Book of Mormon (includes spoilers below the line)

Sarah and I saw Book of Mormon yesterday, and it was very, very funny, and quite rude – we expected no less from Parker & Stone.

The play is the story of two mormon missionaries (Elders Price & Cunningham) who are sent to Uganda and encounter misery and problems (AIDS, dysentery, warlords, female genital mutilation) far beyond their very limited training and experience. Price feels the experience as a challenge to his faith, and Cunningham has to devise a not-so-orthodox way to attract the interest of all of the villagers who are preoccupied with their other concerns. Many of the thematic elements parody other musicals – the Lion King gets mercilessly mocked, and in general religious themes and ideas are largely ridiculed.

============== Detailed review including spoilers below ===============================

The basic premise of the musical includes a couple of wholly-unforced errors which weaken the story – a few examples (my memory of growing up in Utah is confirmed by the wikipedia) are that while a mission length is two years, missionaries normally change companions every few months, and are typically sent to multiple places. Further, in places where foreign language skill would be required (such as Uganda, where Swahili would be needed for effective communication), additional immersion language training would be provided. In addition, “Uganda” is used to represent “foreign African place which has no money and lots of problems” – but in actuality Uganda is one of the places that has actually dealt with AIDS better than, say, Washington DC (at least judging by the decline from 30% infection rate to 6.4% of Uganda, while during the same period DC has maintained a steady 3% rate).

Essential to the story is the idea that Cunningham is an inveterate liar who has not actually read the Book of Mormon itself – he goes on to completely invent ludicrous accounts (Moroni from the Starship Enterprise, for instance, or Joseph Smith having sex with a frog) to captivate his audience. The problem is that the premise falls apart under scrutiny: of all of the religions I’ve encountered, the one with the most self-scrutiny with regard to qualifications to perform important functions (like going on a mission) is LDS – a person exhibiting these qualities (where they were even recognized by his parents) would not pass muster and make it through at all. So the Cunningham arc and resolution to the whole story is essentially a strawman – it makes me wonder whether anyone involved in the writing of the story actually knows any Mormon missionaries: I suspect not.

The arc involving Price is much, much more believable, and thus much more cutting: the idea that a 19-year old kid could have wholly unrealistic assessments of his own level of understanding and could thus have a crisis of faith when things go wrong – well, that’s pretty much universal right there.

The high points of the show center on the believable: Price’s self absorption is shown in a wonderful song near the opening (interestingly, the program does not list the song names, so these are the best I can do) about “you and I can do amazing things, but mostly me”; a song about suppression of unwanted feelings (“turn it off” led by the obviously closeted-gay character); and Nabulungi’s song about dreaming of a paradise on earth called “Salt Lak-uh Citee”. It would be remiss to ignore the choreographic high point: “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” – basically take a child’s conception of hell and make it hilarious.

Now, in the matters of religious doctrine, the authors sometimes play it straight: “I Believe” (an excellent song, by the way) uses straight-up LDS doctrine more or less accurately, and presents it to comic effect via juxtaposition of the universal and the particular: “I believe … in God above / I believe … that two tribes of Hebrews migrated to America in canoes.” Now, this was something which gave Sarah some discomfort, because once you start holding up religious beliefs to ridicule, where do you stop? Once you’re laughing at LDS belief that (for example) the highest level of heaven is being granted your own planet, why wouldn’t you laugh at the idea that (for example) God gave the Jews a bunch of commandments? Sarah asked the legitimate question: “would a play like this making fun of Judaism be considered Anti-Semitic?” To this I answer: no, because Mel Brooks already did this in the History of the World, Part I – “I bring you these 15 (crash) 10, 10 commandments!” However, picking on the Mormons in this way is not exactly what I’d call a profile in courage – the LDS church is a pretty mellow opponent: they might write a strongly worded letter to the editor, or discourage their members from seeing a show. That’s not exactly much of a fatwa.

I see this as part of the larger trend in modern society toward general mockery of religious faith – there is a pernicious kind of intolerant cynicism in modern culture, and it uses mockery and sarcasm as its primary weapons. One of the offhand things I found interesting in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience was an injunction to avoid sarcasm – I spent some time thinking about that, and have come to believe that sarcasm is like an acid, which is extremely powerful and useful in specific circumstances, but always destructive and easily uncontrolled. The sarcastic streak throughout Book of Mormon is vicious and out of control, and that weakens the whole structure. I suspect that like Avenue Q this will be a limited run engagement without much revival staying power – the evergreen themes of growth and self-discovery get lost in the sarcasm and are like a baptism where you don’t let the convert come up for air.


O Frabjous Day!

So I have some answers about what’s been afflicting me, and it’s pretty amusing:

I have a spectacular dual-infection of strep throat and parvovirus – Kacy gets vaccinated for parvo but sadly the vaccines for dogs are better than those for people in this case. Given that Sarah has had Cat Scratch Fever, we’re obviously animal lovers. Maybe we should start seeing a vet?

