The Justified Conscience

The most successful war movies in history seem to always revolve around the perpetual, sometimes unbearable paradox of human beings’ self-destructive tendency to creating wars.  And all of them manage to grasp a laser-focused facet of humanity as a starting point to illustrate the paradox.  In Hacksaw Ridge, the facet is faith.

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The film’s protagonist, Desmond Doss, was one of the very few conscientious objectors in the US history that have earned the highest military honor.  His story, on the individual level, seems like a paradox itself—joining the army despite his strong nonviolence philosophy, his conviction to never carrying a weapon, and ultimately, saving lives of 75 wounded soldiers under heavy gunfire almost singlehandedly.  The tension runs through the entire film, builds up as Desmond’s beliefs are markedly challenged by his peers and superiors, climaxes as he begins and succeeds in his heroic acts, and twists surprisingly as he agrees to join the fight on a Sabbath day, an action directly contradicting his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs that he has tightly held onto ever since the beginning.

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To me, that final twist is a moment of illumination when Desmond is able to set aside his doubts and struggles, and continues to do what is right to him, which leads to a few questions that greatly interest me.  What makes him change his behavior at that final moment?  Is it a sign of compromised faith as it  has been under siege by the gruesomeness of the battle?  Or is the faith elevated as Desmond ceases to be bound to legalism even though it is just his own version of law?  I prefer believing in the latter.  His final act justifies and bolsters his previous convictions, making the magnitude of his faith known, not just to his fellow soldiers back in time, but also to movie-goers in the 21st century.  In a culture that  values freedom, personal choice is merely protected, but justified conscience can be extolled.

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This film’s technical achievements are outstanding.  The battlefield scenes are easily among the most gory and bloody ones in film history, and yet relentlessly demonstrate the powerlessness of human in war.  It also salutes a number of notable war films by sharing their signature themes—sacrificial camaraderie in Saving Private Ryan, reflection of human cowardice in Paths of Glory,  war’s soul-twisting power in Full Metal Jacket…  Mel Gibson is a master of epics, often times centering grand scenes around singular historic figures, and arousing contemplation of Christianity.   The character of Desmond Doss blends common sentiments relatable to ordinary people with remarkable resilience and heroism transcending human nature, therefore renders the film a profound and thought-provoking masterpiece.  —WZ

All images in this article are from the internet and owned by Summit Entertainment.

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The Shape of Eternity

Paris’s architectural charisma was irresistible.  Ornate or simple, colorful or plain, the buildings all carried a unique temperament that was a vital part of this city.  Notre Dame and Sacré-Cœur, the two cathedrals that represented its grandeur, gave us the chance to walk into the past of Paris and savor its historical evolution via these two monumental cathedrals.

And yet they were so different from each other.  Notre Dame was gray, solemn, almost forbidding.  Its sharp outlines, towering spires and grotesque gargoyle statues demonstrated a textbook gothic style.  Approaching its grand front façade, however, we were immediately drawn by the incredible level of details of the numerous statues around its doorways, telling stories silently but vividly.  After a long wait in the queue, we climbed up the famous narrow and windy stone stairs to the top of one of the front towers.  Our ascension by foot was laborious and slow, and yet enabled us to see the cross-shaped hall roof and its accompanying flying buttresses.  It was a strange sensation viewing the vast city through arrays of gargoyles, some of which already worn out by the touch of ages.  It was beyond my fascination what viewers in the past saw from these particular angles.

Sacré-Cœur, on the other hand, was pure white.  Its hemispherical apse (back altar), together with numerous round arches, made the outline soft and mellow, marking the obvious oriental influence on the style.  Located on top of Montmartre Hill, the highest point of Paris, it provided yet another overlook of the city.  On the sunny and warm day of our visit, Paris was as radiant and vibrant as the cathedral itself.  Meandering its periphery, we encountered a string duet playing under one of the cathedral’s side arch doors.  We did not recognize the piece they were playing, but they were focused, skillful, and friendly, smiling at everyone that stopped to listen to them.  The echoing music added to the serene, narrow alley such liveliness  that it no longer felt like a relic, but something upbeat and relevant.

