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Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Brief History of Western Civilization and Its 20th Century Suicide

@ 2100 BC Abram becomes Abraham, covenants with God.

@ 2000 BC forward: Abraham's grandson Jacob's name is changed to Israel, he fathers 12 sons, including Levi, Joseph (father of Manasseh and Ephraim) and Judah, who become the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

@ 1450 BC forward: Moses liberates the Israelites from Slavery in Egypt and delivers the Ten Commandments, Torah written.  Old Testament begins to be written.

@1010 forward:  King David reigns in Jerusalem. First Temple in Jerusalem built.

931 BC King Solomon dies. Israel splits into two kingdoms.

721 BC Assyria conquers the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its Ten Tribes.  The remaining Israelites in the southern Kingdom surrounding Jerusalem, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and the Temple Levites, eventually come to be known as the Jews. Further Old Testament histories written, which will become the fundamental narratives of the Western World until the 1960s A.D.  Implicit in these histories is the idea that history is not merely circular, but progresses and advances; that God created humans; that God is our Father, and that individual humans therefore have divine individual worth and purpose.

480 BC Greece's unlikely victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, after an earlier, similarly implausible victory at Marathon, paves the way for Greece's Golden Age, and makes a future Western Civilization version of Europe, rather than an Eastern or Zoroastrian version, possible.

@ 320 BC Aristotle produces the Nicomachean Ethics, describing the virtues based on the reasonably ascertainable purpose or end (telos) of a man. Though based on reason, rather than revelation, Greek philosophy implicitly agrees with the religion of Israel that human beings are created and have, in philosophic terms, the ability to instantiate their rationally discernible purpose, or, in religious terms, the ability to fulfill the measure of and reason for their creation.  This idea of man having a purpose, or telos, will remain central to Western thought until it is challenged by philosophers during the Enlightenment, and by the masses in the 1960s AD.

@146 BC Rome conquers Greece but adopts Hellenic philosophy as its governing culture.

@146 BC Rome destroys Carthage.  This lack of external opposition proves unfortunate to Roman unity, and leads to class strife and internal disunion at Rome.

23 BC After crossing the Rubicon, Julius Caesar establishes a military dictatorship. The Roman Republic becomes the Roman Empire, led by military dictators beginning with Julius Caesar, and then Augustus Caesar, giving us the name of the 7th and 8th months, and establishing the basic plotline of George Lucas's Star Wars movies.

April 6 (March 25 on the Julian Calendar) of @ year 1 AD: Jesus born.

@ 30 AD  Jesus teaches the Sermon on the Mount, which becomes the fundamental text of Christianity until the Nicene Creed, and which teaches that we should address God, in prayer, as our Father.  Christ's other teachings include the Golden Rule, to do unto others as we would have done unto us.  Christ teaches his followers to spread Christianity through evangelism, not the sword.  They sometimes get that right. 

@ 33 AD Jesus crucified and resurrected.

@ 36 AD forward: Paul's conversion and ministry.

70 AD Romans sack Jerusalem. Jewish Diaspora begins.

70 AD to 300 AD Christianity spreads throughout Roman Empire. 

1 AD to 500 AD Basic elements of Judeo-Christian Western Civilization fused together, including the three-legged stool of Judeo-Christian Biblical Religion, Greek Philosophy and democratic ideals, and Roman Law.

312 AD Constantine gives Christianity favored status in Roman Empire.

325 AD Nicene Creed.  Creedal Christianity replaces biblical/revelatory Christianity.  But on the bright side, establishes and maintains (with some unfortunate losses) the essence of the Bible, which becomes a guiding text of Western Civilization until the 1960s.

476 AD Fall of the Western Half of the Roman Empire.

610 AD forward: Establishment of Islam and Publication of the Koran.  Islamic Jihad spreads the religion of Mohammed throughout the East via the sword.  Soon the religion and its Jihadists come to a Europe struggling to move from the dark ages to the middle ages.

732 AD Charles Martel (Charles the Hammer) wins the battle of Tours against Islamic Jihadist invaders, making the continued existence of a Judeo-Christian Biblical Europe possible.

1265-1274 AD Thomas Aquinas writes the Summa Theologica, incorporating Aristotelian Philosophy with Roman Catholicism.  The idea of man's and nature's telos, or designed purpose, remains central to Western thought. 

1400-1900 Western Civilization's 500 year great rise, from the Middle Ages to world supremacy: Increasingly technologically superior Europeans begin to migrate to, colonize, and settle throughout the world, spreading Western languages, religions, and philosophies with them.

1350-1400 Italian Renaissance.

1453 Fall of the Byzantine Empire (i.e., fall of the Eastern half of what was once the Roman Empire).

1492 Spain ousts the Moors.  Columbus discovers what Europeans regard as the New World.

1492 forward: European colonization of the New World.

1517 Martin Luther posts the 95 Theses. Protestant reformation begins.

1588 England defeats the Spanish Armada.  Spain in decline.  England and France in ascendance.

1750 to 1850: The Age of Enlightenment.  Scientific Method replaces religion as dominant method for understanding the world. Reason displaces revelation.

1776: America's Declaration of Independence

1789: America's Constitution and Bill of Rights.

1830: Restoration of Biblical / Revelatory Christianity.

1830: Pure and precious truths removed from the Bible are restored through the publication of the Book of Mormon.

Late 1800s.  Educated Europeans cease believing in God and cease believing in any telos.  The entire premise of Western Civilization, which has guided Western thought for 2,500 years, namely, Aristotle's telos, and revealed religion's belief in a Creator who created us for a divine purpose, which allows us to fulfill the measure (or telos) of our creation, is replaced by a worldview in which human beings have no telos, and are no more than a part of a natural order which can be entirely explained through causes and effects which are completely haphazard and natural and non-directed, and are not the result of any outside agency or design, but which have no design, purpose, or meaning. (On the bright side, the Enlightenment does eventually give us a cure for Polio, put a man on the moon, and allow us to livestream Netflix and play videogames with really cool graphics--whether these advances are worth the cost shall, however, remain highly debateable.)

1886.  Nietzsche announces that God is Dead, because educated people don't believe in him anymore, and publishes Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche's basic philosophy, which comes to be adopted by most of Western Civilization is predicted and summarized in 2 Nephi 2:13 and Alma 30:17. It is the polar opposite of anything written in Aristotle, the Hebrew Bible, Summa Theologica, or the Book of Mormon. There is no telos.  Therefore, there is no virtue.  Therefore, there is no good or evil, only power, and those who are willing to obtain it.  Nietsche predicts the coming violence which will shake Western Civilization as it moves into a new phase of history based on his philosophy, and the total eclipse of all values represented thereby. 

Late 1800s to early 1900s.  Western man, having rejected God, tries to "find something other than God which will make him happy." (C.S. Lewis.) Various alternatives are proposed, including fascism, nationalism, socialism, Marxism, Fabianism, Nazi-ism, etc.  G.K. Chesterton points out that it is the doctrines of Christianity which have allowed freedom and liberty to be enjoyed in the West, and that none of these isms will credibly replace it.  But despite being a best-selling author, his critics do better in the polls.

1914: The new isms which have replaced God begin a war, and the post-Enlightenment, non-telos believing Europeans go to the "Great War" with each other, thus beginning Western Civilization's post-Enlightenment 20th Century suicide, in a culture beyond good and evil, enjoying the total eclipse of all values.

1916: Millions of Europeans slaughter each other in the Battle of the Somme, and other WWI battlefields, using the weaponry made possible by their own advanced technologies, thus continuing Western Civilization's post-Enlightenment 20th Century suicide.

1918.  The Great War ends.  The unfair treaties imposed upon the losing nations set the stage for:

1939-1945: WWII, which continues Western Civilization's post-Enlightenment 20th Century suicide.  The Great War is renamed "WWI".  Millions of Europeans are never born, because their fathers and grandfathers never returned from the battlefields of WWI and WWII to start a family.  How this impacted 

1948: Iron curtain descends.  Israel established.  UN Created.  Post-WWII international monetary system established, and the other elements are put in place for:

1948 -1989 The Cold War.

