(Un)orthodox, adj.

So for a few months now, I’ve been following this blog:

Ask Mormon Girl

The author is Joanna Brooks, a graduate of BYU and UCLA who is currently a professor of literature at SDSU. She styles herself as an unorthodox Mormon with imperfect but friendly answers to questions about our culture and religion, ranging from polygamy to Christmas traditions. Although I disagree with plenty of her opinions, there are two reasons I read what she posts:

First, she talks openly about her struggles with the church and with Mormon culture as a whole. The topics that we avoid confronting in Sunday school lessons she tackles with sensitivity and honesty; it’s refreshing to read thoughtful comments on the reality of Mormonism and its place in the modern world.

Second, I love love LOVE the example she sets. She is living proof that it’s possible to be unorthodox and still be firmly grounded in faith. I have found over the last several years of self-discovery and self-making that I am Orthodox with a capital O—a very conservative, demure, letter-of-the-law, white-bread-for-the-sacrament, if-your-hair-is-past-your-ears-and-you’re-a-male-you’d-better-get-it-cut sort of person. Joanna Brooks is a democrat and LGTB activist. I admire her for being able to live unashamedly outside the mold. What’s more, when I’m struggling to reconcile my religious convictions with the reason of the world, I look to people like her as a testament that it’s possible to have an intelligent, critical, thinking mind and still believe firmly in the gospel. When critics are telling me I’m being brainwashed, I point to Joanna Brooks and say, “Not so.”

She has also recently written a book called Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith that I haven’t read but very much want to. To be honest, I’m unenthusiastic about Mormon literature generally. I don’t care for Work and the Glory, and I pretty well despise Anita Stansfield. The problem is its didacticism. It has an agenda—namely, to reaffirm your faith and reassure you that the gospel is true. Don’t mistake me; there’s nothing wrong with books that reaffirm your faith. It’s just that didactic literature rarely makes for the stuff of great literature.

But from what I understand (keeping in mind that I have yet to read her book), Joanna Brooks has her finger on something. She understands that Mormon culture is beautiful in much the same way that African-American culture and Jewish culture are beautiful, and that you don’t have to be a part of it to appreciate it. I would love to see literature come out of the Mormon community that is not aimed at Mormons, but rather at our friends and neighbors who don’t understand us. Not to force Mormonism on them, not even to convince them that we’re normal or mainstream—but to give them an insight into the Mormon variation of human experience. Because the ties that bind us go deeper than our religious differences.

Now that you have the back story, let me recount the conversation I had with my dad on the way to church today:

Me: You’re teaching Josh’s Sunday school class today, right? [Josh is my seventeen-year-old brother.]

Dad: Yup. Joanna Brooks is out of town. [pause] You’re teaching primary today?

Me: [not hearing, because I’m floored] Joanna Brooks?

Dad: Yeah, she’s out of town, so—

Me: Joanna Brooks is in our ward?

Dad: [nonplussed] Yeah. She’s Josh’s Sunday school teacher.

Me: How long has she been here?

Dad: [mildly amused] A few years. Almost as long as we’ve been here.


And then there was this conversation later with Josh, when I was telling him how awesome his Sunday school teacher is:

Me: Josh, your Sunday school teacher is Joanna Brooks?

Josh: Yeah. She’s amazing.

Me: I had no idea she was in our ward.

Josh: You didn’t?

Me: No.

Josh: Madeleine, her kid is in your primary class!

Me: …What?

Josh: Yes. Ella. You know, the talkative one who wears knee-high boots and watches I Love Lucy? [Josh and I have talked about Ella, because he’s babysat her a couple of times.] Ella Brooks. That’s her daughter.


So somebody should read her book and give me a review, because it’ll probably have to wait until after my mission. And you should all check out her blog, because it’s worth reading. And by golly, someone should introduce me!


Treadmail, n.

Elijah’s latest stroke of genius consisted of propping up the back end of the treadmill (which he pronounces “treadmail”) on a stack of books, increasing the speed, and letting it propel him into a pile of pillows.

Needless to say, my mother was less than thrilled.

Mom: Honey, are you sure you want him doing that?

