Entire World of Disney

Dad by Disney

They say that you get three turns of the wheel: your childhood, your kids’ childhood, and your grandkids’ childhood. On my first spin I fell into Generation X.2, which put me right in the sweet spot for both the silver screen’s Disney Renaissance and the small screen’s Disney Afternoon. Kids my age knew the theme songs for Gummi Bears, Rescue Rangers, and Talespin. By sixth grade we were all certain that Ariel was the greatest possible tribute to Alyssa Milano, right up until Guardians of the Galaxy.

But the Disney of the 1990s wasn’t all Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Soon came Hercules. And Atlantis. And (shudder) Home on the Range. Yeah, that happened; someone at Disney thought it would be a great idea to have a slapstick Wild West cartoon starring Roseanne Barr, Dame Judy Dench, and the Bride of Chucky as musical cows. There were some smallish diamonds in the rough, however. Lilo and Stitch touched on powerful family issues, and my college roommate and I could recite the entirety of The Emperor’s New Groove by heart. Maybe we still can. But Meet the Robinsons? Chicken Little? Man, the Disney Renaissance of my childhood was well and truly dead.

Then I had kids. And Disney met Pixar.

Peculiarly, the collaboration of these two studios seemed to keep coinciding with major events in my life. When our son was little, he loved cars and trains and tractors, and so the movie Cars, with all its overabundant merchandising, was like toddler crack to him. This was also back when he was an only child, so we had little compunction about showering him with toy vehicles. I found myself developing an oddly emotional connection with the Cars film, however, and when I stopped to examine why, I could only come up with two reasons: (1) My son adored it, and I was seeing it through his eyes; and (2) Cars is the story about a cocky, self-centered city guy who unexpectedly finds love, peace, and meaning out in the country. At first he views this transition as an agonizing exile, but soon comes to realize just how empty his old life was.

Did I mention that we were watching this shortly after I fell in love with a Minnesota girl and moved from the urban East Coast to the rural Midwest? Go figure.

Like most little boys, our son soon transitioned from machines to animals. He especially loved whales, sharks, and sea creatures in general. Well, there’s a kids’ movie for that too: Finding Nemo. It was love at first sight for him. Before long everything was Nemo this and Nemo that. Again I found myself oddly invested in my son’s favorite movie, and for similar reasons. I loved it because he loved it, and with a degree in biology this was an interest we easily shared. But Finding Nemo is also the story of a dad with a vulnerable child, who is forced to confront his own terror of losing the son he so deeply loves.

Did I mention that our son was born with a rare heart defect that required $300,000 of open heart surgery, and that it was two weeks before we could even hold him? Yeah. I still have trouble visiting the NICU. And this is why I found myself tearing up every time we watched that bloody movie together. Every dang time, right when the seagull tells the story that makes Nemo proud of his dad. Gah.

Meanwhile, the quality of non-Pixar Disney films demonstrated some improvement. Bolt wasn’t terrible. The Princess and the Frog was really pretty decent. (I automatically give any story set in New Orleans an extra star.) But Tangled was something special.

We became parents again with a pair of daughters, nearly Irish twins. And while our girls do enjoy werewolves and broadswords and crossbows, they also love their princesses and frilly dresses. Tangled was their gateway drug. The middle child especially has since branched out into the classics—Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty—but Rapunzel was our household’s first Disney princess. And if the girls like it, Daddy likes it. (This was followed by Wreck-It Ralph, a love letter to every child of the 80s, which culminates in the line, “If that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” Should you happen to be a father of little girls, that sucker will get you right in the feels.)

Then came The Big One. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. Brave had come out a few years after Tangled, and though it definitely improved upon later repeat viewing, I hadn’t been impressed in the theater. So when we heard about Disney’s latest, something called Frozen, I thought the best it had going for it was that it looked an awful lot like Tangled. On Thanksgiving I took my son and two nieces to the cinema to see Frozen, and as it happened we had to make a potty break right at the film’s showpiece song. Yes, we missed “Let It Go.” My initial judgment was that it was a good movie, and obviously destined for Broadway, but I still preferred Rapunzel.

The thing about Disney films, though, is that the good ones really do grow on you. We took the kids to see Frozen again about a month later, with a negative 47 degree wind chill. Weather be damned, that theater was packed. Minnesotans took an immediate shine to the story. Stave churches, rosemaling, ice, snow, Minnesota accents, friendly wild creatures, whispers of trolls, Lutheran bishops, saunas, Hans Christian Andersen references—good heavens, Disney had made a movie about us! And don’t even get me started on the religious imagery. I’ve taught classes on the spiritual symbolism hidden away in Frozen. The kids started listening to the soundtrack in the car.

That February my wife and I had planned a belated honeymoon trip to Egypt with Zahi Hawass. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of deal. But then Egypt came down with a bad case of civil war, and that was the end of that, deposit and all. My wife, however, was bound and determined for us to take some time off together, and so she signed us up for something we’d never done before: a short Caribbean cruise. A Disney Caribbean Cruise. I wasn’t particularly enthused about the idea—the Caribbean over Egypt?—but hot snot, once we were there, it was like paradise on earth. I can’t even describe. We spent four days, together, without kids, for the first time in seven years. It was glorious. Ends up we’re still quite fond of each other. Who knew?

In addition to live theater every night, the ship had this crazy 3-D surround-sound cinema which outdid pretty much every other 3-D surround-sound cinema I’ve ever seen outside of Captain EO. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember Captain EO.) And what were they showing? Why, Frozen, of course: the story of a beautiful Norwegian girl who introduces viewers to a magical world of ice. Rather like my wife. And that’s what did it—that was the tipping point. We now began to understand those friends and family who were obsessed with Disney not just as an entertainment provider but almost as a worldview.

So today I don’t mind that Disney has metastasized all over our home. I don’t mind that our daughters want to wear their Elsa dresses and play with their Elsa dolls and read the latest Elsa books while sitting on their Elsa bedspreads. We pretty much drank the Kool-Aid. And as it so happens, we did end up finding an appropriate replacement for that Egyptian honeymoon. When Disney announced new cruises inspired by Frozen, spanning Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Scotland, I sold my grand prize Harley Davidson (won in an undertaker’s raffle two years earlier), giving one third of the value to charity and putting two thirds towards a Viking-themed Disney Cruise with my Viking-themed wife. I wouldn’t recommend waiting a year and a half between vacations, but this summer it’s going to be just me, her, and the lands of the Prose Edda. And I have the Queen of Arendelle to thank for that.

Well, her and a certain Mouse.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.

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The Inherent Prospect of Melting Ice as Climatological Warfare

This animation by National Geographic may hold the key to explaining why some people don’t want to do anything about rising sea levels.  Look what happens to India and China if all the ice melts. The US loses more area by proportion, but it doesn’t lose a city the size or strategic significance of Beijing.  Are there people willing to let this happen to the world in the larger scope of this too-cynical-for-words real politik?  Maybe? Probably?  Yikes?

Ironically, China itself is the world’s biggest polluter and biggest emitter of greenhouse gases…


Notes from Niflheim: Frost Bites

RDG Stout

I recently asked our local chief of police if he needed extra manpower to prepare for the infamously raucous Niflheim Mardi Gras. He laughed, but I warned him that chilly co-eds might flash in exchange for scarves.

The East Coast, at least up New England way, just keeps getting pounded this winter, which is doubly bizarre for rural Minnesotans because ours has been uncharacteristically gentle. Indeed, unnervingly so. Last winter was rough even on the seasoned veterans; the temperature stayed around negative 20 for three months straight, with wind chills often dipping near negative 50. The frost line plunged down seven, eight, nine feet. Water mains froze. In town folks had to keep their faucets running for the entire season.

In contrast, this winter has been suspiciously enticing. We experienced warm spells up to 40 degrees (positive!) at both Santa Lucia and Christmas Day. I was out walking the dogs in December, which proved highly surreal. The high school crowd is grouchy because we’ve had so little snow that they can’t break out the snowmobiles, and even the most ardent of the ice fishers had to wait a bit to drive out on the lakes and drag along their mobile fishing palaces.

Recently we’ve dropped back down to a more familiar negative 30 wind chill, so I can return to bemusedly smirking at Facebook friends who cry out in astonishment at five degree temperatures in New Jersey. (Native Minnesotans are far too polite to mock the rest of the country’s inability to deal with even moderately sized frost giants. As a transplant, however, I have no such qualms.)

I remember when I first flew out to Fargo to meet up with my wife, whose move had preceded mine by a few months. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I took a deep breath—and doubled over hacking. It was a balmy negative 40, and my lungs were as yet Pennsylvanian in constitution.

“We don’t gulp the air here,” my wife admonished gently. “We sip it.” What sort of people voluntarily dwell where the very air one breathes burns from the inside out? I tried to sputter. All I got out was, “Ack! H-guh! *cough*” There’s nothing quite like the first time that you feel all the hairs inside your sinuses freeze at once.

I later recalled my Giants in the Earth, and realized that people used to wait out these winters in sod huts. Sod huts! Truly these were gods amongst men. Or at least part bear.

After several months of acclimation, however, I remember chipping my car out of an ice bank one fine day for my morning commute—it often snows here from Halloween to May Day, and we had but a single car garage while my wife was pregnant, so you know she wasn’t going to be chipping out her car—and thinking, “Oh, it’s not so bad today.” So I removed the earmuffs and gloves and scarf, and made do with the long coat.

Then on the drive in I noticed the temperature on the bank sign: negative 20. Negative 20! And I could breathe! And expose bare skin! By thunder, I’d done it! I’d acclimated! It’s like learning that you can breathe underwater, or walk unsuited on the moon.

So buck up, Jersey. You’ll survive. Around here at negative 20 kids still frolic in the backyard with dogs, and school is never, ever canceled. Take some inspiration from the Vikings. Visit Fargo. Read Giants in the Earth. And know that this too shall pass. Why, it probably won’t even last much past May Day.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.  His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.


[B]rad Infinitum: Cannon Beach, Oregon, at Sunset

For this post, I would like to talk about how I created a photo from Cannon Beach, Oregon, last year.

Before I left on this trip, I read about a new technique that can create interesting patterns in the sky when you stack a series of photos taken about 5-10 seconds apart with fast moving clouds. (The technique is described on PetaPixel, among other places, and it tend to resurface as a ‘new’ idea every few years)

I wanted to try it. But the clouds were not moving very quickly and the sun was setting very quickly.

So I thought, since I was on a beach, why not try the same concept, but with waves. Either way, it was too late to move to a new spot, so my choices were to work with what I had or give up and ensure I walked away with nothing.

I set up my camera and took a series several series of photos. One particular group of about 20 photos is what I would like to discuss in this post. Of this group of 20 photos, this was the first:

First Photo!

First Photo!

Ok, not too bad. There’s a lot I really like about this photo, especially in the color of the sky and the sea stacks in shadow.

I opened up the series of photos in Photoshop and stacked them on top of each other with Darken as the blend mode. Darken, like Lighten, are really nice for working with this kind of scene. In the earlier part of this post I linked to an article which talked about using ‘Lighten’ as your blend mode for clouds. I have found that Lighten works best for lighter objects, and Darken works best for darker objects. This is all subjective and mostly about what you like best or what just works best for you.

However, 20 photos was a bit too many. So I turned layers on and off until only about 6 remained. These 6 felt right, so I performed a merge visible on all but the bottom layer and set this new layer to ‘darken’.


Oops, I left a little too much of the transparency on. That just won’t work right. (See the Sun for what I mean)


Ahh better. I’ve masked out the area where the sun sits in the image. This means that the bottom layer’s sun is now showing through.

What is left do do on this photo? 2 major things. In Photoshop, I want to create a mask for the Oranges. I feel like this color is just not where I want it to be. So I’ll create a quick mask and adjust the Hue to make it a little more orange, and also underexpose the area a little to bring the brightness down.

Next, I’ll do the opposite for the waves. I feel like they need to be made brighter, as well as have their colors saturated a bit more.

Finish it all up with a sharpening layer and we have:


After this image had been published, I noticed that the orange in the waves that I so liked was actually due to me forgetting to turn off the transparency of the layer. Once that was turned down, we get:


Now we are nearly at our completed image. I am really liking where this image is going.

There is still an issue with this image that I would like to correct. Do you see the area between the sea and the sky? There is a small color halo. This is an easy fix. We create a new Darken layer and using the paintbrush tool, we sample a nearby color and paint our way across the image. The result is a subtle change, but, it eliminates the annoying halo.


And there it is, the finished image. By stacking images, we can make a relatively calm ocean look like a much more active ocean.


Melissa Maleski-2

Fridays with Francis: February 13, 2015: Beautiful Romance and Broken Ego

Melissa Maleski

A beautiful romance begins with a broken ego. That is the only way I can think to summarize Pope Francis’ message leading up to Valentine’s Day.

There was some fairly hard language to come from the Chair of Peter this week. Technically it began at the end of last week when Pope Francis called the abuse-of-minors scandal a scourge, but he kept the ball rolling this week. He called on world governments to stop ignoring the  shameful wound of human trafficking, which boasts a consistent tally of victims in the neighborhood of 2.5 million. In some parts of the world the word shame carries some weight, but us Westerners have some well-padded egos. If Pope Francis wants Western governments to listen when he speaks, I’m afraid he’ll need to use much stronger language. But let me come back to this in a minute.

The Holy Father saved his strongest statement for couples who choose not to have children. Not bothering to mince words, he called this choice selfishA society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society,” the pope said. “The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished. I’m assuming that the lack of reaction in the mass media to this statement is due to Dropped-Jaw Syndrome.

There is a rapidly-growing debate around the inter-web about who is more selfish: parents or childless-by-choice couples. For your edification check out this editorial in Time.  Or this passionate opinion. Or this actual side-by-side debate. Each position defends their claim primarily on the grounds of economics and psychology. The Catholic position, which Pope Francis succinctly stated, rests primarily on moral principles. Economics and psychology are incorporated to support the moral principles, but are not supposed to precede moral considerations.

I don’t want to make this a windy apologetics piece, so I will try to explain briefly why childless-by-choice is selfish by Catholic standards. Male and Female were created as a gift, one to the other. When one male and one female come together, they are supposed to give all of themselves to the other. This is called the total gift of self. It’s a process that is similar to how stars are born. Clouds of gas and dust (the individual persons) begin to collapse and die. As the parts collapse, the center of the clouds get hotter and more solid (Sacrament of Marriage). When the center reaches peak heat and density, a star is born. It starts to grow, and eventually it’s light bursts forth for universes to see. This last part correlates, in people terms, to two things. One, biological conception and birth of children. Two, charitable contributions to society through volunteering, donations, and being generally happy and well-adjusted people. Both components are necessary aspects of man’s existential reality. Holding back, or not totally giving one’s self to another, blunts the humbling impressiveness of this gift. Feel free to argue the logic of it in the comments, but this is Theology of the Body in a mustard seed.