1956-2015.  War - weary atheist Europeans trade in Christianity for socialism and stop having children, thus continuing Western Civilization's post-Enlightenment 20th Century suicide. They soon realize that being cradle-to-grave dependents of the State requires workers and that they don't have enough workers, since they stopped having children.  Thus they look to neighboring countries where men and women are still procreating, from which new workers can be imported, and they then begin inviting massive numbers of Muslims, who are still having children, into their countries.  The ancient Greek soldiers who fought at Salamis and Marathon roll over in their graves. Thus continues the 20th Century post-Enlightenment suicide of Western Civilization.

1960s: The stupidest implications of the non-telos world take root in the Sexual Revolution.  Between 1960 and 2010, America will see its out-of-wedlock birth rate rise from 5% to almost 50%.  Welfare spending explodes in response to (and as one of the causes of) this phenomenon.

1970 to 1979.  America's welfare rules subsidize illegitimacy.  Illegitimacy rates continue to rise.  Weird.

1973: Roe v. Wade

1980: God gives America one last chance.  Reagan elected.

1989: Reagan's policies win the Cold War, usher in 25 years of economic prosperity.  Americans celebrate by resuming and continuing the stupidity of the 1960s.

1996.  Tom Wolfe publishes his article, "Sorry but your soul just died" in which he predicts that some new Nietzsche will soon arrive to announce that agency is dead, as educated human beings no longer believe in free will.  It's a telos free world indeed.  Wolfe also predicts that the world-war era violence which shattered the world as it descended into an "eclipse of all values" once it stopped believing in God, is nothing like the coming eclipse of all values which will descend upon us once we stop believing in our own agency. So we have that to look forward to.  

1992-2000: News media make sure Bill Clinton gets the credit for the Reagan policies which continue to bear economic fruit throughout the 1990s, which credit Clinton uses as cover to sexually exploit women while keeping his poll numbers up.  The same feminists who regard Clarence Thomas as a sexual predator for having allegedly once used the phrase "pubic hair" in front of a woman, love Clinton despite the number of women who credibly accuse him of sexual assault and rape.  They also love his wife, who is in charge of the goon squads which silence and intimidate his victims. Go figure.  It's a telos-free world.  The only thing that matters, as Nietzsche or Korihor would say, is power.  One Time Magazine reporter, Nina Burleigh, explains that she'd be happy to give Bill Clinton oral sex just to thank him for keeping abortion legal.  This may seem an odd statement for a woman who describes herself as a feminist, and therefore allegedly pro-woman, to make.  But remember, it's a telos free world.

September 11, 2001.  World Trade Center and Pentagon attacked by Muslim terrorists.  Americans learn that history has not ended after all. Worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.

2000 to 2010: Massive immigration from third world allows the electorate in America to be transformed from the type of electorate which would vote for Reagan, into the type of electorate which would vote for Obama.  Twice.  The pitch to immigrants apparently goes something like this: "Come to America.  We are more prosperous than the country you are fleeing.  But you don't understand why, do you?  Good: Once you get here, vote for the same policies that made your home country a third-world hell-hole.  They will magically work here, even though they didn't work in your home country."  This sales pitch apparently works, not just for immigrants, but also for America's own citizens, most of whom are too uneducated to have the slightest idea of why America works and Venezuela doesn't.  Some blame Teachers' Unions for the ignorance of the American electorate.  Others blame Videogames and Netflix.

2012.  Sam Harris publishes "Free Will" fulfilling Tom Wolfe's prediction, and announcing that agency and free will are illusions.  Thus, argues Harris, violent murderers and rapists should not be held accountable for their conduct, as they had no choice but to act the way they did.  Republicans, however, who continue to believe in free will, should be held accountable for holding such a dangerous belief.  Apparently, this lack of accountability thing can only be extended so far.  Which leads us to the "total eclipse of all values" which Tom Wolfe said would come next . . . . 

2013.  Schuette decision upholds the equal protection clause, and rules that, despite the U.S. Supreme Court's case law allowing affirmative action as an exception to the equal protection clause, States are not mandated to discriminate against white males.  The Obama appointed Justices, however, dissent, and, led by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, argue that the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution mandates that white males be discriminated against by State governments.  Welcome to the total eclipse of all values. 

2015: The Obergefell Decision.  The Supreme Court puts an exclamation mark on the sexual revolution, which has done so very much good in the world, and furthers the total eclipse of all values, while officially announcing the era of the Post-Christian West, by announcing that men and women are indistinguishable and interchangeable; that the pre-political institution of marriage is a creation of the federal government; and that the authors of the 14th Amendment secretly included a provision, in invisible penumbra ink which only the very wise can see, mandating that every State in the Union recognize the union of a man and a man as a marriage.  And also that a tail is a leg and a triangle can have four sides if the Supreme Court says so.  And also that children don't fare best with both a mom and a dad and anyone who says otherwise is guilty of a hate crime.  The citizens of the nation react by enthusiastically telling each other: "The emperor is fully clothed!  No, really, he is, he is!" "You don't see his clothes?"  "You must not be as virtuous as me.  You must be a bigot.  Come now, just agree with me that the naked emperor has clothes on, and you can be virtuous too!"

2016.  The Governments of Europe allow a million Muslim refugees to enjoy residency within their borders.  Thus continues the post-Enlightenment suicide of Western Civilization in Europe.  Charles Martel and the soldiers he fought with at Tours roll over in their graves.  Some of the Muslims have a deeper sense of irony, and a longer view of history, than the European Governments have.  They resume their jihad, which was not, after all, ended by Charles the Hammer, but merely delayed and interrupted for all these inconvenient centuries.  They begin to terrorize the local populace, secure in their understanding that European societal suicide continues apace, and that the future belongs to the fertile.

2016.  Even as socialist economies the world over, from Venezuela to Greece, are collapsing, millions of American Millennials enthusiastically embrace the candidacy of an American Socialist, who runs on a platform of "What has never worked anywhere, will surely work just fine here."  Americans are not sure where blame should be placed for the utter idiocy of their Millennials.  Some blame the Teachers Unions.  Others blame Netflix and videogames. 

2016.  Americans' two major political parties nominate for the office of the Presidency the two worst and most unqualified and corrupt and narcissistic candidates in the history of the Republic. Many are baffled as to how this could have happened.  Personally, I blame cable television. And Nietzsche.   There is no telos, and therefore all that matters is power.

2024. U.S. Constitution amended by the U.S. Supreme Court to guarantee free food, free healthcare, free minimum income payable by the government for all citizens, and free education through graduate school to all Americans.

2030.  China demands that all future U.S. debts be secured, via deeds of trust against federal and state owned property, U.S. military equipment, and all U.S. and state infrastructure.  President Michelle Obama reluctantly agrees, as there is no way to keep her campaign promises of  honoring the new constitutional amendments for free stuff and a minimum income, without running up additional debt, which China will no longer grant on an unsecured basis.

2032.  Chief Justice Sotomayor announces, under the now prevailing doctrines she first described in her Schuette dissent, that the equal protection clause requires that only non-whites will be allowed to vote in the next several elections, until further notice.

2036: Chelsea Clinton, although not herself allowed to vote, wins the nomination of her party (known as the Black Lives Matter Party) for the White House by promising to give the Southwestern United States, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah, back to Mexico.  

2046: China forecloses on the $125 trillion in U.S. Debt which it holds. Allows America limited sovereignty but only over its own domestic affairs.  Takes over all military equipment, all national parks, all infrastructure, and all federal lands.

