03 January 2018

New Year 2018

Happy New Year!

Suddenly 2017 is gone in a blur--like 24 flu you're happy to see the end of but can't totally remember. I have high hopes for 2018 as eight is my lucky number and things are looking rosy.

But 2017 hasn't been all bad. There have been some pretty big milestones worth remembering.

For one thing, Jon and I moved to Bath. We spent our fifth anniversary scouting out housing in this beautiful little town.

In the summer I got to spend time with both Jon's and my sides of the family.

For my birthday in September, Jon surprised me by taking me to the Bee and Pollination Festival, which probably sounds outrageously lame to most people but I was over the moon. I want to have honeybees in the worst possible way so I was in heaven.

Also, since I finished my dissertation, I've been able to post several more episodes of Seer, my youtube channel about Mormon art. Here are episodes 1, 2, and 3!

I've really enjoyed making them, though they are about 100x more time consuming than I had originally anticipated. I think part of my struggle is the fact that I've been writing and editing the videos while going through IVF.

IVF was a waking nightmare. It was literally the physically difficult thing I've ever done in my life, partially because my ovaries hyper-stimulated part way through (which is actually quite dangerous and some people have even died from it).

Me mid IVF. I felt like I was dying. The medication pictured is only about 1 weeks worth (up to 3 injections per day + pills and suppositories). I took medication all the way from early September until mid December.
But it turns out it was all worth it because it actually worked! I chronicled the miracle in the fourth instalment of Seer (along with some apropos images of the annunciation):

To celebrate we had a two pronged celebration. First, we spent the weekend in London for Jon's birthday where we enjoyed my favourite yearly ritual of Winter Wonderland (this time with some friends from Bath) and we were even blessed with the rare snowstorm right as we were by St. Paul's cathedral.

Part two has been in the works for a couple of years. Once we learned that modern day druids are basically these crazy hippies that dress up like unicorns and renaissance faire robes and chant around Stonehenge twice a year, I decided we simply had to take my pregnant belly to watch the sunrise on Winter solstice and bask in their nature-loving glory. Let me tell you, they didn't disappoint. 

Just a few days later was Christmas, and let me tell you Bath really does it right. The whole town turns into this magic place, covered in fairy lights and little Bavarian market stalls. We went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve then went home, pulled the mattress off the bed and slept under the Christmas tree. It was a perfect Christmas. 

So that was 2017, at least all the major happy bits. Excited to see what this year brings. 

09 October 2017

After the Degree

Well hello out there!

It has been sometime since I've been here chatting with you. The masters degree took over my life, along with an abrupt move out of London to the beautiful English town of Bath. But now that the degree is more or less done, I can finally to something with it!

So, here's the project I've been working on... It's a new YouTube channel called Seer and it will be all about Mormon art. What is Mormon art? Who makes it? Why? Is it any good? There is this big wide world of glorious things to explore. Take a look :)

23 March 2017

The Seen and the Unseen

Yesterday, I left the flat to pick up the little girl I nanny and take her to cello lessons. Jon was at home-- he'd gotten caught up watching a film instead of taking a run like he'd planned.

When I reached the station, my phone rang. “Jess! Don't get on the train. There was guy that was just shot and another stabbed and some people were just run down right next to parliament. You can't go down to Westminster today.”

Numb, I made a few calls and rushed home to watch the coverage. It was especially jarring because, had Jon gone on that run like he'd intended, he would have passed right over Westminster bridge at approximately the time of the attack.

As I sat down in front of the screen, I realised that watching the news now is a completely different experience after having gone through this theology degree. Because I've been studying belief through the lens of visual images, watching the media brings with it a minefield of associations and recognitions. I realised that, even when it is unarticulated, the news seeks to do something that has been the fundamental quest of all religion; it attempts uncover Truth and to take man as close to the unknowable as possible.

The first thing I saw when I sat down to watch was an aerial view of parliament and the surrounding buildings. A helicopter flew around the scene where police cars and police officers in high-vis green jackets dotted the bridge. The reporters chattered on and I became increasingly struck by the unknown. They were attempting to show what couldn't be seen, to describe what can't be spoken (because honestly no one knew what was going on). 