Dad: Uh… I don’t know. Do you think it’s dangerous?

Mom: Don’t you?

Dad, sheepishly: I thought it looked fun.

Newt, n.

This is a newt:

This is also a Newt:

Okay, I concede. Making fun of someone’s first name is rather immature. My apologies.

Puerile aspersions aside, let’s talk about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Those of you who have been following the GOP primary process will have noticed that Newt is the latest beneficiary of the anyone-but-Romney syndrome, which has propelled Bachmann, Perry, and Cain into the spotlight in quick succession. All three, watching their poll numbers plummet from “Real Contender” status to the single-digit “Real Joke” status, have dropped out of the race, leaving it to Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich to deck it out for the top spot. (For those who are interested, here is a link to a good site that summarizes national polls throughout the race.)

Until recently, it looked like Romney had a pretty clear sail to the GOP nomination because he was surprisingly well ahead in polls nationally and in South Carolina, a state that was expected to take issue with both his moderate politics and his Mormonism. In the last week or two, however, conservatives searching for another option have seized on Newt Gingrich as the new “flavor of the month”—radically shifting the dynamics of the primary taking place there today. Instead of a sure victory for Romney, it’s a vicious tussle for the winning vote, and a harbinger of the uphill race in store for both candidates.

Now to the point:

Newt Gingrich? Really? What are we thinking?

What irritates me most about Newt Gingrich is not his politics. I agree with a lot of what he says on a good number of issues. But the presidency, for better or worse, is about more than just politics.

To start, I’m always a little wary of someone who’s as good a talker as Gingrich is. He is confident and fiery when he speaks; people like him because he sounds like a man of passion and conviction. A well-honed skill in public speaking, of course, is a poor reason to discount a candidate, but we should nonetheless be on our guard—careful not to mistake the bad for good just because it’s laced with honey.

Gingrich is smart and talented. Probably his biggest talent is reminding people how smart he is. I’ve never met him, of course, and perhaps it’s not fair to judge based on a limited series of debates, news articles, and Wikipedia entries, but  if I ever encounter someone with a bigger ego than Newt Gingrich I will eat my brother’s socks. (Gross.)

He also comes with a good amount of political baggage, as they say. Of course, there are things in every candidate’s past that don’t look so good on their resumes, but Newt’s list seems a football field longer than anyone else’s. His lobbying and consulting work, particularly his ties to Freddie Mac, make his motivations look suspect and his actions self-serving.

But even that isn’t what concerns me most. Irrelevant though some people may claim it is, my biggest beef with Newt is his marriage problem.

Divorced? Fine. Twice? Okay, there’s a problem. After cheating on his wife both times?

Absolutely not.

When allegations came out concerning Herman Cain’s alleged sexual harassment, his campaign tanked. His poll ratings went from 25 percent to 8 percent in the course of a month (the month that it took all of the accusations to come out), at which point he “suspended” his presidential run and dropped entirely off the radar. Apparently Gingrich’s indiscretions have been known long enough that they’re old news—and the American memory only extends back about five years. Why worry about what happened about errata from more than a decade ago? (I use the word “errata” facetiously—the same word Benjamin Franklin used to give his own infidelity a noble spin.)

I read one editorial whose author insisted that Gingrich, just like the rest of us, is a man subject to mortal weaknesses and foibles, and therefore we shouldn’t let his infidelity tarnish our perception of him. For eternal purposes, I am not Gingrich’s omnipotent judge and what he does with his life is none of my business. But for our purposes now, in selecting a leader who will represent the nation, we expect more. We deserve more. It doesn’t seem right to cast aside every principle of decency in the name of political advantage. Our president must be a man or woman of exceptional character and strong moral caliber. Fit to succeed men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Can you picture us putting a Newt Gingrich Memorial in the National Mall?

Yeah, me neither.

This isn’t an endorsement of any candidate, but I feel passionate enough about NOT voting for Gingrich that I felt like I had to write this. Pick for yourself. I like Ron Paul because he is uncompromisingly conservative, Rick Santorum because he’s got spunk, Mitt Romney because of his impressive credentials. For what it’s worth, they all seem to be decent men dedicated to pursuing the good of this country.