2075.  The West is dead.  Europe is 90% Muslim.  America is still allowed some degree of political sovereignty by China, which is exercised under the control of a single political party known as the "Black Lives Matter" party, which holds regular public executions of white police officers.  The history of the rise and fall and death of Western Civilization would make for a fascinating book.  But no one cares enough to write it, let alone to read it.   What's on Netflix?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

How to Travel to Switzerland




Since returning from my LDS Mission in Switzerland 25+ years ago, I have always had the dream of one day returning, and experiencing that beautiful country again, with my wife.  Last month, we were able to accomplish this life-time dream not only together, but with our children.  Here's a how to list for anyone wanting to make a similar trip.

Step 1. Save Your Money.  Switzerland can be an expensive country to visit.  Give yourself some time to save up for a trip. 15 or 20 years should be more than enough.  It will help if, during those years, you avoid money pits: so try not to buy a boat, dig a pool, or build a cabin.  Just remember: experiences, not things.

Step 2. Know Your Miles-Earning Credit Cards.  This only helps, of course, if you actually pay your cards down quickly after using them, so the offsetting interest doesn't take away your savings.  But if you are in a position to do that, travel points can be very helpful.  We liked the Capital One Venture Card, which is fairly simple to use, and isn't tied into any particular airline or hotel chain.  You earn points for your purchases, and you can use those points to erase travel expenditures from your invoice.  You can do this after the fact, so you don't have to jump through any special hoops to buy your tickets using your points or anything like that. Just pay for your tickets, or hotel rooms or whatever, using your card, and then call in or go online and apply any points you have on hand to reducing the charge of those items.  Easy peasy.  We were able to shave off quite a bit of money from our airfare costs using these points, after we had bought the tickets but long before we actually even left.  The Venture Card is also handy to use overseas, as it is chip enabled, and thus valid for use abroad, and doesn't charge any transaction fees when you use it overseas.

Step 3. Know Your Low-cost Air Carriers.  One of the reasons we even thought about going to Switzerland was because we learned in December of some incredible airfare rates, for tickets direct from Las Vegas to Stockholm Sweden, for less than $215.00, which were being offered on Norwegian Air, at Norwegian.com, in May and early June.

http://www.norwegian.com/us

In addition to Norwegian, Iceland Air apparently has some very competitive rates to Europe as well at the moment.  Our travel dates didn't coincide with these great rates in both directions, as we traveled back home after the rates had bumped up, but still, the trip over there was cheap enough for us to afford the trip back, and even the return fares were really pretty decent all things considered. Once we had arrival dates in Stockholm, finding inter-European flights (we went with SAS) wasn't too bad.  The round-trip was still far cheaper than anything I was able to find with a single airline on expedia.com at the time of our booking, and was lower than flights available at Expedia with much longer or more stops. One word of warning if you do it this way though, as opposed to booking with the same airline: This meant we had to go get our one checked bag and re-check ourselves, and it, in at the Stockholm Airport, for the second leg of our flight. When our Norwegian flight left 1.5 hours late, I was pretty nervous about whether we would make our connecting flight. It turned out fine (the plane didn't arrive as late as it left, and the second flight was late too), but still: if you aren't booking on the same airline that will have to accommodate you if one leg of your journey is late, give yourself a few hours' cushion between anticipated landing and the take-off for that connecting flight.  

-- TIPS FOR FLYING:

-I never understood the logic of the U-Shaped travel pillow until I tried to sleep on the 10 hour flight from Las Vegas to Stockholm.  But the logic becomes very clear once you are trying to sleep sitting almost upright on a tightly packed airplane and the heaviness of your own head, unsupported, keeps you from being able to do so.  I bought one at the airport before getting on the flight home.  Worth every penny.
- Your flight may just have plugs under the seat to allow you to keep your phone or laptop charged while you are underway.  Ours did but I didn't realize this until the trip home.  Would have saved me the weight of the portable charger I brought along had I known this beforehand.
- If you leave in the evening and arrive at your destination in the evening, you'll find that you get a really good night sleep upon your arrival, as you probably didn't sleep terrifically fantastic on the flight.  You'll wake up the next morning on the new time schedule without any real jetlag issues. We arrived in the evening both going over and coming back and this worked out really, really, well. Otherwise, try not to sleep when you first arrive, so your first night's sleep will get you on the right schedule and past your jetlag.

Step 4.  Don't Delay Getting Your Kids' Passports.  If your children don't have passports, you'll want to get them sooner rather than later.  The process is sure to make you need therapy.  So plan ahead for that cost.  Here's how it works.  Go online to find the phone number for scheduling appointments at a local post office.  You'll need to find a date and time when both you, and your minor children, and your spouse, can all be there together.  You know, to make sure no one's going to start some international child custody battle. Once you've found a few possible dates (because how hard is that for any of us, really, to find a weekday when we and our kids and our spouse can all be at the same place at the same time during working hours) call that number.  It will be busy. Then call again several times until you get a recording telling you that all of their operators are now busy.  Wait on the line until you realize you weren't put on hold, but were just hung up on.  Wake up early the next morning and call first thing for several minutes in a row until you get through to an actual human being.  They will schedule an appointment for you for three weeks out, at a post office on the other side of town. Three weeks later, the evening before your appointment, you'll get a voice-mail informing you that no one is available tomorrow at the office where you booked your appointment, so you'll have to book another appointment instead.  The person who leaves this message won't leave their name or their phone number, so you'll just have to start the whole process over again.  Also, the person who leaves this message won't bother to inform you that the reason no one will be at the post office tomorrow to handle your appointment is that there is a passport fair going on at the local scout office, and all of the workers will be there, where you could be too if she bothered to inform you of that fact.  Start the process over. Then find out from a friend's cousin that the local clerk's office does this without an appointment.  Go by to check this rumour out and find it isn't true any more.  Then find out through another cousin's friend's nephew that the Henderson City Clerk's Office offers passport services without an appointment.  Why a municipal office is able to handle this federal function better than a federal post office is a question it is best not to contemplate.  Show up on the first day of Spring break, a half an hour early, at the Henderson City Clerk's Office, which is not even where you live and is 45 minutes away from your home.  Sign in.  Wait for 3 hours because of all the people who got there even earlier than you and signed in ahead of you.  Fill out the forms and voila, the Henderson City Clerk will send in your kids' passport applications to the Federal Government for you. See how easy that was?  No wonder our Federal Government is so universally admired. 


Step 5.  Know Your Exchange Rates.  One of the reasons I always considered a trip to Switzerland to be prohibitively expensive was that the exchange rate was, for decades, fairly ridiculous, costing perhaps up to $2.30 or more for every 1.00 Swiss Frank, such that (as the two currencies are roughly equivalent in purchasing power, but Switzerland is expensive anyway), a hotel room would cost an American more than twice as much as the already fairly steep price. Switzerland has not adopted the Euro, but the exchange rate with the USD has improved substantially for U.S. travelers in recent years, with the two currencies having recently come to hover near each other in value.  Still, it's worth looking at the trending before you travel, to decide whether you want to reserve or pay now for some of your anticipated expenses. Also, once you are in the country, you'll often be asked by the card reader whether to pay either in CHF (the Swiss currency, CHocolate Franks) or USD.  I always assumed the USD option had merchant processing fees attached and went with the CHF, which was typically a smaller number; but its good to be able to do some quick math if you are making a larger purchase, to know what your USD is actually going to look like on your credit card bill.  Otherwise, if you want certainty, you can pick the USD option righ then.  So have a website handy on your smartphone for looking at the rates. Google's search engine can be used as an exchange rate calculator automatically if you just type in CHF USD Exchange Rate.  Also, it's a great idea to find a major branch of your bank that offers monetary exchanges, and get some CHF to have on hand before you go, so you'll have some CHF Franks in your wallet upon your arrival.  You'll want this real money for some purchases, as not every location accepts cards, and sometimes paying in bills is just handier.  Also, if your credit card or ATM card charges you transaction fees for foreign purchases, you'll want to use cash (or find a card that does not charge such fees).

