Sunday, January 31, 2010

Still Dreamtiming for Australia

A week ago, I was at the library searching for jobs online when I came across an interesting ad on Craigslist about working in Australia and New Zealand. The information meeting was being held at the Marriott hotel in downtown Portland on Tuesday, 26 January...which all Aussie-philes know as AUSTRALIA DAY! For those who aren't Aussie-philes, this day is their version of Independence Day, though they never actually declared independence or fought a revolution against Mother England like we rebellious Yanks did. Anyhow, I thought this was a good sign. In fact, I had completed my vision board for 2010 just a few weeks ago and one of the pictures on the board was of the Sydney Opera House, just below a picture of a plane and a phrase I found in a magazine ("Now hiring!"). So, upon seeing this job opportunity, I thought, "Is it really this easy?!?"

I've never done a vision board before, but I have written lists of things I wanted to experience and had forgotten about them only to learn years later after rediscovering the list in my piles of paperwork that I had done many of the items on that list. A Vision Board works in a similar way, except that instead of a list, you have visual images to look at for inspiration. I will tell you what, just looking at my Vision Board several times a day does make me feel really good, excited, inspired.

The job opportunity is with an organization called International Student Volunteers, which I have never heard of, so of course I had to check them out online. As I read about this organization and the countries in which they operate, I realized that I did hear from a lady who used to work here about some travel company that caters to volunteerism overseas. I was intrigued because one of the countries was Thailand, which is something on my list of places to visit. My mom says she doesn't want to go back for a visit (she's been this way ever since her mother passed away in 1990, though she has many other relatives we could visit whom I had only met as a 4 year old or have never met at all). If I can't convince the family to make a return trip someday (a huge dream in my book), then I'd like to do a two week volunteer assignment (followed by two weeks of personal travel).

I got excited reading about the organization and felt that this was exactly the kind of place I would like to work. The job opportunity, on the other hand, had some red flags for me. They indicated that they wanted someone with a LOUD voice, which mine most certainly is not, though I can project when I need to. It also required that one is available to travel to Australia (or New Zealand) by mid-February. The job is a 12-week contract, so it would be over by May with the possibility of future contracts. The ad gave brief details about what the job would require, but interested people would learn more about it at the presentation. So, I decided, why not? I'd send my info in to attend and see if this is really for me.

On Tuesday evening, I dressed in my best and headed to the Marriott downtown. It was held in a small conference room, which soon filled beyond capacity. Many of the other people were young, in their 20s mostly. It reminded me of the job opportunity presentation I went to when I was new in Portland and looking for a job. Horizon Air was hiring and interested people had to attend a presentation at a hotel conference room near the airport. Same deal.

The presenter was a guy in an Australian accent. He explained the job in full detail. As I learned more, I realized that there was simply no way this job was for me. They weren't kidding about having a need for a loud voice. Basically, the job is a recruiter for International Student Volunteers. They are hiring about ten people (they have held presentations in major cities on the west coast in the past week). The job consists of going to universities, one per week for twelve weeks. The recruiter goes to the university on Friday to learn the geography and where all the major classes are. Then one has to print booklets of information and sign up sheets. This may include working on weekends, though you definitely have time off to see things. When Monday morning rolls around, you're expected to hit 15 to 20 classes each day (three per hour) and ask the professor if you can make a short announcement to the class. Some lecture halls have more than a thousand students. You collect names and then enter those names into a database at the end of the day. This goes on Monday through Wednesday. On Thursday, you have to give a more in depth presentation on International Student Volunteers every single hour in a conference room you reserve. On Friday, the process repeats itself at a new university.

The company pays for your flight, hotel, rental car, gas, food, and printing expenses. The catch is that you don't see the money until the end of your contract. You get paid by how many students you get to sign up and pay the non-refundable $500 deposit on one of ISV's programs (which costs upwards from $3,000 for a month-long program). The best sales people earn more than $2,000 a week (meaning that they signed up 20 students who paid the deposit). That was interesting to learn...part of the non-refundable deposit goes into paying the salaries of these recruiters. The other catch is that you have to pay for your flight to Australia and rental car and the company will re-imburse you afterwards. The reason, as the Aussie guy said, is because in the past, there have been a few people who stepped off the plane in Sydney and decided not to go through with the job they were contracted for, so this is a safety measure for the company to know that the people they hire are serious about wanting to do this demanding job.

After the presentation, he answered some questions and then allowed anyone to leave who felt that this opportunity is not for them. The same thing was done at the Horizon Air presentation. I had stayed for that one, even though several red flags were raised in my mind. This time, I knew better. Definitely not for me. There were several people who left after the intro session and I heard someone remark, "Our chances just improved a lot!" Someone had asked why hire Americans and not Australians to do this? I already knew the answer to the question before the presenter said anything. Isn't it obvious? They have an Australian guy to recruit recruiters in America and they are hiring people in America to work in Australia for 12 weeks. Its obviously about the accent, which the presenter confirmed. Something about an accent makes people sit up and take notice.

So, I walked out of there. Beaming, actually. I had an inkling before I went that it was not a job for me, but I like to learn as much as I can about almost anything, so I don't view it as a waste of time. While I like that there is an organization like this offering a unique opportunity for students (but they don't discriminate against people who are long out of college who want to participate in their programs), I disagree with the marketing style. The university I attended did not allow anyone to interrupt class to make an announcement. That's what information booths on the quad were for. True, they get a captive audience this way, but it just seems too aggressive. Looking at the data the website offers, they have increased their participation in the programs every year, expanding to different countries every year or so. Last year, over 4,000 students participated. The presenter said that a recruiter has to create a sense of urgency for students to sign up and pay the non-refundable deposit as soon as possible. The recruiter does not get paid until the deposit is paid, for one. For another, the non-refundable deposit does not mean the student will necessarily go on the program. What a racket! I kind of have an ethical objection to that kind of marketing.

Mostly, though, my voice is simply pathetic. I actually lose my voice if I talk too much or too loudly, so this is definitely not meant for someone like me. The idea of interrupting 20 classes per day to make the same scripted announcement (loudly and quickly) is simply not in my skill set. Plus, this job was meant for extroverted people. Its frustrating that so many jobs out there are geared towards extroverts and loud people. Nothing wrong with that, but sometimes introverts are better at a job, better at focusing. I'm not a salesman, anyway, as I don't have a capitalist bone in my body. I think its great that there is an organization that offers opportunities for college students to go to another country and do some volunteer community projects as part of their experience. But like any kind of travel agency, you exist and people seek you out. Advertising in newspapers, magazines, and on television help spread the word. But interrupting classes to pitch directly to students and then using high pressure tactics to get as many deposit paying students as possible in order to get paid just seems a bit too much.

At any rate, it was a nice little fantasy for a couple days. Between Sunday's discovery of this job opportunity and Tuesday's presentation, I can't begin to tell you how much I thought of myself in Australia. Its been a dream of mine since I was 11 years old. When I left the presentation, I kept thinking to myself, "I will get to Australia one day." It's only a matter of time. This opportunity is not the one for me. So, I return back to the dreamtime!


Saturday, January 30, 2010

J. D. Salinger Finally Says Goodbye to All the Phonies

On Thursday, the literary world lost the most recluse writer in America, J. D. Salinger, who wrote the now-classic novel of angry youth, The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger was 91 years old. The above photo accompanied various news reports of his death, which was obviously taken in the 1950s at the height of his fame. He hasn't been in the public eye for decades, though I've heard that fans of his novel made pilgrimages to where he lived in the hopes of having a rare sighting. Why was Salinger so reclusive? What was he hiding from? Very few people valued their privacy as much as he did. However, I think his novel is indicative of his personality. The character of Holden Caulfield is probably based a lot on himself as a young man.
Twenty years ago, in the fall of 1989, I had to read The Catcher in the Rye for my Literature class. I was a high school senior, 17 years old. I read this book in four days. I simply could not put it down, which was interesting because I thought Holden Caulfield was annoying. I was also bothered by his excessive use of "goddam", which prompted me to count the number of times it was used in the novel. I counted 117 times. However, it was rare that a book captured my attention enough to read through to the end of it. In fact, during my entire high school career, I think I only read two of the novels in their entirety (the other one was The Lord of the Flies).

Despite not knowing how I felt about Holden Caulfield (would I have been friends with a guy like him?), I kept turning pages and read as much as I could during my free moments. He was an intriguing and compelling character. One of my best friends at the time, Ben, also read the book all the way through and between the two of us, we dominated the class discussion on the book. The teacher had no problem explaining the point of the novel to students who had no idea about finding the theme, plot, or parallels to our own lives. Holden was in a war against people he deemed "phonies." The title of the novel comes from a passage within in which Holden tells of his dream to be a catcher of innocent children in a field of rye before they fall into the superficial phoniness of adulthood. This point could not be made any more clearer. Thus why I believe that the reason why J. D. Salinger became such a notorious recluse was because he did not like the superficial phoniness that many people are afflicted with.

