diet, esselstyn, plant based, plant-based, protein, vegan, vegetarian

“Where do you get your protein?” Plant-based answers from a real doctor

(Plants.  In a farmer’s market in Nuremberg, Germany.)

What is your annoying question?  An annoying question may be a perfectly sensible question, it’s just that you get asked it over and over again.  My brother has identical twins.  His annoying question is, “Are they twins?”  (I hear that the annoying question for parents of fraternal twins is, “Are they identical?” EVEN when one is a boy and one is a girl.) Homeschooolers get asked “What about socialization?” and Canadians get asked, “Where is Canada?” or “Isn’t Canada really just North Minnesota?”

But now we are plant-based eaters and the most annoying question we get is, “Where do you get your protein?”  Everyone asks this question. Medical professionals, friends, family, and the guy at the burrito place who notices that we don’t order meat, cheese, or sour cream. It’s surprising how many M.D.s ask that question. My standard answer is usually, “plants,” or “the same place cows do — grass.”


(A guac/humus wrap with black beans and Verde salsa.  Loads of protein and 10 times better tasting than a baloney sandwich.  We did have to abandon the Wegmans whole wheat wrap when we found out it had canola oil, anchovy oil, sardine oil, and tilapia solids in it. Tilapia solids? Ew.  #foodyoucantfeelgoodabout)

You would never ask an annoying question, but it’s possible that some day you will need to come to the defense of a beleaguered vegan or plant-based eater who is being accosted by a protein obsessed carnivore.

To that end, I did a highly scientific analysis of my protein intake the other day.  I noticed that I’d eaten a fairly typical plant-based menu and so I did some precise measurements and calculations.  Here’s the kind of precision we’re talking about… “I ate a handful of nuts… Hmmmm… that looks like about a 1/4 cup.”  Then I googled how much protein there was in a 1/4 of mixed nuts… and so on.  I’m using the precision standard of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, which is sometimes referred to as, “Ballpark.”

Breakfast:  None.  I don’t eat breakfast.  I quit about 5 years ago.  It’s an old husband’s tale that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and as much as I love breakfast food, fasting in the morning is just an easy way to axe a bunch of calories.  I do drink a big mug of chai tea with lots of honey, but I don’t think there is any protein in honey or tea.


Lunch:  African Peanut Stew over whole grain rice with corn on the cob.  These were leftovers.  I also ate some plant-based yogurt (Silk) w/ flax seed.

Snacks: Handful of mixed nuts, some pickle spears, and a bowl of cereal with cashew milk (not all at the same time!).

Dinner:  Pizza.  Well, what my wife and I call pizza, but it’s really nothing like pizza.  It’s a thin multi-grain flatbread with pizza sauce, fresh mushrooms, spinach, and some seasonings. No cheese, of course.  I also had some watermelon and a plant-based ice cream bar (no protein).

It wasn’t really alotta food: Partly because I didn’t eat breakfast, but also because I’m on a diet (that’s a long plant-based story).  Had I eaten 3 meals and eaten as much as I wanted, I would have had way more protein.   I also didn’t drink a protein shake or eat a bunch of extra beans or tofu or whatever to try to jack my numbers.

Without really trying, I ate 78 grams of protein.

People with a diverse set of chromosomes (XY) are supposed to eat, according to the FDA, 57 grams of protein per day.  People with hegemonic chromosomes (XX) only need to eat 46 grams.  78, even with ballpark calculations, is way over the recommendation.

Looks like I’m doing ok.

You’d die without protein, but it’s also really helpful if you’re trying to lose weight.  It fills you up and makes you feel full for a long time.   I used to eat a salad at noon and I’d be looking for a snack by 2:30.  But now I pour 1/2 a cup of chipotle seasoned black beans on my salad and I’m full for hours. Protein also keeps you from losing muscle, so it’s a great dieting nutrient. Protein is the least of your worries if you’re a meat eater.  Your worries include things like obesity and colon cancer.  The standard America diet will keep you well above the daily requirements for protein intake, but it will also keep you well above the daily requirements for fat, sugars, preservatives, and food coloring.


(This is amazing, vegan, and loaded with protein. But it’s not technically legal for plant-based people because it’s made with added oil.  #foodyoucanalmostfeelgoodabout)

So, where do we get our protein?  Plants.  Most plant-based eaters replace meat with lentils, black beans, pinto beans, and chick peas and, as luck would have it, they are all loaded with protein. Nuts and seeds also score well, but you knew that.  We also eat a bunch of things we rarely (or never) ate before like chia, quinoa, and hemp seeds,  and odd things like nutritional yeast, edamame, tofu, and tempeh.  Those last three are loaded with protein.

So now you know.  Plant-based eaters like us (and cows, elephants, rhinos, and almost all of the dinosaurs) get their protein from, surprisingly enough, plants.  You can stop worrying.

p.s.  When my kids were little they used to ask this annoying question: “But you’re not a real doctor, like Uncle Kendell, right?”  Sigh.

diet, esselstyn, plant based, plant-based, Uncategorized, vegan, vegetarian

Worse than Vegan: 10 Observations After a Year of Plant-Based Eating

My wife and I have been eating “plant-based” for about a year now. We don’t eat meat or other animal protein. (No cheese. No Soylent Green.)

Ruth is a MRI/Radiology nurse and she started to notice that sick people are sick, largely, (pun intended) because they are fat (fat is my language, not hers!);  bad knees, bad backs, diabetes, various cancers, heart disease, poor hygiene, poor taste in music, and the like. “Are we fat,” I asked?  She said, “We are on the verge.” Our doctors were starting to look at us condescendingly over the top of their glasses.