Step 6.  Brush Up on Your German.  After slogging through a few lessons on FluentU, and making my family suffer through a couple of examples of incredibly depressing German cinema on Netflix, I finally discovered what I consider to be the perfect way to remember a language you used to know how to speak.  It's called "Easy German" and it's available on Youtube.  Each episode consists of man in the street interviews in a city in Germany, with subtitles in both English and German.  The German subtitles correct any German that wasn't spoken correctly by a local dialect user or foreign visitor.   Watching a few of these videos was perfect for helping my mind click back into a German gear which was still in there somewhere, and for remembering the basic vocabulary of conversational Deutsch. The videos are brief and fun to watch and don't give you the feeling of doing homework. There's also a related video series, without subtitles, in which the host answers viewer questions.  I found that sister series really helpful for building my confidence that yes, I could understand this language still, even without the crutch of pausing to look at the subtitles and remember or learn the meaning of every single word.  

Here's an episode of the easy German show: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFv-YsDi-7A

And of the Viewer questions show: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCnjm1Sgvgo

Step 7.  Know Your Swiss Railway Discount Passes. The Swiss Travel Pass allows you to jump on board almost any train, ship, or gondola in the country, without getting a ticket or a reservation beforehand. Even the handful of pricey touristy rides which are excluded from being free (the final leg of the journey to the Jungfraujoch for example) are half price with the pass, a discount which can substantially pay the value of the entire pass.  Plus, it gets you into every museum in the country (which includes all of the castles) for free.  This is a great benefit if you want the flexibility of popping into a castle or local museum for a couple of hours on a rainy morning, and then heading up to the alps later, or taking a boat ride, when the weather clears up, if that's what the forecast calls for.  Two hours in the museum during the rainstorm is a lot easier to justify if you walked in for free, as opposed to spending so much money for tickets that you feel you need to stay for hours to justify the price.  Plus, if you are travelling with (your own) children under 16 years old, your card will allow them to get a family card junior pass (for free or really cheap), such that they essentially go almost everywhere truly for free. The Swiss Travel Pass can be purchased in various allotments (i.e., 4 day, 8 day, etc., beginning on the first day of use).

If you think of Switzerland as one big giant version of Disneyland (which actually makes a weird kind of sense) and you think of your Swiss Travel Pass as your parkhopper pass for 8 days in Switzerdisneyland, the price of one of these passes will suddenly look extremely reasonable (especially in comparison to an actual 3 day Disney parkhopper ticket). 

Nevertheless: they don't make sense for everyone.  My family didn't buy them because we rented a car, rather than travelling by train, and so we weren't sure they would pay for themselves.  However, we did buy half-fare passes (only available for a 30 day period minimum, but still cheaper than an 8 day Swiss travel pass) to reduce the cost of mountain railways and gondolas and all the other means of transport you are going to end up taking to get yourself onto the alps even after travelling there by car. This allowed our under 16 year old son to get a junior pass travel card to go everywhere by train or ship or gondola for free, for only 30 CHF, which, combined with a couple of our train rides, such as our trip up the Jungfraujoch, or the train ride to car free Zermatt, meant the 1/2-fare pass more than paid for itself pretty quickly. Other railway pass options include regional cards, but these are almost as much as the Swiss Travel Pass, so they really only make sense if you are limiting yourself exclusively to the Luzern area, or the Berner Oberland area, or the Zermatt area. There's also a pass for travelers arriving from a foreign border to travel at a reduced rate while in Switzerland.  

All of these various discount passes are well explained at this site, which includes links to purchase the tickets online from the Swiss Railway System: http://www.myswissalps.com/train/ticketspasses.

The parent site is also a great website for all kinds of general information about travelling to Switzerland.  Questions asked in the forums will typically be answered really quickly: 
http://www.myswissalps.com/ 

Step 8. Reserve an Apartment: Better and Cheaper than a Hotel. Long before Airbnb introduced the concept to Americans, the Europeans discovered vacation apartment rentals as a great way to travel, and not just for beach-houses. They are far, far, less expensive, per day, than a hotel, especially if you are travelling with a larger group of people, and would have to book more than one hotel room.  Indeed, I found that some of the cheapest hotel accommodations I could find for my family at 1 star hotels were still far more expensive per night than a 3 star vacation apartment.  I would highly recommend using this site to find your apartment:

http://chalet.myswitzerland.com/holiday-rentals/ 

It allows you to search by region, city, price, star ranking, and other criteria, such as whether or not the apartment has a washing machine (yes please) or allows pets (no thank you, I have allergies and don't want to stay someplace where a dog was living last week).  Disclaimer: A lot of apartments are available from Saturday to Saturday, with only Saturday as an available arrival/departure date.  So if you plan your travels with that in mind, you'll have more choices than we did.

Our family of 7 ended up staying for 8 out of our 10-nights on the top floor of this chalet on the upper outskirts of Grindelwald, which came with its own kitchen and family room, two bathrooms, one with a bathtub/shower, along with three bedrooms accommodating 2 beds each, and a couple of extra beds in some storage space off of the family room:

It was very gemuetlich, ranked only 3 stars and was therefore fairly inexpensive but still very nice (it was perfectly clean and as or more spacious inside as some more expensive apartments--the furnishings were unspectacular and you had to walk downstairs into a basement area to use the washing machine).  It had a raclette oven and a fondue maker and an ironing board inside, along with a wifi hotspot, none of which had been advertised, and was loaded with brochures and a big binder full of information on local attractions.  It also had a great somewhat separate entryway to hang coats, hats, and umbrellas and luggage.

The landlord only spoke German, which was fine by me as it gave me a chance to put those Easy German Youtube videos to use and I really enjoyed speaking to her in German and learning about her life and adult children and grandchildren who were all still living in the Grindelwald area.  She told us on our first meeting that, in a couple of days, the local cattle owners would be walking their cows past the chalet, on their road up to the higher pastures and we should watch for them from the balcony, and she explained to us how the process worked of deciding which part of the town would walk up their cows at what time, how few cows most locals actually owned, etc.  She was a little bit komish: she wanted us to compost our compostable garbage even though the lid she gave us for her outside compost bucket didn't fit, so we eventually had to find a rock to keep it from being knocked over by local wildlife after that happened one evening; and she wanted us to use the local tax-redeemable garbage bags, but didn't have any on hand such that she said we should look for them ourselves at the local Migros.  And we had to walk down the hill a bit to recycle the stuff that we weren't supposed to either throw away or compost.  My sense is that her son, who lives on the bottom floor, generally deals with the tourists, and is probably more aware of what it is and isn't reasonable to ask a renter to do (by way of providing any bags yourself that you want us to use) but he was away that week. So whatever. Rather than be annoyed, I found interacting with this lady added a lot of color to our trip, and it was interesting to learn about some of these details of daily life in the area. That's what travelling is for, isn't it, as well as life? to collect stories.

Having a central location for 8 nights and not having to pack every day made everything much easier.  After all, everything in Switzerland is fairly reachable by car or train within two or three hours of Grindelwald, which is basically in the middle of the country (although Interlaken would have been a better access point for drives in either direction, the housing there was a little more pricey, or less was available).  And given the unpredictability of the weather, you don't necessarily want too tight of an itinerary anyway.

Step 9. Know Your Swiss Road Signs.  If you rent a vehicle, some things to know.  The Swiss drive on the same side of the road as Americans, the right (aka correct) side. Since it was the Brits who invented Alpine tourism, more so than even the Swiss, maybe that's why train travel is so popular. When travelling by car, you will often see signs directing you to the same destination via different routes.  It's helpful to know the difference: The green signs will take you on a quicker tollroad, similar to an American freeway in its design.  The blue signs will take you on a surface road or scenic route.  So travel by green signs at night or when getting to your destination quickly is more important to you than a scenic journey.   If you rent a vehicle in Switzerland, it should have a sticker on the front windshield with a green tollway sign on it, allowing the vehicle to travel on the toll roads.  This is important to know if your GPS tries to save you money by directing you away from tollroads. If you have the sticker, ignore your GPS's advice and travel by greenway to get there faster.