As one who shares the same dislike of phony pretensions and superficial people, I understand all too well the discomfort of being around people who keep to the surface of things and aren't interested in having any kind of conversations of depth. I'm always in search of a great conversation with people, but since most people aren't into that, I find that I enjoy my own company more. It is truly uncomfortable being around shallow people. I learned this when I lived in D.C. a decade ago and one of my three roommates was extremely shallow. He and I got into it pretty early and spent the rest of the semester not speaking to one another. After our semester ended, roommate Jantzen drove him to the airport and when he returned, he asked me, "What did you do to him?" I asked him what he meant and Jantzen told me, "Elliott said that he couldn't wait to get out of the hostile apartment." That's how chilling I can be if I don't like you. If I don't like you, I won't speak to you at all. You don't exist. An extroverted person's worst nightmare is to be ignored, thus why Elliott felt like he was living in a hostile environment with my silent treatment of him. Its mean, but I really do not like shallow people and feel no obligation to acknowledge their presence. Someone else on the Washington Seminar program laughed when he overheard me tell Elliott, "Don't even talk to me until you show more depth than a kiddie pool."

When did I become Holden Caulfield? I guess if you're around enough phony and pretentious people, you just learn to ignore them. They really are unpleasant company to be around. I don't mind being a recluse, myself, though. My natural state of being is "monk mode" (a hypnotherapy session in 2003 revealled to me that I was supposedly a Catholic monk in Nantes, France during the medieval ages). Before you wonder if I would give you the cold shoulder, you ought to know that I generally talk to most people who talk to me. One has to give me a reason to ignore them and treat them as if they don't exist. Very few people have been given the chill treatment. Elliott was one of the unlucky ones, but he didn't lack for friends (though he also had a high burnout rate among friends).

One of the things I've done since out of college was to revisit a book I either read or was supposed to read in high school. This includes books like The Diary of Anne Frank, Animal Farm, 1984, The Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy, and The Grapes of Wrath. A few years ago, I decided to re-read The Catcher in the Rye. I made the mistake of reading it during my breaks at work (at my last job in Atlanta). One of the managers saw what I was reading and freaked out. I didn't understand why until I asked a literary knowledgeable co-worker. She laughed when I told her what happened, then explained to me that John Hinckley, Jr. was supposedly obsessed with that book. He's the guy who shot Ronald Reagan in 1981. Oh. I was not aware of that. In the movie Conspiracy Theory, Mel Gibson stars as a ranting paranoid who has multiple copies of The Catcher in the Rye. I guess to a clueless manager who never made a point to get to know me, judging me based on a book that has a bad reputation because of the psychos who love the book, might read a little too much into my choices of books. A reading list of all the novels I read in the past decade was featured in my blog earlier this month and one can see that my tastes are diverse and should not freak anyone out.

People are so stupid! I've worked around enough managers to know that most of them are fucking idiots to begin with. They are so conformist-minded that they have no truly intelligent or creative thought. They exist purely for the organization. Once in awhile, I'll come across a cool manager, but for the most part, I'm not impressed with them. Displaying a bit of a surprise because an employee is reading a classic during a break is what Holden Caulfield would call "phony!" Oh, and this guy was a big phony, too. I'll never forget the day in late 2005 when he pulled me into a meeting to explain the findings of the report on the office's fraudulent accounting of membership. He looked me in the eye and said that less than 5,000 youth were found to be fake. I could barely contain my smug smirk, because I had run a report earlier and saw that the membership numbers dropped by 30,000 names. And people wonder why I don't respect management. They have no qualms about lying to your face. So many have done it to me and I just sit there, knowing that I have facts to the contrary. Stuff like this only makes me subversive. I'm an honest guy who values honest dialogue...but when a person lies to me and thinks I'm too dumb to know the truth, I let them think that. The joke is on you, phony bastard! I'm much smarter than I let most people on. If management wants to think I'm dumb, they are idiots. I've probably seen more in our world than they could ever dream of seeing and I undoubtedly have had a more interesting life than they have. Holden Caulfield lives!

Above is a picture of an issue of Esquire in which a reporter tried to track down the reclusive writer. I was so intrigued by the story that I bought the magazine when it came out (sometime in the mid-1990s). It didn't amount to much, though. There's the debate about respecting a person's wishes for privacy versus the natural curiosity about a writer who wrote such a classic novel that teenagers are assigned to read in thousands of high schools across America for the past half century. On the privacy side, one could say that J. D. Salinger wrote a very personal book and maybe did not expect it to be the huge success it became. The problem with success is that it attracts superficial and phony people, the very type that Salinger hoped to avoid. Fame is like the light to a shallow person's moth. They chase after something without knowing why, probably having never even read the novel themselves.

I side with the right of a writer to have a private life. It would be different if Salinger was out there lecturing or in the public spotlight. But he hasn't published anything (I haven't read his other works, which some say is even better than his famous novel). Now that he's gone, it will be interesting to see if he left behind a treasure trove of unpublished stories and novels. Maybe even an autobiography (wouldn't that be a pleasant surprise?). What has he been doing all these years? He was rarely seen in public and the people in the town he lived in (I don't even know where that is) were protective of his need for privacy.

I hope that J. D. Salinger has finally found his eternal peace...away from the superficial phonies that so afflict our world. At least the spiritual realm is authentic and no one can hide behind a mask, as spiritual beings have nothing to hide from one another. I appreciate the impact Salinger's novel had on my impressionable mind during my amazing senior year in high school. It was one part of many events and ideas that made me who I am today and as an aspiring writer, I salute a fellow writer who waged the good fight against the phony pretensions of our world. May Holden Caulfield live forever in the hearts and minds of readers everywhere!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Obama's State of the Union Address

The picture was taken from a Huffington Post article which included a "drinking game" sheet in which one is supposed to drink a shot each time Obama said a certain word or phrase. I didn't print it out because this game was only fun when it involved one of Bush's State of the Union Addresses or Sarah Palin's Vice Presidential debate. Since those two clowns speak in nonsensical gibberish, the only thing to do in order to keep your sanity is to make a fun drinking game out of their stock expressions and phrases (if I had a shot of rum each time Palin said "you betcha", I'd be drunker than Bush at the Beijing Olympics). President Obama, on the other hand, is sober serious and I'm way more interested in hearing what he has to say about his vision for our country this year without the influence of alcohol.

Overall, I thought he did a great job. It was good to see him make a few good jokes to lighten the mood at times. I especially thought his remark about the bank bailout being as pleasant as root canal to be a good one. I disagree, however, with his view that bankers should not be punished. They should absolutely be punished...if not with the ideal of a prison cell with a hardened criminal or the more common "country club prisons", then at least no bonuses and a 100% tax rate on anything over $100,000, no luxury mansions, penthouses, yachts, private planes, and remote resort vacations. What this tells the world is simple: white collar crime pays. Why does a person robbing a convenience store or a bank get a prison term, but a corporate banking exec who swindled millions from people's accounts and the national treasury get a pass? The harm principle applies here: a white collar criminal affects far more people than a two-bit robber of a local bank or convenience store. These people wrecked our economy for their own greed! To me, that's a death penalty offense. Finance ministers in France were guillotined for less during the French Revolution.

I was baffled when Obama mentioned wanting more nuclear power stations and off-shore drilling. I was happily listening to his speech when I had a flashback to Bush and Palin as he said that. Really? Nuclear power? If people want more nuclear power, are they also willing to have one built near their neighbourhoods or the waste products buried in their communities? This is a case of NIMBY. Yeah, nuclear power is always great...just as long as the power station is built near poor neighbourhoods / communities, and we turn Nevada into our nuclear waste deposit. How about this solution: more wind, solar, water, and wave power IN ADDITION TO using less energy (or taxing people based on how much energy their lifestyles require)?

My biggest critique of President Obama is that he is far too conciliatory towards a group of people who will never accept his presidency. It was nice to hear him once again remind the legislative body and the viewers that he is serious about changing the tone of our politics. Governing should not be divisive. Our country was not politically polarized until 1993, when rightwingers decided that they would do everything in their power to bring down the first Democratic president since the ineffectual Carter administration. They had gotten so used to winning presidential elections that they did not want to give up their claims to the White House. Clinton gave them plenty of ammunition. Obama doesn't have to. His skin colour already does it for him, thanks to the Nixon strategy of using race as the key to winning and holding power.

I was glad, though, that Obama did spend a few moments in his speech to remind Americans once again that a decade ago, a president left his successor a surplus while he came into office with a huge deficit and two wars. Its important for Americans to understand that change can't happen overnight. We did not get into this crisis overnight. History serves as a reminder. President Clinton came into office under the previous Bush recession and the economy did not really turn around until 1995 or 1996 and the surplus did not occur until 1998. We're in a deeper mess now thanks to the wrecklessness of Bush's economic policies. It will be a miracle if our country is out of this mess by 2016. All I can say is...if President Obama does manage to turn our economy around, I hope Americans will not forget what happened in 2000, when the wrong man from the wrong party inherited a surplus. A Democratic president should inherit a surplus the next time. How many times do Americans want to go through the same devastating cycle (Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon/Ford, Reagan/Bush, and Bush)?