I immediately recommended the paleo diet because paleo is what cavemen ate — supposedly allota barbecue. (Cavemen also did allota starving to death, I’m guessing.)  But as it happened, a friend of ours had just lost 85lbs on the “Forks over Knives” plant-based diet.  Ruth watched the documentary and despite my subtle attempts to mock it, she said, “I’m doing this.” I said I’d do it with her for 8 weeks.  (“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:21).  It’s been over a year.

So here’s what I’ve learned:

#1.  We’re not vegan.  People say, “Oh, you’re vegan!” and I say, “No.  Plant-based is WAY worse than vegan.”  And they say, “What could be worse than vegan?”  And I tell them, “No added oil.  We have to eat our salad dry.”  This also eliminates alotta vegan friendly foods (fake cheese, fake mayo, fake sour cream) because they’re loaded with oil.  A pure plant-based person worried about heart disease won’t even eat nuts.  It’s bleak.

#2   Veganism is a religion, but we aren’t believers.  Most vegans love mosquitoes, hate factory farming of chickens, worry about puppy mills, and if they saw a human baby drowning right next to a fawn, they’d feel conflicted. But respect for animals and worship of animals are different things.  I’m happy to kill animals for food.  It doesn’t bother me that cows are forced to lactate forever so we can eat cheese.  But now people assume, because we don’t eat meat, that we must be PETA wackos. That’s annoying.  We are wackos, but for other reasons.  Plant-based people aren’t necessarily vegan.

#3 I don’t get all the science.  I don’t really care, quite frankly. There does seem to be a pretty strong connection between animal protein and cancers.  Maybe it’s just that plant-based people are thin.  Maybe it’s just that we eat more vegetables (and maybe we could keep eating meat if we did so in moderation).  Or maybe it’s just because tofu has magical cancer fighting, diabetes busting, fat fighting properties that make anybody who eat it magically healthy.  My wife has read all the books and knows all the research — ask her if you really care.  I was skeptical till I found out our local research and teaching hospital (University of Rochester/Strong Hospital) employs plant-based nutritionists and insists that cardiac patients follow the diet.  That’s enough for me.


(This (German) meal looks healthy, but it’s slathered with butter and loaded with fat. Germans don’t do vegetarian, let alone plant-based.  I suffered through, though.  🙂 )

#4 Americans eat like kings. Which is to say, we eat like pigs. Nobody in the world eats more than we do (nearly 4000 calories a day, by some measures). ( We eat three huge and rich/fatty meals a day, snack between meals, and have ice cream and/or popcorn almost every night. Meat consumption has exploded in the past 100 years (NPR).  I recently ate dinner with a 75 year old man who said that he wasn’t poor growing up, but his family only had meat once a week.  Today, we eat sausage and bacon for breakfast, cold cuts for lunch, and for dinner, a steak or a chicken breast about the size of a queen sized pillow. Is it any wonder that we are the fattest nation on earth?  Actually — that’s not true.  We are only the 8th fattest.  Only 72% of us are overweight or obese while 79% of the good citizens of the Cook Islands are overweight (1st place! Yea Cook Islands!).  (W.H.O., 2016)

#5  The diet annoys our friends.  They dispute the science or complain that we don’t want to go out to eat as much (we don’t). Maybe there is something in the diet that inherently asserts, “We are eating intelligently and you are eating stupidly.”  We don’t feel that way, but that’s how some seem to read it. But what is more upsetting to people is that, I think, the diet constitutes a refusal of hospitality. People who invite guests to dinner are offering their best — and now we’re saying their best just isn’t good enough.  I get that. The relationship between food and friendship is strong!  Our kids were really mad at us for awhile. The burgers, hot Italian beef, and pork chops suddenly disappeared, (Who wants to mooch a meal of grits and chickpeas?), but we are slowly converting them to plant-based.

#6 Faking traditional meals is disappointing.  You can’t copy meatloaf or chicken cordon blue with plants.  You can make legal dough, legal sauce,  and cover it with traditional legal vegetables, but it just won’t taste like pizza.  It will taste like somebody tried to make pizza and screwed up (because they forgot the cheese).  We make a cream sauce to put on black beans and potatoes, and we love it, but it’s not sour cream.  Plant-based is an acquired taste.


(legal twice baked broccoli potatoes from the Plant Pure Nation Cookbook, by Kim Campbell)

#7 Your tastes change. Really.  It’s been a year and we enjoy our meals way more than we used to.  I’m sure that’s due, in part, to Ruth’s cooking skills.  But I also think we’re adjusting.  I suppose if you decided to only eat, say, Cambodian food for the rest of you’re life, you’d really come to enjoy the wonder and subtleties of  Cambodian food.   Long before we got started on this diet we were lovers of beans; Puerto Rican rice and beans, black beans and rice, and etc., so that has been really easy (plant-based people eat alotta beans).  We eat differently and we’ve grown to like it and the occasional meat/cheese cheats are typically disappointing.  I suppose one of the things that makes vegans/etc. so annoying is that they, not realizing how much their tastes have changed, inflict their recipes on meat eaters: “Here!  You’ll really love this!  It tastes just like meatloaf!”  Um.  No it doesn’t. (Our plant based tacos are pretty close, though. And our banana/cocoa frozen smoothie w/ almond milk. And our roasted garlic potatoes.  And our…)

Disclaimer: The smell of meat on a charcoal grill still makes me tremble.