Speaking of your GPS, I highly recommend getting one when you rent your vehicle.  We didn't but were upgraded in what must have been a slow week at the rental counter.  Or maybe they were nice because I spoke German with the people at the counter and they thought maybe I'd come back again. Having a GPS in the vehicle was fantastic.  First of all, the computerized GPS lady's voice spoke in German.  I'm not sure exactly why, but this made me feel like James Bond, and with my Bond girl wife in the next seat, somehow ignoring the fact that I was in a minivan with my 5 children sitting behind me. I think I was subconsciously referencing a scene in Tomorrow Never Dies when the computerized car voice speaks to Brosnan in a heavy German accent.  


More importantly, the GPS will keep you from using the map app on your phone, thus keeping your smartphone from racking up enormous data roaming fees, especially after that international plan you paid for from your carrier doesn't last nearly as many days as you had anticipated, limiting your smartphone use to wifi hotspots.  Also, for some reason, some of the map apps want to give you directions in miles, instead of kilometers, which is useless when your odomoter doesn't track miles. 

Parking in the cities isn't bad as long as you know where to look.  Find the Bahnhof, there's always a parking garage nearby, which, in the big cities, will be located underground. Look for the blue sign with a large P underneath a slanted line, indicating covered parking.  You'll have to pay for parking, but the rates aren't too bad.

Step 10: Learn How to Use Your DSLR.  Got a Canon Rebel you picked up at Costco a few years ago but have never really learned what all the knobs and buttons do?  Yeah, me too.  But Switzerland was worth honing my photography skills for.  At the very least, learn the basics of aperture mode, so you can take pictures of your kids in front of the Matterhorn, and both the Matterhorn and your kids will be in focus. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmn3K-06YTg


Learning how to use a gopro is a great idea as well, and can inspire you to less passive activities on your trip, with the fisheyed photos and videos giving you a more interesting photographic perspective.  But be careful out there.  I recently read an article indicating that more people now die while taking selfies than die from shark attacks.



Step 11: Ignore Your Well-Intentioned Friends and Relatives, Who Think You Should Go Someplace in Addition to Switzerland While You Are in Europe.

As described in David McCullough's wonderful book Mornings on Horseback, when Theodoore Roosevelt was a young lad, his family did a "grand tour" of Europe.  They spent a year on the continent, and saw all of the sights and experienced all of the experiences that foreign visitors were expected to see and experience.  But at the end, McCullough assures us, they loved Switzerland the best.

Now, ask yourself this question: Do you have the time or the means to spend a year on a grand tour of Europe?  No?  Then why see anything other than the favorite place of those who do: Switzerland?  Besides, everything worth seeing in Europe is in Switzerland.  Want to hang out with snooty French speaking folk?  Go to French Speaking Switzerland.  Want to experience the landscapes of Italy?  Try Bellinzona.  There's a bunch of castles, and it's just like Italy, except its in Switzerland, so its clean and efficient, with trains that run on time, as opposed to being grimy and corrupt, like the real Italy.  Italian - and French speaking Switzerland are sort of like the Epcott versions of Italy and France: the Pizza tastes just as great but you don't feel like your taking your life in your hands if you use a public restroom or spend the night. National Geographic Author Andrew Evans puts it like this, in point 5 of his article "66 Tips to Swiss Bliss": "Tacking on Switzerland as a two-day detour to your European trip to France, Germany and Italy is a serious mistake. Rather, see 'all' of Europe by visiting Switzerland’s four distinct corners. This country is a destination unto itself and deserves the time and attention."  http://digitalnomad.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/31/66-tips-to-swiss-bliss/


Look, I've seen pictures of the Eiffel Tower, and I'm sure it's lovely in real life.  But I'm also sure, and this is a simple matter of mathematics and quantum physics, that a day spent in Paris is also a day NOT spent in the Lauterbrunnen Valley. And if you've come all the way to Europe, why would you NOT want to spend your time in the Lauterbrunnen Valley?  I mean really.  If you could go to Middle Earth, would you head towards Mordor or Rivendell? The Shire or the boggy marshes?



I suppose, if you must see other countries while in Europe, that a visit to Bavaria or Austria would be worth the effort. But go anywhere else, and you are likely to experience the sad fate and trauma of this little girl, who climbed the Church tower in Frankfurt to look for her beloved Swiss alps, only to realize, "you can't see the mountains" from the Frankfurt Church tower:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5T61jTQflc&list=PLEE962F6DCB04344C&index=11

What a sad and moving scene.  Don't let this same tragic fate happen to you.  If you are going to Europe, stick to places where you can see the mountains!


The Eiger, the Moench, and the Jungfrau, scientifically proven to be more awe-inspiring and impressive than the Eiffel Tower, or anything you can see from Frankfurt. Cleaner air too.

Step 12: Bone up on your English and American Literature.
As English is not one of Switzerland's 4 official languages, you might think it an odd place to hunt down literary references from the English-speaking world.  But you'd be wrong.  Much of Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad is set in Switzerland, and today you can hike the Mark Twain trail on the Rigi, following in a few hours the route he humorously described as requiring him several days to ascend in that book.  Or watch the sunrise from the Rigi, as he kept failing to do, as also described in his tome. One of Byron's famous poems, The Prisoner of Chillon, was based on the true story of a famous prisoner of that castle, and in 2016, the 200th anniversary of the poem's publication, the castle was full of displays with references to Byron's poem, as well as to his travels throughout the Berner Oberland.  My above-reference to the Lauterbrunnen Valley as equivalent to Rivendell isn't something I just came up with on my own: Tolkien had enjoyed hiking in Lauterbrunnen, and stated that his Rivendell was based on that valley of waterfalls.  Comparing Tolkien's own paintings of Rivendell with photos of the Lauterbrunnen makes the resemblance really clear.  And the Lonely Mountain clearly looks a lot more like the Matterhorn than like anything in Tolkien's England. 

Step 13: Keep Your Itinerary Highly Flexible, and Know Your Webcam and Weather URLs, So you can Plan Your Days Based on the Weather.  The main reason to go to Switzerland is to see the scenery.  But there's a reason that scenery is so green and beautiful: Rain.  Lots and lots of it, all year round.  Except when there's snow.  Rain brings out the beauty, but it also blocks the beautiful Bergen.

So you'll need to have an itinerary that's flexible enough to allow you to get up in the alps to hike and ride the rodelbahns and zipline and take pictures on the sunny days, with other alternative activities (castles, museums, Beatenberg, Trummelbach falls, oldtowns and cathedrals) planned for the rainy days. Then, you'll want to check tomorrow's weather every evening.  And also check mountaintop webcams in the morning, before finalizing your plans for the day (it doesn't do you much good to have "partly cloudy" weather, if those few clouds are right on top of the Schilthorn the day you want to visit).  And if the forecast only calls for two sunny days in a week, do you really want to be committed to taking the Jungfrajoch on one of the rainy days, and then traipsing around Bern or Gruyeres on the next day, when its sunny and Herrlich up in the alps?  I don't think so.  So keep your plans flexible and your weather and webcam sites handy.  This is also an excellent reason for choosing a vacation rental rather than moving to a new hotel in a new part of the country each evening: it gives you a central location from which to take the best possible day trips depending on the weather.  And if that rental is in your favorite region anyway, central Switzerland or the Jungfrau region or near Zermatt, whatever your personal preference may be, so much the better.

I found Wetter.com to be among the more reliable weather forecast sites.  You can type in any city, and it will give you a three or seven day forecast, if you request that as well, showing expected conditions in the morning, at midday, and in the evening and at night.  The weather in the mountains can be fairly unpredictable, so trying to plan more than a day or two ahead can be pretty difficult, but these morning, midday, and evening forecasts were remarkably prescient, at least when checked no more than a couple of days beforehand, and were always spot on as of the night before.  I would have planned our Luzern day differently, and gotten myself up onto the Rigi in the morning, to wait for the clouds to clear, if I had had more faith in the Wetter.com forecast, which said all the rain and clouds were going to be gone by that afternoon. Still, seeing the mountains from the lake, instead of vice-versa, was nice too.  (Switzerland is usually just the opposite, with morning sunshine giving way to afternoon haze and clouds that block obscure the mountain views, but real rain, as opposed to haze, can have a different pattern.) 

http://www.wetter.com/wetter_aktuell/wettervorhersage/3_tagesvorhersage/schweiz/interlaken/CH0CH1864.html



The Vierwaldstaettersee in the a.m. of June 9, from Kuessnacht, with the Rigi covered in clouds: a rainy morning in and near Luzern, just as Wetter.com had predicted.