As protestants, touring a catholic church is always a mesmerizing experience.  Early Christianity not only defined regional culture heritages, but also shaped European history.   Notre Dame is considered the earliest Christian worship site in Paris, remained center of Catholicism in France, and witnessed numerous historic events there.  Sacré-Cœur was constructed much later, after the defeat of Franco-Prussian War and the uprising of Paris Commune, to expiate the “decline of morals” during that turbulent period of time.  How the faith for Christ guided the establishment of nations and yet became mere renditions of political agendas is profound.  These astonishing artistic virtues of these cathedrals may be attributed to divine inspirations, or more indirectly, expression of worship and awe in a most ingenious form.  And yet as time goes by, have they become the likes of other man-made wonders that boast the abilities of human mind and craftsmanship?  Did the height of the spires and vastness of arches point to the path to eternity, or did they limit it?

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Side view of Notre Dame
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Side view of Sacré-Cœur

Harmony Café also served a chicken dish that was earthy and comforting.  Its version of poulet suprême, or the best of chicken, was pan-seared to perfection, tender and juice, served with a sweet-savory jux (thin sauce), on a bed of roasted mix vegetables that reminded me of ratatouille in a lighter, fresher form.  I found the NYT Cooking’s chicken breast and chef Anne Burrell’s roasted veggie recipes gave very similar results to what we tasted in Paris.  Click on the links to view the original recipes—my versions did not deviate from them significantly.

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Poulet suprême with roasted veggies and jus at Harmony Café

The chicken breasts in this recipe are seasoned and seared in an oven-proof skillet before the cooking is finished in the oven.  The cooking juice of the chicken is then mixed with verjuice, which is a sweet-sour fruit juice, more chicken stock, and herbs before being reduced to the jus.  Verjuice is not a common ingredient in the US, and I found that it could be replaced with the same amount of white wine vinegar and a little bit of sugar (to taste).  The recipe also calls for a generous amount of Dijon mustard, which I think might be overpowering.  I would reduce it in half or completely remove it, to allow the chicken flavor to shine.

The roasted veggie ratatouille requires cooking veggies in just 2 batches, which makes it less time-consuming than traditional ratatouille.  The harder-to-cook veggies, Eggplant, zucchini, squash, and tomatoes, are sliced into the same thickness before being roasted in oven.  Onions and bell peppers, which take less time to cook, are sautéed and then mixed with the roasted veggies after they are cooled and cut into smaller pieces.  Vinegar and fresh herbs are added in the end to make the dish earthy-rich and fresh-tasting at the same time.   —WZ

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Chicken beast with jus and roasted vegetables from our kitchen

A Valley Not Barren

Death Valley had always been a mysterious and formidable destination for us.  Extreme heat and aridity being the causes of enjoyable objects was simply beyond our imagination.  And yet we kept hearing testimonies about the unique landscape and experience it could offer.  We finally decided to explore it at the end of a peaceful winter break.

Having lived in California for over a decade, we thought we had already gotten used to the geological and climatic diversity within this vast state.  Within a few hours of drive, we had departed from the humid cool East Bay, cut through green-orchard-ridden Central Valley, and reached the southern tip of the High Sierra.  Turning eastward from there, towering mountains and extensive deserts began to alternate dramatically, and finally led us into the rust-colored Panamint Range that guarded the west rim of Death Valley.

Entering the valley at dusk added another layer of mystery to our anticipations.  The setting sun cast its deepest red-brown hues onto the mountains, blending short shrubs, rocks, and soil into unpolished canvases, which quickly started to sink into darkness.  At that moment the edges of mountains where they met the sky became the only visible thing, outlining the extensive yet fathomable dimension of the valley.   When the daylight finally appeared, however, the valley became surprisingly lively, not so much in the varieties of creatures, but rather the shapes, colors, and textures of geological formations within our sight.

Badwater Basin, the lowest point of land in North America at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level, was a grand salt flat.  Rain, scarce as it is, dissolves minerals in the soil of surrounding mountains, brings them down to the bottom of the valley, evaporates under high heat, and accumulates the salt crystals there.  The majority of the area was flat, smooth, and white as snow; the edge, where the ground was a mixture of mud and salts, however, had a much coarse, wavy appearance.  The visuals were so unusual that we felt as if we were walking on a giant lake, frozen in time.