#8 We’re eating healthy.  It really amazes me how often the guy criticizing my diet is stuffing his face with chili dogs, french fries and cheese nachos: “WERHER OO OOO ET YR PRTEEN [Where do you get your protein]?” or “You’re going to get rickets and die.” This is so strange — as if there are no nutritional deficiencies in the standard American diet. And even if our diet has a sin of omission (B12 and D don’t come in vegetables), we can always add a little nutritional yeast or drink almond milk to compensate.  But you can’t compensate for the sins of commission in what most Americans eat — processed foods, fatty meats, and Ding Dongs.  If you only eat kale, you’ll die, but imagine someone sitting on a bench eating rat poison and saying to someone eating kale, “You know, kale is not nutritionally complete.”


(Rise ‘N Roll Bakery,  Key Lime Donut.  Mmmmmmmmm.)

#9 We strategically cheat.  When I was still raging against this diet I read an article that said people most likely to lose and keep weight off, cheat — strategically. When a plate of nachos comes around at a dinner party, the strategic cheater eats 3 and quits.  The non-cheater refuses the nachos, but then breaks down and eats three, and later eats the whole plate and says, “Well, to heck with this diet” and blows up like a balloon.  I intend to eat a Wendy’s frosty once a year. I will eat kringle (a Racine WI pastry) when I visit my folks and Rise N Roll donuts when I visit my sister (Nappanee, IN).  I ate a full blown traditional meal at Thanksgiving, including dark meat and gravy.  One day, Ruth said, “We’re going to the NCFR and getting a Grecian omelette with the home fries (at least it was vegetarian).”  I felt guilty about this till I found out that Dr. Esselstyn, one of the plant based gurus, eats 10 Reese’s Peanut Butter cups each year on New Years Eve.  If I eat a non-legalistic plant-based diet 95% of the year, I’m guessing I will still enjoy a substantial health benefit.

#10 We feel better.  Who knows, maybe it’s too late.  50 years of dietary recklessness may have done me in.  Maybe the diet will get debunked or maybe we’ll just get lazy and slide back into our typical American ways. Sometimes I wonder if it’s better to die earlier but eat lavishly.  But at this point we are a year in and my wife and I are both down 20lbs without dieting, without being hungry, and without counting calories. My wife is off her cholesterol medicine (I haven’t been tested yet).  We have both experienced significant digestive benefits and all of my hair grew back.  OK, that last bit was a lie, but last summer my 53 year old plant-based self ran a half-marathon (and it was a trail marathon on some seriously steep hills).  We don’t want to live forever — we just want to do our part to make sure we remain trim, active, and healthy… till the very end.

Some References: (for links to all sorts of books, videos, etc.)

How Not to Die, Greger

Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Esselstyn


Believing in Santa Claus (and the Christmas Law of Diminishing Returns)


My favorite ornament of all time.

It’s Christmas Eve and I believe in believing in Santa Claus.

The world would be a better place if all parents taught their kids to believe in Santa Claus — at least for a while.

My children enjoyed Christmas better and they are better human beings because they really believed (and because we didn’t give them too many gifts.)

I believed in Santa Claus when I was a kid, too.  My parents lied to me and I thought the lie magnificent. On the way back from the Christmas Eve party with the Brewer family I scanned the skies for Rudolph’s nose.  I imagined Santa sneaking into my house.  I gave him cookies and milk and wrote him thank you letters.  It gave me joy. When I opened my (factory second) “Hot Wheels Action City Travel Racetrack Suitcase” on Christmas morning, there was a big rip right on the cover (repaired crudely with black electrical tape).  Mom told me a big fat one: “Um…Santa drove through a huge storm last night and the wind ripped it — he didn’t think you’d mind.” That was one of the coolest lies, ever.

Vintage 1968 Hot Wheels Action City Travel Racetrack Suitcase Mattel Toymakers Toy

(an unripped version)

My wife and I lied to our own kids, too. Soon after my kids went to bed on Christmas Eve I grabbed some old sleigh bells and ran around the yard doing my best “Ho! Ho! Ho!”  The kids bought the whole thing.

Turns out I was a pretty good liar — even during non-Christmas situations and even when I wasn’t trying.  I used to joke with the kids when we were driving through a downpour by shouting, “I command the rain to stop!”  And it did.  And then 2 seconds later I’d say, “…and start again!” and it would.  It did, of course, because we’d just driven under a bridge, but my kids never made the connection. I had no idea that my kids had no idea. When they told me, years later, that they thought that I could control the rain, I felt kinda bad.

But not too bad, because my kids weren’t crushed when they figured it out.  They thought it was pretty funny.  I think it would probably do all the children of the world some good if they thought their fathers had magical powers.

However, when my parents told me Santa wasn’t real, I went on a rampage, killed all the cats in the neighborhood, and joined a Satanic cult (Satan. Santa.  Same letters. Coincidence?).  I stopped believing in God, too.

No. That’s not true. I didn’t stop believing in God and the earth did not crash into the sun.

Nobody told me that Santa wasn’t real — I just figured it out.  I remember that I was in the living room on my hands and knees reading the newspaper and I shouted back to my family (still at the dinner table), “How in the world could Santa fly all the way around the planet in one night?  Stopping at every single home? That would be impossible.”  My older brother very gently said, “FIGURE IT OUT, PAUL!!!!” And there was a long pause and eventually  I said, “Oh.” And I laughed and we all laughed and that was that.  I was, from that point on, in on the joke.

I’m very suspicious of people who don’t teach their kids to believe in Santa (this includes my in-laws).  These are the kinds of people who frown on reading fiction because elves and orcs and hobbits aren’t in the Bible. These same people are NOT bothered by the witches, prostitutes, and baby killers in the Bible… but then, I digress.

