Monday, February 26, 2007

Legno Orientale

I didn't watch much of the Oscars last night. I only just turned them on briefly as I was going to bed. I did turn it on in time to see something of a surreal moment that Oscar provides every so often. More often than not this is usually the result of the participants having engaged in a little too much pre-show revelry, and I think that may have played something of a role this time as well.

Clint Eastwood comes to the podium to present a lifetime achievement award to Ennio Morricone, the composer behind the instantly recognizable and eternally pervasive music to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly among other Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. Now normally this moment in the show is one surrounded by dignity and solemnity as the academy honors someone who has contributed huge amounts of work to the industry over their lifetime. However, dear old Clint apparently forgot his glasses and thus couldn't read the teleprompter. This led to an oddly rambling speech that clearly was along the lines of what had been scripted and yet wasn't quite there. The train wreck was complete as Clint tried to remember the line to cue the film, and peering into the teleprompter took several stabs at what was written there before the director had mercy on him and cued the tape.

This in itself wouldn't have been particularly remarkable. What really surprised me was what came afterward. Ennio gets up to accept the award, and after saying "Thank You" in English, he launches into a monologue in Italian. While Italian is a beautiful language to listen to I have a feeling that most were in my shoes, completely at sea as to what he was saying. I was a bit surprised that the Academy hadn't anticipated that an Italian might actually speak Italian and have a translator available. However, after Ennio had spoken at some length with Clint looking on happily, someone in the audience shouted out something that I presume was "What's he saying?"

Clint leans forward and says, "Yes, I'll tell you what he's saying" and promptly summarizes what Ennio had just said. Ennio had spoken at some length, and Clint's summary seemed a bit short, so I at first thought that he was either making it up or that someone was either writing it up or telling him through an earpiece. But as he continued it became clear that Clint was, sure enough, translating from the Italian.

After my initial shock wore off, I thought "well, duh. Of course he speaks Italian. He made how many films with Sergio Leone?" But that was years ago, and here he is now just translating his heart out. While drunk no less. I tell you, this guy's amazing.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Holy Lent

For those of you who are not familiar with the Catholic-based forms of Christianity, this past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent. This is a penitential season, where people are called on to fast, pray, and generally be reflective about their lives and their relationship with God. It is also, oddly, one of my favorite seasons in the church. There is something refreshing about dedicating yourself for 40 days to exploring and understanding the non-physical side of yourself and the world around you. At the end I always feel more connected to myself and more grounded, ready for the new birth of the world.

People who don't know me well are often surprised to find out that I am fairly religious person. Apparently, there is still a prevailing belief in our society that one cannot be both an intellectual and religious at the same time, C.S. Lewis's efforts notwithstanding. This is a relatively new phenomenon however. For millenia the only place one could find intellectuals was in the church. The idea was that by pursuing science and reason we would come closer to understanding our relationship to God. Personally, I still find that to be true. I think it's highly unfortunate that so many do not.

This attitude seems to owe its origins to thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Bertrand Russell; all who saw the way that religion was turned away from its original purpose of increasing human understanding of those things which were and continue to be mysterious, and instead towards controlling and marginalizing unsavory elements of the population. The irony being that Christianity when taken seriously actually supports those very things that these thinkers also supported. Jesus was an extreme advocate for the poor and the oppressed, just as Marx was. The message we get from the New Testament is that being human is good-- so good that even God shares in it-- just as Nietzsche would like us to think. And finally, Paul calls us to a life where when fulfilled we shall see not as "through a glass, darkly", but face to face with Truth. Russell surely would have loved the clarity and revelation such a meeting would give. So while the abuse of human spirituality by tyrants and oppressors is a terrible thing that continues to this day, it is not worth throwing out the entire enterprise for. There are many things that continue to puzzle and astound us, and I personally find it much more rewarding to stand back in awe of the vastness and complexity of life rather than attempt to pigeonhole it into some incomplete theory that we have the arrogance to suppose is absolute fact.

