An Iowan’s thoughts the morning after the 2020 Caucus

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Last night I and thousands of Iowans like me participated in the Democratic Party caucus. After three chaotic years of a Trump presidency and more than a year of non-stop campaigning in our state, it felt good to get on with things. Regardless of the result, we know the ads will stop for at least a few months now.

My caucus experience was pretty low key and without major hassles or snafus. I live tweeted most of it.

Late last night, though, the reports started rolling in that there are hiccups in the party reporting. As I write this at 6:30 the morning after, there are still no results reported. Half of the candidates have declared victory (or at least success), Republican operatives are spinning claims of fraud and manipulation, and once again Iowa looks like a bunch of rubes who can’t even figure out how to tabulate votes.

So, a few thoughts on Tuesday morning:

This is ridiculous. Campaigns and volunteers have spent countless hours and dollars here over the past year to court our first-in-the-nation voters, and we can’t even get an accurate count at the end of the night? The caucus format is quaint (or, as a Canadian friend said, “quirky”), but if in 2020 we can’t even manage to report up simple voter counts, some other state should be going first.

We will get reliable results eventually. I have no doubt that the votes were carefully tabulated at my caucus site, and that they have a paper trail of every ballot preference card that was filled out. The volunteers running the caucus worked diligently to get an accurate count. Surely a similar scenario played out at each other caucus site through the evening. The data is available and reliable.

This is not an election and isn’t run by our election staff. This point can easily be missed in this morning’s reporting chaos. Normal elections in Iowa are overseen by the Iowa Secretary of State, and run in each county by the County Auditor. When we have the actual November election, each voter will fill out a paper ballot and feed it into a scanning machine with a locked collection bin. An electronic count is available almost immediately with paper backups in case a recount is needed. It’s a reliable system. That system was NOT used last night. Last night’s caucuses were run and results tabulated by volunteers from the political parties. They only do this once every four years. It shows.

This is a system ripe for change. The election cycle is far too long. The caucus system is antiquated. Iowa has no particular business being the first in the nation. Let’s try shortening campaign windows. Let’s have just a handful of primary election days on the schedule, with multiple states participating each time. Let’s have ranked choice voting. (Oh, let’s also make sure everyone has access to vote and encourage as much voting participation as we can.) We can do better.

Journalism I’m Supporting, January 2020

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Good journalism is one of those things everybody wants to have available to benefit from, but fewer are interested in paying for. I’m hardly a paragon of virtue in this regard, but I have gotten to the point where there are several journalistic establishments or efforts that I’m happy to support via paid subscriptions. Currently that list includes (in alphabetical order):

The Athletic
I’ve known this one was around for a while, but finally bit the bullet after reading a couple really excellent articles for free. Really solid sports journalism. Something interesting to read pretty much every day.

The Atlantic
Middle-of-the road current events writing and opinion. My digital subscription includes a subscription to the monthly print edition. I counted it success this week when I actually finished reading last month’s issue within the same week that the new issue was delivered. Thoughtful stuff, worth my time.

Let me just interject here that these first two have excellent iOS apps, but dang if their app icons don’t both just feature large capital ‘A’s. At least a little bit confusing.

I mean, really…

The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
My local daily newspaper. Independently owned, which is a rarity these days. There are only so many newsworthy things to write about in a city of 150,000 people, but I’m happy to put some dollars to supporting their efforts.

Iowa Public Radio
I’ve been a low-grade supporter of IPR for several years now. There are pretty much only 3 things that ever get played on my car radio (at least when it’s under my control): podcasts, Cubs baseball, and IPR.

Popular Info by Judd Legum
Less of an establishment pick here. Judd Legum is an independent journalist who publishes Popular.Info, a newsletter focused on accountability specifically for Facebook and how Facebook handles political topics and advertising. He’s been able to make enough noise in some rather egregious situations that Facebook has been forced to respond and make changes. It’s hard to underestimate the impact that Facebook is having on our national political conversation, so I’m glad to have somebody poking at it on the regular.

The Washington Post
I want to have access to one of the major national newspapers of record. I’ve subscribed to both the Post and The New York Times at various times, but the Post has tended to provide more stories I was really interested in and less times when I wanted to throw my phone across the room while reading. (Thankfully the NYT crossword app can be subscribed to separately!)

Slow Reading

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After reading more than 80 books in 2019, there’s a part of me that is getting a little squirmy knowing that it’s two weeks into January and I haven’t completed a single book yet this year. But there’s a good reason for that. (It’s not that I haven’t been reading…)

I’ve had Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age on my radar (and my Kindle) for a couple years now. Several of the popular-level books I’ve read in recent years have drawn on him heavily, leading me to believe I should really dig in and give him a shot myself. I’ve tried starting the book twice before, both times giving up about half-way through the introduction.