The real meat of the speech, though, was when Obama promised to get universal health care reform passed. We are too close to fail this time. I especially liked that he practically dared the Republicans to offer a better one if they don't like the Democratic one. This is moral leadership and using the presidency as a bully pulpit for the good of the country. There's nothing wrong with that. After all, Bush wasn't timid about using the power of the presidency as his bully pulpit for all the wrong reasons. Of course, I fully expect the Republican party to be the party of NO. They are deathly afraid of universal health care because once all Americans have basic coverage with no fear of falling into financial ruin because they can't afford it, it will be like Medicare and Social Security (two popular systems that not even Bush at the height of his power could manage to destroy). The Republican Party is obstructionist all the way, but history sides with the progressives. We eventually win every battle, no matter how long it takes.

Last week, I attended the World Affairs Council Young Professionals discussion group. The topic was about Obama's first year in office. Many in the media talked about his first year and some people seem to think Obama's first year was a failure. Again, this is a case for the short memories of Americans. We only think he hasn't accomplished much because he came into office with the country basically deep in a hole. As Obama pointed out in his address, he's not a miracle man who can dig us out of a hole right away. What he managed to do was stop the digging that the Bush years kept on doing. He claims that his bailout stopped the country from a huge collapse of Great Depression proportions.

If we look at the first year of previous presidents...Reagan got shot in his first year. Papa Bush invaded Panama. Clinton had the World Trade Center bombing, the Branch Davidian fire in Waco, Texas, and a nightmare humiliation for our troops in Somalia. Baby Bush had the spy plane incident in Chinese waters, a long summer vacation, and the biggest national security failure in our nation's history. How did Obama's first year turn out? The largest inauguration attendance in history, no assassination attempts (thank God), no terrorist attacks, a successful rescue of Americans held hostage by pirates off the coast of Somalia, a popular reception with world leaders at various international events, and what else? Oh...and a Nobel Peace Prize. Now, from that perspective, which president had a dream first year in office? It won't always be that easy for him, but given his predecessors, there's no doubt that Obama had a good first year in office.

As I said in the discussion group, its premature to rate a president based on his first year in office. The more accurate reflection is over the span of four or eight years. How does America look at the end of a president's term? To me this is the most important criteria in judging a president because whether we care to admit it or not, a president's personality and style does affect our nation. Our best presidents inspire us to be our better selves (Lincoln, FDR, JFK). Our worse feed our cynicism (Nixon and GWB, primarily). America became a much uglier place during the Bush years. We were ugly to our French allies simply because they would not support our war against Iraq (did we ever apologize to France? Why not? After all, most Americans have forgotten about Iraq long ago, but in 2003 Americans were insulted enough to rename Belgian-born French Fries into "freedom fries" and dump French wine in public ceremonies).

Its funny to hear a conservative person call Obama "divisive." What's divisive about him? His speech was so conciliatory to the Republicans that he ran the risk of offending his liberal base. He even made the offer to pass a Republican version of a universal health care bill if it was better than the Democratic one. Divisiveness is Bush saying "You're either with me or you're with the terrorists!" At Bush public events, one had to sign loyalty cards to the Republican Party in order to get in. Neither Clinton nor Obama has done this because they knew/know that they were/are president for ALL Americans, not just the ones who voted for them.

Simply put, Obama is an inspiring speaker. Of course, some of his claims do need to be fact checked by independent organizations and I don't buy everything he's selling (despite what he says, I do not see a complete troop withdrawal from Iraq by August of this year). However, it is truly awesome to watch a speech by a president and not be disgusted by the smirks, squinting, eyebrow twitching, arrogant boasting and outrageous lies that the previous president did in address after address. This, America, is what it means to have a true grown up as our president. Here's to a great seven years!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Vision Quest


This was originally going to be a Flashback Friday post, but since President Obama's State of the Union Address is tonight and I don't have anything to post for today, I moved this one up and will comment on Obama's State of the Union Address for Friday's post. It should be much more interesting to watch than President Bush's, whose smirks, winking, and eyebrow twitching used to aggravate the heck out of me. The reason Bush's facial ticks bothered me is because of when they occur. He would squint his eye to convey sincerity whenever his mouth was spilling a whopper of a lie and his smirk revealed that he knew he was lying and couldn't believe he was getting away with it. Now it's conservatives who are driven crazy by Obama's speaking style. It'll be interesting to watch. I hope health care reform will be passed soon so that Obama can shift his attention to the economy and job creation. That has to be the next priority for our country.

Anyhow, on to the regularly scheduled post.

Recently, I watched Vision Quest for the first time. My only previous knowledge of this film was that it featured a scene with Madonna singing her single "Crazy For You" at a bar. That song was a huge hit from my seventh grade year. In fact, when I think about my seventh grade year, there are four Madonna singles that can bring me back to those days: "Crazy For You", "Material Girl", "Angel", and "Into the Groove."

Its interesting watching an 80s film for the first time when you're an adult. Last year, I finally saw The Goonies for the first time and I was disappointed. You're probably wondering what an 80s kid like me was doing to miss The Goonies, right? Well...I didn't see movies unless my parents took me and I didn't rent movies, so I watched whatever films my parents wanted to see and The Goonies never appealed to them. Its definitely a kid's film. Sometimes I wonder if I would have liked Ghostbusters as much if I hadn't seen it until I was an adult. The nostalgia factor counts for a lot.

My desire to see Vision Quest recently came about because of something my father had said to me in 2006. He said that I should go on a "vision quest." I'm not too familiar with this concept, beyond the fact that its considered a rite of passage in Native American culture and has become somewhat popular among New Age spiritualists. I even looked online and found an interesting company that offers vision quests at reasonable rates (less than $1,000 for a 10-12 day experience), including one in Death Valley, California. That's going on my life's dream sheet / vision board. Maybe this is all part of some mid-life crisis I'm going through, but going on a vision quest in Death Valley sounds pretty good right about now. According to those who have this experience, the combination of being out in nature alone and fasting is supposed to give you a vision of your life's purpose. One could say that Jesus' forty day sojourn in the desert, where he faced Satan's three temptations, was a vision quest.

Anyhow, since I can't afford to go on a vision quest offered through a spiritual travel group, I thought maybe the movie Vision Quest might have some insight. Boy was I wrong! What is that movie about? Well, Matthew Modine plays a high school senior who is on the wrestling team and has the crazy idea that he wants to drop two weight categories below his in order to compete against the undefeated champion of a rival school. A movie about high school wrestling? Seriously? I was prepared to be bored (I hated that section of gym class in junior high). However, it was far more interesting than I thought it would be, even if the references to the Native American "vision quest" is superficial at best. Watching this movie is like a time machine back to my junior high school days. The film was released in theaters in 1985, so the clothing and hair styles are very current for that year (so many guys had their hair parted in the middle, which I hated then and now. I never had mine parted in the middle because I thought it looked dumb).

The biggest surprise of the movie was how horrible Madonna actually sings live. I had heard many people say that she doesn't have a good singing voice, that its all disguised by technology. Considering that the version that plays in the film is not the same one that was played on the radio, I have to agree. I do not like the film version of "Crazy For You" at all. The film has a very 80s soundtrack, though, featuring songs by Foreigner, Journey, Sammy Hagar, John Waite, and Don Henley. My guess is that they were trying to replicate the soundtrack success of Footloose, which came out in 1984, but lacked the right mix of songs. Its still a good representation of what was popular in 1985 and definitely helped "transport" me back twenty-five years. I appreciated the unexpected nostalgia trip this film offered.

There were some cool scenes in the film, particularly the neat exercises the wrestling team does during practices. The love story angle was kind of lame, though. It was good to see parts of Spokane WA in a film, as I don't recall ever seeing a movie set there. This movie is part of that 80s trend of high school geeks finding themselves in various sports (The Karate Kid, Teen Wolf, and countless Football movies), and getting the girl because of it.

Not a bad film, but if I had to change anything, it would be the title. To call Modine's goal a "vision quest" is a big stretch. Maybe someday, Hollywood will be smart and make a film about a true vision quest...one that doesn't involve sports, mysterious older women, or Madonna. Until then, this film is like a living yearbook for those of us who were teenagers during the mid-1980s. Where did those years go?


Monday, January 25, 2010

Music Video Monday: Boukman Eksperyans



With last Friday's Hope For Haiti Now telethon, organized by George Clooney (was I right or what when I called him the epitome of cool and named him the Best Actor of the Decade?!?), I wanted to spotlight Haiti's best known music group: Boukman Eksperyans. I heard of them in the mid-1990s but didn't listen to their music until I found a copy of their cd Kalfou Danjere at the local library when I was in college. I was hooked, particularly with the catchy song "Jou Nou Revolte." I don't know what the title means, because its the Creole dialect of French, which is the equivalent of "pidgin English" that is spoken in the islands of the South Pacific (and even among Hawaiian natives).