Mount Pilatus as seen later that same day from a boat on the Vierwaldstaettersee.  Luzern and its environs are sunny now, in the afternoon, just like Wetter.com said Luzern would be.

Some handy webcams:

http://www.bergfex.com/jungfrau-maennlichen-wengen/webcams/c4692/

http://schilthorn.ch/en/Info/Schilthorn_Live/Livecams

http://www.zermatt.ch/en/Webcams/Gornergrat-3-089-m


Step 14.  Have Fun Dreaming and Planning.

Kev Reynolds has perhaps the best job on earth. He takes people hiking in the alps, during the summer, and gives lectures and writes books about it for British publisher Cicerone Press, during the winter.  

http://www.cicerone.co.uk/product/index.cfm/cid/24/catalogue/switzerland

I didn't actually go on any of the hikes I read about in his books, Walking in the Bernese Oberland, or Tour of the Jungfrau Region, because late snows meant the two or three routes I had bookmarked weren't passable during my June trip.  But I enjoyed the experience of reading through portions of these books before our trip, for its own sake, and the alternate, more difficult, route we had to take from Maennlichen to Kleine Scheidegg was breathtaking. I also made it to a couple of spots I only knew to look for because of perusing these volumes beforehand: including Oeschinensee, a lake I had never heard of before, which ended up being the whole family's favorite day. We went rowboating and rodelbahn riding instead of hiking while we were there, but I wouldn't have even known to look for this spot if Reynolds' book hadn't mentioned that posters and photos don't do it justice, and it must be seen for oneself to be believed. He was right.

So read guidebooks.  Get a Fodors Switzerland.  Order one of the beautifully artistic official government swiss topo hiking maps and pin it up in your den.  Facebook friend the Swiss railway system.  Watch youtube videos of Freizyt TV, a Swiss-German tv show that encourages weekend ausflugs,  https://vimeo.com/135867506,  and do whatever else it takes to get mentally prepared for a great Swiss adventure. 

You may find that planning your trip is almost as fun as being there.


View of the Wetterhorn and the Grindelwald valley from the Romantikweg hike between Maennlichen and Kleine Scheidegg.  What a great day in the alps this turned out to be, made possible by prior planning and earlier daydreaming.

Monday, March 14, 2016

What I Learned at the Movies in 2015


The people who control the news and entertainment media are using their power to send messages they believe will save the world, but which are actually destroying the world in the name of "progress."  Tomorrowland  (Who knew a major U.S. film studio and George Clooney could be this honest about the effects of their liberalism?)

Men are not silent, they just speak in subtitles.  Aloha

There is one thing better than fun.  Purpose.  Aloha

Shepherds with stupid dogs should not live next to a cliff.   Far From the Madding Crowd

It was not intended that men should understand women.  Attempts to do so will lead to madness, imprisonment, or death.  Far from the Madding Crowd

Children always end up safe from attacking dinosaurs.  Jurassic World  (Something in their pheromones perhaps?)

I have no idea how badly I am screwing up my children.  Inside Out

Thor's hammer is not as heavy as it seems.  Avengers Age of Ultron

Upon becoming a Superhero, your first nemesis will always be a villain who has your same superpowers. Ant Man  (See also, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America)

The best way to stop the bad guys is to do the bad guys' job for them by stealing what they want from the good guys and offering it to the bad guys.  Mission Impossible 5  (See also, Mission Impossible 1,2,3, and 4).

It's easier for my mind to understand spoken German if I just listen to the dialogue and ignore the English subtitles.  The Man from Uncle

It will be easier to face an early death if you can say something like: "Tell my family I love what I do and I'm really good at it." The Martian

The physics of the Star Wars galaxy bears no relationship to actual physics. Star Wars, Episode 7

Carrie Fisher shouldn't have picked up that smoking habit.  Star Wars, Episode 7

Follow the mouse.  Spectre

Friday, November 6, 2015

Why my Enthusiasm for Star Wars has Waned

There's a new Star Wars movie coming soon to a movie theater near you and me.  Episode VII.  The Force Awakens in a personified fashion.  I'm sure I'll go see it.  Probably even opening weekend. And, hopefully, I'll really, really, enjoy it.  There's no way my inner 10 year old would ever let me miss it. I was, after all, utterly devoted to the Star Wars movies and the Star Wars universe from the time the first movie came out, in the summer of 77, right before 5th grade, until the day Eddie Brascia and I ditched the rest of our classes after Mrs. Holmes Sophomore English honors class to go watch Return of the Jedi at the Cinedome Theaters, one fine day in May 1983. 

I still remember seeing the first movie for the first time, at the movie theater in the University Mall in Provo Utah, while visiting one of my older siblings at BYU.  When I got back to Vegas, I immediately told all my friends that it was the greatest thing that ever happened, and we all needed to go see it together.  In those pre-multiplex days, it was only playing on one screen in town, at the Maryland Parkway Theater on Maryland Parkway and Flamingo, on the largest of its three screens.


After that, it became the mission of our lives to go see that movie as often as we could over the course of that summer.  This was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away, before the existence of VHS, let alone DVD or Netflix.  If you loved a movie and wanted to see it more than once, you needed to see it while it was still in theaters. Otherwise, the assumption was you might never see it again unless you happened to be free the night it was shown, a few years later, on network TV, once. "It'll be out on pristine blu ray video in a few months and you can watch it in surround sound on your wide screen at home?"  No, not our world.


Nevertheless, none of our parents understood the concept of wanting to go back and see a movie again.  "You already know what happens and how it ends." They didn't get it.  This wasn't about how it ends.  It was the ride!  You don't only get on a rollercoaster once because you already know how it ends.  This was a movie that was just fun to experience.  Also, the Maryland Parkway was considered to be "way across town" and not an easy place to convince our moms they should drive us to. So we had to be sneaky.  If any other movie was playing at the Maryland Parkway theater's other two screens, which any of us might have the slightest credible interest in going to see (a Charlie Brown movie maybe?  Um, sure.), we'd get one of our parents to take us, and then we'd all go see Star Wars instead. And if our own parent didn't realize what we'd done yesterday afternoon, and thought we'd been at someone else's house swimming, so we could pull that same stunt again a few days later with a different mom, so much the better.  (We were a diverse group affiliated primarily by neighborhood proximity, whereas our parents had their own friends from outside the neighborhood, and didn't talk to each other much).  Also, if a relative hadn't seen it yet, that was good for another viewing. Grandma wants to do something with me for my birthday?  I know just the thing.  Yes, I even got Ella Carruth, probably approaching 80 at the time, to go see Star Wars, which just might be one of my proudest achievements.  She even brought a friend.  I think I managed to see it more than 12 times that Summer.


And then there was the ancillary merchandise.  We all had the Star Wars double LP (records weren't vintage yet so we didn't know we were supposed to call it vinyl), with the great photos from the movies inside the foldout, and we all became John Williams fans, even before we knew he had done the music to Jaws, let alone that he would be the Meister of soundtracks for every pop culture EVENT movie to be released over the course of the rest of our lives, from Superman through Indy and all the way to Harry Potter.  