Film has done this since its inception, particularly when dealing with the great mysteries of the world. Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments depicts God with a trembling Moses on Mt Sinai as an animated swirling fire. By conventional theology, God is unknowable, and yet DeMille sought to make him manifest. He resolved the paradox by depicting God as an ephemeral, authoritative flame, which despite being a bit cheesy, succeeds in simultaneously displaying and veiling the truth of God. 
God is shown as a pillar of fire in The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston

Similar things are done in Henry Koster's The Robe and Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum where the filming in both works focuses on the reactions of the crowd instead of the significant historical persons. The faces of Jesus and Hitler are not shown, rather only part of their bodies-- carrying a cross (below) and, in the case of The Tin Drum, the outstretched arm (of Hitler). 

This veiled approach was certainly less intentional in yesterday's coverage of the attack, but was still present. Repeatedly, the reporters would ask “Where is the prime minister?” after which a montage of 10 Downing street would be shown and assurances would be given (either from themselves or the person they were interviewing) that she was safe and likely at her home “one of the safest places in Britain.”

Invoking the unseen nature of Theresa May, followed by a visualisation of her safe local (in which she is hidden) lent a sense of security to the whole broadcast. Our leader was safe. We would be safe.

This contrasted somewhat to imagery we soon saw of perpetrator. We were soon shown explicit images of the man lying on his back receiving medical attention. This image is powerful on many levels.

First is the framing of the image. It is cropped in tight. In religious films, this shot is important in establishing the “sacred.” This idea is probably best expressed by the root of the German wúh (meaning “sacred”) whose roots means to 'be separate or apart.' When something is important it is set apart and focus in on it closely. Interestingly, the news reports the criminal using this shot.

Significantly, the man is framed by paramedics. In contrast to his callous disdain for human life, they cherish it and are trying to preserve his life. 

Interestingly, this moment is marked strongly by what the reporters are NOT saying. Even without the man's name or background, the image of dark-complexioned man with beard (a trademark style of jihadi imagery in the West) with the words “Terror Attack” emblazoned on the consciousness of the viewer screams a message that is pretty difficult to ignore. To the reporters credit though (at least with the coverage I saw), there was no immediate prejudicial assumptions articulated. The possible connection to Islamic radicalism was left powerfully unsaid.

The question of whether something should be said or shown or left alone is critical to religious art, particularly in film. One of the most famous documentary films of all time, Alain Resnais's Nuit et Brouillard showed the explicit aftermath of the Holocaust. In one scene, the camera pans over the ceiling of the Auschwitz gas chamber as a voice over describes unseen nail marks in the plaster. Later, the most graphic scene of the film shows naked, emaciated bodies being unceremoniously bulldozed into graves. It is the most upsetting piece of film I've ever seen in my life.

Jewish filmmaker Claude Lanzmann was also famously affected by the imagery. He once said, “I have always said that archival images are images without imagination. They petrify thought and kill any power of evocation." He believed representation diminished reality, perhaps much the same way seeing the antagonist in a horror film usually ruins the fear and thrill. Showing makes the reality banal.

By contrast, French film director Jean-Luc Godard believed images would be redemptive. In yesterdays attack, there was one such redemptive moment. In the midst of revelations about victims of the attack including numerous foreign children in London on holiday, a hero rose up. Tobias Ellwood, a military trained MP, ran out of the building when he heard something was amiss. On the ground was an unconscious police officer. Ellwood gave him mouth to mouth and medical attention until the paramedics arrived. Again, the news gives us another close up. This time it is triumphant.

The argument for the redemptive quality of images is that it will keep us from making the same mistakes again. While there is always a fear of desensitisation to the horrors of a fallen world, images have a compensatory quality. The violence that was perpetrated wasn't for nothing because it was documented. Images hold the offending party accountable so that they can't be lost to memory and time.

It is odd to be so close to moments like the one that happened yesterday. There is still a great deal to be uncovered and it will likely never be fully understood. But I'm grateful to be safe and to be well and to live in this wonderful city.

03 March 2017

Grandpa Summers

My grandfather passed away a few weeks ago, so I put together this video for his funeral.

For the past several years I've been collecting photos and video of my grandpa. I spent one summer with him scanning all the images we could find. It was an important moment for me because I never really knew my biological grandmother, so to hear all of his stories about her made her feel more real.

I'll miss my grandpa, but I know he is in a better place, feeling stronger and happier. Til we meet again, grandpa.