Enjoy!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Flashback Friday: Keb Mo

Ten years ago on this day, I went to Union Station in D.C. so I could buy a Gore 2000 sweatshirt and some campaign buttons at the political shop that was located there (have no idea if its still in there). After I made my purchases, I walked past the Discovery Channel store on my way out when I heard some of the funkiest blues I had ever heard. It was ear catching and irresistable. I had never heard a song that awesome in a long time. There was even some banjo twang in the song. I consider it serendipitious luck, as that song got me to stop in my tracks, turn around and head into the store. I asked the guy at the cash register what song that was and he pointed to the CD on display: Slow Down by Keb Mo. He said that the song was called "A Better Man." I asked him if the rest of the album was as good as this song and he told me that it was.

It didn't take long for me to decide to buy it. It was a $12 investment, if I remember correctly, or maybe $16. I never bought a blues album before, but then again, I never heard blues this funky nor knew that it could ever be that funky. When I think of the blues, I think of the sad melodies of Ella Fitzgerald or that other lady (can't recall her name offhand). According to the album notes, Slow Down was released in 1998, but I had never heard of Keb Mo until that moment outside the Discovery Channel store at Union Station. If I had not walked past that store at that exact moment on January 22nd, 2000...I may have gone through life without ever hearing his music. Yikes!

When I got back to the apartment in Alexandria, VA, I played "A Better Man" a few times before listening to the entire CD. In fact, I played "A Better Man" constantly that I'm certain my roommates were sick of it by the time our semester ended. Some on the Washington Seminar still associate that song with me because of how often I played that song. When I love a song, I play it repeatedly (I love that CD players have a function where you can play one song on an endless loop!).

My impression of "A Better Man" is that it made a great campaign song and I had hoped that I could find a way to recommend it to Al Gore. That didn't happen, though Gore did pick a Shania Twain song to be his official campaign song (no...it was not "Man! I Feel Like a Woman"). Four years later, though, I had the opportunity to give Howard Dean a copy of Keb Mo's CD and when I gave it to him, I said that "A Better Man" made an excellent campaign song for him. Last year, when Howard Dean was in Portland, I got the chance to meet him again (for the third time) and mentioned the CD, which he then remembered me. I learned that he gave the CD to a campaign staff member who loved Keb Mo (if she loved Keb Mo, though, wouldn't she already have that CD?). He then surprised me by asking if it was okay with me that he gave the CD to someone else. That was thoughtful of him to ask. He also said that it was that CD which influenced him to go to a Keb Mo concert and he signed my copy of his book about health care reform with a "Viva Keb Mo!"

I love how Keb Mo plays an unwitting role in my life. It was his album Slow Down that helped make my Washington Seminar one of the most awesome periods of time in my entire life. It was like a perfect soundtrack to my experience. Other songs I love on that CD are: "I Was Wrong", "Everything I Need", "God Trying to Get Your Attention", and "I'm Telling You Now." The whole CD is strong, though. Not all of the songs are as peppy as "A Better Man," but then again, not many songs have the good vibes and interesting mix of funk and blues as "A Better Man."

Because this album was such a surprising hit to my senses, I went out and bought his previous two releases: 1996's Just Like You, and 1994's self-titled debut. Just Like You is even better than Slow Down, as I liked more of the songs on there: "That's Not Love," "More Than One Way Home", "Just Like You," "You Can Love Yourself," Hand it Over", and the super awesome "The Action" (which described EXACTLY my feelings regarding Jenet, the lady I was interested in during my time in D.C., particularly how I felt on the day she and I met). This serendipity between a few songs of Keb Mo and my personal experience enhanced my view of this musical genius. If two of his albums had a few songs that spoke to my personal experience and feelings unlike any song I had ever heard in my life at that point (there are many songs that touch my heart and resonate with me, but none so deeply as Keb Mo's), then I would have to buy his other ones and see if his music would continue to reflect my experiences in life as they happen.

On his debut album, Keb Mo, the song that most resonated with me was "City Boy" ("I'm just a city boy looking for a home..."). In Autumn 2000, his fourth CD was released, called The Door, and like his previous three releases, I found songs that resonated with my feelings at the time, notably: "Come On Back" (it's about a lady who fell for another guy who mistreats her and he's giving her permission to choose him this time--story of my life!) and "Change" (my life is all about change...well, not lately, though!). 2001's Big Wide Grin is an unusual album, as I think it was aimed at younger listeners and is all about family life. "America the Beautiful" is one of the cover songs on this release and it is a song that I consider to be the true national anthem of our country (I'm one of those people who support changing our national anthem).

In 2004, Keb Mo released Keep It Simple, which featured a song called "France" (I had wanted to vacation in France in 2003 or 2004, but was never able to make enough to save up for a vacation there) and my personal favourite: "Let Your Light Shine." That song would make an awesome theme song for a retreat (I had wanted to use it for my cancelled Young Adult retreat in Spokane / Coeur d'Alene over Memorial Day 2008). Maybe some day. Keb released another CD in 2004 just before the critical election: Peace...By Popular Demand. He sang many cover versions of popular protest songs like "For What It's Worth", "Imagine", "Get Together", "The Times They Are A-Changing", and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." Impact on the election? Nada. He wasn't the only one who tried to wake people up. Steve Earle, Eminem, Green Day, and John Fogerty all released politically themed albums that year in an effort to wake people up to vote smart.

Finally, in 2006 was Keb's last release, called Suitcase, which I found hilarious because it was the year I had quit my job in Atlanta to move west, taking as many things in my suitcases as I could. My favourite song on this album is "Remain Silent," which is a not-so-subtle critique of the Bush Administration, particularly regarding the un-Constititutional USA PATRIOT Act. There's another song (either on this album or the previous one) in which he sings directly to George W. Bush and its hilarious, because he's singing as though one could have an actual meaningful and reasonable conversation with the most stubborn and immature president we've ever had. I can't help but imagine that Bush would only stick his fingers in his ears and say, "nah-nah-nah-I can't hear you!" if anyone tells him something that contradicts the way he views the world.

According to Keb Mo's CDs available to buy on Amazon.com, he did release one last year, Live and Mo', which I never knew about because I haven't seen it in any of the music stores I frequent. Looks like there are four new songs and six live versions of songs from his previous albums. Maybe its time for a box set of all of his songs. I'm not a big fan of blues, but with Keb Mo's style, its hard not to like. No matter the circumstances in one's life, Keb makes everything sound alright and how can one go wrong with a Keb Mo song playing in the background?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stark Craving for Mad Men

The past couple of months, I have been watching Seasons One and Two of AMC's excellent series Mad Men. I don't know why I didn't make a point to watch this show when the first season was freshly released on DVD a couple years ago, but I was hooked from the first episode. It was a culture shock at first, as I got immersed into what life was like in 1960s America...where women had their place as secretaries who are often told what clothing they should wear to work by the men, so that the men could have something more appealing to ogle. Asians are referred to as "Chinaman", jokes about Jews are commonplace, and gender roles were clearly defined.

I'm not a big fan of the 1950s-era, though I liked the clothing styles that people wore. Women looked especially classy and radiant in their elegant style (I'm a sucker for a lady in an ankle length skirt). The 1950s began our corporate conformist culture, where men wear gray suits and fedoras. I've heard several historians say that President John F. Kennedy single-handedly killed the hat business by refusing to wear a hat during his Inaugural speech in 1961. Hats conveniently hide men's baldness and JFK was proud to show off his full head of hair. Is it any coincidence that we haven't had a bald president since Eisenhower? I like the fedora and have a couple myself, but I rarely wear them because I don't like people staring at me, as people often do if you stand out too sharply from the herd. I usually wear a baseball cap (not of a sports team, though...but of a place I like, such as one with a cool logo of Coeur d'Alene ID or Buckhead in Atlanta) or my black Italian military hat.

In watching the series, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm, who I was shocked to learn was born the same year as me) is the coolest character on TV. He's an advertising executive for a Manhattan firm called Sterling Cooper. When he makes his pitch, he is good. All his charisma and salesmanship come through and he's often able to sway opinions and win clients for the firm. Despite his cool professionalism and almost perfect life (a model beautiful blonde wife, a son and a daughter, and a nice two-story home in the northern suburbs of New York City), he harbours some intriguing secrets, which are revealled quite slowly in flashbacks. He's also the philanderer, as he pursues various women, including a beatnik Bohemian chick in Greenwich Village, a Jewish American Princess who runs her father's department store and aspires to have the wealthy clientele of Chanel or Saks Fifth Avenue, and the wife of an obscene stand-up comedian. What is wrong with this guy?