Let me turn back to Pope Francis and Western governments. His statement to Western leaders is not as forceful as the one aimed at childless-by-choice couples, and that intrigues me. Maybe it’s just that the latest consistory of cardinals began this week, but I get the feeling that Pope Francis has a different approach in mind for dealing with those who are on the top of the food chain of power and influence. Rather than engage in compelling dialogue (as, say, Jesus did with the Pharisees and regular folk), I think we may see the Holy Father increasingly limit the attention he gives anyone attached to established power. Like the Sadducees in the New Testament, those who have gotten comfortable being in charge will be nudged to the margins of relevance. What better way to break an over-inflated ego than to deny it room to breath?

Melissa Maleski-2

Fridays with Francis, February 6, 2015

Melissa Maleski

The Holy Father kept things low-key this week. No wacky soundbites. Nothing overtly offensive to anyone, really.

Pope Francis reminded the bishops to stay on-board with the Church’s ongoing dedication to cleaning up the vestiges of the shameful sexual abuse scandal. He spoke about the importance of fathers in their children’s life:  Also today’s children, returning home with their failures, need a father who waits for them, protects them, encourages them and teaches them how to follow the good path. Pope Francis did express approbation for spanking a child under certain conditions; I’m surprised that this hasn’t caused an uproar yet. Maybe the obnoxiously frigid temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic region are chilling everyone out.

The Holy Father did announce that he will be addressing Congress when he comes to the United States this September. I can imagine what he will say to our legislative branch.

The real fun will be reading the reactions from Fox News, Breitbart, and the Drudge Report.

Finally, the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero was officially recognized by Pope Francis, which allows the beatification process to begin.

As the Holy Father is wont to do, he made a couple of very sweet and inspiring gestures of Christian charity this week. First, he chatted with a group of special-needs children on Google Hangouts. Then, after already announcing that the planned Vatican bathrooms for the homeless will include showers and barbers, 300 homeless were given umbrellas to keep them dry from the persistent bad weather.

To keep the sweet note going, I’m sharing with you a fun dessert I stumbled upon. It is a sandwich cookie called an alfajores.  It’s an Argentinian iteration of a Spanish delicacy. The recipe, in Spanish and then English, is here. Strap on your metaphorical apron with me and try making these on Valentine’s Day, in honor of our Argentinian Pontiff!


Everyday Genius Closes Shop; Real Pants is a Thing Instead

From Adam Robinson at the former Everyday Genius:


Probably you sent work to Everyday Genius long ago—mystifyingly long ago to be honest—and because of the guest editor system at EG (where many times no one was considering submissions), your work wasn’t read. I kept hoping the next editor would want to pull from our submissions, and sometimes they did. Even until January 2015, guest editors were reading from Everyday Genius’s Submittable account.

However, it is finally necessary to respond to your beautiful and worthwhile piece, because after six great years, Everyday Genius is hanging up its hat. We’ve moved on to new things at realpants.com.

Your participation was meaningful to me, a genuine encouragement. I look forward to seeing you around the literary corners of the Internet.

Best wishes,
Adam Robinson

Final version of Hummingbirds Picture

[B]rad Infinitum: Photographing Hummingbirds in Costa Rica

Brad Molnar

Hello everyone, and a special thanks to Chris for inviting me to write about photography.  This article is about photographing hummingbirds at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens in Costa Rica.

[Ed. note: Brad, thank YOU!  I’ve had the pleasure of seeing your work for years and am happy to share it.  And I love that you’re taking us through the process of editing and preparing the final image, and I know others will, too.]

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to take a work trip to Central America to help bring our San Jose team up to speed.  I extended my trip by a few days so I would have some time to see parts of the country.

One of the places I was able to visit was the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which is about 2 hours outside of San Jose.  Among other things at this location is a Hummingbird Garden.  This only the second time I’ve had the opportunity to photograph hummingbirds, the first being wild hummingbirds on Alcatraz, in San Francisco.

I tried to take advantage of the time, and below is a screenshot of the thumbnails from the software Lightroom.

All of my thumbnails from the day

Screenshot of my Lightroom Catalog of the Hummingbird Gardens

These birds move quickly, much quicker than my autofocus was happy with.

Hyperactive bird drinking a sugar mix

Hyperactive bird drinking a sugar mix

Although the background is really uninteresting.

However, I would frequently end up with the birds out of focus.

Why yes, I was trying to get the feeder in focus and the bird out of focus

Why yes, I was trying to get the feeder in focus and the bird out of focus

Sometimes, the birds would move out of frame giving me a fantastic photo of the feeder.

A picture of a feeder with invisible Hummingbirds

A picture of a feeder with invisible Hummingbirds

I even ended up with a silhouette.  I still like this photo, even if it is not my favorite from the day.


Eventually, my luck began to change and I started getting photos with birds that were both in focus and out of the shadows.

This one came out nice

This one came out nice

This photo in particular was just sitting on my external drive.  I didn’t realize I had it until I started to prepare photos for this post.

I also caught this colorful fellow.

Purple Hummingbird

Purple Hummingbird

Then, I managed to capture my favorite.

My favorite photo from the day

My favorite photo from the day

This one is really nice.  It has 3 birds, but the 2 on the left are looking at each other.  One of them is a bit out of focus, but that’s fine, you can tell what it is.  The one bird is in perfect focus.  This was a really lucky shot.

Now that I have my favorite, it is time to start to work on it.  I shoot my photos in RAW, which means capturing the photo is really only the beginning.  Generally, there’s at least 30 more minutes of work behind every photo that gets shared.

For this photo, I decided that the best part was on the left, and I decided to crop it to a vertical.

After cropping, it was time to get the colors balanced the way I wanted, turn up the saturation, and balance the brightness to my liking.

The result is this:

Final version of Hummingbirds Picture

Final version of Hummingbirds Picture

And there it is, my finalized version of the photo.  I did turn up the saturation a little more than normal.  This was an item I debated for a while, but in the end, I’m happy with how it turned out.  I also turned up the clarity, which brings out the detail in the bird’s feathers.



Notes from Niflheim: Country Moon

One’s definition of “rural” is completely relative. After spending years living out of efficiencies in Philadelphia and Boston, moving to Fargo deeply jarred me. Everything seemed so small, what with buildings rarely rising above two stories in height. I laughed the first time that one of my new coworkers referred to Fargo-Moorhead as “the metropolitan area” for “urban ministry.”

“Urban!” I replied. “Man, this is rural.”

“Then what do you call what we call rural?” he asked, sipping his coffee.

Frontier.” For heaven’s sake, the town is named for Wells Fargo.

That was a long time ago. Having spent almost seven years in a town of 1200 souls, Fargo-Moorhead’s 140,000 indeed seems like the Big City now. All those lights, all that traffic, all the pavement—after living on 5.2 acres of forest and field, the whole thing feels like a wasp nest. Country life has ruined me for being urban, or even suburban, ever again. There’s just something about the space, the people, the wildness that liberates one’s soul. Plus it forces you to learn a whole host of basic survival skills that one never develops living in crowded neighborhoods.

One transitional memory that really sticks with me even today is how we had to adjust to the darkness. Growing up I never much noticed the full moon, save for my time working in the trauma bay. (Weird stuff happens when the moon is full, believe you me.) But this knowledge became less theoretical and more practical when we left behind the highways, the street lights, the passing cars. On a moonless night, there’s nothing, no light at all, a darkness like the plagues of Egypt. You literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. And on a full moon, holy cow. It’s like a spotlight in the sky, a second silver sun. You can see everything.

It also drives kids and dogs wild, and our household possesses both in abundance. Take, for example, last night. We had the Super Bowl on as we chased small children about, but my wife and the kids passed out before halftime, so I switched to something I can only enjoy when I’m the solitary viewer: PBS’s delightful second season of Shakespeare Uncovered. (That’s how I roll, son. Bard4Life.) After A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, I should by all rights have gone to bed, but the moon was just so bright, streaming in the windows … I decided instead to read a bit of The Book of Conquests, which has proven highly addictive. Celtic mythology is metal as fudge.

By the time I finally hit the hay, our night unfolded like so:

10:45 p.m.—Go to bed.

12:00 a.m.—Youngest child cries because moonlight is shining directly on her face. (Middle child long ago tore down the venetian blinds.) Youngest is only consoled with a bottle and being brought to your bed.

1:00 a.m.—Dogs insistently bark at a forest monster that’s, like, right behind you, seriously. You can see them clearly in the moonlight wagging their tails and staring in the windows at you, happy to have saved the entire family from a gruesome demise.

2:00 a.m.—Eldest child awakes and comes in to check on you, because he dreamt that you grew a beard. You remind him that you’ve always had a beard, and get up to tuck him back into bed.

3:00 a.m.—Middle child cries because the moonlight is now shining directly on her face. This is the child we’ve caught howling at said moon. She demands to sleep with a parent.

5:00 a.m.—Eldest child turns on the lights and walks on top of your feet to wake you up because he’s seen an alien. Alas, it seems not to have abducted him.

6:00 a.m.—Alarm goes off because it’s Monday, sucker.

Just another full moon in the country.



RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.

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‘Boyhood’ and Other Films I’ll Only Watch Once

Nathan Key

This isn’t a review of the film Boyhood – there are other articles that can give you a full play-by-play. I watched it a few weeks ago on the evening  it won the Golden Globe for Best Film, but it wasn’t planned out that way. My wife and I share an unwritten rule that we try to start whichever movie is delivered to our home as soon as possible so that our Netflix subscription doesn’t go to waste.  The strategy doesn’t always payoff, but it did with this movie:  Boyhood is an excellent feat of filmmaking that everyone should see. It was incredible for a few reasons; the acting was wonderful, the story was satisfying, and the plot moved organically, striking a nice pace that felt neither rushed nor drug out – even at a whopping 165 minutes. I will highly recommend it. It was a great film, and, as it ended, we agreed that we never needed to see it again.

Let me explain.

We all know that there are certain films that are so terrible (e.g. Troll 2 and Evil Dead) that people want to watch them over and over again, somehow making them into fond friends. I find the opposite is true as well, that there are certain films so good that to re-watch would be to ruin. For me, Boyhood is one of those films. Saving Private Ryan and Memento are One-timers, too. These are all great films that I really enjoyed watching, but I don’t want multiple visits. Multiple views diminish the effect and ruin an otherwise good experience because there is a sense of wonder and otherness in these films that is so powerful in the moment but lost on a second or third time through. Have you ever watched the Sixth Sense a second time? It’s a powerful movie during the first view and a waste of time on the second; the entire mystery and anticipation are gone and the twist ending is ruined by knowing. It might not be at the same level of greatness as some of the other films that I consider One-timers, but you get the point.

Now, don’t confuse the One-timer with the Despised. We usually don’t make it through the Despised and, if we do, we never want to see it again, either, but for completely different reasons. I learned this lesson while watching The Tailor of Panama in its entirety, hopefully expecting some sort of O. Henry twist that would make me fall in love with the story and the characters. It was such a mundane and predictable movie that I was sure at any moment something must be about to happen that would flip things on their head and make sense of the boredom. That twist never came and I was left wondering why I had wasted that much of my life with a film that was not enjoyable and not even interesting. I didn’t care what happened to them in the end. No, the Despised have a shelf of their own – hidden in the back of our minds like an embarrassing little episode we hope our friends will never discover.

One-timers, by comparison, do not contain anything close to mundane. These are films that fill us with excitement and talk. They are so near the actual feeling of life that we want to cherish them like an actual memory rather than dilute them through re-watch. They are a once in a lifetime safari or that week at summer camp when we fell in love. We remember fondly and enjoy relating our experience to others, comparing notes and discussing the events in detail, knowing that we’ll never have anything quite like it again, even if we went back. I visited the town I grew up in a few months ago. I was with my wife and my kids, none of them had never been there before. It was a trip down memory lane – me pointing out my elementary school and the street I grew up on. In some ways it was all the same as when I left it and in other was remarkably different.  “You can never go back again”  lingered on every street. Even if I moved back, I’d never go back to my boyhood. I can’t go back and experience my own boyhood again, no matter where I live. The beauty of Boyhood the movie is that we get a chance to experience something dangerously close. Out of respect for the moment, I don’t want to go back to it either, as easy as it might be. Better to let it drift into memory in the way my own has.

Saving Private Ryan is one on the most powerful movies I’ve ever seen, but I never want to see it again, either. Before he died, my Grandfather saw the film and was shaken by it. “Nathan,” he said, “I’m sorry you had to see that. Your other grandfather and I fought that war so that you would never have to experience that. And now they’ve gone and put it on film. I don’t want to stand on the shores of Normandy ever again – even as experienced through film.” Well said, Grandfather.

Boyhood was recently nominated for a number of Academy Awards including Best Picture and a few best actor/actress nominations and I’m rooting for it to sweep all of its categories. But I’ll never see it again. You may have your own list of movies that made you say – “Wow, that was great, but never again.” Leave your picks in the comments and let the debate begin.


Related:  Movies That Make You Put Down the Remote (And Stay Up Way Too Late)


Melissa Maleski-2

Fridays with Francis, January 30, 2015 : Encountering Others In Mercy and Peace; Considering Atticus Finch

Melissa Maleski

I gave in to temptation this week and took one of those silly Facebook quizzes. It was something about which literary character I most resemble. I got Atticus Finch, from To Kill A Mockingbird. In the description of the character, one line jumped out at me:

Someone who is as forgiving as they are morally inflexible.

This resonates with me for very personal reasons, but it dovetails nicely with the Holy Father’s week. It was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and Pope Francis spent almost all of his breath on what Christian unity will require of us. To be more specific, he said, “Christian unity will not be the fruit of subtle theoretical discussions in which each party tries to convince the other of the soundness of their opinions.” Rather, he wants us to encounter others and challenge them. This certainly gives some context to his comments on annulments this week.

What the Holy Father’s statements have to do with the description of Atticus Finch is simple. To be agents of Christian unity, Pope Francis wants us to esteem mercy as much as we do Truth. How are we to do this?  Stop legalizing the faith, for one.

In no uncertain terms, Pope Francis is telling us that we won’t win friends and influence people if all we are doing is engaging in doctrinal pissing contests. But he is not advocating the rejection of doctrine or its manipulation. Not at all. I think what he’s saying, first of all, is that we need to first get right with our own beliefs. Either we need to have the moral inflexibility of true conviction, or be open to the possibility that we are wrong–and that someone will someday prove it. Regardless of which way you lean, you need to be at peace with your direction. That peace is crucial to having a meaningful encounter with another person.

Once we have peace, it’s easier to start an encounter. We can spend more time listening. We can spend more energy empathizing. Only then can we challenge, and be challenged. The challenge Pope Francis speaks of is not a verbal one. It is a challenge to act: to live in imitation of Jesus, who unites us all in Himself.

Of course, it’s equally important that we actually care about  encountering others outside of our tiny universe. Never mind the strength of our convictions. If other people aren’t as important to us as we are to ourselves, what’s the point of unity?