09 February 2017

7 Must-Know Questions About Traveling to London

I get a lot of questions from people wanting to travel to London. I realised I am repeating myself quite a bit so it is about time I posted the answers:

Question 1: Where should I stay in London?

This is a really tough question as London is a big city. I dug in deep and did an in-depth article about it which you can read here. I don't have specific hotels to recommend, but I am a big fan of Airbnb, especially for families. If you use this link you'll get £30 free (and so will I!).

Question 2: I have 2-3 days in London, what should I see?

I definitely recommend seeing the main sites-- Big Ben, London Eye, etc. If you want to see churches, I highly recommend going to an Evensong service (basically just a choral church service with a sermon). St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey would be my two top choices. 

A nice walking tour would be to start at St. Paul's Cathedral, cross the Millennium Bridge and walk along to the river until you come to Tower bridge. You'll see lots of fun things along the way (including the Tate Modern museum, the Globe Theatre, and the HMS Belfast).

There are TONS of great museums, almost all of which are free. If you have only a couple of days, I'd recommend the following: the National Gallery (full of paintings), British Museum (full of ancient artifacts including the Elgin marbles and mummies), and the trio in South Kensington (Victoria & Albert, Natural History, Science-- all also by the church visitors center). I'd probably rank them in that order, though I think the British Museum may appeal more to most people. 

If you want a bit of an off-the-beaten-path experience, I'd recommend Camden Market. It is like Portbello Road (from Bedknobs and Broomsticks) meets Diagon Alley (from Harry Potter) mixed in with punk and hippies. Definitely will be more interesting for a teenage/young adult tourists. 

Question 3: What should I avoid?

My answers to this are a bit controversial, but I personally would never spend money on Madame Tussauds Wax museum, which is a big tourist attraction. I also would probably not spend money on the London Eye ride (it is pricey and very slow, though you would get a new vantage to the city). 

As I mentioned before I wouldn't pay to get inside a church. Unfortunately, when you go to a service, you can't really explore the church, but you have a solid hour or two to look around from where you are seated (and its free).

Question 4: What do I do for Transport?

This really depends on how much you want to spend. I always take the Heathrow Connect (not the Heathrow Express, which is faster but also more expensive) to Paddington Station after getting off the plane. From there you can get pretty much anywhere around the city via the tube.

If you want the tube to be your main transport (beware those of you that are claustrophobic), you'll need to buy a pass, which you can get at any of the machines inside the tube station. If you are only going to be in London a couple of days and you want to travel around a bit, I'd recommend a day pass. If you are going to be there for a week or so and are unsure how much you'll be traveling, I'd buy an oyster card (which you buy at the machines as well) and put money on it (also done at the machines).

You will need an oyster card/day pass to ride on the buses as well-- you can not get on the buses with cash. Many people think the double deckers are just tourist buses, but they are not. There are a few specific ones for tours, but the vast majority are just normal city buses. I probably wouldn't waste money on the tour, I'd just hop on a route that passes most of the good stuff (like route 11) and enjoy the view for less than £2.

Of course, if you can afford it, you can always take a taxi. Almost every cab takes Visa and American Express. Uber is also alive and well in the London.

Question 5: What foods do I have to try?

You should definitely try fish and chips. It always surprises tourists that it is very bland. It is meant to be eaten with salt and vinegar, not plain, so don't make that mistake. I always eat mine with ketchup.

I also highly recommend bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes) or a meat pie (which are usually like a chicken pot pie with other meat-- rarely veg, but sometimes like a shepherd's pie, with a meat layer on the bottom and mashed potatoes on top).

Question 6: How is the weather?

British people like to complain about the weather a lot. Honestly, I don't think it is really much to worry yourself about. I'd definitely pack an umbrella, but I wouldn't worry about making room for wellies if you don't already have space. It usually doesn't rain for long when it does rain. But, unless you are coming in the summer time, you'll want to wear layers and bundle up well.

Question 7: What should I do about currency?

This depends. Almost everywhere takes card, so check with your bank to see if there are foreign transaction fees if you use it abroad (and also let them know you will be using it in the UK so they don't freeze your account while you are traveling).

You can exchange cash once you get in the country, but you'll probably get a better exchange rate if you do it before you leave.


Anyway, if you have any other questions you'd like me to answer in the future, let me know!
Have a wonder trip to London!