We all read the paperback novel, listing George Lucas as the author, but ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, with its mysterious byline ("from the adventures of Luke Skywalker") which suggested more to come, and then, a year or so after that, the sequel novel "Splinter of the Minds Eye."  There was some kind of read-along story one of us bought because it had photographs of a deleted scene, with Biggs on Tatooine.  And the sketch-book, which included Tie Fighter designs not seen in the movie. Then there was the Marvel Comic Book version of the film, which we used as a script to create our own audioplay with a cassette recorder.  It was a great summer.  


And then?  Empire Strikes Back.  Even cooler, in many ways, than the first movie (the opening scrawl, with its "Episode V" title, taught us to start calling the movies episodes, and hinted intriguingly at prequels and sequels galore).  So yes, I'll be going to see Star Wars Episode VII, and hoping for the best.


But my enthusiasm will be tempered.  My hope for a great evening at the movies more cautious than convinced.  A lot has happened since Empire Strikes Back hit the Silver Screen, and much of it has dampened my enthusiasm for the series.  Maybe if Lucas had died, like Robert Jordan, so somebody else had to finish his oeuvre, things would have worked out better.  But alas, he lived to make more movies.  And as he did so, over the years, this, that, or the other, has weakened my love for the series. These quibbles include the following, in no particular order: 


Seven Problems with Star Wars after the Empire Strikes Back.


1.  The Ewoks.  I mostly loved Return of the Jedi, when it first came out, and the chemistry between Luke and Leia and Han was as great as ever.  But then, for the first time in three movies, there were parts of this movie that I really, really didn't like.  Among those parts: the Ewoks.  What a stupid move.  George Lucas's biggest fans were 8 to 12 years old when the first Star Wars movie came out.  We were 14 to 18 now.  This was going to be the last installment for, what, . . . decades? So there was no need to recruit new young fans.  The established fans were teenagers now and we didn't want Teddy Bears in our most beloved sci-fi franchise. And why such fake looking Teddy Bears?  They weren't wearing any loinclothes, yet they didn't seem to need any. Gee, either these creatures have no ability to digest their food, and they reproduce asexually, or they are really just little kids in dumb-looking costumes. And how do they see when they so clearly have fake  taxidermist glass eyes?  The only thing worse was the styro-foamy elephant at the beginning of the movie in Jabba the Hutt's palace.  But only barely.  


2.  Darth Vader's cheap redemption.  I can't remember where I first came across the following analogy, but I'm fairly certain it was in something written by Orson Scott Card: Hitler is about to kill Himmler's son.  To stop him, Himmler kills Hitler.  Now, despite participating in mass genocide, Himmler gets to go to heaven?  For saving his son's life?  Wouldn't pretty much anyone save their own son's life, such that doing so doesn't really make you particularly special?  What is this, warmed-over Calvinism?  Some people are just better than others and will be saved in the end no matter what? If Darth Vader is to be redeemed, surely it could have been done with some plotting that made more logical sense than, just, . . . this.  Giving his life to help the rebels destroy the empire maybe?  I dunno.  I mean, it's nice that he saves his son's life and all, but, really? In interviews Lucas gave when he was prepping the Prequels, he went back on his earlier promise to create 9 Star Wars, and said that there would only be 6, and that, ultimately, these weren't really movies about Luke and Leia et al. This was Darth Vader's story, the tale of his fall and redemption. Well, then, that makes it even worse: These six movies have all been about Darth Vader's fall and redemption, AND THIS HIMMLER SAVES HIS SON FROM HITLER moment is the ending and ultimate climax of THAT overarching story?  Really?  Wow.  That just makes the entire series so much . . . less than it could have been.  And learning in Episode III that Anakin was a child-killer didn't help.  Pretty sure you don't get a free pass to heaven for saving your own child's life, if you have previously murdered other people's innocent children in cold blood.   


3.  George Lucas's Anti-Americanism.  As if the Ewoks weren't bad enough, on their own and in and of themselves, I had the misfortune to come across a documentary about the making of the original trilogy in which Lucas explained that the Ewoks' use of primitive technology, via guerilla attacks, to overcome the greater military capability of the Empire, was meant as an analogy for the Vietcong's defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam.  Lucas admired the Northern Vietnamese, and wanted to highlight that admiration in the third film.  So, there's that.  Basically, Episode 6 wasn't a movie for people like me. It was a movie for people like Jane Fonda.  Sigh.


4. The CGI heavy reissues.  Full kudos to George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic for introducing CGI to film and remaining a pioneer in special effects technology decades after the first movie came out.  Compared to say, the Last Starfighter, the CGI in the special editions of the original trilogy was really impressive at the time they were made.  But it was still an emerging technology, and it wouldn't really be put to amazingly effective use until we were introduced to Peter Jackson's Gollum.  So, now, ironically, the parts of the original trilogy which have aged the worst are the new CGI scenes. And it's pretty clear why some of the reinserted scenes were cut the first time around. Han Solo was allowed to leave by Jabba?  Well that doesn't build much tension.  Even when the CGI looked good and not dated, the only film that really benefited was Empire Strikes Back (and the final scene in Return, which reduced the amount of Ewoks). Yet Lucas won't bring back the originals, and apparently Disney is sticking to that position.  Maybe when George is dead . . . .  


5.  The problem with Prequels.  I don't actually hate the prequels, and actually enjoyed them all when I first saw them.  Although they are not nearly as rewatchable as the original films.  And Jar Jar?  Well, Lucas was a risk-taker. People might have hated Chewbacca, but he turned out fine. And Yoda the muppet Jedi Master, on paper, had to have sounded like an incredibly misguided idea, which might have gone very, very, badly, instead of becoming perhaps the coolest movie character of all time.  Lucas was bound to get it wrong eventually.  So cut him a break.  The main issue I have with the prequels is the same issue that affects all prequels generally.  When you are reading a well-done fantasy or science fiction novel, and the author helps you understand that you are being told a story which exists within the context of a much larger universe, including lots of places on the map you never actually get to see, and a backstory you only hear about second hand, the effect is intriguing and powerful and mysterious.  But when you actually go into the backstory, and see it first hand, you can lose the magic, like learning about Santa Claus.  It just can't be as cool as you had hoped it would be.  I think that's one of the reasons Back to the Future worked so well.  All of us, at one time or another, have wanted to know what our parents were like at our age, and, when they are at the right age, children love to hear the story of how their parents met: it's the ultimate backstory, how I came to exist.  And Back to the Story helped us understand why maybe it's for the best that we never actually get to learn more about that.  I loved the scene in the first prequel when Obi Wan tells Anakin he'll be training him as a Jedi.  But it was still cooler in my imagination. Ditto the final fiery battle between the same two characters at the end of Episode 3.  A good prequel, that works well, will be set in the same universe, but involve ancillary characters, keeping the original story's own back story steeped in mystery and intrigue.     


6.  The Problem with Lucas's Prequels.  Lucas's prequels made this inherent and intrinsic problem even worse. One of the many things that J.K. Rowling got right in the Harry Potter novels was creating a lengthy story that was almost seamlessly integrated. As you read later books in the series, the earlier books made more sense, and what happened in those earlier books added to the enjoyment of the later volumes, as when the full meaning of Tom Riddle's diary in book 2 is revealed in book 6, and its destruction becomes a key plot point in book 7.  Lucas tried to create a similar sense of his story's integration, but it was so forced and awkward that it not only didn't work, it undercut the whole narrative.  Plot points that were meant to be big reveals of what we had never realized before just demonstrated that Lucas hadn't really thought his story through before. One example will suffice: Anyone who ever saw the original Star Wars (except George Lucas apparently) knows that a person living in "an environment such as" Tatooine would have "no use of a protocol droid." Why, then, does a young Tatooine slave boy create one?  Why would any young boy create a "protocol droid" when they could create a robot that does something cool?  No possible reason whatsoever except a lame attempt to try to shoehorn some artificial relationship between the two movie that we are apparently supposed to find cool.  "Ooooh, Vader created C-3PO. Wow." This makes the original Star Wars worse. Now, instead of finding it clever when C-3P0 says "Thank the maker" because Robots would thank their manufacturer in the way humans thank their divine creator, we are reminded that C-3P0's maker was supposedly someone who had no reason whatsoever to make him. Lame.    