So in the spirit of Pope Francis’ call for Christian unity, throw a party with some friends. Engage each other, preferably with a bottle or three of wine. May I suggest an inspired  vintage?

While you are at it, share your thoughts on one last remark of the Holy Father:

It is one thing to pass on the faith, and another to teach the matters of faith. Faith is a gift: it is not possible to study Faith. We study the things of faith, yes, to understand it better, but with study [alone] one never comes to Faith. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, which surpasses all [“academic”] formation.

In context: Pope Francis is explaining why the strength of your faith is determined by how strong the faith is of the “woman who raised you.”  And they say that the Church doesn’t value women…


Beneath Pixie Hollow: A Brief Social History of the Fey Folk

RDG Stout

So apparently fairies are a thing again.

When most folks hear “fairies,” we surely think of Tinkerbell. Disney has rather cornered the market on tiny winged Victorianesque young ladies. As a father of little girls I must confess that I’ve become surprisingly well-versed in the various denizens of Neverland, and I can’t say as I mind a bit of Tinkerbell merchandise. Indeed, I rather hope that hanging a blonde in a strapless miniskirt from the Christmas tree gives my wife ideas.

But this fad goes beyond Disney and the family-friendly market. Neopaganism and the New Age movement have made fairies into big business. Witness the art of Amy Brown, or the 131,395 books that an Amazon search for “fairies” nets you. Cynics would surely dismiss this as infantilism, the aptly-named Peter Pan Syndrome, and lump it as part of a larger phenomenon encompassing Avengers movies and Brony conventions. (Not that we don’t watch a little MLP in the Stout household.)

But methinks there’s more to it than that. Fairies inevitably represent nature, and our postmodern world—largely disconnected from the soil and insulated from the seasons—yearns to reconnect with natural phenomena not just on a physical but also on a spiritual level. We want the world to feel enchanted again. And that’s what fairies do: they enchant the world. But nature isn’t cutesy. And up until recently, neither were fairies.

Continue reading


John Ratzenberger is a Time Lord: The Life and Work of Jacob Riis

Forget about the alleged image of Jay-Z from the 1930s.

John Ratzenberger and groundbreaking photojournalist Jacob Riiss are one in the same.  They even have the same initials.  Nice try, Cliff Clavin.


Riis most likely invented the phrase “how the other half lives,” the title of his epic 1890 publication exposing the squalor of New York’s tenements and the plight of America’s urban poor to middle and upper classes through emerging media.  Read How the Other Half Lives, now in the public domain, here (or download to your digital device free of charge).

A pioneer of visual story-telling, Riis may not really be the Voice of Pixar.  He was, for certain, a voice of and for millions with no other.


With Super Bowl Looming, New Study: Youth Football Participation Down 29% Since 2008

“Football as mass spectacle has never been bigger.”   But youth participation is down 29% since 2008.  – ESPN Outside the Lines.

Christopher Cocca

American football, (that is to say, football), is a fascinating game.  Its history is complex and nuanced.  Like all the major professional sports, it emerged from somewhere in our collective memory, developed through amateur associations of working-class athletic clubs, became an outlet for the ambitions and frustrations of American male adolescence and is now one of the biggest industries in the world.

Even if you prefer baseball or hockey or basketball as products, hobbies, or metaphors, even if you know or care nothing about the game, you’d likely grant that much of its attraction among the faithful is visceral.   My playing experience starts and ends on the playground and in the backyard, with Nerf and, later, synthetic pigskin.  I don’t have a shared locker-room history, I didn’t play the organized game as a child, and I’ve always cared much for more baseball, likely for narrative and immigrant reasons, also visceral.

In the 80s and 90s, we had no way of knowing, as children, what CTE was or that some of our favorite players (Jim McMahon, Junior Seau) would suffer or die from it.  Our parents had no way of knowing that it existed, that playing the full-contact game as young boys even in the best of organized settings could damage our brains and limit our cognitive skills, or that if we played through our teens, that damage could increase our risk of suicide.

But we all know differently now.  I’ve argued before that game’s continued success, especially at the college level (the biggest piece of ESPN’s revenue, and thus a huge piece of Disney’s) requires that our kids keep playing and that the NCAA’s and NFL’s media partners keep mum about the true risks that have evolved alongside bigger bodies and harder hits.

Now, between Super Bowl Media Day and Super Bowl Sunday, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reports on a new study from Boston University claiming that “former NFL players who played tackle football as young children were more likely to have thinking and memory problems as adults.” I’m not a neuroscientist or a youth football booster, but people from both camps weigh in here.

Interestingly, Dr. Robert Stern, lead author of the study, says:

“To allow your child to be subjecting themselves to repetitive head injury at a very early age when they could be doing the sport a different way and minimizing their chances [of brain injury], to me, is just insane,” he said. “It’s wrong. We should not be allowing this to happen.

“Tom Brady didn’t play football until high school. He picked up the game pretty quickly.”

Why didn’t Brady play youth football?  His dad, citing health concerns, forbade the game until Brady’s freshman year.


Andrew Sullivan Retires from Blogging

Christopher Cocca

I have progressed past my libertarian stage, but this piece at the libertarian venue Reason.com does a good job of capturing the gist of what made Andre Sullivan’s blogging so mercurial and important: A Fond Farewell to Andrew Sullivan, Who Is Retiring From Blogging – Hit & Run : Reason.com.

Sullivan himself says:

One of the things I’ve always tried to do at the Dish is to be up-front with readers. This sometimes means grotesque over-sharing; sometimes it means I write imprudent arguments I have to withdraw; sometimes it just means a monthly update on our revenues and subscriptions; and sometimes I stumble onto something actually interesting. But when you write every day for readers for years and years, as I’ve done, there’s not much left to hide. And that’s why, before our annual auto-renewals, I want to let you know I’ve decided to stop blogging in the near future.



I want to spend some real time with my parents, while I still have them, with my husband, who is too often a ‘blog-widow’, my sister and brother, my niece and nephews, and rekindle the friendships that I have simply had to let wither because I’m always tied to the blog. And I want to stay healthy. I’ve had increasing health challenges these past few years. They’re not HIV-related; my doctor tells me they’re simply a result of fifteen years of daily, hourly, always-on-deadline stress. These past few weeks were particularly rough – and finally forced me to get real.


Sullivan is part of an increasingly rare breed.  Even when you disagreed with him, vehemently, you always appreciated him.  The way his mind worked, the way he could write…and write and write and write.  He helped define the best of what blogging could be, while also, like all of us, struggling with the realities of displaying deeply held passions in real time, of working hard, maybe harder than anyone, to synthesize a genius’ command of historic, social, political, and religious metanarrative with the many strains of their echoes across great and vast swaths of “digital saturation.”   He was and is brilliant.  He was and is essential.  I can’t imagine my own development as a writer or thinker without him.  He wasn’t always right, and it wasn’t always pretty.  That he could and did evolve in public on any number of issues was always part of the deal.  That he loved what America can be at its best was clear and infectious.

I’ve always loved this video, now two years old, in which he explains  his time as a Young Thatcherite.

Spread love, Andrew Sullivan.  Thanks for teaching us a whole hell of a lot.



Planet Tolkien: Let’s Name J1407b, the New Exoplanet With Rings to Rule Them All, After J.R.R.

Christopher Cocca

It feels like astronomers are finding new exoplanets (planetary bodies outside of our native solar system) all the time in their quest for potential Earth-like worlds.  Just a few years ago, we’d only indirectly observed a handful, and, until 1992, as far as we knew, they existed only in theory.  According to the never-wrong stewards of Wikipedia, we’re now up to “1885 planets in 1184 planetary systems including 477 multiple planetary systems” as recently as yesterday.

Earlier this week, scientists reported discovering an exoplanet (J1407b) with Saturn-like rings for the first time ever.  Except these rings are so massive, if they were around Saturn, we’d see them dwarf the moon in Earth’s night sky.  They’re thought to be at least 200 times the sizes of Saturn’s banded system.

Truly, then, a Lord of the Rings.  I’d first thought we should name this planet Gandalf, but Tolkien, having created a marvelous literary world influencing the lives and work of millions, deserves a real world named for him.  Such a move is not without precedent:  the International Astronomical Union honored the literary giant (a Saturn for sure, if not a Jupiter) with Mercury’s Tolkien Crater.  In 1982, astronomer M. Watt named a newly discovered asteroid for Tolkien and a second after Bilbo Baggins.

People have talked for years about naming one of Pluto’s moons Mickey.  Fears of a dawning Starbucks Nebula mounting, a Tolkien namesake is so much less corporate than all of that.

Get it done, science.

Get it done, overlapping science and Tolkien fandom.  There should be a petition.  Like this one.


The Problem with The Fantastic Four Trailer

Christopher Cocca

The Fantastic Four teaser trailer has been released by 20th Century Fox/Marvel, and there are problems.  First and foremost, it mimics the gravity of the Man of Steel promos (a tone that translated well to the film) unconvincingly.  The Richards family may be superdom’s “First Family” and represent an important moment in the history of comics (which, are, of course, an abiding part of American folklore, just as Brian Wilson is our greatest folk musician), but you don’t get that feeling from the teaser.  Comparisons to Superman don’t help.  There’s even the classic car shot from the Star Trek reboot, making all of this feel re-tread.

Reed’s outsider-genius status will always evoke a certain pathos, but the downright absurdity of his acquired powers sort of ruins everything.  Using IN CINEMAS SUMMER 2015 instead of simply SUMMER 2015 is another stab at unearned weight, and the most egregious.

Yes, this is just a teaser reel, but the best thing about it is the way the title is rendered at the end.


Burning ISIS

RDG Stout

Editor’s Note: Stout, a Lutheran pastor, shares this anecdote about the origin of this piece: “For the first time in a decade I got into the pulpit this past Sunday, felt that my sermon stank, and made up a new one on the fly. What I can remember of it largely became Burning ISIS.

I want to talk about the Assyrians.

The Bible is full of evil empires that run roughshod over God’s people one after the other. The Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans. It’s easy for them to run together. But the Assyrians were different. The Assyrian Empire was not united by language or ethnicity or legends of shared ancestry. No, the Assyrian Empire was based on religion.

Their chief god was Asshur, and all you had to do to be considered Assyrian was to bow down and worship the Assyrian god. If you refused, well—the emperor was well within his rights to persecute you not only as an enemy of the state but of the cosmic order itself. Remember, the Assyrians are the people who invented crucifixion. When the nation of Israel broke in two, and 10 out of the 12 tribes of God’s people were scattered to the winds, never to reform again, it was at the hand of the Assyrians. They were the religious fanatics of their era, the archenemies of Israel. And I should note that they lived in what we now call Iraq. Basically, the Assyrians were the ISIS of their day.

This brings us to the book of Jonah. It’s a short book, only four chapters, takes about 10 minutes to read. Chances are that the last time you read the story, if ever, was back in Sunday School. We tend to treat Jonah as a children’s story or a comedy, and there are certainly comedic elements in it. But it contains a major twist, a real hook at the end, that makes Jonah a very adult book indeed. It goes something like this.

Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, there to prophesy that unless they repent of their evil ways God will destroy them for all that they have done. Jonah immediately hops on a boat—and takes off in exactly the opposite direction. He sails to the farthest land he can think of. And on the way, a great and terrible storm comes up, threatening to sink the ship. The crew, all gentiles and pagans, realize that there is something unnatural about this storm, and each man begs forgiveness and mercy from his respective god, to no avail. Meanwhile, where’s Jonah? He’s hiding from the storm down in the ship’s hold.

Finally someone thinks, “Hey, what about that Hebrew guy? Maybe he knows something about all this.” So they bring up Jonah and he says, “Yeah, this is my fault. My God gave me a mission and I refused to do it. You’ll have to throw me overboard.” And the pagan crew, to their credit, replies, “No, we don’t want to do that. Just say you’re sorry!” But Jonah stubbornly insists, “No, I’d rather get thrown overboard.” So the crew calls out to God, “We really don’t want to do this, but here it goes!” and they heave Jonah overboard. Immediately the storm is calmed.

Now Jonah is sinking down, down into the depths of the sea. And at this point he thinks, “Okay, maybe I should say that I’m sorry and ask forgiveness.” And right then, he is swallowed by a whale! Often the whale is portrayed as the punishment of God, but it’s not. The whale is actually what saves Jonah from drowning. And where does this whale finally spit Jonah up? Why, on the shores of the Assyrian Empire, right where he was supposed to head in the first place.

Now, the Assyrians have a god named Dagon—Asshur is top dog, but he’s not the only one—and portrayals of Dagon always envision him as a man being vomited up out of a giant fish. So when Jonah gets horked up on shore by a whale, what must the people think? Why, here is a messenger from God! “Great,” mutters Jonah, “now I have an audience.” And he utters the shortest and most pathetic prophetic speech in the Bible, just one single line: “40 days and Nineveh shall be no more!” And then Jonah goes up on a hill to watch the Assyrians be destroyed.

But wouldn’t you know it? Against all odds, the people of Nineveh repent! They beg forgiveness for their sins and turn to God in sackcloth and ash. And God says to Jonah, “Because they have turned from their evil, I will not destroy their city.” And Jonah goes ballistic. He yells out to God, “I knew it! I knew this is exactly what would happen! This is why I ran away in the first place! I knew that You were loving and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! I knew that if they turned towards You then You would forgive them—and I wanted to see them burn for what they’ve done!”

That’s the hook, right there. That’s what makes Jonah a very adult book indeed. Through the whole story we hear God pronouncing judgment and whipping up storms, and we think that God is the vengeful one. But He’s not. We are. We’re the ones who want to see evil punished, to see the bad guys get what they deserve. We’re the ones who want sinners to burn for everything that they’ve done. God doesn’t want blood. Man does.

It’s the same way when Jesus comes. He shows up and people flock to Him, throw palms before Him, try to make Him King. And they do so because they recognize Him as the Messiah and they expect Him to go to Jerusalem and kick out the bad guys.  At that point there’s a new evil empire over Israel: the Empire of Rome. And everyone expects Jesus to draw the sword and raise an army and conquer Rome—and He does! But not with violence. Not with fire and blood and steel. Jesus conquers Rome through the Cross.

We want Jesus to call down fire from Heaven. That’s how James and John earned their nicknames, “Sons of Thunder,” by asking Jesus to make sinners burn. That’s probably even why Judas betrayed Jesus, to try and force His hand. But that’s not how God works. He doesn’t burn up the wicked, no matter how badly we think they deserve it. Instead, He prays for those who hate Him, loves those who persecute Him, forgives us even as we are murdering Him on a Cross.

This is the love that conquers sinners. Who would’ve thought that Rome, the evil empire, would become the beating heart of Christianity for a thousand years and more? Who would’ve imagined that Saul—a religious fanatic who, far from being an Apostle, hunted down and persecuted and even participated in the execution of innocent Christians—would be struck down, not with fire from Heaven, but with a vision from Heaven, transforming him from the Church’s avowed nemesis into her greatest advocate?