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Badwater Basin
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Devil’s Golf Course at the edge of Badwater Basin

The high 70s temperature here reminded us of the amenable Southern California winter weather, but as we drove around, we were reminded of the harshness of the natural conditions during the rest of the year.  Rock arches among bare, crumbly hills, along with the badlands structures at Zabriskie Point were evidence of  the immense power of nature over ages that had drastically shifted the shape of land.  At Artist’s Palette, the entire face of a hillside displayed the most unnatural array of vibrant colors, caused by chemical weathering and hydro-thermal alteration of an area where various geological components had deposited and cemented.  Every tourist was ecstatic here, climbing up the radiant hill like children.  What a feast of visual enjoyment in such an unexpected way!

Mosaic Canyon was a spot where the valley seemed to have opened her heart to us.  A rocky side road led into a trail that was a dried river bed.  The two sides of the river banks often times revealed completely different textures–one side mainly contained coarse, grainy sediments; the other was composed of enormous, smooth boulders.  Walking on the quiet trail, I could imaging the river in the past, where roaring water gushed down, carrying rocks that constantly scraped  the banks for centuries or longer.  Was that not the past of the entire Death Valley that was dynamic and ever-changing?  Or was it even the case now, except we couldn’t notice it with our naked eyes?

 

We were told this was the start of Death Valley’s light season for tourists, and yet clusters of people still filled the place, most with awe and joy upon setting foot on this marvelous land.  And we were not alone!  Native Americans have been residing here for over a thousand years, relying on the flora and fauna that are resilient enough to survive the extreme conditions.  At Salt Creek,  where streams of water flowed all year long, we saw an expansive bed of desert plants, and were told that pupfish, a species unique to Death Valley, could be found abundantly in the extremely salty waters in spring, along with blankets of wildflowers that could cover large areas of the valley.   The name “Death Valley” may not be really appropriate after all.  And yet it does proclaim the reverence we ought to have toward nature and the forces it is able to render.

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Salt Creek

Stovewell Pipes was the town we stayed in during our visit.  This town was within the National Park periphery and provided comfortable daily rest one would need to explore a remote area like this.  Toll Road Restaurant, the only dining place in the town, had a decent menu, where an entrée called Pigs N’ Puddin’ stood out.  This Tex-Mex dish featured barbecue ribs on a bed of polenta.  The rich, tangy barbecue contrasted and complemented the creamy polenta nicely, with some salsa on top, bringing a touch of freshness.  It was a beautiful, hearty dish after one day’s exploration in the dry, warm wilderness.

Coming home, Fei successfully brought the Pigs N’ Puddin’ into our kitchen.  She used the Smitten Kitchen’s oven-roasted ribs recipe, where spare ribs (for flavors) or baby back ribs (for tenderness) were seasoned with a dry rub, wrapped in foil packets, and cooked in the oven.  The juice of the cooked meat was then reduced into a naturally thick sauce.  Polenta was cooked with milk into a thick porridge, blended with cheese for extra creaminess, and then topped with the cooked meat and sauce.  Minced fresh herbs (cilantro or chives) and diced tomatoes and avocado added the final complexity of colors and flavors.  This dish has become a course of comfort food that we now cook often times, and reminds us of the memorable moments we have spent in Death Valley.  —WZ

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Barbecue ribs with creamy polenta, avocado, tomatoes, and fresh herbs

Bonjour, Madame! Bonjour, Monsieur!

We arrived in Paris at early dusk.   After a short train ride from Gare du Nord, our rental flat was within a couple of blocks.  As we walked on Boulevard de Port-Royal, a hue of light gray started to descend on the city, which seemed to have softened everything—the edges of buildings, the noise of traffic, and the rushing waves of people that would all be typical for a modern metropolitan.   My nervousness eased a little.  It was difficult not to have high expectations when you were going to a place like Paris!  And for me that is usually a source of nervousness, even though I know some French, and Fei and I had both been there before!

Of course it was different this time.  Exactly ten years had passed, and our daughter Emily was now almost nine years old, had learned about many famous places around the world, and dreamed of climbing the Eiffel Tower.  This summer I had an opportunity to travel to Europe for work.  So here we were, beginning our five-day  trip in the “City of Light”.