Anyway, this is a huge burden off my chest: these awful symptoms will end, and so that makes me want to jump for joy. Except that it would hurt to jump and that (knowing my level of coordination) the landing would probably break something, but hey – the thought is there…

So now I just get to wait for antibiotics, NSAIDs and (maybe) steroids to do their magic. Oh, and of course the virus is an icosahedron, just like the fuzzy dice in my car…

In a Blaze of Glory

So a recording session scheduled for tonight had to be cancelled because all four of us are sick. I think that’s a new record.

In my health news, as the steroid tapered off my symptoms returned (although not as bad as they were initially) – but now I have the additional joy of what feels like a bungee cord around my chest centered on the solar plexus. I’m trying to keep myself from doing too much Internet-looking, because I am aware of the danger of convincing myself that I have ebola and the flesh-eating-bacteria, but it is a bit alarming that there are multiple conditions in play which are primarily diagnosed by exclusion. Now, one thing I’ve remember from my grade-school algebra classes was that you can use multiple equations to solve for multiple variables, but you need at least one equation per variable to solve, or the best you can do is reformat them into something a little prettier than when you started. So the fact that a bunch of conditions have similar symptoms and exclusionary diagnoses but are radically different in mechanism of action and ideal treatment tells me that there is a lot more unknown than known about medicine.

In keeping with the DC tradition of having sports teams which get smeared by our competition, the DC All-Stars lost to the Maine Port Authority 83 to 162 yesterday. Ouch. I will say that ME’s jammers were really good – I haven’t seen anyone who could jump sideways while maintaining forward momentum on skates before – and their pack was much more effective strategically: when a DC girl was lead jammer, ME would speed up the pack a LOT, minimizing DC’s ability to catch up. Also, DC had a very large number of fouls, and that let ME rack up a lot of unanswered points. We had to leave before the second half of the double-header because Sarah’s back was hurting, but it was still some great rollergirl action.


DC DemonCats!

The DC Rollergirls the women’s roller derby league of Washington DC, are having a match today, and I am eager – they represent everything which is right in sports: fair competition, a good sense of humor, amateur participants with a DIY ethic, and of course, bad-ass women.  Most of their matches are on Saturdays, which is tremendously frustrating, but apparently they got the memo that not everyone can make those days, and they have now added a few Sunday matches to the league schedule.

All are welcome: $12 GA tickets at Stadium-Armory today, doors at 3, matches start at 4, and they have reasonably-priced beer.  What could be better?

After the long dark night

I saw an excellent rheumatologist today, and I feel a lot better.  There is some reason to think that due to the acuity of my symptoms, they may be related to an infection rather than to a chronic condition, and even if they are related to the chronic condition, I am starting off in a good place.  Treatments for RA and other join conditions nowadays are apparently a lot better than they were 30 years ago, and there’s a decent chance of knocking it straight into remission.

So I don’t yet know what’s wrong, but the doctor did give me a steroid for the inflammation, and it’s amazing: I can put my ring back on, and I my hands and feet feel quite a bit better.  Even though I still have the uncertainty and possibly unpleasant long-term diagnosis, I really got the impression that she is a highly competent and thoughtful physician, and that makes a huge difference.  Not suffering in the meantime helps too – but it feels like a cloud has lifted, and that I can re-engage my naturally upbeat personality.


Additionally, the kind words and thoughts have meant a lot to both of us – it is a blessing to be numbered among friends like y’all.

Once more, into the breach!

My wife is disabled from the effects of chronic Lyme disease. My mother is disabled due to atypical Rheumatoid Arthritis. Those statements are background for my terror today:

I have severe inflammation in both my hands – I haven’t been able to put my wedding ring on for two days, and my hands are puffy and hot to the touch. Add to this other assorted joint pain, and seeing a doctor was indicated.

I wasn’t really prepared for his reaction: I’m having a panel of tests done including the worthless Lyme test (insurance won’t let you start with the more useful Western Blot test), an Rheumatoid factor test, tests for Lupus, and a bunch of others.

Frustratingly, until those tests come back, the only thing he can prescribe for me is lots of ibuprofen as an anti-inflammatory, and moist heat for my hands. The ibuprofen hasn’t been working so far – this is a case where I lament that Merck pulled Vioxx: that is the one anti-inflammatory drug which actually worked on me (I took it once for back trouble, and it was like a minor miracle) – I wish that the government had merely said “you hid safety data, but we would have approved it even with those risks; therefore we hereby invalidate your patent” instead of pressuring them to withdraw it entirely. Even more frustratingly, the tests for Lyme have lots of false negatives, and only about 75% of people with RA have a positive RF test. Argh.

So anyway, I’m now at the point where the fear and anxiety set in: what now?

(obviously, the next step is “get test results, make appointments with specialists anyway,” but the fear is there just the same.)


This morning, the gas station right behind our house caught fire, and several cars on the premises exploded. Here is a photo of the burning building.