Perhaps the hardest aspect of Christianity is the call to love our enemies, even as they hate us, even as they persecute us. This doesn’t mean that we love the evil that they do. We live in a world where fanatics behead innocent people and put it on YouTube. My God! We see the cruelties of ISIS on the news and we just want to see them get what they deserve. We want God to call down fire from Heaven—or if He won’t, perhaps the U.S. Air Force will. But God doesn’t work that way. If He sent His angels to slay every sinner, which of us could stand? We were all enemies of God once.

Christians have a duty to resist evil. But in the process we cannot allow ourselves to dehumanize our fellow man. Clichéd though it may sound, we must love the sinner and hate the sin, for indeed we are sinners one and all. And we are forged in the Image of God, one and all. You never know what the Lord will work through the hearts of wicked men. You never know what act of love will turn a sworn foe into a true brother. Grace is always available for those who desire it. And Christ is always bringing sinners to new birth in impossible and mysterious ways.

There are still murdering fanatics in Iraq who will kill anyone who does not bow down to their god. And we are still called, as we have always been, to love those who hate us and pray for those who persecute us. It’s a 2,000-year-old story. And it’s still our story today.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.


Open Submissions: Blog Posts, Features, and Fiction


Rad Infinitum is a venue about many things. Pop culture, politics, people. Poetry and pilgrimage. Sports and science and social media. Business, and the business of health and food and communication. Art. Guys and girls and geeks and Good. We all have our obsessions, ephemeral or otherwise. Maybe it turns out that self-reference matters, and the things we like, our many fandoms, are part of how we fit together.

Starting today, you can submit blog posts, features, and original fiction to Rad Infinitum through Submittable.  We’re looking forward to hearing from you.


Melissa Maleski-2

Fridays with Francis, January 23, 2015: Love as Justice

Melissa Maleski

Rabbits. Out of an entire lengthy interview  that covers some incredibly heavy subjects, all people could talk about this week were rabbits. I think Mr. Cuddles aptly expresses my feelings on the Papal news blitz this week:

cute rabbits flickzzz.com 014-709115

Mr. Cuddles and I want to direct your attention to the more relevant “R” word used in this notorious portion of the Holy Father’s interview: “responsible.” Pope Francis spoke of the irresponsibility of a woman who was having her eighth child after having seven cesarean sections. The Holy Father was not calling the number of children irresponsible, but how she seemingly disregarded prudence under the guise of “trusting in God.” In cases like these, “trusting God” is really just Pilot-esque hand-washing; life is going to happen, especially when we just sit there and let it.

The flip side of this responsibility–of this prudence–is responsible justice. Having large families and “being open to life” may seem an odd thing to be labeled as responsible justice, but think of it in terms of the second of the Great Commandments: love your neighbor as yourself.  This essential teaching of Jesus tells us four compelling things about how we’re meant to live.  One, everyone deserves love. Two, each of us is responsible for giving love to others. Three, we are responsible for accepting the love that others give us. Four, the two cannot be separated. When we give love and accept love it is an act of justice. The “responsible” part just means that we are making a conscious effort to act justly towards everyone. So “being open to life” is much more than just having lots of kids. It means being open to giving all people the love they deserve,

When you put these two together–responsible prudence and responsible justice–you can see Pope Francis’ mindfulness of human dignity in whole. Love your neighbor as yourself can’t become love your neighbor more than yourself or love your neighbor less than yourself without somebody getting the shaft.

And that, in my opinion, is the Holy Father’s point, a message that was dwarfed this week by rabbits. In case you aren’t able to read the whole interview, let me catch you up to speed. Pope Francis said:

One of the things that is lost when there is too much wealth or when values are misunderstood or we have become accustomed to injustice, to this culture of waste, is the capacity to cry…We Christians must ask for the grace to cry. Especially wealthy Christians. To cry about injustice and to cry about sins. Because crying opens you to understand new realities, or new dimensions to realities.

When I say it is important that women be held in higher consideration in the Church, it’s not just to give them a function as the secretary of a dicastery — though this would be fine. No, it’s so that they may tell us tell us how they experience, and view reality. Because women view things from a different richness, a larger one.

But don’t forget that we too need to be beggars – from them. Because the poor evangelize us. If we take the poor away from the Gospel, we cannot understand Jesus’ message. The poor evangelize us. I go to evangelize the poor, yes, but allow them to evangelize you. Because they have values that you do not.

Another curious thing in relation to this is that for the most poor people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here too, but for them a child is a treasure. Some would say ‘God knows how to help me’ and perhaps some of them are not prudent, this is true. Responsible paternity, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.

Today, paper and what’s left over isn’t all that’s thrown away. We throw away people.

I don’t know what to say after that last one. It’s a brutal, brutal truth.

On a final note, Pope Francis threw out a book recommendation that will help frame his thinking behind “ideological colonization.” Written in 1903 by Robert Hugh Benson, it’s called Lord of the World. From his preface I think Mr. Benson will be quite entertaining:

I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book, and open to innumerable criticisms on that account, as well as on many others. But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud, and to retain, so far as possible, reverence and consideration for the opinions of other people. Whether I have succeeded in that attempt is quite another matter.

In case you missed last week’s Fridays With Francis, which dealt with ideological colonization in more depth, read it here.

About this feature:  The spiritual leader of a over a billion people, “the People’s Pope”  has captured the attention and imagination of millions others with no formal relationship to the Roman Catholic Church through thought, word, and deed. Writer Melissa Maleski brings an insightful Catholic convert’s perspective to the general themes (culture, politics, spirituality, art, and more) Rad Infinitum covers, and will no doubt add greatly to our experience of Francis’ leadership and unfolding legacy.


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Lord Huron Announces Sophomore Album “Strange Trails” via Facebook and You Tube Teaser Trailer

Nathan Key

After months of subtle hints, Lord Huron announced yesterday that their forthcoming album, Strange Trails, will be released in 2015. The band provided a teaser trailer to coincide with the announcement which showcases short snippets from the new project.

Musically (and visually), it appears that the band will continue to integrate the western motif and 70’s-inspired, narrative storytelling that was the primary appeal of their 2012 LP Lonesome Dreams. Keep an eye out for this offering in the coming months. If Strange Trails packs the punch of  Lonesome Dreams, we could be listening to a preview of one of the best albums of 2015.



Notes from Niflheim: Death and Children


RDG Stout

Last weekend I picked up Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory from the local library. Ms. Doughty is the host of the “Ask a Mortician” web series and the founder of “The Order of the Good Death” over on Facebook. Her backstory is pretty straightforward: innocent, eight-year-old girl is deeply traumatized by seeing another young girl plummet to her gristly demise, and now as a millennial young adult seeks to change the unhealthy denial of real death (as opposed to the glorification of fictional carnage) rampant in American culture.

Her book is nothing earth-shattering, but it’s a quick read and worth the time. I stumbled upon Ms. Doughty’s work in my followings of Caleb Wilde’s similarly themed blog, “Confessions of a Funeral Director.” Like Ms. Doughty, Mr. Wilde seeks a revolution in the ways that we deal with death, or rather our refusal to do so. Both seem to have a healthy following, though both have also been accused of being a bit too Generation Overshare.

Theirs seems a decent quest. As someone who’s worked in both churches and trauma bays over the years, I can attest to our culture’s general befuddlement when it comes to the grave. Then again, mine is not a particularly normal perspective on such matters. I honestly can’t remember when I saw my first dead body. Nor do I have any idea as to how many people I’ve buried, scattered, or otherwise memorialized. What I can tell you is that my record in the hospital was six violent deaths in six hours, from midnight to morning.

Death has been a reality in my life for as long as I can recall. Raised religious, I was always taught that a good death at the end of a long life was an accomplishment for which to prepare, and that untimely or tragic death never has the final say. “Teach me to live that I might dread / the grave as little as my bed,” indeed. As a young child, I remember family walks through the graveyard behind my grandparents’ house. I found it neither macabre nor morbid, but peaceful. Here rested so many people who had walked this same path before me. Here I was full of questions, and these silent stones reminded me that those here interred had found answers. Death may be scary, but the alternative—life without an ultimate aim in mind—seems unthinkable.

Nor have I ever viewed age as a bad thing. In truth, it’s been nothing but kind to me so far. Aging has let me outgrow childish neuroses and embarrassing inexperience. It’s made me stronger, calmer, wiser, and most importantly given me a family. I feel sort of sorry for folks who pine for their twenties, or worse yet their teens. Sure, I had fun back then, but I’m glad it’s over now. The older we get, the more real life becomes. Who would want to go back? I have a feeling that 35-year-old me wouldn’t have terribly much patience for my 25- and 15-year-old iterations.

Of course everything changes when we become parents. Growing up I lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends, high school friends, my Dad. These losses always kept death in mind, but in such a way that it made me appreciate life. I didn’t go Goth or anything like that. But then kids come along—and suddenly there’s something in life so much more terrifying than your own death. Before parenthood, everyone has a different set of fears. After parenthood, there is only one fear, to the exclusion of all others. It is a hard bargain.

My wife and I were given a rather dramatic introduction to Every Parent’s Nightmare when our son, our first child, was born blue. Here we were all ready to take him home to the nursery, to start a new life as a family, and before we could hold him he was intubated, thrown on a plane, and flown to the opposite end of the state for $300,000 worth of heart surgery. All I got to see was his one little half-open eye staring uncomprehendingly at me before he left.

Don’t worry. He’s fine today. In fact, he doesn’t remember a thing. Even that massive scar has faded almost to invisibility. But his mother and I will never forget, and that jolt of terror never fully goes away. Even when the next two were born perfectly healthy and happy, I found myself sneaking into their rooms at night to place my hand on their chests, to feel them breathe. I still do that. We have friends who have lost children. They humble me.

(It’s funny, but I’d always assumed that Shakespeare’s Sonnets were all romantic poems. Then I started reading them, and found that they sing of how children stave off any bitterness associated with aging and death. Clever man, that. We should read him more.)

I work with undertakers all the time. They tend to have great senses of humor, deep compassion for the grieving, and incredibly healthy and grounded worldviews. In fact, my affection for undertakers is what led me first to the works of Mr. Wilde, then to those of Ms. Doughty. Working routinely with funeral directors, caring for bodies, and walking with families as they perform the last great duty that any of us can perform for a loved one, you start to think that death really has lost its sting. Easter arises triumphant.

But when I look to my children, happily turning our lives to chaos, so full of life that we haven’t slept through the night in half a decade, I still feel that spasm of fear. I don’t fear dying, and I never have; but the thought of them going before me is absolutely terrifying. At such times the casual, even cocksure attitude of the preacher is laid bare, and we are revealed as vulnerable to the Reaper as everyone else.

And so I cling ever more tightly to the Cross, to the God Who is a family, to the God Who lost a Son. Sometimes I am less amazed at the promise of life arising from death than I am at the idea that God continued to love us even when we killed His Child. That’ll bring me to my knees every time.

RDGStout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.

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Why a Tie Goes to the Runner: Lessons from Contract Law and the Insurance Industry

Christopher Cocca

Simply put, the Runner is outnumbered.  Cut the Runner a break.

Let’s put a finer point on it.  In contract law, the law of adhesion states that when one party sets all parameters of a given contract with no chance for negotiation, the second party always wins any arbitration having to do with vague language or questions left open to interpretation. The first party must adhere to terms expressly spelled out in the contract.

The Pitcher and the Defense are the first party in our baseball scenario.  The terms of each half-inning (the contract) are clearly in favor of the first party, which is why we get excited when the Batter, the second party in this case, hits safely a mere one third of the time.  Just as a second party comes to a contract at a disadvantage when, say, buying insurance, so to the Batter steps into the box knowing he or she is outnumbered 9 to 1 and that the odds of hitting safely are historically slim (see also the law of large numbers).  Applying the law of adhesion requires that in the case of a Batter/Runner reaching a given base and the ball reaching that same base via delivery from one Defensive Player to another (assuming the second Defensive Player is touching the base in question) at the same time, the judgement ought to go to the Batter/Runner as the party with less ability to negotiate more favorable terms.

Like the law of adhesion, the law of utmost good faith (all parties to a contract are assumed to be honest) is only applicable in baseball in certain situations.  PEDs are banned, as are certain pitches, substances, and practices.  But a catcher trying to deceive an umpire after a pitch that misses, an outfielder taking credit for catching a fly ball when he/she really only trapped it, or any number of other instances of gamesmanship are not only permitted, but also widely lauded.  Gamesmanship is an integral part of the psychology and cerebral appeal of baseball. It’s why traditional fans want nothing to do with expanded instant replay.

Applying the law of adhesion to apparent ties is likely the best and only way to resolve MLB’s vexing (or, if you’re like me, charming) lack of clarity on the issue.




Titles Leaving Netflix in February

All the questionable Batman entries in the lineage of Tim Burton’s original masterpiece.

TMNT 1990.

Jem and the Holograms seasons 1- 3.

What’s coming?

Freakin’ MASH.

Boomer much, Netflix? Booo.

Once you’re a Jem Girl, you’re never the same.


Here’s the big ole list.

Martin Luther King in 1968: Eradicate Poverty and Homelessness, Whatever the Cost

The Poor People’s Campaign was conceived to create the political pressure required to enact the types of economic changes that Dr. King and his advisers believed were necessary. “It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters,” King said during a February 1968 trip to Mississippi, “…but now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.” The same month, he announced to reporters demands for a $30 billion annual investment in antipoverty measures, a government commitment to full employment, enactment of a guaranteed income and funding for the construction of 500,000 affordable housing units per year.

Read the rest here, via The Nation.

More on the Poor People’s Campaign here.

Occupy DC 1.0:  I was never, ever taught about the economic aspects of King’s vision in school.  Nothing about the Poor People’s Campaign, carried out after King’s death, or Resurrection City, the PPC’s Washington, DC shantytown.  Were you?  While the occupation and the PPC were criticized for not having concrete goals toward economic justice, Dr. King himself had very clear demands. Mark Engler notes:

One of King’s most sustained pieces of economic reflection appeared in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? The work provides an important window into King’s thinking at the end of his life.

In the book, King articulated a Keynesian, demand-side critique of the American marketplace. He argued, “We have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention to distribution.” Unless working Americans and the poor were able to obtain good jobs and increase their purchasing power–their ability to pump money back into the economy–it would be sapped of its dynamism. “We must create full employment or we must create incomes,” King wrote. “People must be made consumers by one method or the other.”

King criticized Johnson’s War on Poverty for being too piecemeal. While housing programs, job training and family counseling were not themselves unsound, he wrote that “all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis…. At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived.”

Rather than continuing with “fragmentary and spasmodic reforms,” King advocated that the government provide full employment. “We need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted,” he wrote. “New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.”