7.  The worst movie line of all time.  No one expects a Star Wars movie to have deep, clever, or meaningful dialogue.  Still, does it have to include lines of dialogue so awful they ought to be in Guinness?  Here it is:  


Anakin: "If you are not with me, you're my enemy."  

Obi-wan: "Only a Sith speaks in absolutes." 

For my money, absolutely the stupidest lines of dialogue in the history of cinema.  Probably in the history of English.  What makes this snippet of dialogue so horrendously awful?  How much time do you have? First of all, it was intended as a political rebuke against a contemporary politician. But making contemporary political points is not the purpose of Star Wars.  These stories are supposed to be timeless fables.  And contemporary political points jar you away from all that, whether you agree or disagree with them. As Tolkien once said, a good story will be full of applicability, which the reader can choose, not analogy, which forces the reader into a specific meaning. Give us applicability, not analogy, let us choose our applications as we will, don't force them upon us, like a Sith.  Secondly, the statement "if you are not with me you are against me" was first spoken by Christ, not a modern politician. Matthew 12:30. So Obi-wan's criticism of Anakin's statement is not ultimately a criticism of George Bush, as was intended, but is a criticism of Christ, characterizing Christ as a Sith. And that's just evil.  Third: "Only a Sith speaks in absolutes" is of course in and of itself an absolute statement, meaning that Obi-wan makes himself a Sith for saying it, and that Lucas flunks basic kindergarten logic for writing it.  Finally, the critique Obi-wan is making is just incredibly stupid in context. It's like criticizing Hitler because he lacked nuance. Anakin is not engaged in some righteous crusade, which he has taken too far by being overly zealous towards anyone who disagrees with his means or his methods. The proper response to Anakin's statement isn't to instruct him that he needs to be a little more inclusive in his thinking, and be more open to ambiguity and other points of view. The proper response is to say: "Of course I'm you're enemy. Any decent person in the universe should be your enemy. You are evil." 


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So there you have it. How I learned to stop loving Star Wars as much as I once did, in the years after the Empire struck back.  But wait, there's more. What about the new movie? The latest international trailer really did get me excited, and awaken my inner nerdy child.  But nevertheless, there's a few things that keep me from being as excited to go see this as I once was to go see Episode 1 (probably a good thing, considering how that turned out).   Here they are, in no particular order:



Three Reasons to Temper the Hype over the New Movie: 


8. It's basically fan fiction.  Ironically, one of the driving forces behind fan enthusiasm for the upcoming movie is that it's not a George Lucas film.  I get that, really I do.  See points 1 through 7 above. Still, for good or ill, Star Wars is George Lucas's baby, and a Star Wars movie not based on his ideas or story or outline, is a little bit like those James Bond novels that were written after Ian Fleming had died, or someone other than J.K. Rowling penning a new Harry Potter book.  That's not to say that it won't be great.  Most of the recent Marvel movies have been excellent, even though the original creators of those characters and story-lines had nothing to do with them.  But still, we are in new territory now.  The Star Wars of George Lucas, who created it, is over now.  Other than a possible Stan Lee-esque cameo or two, he has nothing to do with it. Hopefully it gets back on course and stays there.  But even if it does, it's not really canon.  


9. J.J. Abrams Wrote and Directed It.  This means that it will almost certainly include the set-up for some deep and intriguing mystery, or mysteries, which we will learn, in Episode 9, no one knew how to resolve beforehand. "OH, the stormtroopers of Alderaan were all in Limbo!!! Well, that's just stupid."  The Mystery Writers Guild of America really needs to take JJ Abrams to the woodshed and explain some things to him about the basic rules of storytelling.  Before you write a mystery, you determine the truth.  Then you arbitrarily withhold the truth while dropping hints of it all along the way, amidst various red herrings.  Then you reward your reader's patient impatience by finally giving him the truth at the end, causing him to see everything that came before in a new light.  This moment of resolution is deeply satisfying, like the turn that comes in the last two lines of every good sonnet. If it doesn't happen, someone has been robbed. If you are just pretending to be withholding the truth, when in fact there is no truth and you have no idea where you are going with anything in your story, but you are just really good at the set up and the spooky music, you are committing a fraud. If this happens in the new Star Wars trilogy, they could be even worse than the prequels. 


10.  "Chewie, we're home."  I have a bad feeling about this line, from one of the first teaser trailers, spoken by Han, apparently when he revisits the interior of the Millenium Falcon after some period of vacancy. It's not the kind of thing that human beings say in real life.  It's not the kind of thing that characters in good movies say in good movies.  It's the kind of thing someone from the marketing department wants someone to say in a movie, so it can be put in the trailer for the movie, even when it's completely out of character for the person saying it (Han Sole, sentimental nostalgic?) The first new Star Wars movie hasn't even opened yet, but Disney is already working on the new Star Wars portion of Disneyland, so marketing matters. That's all fine and good if it doesn't affect the product being marketed. But if it does affect the product, then it will infect it as well. There was no valid artistic reason to stretch the Hobbit movies into three overly bloated movies, where two tightly plotted movies with narrative thrust and dispatch would have been just the thing.  But I'm sure it made sense to the Warner Brothers Marketing Department.  


Nevertheless, I'll see you on opening night, holding my popcorn and hoping for the best. And despite all of the above, I'll be as excited as it's possible for a middle aged person trying to recapture their childhood to be. That's the power of the original trilogy, and especially the first two movies, pure and perfect entertainment that they were.    

UPDATE: So, what did I think of that movie once it did come out after all: 

I loved the new characters and the charismatic actors who played them.  I am excited to see our new Jedi heroine and her ex-stormtrooper love interest in action in future installments; and I loved that the new X-Wing fighter is much more likable, and given much more to do, than Wedge Antilles.  I loved the music and the visuals.  I find as I get older that I am increasingly willing to give a movie some slack if I find it visually interesting.  This is odd, as I've always cared much more deeply about the story than the visuals.  Perhaps I'm developing a new interest in aesthetics.  Must be my newfound interest in photography.  Or maybe that came second.

I hated that Han Solo was still a not very good smuggler.  When last we saw Han, he had put off the smuggler, and was a rising military and political leader, whose role in the battle of Endor and imminent marriage to Princess Leia seemed likely to earn him a prominent role in the new and restored Republic.  I would have liked to have seen that Han Solo: an Elder Statesman who had guided the Republic through various political upheavals and had grown to be so much more than he once was.  Instead, it's as if, 30 years after the events of the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton is still hanging out with college kids at the local tavern next to Columbia college arguing politics, having experienced no growth or increase in status after the key role he played in the events of the Revolution.  Pathetic.  Han Solo's final years actually make me not all that interested in the solo upcoming Han Solo movie. 

I hated that the political situation of the galaxy was never explained, and who exactly the New Order was and the backstory as to why they are allowed to exist and war against the New Republic was never presented.

These two hates arise out of the same fundamental flaw in the whole story: an attempt to give the viewer the same experience he already had with the first trilogy.  We miss Han Solo the smuggler, the thinking must have gone, so let's bring him back.  We need good guys and bad guys, who look and dress just like the good guys and bad guys from the original trilogy, so let's rename the rebels the republic and rename the empire the new order, and then we can all know who is good and who is bad when we visit the new Star Wars attractions at Disneyland.  Thus, the saga is no longer a saga (which implies a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end) but an ongoing cash cow which, like a 1980s era tv-show, must leave the heroes exactly in the same place at the end of every episode as they were before, so we can tune in at any time and know the basics of what is going on.  Why even have a 9 movie arc though if the whole thing is just a tv series?

I also hated the stupid little things that didn't make sense and no one but JJ Abrams would be stupid enough to include in a move: like Han Solo skipping past the barriers of the starkiller base by flying in at light speed, and dropping out of light speed at just that kabilliasecond when he needed to, on the basis of an oral command.  Cause yeah, that would work.