I had gone outside, and noticed an awful smell. A person outside asked me if I knew where it was, and that’s when he pointed out the plume of black smoke that looked like it was coming from our house. I ran back inside to tell Sarah to get out, and from the back porch I saw all kinds of flames. I called 911, but they already had a report of the fire – so it occurred to me that the stuff between the fire and our house was wood and trees, so it could spread pretty easily. I started hosing down the fence and our trees with water – it wouldn’t stop a serious advance, but it might keep burning embers from igniting – and then we saw the firemen arrive and start to put it out.

Our front (!) steps got coated with ash, but fortunately there was no involvement of any of the surrounding houses, and no injuries reported. All told, though, I’d rather get my morning jolt from coffee.

It’s a great big universe

יְהוָה, לַמַּבּוּל יָשָׁב; וַיֵּשֶׁב יְהוָה, מֶלֶךְ לְעוֹלָם.
The LORD sat enthroned during the great flood; the LORD is enthroned the Eternal King.
Psalm 29:10

I was pleased to learn that my brother and sister-in-law, who are presently in Tokyo, are fine. However, the devastation that God wrought in an instant will be unwinding for a long time, and many lives will be shattered by this force utterly beyond human control or true comprehension.

There is a natural hubris in humanity – we like to tell ourselves that we understand the world in which we live, that the good and bad things happen to us for reasons that we can discern, and that the world is, for lack of a better word, fair. Events such as this are elemental reminders that the world is not fair: it rains on the just and the unjust alike, and while this may be the best of all possible worlds in the sight of God, it certainly isn’t the best of all possible worlds in any sort of human terms.

This is proof that life is in fact not fair.

To me, I find the reminders of the inherent unfairness of life comforting – imagine if you actually lived in a world where the bad things that happened to you could be unquestionably laid on your step as the by-products of your own actions? The implications play out across Ted Chiang’s novelette Hell is the Absence of God, and even there, the visceral cruelties of the human experience in a world populated by immanent higher beings are painful to see.

It’s a great big universe / and we’re all really puny
we’re just tiny little specks / about the size of Mickey Rooney;
it’s big and black and inky / and we are small and dinky
it’s a big universe and we’re not. – Yakko’s Universe, Animaniacs

God asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the world?” There is of course no possible answer, and like Job, we are left mute in the face of the actions of God.

יְהוָה נָתַן, וַיהוָה לָקָח; יְהִי שֵׁם יְהוָה, מְבֹרָךְ.
The LORD giveth, and the LORD taketh away; may the name of the LORD be praised.
– Job 1:21

Winsome, lose some

So the band has been working on laying down basic tracks for our album, and our setup up until recently was a 1st-generation Macbook pro (Core Duo) with an Alesis io26 Firewire interface, using GarageBand (!) and it met our needs pretty well – although the speed of the processor doing things like saving or initializing left something to be desired.

Well, that laptop finally died – it was having a rough time of it (water spill), and then after being left plugged into the firewire long enough, the battery just wouldn’t hold a charge anymore, and then it got to the point that enabling phantom power for the condenser mics was just too much for the thing, and it would crash spectacularly.

So I started using Sarah’s laptop – a more recent generation MBP (i5), and we were noticing a strange bit of static in the playback – I thought that this was merely an artifact of a crummy headphone cable. It turns out that I had forgotten that years ago when I had first gotten the Alesis, that installation takes a little doing: you have to install drivers from the Alesis site or a CD, and also install a hardware device monitor (basically a soft-control for the whole system), and you’re supposed to do this before activating it at all. I hadn’t done this for Sarah’s laptop, so it was using the embedded driver via the Firewire cable (labeling it “Alesis 1394” which should have been a clue: nothing Mac-like uses the “1394” nomenclature).

At least I’ve now figured this out, so we have only lost two recording sessions, and can hopefully make those up relatively easily. It’s too bad: the take of Don’s song Wanna was really excellent, but the static is quite unpleasant, and I don’t think it’s fixable.

In any case, I had gotten a Mac Mini for just this purpose, only to find out that the monitor I was planning to use had an ADC connector rather than something that anyone actually uses. The ADC DVI converter was discontinued by Apple last October, and is now ridiculously priced, so a cheap monitor is in my very near future.

They don’t make them like they used to

I am in the process of wiping the drives of two computers which are about to be donated to a HS computer science class – a first generation macbook pro laptop with a severely damaged keyboard and dead battery, and a G4 cube. The macbook is a perfectly nice firewire target, and the “erase” worked exactly the way I expected. The cube, on the other hand, won’t work as a firewire target because I’d have to wait, and I don’t like waiting.

So I managed to find the initial installation disk that came with the cube (!) which I actually still had because I am a huge pack rat, and it turned out that it’s OS9. I had forgotten that we got the cube during the 3 months when it was the hot new thing – in 1999 – and it’s moved through several apartments and houses. That is a really nice piece of engineering: it, like the Newton, was before its time – the mac mini now fills a similar role, and there are lots of tiny tiny desktops out there, but the way that cool air is drawn from the bottom up through the chassis is a thing of beauty.

Also surprising to me is that firewire 400 ports and USB 1.0 ports were brand new on the cube, but those peripherals still work just fine with modern machines. Good job, Apple!