We’re still doing it piecemeal. Perhaps more important than honoring Dr. King with a national day of service would be honoring him and continuing his work with a national day of protest.  A national week or month or decade.  Imagine what he would have achieved, imagine where we’d be on the long arc bending finally towards justice, had King survived into the present.  Racial justice and non-violence weren’t the only things he was right about, they’re just easiest parts of his witness to praise in mixed political company. As a nation, we’ve forgotten that King knew what rising generations are only now beginning to intuit. How long must King sing the song of 1968, how long from the grave, before we see and realize the fullness of his vision?

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Why Do We Dream?

Hope is a tattered flag and a dream of time,” wrote Carl Sandburg.  We delight in, struggle with, are comforted, haunted, challenged, or vexed by these sometimes sweeping, sometimes simple arcs. Dreams are fleeting tapestries of memories, fears, hopes, doubts, unresolved problems, traumatic events, desires, things we could have should have would have done or said.  Why do we have them?  Where do they come from, really?  How is it even possible that our brains construct them in the first place?

Science doesn’t really know.  Researchers have linked the phenomenon of dreaming to memory-making, problem-solving, and the processing of information and emotion.  Renee Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher famous for formulating the maxim cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), warned that dreams prove the fundamental duplicity of our senses.  Lucid dreams (dreams in which we know we are dreaming) are rare, prompting Descartes to note that to a dreamer in the act of dreaming, the dreamed reality is experienced as reality.  Our senses are unable to properly distinguish the dream-time simulation from real-world experience.  Consider this an early formulation of the sensory anxieties inherent to various brain-in-a-vat scenarios or the Matrix films.

Can't_readMany people believe that left-brain functions, such as reading, are impossible while dreaming.  This concept was a key plot point in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series in which Bruce Wayne realizes he’s captured in an induced, idyllic dream (his parents are alive) when he repeatedly tries and fails to read newspapers and books.  This episode is so well-remembered that Google assumes you want to add “batman” to  the search phrase “can you read in dreams” (which of course you do).  Batman makes everything better, but it’s not as clear whether the no-reading meme is true.  Lots of people say they’ve read in dreams, but because that makes Batman a liar (more likely, they are lying, because Batman), I have my doubts.

Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, held that dreams were essential to problem-solving, allowing the otherwise resting mind to sort through millions of inputs and establish patterns.  Crick’s research partner, James Watson, famously claims to have realized the double-helix structure after dreaming of a spiral staircase in the thick of their research.  Descartes himself claimed to created what become the basis of Western material philosophy, the scientific method, in a dream.

Although we still don’t really know for certain why we dream, scientific consensus seems to be with Crick.  Minus the inventory of mental needs that comprise our waking hours, in sleep, our minds are free to fire different neural paths and establish intellectual, emotional, and other connections we’re often kept from making otherwise.  In fact, with apologies to Fiona Apple, problem-solving isn’t just the reason for dreams, but for the very act of sleeping.

We sleep, it seems, to dream, and we dream to make sense of life, to better understand and experience our world, ourselves, and our relationship to everything between.  Here the spiritual experience of dreams as visions or prophetic words are not at odds with the likes of Descartes or Crick, and certainly not with Sandburg.  We are vessels of knowledge, hope, and time seeking understanding, clarity of purpose.  We seek better patterns, fairer systems, and, sometimes, we find them.






TV Review – Agent Carter: Season 1 Episode 3 (Time and Tide)

The beginning scene of Time and Tide was like something ripped from the diary of a fellow Cedar Crest College sister. I spent four years surrounded by photographs of women, dressed much the same way as Agent Carter and company, walking around the campus of our beloved college. The act of sneaking a boy into into a dorm room at my women-only college was something that few dared to even try. Before the days of RAs, there were house mothers.  Only the most daring among woman had succeeded and become the stuff of legend.  But that was where the nostalgic charm of Time and Tide stopped, at least for me.
At about the halfway point of this episode I scribbled down, “The ship is going down?” I’m trying to convince myself that the tension between Peggy and Angie serves a greater purpose. But…this is Marvel…but there was the diner scene at the end of the episode…

The sass from the British characters in this show is off the charts. Jarvis knows far more than he is telling and I’m not sure if I trust him, but his snark is making me fall in love. When it was revealed that Jarvis had been charged with treason and dishonorably discharged, my heart shattered. I thought this was the end of Jarvis. Alas, Agent Carter saved the day (and angered cranky misogynistic men in the process!).

The heartbreak did not end with Jarvis; that would have meant leaving viewers hearts’ intact. Souza. I’m holding on to the hope that he is one of the good guys. The way he is treated by his male colleagues pisses me off. Case in point, Krzminski, “No girl is going to trade in a ride, white, and blue shield for an aluminum crutch.” While I ship Angie and Peggy, I wanted to slap Krzminski for that, even though I’m not surprised he said it. After all, we spent the first two episodes watching him try to compensate for something.

And speaking of Krzminsk…is it bad that I didn’t cry? I found myself signing, “…he had it comin’, he had it comin’ all along….” More importantly, who the hell was the woman who shot him and the suspect? Part of me wants it to be Peggy and part of me wants it to be Angie. Or even better… Dottie: That would be an epic plot twist.

Next week’s episode is The Blitzkrieg Button, sure to include more scapegoating of Howard Stark, police brutality, and hopefully a reconciliation of the ship and more action between the ship. Also, am I the only one wants to see Anna and Jarvis together?

Agent Carter airs Tuesday nights at 9 EST on ABC.

Angela Smith is a seminarian and historian.  She cannot function without coffee, chocolate, and crayons.























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Fridays with Francis, January 16, 2015: “Ideological colonization” is The Enemy of Peace

Melissa Maleski

Canonization announcements. Statements on fundamentalism, terrorism, religious freedom, the environment, contraception, marriage, the economy, and diplomacy. Trips to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. And that is just a portion of what the Holy Father was up to this week. There is a theme interwoven in all this, embodied by two related statements. These two statements are not found in any of this week’s news, but they summarize nicely the point Pope Francis is trying to make. The first one is: Peace and self-sacrifice are inseparable. The second: Ideological colonization is the enemy of peace. 

The phrase ideological colonization just emerged today, and it’s an immediate favorite of mine. Short and unassuming, once completely unpacked this phrase has the potential to knock you on your butt. Colonization, as a word, implies displacement. One thing comes in, another must be removed to make space. Forests fall so that buildings may rise. Settlers arrive and natives scatter. Rarely does colonization leave the displaced unscathed, if a continued existence is permitted. Applied to ideas, colonization is the overtaking of one idea by another. Pope Francis’ calling out of Fundamentalist terrorism introduces us to the concept of ideological colonization through its most recognizable strain. It’s fairly obvious that forcing your world-view on others via slavery, beheadings, and bombings won’t foster peace.

Where most people started to get squeamish was when Pope Francis called out the softer strain of ideological colonization. It is much harder to articulate, and spreads itself across multiple subjects, but in general is characterized but a fundamentalist zeal for relativism. There is no other belief than the rightness of all beliefs, I’d say it goes. Many of the topics Pope Francis spoke on this week are tainted by this soft strain of ideological colonization. His remedy lies in the repeated call for peace.

This is not your average call for everyone to get along and play nice. Speaking to princes and paupers alike, Pope Francis made it clear that real peace can only come when you run to people, not over them. And fostering real peace requires a sacrifice of self. It requires you to consider the dignity, the needs, and the rights of others before yourself. Economic systems are only as ethical as the most marginalized person they help. Freedom of speech is not really free when it offends the dignity of the subject of speech (dignity should not be confused with pride here). In the nicest way possible, Pope Francis is telling us that if what we say, do, and believe is primarily for the benefit for our selves, we are not working for peace.

The move to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra and Blessed Joseph Vaz reinforces Pope Francis’ particular message of peace. Both men were missionaries who left the comforts of their lives to tend to the spiritual and material needs of others. Their blatant example of this peace is the direct counter to fundamentalist terrorism, and our inspiration to find opportunities in our daily lives to bring real peace to the world.

Until next week, I challenge you to do two things: bring real peace into your life at least once a day, and leave a comment here with your perfect catchphrase for the Holy Father’s special message of peace. Because special message of peace is just long and boring. I need you guys to help me do better.



About this feature:  The spiritual leader of a over a billion people, “the People’s Pope”  has captured the attention and imagination of millions others with no formal relationship to the Roman Catholic Church through thought, word, and deed. Writer Melissa Maleski brings an insightful Catholic convert’s perspective to the general themes (culture, politics, spirituality, art, and more) Rad Infinitum covers, and will no doubt add greatly to our experience of Francis’ leadership and unfolding legacy.



William H. Gates III reacts

5 Powerful People You Didn’t Know Were Related to Bill Gates

Chances are good that they’re related to you, too, because of how descent works.  Here are five famous folks who share a common cousin in the Microsoft founder and world-renowned philanthropist.

1.  Diana Spencer, more famously known as Princess Diana.  She’s related to Bill Gates through common ancestors Caleb Fobes and Sara Gager, Gates’ Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandparents and Diana’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandparents, making Bill and Diana 7th cousins, twice removed.

2, 3, and 4. George W. Bush.  Gates’ 7th Great Grandparents, Nathaniel House and Hannah Davenport, are also the 7th Great Grandparents of the 43rd President of the United States, making Gates and Bush 8th cousins.  Bush’s siblings, including presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, are also 8th cousins of Gates, and George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, is Gates’ 7th cousin, once removed.

5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Gates’ 8th Great Grandparents are also FDR’s 6th Great Grandparents, making Gates and Roosevelt 7th cousins, twice removed.

Bonus Cousins:  Gates is also related to John Kerry and Richard Nixon.  Use this ancestry list and this cousin chart to see how.

William H. Gates III reacts


Joan Didion is Betty White

Christopher Cocca

Last week, before I knew she was the new face of Celine (or before I knew what Celine was, to be honest), I shared Joan Didion’s “At the Dam” in the Required Reading feature here.  I was taught this essay, and I teach it.  Not because Joan Didion is uber-fashionable at the moment, but because it’s really good.

Flavorwire’s Elisabeth Donnelly has an interesting piece up today trying to take the pulse of the growing Didion-as-icon trend.  Donnelly quotes Haley Mlotek in what feels like an especially prescient observation:

As she puts it, citing Joan Didion as your idol says that:

…we’re cool, that we’re educated, that if we are not young and white and slender and well-dressed and disaffected and sad and committed to the art of writing as an arduous and soul-sucking process that must be endured yet Instagrammed simultaneously, then we will be, at least, as close as possible to those identifiers even if it kills us.

Fair? True?

We’ve also been doing this with Leonard Cohen.  Citing him as your idol signals different things, but the desire to look back and hold up great talents in their later years is nothing new.  We do it, of course, with Betty White.  We probably would have done it with Bill Cosby soon.  I for one am not sure why we don’t do it with Dick Van Dyke or Marianne Faithful.

Head’s up: New York Magazine, a mere four hours ago, has issued a warning that loving Joan Didion is a trap.



4 Extinct Prehistoric North American Species Encountered by the Continent’s Ancient Human Settlers

1. American cheetah:  North America used to have cheetahs, or more accurately, cheetah-like big cats with puma faces. Like the other species on this list, it survived in North America down to the time of human migration to the continent.



2. Speaking of which, it blows my mind to think of Paleoindian populations living alongside the mighty Glyptodon, but that’s apparently exactly what they did, at least for a while.  These armored tanks, relatives of armadillos, anteaters, and sloths, stood close to 5 feet high and 11 feet long.  They are thought to have been eradicated by humanity’s penchant for over-hunting. According to the never-wrong editors of Wikipedia, ancient peoples used Glyptodon shells for shelter.

3. In the 1840s, the U.S. Army thought camels would make good pack animals because deserts.  It didn’t work out because horses are apparently afraid of camels.  That’s not to say the idea was totally without historic or scientific basis.  The Camelops survived in North America until 10000 years ago.

4. Mastodon is often wrongly thought of as a synonym for mammoth, but it turns out the North American mastodon, though closely resembling both mammoths and elephants, is closely related to neither.

Can you imagine a world in which mastodons and glyptodons roamed the American plains down to recent history?  It’s a shame that didn’t happen.  So too the extinction of many other species since 1500.  Just the thought of human beings interacting with these creatures in the first place is outstanding.  I wish they would have left some.


Why Does the President Want Free Community College?

indexA few years ago, Mark Cuban gave what he called “soapbox advice” to the Occupy Movement by way of a long blog post.  In it, he also talked about the idea that college loans had basically become predatory.

Since then, I’ve noticed out-of-area colleges advertising on billboards like never before.  All of the marketing going on in higher education has solidified my view that higher education is truly in an unsustainable market bubble.

For that reason, I support the President’s plan to make community college free.  He’s deflating the bubble before it bursts. He’s also right to say that we need more people in essential professions than the current way of doing things can reasonably produce.  And Cuban’s right about loan debt precluding recent grads, or grads 10 or more years out of college, from participating in the economy.

The system of pricing and paying for higher education is broken. Like the broken housing market before it, it’s leading more and more people to economic calamity with a sort of “trust us” je ne sais quoi. Before he’s through, I expect Barack Obama to enact the largest presidential pardon in history: the near total forgiveness of outstanding student loans according to some qualifying formula.


Agent Carter Review: Episodes 1 and 2

Darling, ten seconds into Agent Carter, I was crying. This surprises no one who knows me;  I wear my heart on my sleeve, and in the deep Pennsylvania midwinter of this past week, there’s extra sleeve to go around — enough for the kickass heart the first two episodes of this new Marvel/ABC series brought.


I’ll admit when I first learned that Agent Carter was going to be a thing, I did not jump up and down. Hollywood does not have a history of accurately portraying women in positions of kickassness. Women always have to have a male sidekick at the very least, the tropes are clear;  no girl is complete until her knight in shining armor rescues her.


I set the bar low for Pilot and was not planning on watching on Bridge and Tunnel. WHOOPS.  Agent Carter has everything: things that go “BOOM!,” men who would use #NotAllMen, a woman named Angie (I’m a little biased), Jarvis, Sousa, and a man being threatened with a fork by Agent Peggy Carter.


And speaking of Sousa, can we just talk about how he nails being a feminist (although I’m not sure how I feel about the bet). He does not argue back with Agent Carter when she tells him that she does not need him to be her rescuer. He does not judge her when he finds her crying over a photo of our favorite Living Legend. So far he is a good guy and I hope he stays that way.


Now back to the fabulous women of Agent Carter.


Colleen O’Brien. Clearly someone paid attention to George R.R. Martin’s ability to kill off favorite characters early on. Despite the fact that we do not get to spend too much time with Colleen, we did learn that she had to teach a man how to use a rivet gun. We also learned that she is very lucky to have a job. This show gives no effs when it comes to calling out patriarchy.


Rose. I really hope we get to spend more time with her. Is anyone else reminded of Penelope Garcia?


Angie Martinelli. Like all women named “Angie”, she takes no shit from anyone. There is a cloud of sass in the diner when she has to deal with the epitome of white male privilege. Angie making faces at Peggy melted by little pansexual heart. They are my new ship. Sorry, but not sorry.