A Secular Age is not for the faint of heart. It’s nearly 900 pages long, with a vocabulary that makes me thankful for the Kindle’s built-in dictionary and Wikipedia lookups. I feel like I’ve worked hard reading it and I just passed the 50% mark. But it’s been worth the time and effort.

Taylor observes that between the years 1500 and 2000 we as a Western society have moved from a culture in which it was almost impossible to not believe in God and see a strong overlap between the physical and spiritual realms, to a culture in which it’s not abnormal to have an entirely secular perspective on the universe and dismiss the spiritual altogether. A Secular Age is his attempt at telling the story of how we got there, and it has provided some fascinating insights.

So, maybe I’ll only finish one book in January. But I’m OK with that. The goal is learning, not just consumption.

2019 Reading in Review

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The beginning of a new year means a quick look back first at last year’s reading in review. (Some people put these lists out at the end of the year… I’m still adding books to the list until the very end, so New Year’s Day it is!) I’ve posted a few compendiums (compendia?) through the year and highlighted some favorites as I went, so I’ll just do a brief wrap-up here.

My 2019 reading is all logged over on Goodreads (as is everything I’ve read since 2007!). Somehow I got through 82 books in 2019 – the most I’ve ever read in a year. 33 of those were fiction… which left a lot of non-fiction, mostly theology and history. I read 23 by female authors this year, which is more than previous years, though not quite as many as I had hoped to get to.

Favorite fiction of the year:

  • Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
  • Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin

Favorite non-fiction of the year:

  • A Song for Nagasaki by Paul Glynn
  • In The Shelter: Finding a Home in the World by Padraig O Tuama
  • Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade
  • What Is A Girl Worth? by Rachael Denhollander
  • God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador by Kathryn T. Long
  • Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ by Cynthia Long Westfall 
  • Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas

For 2020 I’d really like to find a little more fiction that engages me. I’ve picked up several novels this year only to have them completely fail to capture my interest enough to go on with them. I have a plenty big pile of unread books next to my bed and on my Kindle to work through.

Alternately, I could probably spend the whole year just reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest… and chase it with something really long from N. T. Wright. 

Here’s to another year of reading!

Knives Out

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Took the family to see Rian Johnson’s latest film, Knives Out, this afternoon. I know Johnson is a big-name filmmaker at this point – writing and directing an episode of the Star Wars franchise will do that for you. But I still feel like I knew him back when, thanks to the guys on the Filmspotting podcast championing his work from the very beginning. Having watched Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper, I had a good feeling about The Last Jedi, and when Knives Out was announced, I was ready to buy tickets immediately.

Knives Out is Johnson’s take on the whodunnit genre, a la Agatha Christie. That means to avoid spoilers I shouldn’t really say anything more about it. But I have a few non-spoilery thoughts.

First: Rian Johnson is a master of taking genre movies bending the genre ever so slightly for a knowing audience. He did it with film noir in Brick, and with time travel movies in Looper. Suffice to say he does it again masterfully here in Knives Out.

Second: That closing shot is the best I’ve seen in years. It’s just perfect.

Finally: now knowing how it ends, I really want to go watch it again to see how much it telegraphed early on that I completely missed. Johnson is careful enough that I doubt there are many (any) loose ends.

Frozen II: A Very 2019 Movie

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It’s been just long enough since the original Frozen came out, and my girls have aged just enough, that we didn’t end up at the theater on opening night for Frozen II. But by Sunday afternoon we decided to brave the horde of preschoolers and their parents. The older two probably felt a little too old for it. The youngest, though, was first in line to get in the theater door, and was on the edge of her seat in excitement for the whole show.

Frozen II is quite clearly a Disney mega-picture. More of what worked from the first one: comical Olaf the snowman; genial Kristof voicing his reindeer’s thoughts; the briefest cameo from Oaken who has exited the spa and is now giving manicures. The new songs weren’t as catchy as those from the original –  they felt much more like Broadway narrative than tidy pop songs. Frozen II isn’t the timeless classic that its predecessor was, but it is very much a movie for our time – a very 2019 movie.

(Spoilers to follow…)

Let’s start with the main plot of the movie. Elsa discovers that her grandfather brought modern technology (in this case, a river dam) to the indigenous northern peoples only to betray them. Two generations later, that technology is ruining the land and imprisoning the people who live there. Elsa and Anna determine the only solution is to tear down the dam, regardless of the potential cost to their city. Can you hear the echoes of our growing American recognition of the evils of Columbus and the slave trade?

Then there’s dear, naive Olaf, singing about how he’s young now and the world doesn’t make sense, but that he’s so glad it’ll make more sense when he gets older. Yeah, Olaf, keep hoping.