The point is simply this — it’s fun to make believe!  It’s just as fun to believe in Santa as it is to sit down in a theater and pretend you’re actually on Tatooine (Star Wars) or attend a play and listen in on the dead citizens of Grover’s Corners (Our Town). We even have a name for it; “suspended disbelief.”  I know someone who can’t enjoy scary movies because she can’t allow herself to suspend disbelief — or, to put it another way, she can’t pretend to believe!  Jason is running around decapitating attractive co-eds in his hockey mask, blood is spurting all over the place, and my wife is smirking, laughing, rolling her eyes, and saying, “Ya. Right.”  Even with really good scary movies (like The Bad Seed) it’s all just a big joke.  I told you that she didn’t grow up believing in Santa Claus, didn’t I?  She has other qualities.  🙂

Yes this is also on my Christmas board but I love Jason hahaha

If you look very carefully you can see Jason’s trademark hockey mask.

Image result for The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed: The Scariest Movie you’ve probably never seen.

One year, in addition to other things, we got the kids coal for their stockings.  Now as it happened, Sophie only got the coal. The Stewart kids could open their stockings as soon as they woke up, but they had strict instructions to let us sleep.  So everyone opened their fun little stocking stuffers and Sophie just sat there and cried. Eventually, when we finally woke up and discovered the goof, we made up a whopper about Santa spilling Sophie’s stocking in the basement.  Sophie cheered up in a hurry and to this day she loves to tell the story… who wouldn’t!?  It’s a great story!

Believing in Santa Claus teaches wonder, imagination, creativity, and the idea that there are mysteries out there waiting to be uncovered.  By the time the fairy tale is “spoiled,” it doesn’t matter — you have already been given all the the tools you need.  Truth can be told with facts and lectures and stern admonitions from your parents.  But it’s far better to learn the truth in the amusement and excitement of a good story.  Santa Claus is a magnificent start.

So do your kids a favor and teach them to believe in Santa — and don’t buy them too many gifts.


And that reminds me… The Christmas Law of Diminishing Returns:

One gift is amazing.

Two gifts is twice as amazing.

But three gifts?

It isn’t three times as amazing.  It’s only a little bit more amazing.

And four gifts? Four gifts produces zero additional amazingness. After three gifts they all just blend into each other and each gift becomes less special.

Over-gifting is bad. It produces fatigue. (In adults it produces embarrassment). If you don’t believe me, watch your kids tomorrow.

If you got your kid one cool toy, an outfit, and a good book, that would be plenty.  Maybe some stocking stuffers.

Merry Christmas!


Why I don’t play the lottery

The lottery is about to top $1,000,000,000.  That’s a billion dollars.  Winning the lottery always seems to ruin the life of the winner, but nobody has ever won this much money before.  I can see how some irresponsible person might blow through 100 million dollars on Cheez-its and loose living, but a billion?  I think the person who wins a billion dollars will be just fine. I know I would, anyway. That’s more than the net worth of some small countries.  I would spend my winning responsibly and be very generous.  Probably.

But I can’t play the lottery.  My Dad always said that gambling was a sin.  My Dad even said putting a quarter in a pinball machine was a sin. “You’re just throwing your money away.”  He’s right (about gambling, anyway).  The lottery is, as they say, a tax on stupid people.  Or, at least a tax on people with bad math skills.  My mom (who is certainly no gambler!) disagreed.  She used to go visit her sister Imogene in Sacramento and every once in awhile they would drive up to Lake Tahoe and blow $20 in the slots.  She said, “It’s fun.  It’s just like any other entertainment. As long as you’re not addicted or anything….”

I can see my Dad’s point — and my Mom’s point — but economics isn’t why I don’t play the lottery.

When I was a newlywed and started getting actual mail, Ed McMann sent me (personally — just me) invitations to win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.  “You, PAUL B. STEWART, could ALREADY be IN POSSESSION of THE winning NUMBERS….”  I entered, of course (since I was already in possession of the winning numbers and everything) AND because I wasn’t actually gambling (if you don’t count the stamp).  At least that’s how I rationalized it.  No money — no gambling.  Ruth and I were pretty poor — we could have used the money.

But after awhile I quit and it wasn’t because I couldn’t afford the stamps — I quit because I found myself hoping I’d win.  In fact, I dreamed of winning and spend quite a bit of time wondering what my life would be like if I finally had extra money.

And you have, too.  You’ve thought, “Hmmmm… 1 billion dollars which means maybe 1/2 a billion after taxes. So then 10% for church which leaves 450 million, and then I pay off the house which leaves $449,000,900, 102.24, and then I could buy those shoes I saw at DSW and maybe finally a decent set of kitchen knives.” So have I.  I’ve wondered how I would invest it, who I’d help out, and I’ve thought about leaving the little waitress at the NCFR a $10,000 tip.  Ever have that conversation about whether or not you’d quit your job?  Me, too. I’m a college professor, so I’ve fantasized about my employer suddenly becoming interested in me — President Porterfield taking me out to dinner and asking if I wouldn’t mind if they renamed the college after me (and fired a couple of my annoying colleagues).

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s not just a bit of harmless fun to spend your time fantasizing about becoming a gazillionaire, because if you fantasize about being a gazillionaire it seems you’re not being very appreciative for what you do have.  Put more harshly, if you dream of having vastly more wealth than God has already given you, you’re probably flirting with (if not making out with) envy and covetousness.

Of course, there are all those other reasons the lottery is bad (the government is stealing from the poor, lying about pretending to be concerned with education, cultivating gambling addiction, encouraging us all to think that hard work and thrift are old fashioned, etc.), but mostly for me, I don’t play the lottery because to do so would keep me from being thankful.  I mean, most of us have it pretty good, don’t we?  Even when Ruth and I were “poor,” we still had a car, a roof over our heads, pretty good eats, and enough money to go out once in awhile.