Agent Peggy Carter. First, a shout out to the people behind this show for not hiding her PTSD; y’all are amazing. She is scared and gorgeous and can I please have her wardrobe? If I had to pick a favorite scene in the two episodes of epicness that have been released it is without a doubt the scene in Bridge and Tunnel where she kicks some serious ass while the radio is portraying her as weak and needing a man-hero to fill out expected gender hero roles.


Next weeks episode is Time & Tide. Will someone drown? Or will it have absolutely nothing to do with water? Will Peggy be Angie’s neighbor? Will we learn Jarvis’s secret(s)? Will we see diner guy again? Who will die? Only time will tell, darling.



The Batman Singularity Revisited

This post from 2009 about the Batman Singularity still gets traffic just about every day.  More recently, the internet has been asking if Batman would embrace transhumanism in his war against crime and injustice.

We know that Batman augments his strength with tech when he has to. Fights against Superman (The Dark Knight Returns), trips to Apokolips, contingency plans against a Justice League gone wrong.  But would Batman cross the threshold the singularity represents?

I think he’d upgrade within the confines of his own humanity.  I know he wouldn’t trust his deepest secrets, or the use of his particular set of skills, to tech he didn’t invent or wasn’t able to completely control.  He could already be Iron Man, but chooses Kevlar and Batropes over alloys and thrusters.  Pushing his limits is part of the deal.

I think about the so-called Batman singularity in another way: is it possible for a human being to be so physically and mentally advanced as to render the possibility of Batman meaningful in the real world?  Physically, Bruce Lee proves a vigilante Batman could exist on the streets of our Gotham analogues, at least for while.  But Batman isn’t Batman without almost unlimited wealth and a super-genius intellect.  See also Oliver Queen, Tony Stark and Ted Kord, none of whom are Batman.

It stands to reason that someone with enough resources and enough intelligence could, if born with the right genes, transform his/her body toward peak performance and master various physical disciplines enough to approximate Batman. A next-gen tech zillionaire.

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Fridays With Francis, January 9, 2015: New Rad Infinitum Writer Melissa Maleski, the Magi, and Mothers

Editor’s note:  Please join me in welcoming writer Melissa Maleski to her new weekly feature on rad infinitum. We’re very happy to have her rounding up the weekly activities of Pope Francis.  The spiritual leader of a over a billion people, “the People’s Pope”  has captured the attention and imagination of millions others with no formal relationship to the Roman Catholic Church (myself included) through thought, word, and deed.  Melissa brings an insightful Catholic perspective to my own Protestant fandom, and will no doubt add greatly to our experience of Francis’ leadership and unfolding legacy.  – CC

Melissa Maleski

Pop your personal bubble before you suffocate in it. That’s pretty much what the Holy Father is telling us in the New Year. In stark contrast to the Magi, who traveled far outside of their comfort zone, Pope Francis called out those who have hard hearts and fall into a narcissistic cycle of fear, pride, and vanity. This cycle, says the Holy Father, gives the illusion of self-sufficiency, but really locks a person inside himself. The Magi, by opening themselves to something far beyond their knowing, find God and themselves.

Like the Magi, Pope Francis holds up mothers as wonderful examples of people traveling outside of themselves and being better for it. The Holy Father does not mince words about how he views a mother’s value:

“To be a mother is a great treasure. Mothers, in their unconditional and sacrificial love for their children, are the antidote to individualism; they are the greatest enemies against war,” the pontiff told pilgrims during his Jan. 7 general audience address.

Before anyone brings the snark about the Church valuing women only as far as they are actively breeding small nations, read what Pope Francis follows up with: “In this sense motherhood is more than childbearing; it is a life choice entailing sacrifice, respect for life, and commitment to passing on those human and religious values which are essential for a healthy society,” he said.

And in case his words don’t quite sink in, the Holy Father’s decision to elect cardinals from the fringes of the world puts practice to his preaching. Cardinal-making stalwarts, like the United States, did not see any gains in the new election. Many of the new cardinals come from countries that never had a cardinal before, bursting the College bubble for the first time in a long while.

On a lighter note, the Holy Father raffled off personal possessions to raise money for the poor and rubbed elbows with Lara Croft.



No Veggie Burgers At McDonald’s?

Venessa Wong with the original story, shared here by Ashley Lutz.    White Castle announced their own veggie burger on January 2nd, joining Burger King and countless fast casual concepts in catering to meat-free palates.

McDonald’s says it doesn’t carry veggie patties because no one buys them.  As Lutz notes, MCD CEO David Thompson told investors that when the world’s largest burger joint did offer meatless burgers, they “sold four a day” per location.

To me, that means veggie burgers are scalable.  If Burger King can do them, so can McDonald’s.  They just have to want to.  And they should.



The Pen, Then the Sword: John Brownee Defends the New Lightsaber, Is Totally Right

Christopher Cocca

If you don’t read Fast Company, you’re missing a lot.  Look at the way senior writer John Brownlee deconstructs a few seconds of footage and comes up with basically everything we need to know about Star Wars VII’s new Sith.  Even if you don’t like Star Wars (click around Rad Infinitum for tons of Batman), anyone interested in story-telling should read this excellent piece. It’s about crafting far more than an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.



McDonald’s Had the Solution. It Was Called Chipotle.

Millennials want authenticity.  Because Chipotle has good food and invests in the kinds of things Millennials care about, they forgive the fact that Chipotle Mexican Grill is not authentically Mexican.  But when McDonald’s has to put out a video defending the authenticity of their chicken as chicken, you have to wonder what else is coming home to roost.



Like It’s 1999

The last few years have been good ones for alternative music, even if the word “indie” has been rendered just about meaningless.  It’s been so good, in fact, that we’re now hearing novelty songs on alternative radio, which is usually the signal that a great artistic cycle is about done running its course.   I heard two in a row today and couldn’t help thinking we might be about ready to repeat 1999.  That means two things: 1) A new slew of The (Nouns) bands are on the horizon that will have either The Hives, The Vines, The Strokes, or The White Stripes as their first point of rock n roll reference, and 2) Jack White is about to put out a great album.


Allentown won’t have its ‘miracle’ without affordable housing

Please click through to my recent op-ed in The Morning Call.


“In the wake of John Tarbay’s death at the Hamilton Street Bridge, just yards away from the Allentown Rescue Mission and not far from other agencies, a familiar chorus from social service providers and even some activists is likely to emerge: “Someone like John just didn’t want to come inside,” or “John was a ‘rough-sleeper.’ We tried,” or “John was this, that, or the other. John couldn’t live by the rules of society, or didn’t want to.”

All of those things may be true.

With the worst winter in memory finally behind us, it’s tempting to let the calls that more be done for Allentown’s and the Lehigh Valley’s homeless subside. It’s tempting to forget that “not being able to live by the rules of society” is obviously another way of talking about mental health, and mental health issues are the reasons most folks are on the street…”

Read more:

100 Homeless Tent Cities Across America? Try 1000. Maybe More.

“the shelters…there’s just not enough room.”


The guy who says “this is a conscientious choice” (people LOVE living in tent cities!) is part of the problem.

100 tent cities across America? Try 1000. There are at least 3 in the Lehigh Valley. I doubt we own 3 percent of this issue.

And yes, the City of Allentown is shutting them down, even though there’s really no place for people to go.


Thinking About Chicago


This is an except from something I wrote a few years ago.  Below it is a Spotify link to the song.

It’s possible to encounter O’Connnor’s stories (you never really just read them) without explicitly discerning her deep, abiding belief in literary art as Christian vocation or her mission to show, as she said, “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” Clear as day about these motives in her essays and letters, she’s almost never so obvious in her fiction. Perhaps because she uses the evangelical cosmologies of her neighbors as Tolkienesque proxies for her own traditional Catholic systems it’s easy to infer a sort of distance between O’Connor’s art and faith where she in fact saw none. In the same way, it’s possible to listen to Stevens’ biggest hit, “Chicago,” without immediately sensing the plaintive Christian hymn at its core, but “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “Oh God Where Are You Now?,” “The Lord God Bird,” “To Be Alone With You,””God’ll Ne’er Let You Down”… well, these and others comprise a body of work that, like O’Connor’s, raises and answers questions about what makes art “Christian.” Like O’Connor, Stevens operates outside of expectation: his confessional work is among his best, but you’d never call him a Christian artist the way, say, Amy Grant is a Christian artist.

Today is Casimir Pulaski Day; Because of Sufjan and Slavery, I Offer This

It’s mostly an Illinois thing, but there’s also an important Lehigh Valley connection.  I wrote about this a few years ago, but because I love Sufjan Stevens and hate injustice, I’ll tell you about it again:

Pulaski was a Polish noble and general who helped the American colonies win their independence from Great Britain by training and leading American soldiers throughout the Revolution.  Pulaski died from wounds sustained during the Siege of Savannah, and is remembered today as a proto-typical Polish-American hero in many Polish-American communities.  Though his holiday is mostly celebrated in Illinois, two years ago I discovered a connection between the Duke and the Lehigh Valley’s very own Bethlehem, PA.

I was walking around the grounds of the old Moravian settlements in Bethlehem and come upon this grave in the historic Moravian Cemetery:

A few yards away, I found this historical marker, explaining Duke Pulaski’s role in defending the early settlement and the fact that women from the Moravian community created the war banner he carried into Savannah, an even later llionized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Hymn of the Moravian Nuns of Bethlehem at the Consecration of Pulaski’s Banner.

Reconciling the image of pacifist Moravians sewing banners meant for war is one thing.  But Cornelia’s grave made me hot with rage and then it made me weep.

When I got home, I wrote the piece below.  You need to know that Bethlehem, PA, was founded by pacifist Moravians (who were fleeing religious persecution) in 1741 and christened for its namesake on Christmas Eve.


What scandal, these Moravians, these Peace Church nuns and friars rending martial banners? Duke Pulaski, their protector, marches to Savannah, is recalled in Illinois among the Polish and in the frontier psalter for his sword. How ancient, their Count’s mission, in its context on the Lehigh, infant, pre-incarnate by their Christmas City’s namesake — Bethlehem, Palestine?

Cornelia, theirs in life, (the Horsfields’), not her own or God’s, sewn in Pennsylvania with the city’s founding mythos. December 24, 17whatever. Theirs in death, the Horsfields, these Peace Church nuns and friars.

The Gospel of Mark as Sudden Fiction

Sudden fiction is another term for flash fiction, but the two aren’t simply synonymous, at least not to my ear.  Don’t read too much into the title of this post.  I’m not making some argument that the Gospel of Mark ought to be thought of as fiction or non-fiction by modern definitions.  I’m talking about effect.   Where does the writer mean to take us, and why?  How do we know?

The Gospel of Mark is short, but it’s also very sudden.  Replete with “immediatelys,” the narrative is constantly moving.  Like a good short story, it feels meant to be read in one sitting.

I’ve just finished a sudden read in this manner.  My sudden thoughts follow.

In Mark, Jesus is concerned with telling anyone who will hear that the kingdom of God is at hand, the kingdom of God is here, and that this news is good.

Often, his message gains traction through healing and exorcisms (these may or may not be the same).   He is clearly opposed to entrenched religious systems and values, but not to the teachings of Israel’s prophets.  His je ne sais quoi  has precisely to do with his vision of God and God’s kingdom in the context of Rome’s empire, Herod’s puppet vassal, the Sanhedrin’s religious hegemony, the temple-merchants’ guild and the common-place fiefdom of first-century mores, beliefs, and expectations often beguiling his disciples or other parts of the general public.  Often, those outside his immediate circle understand him best.  He is arrested, tried, and crucified quickly.  He even dies quickly.  His tomb is found empty, and his followers are instructed by a heavenly presence to meet him, the Risen, in Galilee.  No big deal.  Biggest deal ever.

We shouldn’t be surprised.


Brathwaite, Picasso, Nichols, and Maar Step Into a Writing Class

Last week, I shared this (regarding Brathwaite), with my students:





















I got that from the amazing Robert Antoni.

In the context of the class I’m teaching, it’s important to present the modern formal structures of essay clearly, and for students to be able to execute these schema even as they learn to hear, develop, and deliver their unique, respective voices. It’s also important that they (and that all of us) read widely and across foreign and familiar cultural and linguistic settings.

Braithwaite, of course, is not saying that iambic pentameter is a more formal, academic, or polished form of expression than are the cadences of his experience. The old English forms, unlike the basic structures of essay taught at the undergraduate level, are not conventions to be mastered and then moved on from. They are simply different from other expressions, and just as valid. But the insight he gives about the ways in which experience, geography, and culture influence our voices and our framing devices is brilliantly stated: the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.

In writing, the old sports adage also holds true: you have to get good before you can get fancy. Braithwaite or Ferlinghetti aren’t “fancy” in this sense, nor are the old English conventions necessarily “good.” But we do, all of us, carry points of reference, and for better or for worse, the discipline, practice, and art of writing in English or in the West in general requires a certain level of engagement with things like pentameter and people like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and, later, Whitman, Emerson, Twain, Conrad, Hemingway, etc. In writing and in physics, we’re dealing with relative values and definitions: neither our experience nor our execution manifest in vacuo, neither are they hatched like Athena, fully formed, fully armed, out of Zeus’s head. Motion is always relative, and so too is the spectrum from “good” to “fancy.”

But developing our voice as writers or as people requires the mastery of certain modes of expression. We might even say that without the narrative frames afforded to us by the convention of language, we’d be a very different species arranged in very different communities. Even if we can’t read or write, language has given us the ability to think of ourselves as objects with stories moving through time. Self-reflection is in most cases a function of narrative, ours or someone else’s. Mastering the elements of basic structure (getting “good” with the basic tools of the written trade) brings deeper possibilities of expression closer to our reach. I may understand, conceptually, a great many things about black holes, but I’ll likely make no significant contribution to the study of them if I’m not conversant in the language of higher mathematics, even if I say, with Einstein, that all motion and velocity are relative (save the velocity of C). “Good” and “fancy” may be relative terms, but they occur within a written and spoken frame of reference alongside our experiences and efforts toward understanding and expressing them.

The Physician's Palette, Pablo Picasso.

The Physician’s Palette, Pablo Picasso.

It’s been said by Malcolm Gladwell (and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis) that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any given discipline. I like for students to keep this general idea in mind: you have to get good (proficient, comfortable, familiar, conversant) before you can get fancy.   Visually, I’ve used the work of Picasso to drive this point home.  Before he did his groundbreaking work, he become very proficient at using the language of the art world around him.  Before he was a cubist or surreaist, he plied his craft in the artistic realm of realism.  He became conversant at this formal aspect of the craft and, of course, transcended it.   But without The Physician’s Palette, we wouldn’t have The Old Guitarist or Guernica.

We’ve been talking about all of these ideas over the first few weeks of class. While preparing for our most recent session, I decided I wanted to revisit the Brathwaite quote in particular and did a google search for “the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.”   The second result was for a tumblr blog called Poets of Color using the quote as a tag line.  The most recent post on that blog?

Picasso, I want my face back.