January Jones plays Betty Draper, the gorgeous housewife and former model who is unfortunately married to Don Draper. Some say that she is an uninteresting character but what does one expect when she lives the typical life of how women were expected to live in mid-twentieth century America? What does one do all day...with two young children and an African American housekeeper? Its not an interesting life because she's confined to this restrictive life while her husband is off working hard to make the sale or promising his beatnik lady that he wants to run away with her. Its pretty sad when Betty feels like she cannot talk to anyone except a young boy who has a crush on her. Those were some of the creepiest moments of the show for me. I personally couldn't understand why someone like Don would cheat on Betty. She's gorgeous, sweet, and a complete catch. In fact, she reminds me of a young lady who worked at my office my first two years here (yes, I had a crush on her and still do). Like my former co-worker, Betty loves riding horses. Hopefully my former co-worker won't find herself in a boring marriage, confined to a life as a suburban mom who lives vicariously through her children's activities.

My favourite character, though, is Joan. Her mannerisms, facial expressions, way she speaks, clothes she wears, way she walks is absolutely mesmerizing. She's seductive to her core. Everything she does is SEXY!!! She is perhaps the most perfectly feminine woman to ever grace the screen. I absolutely love watching her, especially when she puts the other ladies at the office in line. In one episode, she introduces a new lady to her role as Don Draper's secretary. The new girl claims to have psychic ability and sees a happy future for Joan and her fiance. In response, Joan exclaims: "Aren't you darling?! We're going to get along like gangbusters!" I love how she said those comments. However, the first impression didn't last long, as the new girl did something that Joan did not like so she was not shy about firing the girl for acting inappropriately at the office. Go Joan!

Pictured above is Joan in her element. The actress apparently auditioned to play Peggy but was not selected. I can't imagine anyone else as Joan. She's perfect. I wish I could meet a woman like her. She would do an awesome job managing our office and would most likely show School Marm the door. I love that Joan doesn't put up with anyone's shit...though in one episode, you really see how little rights women have in the male world of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The three women of Mad Men: Betty, Joan, and Peggy. I haven't decided what I think about Peggy. There are moments where I'm impressed, while repulsed at other moments. I don't like the way she looks, though. Maybe its her hair and the fact that she doesn't smile much.

One of the impressions men have historically had about women that this show displays so well is the idea that women "aren't serious" and weren't meant to be equals in the workforce. Of course, this idea is considered "sexist" and we can see how much our society has changed since the era this show covers. However, have things changed all that much? One of the criticisms the ladies at the office have about me is that I tend to talk about things they aren't interested in. What do I talk about? Ideas. I'm very much the idea guy and love talking about different ideas and bouncing ideas off of people. To my dismay, I have learned that most people don't talk about ideas.

The women in my office, for example, tend to gossip about people and celebrities, or gush about the latest sale at Walmart. They live up to the stereotype of women being more interested in domestic things than serious, work related things. Its sad to see...but as I understand it, most people are not interested in ideas. Most people don't value education or intelligence or ideas. They are concerned with the day-to-day trivial stuff, which I find boring. A big reason why I hate my job is because I am way too smart for these people. I feel like my brain cells are dying the longer I stay here. Its not that they are dumb...its that they don't care about anything beyond the latest celebrity gossip, the latest shows, and the latest sales. Of course, I've also worked in male dominated offices and the conversations also bore me: sex and sports. My internship in D.C. was the best place for me...for I worked in an office with men and women who were politically aware and passionate. Just another reminder that I'm so far out of my natural setting. How did I end up in this hell of having to listen to the boring conversations of high-school educated women who have nothing else going for them?

A couple years ago when I had a falling out with the CyberCommunity webboard because the man-hating feminists who run the board kept calling me a "sexist" and misogynistic for not agreeing with their politically correct viewpoints and pointing out obvious gender differences, its amazing that someone could think of me as sexist when I treat women equally with men. Two ladies I met on the internship program a decade ago had told me that they were impressed with me because I really valued a woman's opinion on all kinds of topics. I didn't just dismiss them or change the subject when I couldn't "win an argument." Many guys tend to keep their true opinions to themselves when pressed by a woman, but I prefer being honest, even if they don't like my opinions. The last three women that I fell for all had one major criteria in common: they were intelligent and always said something that interested me, and they weren't afraid to disagree with me and make the argument for their point of view. A real intellectual engagement is fireworks in my brain. To interest me, one has to talk about something substantive...not the shallowness that so many engage in these days.

I know why so many prefer to talk about celebrity gossip, the latest television controversy, and the best deal offered at a store, though. It doesn't require any intelligence. You're just a consumer buying a product. It actually takes some intelligence and willpower to want to learn about sustainability issues or the complexity of a situation. Most people don't have time for it. They are busy with work, parenting, paying the bills...that all they want to do is relax in front of the TV rather than pick up a book. I'm not blaming people for those choices...just wishing that I could move on from this place and work in an intellectually engaging office where co-workers care about more than just how far their dollar will go at Walmart.

Pictured above are the men of Mad Men. Look at the conformity of the gray suit. Was it born in the post-World War II era? I noticed the other day when a political leader in Afghanistan was interviewed on the news. He was wearing a suit with a tie. It bothered me...because that's not natural to that region. The clothing men wear in Afghanistan has impressed me since my adolescence. If I was a fashion designer, I would market my own brand of clothing utilizing a lot of the clothing styles that men in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India wear. What is wrong with someone wearing the finest clothing of their culture to a meeting or interview? Why must they dress in a suit and tie before we westerners respect them as equals? Its just amazing to me how conformist people are and what sheep. Let people wear the clothing styles that are natural to their region...and let the western suit model die!

The men of Mad Men are an interesting group. I find Pete Campbell to be annoying (he says "swell" a lot, which is a word that seems forever stuck in the 50s and 60s). I know a guy at work who reminds me of Pete...and let's just say that we rarely speak to one another. My friends fall into a certain type of personality...and the Pete Campbell personality trait is not a compatable one with mine. Sal Romano has creeped me out from the start...with good reason. It'll be interesting to see how his character develops as the show progresses.

The guy who plays Roger Sterling (John Slattery) kind of resembles Florida Governor Charlie Crist and would be the natural to play him in a movie. In Mad Men, though, Sterling is one of the two partners of Sterling Cooper. Despite being married with a teenage daughter, he has an affair with Joan and when she gets engaged, he seeks out other pretty young things at the office. The character I most identify with is Ken Cosgrove, the aspiring writer. When a short story of his is published in a prestigious literary magazine, the other guys get jealous because they all aspire to be published writers themselves.

That's just some of the reasons why I like this show. It really plays with your sense of expectations in every episode and it is probably the smartest show on television. Though it has contributed to my "going retro" (I'm currently in a 50s/60s craze), I am glad that society no longer resembles the world of Mad Men, for the most part. Equality is an important change to the workforce (even if I work among women who prefer to be housewives in the 1950s than to have to work in order to survive in the modern society where dual income is the measure of middle class). Maybe we'll find balance someday soon...or not. At least we can see just how far we've come every time we watch an episode of Mad Men.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Introducing the 45th President of the United States

Scott Brown has pulled a major upset in not only defeating Martha Coakley for the Massachusetts special election, but he also fills the seat held by the late Senator Ted Kennedy since 1962. He managed to win in the most liberal state in the country, where Kennedy had safe reelection campaigns. What does this mean for the future?

Well...because this election is only for the remainder of Kennedy's term, it means that Senator-elect Brown will have to run again in 2012. This means he will have to choose between running again for the Senate or running for the Republican nomination for president in 2012. The smart money would be on 2016 to launch a presidential campaign, but we don't know just how hungry the Republicans are to recapture the White House and if the American public still remains fickle in 2012. I'm shocked that people are impatient and angry with President Obama. We didn't get into this financial crisis overnight. It was a series of bad moves made by a president who lost the popular vote in 2000. The tide didn't turn against Bush until Katrina came crashing ashore in New Orleans. After that, his presidency effectively ended and we entered a long period of an ineffective and impotent president, with Americans counting the clock until the hour and day of his departure.

Here we are a year after President Obama's historical inauguration and Americans are impatient and fickle. All of a sudden, the deficit mattered...even though they didn't care about the deficit when Bush ran it up like a kid given his father's credit card without a maximum limit. When a Democrat becomes president, all of a sudden, deficits matter again. Imagine that! Obama hasn't helped himself, either, because in trying to appeal to conservatives, he's losing support of his liberal base. We haven't seen enough changes in Washington. Particularly, his allowing Wall Street foxes to guard the U.S. Treasury Department (a hen house). Bailouts to corporations that basically looted our economy to give high paying executives their golden parachutes so they'll never have to work another day in their lives. If Obama wishes to become a one term president, he should continue to do more of the same. The time is now for boldness and boldness means a new economic policy that does not reward the very people who wrecked the economy with their greed. These CEOs should be given lifelong prison terms, sharing jail cells with hardened criminals who have no problem raping men at night. Give these CEOs a taste of what it means to screw someone over.