I want to be rich.  I do want to win 1.4 billion dollars.  I really do!  And so that’s why i don’t play the lottery.

(None of my colleagues are annoying.  Not enough to get fired, anyway.)


The Cult of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I was in the 7th grade when Star Wars debuted, but I didn’t see it till I was in the 8th grade.  I don’t remember how I convinced my father (he was suspicious of the worldly picture shows), but I did.  We drove all the way out to Hawthorn Mall and found a line stretched all the way around the theater.  I fully expected my father to turn around and drive home, but he didn’t.  We got in line and waited.  I couldn’t believe it.

…and then they sold the last tickets to the people in front of us.


To my amazement, my father said, “Well, I guess we’ll just buy tickets to the next show and wait.” I was stunned.  You don’t know what a miracle that was.

The movie was a miracle, too.  At 14 I WAS the target audience and Lucas completely transported me to that “galaxy, far, far, away.” I know the story is simple and the special effects dated, but Star Wars remains one of my favorite movies of all time.

So I come to the 7th movie, “The Force Awakens,” as a fan.  All the purists mourned when Disney bought the franchise, but I thought, “How could they do any worse than Lucas?” He had completely botched the second trilogy and the only good thing to come out of that series was the title of a bluegrass song by the Great Bear Trio, “Flaming Torso,” named after Hayden Christensen’s stubby, legless, Darth Vader torso, burning away on the planet Mustafar.

The spoiler-less summary of “The Force Awakens” in a nutshell?  Well, the Force awakens!  30 years after Luke blows up the Death Star, the Jedi have disappeared, and another Nazi-esque “First Order” has emerged to dominate the galaxy.  Only the Dark Side of the Force seems to be active.  A rag-tag resistance is trying to destroy the First Order’s “Death Planet” (a Death Star on steroids) and to find the last of the Jedi, the elusive Luke Skywalker, who is hiding out in some uncharted part of the galaxy.

(a couple of bright spots!)

It is clear that J.J. Abrams said, “Let’s go back to what made the franchise great — let’s go back to the original Star Wars.”  And for the most part, I really think he did that. There are fewer digital special effects (which seem too obvious and overdone in the second trilogy) and it was shot on good old fashioned Kodak film.  As with the original series, the new main characters are relative unknowns, so we aren’t distracted by celebrity characters like Jimmy Smits and Samuel L. Jackson.  The unknowns that they do choose are pretty good!  The new franchise heroine, Daisy Ridley as Rey, (who has never been in a movie before) and her counterpart, John Boyega as FN-2187, or Finn, are absolutely believable and solid actors.  These are not Hayden Christensen unknowns — these are Harrison Ford unknowns.  The other quality Abrams resurrects is humor!  The movie is fun!  Oh, there is plenty of darkness along the way, but none of the oppressive darkness and humorlessness of the second trilogy (could anybody have been less funny than Ewan McGregor’s Obi-wan?  Oh, ya.  Hayden Christensen.  He made dead nuns and babies seem like Johnny Carson.).  But you understand my point: this movie isn’t just exciting and scary, it’s exciting, and scary, and fun.  Han and Chewy are back to their delightful bickering and Rey and Finn have some pretty impressive comedic chops.

My critique of this movie may be significantly muddied by the people sitting around us (more about them, later), but the more overt connections to the original movies were, I think, a bit heavy handed.  Each time a character or theme from the original series was introduced, they handled it like one of those “big reveals” on those home makeover shows.  The first one absolutely got me (the reveal of the Millennium Falcon — I might have cheered involuntarily), but after that, they seemed disruptive, snapping me out of my suspended disbelief.  Han Solo and Chewy!  Cheer!  R2D2!  Cheer!  C3P0! (Tepid cheer.)  I’m not sure how they could have done it any better, but it felt staged — like a comedian explaining his jokes.  And then there was the basic story line, which was never very inventive in the first place. We have more evil Darth Vader types, a sinister politician, a big super weapon, and noble resistance fighters.  It’s a good story — I like it, but sometimes it felt like they weren’t even trying to think outside the box.  When the resistance fighters (including Fishhead Admiral Ackbar!  Cheer!) gather around the hologram of the “Death Planet,” they find a weakness, of course, and it’s not alot different than the “exhaust port” weakness they found in the original Death Star.  As Han tells them what they must do (surprise, surprise, hit the new exhaust port) his non-verbals are almost apologetic: “Sorry people — you know what’s coming. No real point in going over this one again — it’s just like the first movie — but I suppose it needs to be said.  We’re hitting that exhaust port thingee or whatever it is…okay?”

(he seemed to have a twinkle in his eye)

Despite these hiccups, I enjoyed the movie.  I went with my adult son and a college buddy and his boys who happened to be passing through town. It was dangerous to invite them (our sons had never met, they might have hated Star Wars, or worse, they might have pretended that they liked it) but we took our chances.  My son was delighted to find out that my buddy’s sons had not only watched all the originals in preparation, but that their only stipulation was that we arrive early enough to watch “all of the previews.” My son said, “I like these guys.”

I was feeling a bit of boyish enthusiasm, too, but enthusiasm seems qualitatively different than what the people around us were feeling. The people around us were feeling… feeling… I don’t know what they were feeling. Hysteria?  Religious frenzy? Group psychosis?

Instead of the typical movie chatter, people yapped from beginning to end.  The couple sitting behind us were particularly obnoxious with a Captain Obvious kind of running commentary: “They are battling each other!”  “She’s using the Force!” “They are getting on the ship! “Oh sh**!  Oh sh**! Oh sh**!”  The people in front of us were holding full discussions and convulsing with excitement.