Even my hat mocks me
on the inside of my grief –

My twisted mouth
and gnashing teeth,
my fingers fat and clumsy
as if they were still wearing
those gloves –
the bloodstained ones you keep.

What has happened
to the pupils
of my eyes, Picasso?

Why do I deserve
such deformity?

What am I now
if not a cross between
a clown and a broken
piece of crockery?


But I am famous.
People recognise me
despite my fractures.

I’m no Mona Lisa
(how I’d like to wipe
the smugness from her face
that still captivates.)

Doesn’t she know that art, great art,
needn’t be an oil-painting?

I am a magnet
not devoid of beauty.

I am an icon
of twentieth-century grief.

A symbol
of compositional possibilities

My tears are tears of happiness –
big rolling diamonds.


Picasso, I want my face back
the unbroken photography of it

Once I lived to be stroked
by the fingers of your brushes

Now I see I was more an accomplice
to my own unrooting

Watching the pundits gaze
open-mouthed at your masterpieces

While I hovered like a battered muse
my private grief made public.


Dora, Theodora, be reasonable, if it weren’t for Picasso
you’d hardly be remembered at all.
He’s given you an unbelievable shelf-life.
Yes, but who will remember the fruits of my own life?

I am no moth flitting around his wick.
He might be a genius but he’s also a prick –
Medusa, Cleopatra, help me find my inner bitch,
wasn’t I christened Henriette Theodora Markovitch?

Picasso, I want my face back
the unbroken geography of it.

- Grace Nichols

Dora Maar (nee Markovitch) was Picasso’s long-time partner and the muse/model for much of his best-known work.  She was also an up-and-coming artist in her own right in the 30s and 40s and photographed the creative process of Guernica.   The diamond tears Nichols speaks of refer to Maar’s role as the face of The Weeping Woman, a sort of Guernica writ large.   She also wrote poetry, and so we’re able to move from seeing Maar through Picasso’s lens to hearing Maar in Nichols’ voice to finally arriving at a place all writers want to be:  seen as we see ourselves, heard in our very own voice:

Pure as a lake boredom
I hear its harmony
In the vast cold room
The nuance of light seems eternal
All is simple I admire
the full totality of objects.

The soul that still yesterday wept is quiet — it’s exile suspended
a country without art only nature
Memory magnolia pure so far off
I am blind
and made from a bit of earth
But your gaze never leaves me
And your angel keeps me.

The hurricane does not roar in pentameters.  Dora Maar does not speak in the voice of Picasso or Nichols but is still, for them, an indelible symbol, a cypher for their own struggles (theirs and their peoples’).  Behind that is a person with a point of view and a voice, a photographer-poet wrestling with the ecstatic anxieties of having both and of using them.   That’s what we’re talking about here.

Fridays with Francis: March 27, 2015

150 Homeless persons got a rare opportunity to see more than the outside entrance to the Vatican museum this week. They were invited to take a guided tour of the Vatican museum and gardens, followed by a free meal in the cafeteria. They were also given the opportunity to pray in the Sistine Chapel, where the Holy Father surprised them with a visit of his own. He made sure to speak with each of the guests.

Pope Francis supposedly told his guests, “This is everyone’s house: it’s your house. The door is always open for all.” While this is a common Christian principle, the novelty of this visit for the homeless reminds us that we may say that our doors are open, but we do precious little to actually help people enter into Christ’s presence.

This reminds me a bit of the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24). The master not only opened his doors for the unsavory people of society to join him at the banquet, but he sent his servants out to gather them. He didn’t wait to see if anyone would walk through the door first, or in what state of dishabille they were in before coming to him. Kudos for the Holy Father for his constancy in practicing what Christ preaches.

While I’m on the topic of the marginalized, it breaks my heart that Pope Francis visiting  gay and transgender prison inmates is shocking enough to warrant a story. I can’t stress enough that the Church does not hate LGBTQ persons. I really can’t.

Then again, in a statement that surely confused and angered many, Pope Francis came out strongly against compromising on matters of faith.

“Whoever is not with me is against me: there is no third choice to be made. Either you are a saint or you take the other route,” the Pope reiterated, saying that the person who chooses his own will not only “loses out,” but, does something worse: “he wastes and wrecks. He is corrupt and he corrupts.”

I think rigid statements like these throw many people because it appears to contradict the merciful and accepting tone that Jesus proffers to the marginalized, the broken, and the sinful. It doesn’t; no person is denied Christ’s gift of self. But while the open door is open to all, the door only leads to one place.

One matter of faith that the Holy Father returned to this week was that of gender theory. I know this is stating the obvious, but the Pope is not a fan.

You know what Pope Francis is a fan of? Pizza. Maybe he can share a pie with President Obama when the two get together later this year to discuss issues of mutual interest.

And finally, in case it wasn’t obvious yet that Pope Francis is a rock star, a group of cloistered nuns turned groupie when given the chance to meet the Holy Father. One sister managed to retain enough of her wits to present the Pope with a present (supposedly some baked goods) after mobbing him. As if this story couldn’t get any more adorable, Cardinal Sepe managed to throw in some good-natured zingers at the sisters’ expense:

“Sisters . . . Later. . . . well would you look at that. And these are the cloistered ones. Just imagine the non-cloistered ones,” he said, provoking laughter among the crowd gathered in the cathedral.

“They are going to eat him! Sisters . . sisters!”

Seriously, there is nothing more awesome than simple, unadulterated zeal. God bless these women.

04 - ice on beach blue

[B]rad Infinitum: #thedress and White Balance as an Artistic Choice

Hello everyone.

I realize I’m getting into this conversation well after it is relevant, but I was on vacation.

When #thedress went viral, it sparked a big conversation about how we see color. Our eyes have evolved over a few million years [citation needed] to be able to evaluate the color in the surrounding environment to be able to subtract other colors and figure out what is the actual color of an item.

Personally, I performed an experiment where I would open and close the blinds on a window, and watch the color “change”. It was fascinating to watch the perceived colors of an object change as the light source in my room changed.

So how does this relate to photography?

This is how ‘white balance’ works on digital cameras. The electronics will evaluate the scene and attempt to handle this adjustment for you. If you’ve ever set your white balance to ‘cloudy’ on a sunny day, only to realize your photos have a yellow color when you get home, this is white balance (setting your white balance to sunny on a cloudy day will result in blue photos).

Normally, your camera’s auto white balance is good. Not perfect, but good. It will almost always be a little blue or a little yellow, but will usually be close enough that most people will not notice.

The other side of white balance is the purple/green color cast. Outside of fairly unusual situations, this is something that most people will never notice. Cameras will frequently favor green, which our eyes are more sensitive to, and we will end up liking it more with the green cast.

Since I like unusual situations, here is an example of the auto white balance not handling purple/green properly.

01 - aurora purple

At first glace, this photo looks really cool. There’s 2 people out taking photos underneath an aurora.

After a few minutes of letting your eyes adjust, you may start to notice that everything is probably more purple than it should be (especially the snow, that should really be close to white). Why did this happen? This goes back to the electronics guessing what is white. Much like #thedress, the electronics of the camera and software of the computer are evaluating the scene and trying to guess what is the correct balance for blue/yellow and purple/green. Due to the green of the aurora (an unusual situation for most images), the camera assumes it needs to compensate by giving the image a purple tint. Normally, this would be the correct choice. In this situation, it is the incorrect choice.

This situation is easy to correct. We move the slider (I use Adobe Lightroom, I’m sure other applications have something similar) for purple/green about 60 units, and we end up with this image.

02 - aurora green

So, what does this all mean? Well, if you add a lot of blue to the scene, it can feel cooler or colder, while adding yellow makes the scene warmer. Adding too much purple often looks like a mistake, while adding more green or yellow generally makes the image more liked.

If you want to take this further, you can use a tool like the paintbrush tool in Lightroom to paint different white balances in different parts of the scene.

Let’s take an example. Recently, I was at the Jökulsárlón Iceberg Graveyard in Iceland. It was a fairly cloudy day, but, the ice had this really amazing blue color. When I was able to transfer the photos, the photos no longer had the correct ‘blue’.

03 - ice on beack

This photo has some processing performed already. The black point did not get set properly (the beach was black sand), so it was fixed for this photo. For comparison, here is the photo before I fixed the black point.

03.1 - ice on beack

Setting your black and white points is more important to printing than it is for composing to a screen. But it does help to illustrate just how different the camera senses the world than our eyes do. It also helps to illustrate part of the trend called Shoot to the Right, or STTR, which is probably a good topic for another day.

Back to the photo. Since the resulting image was not a good representation of 1) What I wanted, or 2) What the beach looked like, I decided to fix the issue. By taking a brush tool in Lightroom and painting in a bluer white balance on the ice, I was able to create a very blue iceberg on a black sand beach, which is what I wanted.

04 - ice on beach blue

Looking back at other photos, this is likely more blue than reality. But that is ok. I chose to make it more blue to give it a cooler feeling, it is, after all, ice.

For a sunset, you may wish to selectively paint on a more yellow white balance to give that section of the image a warmer feeling.

But what happens if we give the cool/blue ice a yellower white balance?

04.1 - ice on beach yellow

Wow, that looks terrible. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide exactly what shade of yellow that is. One thing is certain, it has lost that cool/ice feeling that the heavy blue image had.

If we adjust the temperature (blue/yellow) and tint (green/purple), we can actually change the ice to a variety of strange colors. Orange (yellow + purple), purple, green, turquoise (green + blue), etc, are all possibilities. Some of these possibilities are better than others.

Much like in #thedress, colors can change based on other items in and out of the scene. As a photographer, you can control the various elements in a scene to emphasize what you are trying to show, and balance the temperatures to support the main subject.



Notes from Niflheim: What’s in a Name?

I am half inclined to think that the old gentleman [parson] was himself somewhat tinctured with superstition, as men are very apt to be who live a recluse and studious life in a sequestered part of the country, and pore over black-letter tracts, so often filled with the marvelous and supernatural.
—Old Christmas, Washington Irving

I may have mentioned how country living has made me a bit superstitious. Well, so has having kids. I’m beginning to wonder just how much naming influences destiny.

With our first child, I had this ambition that any son of mine would be named for both a philosopher and a conqueror. At the time, my wife was particularly keen on Kierkegaard, the Gloomy Dane, so he supplied the first name. And that’s exactly what we ended up with. Our boy is very much a moody philosopher with a perhaps too vivid interest in historical conquests. He wonders about the theological implications of Miyazaki films, and consistently persuades his playmates to act out the Russo-Japanese War with him.

Our second child was given the Greek name for “resurrection” and the Latin for “born again.” This was the daughter who abruptly rolled onto her stomach and pushed herself up in the warming pan immediately following birth. We should’ve known then and there that we were in for a daredevil. Truly she has no fear of death, not even healthy self-preservational fear. This is the child who enjoyed climbing up flights of stairs in order to leap giggling off the side rail, so that her father would have to intercept her in midair like a football.

When my wife became pregnant with our third child, we were both independently inspired to name her after a specific saint from Kildare. Lo and behold, that’s what we got: a little Zen saint, easy from day one. Easy labor, easy delivery, easy ride home. As yet she does not display her brother’s obsessive inquisitiveness, nor her sister’s devilish charm, but she is the sweetest and happiest of us all. I love all my children, but believe you me, if the first two had been as effortless as the third we’d have eight of them by now.

So be careful what you name your offspring. Aim for generous saints if you want a quiet household. Go for warrior-kings if you want a little more adventure. Then again, what do I know? My wife’s name means ewe, after all, implying passive or submissive—and she’s anything but.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found at Grimly Optimistic.

Odin the Wanderer 3

Waking Odin


One of the remarkable things about mythology—be it Egyptian, Classical, Norse, Arthurian, or what have you—is that the collections we have today may indeed reflect rather little of the original folk beliefs whence they sprung.

This first became obvious to me upon familiarizing myself with the history of Egypt, wherein local gods rose and fell in prominence, messily entering and exiting the pantheon along with the fortunes of their sponsor cities.  Many gods, particularly solar deities, merged and re-merged, first with other Egyptian divinities and later, of course, with the Greek.  The nice, neat little collections of Egyptian mythology we read today, with all the edges smoothed over and the loose threads tied, has more to do with Victorian tidiness and Britain’s post-Napoleonic Egyptology craze than with anything else.

As for the Classical myths, we in the Anglophone world have been raised (fortuitously) on Bulfinch and Hamilton, who wove and synthesized their raw material as skillfully and thoroughly as did the Brothers Grimm.  We recognize Greco-Roman gods not necessarily as the Hellenistic world would have recognized them—amorphous, shifting, and contradictory in their tales—but as 19th Century Brits and Americans would.  The only sacrosanct text for the Greeks came from Homer, and perhaps Hesiod, though even these paint rather different pictures of the gods.  The myths don’t match and often contradict, necessitating a good editor.  Aphrodite and Artemis have varying origin stories; Hecate emerges first as a new goddess, then as a new aspect of an older one.  Who is to say how the Greeks themselves understood this stew of stories?  It reminds one of the perpetual reboots and retcons suffered by modern superheroes.

The Norse are no different.  The Norse myths enjoying resurgent popularity today stem primarily from two sources: Snorri Sturlson’s Prose Edda, and a collection of songs and short stories known as the Poetic Edda.  Both were compiled and (especially in the former case) redacted by Scandinavian Christian monks.  In them, pagan and biblical sources mirror one another. How many parallels stem from pagan responses to Holy Writ? How many from Christians emerging from a pagan culture? How many from shared reflections of mutually encountered truth? None can say. I’ll venture this much, however: that Odin only sacrificed himself on a tree with a spear through his side some 1200 years after Jesus made that look popular.

What we call the Norse myths have more to do with successive waves of Romantic, Darwinist, and Occult crazes from the 17th through 20th Centuries, drawing from and elaborating upon muddled sources.  How could poor Tactitus know that his Germania would inspire industrialized eugenics millennia after the fact? Even the murderous Odin cult might well have quailed at the 20th Century racial myths grafted on to a supposedly Nordic mythology. Medieval Scandinavians, believe you me, had no problem vigorously interbreeding with whatever populations they met in their travels. I’m living proof.

In his 1993 Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Ronald Hutton argued quite persuasively, and in the face of neopagan assertions to the contrary, for an aggressive agnosticism: “I have no real idea of what pre-Christian belief and religion looked like in Europe, and neither do you.”  (He later penned a very popular and somewhat apologetic follow-up volume on the history of modern neopaganism arguing, in effect, that the movement has nothing to do with actual ancient paganism but still has its positive aspects and contributions to society. So, thumbs up, I guess.)

The Church Fathers, for their part, having honed their skills drawing extensive parallels between the Old and New Testaments, enthusiastically embraced doing the same between Christian stories and their antecedent “pagan dreams.”  (Once more, we find that the only sources we have for Christian opponents most often come from the Church herself, preserving past controversies as though in amber.  One might infer that she respected her opponents as men made in the Image of God, if nothing else.) Again, no one can say how many of these parallels stem from coincidence, Providence, or syncretism, but one very popular line of interpretation came from Christian euhemerism: that is, the reading of ancient myths and folktales as exaggerated history.