I wish I could say the same about Newt Gingrich.

Indignant digression:

What baffles me is Gingrich’s sudden spike in South Carolina polls and his likely win tonight. In South Carolina, where evangelical roots run deep, conservative Christians are looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney. We read all the time that other polls and studies suggest that evangelicals are wary of voting for a Mormon. So because of their theological differences with Romney, they turn instead to Gingrich, running on a hypocritical platform of faith and family values.

(I feel almost like I’m playing the victim on Romney’s behalf—showing classic signs of the “I’m-so-persecuted-because-of-my-faith” complex—but it really chaps my hide that evangelicals will vote for an adulterer before they’ll vote for a Mormon.)

Came the poetry to find me

You may have noticed that I’m a bit of a poetry addict. This is a new thing; if you had asked me four years ago to rank literary genres by preference, poetry might have come in somewhere between amusing billboards and vacuum care manuals. Fortunately for all of us, however, I am a very different person than I was four years ago. Poetry has grown on me, and now I can’t get enough of it.

I took a class this semester that converted me to the concept of translation as its own work of art, and for months now I’ve been hankering to try it myself. Combined with a renewed interest in Spanish (Guatemala!), this was enough to make me look into some of the poetry of Pablo Neruda, possibly the most famous poet of the Spanish language. After reading a few of his pieces, I’ve decided I’m not his biggest fan—maybe it’s my limited grasp of the language, but I feel like I could write better poetry, at least in English. But I decided to try doing one anyway, and I kind of like how it turned out. The poem in Spanish can be found here, along with a direct semantic translation to look at next to my less-direct-but-much-more-poetic one below. You don’t have to read either of those, but I’ve included them for comparison purposes, just in case.

Neruda himself would probably turn over in his grave knowing that a little American white girl had bastardized his poem because she thought she could do a better job. Sorry, Pablo.

Calling this a “translation” would be a bit of a stretch, so I’ll stick with a different word. Here is my interpretation of Neruda’s poem:


At that age, in that age
The poetry came to find me.
From the splitting ice of winter or the river,
Tumbling torrents of froth borne off
And submerged in the strange echoing kingdom
Of fishes and riverstones.
How? And when? Unanswerable.
Not voices,
Not words,
Not silence.
It stopped me in the street,
In the tendrils of the night,
Beset me between savage fires
And then returned alone, without face or name.
Set its fingers to my strings
And played me como hombre con guitarra
Under the jacaranda tree.

A name in my mouth,
Unformed, an enigma.
I closed my eyes to taste it better.

It zipped down my throat
And socked me in the gut.

Winded and gasping
In a fever-pitch of lost wings,
I was left with trembling hands
to find my own way,
deciphering the Promethean flames
that etched out the first line as into stone.
Indistinct first line,
blurred, bodiless,
pure poppycock,
pure wisdom
from the fool whose prophecy finds fate
And turns it on its head.
It cracked the asphalt
And with the sharp retort of gun or glacial shift,
The splitting spread to the horizon
And kept going right into the sky,
Heedless of the limits
Imposed by three dimensions.
That’s what they mean
When they say the heavens opened.

I saw the planets dancing to Holst,
Shadows perforated
By flecks of flame and flowers,
The winding of the night,
The slow dying of time,
The universe.

And I? Infinitesimal
In the face of it all,
Drunk with the poetry
Of the star-studded nothing,
A faded shadow of likeness
—Bare, distant image
More stirring for the mystery—
I felt myself dissolved in its eternity
Pure, purged.
I turned with the stars
On the wheel of the universe,
My heart coming loose in the wind.


Good to Be Home

Here’s what I have done since I got home on Saturday:

NOT put on a coat

Explored the canyon behind our backyard

Eaten real Mexican food

Dressed up as a wise man for our family nativity scene

Gone to the park with all six of my siblings, where we played basketball, Red Rover, and Red-Light-Green-Light.

Made cookies (see the following).