Let me explain: The Stewarts and Stephens cousins lay claim to having invented the finger scramble.  The finger scramble is a physical expression of excitement or joy that you might experience when opening a big Christmas present, when getting ready to leave on vacation, or upon hearing that Heath Ledger isn’t actually dead (my daughters would finger scramble that one, anyway).  I made a video to demonstrate finger scrambling, but I haven’t figured out how to post videos to wordpress, yet so this will have to do; you put the tips of your fingers together and enthusiastically wiggle them. You can finger scramble with another person too — it’s surprisingly satisfying.

(I think the people at this wedding might have been sitting in front of us.)

The people in front of us were doing entire body scrambles — it wasn’t just nerd behavior, it was practically cultic. There were 15-20 people (adults, chronologically anyway) who apparently knew each other.  In the anticipation of the beginning of the movie, they all linked arms and grabbed and grasped at each other and patted each other and bobbed up and down and whispered and squealed and glanced back and forth as if they were 7th grade girls waiting for an appearance by Justin Bieber.  They didn’t just squeal at the big reveals, either, they squealed when the screen went dark, they squealed when the opening “Star Wars” logo appeared on the screen, they squealed when the opening crawl started rolling… I thought they would never stop squealing.  I shushed them once.  My buddy thought it was all an act, but the four guys right in front of us kept fawning over each other and actually sat on the edge of their seats (not just metaphorically, but literally) for 75% of the movie. The five of us were a little creeped out.

It’s old news to talk about big time college and professional athletics as  religious experience.   All humans are religious and if we don’t worship God, we will find something else to deify.  We are happy to transfer our glory, laud, and honor to something banal, like guys running around with a pigskin while wearing helmets and tights.  But I’d never seen it at a movie theater before.   Had Harrison Ford walked into our theater and said (like Tim Allen did in “Galaxy Quest”), “It’s all real!” the people sitting around us would have shouted, “WE BELIEVE!!!!!”

So I recommend the movie, but wait till the fanatics have had their fill. You’ll have to risk hearing an accidental spoiler or two on your social media feed, but maybe in a week or two all the true believers will be at home playing with their Star Wars action figures and lamenting the long wait until the next sequel.

(Darth Vader 2.0)


music, Uncategorized

A Night at the Opera: Why Live Music is Better than Earbuds


The problem with going to the symphony is that there are other people there.

People are very distracting.

I generally go to the symphony for the music, but other people go, apparently, to convalesce from lingering illnesses.

You know, if you have a collapsed lung, I’m sorry, but maybe you shouldn’t be going to the symphony.

I’m pretty sure the guy behind me had black lung disease and his wife, a very moist strain of the croup. The guy to my left had some sort of drainage which he tried to resolve vocally.  Two or three times per movement he said, “HEM!” (as in, “ahem,” but without the “a”).  Anything less than mezzo piano and the concert hall was filled with a cacophony of hacks, sniffs, and gurgles. It’s like people were trying. Some guy sitting on the mezzanine level got something stuck in his throat (steel wool?  a shard of glass?  a small ferret?) and expelled it with one startlingly violent explosion. It’s hard to pay attention to the oboe solo when someone with a pulmonary embolism is coughing up blood in Balcony Left.

And people chatter and carry on like they are at home watching B movies on Netflix.  Yak yak yak.  When the Tchaikovsky swells, they talk louder and keep talking when the music stops with a precipitous blank measure. We’re pretty sure the lady sitting next to Ruth blurted into the silence, “I’m gassy.” She also had a maladjusted hearing aid that kept squealing.  The lady, not Ruth.  Anyway, the elderly can talk really loud. By the way, have you noticed that nobody at the symphony shouts out “Classical!” the way the people shout out “Rock and Roll!” at a rock concert? Why is that?  I thought about yelling, “Late Baroque Forever!”during the pre-concert lecture, just to liven things up a little.

It’s easy to drown out the annoying people talking and whistling and shouting “Free Bird!” at a rock concert.  You just crank up the speakers. But you can’t turn up the speakers at the symphony to drown out the squeaky chairs.

Have I mentioned the squeaky chairs? At my local concert hall it’s like they commissioned the “Squeaky Chair Committee” and firmly insisted that they design and install squeaky chairs.  So the committee was thinking, “How about wicker?  That’s pretty noisy.  And what else?  Could we stuff the cushions with sea shells?  Bubble rap?”

I am willing to concede that I could be part of the problem.  Maybe I just need to learn to ignore things (like the woman in front of me scratching her scalp with one bony finger through a pile of permed blue hair).  I was, I’m not proud to admit, bothered by my wife who was reading the program notes during the Catacombs (Respighi). “It’s the Catacombs. You have to listen, dear,” I glared. She glared back, “They are program notes, pal. This is what they’re for,” and kept reading.  Maybe if I went to the symphony more often I would learn to overlook distractions, like the bilious man who insisted on showing off his vast classical music knowledge by being the first to applaud and shout, “Bravo!”  There is always a bilious man who claps first and shouts, “Bravo.”  Nothing demonstrates vast classical music knowledge like knowing when you’re supposed to clap.  Maybe I’m the only one who notices stuff like that.

But let’s suppose the audience had been silent. Better, let’s suppose I had a private audience with the orchestra.  Well, unfortunately, the orchestra is comprised of musicians who are, at least for the most part, people.  Take the percussionists. I hope they’re not getting paid as much as the rest of the orchestra because they don’t really do that much. It’s just four or five guys loitering in the back. I know they’re not technically musicians, but they could at least pretend.  Act busy, fellas.  Occasionally, one of them would put down his cell phone, get up, and bang a gong or something, but then he’d go sit back down and start texting again.  Or worse, they just sit there with their arms folded, looking around.  The looking around is maddening.  Shouldn’t they be concentrating on something?  Counting measures? Then they stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down.