That's not to say that we shouldn't ask the questions of course. In fact, that sort of an investigation into the very meaning of life itself is what I believe we are called to do in Lent. While fasting may have been traded in for "giving things up," that doesn't make the process any less worthwhile. For example, I usually give up candy for Lent. While that may seem like a silly and simple thing to do, given that I normally eat some sort of candy throughout the day it serves as strong reminder to me every time I reach for the candy bowl that I am about something else right now. By denying that urge that I normally placate, I give myself the opportunity to reflect on what I'm doing and why I'm doing it.

Some people have asked me why I buy into the backstory and apparently irrational aspects of the Christian faith, when I could get the same sort of reflection and insight without the baggage by practicing Buddhism or Taoism. The truth is that I like the backstory. I always find more and more meaning in the stories of Jesus and the letters of Paul every time I read them. Not only that, but just as the Buddhists usually have some framework for their meditation, the Anglican service has always been a good framework for me to think, meditate, pray, sing and reflect on all these things.

This is usually the point where they press me on specific points. For example, I aver every week that Jesus was "born of the virgin Mary." How can I possibly believe in virgin birth? The answer is, I don't care. That's the point of faith. I don't particularly care whether it's possible or not. I don't even care whether or not Mary was "in fact" a virgin when Jesus was conceived. The reason I say that every week is to acknowledge that without God none of this would have happened, and that God is always doing new and wonderful things in the world around us if we just open our eyes to see them.

So even if you're not religious, I invite you to a Holy Lent. Stop what you're doing for a moment. Close your eyes. Let go of every thought that crosses your mind. Ignore the pressure of the world around you. Don't think about what you're going to have for dinner, or whether you fed the cats, or what your boss thinks of you, or whether the world is going to end tomorrow. And when you are completely quiet, listen for a moment for that still, small voice of calm that says, "I love you."

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Barbie vs. The Rock

Probably one of the most challenging aspects of my job is biting my tongue when I see some of the techniques that pass for parenting these days. I'm sure that these sorts of things have been going on since the dawn of time, and we probably are doing better parenting now than ever before in human history, but that doesn't stop me from cringing when I see parents screaming at kids to shut up, telling kids that if they don't stand perfectly still and not touch anything they can't have a book to read, or any one of a number of other brilliant responses to problems that wouldn't exist if they just saw their kids as human beings and tried to talk to them.

The other day I had one that ascended to a meta-level of commentary on society. A mom with a very talkative and engaged 6-year-old were standing at the circulation counter trying to decide what movies to get. Since they were taking their time, I continued checking in returns. While I was doing this, the boy saw me check in a copy of Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, a Powerpuffesque Japanimation series about a rock band that happens to feature two female artists. He thought it looked cool and wanted to check it out. The mother says, "Oh, I don't know honey, that looks like a girl's movie." I was about to point out that it was really gender neutral and just happened to feature two girls, when the mother decided to share with me, "He likes a lot of those Barbie movies and it kinda freaks me out!"

Apparently, enjoyment of Barbie by a male is a sign of some form of mental defect that should be cause for parental concern. This is the point where my tongue begins to bleed. I was tempted to point out that I had played with Barbies with my female friends at about the same age, but given the stereotypes associated with my profession I doubt this would have reassured her. So I continued to chomp down hard, smiled, and went about my business.

The boy continued to look at all the movies, and eventually came across Doom. He proceeded to tell me about how it was a scary movie, but apparently scary in a way that makes him very excited. He went into detail about his favorite scenes in the movie at some length, until his mother said something to the effect of "Honey, stop it before they think I'm a bad parent!"

Doom is rated R for strong violence/gore and language.

Now given how engaged the boy was, how talkative he was, and the fact that they were in the library together at all, I have little fear that he will grow up to become an axe-murdering psychopath. I'm sure he will do just fine. I just worry about a society that finds it perfectly acceptable to condone gory monster-slaying while condemning magical castles and fairies.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Barackary Clintama

I've started to hold out some vague hope for the next presidential elections. At least, unlike the last time, it looks like I'll have enough choices to make voting in the Democratic primary worth my while. Last time I was so non-plussed with my choices for Democratic nominee that I voted in the Republican primary just so I could have the pleasure of voting against Dubya twice in the same year (which had the unfortunate side effect of putting me on the Republican mailing list. Although I've often entertained the idea of showing up at some of the party events I get invites to just to blow their minds). Don't get me wrong, I like John Kerry just fine. I just think it's an indication of how badly people wanted to get rid of Bush even in 2004 that Kerry did as well as he did. Speaking as a fellow tall, funny-looking egghead, he just wasn't electable.