Today Mom wanted  some treats to take to her visiting teachees and some of the other families in our ward. So Maren, Elijah, and I combined forces to make a very large batch of sugar cookies. Those on the receiving end of these Christmas goodies may not be impressed by our culinary technique, but they will have no choice but to admire our imaginative capacity:

We're not really sure what happened to this guy. Someone suggested it might be a mutation on the Y chromosome, but I suspect it had more to do with the underdeveloped fine motor skills of a six-year-old.

I tried to explain to Elijah that the wreath cookie would look good with a hole in the center. He gave it his best shot.

This one lost a leg during transfer to the cookie sheet. Maren tried to make it more realistic by covering its stumps in blood, but her endeavors were somewhat undermined by the fact that the sprinkles were hot pink.

It didn't faze Elijah that this one came out less like a snowflake and more like an amoeba.

Maren decided that this one looked like Harry Potter, as per the crack in his skull.

...AAAaand was so thrilled with it that she decided to make a Harry Potter star as well. See the crack?

Elijah's Christmas trees got skinnier as he went along because he thought it was funny to squeeze the metal cookie cutter thinner and thinner. The mutations on the first one are supposed to be ornaments.

Maren's caption for this as she reads this over my shoulder is: "Look! A bloody snowflake! It must be cold-blooded!"

This angel emerged from the oven dying of gunshot wounds. See the holes? We're still not sure what happened in there, but tensions get running high when things get that hot...

I made this one. The ones we give to our friends will probably be the ones that turned out more like this... but after seeing all the others, this one seems a little dull.




Good, adj.

What I’ve been craving lately is the chance to snuggle into the couch and read a good book. Yes, I’m majoring in English, and yes, it’s possible that I spend more time reading than sleeping. The important word here is the qualifier “good”. Here is what a book must be to deserve that adjective:

  1. Literarily excellent
  2. Intellectually challenging
  3. Rhetorically engaging
  4. Not assigned for class

Please don’t misunderstand me. These are not always requirements for the books I read. I have enjoyed books that are not really the stuff of great literature (Harry Potter?), books that are not intellectually challenging (The Princess Bride?), books that are not rhetorically engaging,* and books that are assigned for class (insert very long list here; I love most of my required reading). In my present mood and state of mind, however, a book that meets these standards would really hit the spot.

So how about a trade? I will tell you about a few of the books I like if you’ll recommend one or two for me. I have two months between the end of finals and my MTC date to read them all, so bring it on.

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard (1993)

Literary excellence: 5/5
Intellectual rigor: 5/5
Rhetorical skill: 5/5

DISCLAIMER: Admittedly, this is a play, not a book. But you ought to read it anyway. It is bizarre and brilliant in the style of Oscar Wilde, simultaneously scattered and cohesive, and absolutely profound. And while you’re at it, pick up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead from the same author.

Flowers for Algernon, by Dan Keyes (1966)

Literary excellence: 4/5
Intellectual rigor: 4/5
Rhetorical skill: 5/5

WARNING: this is not a feel-good book. In fact, you could probably call it a feel-bad book. But its tragedy resounds with deep feeling and leaves you with an incredible sense of empathy. You may come away weeping, but as per Aristotle, your tears will have a purifying power.

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (2004)

Literary excellence: 5/5
Intellectual rigor: 3/5
Rhetorical skill: 6/5

ATTEMPT TO REDEEM MYSELF: this is a feel-good book, and I absolutely love Robinson’s writing. See? I gave it 6/5, which isn’t technically possible—that should tell you how fantastic it is. Or at least remind you that I’m less fond of arithmetic than I am of reading.

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller (1952)

Literary excellence: 5/5
Intellectual rigor: 4/5
Rhetorical skill: 5/5

This is one of my top favorite literary works, but a lot of people really hate it. Like Arcadia, it is also a play, though entirely incomparable in tone, style, and content. I feel good at the end of it, but only because I think the last scene is profoundly redemptive. And the characters are so real.

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand (1957)
Literary excellence: 3/5
Intellectual rigor: 5/5
Rhetorical skill: 5/5

QUALIFICATION: This isn’t actually one of my favorite books. I read it first as a junior in high school and was blown away by Rand’s philosophy, but I have two problems with it that I’m having trouble getting over:

  1. Objectivism (Rand’s philosophy) runs completely contrary to some of my most basic principles. I can accept it as an economic model, but on a personal level I find it fundamentally wrong. As a Christian–and, I think as a moral person–I can’t accept that the best way to proceed through life is by religiously pursuing your own good to the exclusion of anyone else’s. What room does that leave for compassion, repentance, or the Atonement?
  2. What happened to realistic characters with believable flaws? Rand might’ve done well to read more Shakespeare.