Our first full day in Paris started with a casual stroll along and around Champs-Élysées.  At Arc de Triomphe, we marveled at the sheer grandeur of the monument.   Constructed in the early 1800s, Arc de Triomphe was originally commissioned as a celebration of a critical battle in the Napoleon Wars.  Two centuries later, it now commemorates valor and patriotism that uphold far more than the transient existence of the Empire.  What a recurring theme in the drama of history for rulers throughout the world to construct man-made wonders to flaunt power and wealth!  And yet how many of them survived history with legitimate legacy and artistic value for the later ages to admire?

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Arc de Triomphe

Unsurprisingly, Champs-Élysées struck us as the Fifth Avenue in another continent.  The extravagant fashion brands and exquisite foods seemed pleasing to all senses, but our detour to a street market turned out to be more satisfying.  Rue Poncelet was a narrow and short street filled with stalls displaying the richness of their produce almost in a show-off fashion.  The colors in our eyes were a resemblance of oil paintings, and air was filled with scents of cheese, meats, and baked goods.  None of the vendors spoke English, and yet all tried to at least  extend a friendly greeting.  One of the cheese vendors was finally brave enough to talk to us with single English words, and successfully sold us some excellent sheep cheese and pepper-coated salami, which we later assembled into a scrumptious picnic lunch on the shade-covered lawns next to the Petit Palais.

The most exciting moment (to Emily, at least) finally came when we approached the Eiffel Tower in the late afternoon.  It started to drizzle a little, but that did not stop tourists from all over the world from lining up to climb this symbol of Paris, us included.  Observed from its enormous base,  the steel giant was a stunning combination of straight struts of various sizes, which eventually merged into a graceful curvature, steady and silent.  When we finally reached the highest observation deck and started surveying the city from the shoulder of the giant, Paris all of a sudden unfolded right in front of us.  Once again, it was composed of various shades of gray, all indescribably lively and harmonious.  Walking around the deck, we tried to identify the famous landmarks, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Sacré-Cœur, and the spokes of roads that led to the Arc de Triomphe.  Amazed, I still felt I was missing one, then I laughed, realizing I was thinking about the tower we were standing on.  How intriguing that I had forgotten where I was after finally reaching the destination, which had also granted me this breathtaking spectacle!

I guess the man-made wonders do carry their meanings.  In this case, it helped revealing the beauty of another wonder, the landscape of Paris, the apex of civil engineering around a historic river, of which the tower itself is a vital component.  Interestingly, the tower was built to be only a temporary symbol for the 1889 World’s Fair; it attracted wide criticism upon its erection, but lasted to become the icon of the city.  Was it serendipity?   Or was it something ingenious about it that eventually stood the test of time?


After a full day of wandering, we were in desperate need for some hearty food .  Harmony Café, which stood right across the street, allured us with maroon awnings and rustic patio chairs that we would see in Paris-themed romantic movies.  The waitress and owner both spoke excellent English, and yet introduced their food with curious reservation and almost nonchalantly: “everything here is good”.  We had no choice but let our appetite guide us, and ordered croque madame.   The open-faced sandwich was built with rustic French bread,  a generous layer of nutty cheese that tasted like Gruyère, slices of earthy ham, and topped with a fried egg.  Savory, cheesy, and rich, the sandwich was a perfectly warm ending of a busy day.  As we were leaving the restaurant, we casually asked the owner their hours, thinking we might be back to explore the rest of the menu.  The owner scratched his head as if it was a difficult question.  “We close when the last guests leave.”  He answered with a smile.

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Croque madame at Harmony Café

Upon returning to the States, the croque madame was the first thing I tried to replicate in our kitchen, along with the egg-less version, croque monsieur.  Following the epicurious.com recipe, I realized that  it was the béchamel sauce that gave the sandwich the unusual moisture and richness.  Unlike many sandwiches that just require simple assembly, this dish was not something that could be put together with haste.  Two hours of restless work yielded 6 sandwiches, a very sweaty me, and a burn mark on my finger (which does not happen very often).  “It’s almost as good as what we ate in Paris.”  My little critique said in an as-a-matter-of-fact fashion after gobbling one down.  My heart felt as warm as when I was greeted by the City of Light in its own cool way.  —WZ

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Croque madame & croque monsieur from our kitchen