If the grim hopelessness of a confusing world gets too tough, don’t worry – there’s 4 minutes of humor and irony directly ahead. Kristof needs a song too, after all. What he gets is a send-up of every late 80’s power ballad music video ever, complete with the fade-ins and -outs, shadowy reindeer backup singers, and soulful guitar solos.  This scene is going to seem dated pretty quickly as the movie ages, but for now the irony is thick and aimed directly at the parents who will sit through this thing a million times once it comes to Disney+.

Perhaps the most helpful and hopeful theme from Frozen II is another thought aimed right at the heart of 2019. Through the movie, both Anna and Elsa come upon situations that seem bigger than they can handle. They want to solve problems but the problems seem insurmountable. Whatever should they do? And then the old wisdom comes to them: “do the next right thing”. You may not be able to see the end yet. But look around for the right thing to do… and do it. Overly simplistic? Maybe. But maybe not terrible advice for citizens of 2019, either.

I came home from Frozen II thankful that there’s no equivalent to “Let It Go” to become the soundtrack in our house for the next year. (And also realizing I should show my kids a Richard Marx video so they get the spoof.) At a cinema where the adjoining screens were showing a woke remake of Charlie’s Angels and a movie about Mr. Rogers, Frozen II fits right in as a product of, and a message for, an audience weary of 2019.

2019 Reading, Compendium #5

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A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon by Craig D. Allert
See my prior review here.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
A quick engaging read. But honestly, Bryson’s prose is so breezy and clever that I’m inclined to distrust it.

Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll
A knowledgeable, detailed overview of the CIA’s involvement in those regions over the past decade. Interesting stuff. Also annoying that the author and his editor apparently believed it to be necessary to include the periods in abbreviating Central Intelligence Agency as “C. I. A.” every single time it appeared in the book. Every. Single. Time.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
Equal parts Stephen King and Michael Crichton. Really entertaining dystopian sci-fi/horror.

In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World by Pádraig Ó Tuama
Oh man, this one was good. Ó Tuama is an Irish poet and student of the New Testament with remarkable compassion and insight.

The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch
Not bad, but not as groundbreaking as all my Twitter folks made it out to be. Practical advice, though.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
A classic memoir and philosophical text by a Holocaust survivor.

Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor by Jana Riess
Rachel Held Evans (RIP *sniff*) did it better.

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
Dystopian YA where the twist is that blacks are the race in power and whites are just gaining their freedom. Not as much done with that twist as there should’ve been if that’s the key conceit of the novel, but it wasn’t bad.

The Kremlin Strike by Dale Brown
Sometimes you just gotta go for mindless entertainment.

The Overstory by Richard Powers
Mindless entertainment this one was not. A curiously-crafted novel with short stories that provide background for the main characters who drive the second half of the novel. All about trees. Yes, trees. Oh, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was shortlisted for the Man Booker.

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
A spy story written from the perspective of a female spy in the 1980s. Strong start, wanders and gets boring in the back half.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
An epic generational tale starting in 1920s Japan and Korea. Very enjoyable storytelling.

Scythe by Neal Shusterman
This was a really fun YA novel. In the near future, human suffering and death has been eliminated. To avoid population overgrowth, a special group of people are chosen as “scythes”, tasked with killing a certain number of people every year. Moral dilemmas ensue. I want to read the next book in the series!

The Fifth Column by Andrew Gross
Fairly basic adventure novel set in 1940’s New York focused on German spies living in the USA. Quick, light read.

Letters to a Young Catholic by George Weigel
I’m not Catholic, and I’m not that young. But Wiegel’s collection of “letters” on various topics of interest to the Catholic church were an interesting perspective for a Protestant like me.

In The Shelter: Naming the Gadarene Demoniac

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I’m currently reading Pádraig Ó Tuama‘s wonderful In the Shelter: Finding a Home In the World. His reading of this bit of the story about the Gadarene Demoniac from Mark 5 took my breath away:

Jesus asks him what his name is. The man answers:

‘ My name is Legion, for we are many.’

This can be read in so many ways. The word ‘legion’ is a militaristic word, and the Roman legion who had decamped to this particular geographic area bore the boar as their standard on their banners. This answer of the anonymous man can also be understood simply, and powerfully, as an indication of the dignity of language.

‘What is your name?’ he was asked. And he answered, ‘I am what has afflicted me.’ How many of us know the truth of this? When we are towards the end of ourselves, we begin to believe that we are only what we struggle with. The man here tells us a truth that is awful – we baptise ourselves with names that are far from the only truth about ourselves.

What a beautiful lesson here – that what is true about each of us is far more than the struggles that we so often identify with. I am far more than my sin or my worry or my illness. I am a beloved child of God, and Jesus sees, and calls me to see, that truth transcending my afflictions.