing to tear apart such an easy target. But the thing is that -- in spite of all of this -- it's a fun piece to watch. The same writers that filled it with nonsense are the ones that created those fabulous characters and scenes. It's kind of like Plan 9 from Outer Space that way, only perhaps a tad more professional.

The fact that it doesn't need to make sense in order to delight is part of its magic. :D

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Brother Brigham and Zarahemla Books

What do you do when obeying the commandment to raise a family means kissing all your dreams goodbye and getting locked into a dead-end job for life? And barely keeping your head above water at that? And what if the prophet is leading the church astray? That's when you need a miracle.

C. H. Young is making the best of plodding through the responsibilities of his humble life when all of the sudden he wins the lottery -- Mormon style!!!

If you believe in Mormon doctrine, on some level you you believe this could happen: An angel appears to an undistinguished person and tells him to prepare to be called to lead the church because it's time to restore "the new and everlasting covenant" (polygamy) and the sitting prophet is disobeying the command to do it.

It's every Mormon guy's secret fantasy and every Mormon woman's secret nightmare played out in thrilling detail. If you want to psychoanalyze a whole religion through its darkest dreams, Brother Brigham offers you Mormonism's naked psyche.

As C. H. struggles with accepting his call, the hardest part is dealing with the fact that he wants it -- but doesn't want to want it -- as by luck or divine providence all of the pieces fall neatly into place for him. Finally being able to provide things that are a little bit nicer than the rock-bottom bare necessities for his beloved family is on some level a guilty pleasure even when commanded by God. Finally having the opportunity to develop his musical talents is a spiritual command that C. H. can't help but experience in sensual detail. And sincerely struggling to be a "good polygamous husband" as he divides his attentions between two sexy ladies competing for his love? You can bite into the feeling of how badly he doesn't want to want it...

The story really isn't threatening to an LDS reader's faith -- it's frightening only on the level of "Do we really want to go there? Do we really want to be prodding this sore spot? Exploring every emotion in intimate and reckless abandon?" Yet the novel provides a weirdly cathartic purging of these dangerous feelings.

It's a guilty pleasure to read Brother Brigham. It's a story that takes you to heaven and hell and back. You read it in a day then catch your breath and want a cigarette. Then you remember you don't smoke.

Brother Brigham by D. Michael Martindale is one of three original titles being offered by the new LDS publishing house Zarahemla Books!!! The other two currently offered are Kindred Spirits by Christopher Bigelow (discussed here) and Long After Dark by Todd Robert Petersen which I haven't read yet. Zarahemla Books is also distributing some existing titles such as The Pictograph Murders by P. G. Karamesines.

From what I understand, the charter of Zarahemla Books is to provide fiction that is ultimately LDS-faith-friendly yet willing to explore a little bit outside the Deseret-Book-and-church-correlation box.

I assume at least some of you reading this think it's pretty wacky of me -- as a non-believer -- to have any interest at all in LDS fiction for the LDS audience. But really I'm fascinated by literary portraits of Mormon culture from all different perspectives. And I don't want to limit myself with a ridiculous conceit such as thinking it's impossible for a true believer to have an interesting take on some aspect of Mormonism.

Some say you "recover from Mormonism" by practically forgetting that you were ever Mormon at all. Others (not naming any names or anything ;-) ) seem to think that retaining a relaxed interest in exploring the culture that formed you is also a sign of a healthy and well-adjusted exmo. ;-)

If you're part of the latter camp (or if you're a Mormon or just Mo-curious), you might want to go have a look at the Zarahemla Books website and see what kind of entertainment the Mormons-outside-the-box have to offer!!! :D

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Good Morning Outer Blogness!!!

I've had a very productive hiatus!!!

I got maybe about half as much done as I'd been hoping in my wildest fantasies to get done, however my wildest fantasies were pretty ambitious, and I'm happy I got as much done as I did. And I'm not going to extend my hiatus because not blogging just makes me ornery.

In other good news, I've gotten myself into a good habit of reading my kids bedtime stories, which I hadn't really been doing before. I don't know if I sound like a good or a bad feminist saying "well I didn't finish all of my professional projects, but at least I spent more time with my kids..." The thing is, though, that when I get excited about a project I'm working on, I tend to focus on it obsessively -- to the exclusion of all else -- and I have to learn not to keep putting every other aspect of my life on hold until all of my projects are done. Because by the time I feel like I've finished all my projects and I'm ready to say "Okay, I can relax now," it'll be ten years later, and I'll look around and say "Now where are those kids I had? Oh, look, they're teenagers now! And surly ones at that. Hmmm, maybe I should have read them stories or something when they were little..."

Speaking of kids' stuff, on Monday we'll be going to their school to present some songs and stories in English. This is part of a really cool program their school does every year where they have all of the parents whose native language isn't French come in and share something with the kids in their native language. In addition to English, the kids have heard from parents speaking German, Spanish, Arabic, and I think some other European and African languages are scheduled. I like this program not only because I get to participate ;^) but also because the school has a lot of ethnic and racial diversity, and it's a way of giving the kids the idea that their differences are something to be proud of (since kids usually all want to fit in and be like everyone else). If anything interesting happens I'll blog about it, but I don't think I'll post pictures of the event since I'm pretty sure that posting kids' pictures to the Internet without their parents' consent is a no-no.

Now I have three blogging related items to share with you on this joyous occasion of my break-hiatus:
1. In Mormon-lit-blogging news: Carol Lynn Pearson has just started a blog called No More Goodbyes. If you haven't already visited, please have a look and welcome her to blogspace.
2. To start things off with a bang of controversy, my brother has posted a 7-point strategy for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly Iraq. He has a lot of intriguing ideas, and -- unlike a lot of people -- he actually has a complete and coherent plan for how to deal with this serious and nearly intractable catastrophe. However if you hate his suggestions and think he's a bad American for saying so many bad things about the president, remember to post your angry comments over on his blog and not here. ;^)
3. Blogger is pressuring me to switch to blogger beta (by screwing up my ability to post comments on beta blogs). However, I hesitate to take the plunge because I'm scared something bad will happen -- such as the urls for my individual posts changing, breaking all of the links leading to individual posts here. Have others made the switch? Is it painless, or am I right to be afraid?