Monday, April 28, 2008

Would I want immortality? [Bryan]

My sister just asked a question: Suppose you could drink from the fountain of youth and be forever immortal -- would you do it?

My answer was no. In fact, I'm wary of all forms of immortality, even one in a glorious afterlife. The ancient Greeks had it at least partially right: immortality is a curse that turns a life into a triviality. For the Greeks, the immortal gods were often creatures of derision who were reduced to playing pranks on humans like immature children. Humans were granted dignity precisely because they were forced to strive against the looming fate of death. Mortal humans were called to create things that would transcend their own lives, things that would last even though they themselves were gone. Immortality does not call us to act in this way, they thought.

I can see why they thought this. In immortality, accomplishment means nothing since, after all, you've had forever to practice (it is like a student who does well on the test because they had extra time to work on it). Death brings a sense of urgency to life; it forces you make decisions about priorities. These decisions show what you value and they become an expression of who you are. Immortality asks no such decisions of you. You can spend hours upon hours wasting time because you will always have more of it. There is no fierce urgency of "now."

And the boredom. I can't imagine living so long so as to have done it all. I can't imagine having read every book, having explored every corner, having met every person. (One of the attractions of the Mormon afterlife, is that it holds out the possibility of real creation and endless expansion of learning).

In the end, though, when I think of family relationships possibly ending someday, it does hurt. These relationships are things, of all things, that I think I would want to continue forever. So my vision of the perfect afterlife is this: consciousness of the presence of loved ones (both loving them and being loved by them) and of absolutely nothing else. No sense of time, nothing. Well, maybe a sense of eating chocolate chip cookies, too. But that's it.

As usual, Buffy the Vampire Slayer says it best in her description of heaven:

BUFFY: I was happy. Wherever I ... was ... I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time ... didn't mean anything ... nothing had form ... but I was still me, you know? And I was warm ... and I was loved ... and I was finished. Complete. I don't understand about theology or dimensions, or ... any of it, really ... but I think I was in heaven. And now I'm not. I was torn out of there. Pulled out ... by my friends. Everything here is ... hard, and bright, and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch ... this is Hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that ... (softly) knowing what I've lost... (gets up, walks towards the sunlight, pauses, not looking back) They can never know. Never. (continues into the sunlight)

It's out!

Finally! Amazon website is here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Deep Thoughts and Kid Pictures [Bryan]

Some random thoughts on life, while I await the results from the Pennsylvania primary.

(1) Our house can be very odd at times. Before bathtime, Andrew and Nora have taken to playing a game called "Naked Town." In the game of Naked Town, one removes one's clothes and jumps on the bed for five minutes before heading for the tub. Where this game comes from, I don't know. Where the term "Naked Town" comes from, I don't know. Just be assured that no one will be asked to play this game if they come to visit.

(2) You should all try the Colgate 360 toothbrush. It has little bristles on the back of the toothbrush that massage your gums and cheecks while you brush. I tried it and it was nothing short of a revelation. It was like something I've never before experienced. It was soothing and exciting. A sensual explosion. I'll never go back to ordinary toothbrushes.

(3) I have finally found the chocolate frosting recipe I have been looking for. It is called "chocolate fudge frosting," found on page 78 of a Betty Crocker cookbook. Most frosting is lacking in the proper texture; it is almost like eating a layer of dry powdered sugar. All fluff. Your average frosting gives a burst of sugary flavor, but nothing more. This chocolate fudge frosting, however, is different because it is a frosting with substance. It differentiates itself from the fluffiness of the cake, and thus makes for a more satisfying eating experience.

Some recent kid pictures taken by our friend Heather, minstrel of the photographic arts.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Obama: Believing in Ourselves [Bryan]

I watched the so-called debate last night between Obama and Clinton. It was depressing. Over and over again the moderators asked the most insipid and vapid questions imaginable: Why don't you wear a flag pin? Why are you friends with terrorists? Why does your pastor hate America? Why do you think you are better than everybody else? That sort of thing.

In short, they twisted everything Obama has ever said, every relationship he has ever had. It took the moderators an hour to ask one remotely real question. The facts were mangled, contextual background was fleeting or nonexistent, and silly gotcha questions ruled the day. All in search of a hot sound bite. All of this in the middle of a costly and bloody war and with disaster looming for the American economy.

If there is one thing the Obama campaign has done, it is this: exposed the absolute insanity of our public discourse.