The first chair trumpet player didn’t stand up — he lurched up — right in the middle of the Catacombs (my wife didn’t notice, of course) and dashed out one of the backstage doors, which he didn’t even bother to shut.  So not only is the first chair trumpet player missing, but my OCD is kicking in because the door is open a crack and I’m just wondering what happened to the poor guy.  “Is he incontinent?  Does he have diarrhea?”  I want to be listening to my favorite symphony of all time and all I can think about is the trumpet player on his knees, clinging to his trumpet and the toilet bowl, while retching his guts out. Of course, as it turns out, he left so he could play the famous “offstage” solo.  Again — I could be the problem.

Soloists, in general are distracting.  There should be rules for the soloists. There are alotta decent soloists, I’m sure, who play their part with humble dignity, but probably 75% of them insist on announcing, through a variety of contortions and convulsions, that THEY are playing. There was one guy, in particular, playing something oboe-like, who used every note as an opportunity to point to himself:  “Look at me!  I’m going to play this note and you’ll be able to tell because I’m whipping my oboe to the left… and now to the right… and now around in big expressive circles!”  And if that weren’t bad enough, he also kept lifting himself — poking himself up above the rest of the musicians, by tightening his buttocks against his chair.  I can’t think about pizzicato and arpeggios while I’m thinking about tight buttocks pressed up against a chair.

I should just stay home and listened to my earbuds.

Except then the final movement of the Pines, (the Apian Way), begins.  I’ve listened to it a hundred times on my stereo and I know what Respighi is trying to conjure. But in the symphony hall, it is more than an apparition. I’ve never been to Italy, but I can see the stone road and, in the sun-baked distance, the tips of the red banners fluttering in the wind. I see the Roman legions, war worn but proud, swaying in unison — each battle-hardened soldier filled with stories and mysteries from the Orient.  And I can see children scrambling to the tops of hillocks and stone outcroppings so they can get a better view.  When the piece reaches its climax and the soldiers finally are welcomed into the city, the music rises and shakes the earth, and there is a feeling in the concert hall that simply is not present at home, no matter how loud I turn up my speakers.

I don’t know how to explain the difference, but here’s a strange attempt…

In 2014 a Korean singer/rapper, Psy, wrote a song and performed a video that went world-wide viral: Gangnam Style. To the world’s non-Korean speaking population, it was just jibberish (except for the, “Hey!  Sexy Lady!” which was probably English, not Korean that accidentally sounded like English), but he seemed happy and funny and “it had a good beat and you could dance to it.” His fame swelled. To cash in, he went on a 3 month world tour, and milked his 15 minutes with gusto. When he finally went home to Seoul 80,000 Koreans showed up for a free outdoor concert  and what happened was pretty amazing. The Koreans don’t just listen to the music, they become the music.  Psy has a microphone and a massive wall of speakers to amplify his voice and drown out the crowd, but it doesn’t work — you can just barely hear him. The joyous Koreans are singing and rapping over the top of him. Then, during the chorus (which involves Psy hopping, ridiculously, as if he were riding a horse), the entire sea of humanity joins with him, bouncing up and down and pulsing in perfect unison.  I’m sure I’m reading too much into it, but it’s as if they are rejoicing — collectively delighting in the fact that the world had finally recognized and embraced at least one small piece of Korean culture. The cheering throughout, and of course the ovation, is like nothing I’ve ever heard (or seen) before.

What does this have to do with the symphony?  I’m not exactly sure, but somehow the collective experience of enjoying the performance is more profound than the music alone.  And it doesn’t matter if it’s a silly rap song or one of the most sophisticated works of musical art I’ve had the pleasure of hearing — something bigger happens when we enjoy music — perhaps when we enjoy anything, in community.  When our team scores, we turn to each other and cheer.  When the lecturer says something profound, we nod at each other and extend the conversation over coffee. When the finale concludes, we rise and applaud — something I never do when listening to my earbuds.

Here’s what I do know… I’ve listened to the Pines of Rome a hundred times and it’s magnificent every time, but only once did my eyes fill up with tears. That was the time, this past Saturday, when I listened to the Rochester Philharmonic perform it live, in front of a concert hall… filled with annoying people.

(If you want to listen to the concert version of the gangnam video, listen here.)

(The original video which made him famous is here.)

(And then wash out your ears by listening to Respighi!)


Mad Max: Fury Road, (a movie for your eyeballs)

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There are these people who get chased across the desert, see, and then they turn around and get chased right back. There are several crashes. The End.

“What?  No spoiler alert? You can’t give the whole thing away. Gosh!”

Look, friend, the purpose of a “spoiler alert” is to keep the reviewer from spoiling something. In order for something to spoil, it has to be able to spoil — that is, it has to be perishable (or valuable) in the first place. The surprise in The Sixth Sense? Now, there was a call for spoiler alerts. Mad Max? Well, as I just told you — nothing really happens.