So at this point it looks like it will be Obama vs. Clinton for the Democratic nomination (although lord knows things can change in second-- anyone remember Tsongas?). The first thought to cross my mind at this pairing is "it's bloody well about time." But that's immediately followed by "what the hell is all the fuss about?" Here are two highly intelligent, highly qualified individuals who are insane enough to want to be president of the United States. Who cares what colored pieces of flesh they have or don't have?

Of course, sadly, there are a lot of voters out there who do care. There are probably plenty of people in this country who will look at that ballot and think to themselves, "Oh, I don't know if a woman is strong enough to be president" or "I don't know if a black is smart enough to be president." That's seriously fucked up, but there it is. Welcome to America.

So who do I like? I have to say that I have a really hard time getting behind Clinton. She's always struck me as a bit of a party follower rather than leader. As senator she's gone with the pack on several things, most notably the war in Iraq, that I don't think would have cost her much political capital to oppose. While that may not be enough to knock her off some people's lists, I think it may be indicative of a larger issue. We're really going to need someone who will move forward with confidence and do what they believe in, rather than someone who is going to do what is politically safe or what her advisors say should be done.

Obama on the other hand impresses the hell out of me. Not only is he obviously extremely intelligent, motivated, and passionate, he can actually express all those things in a way that anyone can connect to and understand. He comes across as open and honest with nothing to hide. Of course, that all means that if he does have something to hide he damn well better not get caught because it would kill his campaign or presidency in a second. It's a shame that we have come to distrust politicians so much that such an event seems entirely possible.

What blows my mind about Obama though is how he's being received by the black political community. First, there are those who seem to think he can't be involved in black politics because he didn't pay his dues in the civil rights struggle. But even worse, there's this overwhelming response from so many of them that essentially seems to boil down to "he's not black enough." How is that not racist? Here's a guy who in a lot of ways embodies MLK's dream. He happens to be the child of an African father and white mother (which, incidentally, makes him much more African American than most) who experienced all the advantages that any white child would have received growing up, being judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. So now just because he's managed to connect to white voters in a way Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson didn't he's not black enough? Just because he went to Harvard and had a priviledged upbringing he can't represent Black America?

The one that really kills me is the suggestion that African Americans won't vote for Obama because he didn't have the "Black Experience" growing up. So apparently a necessary condition of representing Black America is growing up experiencing poverty, prejudice, violence, and all the other stereotypical issues associated with the racial problems in this country? Making this claim hurts African Americans everywhere by solidifying these stereotypes, further alienating those who are too prejudiced to see that we're all human and all have the same concerns and problems.

But whether it's Clinton or Obama, the country is changing for the better right in front of us. America is finally catching up with the 21st century and beginning to overcome the prejudices and contradictions that have haunted us ever since Jefferson and his little group decided to claim as self-evident that all Men are created equal.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Top Ten

Unexpected events in tomorrow's Super Bowl.

10. The avocado shortage due to the freeze in California will lead to guacamole riots in all major cities.

9. Prince will suffer a wardrobe malfunction during the halftime show, but no one will notice.

8. Advertisements run during the game will consist entirely of homemade ads for local furniture, carpet, and car dealers.

7. Immediately following the coin toss both teams will realize that they have nothing to fight over and will sit in the grass on the 50-yard line making daisy chains.

6. In a surprise guerilla tactic, the makers of the Kill Your Television website purchased all tickets to the game, and no one will show up.

5. Information from an unnamed source will indicate that giant foam fingers are terrorist devices, leading to Homeland Security shutting down the game.

4. Further investigation will show that the unnamed source is a 12-year-old Patriots fan.

3. New advertising consultants hired by the NFL will change the name of the game to “The Shiny Monkey Lucky Pig Game”

2. An unexpectedly large number of televisions being used to watch the game will overload the grid and result in the first ever nationwide blackout.

And the number one unexpected event in tomorrow's Super Bowl...

1. Due to an unexpected football player’s strike, the NFL will instead get the New York Yankees and the Miami Heat to play each other at water polo.