The irony of the latest charges against Obama are rich indeed. He has been called "elitist" by wealthy pundits even though he was born into a single-parent family of only modest means, made himself successful through hard work, became a community organizer on the streets of Chicago instead of joining lucrative law firms, and even now has less personal wealth than most of the other presidential candidates. He is called "condescending to religious people" when, in fact, all available evidence suggests that his religious faith is more sincere and genuine than any other presidential nominee I can think of. Come on people, get real. It almost makes me long for the days when people thought he was a closet Muslim.

Three weeks ago, Obama gave one of the finest speeches I have heard from a politician -- his speech on race in America. It was sincere and heartfelt, nuanced and intellectually powerful, courageous and politically dangerous. While the rest of the press treated us like children, he rose above the gotcha nonsense and attempted to engage Americans as thinking adults. He expressed more faith in the average American in that moment than any of those who are now calling him "elitist." The power and daring nature of his speech shocked everyone for a few days. But now the silliness has started again.

Perhaps the "audacity of hope" is really the hope that allows us to believe in ourselves. While Obama wants to treat us like adults, and believes that we will respond, I fear that his faith and hope in us have been misplaced. We have not yet risen to the occasion.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Boston Trip [Bryan]

Just got back from my conference. I will just say this: Visiting Boston and Paris in the space of a few weeks has led to a major case of city-envy. Boston/Cambridge was wonderful. Although not its equal, of course, Boston had much of what I liked so much about Paris: history, famous river-fronts, art, food, students, universities, and philosophy.

The first day, I arrived at my hotel to find that it was right across from Fenway Park. That may matter to some of you, but I found the crowds and lights slightly annoying. I crossed the Charles River, though, explored the MIT campus, and walked up Massachusetts Avenue to Harvard Square. What a great place! There were protesters and music playing. I bought a book at a little bookstore. I grabbed a wonderful hot chocolate at Burdick Chocolate (yummy) and a burger at Mr. Bartley's Burger. Bartley's Burger was rated "best burgers in America" by the Wall Street Journal and they are known for burgers named after famous people. I ordered the Barack Obama burger. (Thanks for the tips Nollie!)

After Harvard Square, I undertook a quasi-religious pilgrimage to Emerson Hall on the Harvard University Campus, home of the legendary Harvard Philosophy Department. Emerson Hall is named after one of my heroes, Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was also the actual haunt of two more of my philosophical heroes, William James and John Rawls. I took a picture of the faculty directory and humbly used the restroom, very aware that the toilet I used could have been used by Rawls himself. I poked around campus a bit and found it full of nerdy-looking people. I felt right at home, although I'm sure that the average IQ there was several factors higher than my own.

Walking back to my hotel at night, I crossed the Massachusetts Avenue bridge again. On the bridge, the night was clear and the city of Boston was lit up beautifully 360-degrees all around me. It was a magical walk indeed.

The next day I went through the Back Bay to downtown Boston and walked most of the Freedom Trail. The Boston Common was beautiful and so were all the old churches. A highlight, though, was seeing the sight of the Boston massacre and of the first public school in America.

After that, I decided I better start attending the conference. I won't bore you with those details.

Saturday afternoon was another highlight of the trip, thanks to hospitality of the Chapmans. David picked me up and drove me through downtown Boston and the North End. I caught a glimpse of the Boston Garden, but alas, the new building holds little connection to old Garden dominated by the great Larry Bird teams. He then took me past the Boston temple, various Lexington battle sights, the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, and Walden Pond, among other things. Everyone told me that Walden Pond would be a disappointment, but it wasn't. It was beautiful at dusk; I can see how going there to "suck the marrow out of life" might be an attractive proposition. That is really a wonderful area of the world. Lots of forests, rivers, and ponds.

The night ended with dinner at the Blue Coyote Restaurant (where I had a great Salomon dish with mango sauce and cilantro), ice cream at a local creamery (I had Butter Rum, Yum!), and a round of Guitar Hero on the Wii. I was pleased to see that the Chapmans were doing well: a beautiful little house on the river, charming and energetic kids, and a wonderful little town to live in. Thanks for letting me invade your lives for a few hours David and Michelle!

Fenway Park from my hotel room

Harvard Square

Emerson Hall, Harvard

Boston Commons, looking up Beacon Hill to the State House

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Big man at the conference [Bryan]

I'm in Boston right now for a conference. I've had a good time. There is one highlight, though, that I need to tell you about.