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OK, some things happen. In a brutally post-apocalyptic world that has very little by way of outlet malls or Chipotle or water, (but still has oil refineries, and sophisticated hydroponics gardens, plenty of spare car parts, sterile medical supplies, chrome spray paint, etc.), a handsome rough and tumble guy (Mad Max — Tom Hardy) gets captured by some evil and warty, rough and tumble guys. These guys drag Max along when they go after one of their own, the fabulously non-warty Furioso (Charliz Theron with grease smudged on her head), who, on her way to the refinery, tries to lose her warty escorts. Is she fleeing for her own safety?  No, deep in the bowels of her twin-engine super-tanker behemoth, she is emancipating some hot supermodels (is that redundant?) from the clutches of an evil, Darth Vader-type overlord (also warty). This radiation-disfigured bad guy likes to impregnate non-warty supermodels in an effort to produce less warty offspring. The girls, as you can imagine, don’t like him. There is a chase and lots of crashes.  One of those crashes throws Mad Max and Furioso into an alliance — a quest to find some famed Shangri-la/Paradise/Utopia — a place filled with grass and shrubbery. Of course, when they realize the place doesn’t exist, they turn around and head back. More chasing and crashing ensues (but I repeat myself).

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In other words, nothing happens.

What’s more, the characters are flat — unchanging and predictable cartoon characters — adult comic book characters, but cartoons none-the-less. Much has been made of the “strong women” in the film, but mostly they are just beautiful. Write me a strong unattractive, complex super-heroine and you might have something to make Betty Friedan proud. The closest thing to character development is the conversion of one of the evil, warty, rough and tumble guys, (Nicholas Hoult as “War Boy Nux,”) to just warty and rough and tumble. He switches teams and helps the babes. Really? That counts as character development? “Let me see, I play for the ugly warty team. Should I switch to the non-warty supermodel team? Hmmmm. Can I phone a friend?”  What’s more, one of the babes (a clean, unblemished, red-head) falls in love with him, tumors and all. Of course he switched teams. Who wouldn’t? There is a pithy aphorism my supermodel friends bandy about: “Beware the post-apocalyptic warty guy who suddenly starts being nice — he might not be looking out for your best interests. Indeed, [the pithy aphorism continues], beware any guy who suddenly starts being nice — he might not be looking out for your best interests. He might be thinking something else all together.”  Isn’t that pithy?  The war boy didn’t undergo some powerful crisis that made him rethink his direction in life and his ethical values — he met a supermodel.

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(red-headed bombshell with the warty Nux — notice his shoulder and lips)

Anyway, the movie is lacking plot and character development and so what does that leave us?  From beginning to end we see! We just see. It’s not a movie, but a “picture show” of monstrous absurdity and wonder.  Mammoth Frankenstein vehicles cobbled together into gladiator-style battle bots, tractor-trailer boom boxes (complete with a ghoulish rock guitarist strung up on the rig, calling the marauding pursuers to action with violent acid guitar rifs), and mace-like spiked dune buggies… they all rage through the wasteland. The screen is filled with digitally masterful post-apocalyptic storms, a cast of dark and deformed radiation freaks, and fabulously violent crashes. Then there is the visual contrast of the damsels in distress (who, despite death and terror and horror and the complete lack of rest areas or waffle houses, seem, for the most part, serene and easy going). Max’s introduction to the ladies is wonderfully jarring.  Having survived end-of-the-world tornadoes and homicidal bad guys, he extricates himself from his totaled and sandstorm buried vehicle (pulling with him the body of some bad guy to which he is chained), and comes around the back of Furioso’s vehicle to find, in the blazing heat, girls clad in white linen, bathing in a garden hose. Oh, and did I mention it’s in 3D? A pretty good 3D, too. Only a few times did they violate the sense of suspended disbelief w/ an obvious pander to the 3D gimmick (making you duck, making you reach out to grab something, etc.).

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(extremely non-warty, and non-singing sirens)

Mad Max is visually jarring — and I think that’s the whole idea. The movie is a kind of visual feast. Not necessarily a beautiful one (like Elizabeth: The Golden Age or Emma, movies in which the director saw every scene as an opportunity to produce a work of aesthetic magnificence), but a feast for the eyes, nevertheless. And the ears. It was loud!

The movie is, in other words, just a spectacle. Mad Max is not meant to be wrestled with or meditated upon or puzzled over or blogged about — it’s just meant to be watched. You pay your money, get your 3D glasses, and try not to get motion sickness.

Marshall McLuhan identifies movies as a hot medium. He says that hot media are sensory rich — they provide all of the content/data so the audience has very little to do (in contrast to cool media, like books, that require the audience to contribute alot to make sense of the content). But this past semester, a group of my undergraduates argued that movies are “heating up.” As Hollywood works to compete with distractions (flat screen TVs, cell phones, the internets, and our increasingly pathetic attention spans, etc.), the writers and directors and special effects wizards must bombard us with action and extravaganza. The screen is filled from top to bottom and side to side with a blaze of action, horror, and visual stimulation, because without it, we would just stay home and watch Psych reruns.

This isn’t new.  Movies have been competing with television for a long time and they have been using spectacle as a weapon. Cecil B. DeMille’s movies are classic examples of this attempt to save the theater movie, but Moses and Ben Hur were more than spectacle — they were also powerful stories. My students noted (and argued) that a simple episode of The Simpsons can lead to discussion and conversation that can last for hours, but that after seeing the latest action/thriller we are likely to report to our friends, “Ya, it was pretty cool — some amazing special effects.”  There just isn’t much to talk about.

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I think my students are right.

I went to see Mad Max with a couple colleagues who, like me, were at the end of a semester and a long couple of weeks of tedious grading.  We were ready to shut off our brains for awhile and the Mad Max movie was the perfect vehicle (pun intended) to make this happen.  So, if you need an entertainment break and watching things smash up and explode in visually interesting ways helps you — go see Mad Max. There’s alot to see!  But if you are interested story, complexity, truth, and goodness, I’d probably suggest something else — like, say, a book.

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