My Atlas Shrugged rant is a topic for another blog post (Emily wrote a good one here, and though my impression was generally more positive than hers, I agree with most of what she says), but overall I think it’s worth the read. It’s extremely engaging—enough to keep you turning pages through all twelve hundred of them, which is quite a feat. I thought I was a liberal before I read it, but I saw things in a radically different light after I had finished.

Now it’s your turn! What should I check out from the library when I get home on Saturday?

*Examples of this are less readily forthcoming. Maybe the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, but you can argue with me on my evaluation of its rhetorical style; maybe Endgame, by Samuel Beckett—but I didn’t like that one anyway. Upon reflection, I’ve decided rhetorical excellence is always a requirement.

Education, n.

39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.

41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Matthew 5

My life right now is defined by an interesting paradox:

I’m in college, and I love it. The purpose is to get an education, and by and large it’s working—my mind is expanding into realms I didn’t even know existed three years ago.

But occasionally, I get so caught up in the bustle of formal education that I miss the subtleties of my informal education. I’m too busy polishing that paper on Hamlet to notice what’s happening in the news.

Result: I miss a lot of opportunities for reflection and deeper understanding that I would be able to take advantage of if I slowed down a little. One such example was brought to my attention today in the form of a story on NPR about a man who gives his coat, too, when a mugger demands his wallet. Here is a link:

A Victim Treats His Mugger Right

Julio Diaz, you taught me something that I wouldn’t have picked up in any of my English or Political Science studies. My classes are excellent and enlightening—but there’s a certain level of human experience that cannot be captured by the academic classroom.

Thanks for the real-life lesson in kindness and empathy.

Pie, n.

You didn’t think this was a food blog, did you? Well, okay, it’s not. The truth is, I made some really fabulous pies for Thanksgiving this year and I want everyone to oooh and aaah over them. Ready? Go.

(Please no snide comments about my photography skills. Even the very best camera phone… is still just a camera phone.)

From left to right:

Dutch Apple: My aunt Heather actually made this one, recipe courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook. Best Crust of the Night award goes to here–apparently half butter, half lard provides the best compromise on texture and flavor.

Banana Cream: It doesn’t look like much from the top. But banana cream, guys. And not just instant-pudding-poured-into-store-bought-crust-and-topped-with-sliced-bananas banana cream. I hand-rolled the crust, made the filling from scratch, and whipped the cream myself. BOO-YAH.

Pecan: Again, a very complicated recipe a la America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook. Unbeatable. Both in taste and in required quantities of butter.

French Silk: This one takes the cake. (I mean, pie.) It’s a pretty standard french silk recipe, but it leaves all the other french silk pies in the dust because this beauty has an OREO CRUMB CRUST. Yes, folks, that’s right. It makes it a whole different pie. Brilliant, I know.

Pumpkin: Heather also made this one, but I made the crust. Again, we used America’s Test Kitchen for the recipe–it looks burnt, but really it’s only because it uses dark brown sugar instead of light. I’ve eaten a lot of pumpkin pie in my life, and this one, though less traditional, was hands down the best I’ve had. As you can see, it didn’t actually make it to Thursday night… somehow at least three of us conveniently missed the memo that we weren’t allowed to eat it for breakfast.

This, my friends, is America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook, an excellent and very thorough guide to producing culinary masterpieces. A good tool whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned cook, and containing some mind-blowingly fantastic recipes. A lot of them are good simply because they have twice the fat content of their Betty Crocker equivalents.

And this is America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook Light, which I will be using next year to avoid dying from a heart attack at the tender age of twenty-one.


Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Anyone recognize this stage direction? It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? If I were guessing, I’d put it in The Emperor’s New Groove or maybe Abbott and Costello or something like Shrek.