I attended a session today that was dedicated to criticizing a paper I had written last year. Naturally, I was a bit uncomfortable. The presenters at the session disagreed about almost everything. The one thing they agreed on was that my paper was wrong on several important points.

During the comments, I stood up and said,"I guess I should introduce myself as the person who was criticized today." There was some laughing, and I then tried to persuade them that they had misconstrued my position a bit (understandably, now that I think about it, but that's another story).

Anyway, shift forward a couple hours. I was meeting up with a longtime friend, David Chapman, who lives in the Boston area. David arrived at the hotel and rolled down his window to greet me.

Just at that moment, a man approached me and asked, "Are you Bryan? The same one who wrote the book on imitation? I've been waiting anxiously for that book to be released. I'm going to buy it as soon as I can. When you introduced yourself at the meeting earlier, I was excited to meet me." We chatted for a minute and parted. I was amazed because this sort of thing has never really happened to me before.

I turned toward David's car and it seemed that he had been listening to the whole conversation. I tried to nonchalantly open the car door and sit down, pretending that this fawning behavior from fans is the sort of thing I must endure all the time. David smiled and said, "Well, hello Dr. Warnick!"

I really don't know how much David heard. But what an excellent image: public homage in front of an unsuspecting old friend. This is the sort of thing I would have paid somebody to do, if I had thought of it earlier.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Some final thoughts on Paris [Bryan]

I hope nobody is sick of hearing about Paris. If so, I'm sure to be back blogging about politics soon, so don't worry. I do have a few final thoughts and impressions from our trip that I haven't written about yet.

(1) Visiting so many vast, ancient cathedrals gave me a different sort of religious experience. I come from a religious tradition that is focused on bringing religion into daily life. In Mormon church buildings, there are kitchens, stages, and basketball courts. The place I would rain jump shots on my friends during the week was also the place that I worshiped on Sunday. The church building was a place of ordinary community life; thus, religion itself was linked to, and infused with, ordinary living. Mormon temples are a bit different, to be sure, but even there, in Mormonism's most sacred ceremonies, the feeling is one of coming home to family. The interior of temples is, for example, similar to a finely-worked living room and the rituals there (to me at least) seem designed to invoke and expand notions of family and kin.

The religious feeling of an ancient Gothic cathedral is very different. The idea is not to create feelings of familiarity and coming home. The intent is not to infuse religion into everyday experience. Rather, with its vast interiors, high ceilings, distant echoes, and stained glass windows, the idea is to invoke a feeling of awe, grandeur, and other-worldliness. The metaphor for religion is not coming home to family and familiarity, but of entering a different world -- a world vastly greater and more encompassing than our imagination.

I don't know which experience is a better religious experience. Each architectural space hits on something important about how I experience religion. Each rings true in some sense. The religious tradition than manages to somehow combine both the feeling of coming home and of being in a different world will be something to behold.

Saint Etienne du Mont

Sainte-Chapelle: interior

(2) One of the strangest things I saw on the trip occurred in our first night in Paris. We were tired after our long flight and our day of sight-seeing. We were emerging from the Pompideu Center, which is a museum of modern art. Outside of the museum were hordes of teenagers, maybe 15 or 16 years old. I was not all that surprised to see this. The Pompideu sits near a busy shopping district (Les Halles) and I didn't think it shocking to see young people hanging out "at the mall." It would have been the same in Ohio. As we passed the groups of teenagers, though, I was shocked to see what they were doing. They were sitting in a big circle and passing around two or three canvases. On those canvases, they were busily slapping on paint and constructing works of abstract expressionism. Some kids were painting, while the others were watching, cheering, or criticizing. I couldn't believe my eyes and I wondered if I was dreaming. Granted, those kids were probably unique and not representative of all French youth. But still, it was way cool. Viva la France!

Hall of big French paintings, Louvre

Louvre, outside

(3) The trip was humbling. Paris is a city that is not content with things that are just "good enough." There is little toleration of mediocrity. As I walked the streets of Paris, the halls of the Louvre, and the domed monuments, my own accomplishments felt insignificant and small. Surely, nothing I have done will be admired by people centuries from now. Nothing I have done has been tempered by the discipline and critical taste necessary for great achievements. I live in the world of the "good enough," the world that is on constant display on American television and the rusty streets of Ohio. It was a shock to be immersed in something different. It inspired me to try to do something worth calling a masterpiece......Maybe after I get tenure.

View from Arc de Triomphe

French countryside from a high speed train

Ellie on top of the Eiffle Tower