I haven't followed the Massachusetts race too closely, though. I can't say that I'm surprised by the outcome. The Republicans are hungry for a leader and they found one in Scott Brown. He will be the star of the Republican Party in the next few election cycles. So Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Charlie Crist, and Mike Huckabee can all just keep their day jobs and forget about running. Scott Brown has the best shot of any Republican to become our 45th president. The question is only, will it be in 2012 or 2016? Only President Obama can delay the inevitable by working hard to move this economy around before 2012 arrives. And if Hillary Clinton decides to run in 2016 and faces Senator Brown...well, I hope she will talk to Martha Coakley to compare notes. Scott Brown has star quality written all over him and its about time the Republicans found their Moses who isn't willfully ignorant, borderline crazy, and religiously extreme.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Extraordinary Measures

A few weeks ago, I had free passes to see the film Extraordinary Measures, which I would not have paid money to see. This movie received attention in Portland last year because it was filmed here. There were reports of Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford sightings around town during the time the film crew was making a mess of streets. I'm not a fan of Brendan Fraser. Every time I see him in a movie, he will always be Encino Man to me. I just can't get over that image of him. And didn't he play Tarzan or George of the Jungle or something?

For me, Portland was the star of the movie. That's the biggest reason why I wanted to see this movie. I had no clue what it was about, other than a couple scenes were shot at Pioneer Square downtown and at the OHSU hospital on the hill. The producers of the film certainly took advantage of the scenery, as Brendan Fraser's character has an office where he can see Mount Hood in the distance.

Most of the scenes were interior shots, though. Some of the film was set in Lincoln, Nebraska and Seattle, Washington. What is the movie about? Glad you asked. Fraser plays a man with three children...two of whom have a rare disease called POMPE, which is a respiratory illness in which the body cannot break down sugar or something like that. I was actually bored during the scenes that go into detail about this disease. The children are confined to wheelchairs and have a tube attached to the front of their throats. The life expectancy is nine years, so that increases the drama, as his daughter just had an eighth birthday.

Harrison Ford plays an eccentric scientist working at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln who is working on finding a cure or treatment for the disease. His only problem is finding funding, as his ideas are outside the norm and fall under "theory." Fraser attempts to get ahold of the scientist, first by phone then in person. Ford's abrasive personality is funny. Its understandable that a person who spends all his time on theory and trying to find a solution would be anti-social and unaware of how he comes across to other people.

To convince the scientist to test his theories on real patients, Fraser misleads Ford into thinking that he had founded a non-profit organization devoted to curing the disease with a promise of half a million dollars. Fundraising amounted to $90,000, but the scientist did his own Google-sleuthing and learned about Fraser's true motives. Instead of rejecting the money, he proposes that they form their own bio-tech company. Much of the movie is about starting up a bio-tech company in the race to bring a formula to test trials and hoping for a larger bio-tech firm to buy them out at millions.

There were equal parts boring and interesting. Some of the film interested me, other parts were slow and dull. The audience laughed when the OHSU hospital was referred to as Portland Rose Hospital (with its own logo). One thing that annoyed me, though, was that the family was already living in a pretty nice house in a Portland neighbourhood. After he gets a check for the buy out of his bio-tech company, he moves his family into a more lavish house with an awesome view. There is such a thing as "too much house." The wife (played by the lady from Felicity) had expressed concern when he first quit his job to run a start-up company because their children's medical care was expensive. A movie like this only promotes the idea of upgrading when one gets more money. I actually thought the first house was too big for my tastes (I'd prefer a cozy bungalow house myself).

This movie opens this Friday but I don't think it will do well. The rare medical disease does raise one's awareness about it but most people probably aren't going to be interested in it. The movie is based on a true story and shows the ingenuity of a man desperate to save his children from dying an early death. It is admirable, not to mention amazing that he was able to get a movie based on his family's life made by Hollywood. But once again, Portland is going to have to wait for the Great Portland Movie (Seattle was lucky to have three good movies: Sleepless in Seattle, Singles, and 10 Things I Hate About You). The only Portland movie that I really like is Feast of Love, but I can't recommend it to most people because of some scenes that these people would find embarrassing to watch. As far as Extraordinary Measures go...its definitely a wait for DVD release kind of movie, where a remote control will help you skip over the boring sections.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Music Video Monday: Keb Mo



On Friday of this week, I have a special Flashback Friday post on Keb Mo because it marks the ten year anniversary of my discovery of his music. For Music Video Monday, I have found on YouTube a video of his performance of the song that captured my attention as I walked through Union Station a decade ago: "A Better Man." This version is more stripped-down than the recording on his album Slow Down, but its still good. Over the years, each album of his has impressed me because there was always one or two songs on each album that spoke directly to my experience around the time I bought the album. Because of that strange musical synchronicity with my life, Keb Mo holds a unique distinction among all musical artists that I like. Not even Johnny Clegg or U2 have that kind of synchronicity rate with my life.

Keb Mo hasn't released an album since 2006, though...so I'm hoping that one is forthcoming soon. I saw him in concert in Atlanta in 2001 and it was great. I've missed seeing a few of his concerts in Portland, though. If you haven't discovered his music, what are you waiting for? His blues are so upbeat, you can't help but feel lifted up even if you are going through your own set of blues. He's simply brilliant that way, and "A Better Man" is the perfect example of his musical genius. This song is also quite appropriate for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday as well.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Big Love's Best Season

On Thursday night, I finally finished watching the ten episodes of Big Love's third season (on DVD; Season Four is now playing on HBO). I know that I'm violating my "3 posts a week" New Year's Resolution...but give me a break! Too much has been going on and in case you haven't guessed, I love writing and can easily do a blog post a day and much prefer that. However, I wanted to scale back as I focused on my job search. Already, though, there have been many things I wanted to write about and haven't because of my restrictive three posts a week. I still have a post on Mad Men coming this week, as well as a movie review of a film I had free passes to see two weeks ago. So, looks like next week already has a full week of posts lined up.

I am a big fan of Big Love. Season One was a shock to the senses when I first saw it two years ago. I didn't expect the sex scenes to be so explicit. That was one major eye opener. Even more outrageous than that is the brilliant way this show plays with your sense of morality. Make no mistake. I have inherited my church's anti-polygamist views. I am a fifth generation member of the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For those who aren't familiar with Latter Day Saints history (my non-Mormon and non-Saints friends), the founding prophet Joseph Smith established the Church of Christ in 1830 with the publication of the Book of Mormon, which he claimed was a translation from ancient brass and gold plates that he was directed by Angel Moroni to dig up from Hill Cumorah near Palmyra, New York.

As the church grew, the members moved west, first to Kirtland OH, then to Independence MO (where my church has its headquarters), then to Nauvoo IL. At one point, Nauvoo was even larger than Chicago. It was at Nauvoo where Joseph received his strangest revelations, and there is much dispute among the various factions of splinter groups about what is or is not legitimate prophecy. One of those revelations was about man becoming gods of their own world in the afterlife. The other one was about polygamy. Anti-Mormon opposition grew and an angry mob stormed the Carthage Jail, assassinating Joseph Smith in 1844. He was 39 years old.

Brigham Young assumed leadership and led most of the followers west to Utah. Those who stayed behind included Joseph's widow Emma. According to my church, Joseph's son Joseph III was supposed to become the next prophet, but Joseph was too young. The people who disagreed with the doctrines of men becoming gods, Masonic temple rites, baptisms of the dead, eternal marriage and polygamy "reorganized" the church in 1860. Joseph III was 24 years old and assumed the leadership, rather reluctantly. Ever since then, our two churches went in separate directions. The Mormons grew to over ten million members today, while the RLDS church has remained around 250,000 members for most of my life. In 2001, we changed the name of the church to Community of Christ, which brings it closer to the original name (Church of Christ) and gets rid of the "Latter Day Saints" distinction that confuses people. Theologically, the Community of Christ is closer to the Methodist Church than to the Latter Day Saints Church.

Though the Community of Christ is a small church, I have always been proud of our anti-polygamy stance. It was the one moral absolute that I loved bringing up at BYU whenever Mormons tried to convert me to their church. I loved to bring up the LDS practice of polygamy at any and every opportunity because it is a sticking point. To this day, it remains the biggest thorn in the side of a church that has modeled itself on the 1950s-ideal "All American" business look. In modern times, Mormons are about as wholesome American as you can get. Even Brigham Young himself wouldn't recognize the LDS Church today (his namesake university has a conservative dress code which forbids male students to have beards...even though Brigham Young himself had one!).

Polygamy, though, is the one part of the past that they cannot erase. When Joseph Smith, Jr. revealed the doctrine of polygamy, he presented it as "the new and everlasting covenant." Subsequent LDS prophets have said that if polygamy was ever done away with, it should be viewed as a sign of the church being in apostasy. When prophets make claims like those, its hard to reverse yourself and look credible. However, pressure by the Republican Party mounted. It was a party against slavery and polygamy in the 1800s (kind of ironic that Mormons today are overwhelmingly Republican despite having their sacred covenant banned because of this party). In fact, the federal government forced the governor of Utah territory to make polygamy illegal as a pre-condition for statehood. LDS prophet and president Woodruff released a document in 1890 that ended the practice of polygamy...at least in the United States. Mormon settlers in Mexico and Canada still maintained the practice.