But no, my friends, this is not some amateur script writer who spends most of his time making up catchy lines for obscure commercials. I ran across this today as I was reading A Winter’s Tale.

Yes, that’s right. The one by William Shakespeare. Please observe:

Poor Antigonus has just finished giving a tender speech to an infant he has been commanded to abandon in the woods. He lays the baby down, places beside her a note bearing her name in case someone finds her, and straightens up to return to his ship.

Then a bear lumbers onto the stage and turns him into a midday snack.

Come again?

Mawkish, adj.

I am perennially afraid of writing bad poetry. As it turns out, most people can’t differentiate it from good poetry; they love the mawkishly abstract and sentimentally indulgent. Although it’s easy for me to scoff at the masses and smugly assume that I, Madeleine, possess superior literary tastes, there’s an insecure self-ghost in the back corner of my brain that—probably with more than a grain of truth—suggests otherwise. My grasp of poetic nuances is somewhat weak and disjointed, and I don’t know that I have an inherent sense of the way words fit together and sound as they fall off my tongue. (And I always spell “tongue” wrong on the first attempt. Not that orthography really has much to do with poetic potential.)

This poem is heartfelt—but probably the lyrics to Kelley Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” were heartfelt as well, not to mention “We’re All in This Together” from High School Musical. (Yes, I felt you shudder as you read them. They hurt my soul, too.) Certainly sincerity it is no guard against bad poetry. Does such a guard exist? I don’t know the answer to that question; maybe you can tell me.

The topic is something that has been turning over in my mind for a couple weeks now. It was sparked by a conversation with a woman whose first child died within hours of its birth. It recalled a memory of a Sunday in Young Women’s several years ago, when one of my leaders opened to me a fleeting glimpse of just how deep a mother’s love runs for her baby. One significant drawback in writing this poem, of course, is that I have never been pregnant. (Someday, hopefully, but not for awhile yet—I’m going on a mission, remember?) I tried hard to imagine what it would be like. I don’t know if I’ve captured it, but I welcome comments and criticism from anyone who understands it better.

One last note before we begin: this is not a feel-good poem. Some of you (and yes, I have specific people in mind) probably won’t like it. That’s fine. I don’t know why I’m so strongly attracted to writing tragedy, but there you have it. Maybe it’s the humanity it brings out in all of us.


What Say They of Hecuba?*

A hall like a broken record:
Door, right to the very end
Where the doors run out
And the faded fennel carpet
The last room on the left.

Hold your palm beneath the GermX box on the wall.
(Grinding with an automatic thlip.)
Rub your hands.
Smell the ethanol and feel the evaporating chill;
Chemical-raze the metacarpal microbes.
Sterile hands
In the sterility of the maternity ward.

Past the chrome-cold handle
And the privacy curtain, pacifier-patterned,
An empty plexiglass bassinet.
A flat-lined hospital bed beside,
Where lies a woman with sweat-slipped hair,
Loose belly, and blood
Still sticky on her thighs.

“I loved that baby,” she whispers.

From the man in the bedside chair,
Hands shaking: “I know.”
He is thinking of the old crib, sanded
Last week and repainted, rivets tightened
And oiled to stop the rattling.
The gifts from the shower still
Piled on the couch.

But she is thinking of the first missed period.
The angular jabs and sudden squirms,
Blurred white-on-black of gel-slimed ultrasounds.
Quiet nights, he in heavy sleep beside her,
Glow and thrill of expectation stealing through her soul.
Strange stepping echo
Of heartbeat not her own.

“I know”—as if it were consolation.
As if onlooking could tell what seasons of growing
Did to a woman.
Spring (he thinks he knows)
Summer (she knows he doesn’t)
Fall (Alone, then.)
And, like November, the hoped-for child is gray and cold.

*Homer’s Iliad is, in part, about Hector, son of King Priam of Troy and his wife, Hecuba. Hector is slain by an enraged Achilles and his body dragged like a rag behind Achilles’ chariot; the most poignant moment in the poem is when Priam comes before Achilles, falls to his knees, and, pleading as a father grieving for his son, asks for Hector’s body back. We internalize, we grieve over the love Priam, the father, has for Hector—but what say they of Hecuba?