Euhemerism made perfect sense in a world that regularly deified great rulers and heroes. Whereas Jewish pseudepigrapha such as the Book of Enoch (not to mention several of the Fathers) spoke about pagan deities as fallen angels, euhemerism argued that they were in fact great figures in human history posthumously divinized.  St. Augustine embraced this situation for the Roman gods, peopled as that pantheon was with Caesars in apotheosis.  But he wasn’t the only one: the Venerable Bede argued the same for the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon gods of Britain, as did Snorri for the Norse gods.  Before you knew it, Odin (or Wotan) was taken neither for a demon nor for a symbolic embodiment of natural forces, but rather for the great warlord and Allfather of the ancient Gothic root-race that emerged from Asia (Aesir, get it?) to found the various Teutonic tribes.

Outlandish as such a history may be, this euhemerism—historically demonstrable amongst the Romans (Caesar), Greeks (Alexander), Egyptians (Ramses), and Celts (who never could differentiate between fairies, gods and ghosts)—strikes me as a plausible explanation for pagan pantheons.  No wonder that pre-Christian gods seem so fickle, so contradictory, so mercurial—indeed, so dreadfully human.  (Anyone who thinks that America has shed this universal human impulse to divinize emperors needs only spend an afternoon strolling about D.C. to be otherwise convinced.)  Truly our tendency has been to deify all great men, good and evil: a desire quenched only upon reaching its fulfillment in the Cult of Saints. But that’s a tale for another time.

Were the pagan gods embodiments of natural forces and abstract concepts who only later developed personalities and well-defined stories? Or did they in fact start out with said personalities and tall tales, only later growing in stature to become absolutes? We cannot say, of course; Hutton stands ready to reprimand us should our speculation spool out too far.  Our history reveals at least as much about the modern day as it does about our ancestors, and the past remains shrouded, vastly more inscrutable than we will ever care to admit.  Nevertheless, as surely as I relish the idea of a historical Celtic war chieftain defending Romanized Britannia from Saxon invaders—only later earning the sobriquet of Arthur, “the Bear,” and all the mythical accretions of the centuries—so too must I admit that the idea of Allfather Odin as an ancient warlord and sorcerer—one-eyed and roaring, charging amongst his ravens and his wolves—impossible though such a figure would ever be to verify, warms the cockles of my bizarrely medieval heart.

Waking Odin

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.

Fridays With Francis: March 6, 2015

Sometimes you just don’t mess with a good thing. Here is the Holy Father’s week, in his own words.

Don’t assume you are good just because you aren’t bad.

The rich man saw only into his life, and did not realize what had happened to [himself]. He was not bad: he was sick, sick with worldliness – and worldliness transforms souls It transforms souls, makes them lose consciousness of reality. Worldly souls live in an artificial world, one of their making. Worldliness anesthetizes the soul. This is why the worldly man was not able to see reality…So many people are there, who bear so many difficulties in life, who live in great difficulty: but if I have the worldly heart, never will understand that. It is impossible for one with a worldly heart to comprehend the needs and the neediness of others.

Abandoning the elderly to die alone is a death in and of itself.

Palliative care has to objective of alleviating suffering in the last stages of illness and at the same time of assuring the patient of adequate human accompaniment (cf. Evang. Vitae, 65). It deals with the important support for the elderly, who, for reasons of age, often receive less attention from curative medicine, and are often abandoned. Abandonment is the most serious “illness” of the elderly, and also the greatest injustice they can suffer: those who helped us to grow must not be abandoned when they need our help, our love, and our tenderness.I therefore welcome your scientific and culture efforts to ensure that palliative care can reach all those who need it. I encourage professionals and students to specialize in this type of assistance, which has no less value on account of the fact that it “does not save lives.” Palliative care recognizes something equally important: recognizing the value of the person.

Don’t justify your sins with someone else’s bad actions.

We are all masters, professors of self-justification: “No it wasn’t me, it’s not my fault, maybe yes, but not so much…that’s not the way it is…”. We all have an alibi to explain away our shortcomings, our sins, and we are often to put on a face that says “I do not know,” a face that says “I didn’t do it, maybe someone else did,” an innocent face. This is no way to lead a Christian life…

When I feel envy in my heart and I know that this envy is capable of speaking ill of others and morally assassinating them, this is the wisdom of judging oneself. If we do not learn this first step in life, we will never, never be able to take other steps on the road of our Christian life, of our spiritual life: The first step is to judge ourselves. Without saying anything out loud. Between you and your conscience. Walking down the street, I pass by a prison and say: “Well, they deserve it” – Yet do you know that if it weren’t for the grace of God you would be there? Did you ever think that you are capable of doing the things that they have done, even worse? This is what judging yourself means, not hiding from the roots of sin that are in all of us, the many things we are capable of doing, even if we cannot seen them.

Thankfully we believe in a God Who isn’t a hypocrite.

We are not orphans. Until the very end, until the final moment, there is the assurance that we have a Father who awaits us. Let us trust in Him. And the Father turns to us, calling us ‘son’ and ‘daughter’, even in the midst of that worldliness: son. And this means that we are not orphans.

Machine Gun Middle East

Blood and Sand

RDG Stout

I find the Middle East endlessly fascinating. This is due in no small part, I’m sure, to my profession, which requires a working knowledge of the various ancient empires of the Fertile Crescent, not to mention the later Classical accounts of Greeks and Romans running roughshod through Anatolia, Persia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia.

Of course, I’ve also grown up with the Middle East constantly on American television. I was pretty young when the Soviets got bogged down in Afghanistan, but we all remember Rambo III. (Go ahead. Try to forget it.) Desert Storm and the Gulf War made a big impact on me in elementary school because all of a sudden war wasn’t just something we learned about in school. Now, with cameras stuck on smart bombs, we could watch it live on CNN after class.

Everyone remembers the shock and horror of 9/11. I was in college at the time, and I vividly recall students having difficulty explaining what was going on to our morning professors, who clearly didn’t keep up with online news as obsessively as we did. Everybody was behind Afghanistan, right? Just War and all that.

But then we went back to Iraq—for absolutely no reason. Of course, at the time I thought we had perfectly good reasons. As yet I didn’t understand the deep hatred that Al Qaeda held for the Baathist regime (the finer points of Middle Eastern politics were largely lost on undergraduates) so I swallowed hook, line, and sinker when the executive branch informed us that WMDs were a “slam dunk.” Hadn’t the Israelis taken out an Iraqi breeder reactor years earlier? Saddam was trying to build nukes and give them to Osama! We had to do something, or there would be mushroom clouds over Manhattan!

What can I say? I was young and stupid. Scaremongering was more effective back then.

Today I have a seven-year-old son who has developed an insatiable curiosity about military history, empires, wars, that sort of thing. He still struggles to understand whenever I try to explain to him that a country’s problems can’t all be solved by shooting people. He doesn’t get how we could win every major battle in Vietnam, yet utterly lose the war. And he can’t figure out why Afghanistan and Iraq are such horrific, bloody messes when we steamrolled right over both opposing forces.

He’s in second grade. That’s a little young for me to recommend Sebastian Junger’s War or Evan Wright’s Generation Kill or Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War or Mark Owen’s No Easy Day. We’ll stick with Harry Potter for the time being. That series gets dark enough. But the rest of us are old enough to learn from history. I’d advocate gratis subscriptions to Foreign Affairs for every member of Congress, if only I thought they would read them.

Obviously Saddam was a Bad Guy. The world is full of such tyrants. And his sons, Uday and Qusay—these were not men who were ever going to die peacefully in their beds. But before we invaded Iraq, relegating Afghanistan into a sideshow and thus letting Bin Laden escape for another decade, there was no Al Qaeda there. It took our pounding a third world country into dust and grease to allow foreign insurgents to flood in as AQI—which in retrospect was probably the big picture all along. Create a honey pot to lure and trap the flies. We dutifully killed all comers, but not before a few AQI survivors were able to flee across the border to Syria (another theater we had to ignore, being elsewhere bogged down) and there recruit the masses by portraying the Iraq War as a Shiite-Sunni civil war. Which by that point it had become. Experts had warned us not to simply swap out Baathists for Shiites, but nobody really listened, it seems. Too many double vowels.

So now in 2015 we have to deal with ISIS, a twisted chimera of Al Qaeda, Baathists, jihadis, and bored Western teenagers. They’re bringing the Seventh Century back to the Middle East, only with Kalashnikovs and heavy armor. Honestly, these guys have risen to Bond-villain levels of evil. Who else could unite Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran against a common foe? Strange bedfellows doesn’t begin to cover it.

I know there’s a sort of “You break it, you buy it” argument for going back for Iraq War III. And certainly you couldn’t pick a more deserving group of psychopaths to bomb into paste. But every time we interfere—every time!—things get worse. Afghanistan is falling back into Taliban hands. Libya, Iraq, and Syria have ceased to exist as nation states. Iran and Syria are leading the Iraqi Army into a Shiite-Sunni civil war that’s already cost hundreds of thousands of lives. We’re 0 for 5 over there, folks. And to top it all off, the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East have been systematically eradicated in the wake of every American military venture. Every one.

Meanwhile, we seem to be doing everything we can to exacerbate the situation. Samuel Huntington predicted the division of Ukraine and rising spheres of influence for Russia and China back in 1996’s Clash of Civilizations, and things are proceeding according to his timetable. As the West escalates the conflict in Ukraine, which Russia has always viewed as its backyard, Moscow retaliates by destabilizing the Middle East. Putin is so determined to keep this sphere of influence that he’s doubling down even as the Americans and Saudis wring the life out of the Russian economy like a python.

China, the great power most dependent upon Middle Eastern oil, can’t believe that the US is really this incompetent and suspects instead a deliberate conspiracy to starve the Middle Kingdom of petroleum. Beijing will happily cozy up to Moscow and Tehran if Washington can’t get its act together. The spice must flow. Otherwise they won’t find much incentive to work with us in the progressively turbulent East China Sea.

It’s an increasingly multipolar world, and the US will have to work with Russia and China to pursue common interests if we hope to avoid further wars not only in the Middle East but in Europe and the Pacific. We have to ask ourselves which priorities we’re willing to fight for, and which we’re willing to negotiate. America has the ear of the Sunnis in Egypt and Arabia; Russia has the ear of the Shiites in Syria and Iran. If we want to prevent out-and-out genocide, we have to cooperate with all the regional powers. We cannot confront everyone, everywhere. Ask Rome about that. Or Great Britain.

We have many enemies who would rather be our allies, and blowing things up is not our only leverage. It’s not even the most effective. Economic sanctions work; they’ve brought Iran begrudgingly to the bargaining table, and they’re putting the screws to Russia. What’s the hard power alternative? Antagonize Iran, have them go ahead and build their nuke, watch Saudi Arabia and Turkey do the same to create parity, and—well, use your imagination. Clearly that’s not a road we wish to go down. These are not regimes that shy from mass casualties.

Look, I’m just plunking away on a blog in the middle of nowhere. But it seems abundantly clear that no amount of blood spilled on that sand is ever going to bring peace to the Middle East. Least of all American blood. And the sooner we finally learn that, the happier our children will be.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.

Boarding a plane in Jackson, Wyoming

[B]rad Infinitum: Things I Enjoy – Smartphone Photography

Many of us have a lot of equipment.

Since I’m preparing for a trip, I may be a bit more aware of how much I have right now than other times of the year. On this trip, I’ll be carrying a primary and backup body, as well as a Micro 4:3 camera because it is small and easy to carry. My brother is coming with me, and for at last part of the trip, will be using my backup body as his primary. As a result, I’ll be carrying at least 8 lenses, vs the normal 3-4.

Sometimes, I just need a break from swapping lenses and use something that is as simple as possible. Enter the smart phone, something I carry with me at almost all times. It only has a handful of options, which means you don’t need to focus on if you should swap out the big lens for a macro because it is a bit annoying to swap with all of these people around and it is raining.

With a smartphone you generally only have a few options, 4:3, Square, Pano. And the entire device fits easily in a pocket.

When I first started using a smartphone, it was to get a quick picture on FB or for SMS to a friend or relative.

Haha you are at work and I am here!

Haha you are at work and I am here!

Or one of my favorites, “Here is my camera ready to take a picture tonight”.

This is the setup for taking a photo at Bandon Beach, Oregon at Sunset

This is the setup for taking a photo at Bandon Beach, Oregon at Sunset

And of course a “Well, that was dumb” type of image.

The result of being caught in a rainstorm with my camera

The result of being caught in a rainstorm with my camera

The entire camera is designed for much worse than this.  It looks kind of bad, but, everything is weather sealed and I’ve had it in worse conditions.

For a long time, I never really thought of a smartphone as a real camera. Then I was out on a rooftop deck in Seattle during an amazing sunset, and my phone managed to capture this image.

Seattle Sunset

Seattle Sunset

Oh wow, that is actually really nice.  I also enjoy wide angle photography, and, while I’m not totally certain, I think this image is fairly wide angle.

The real turning point for me was when I posted a photo from my iPhone and it was mistaken for a photo from my DSLR.

Photo from an iPhone 5S, Fisherman's Bridge, Rovaniemi Finland

Photo from an iPhone 5S, Fisherman’s Bridge, Rovaniemi Finland

I got far too many ‘wow, but you only got this photo because you have a nice camera’ comments.

One thing that I really enjoy about the iPhone is the automatic panorama stitching.  I’m sure it is available on Android, BB, WinPhone, etc, but I’ve only used the iOS version.

Panorama of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State

Panorama of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State

Yes, one could take a dozen photos with a DSLR and stitch them later, but there really is something amazing about the instant results.  Plus, my phone handles ghosting really well.

After some practice, I took a quick panorama during my trip to a volcano and a beach in Costa Rica.

Panorama from the Poas Volcano in Costa Rica

Panorama from the Poas Volcano in Costa Rica

Tortugas Island, on the Pacific Side of Costa Rica

Tortugas Island, on the Pacific Side of Costa Rica

I really started to enjoy the panorama format.  And I enjoy how easy and fast it is when using my phone.

This last fall, I was boarding a plane in Jackson, Wyoming, and managed to capture this photo on a very clear day.

Boarding a plane in Jackson, Wyoming

Boarding a plane in Jackson, Wyoming

This is by far my favorite panorama to date.  I also would likely not have been able to capture it unless I used a phone.  I doubt the people boarding the plane would have had the patience to wait for me to unpack my camera, swap lenses, take a series of photos, and repack the camera.  But 20 seconds using a smart phone?  Yeah, I definitely had that much time.

Like any camera, a smartphone is a tool to capture images.  It is also a very light and simple tool which most people always have with them.  I enjoy the simplicity of taking the photos as a change of pace from setting up tripods and carrying around heavy cameras with multiple lenses.  Is the quality the same as my DSLR?  Nope, but that’s ok.