Some die-hards, though, could not accept this change in church doctrine so they split away. The largest of the polygamist groups renamed itself the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and have a large settlement in Colorado City, Arizona, as well as in Texas, Mexico, and British Columbia. This group was in the news last year when the children were rounded up after allegations of child abuse surfaced. Most Americans not familiar with this group mistakenly thought that they were Mormons. FLDS is considered an apostate group that broke away from the mainline LDS Church. They have their own prophet / leader, temples, and live on communes rather than among the rest of the population. The FLDS have distorted what polygamy originally was. To them, it became a way to control women. Men could dress in modern style (jeans and button down shirt) but the girls and women dressed in pioneer clothes and often sported the same braided hairstyle. Its like watching the cast of Little House on the Prairie.

Now we get to Big Love. I loved Season One but was disappointed with Season Two. After watching Season Three, I was impressed at every turn. It is by far the best season (I won't get to see Season Four until its released on DVD, probably next year). There are a lot of scheming going on by everyone.

The brilliance of Big Love is that it has a likable American family at the center, so of course the audience roots for them. Bill Henrickson (played by the always likable Bill Paxton) is the patriarch who owns the Utah chain store Henricksons Home Plus (a Lowes or Home Depot competitor). He wants to expand his business into casinos on Native American reservations. His first wife, Barb lived all her life in a regular Mormon family and hadn't officially left the church. Bill was raised in a very dysfunctional polygamous family (his parents are always scheming to kill one another). They were active LDS for awhile, until they decided to "live the principle" (of plural marriage, which is still the LDS ideal for the afterlife). His second wife is Nicolette Grant, daughter of the prophet of the United Effort Brotherhood, which is a polygamous sect that lives on a compound somewhere in the Utah shrublands. Third wife is the quite young and perky Margene.

Nicolette is far and away my favourite of the wives and the one I would be most attracted to, even though she was raised in a polygamous family and has no problems with it. She's just an interesting character and I especially love it when she pouts and defends herself when she feels that she's being ganged up on. She has a few schemes this season, though. Namely, her loyalties are divided between her corrupt father (Roman Grant), who's on trial for child abuse, and her husband Bill, who is helping the D.A. with info to put Roman behind bars for life. Her brother Alby wants to succeed their father as the next prophet of the group. He has several wives and a dirty secret: he also likes sex with men (polygamists are strangely anti-homosexual, even though they have to expel boys from the community in order to keep the ratio of women to men high).

This season, Nicki falls for the District Attorney, whom she worked for in order to find information about the case to deliver to her father so he can be found not guilty and released. This causes a lot of problems for the Henrickson family, but its also delicious irony. She never had the opportunity to date different men and make a decision for herself. She was given away in marriage without little say. This season, you could see her getting used to the idea of actually dating and falling for a man without her father telling her who she would marry.

The episode in which the family made a road trip from their homes in Sandy, Utah to Palmyra, New York was awesome! In one scene, they stop at Carthage Jail in Illinois to view where Joseph Smith was martyred. In that scene, Bill argues with another guy about Joseph's supposed polygamy. The other guy claimed that Joseph's other wives were widows and orphans, whom he felt responsible to provide for their wellbeing, rather than a sexual concubine. It made me wonder if that other guy was supposed to be a member of the Community of Christ. This view was enhanced a few scenes later, when Paul Simon's "Graceland" played as Bill drives along the river. The lyrics fit the scene, but not the location. But I laughed out loud as soon as I heard the song's familiar tune because it could very well be an inside joke for those "in the know" (such as me!). Out of all the songs to use in that scene, why Paul Simon's "Graceland"? What's so significant about "Graceland" you ask? Well, its a popular album and song among Community of Christ members because our church-sponsored college is called Graceland (its located in Lamoni, Iowa and has about 1,000 students). I would love to talk to the person who made that episode to find out if they used that song as a wink to the Community of Christ members or if it was just one of those weird coincidences. Whatever the real reason, it was a thrill just to experience that scene!

The episode I was most interested in, though was the controversial one that reveals part of the LDS temple endowment ceremony. Non-LDS members and LDS members who do not have a Temple Recommend card issued by their bishop are not allowed to enter the sacred space of those beautiful temples you see in every major city. In order to get a Temple Recommend, one must endure the intrusive interview by his or her bishop, which include questions about keeping the sacraments, living the law of chastity (for single people), and wearing the sacred garments (what some derogatorily call "Mormon underwear"). In this episode, Barb is so distraught by the news of her upcoming disciplinary hearing (where excommunication is decided) that she begs her mother to bring her to the Temple so she can experience the Temple rites for the final time. The show doesn't explain how her Temple Recommend card is forged, but they do show a part of the ceremony that one can only assume is based on actual rituals. I've only read about what goes on in books, so it was a thrill to see it on the screen.

I thought it was a bunch of hoopla over nothing. I hope I don't offend my Mormon friends...but the Temple rituals seem kind of silly to me. They wear white garments and funny looking head coverings. They stand next to an unseen person, divided by a veil with slots to put hands through. They give unique handshakes, speak from a memorized script with code words and Biblical names. Its supposed to be a powerful experience. Many of the rooms are painted lavishly along themes (Creation Room, for example, and one that is like the Garden of Eden). One is supposed to feel like they are in the spiritual realm. For me, that would be the biggest reason why I would want to go inside. I admire the LDS for trying to re-create the feeling of heaven on the earthly plane and offering the opportunity for its members to experience that whenever they want to. However, I'm not a ritual-oriented guy so I would find doing that sort of thing to be kind of boring. I'd rather just sit on a chair in the Celestial room and meditate for awhile without being bothered. Supposedly, there is also reenactments of the LDS view of how our world was created (where Satan makes an appearance) and this is controversial because of the claims that Mormons believe that all other churches are in cahoots with Satan (only the LDS Church is "the one true church" established by God the father and Jesus the son).

The final episode of the season was sweet. Bill decides with his family to form his own church, which is somewhere between the corporate conformity of the LDS Church and the dysfunctional immorality of the United Effort Brotherhood polygamous group Bill was raised in. Bill is such a nice guy that if he was a real person, I would be friends with him and not even make an issue of his polygamy. That's the brilliance of this show. It can get an anti-polygamist guy like me to look at it and think, if consenting adults want that for themselves, who am I to say no? I like that the show displays a contrast between this all-American family who happen to practice polygamy and the dysfunction of the compound folks where women marry at 14 and wear pioneer clothing all their lives, serving their husband for the rest of eternity. It would suck to be a girl born to a polygamist family. I feel for all those young girls who are brainwashed in FLDS schools about their purpose in life: to be wives at 14 to men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers.

Also this season, Bill wants to bring in wife number 4, a Serbian lady named Ana who reluctantly agrees before she learns what it all implies. I found these episodes to be fascinating because again, it shows how different my mindset is to other people. Ana is willing to jump into a polygamous marriage because she loves Bill. She only balks after learning (after having married him and moved into the house) that all the money she makes gets put in the communal bank account. Wouldn't this question come up BEFORE she decided to get married? I'm constantly amazed by how easily some people are willing to marry someone without thinking through every possible point of contention.

Of course, this only made me think of Christine, who was willing to give up everything she owned and her life in Portland to be with a man she only knew through two years of long-distance relationship (with a few short weeks of being together). For me, I couldn't do what she did...especially one who lived in a country / culture that didn't interest me. Even if I loved a foreign lady, I could not give up my life in America unless she lived in a country / culture I like (which is limited to an English speaking country or France). I also can't be in a relationship with a lady without knowing her spiritual views at the start...which is probably why I'm still single. But divorce is too common and too easy, so it is vital that all the major points of compatability are addressed up front.

After the season finale, I was impressed. Definitely better than the previous two seasons with enough intrigue spilling into Season Four. I may have to get this season on DVD...its worth watching many times...especially the episodes that feature "Graceland" and the Temple endowment ceremony.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

No Time For Hating on Haiti

On Tuesday, 12 January around five in the evening, a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit southwest of the capital city of Port-au-Prince in Haiti, the western hemisphere's poorest country. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and televangelist Pat Robertson were quick to offer their judgments. Rush said that there was no need to send any aid to Haiti because they supposedly get our tax dollars already. He (as well as teabaggers) even claimed that this tragedy is only going to make President Obama look good as he offers U.S. aid. Sounds to me like they are jealous...because Obama has the compassion to actually want to do something, rather than President Bush's ignoring the crisis in New Orleans for five days after Hurricane Katrina turned much of the overwhelming African American city into a lake.

Even worse, Pat Robertson gave a "history lesson" on his show, the 700 Club in which he explained to his ignorant viewers that the "reason" this earthquake hit Haiti is because the Haitian people in the 1700 or 1800s "made a pact with the devil" to liberate them from the French. He has a tendency to speak in a folksy manner and throws weird ideas out there in his monologues. I used to watch his show as a teenager to understand how televangelists con people into following them. Pat Robertson does come off as a likable grandfather type and he has a friendly laugh. I didn't see how he presented this information to his viewers, but I imagine that he was pretty casual, folksy, and probably even threw in a chuckle or two as he said it.

His comment did cause an uproar, though, and offended a lot of people. In fact, its the kind of comment that probably seals his fate as a not very credible religious figure (if he ever was). No one should be surprised, though. He's made plenty of whoppers over the years. This one, though, is way over the top and out of line. What the hell does he know about Haiti, anyway? Or did he mistake Haiti for Hades?

The picture above is a fascinating one because you can see the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries which share the same island of Hispanola in the Caribbean Sea. On the left side without the trees, you see Haiti and the results when a nation clearcuts its forested lands. Is it a coincidence that Haiti has consistently ranked among the world's poorest nations for much of its history? The country is plagued by corrupt governments, entrenched poverty, environmental devastation, overcrowded slums, crime, drugs...and of course, the strange mix of Catholicism and Santeria (the voudou / voodoo religion, which came from African animist spirituality). On the right side, is the prosperous and forested Dominican Republic, which occupies 2/3rds of the island.

The official language of Haiti is French-Creole, a dialect of French. When I was in college, I volunteered as an exit pollster for the 1998 mid-term elections. One of the guys on my polling team had served a mission in Haiti in the mid-1990s. He was still fluent in French-Creole and I remember envying him when he told me that. I knew at the time that the Clinton Administration was looking for fluent speakers of French-Creole to work in the U.S. Government. Unfortunately, this guy had no ambition to work for the government. His knowledge of French-Creole was wasted on him! I wouldn't mind learning this dialect myself, though from the few people I know who have been to Haiti, it sounds like a very depressing place to go, not to mention unsafe. The crime in Port-au-Prince makes Johannesburg, South Africa look like Oslo or Stockholm (two of the safest cities on earth). When is the world going to do something about the chronic poverty in our world? Poverty, crime, disease, and disaster all seem to go in hand. Hades, indeed.

Above is a photo a few people digging out from the rubble of the disaster. How can one not feel a sense of compassion for these people? How heartless does one have to be to dismiss them outright, as Rush and Pat have done? Why do these conservative opinion-shapers hate them so much? What did the people of Haiti ever do to deserve such scorn and condemnation of those two men, who spew their poisonous bile to hoards of unthinking morons that accept their opinions as though they spoke directly for their God?

Because of the poverty in Haiti, many buildings are not built to withstand an earthquake. News reports are expecting the number of casualties to be anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 people. That's a good sized town / small metropolis (like everyone in Spokane WA or Peoria IL being killed). This first disaster of the new year / new decade only reminds me of the Christmas 2004 tsunami that killed over 100,000 people in the Indian Ocean area. These natural disasters remind us of our powerlessness against the mighty forces of mother nature. Fortunately, most Americans have compassion and generosity, quick to set up relief efforts to move vital medicine, clothing, food, and money to the critical region. I wish those who have a heart, who might be loyal listeners of Rush or Pat but also feel moved to donate money or blood or clothing to the people of Haiti, that they realize the demagoguery of these charlatans of the right.

What Pat Robertson did not say in his comments about Haiti is the most obvious. He blames the disaster on some pact long-dead Haitian slaves supposedly made with Satan to overthrow the slaveholding French regime. The unspoken word was "voodoo." Yes...it is hard to talk about Haiti without acknowledging how thoroughly ingrained voudou / voodoo is among the populace. Time for a history lesson. Are you listening, Pat?

The French who established a colony in Haiti were Catholic. The Africans they ripped away from the motherland were animists (ancestor worship, with superstition, curses, demonic possession, and other weirdness thrown in). The slaves who worked the fields of Haiti blended their masters' Catholicism with animism. Santeria is the result. Most people know about voodoo dolls (I have one that I bought in New Orleans. Hey...its cute looking! I just use it as decoration), where you can supposedly make a person feel pain by afflicting it on a voodoo doll that contains a person's lock of hair. There's also the belief in turning people into the undead or zombies. And animal sacrifice. Since people can hide behind Catholicism, it would be hard to know who is a practitioner of voudou, though you'd probably not want to piss anyone off, just to be on the safe side.

Is Santeria really all that scary? When I visited New Orleans over New Year's 2003, I just had to visit the Voodoo Museum. In front of me were two young ladies who had bought a ticket but were afraid to enter the museum. One of them asked the other, "Is it scary in there?" It wasn't a Disney ride, ladies! Just a museum. How scary could it be? I learned quite a bit about Santeria. In fact, I even saw a cool painting by a Haitian artist that depicted a baptism among Santeria followers. There was even a video footage of a Santeria worship service that was pretty over the top for me. However, I was struck by the idea that it was exactly like the services that the evangelicals within my church loved to have. There were Santeria equivalents to the concepts of "speaking in tongues", "being slain in the spirit", and outward displays of emotions (such as hand waving high in the air). I've never been comfortable with this pentacostal type worship (I'm too much the modest Midwestern), but it occured to me: "How dare these evangelicals judge Santeria adherents to be Satanic! They worship exactly the same way!"

Satanism is the catch-all category for anything "weird", which Santeria falls under because of the above-mentioned practices. But seriously...who are Christians to freak out about the blood sacrifice of animals in Santeria ceremonies when Christians imitate the same devotion to blood sacrifice with the passing of communion (in which the bread represents the flesh of Jesus and the grape juice as the blood of Jesus)? Let's be consistent and real here. I hate hypocrisy...especially when one group condemns another group for doing the same thing as them. It only looks different because they call it by different terms and because their skin is darker than yours.
My joke on Facebook about wondering how much a human soul was worth and if Satan could stop torturing Hitler for a second to come make me an offer for mine that I couldn't refuse cost me a friend. Someone had defriended me after that status update. Gosh...can't take a joke? I still haven't figured out who dropped me but I have to laugh. I often say outrageous stuff because I think its funny. I don't even believe that Satan exists, so how is that joke offensive? Religious people are too uptight sometimes.

Anyhow, I learned a lot about how the fundamentalist views the world when I shared a cubicle with an Assemblies of God woman back in 2000-2001. She did not like my comments about Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, or Pat Robertson. To her, these men were God's mouthpieces on earth and any criticism against them is BLASPHEMY against God. Can you understand why I was in hell for a year sharing a tiny cubicle with a woman like that, who talked Bible, Armaggedon, and Israel non-stop?

I was glad that I was long gone from there when 9/11 happened so I couldn't hear her repeat Robertson's and Falwell's theory about why that tragedy happened. They used the attacks as an excuse to go after their favourite scapegoats: liberals, feminists, homosexuals, and the ACLU lawyers. When they made that "connection", it proved to me that they did not understand cause and effect. Even the CIA made the connection. They call it "blowback" and acknowledged that the attacks were the result of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East dating back to the 1950s when they helped the British overthrow the democratically elected president of Iran and installed the unpopular Shah, who conveniently signed away the Iranian government's right to oil to a British oil company. Osama bin Laden himself said that his anger against the U.S. was the result of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, when a half million American soldiers camped on sacred Saudi soil to wage war against another Arab nation. That's a connection of cause and effect. Our dependence on Middle East oil and support of unpopular autocratic governments creates a backlash. The 9/11 hijackers couldn't care less about the feminists, liberals, homosexuals, and Jewish lawyers at the ACLU. They struck at the heart of American finance and military operations.

Robertson is at it again. Now, he's blaming the Haitians of today for something he claims happened a few centuries ago. First...are people responsible for the actions of their ancestors? I, for one, will not take responsibility for my ancestors...and I might have a few slave-owning ancestors. No one wants to be held to events that happened before they were born. Its stupid to do so.

Second, how can one claim with a straight face that it is a historical fact that a group of people made a pact with Satan? Did Pat Robertson witness the event himself? Did he help broker the deal? If Pat knows a lot about Satan, doesn't that make him automatically suspicious? I've posted a few comments on various friends' Facebook pages about Robertson's comments: "Who said Robertson is a Christian? He's a capitalist who mistook the Almighty Dollar for God." Robertson is exactly the person Jesus warned his followers about: a false prophet who would use Jesus' good name for ill purposes. We would recognize these people by the fruits of their actions. All anyone has to do to learn Robertson's true allegiance is examine his statements and mission at Regents University and the Christian Broadcasting Network. He is a capitalist who exploits religion as an opiate of ignorant masses, who send him money. Falwell died a few years ago, Oral Roberts recently...and though I hate wishing it, I kind of hope Robertson will be next. The sooner he can be sent to hell, the better for our planet. Hopefully some Santeria practitioner will do a voodoo ritual on Pat Robertson. That shit would be hilarious!