Friday, July 31, 2015

Why I Like the Pope

Pope Francis is a big hit. Non-Catholics love him; most Catholics love him; many hardcore traditionalist Catholics don't like him. I have heard from some really, really active Catholics (ones who don't just go to church but who study every aspect of the workings of the Church) criticize his ideas. I'm not in a position to argue with them, because they are more knowledgeable than I. 

What I do see, though, is (at least through my lens) a pope who does not create but who emphasizes the ideals that Catholicism has always represented, to me, as a Catholic: humility, compassion, charity and a welcoming of all who honestly seek to understand God. It is not that other popes have not believed this, I am sure; it is just that they seem to have been more focused on discussing what was wrong to do as opposed to what is right to do  -- at least, they seem to have seemed that way to non-Catholics and to alienated Catholics. 

I'll admit I am probably too intrinsically and actively philosophical to be an easy-sell when it comes to religion; I was the kid in catechism class who asked all of the annoying questions. Catholicism, to me, though, has proven itself, at the very least, as a philosophical and theological system (if not always in terms of the sometimes heinous actions of its individual members) so different from how the average anti-religion person views Christians: judgmental, angry, exclusionary, uneducated. 

So, on one hand, I am glad that Pope Francis is exemplifying what Catholicism has always felt like to me. I do, however, wish people on the outside would stop expecting him to start openly accepting every modern idea under the sun; or, at least, that they would understand that he is not some rogue, rock star priest, but that he represents the ancient Church he has dedicated his life to. 

I saw a news commentator once say that while he is glad the Pope spoke of not condemning homosexuals who are "earnestly seeking God" he is "disappointed" that the Pope still won't accept gay marriage. He is still the Pope of the Catholic Church, and gay marriage is not in the bylaws, as it were. No one should be surprised by this, even if they disagree. 

All I know is that I watched him step out onto the balcony on the day of his selection and I called my wife and said, "This guy is going to be very different." He has proven himself so, especially in his quest to live by example. He carries himself in a very Christlike way and his emphasis on kindness, humility and the closing of the rifts between the faiths is something the world needs now. I like the him very much. 

(I recommend -- very highly -- the article on the Pope in the latest issue of National Geographic. Very interesting.) 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

How Much Virtuality Can We Stand?

How "virtual" can we stand for our world to become?

Is there an effect on the collective human psyche as we move farther and farther away from real things we can touch and hold? We know how important tactile learning is for kids -- they need to push and pull and feel with their hands. It helps them learn the dynamics of the physical world. Clicks and bells and textures inform their minds and their senses about cause and effect and any other number of things.

As adults, we seem to be trying to prove that is all a waste of time. If we buy music, we get no CD or record to hold in our hands, we get a purposefully -- stealthily -- diluted sound file.

Books are getting digitized, so no more smell and feel of the paper; no more gold-leafed or rough-cut page ends; no more ink. We read news on lighted screens, no longer on crackling newsprint.

Philadelphia; Thirtieth Street Station
columns and a modern building, beyond.
More and more, we compute on glass-faced devices with only virtual buttons to "push." Nothing at our fingertips but cold glass and illusions of texture...

Buildings have gone from cut stone and wood adorned with the detailed work of artisans -- work that rises in relief from the heart of the media; work we could run our hands over and feel as much as see -- to towers of glass that disappear into the sky around them, as if ethereal but feeling ephemeral.

Epic films that were already a kind of virtual reality themselves at least used to be populated by casts of thousands of real people on horseback are now "populated" by computer generated forms. When we watched John Wayne jump from the stagecoach and onto the wooden rail between the running draft horses, we watched John Wayne jump from the stagecoach and onto the wooden rail between the running draft horses. Tricks and safety measures were used, for sure, but the danger was that much closer to real. Now, we know, from brain to heart, that we are watching fleshless scenes of absurd extreme indiscriminate calamity...

We once had a purse of coins that were forged from precious metals with which we would purchase things, but this was dangerous -- because of thieves -- so we put the precious metals in vaults and printed money to represent it, but, then, we made plastic cards to represent the cash that represented the gold and silver and now we rarely touch our own wealth -- we just grant permission for it to be moved from one place to another. It's safer that way...the bank or the government will hold onto the real wealth for us. Of course, if there is a problem, they might have to keep us from accessing's safer that way...

Teachers are told not to touch children, ever -- even the little ones with scraped knees and bumped heads. No hugs for a crying baby for fear of a lawsuit. No hand on the shoulder of a student the teacher is helping in class; no pat on the back for a play well-executed. It is wrong to touch. People refuse each other handshakes during cold season, even though hand sanitizer exists...

Kids play with their friends long-distance, through microphones and headsets. They build Minecraft forts in Minecraft woods and they rarely feel the bark of trees under their fingers...

Each of these has its reasons, whether good or bad, but each of these is a step away from reality; from flesh and stone and wood and from cause and effect; each of these is a step away from ownership of real and solid things.

We've come from a world of wool, leather, loam and leaf into a time of synthesis, digitization, virtual reality and illusion. We're either evolving toward total transcendence or coming loose from our earthly moorings. Maybe they are the same thing?

At any rate, don't think less of me for saying that I am glad that I will only be here another forty or so years. We're so careful; we're so sanitized; we're so alone in the virtual crowd and it is getting worse every day.

Is it far-fetched to think that some day lovemaking without prior permission forms and the proper medical and psychological screenings might be illegal? It can be dangerous, you know. Maybe it can all be replaced with Woody Allen's orgasmatron. That used to seem so far-fetched.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Four Days in Washington

A great boy at the feet of a great man. 
I should have said something about my impending hiatus, but I still operate under that bit of modern wisdom that it is not good to advertise on the Internet when you are going to be away from home...but I was, indeed, away. The family headed off to Washington DC. Now you have to pay the price of a churned-up writer's head...

Where to start? I may have been to DC as a kid, but, if I was, I remembered nothing. First, the city itself...

Weird. Not bad, at all (despite a few run-ins with drugged-up street people in Chinatown) -- just weird. I was pretty shocked by how un-historical the city felt, for on thing. This may seem like a ridiculous statement, but I think the Greek and Roman architecture, everywhere, makes the city feel timeless -- which might well have been the aim of the planners; the duration of the Republic and all that. This same end is achieved in the paintings in places like the National Archives and in the Capitol; the ones that show the Founding Fathers in neoclassical/Romantic settings that echo paintings of the Greek heroes and philosophers congregating and conversing in their animated groups, all in the act of debating or of feverishly passing paper documents around... It all works to elevate the city to the perceived level of Democratic Mecca, which, I suppose, is not a bad idea.

But Washington DC feels somehow slightly cold to me. I read, on a placard somewhere in the Museum of American History, that George Washington, in trying to find his niche as president, had humbly asked only to be called "Mr. President" (some had suggested he be the emperor, to give you perspective) and that he had decided, as president, not shake people's hands, but to bow formally, when he met them, in order to maintain some separation and to not seem either too aristocratic or too egalitarian. And the city that bears his name feels the same way; it doesn't really shake your hand; it bows a not-unfriendly bow; it welcomes you but it asks, politely, that you not put your feet up on the coffee table.

Some months ago, I fell deeply and immediately in love with Boston. With DC left feeling intellectually stimulated, culturally fulfilled and accomplished, but not in love.

One couldn't help, though, whirling away mentally into a million philosophical questions. The monuments were as powerful as advertised, especially the Korean War Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. The Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial are so ubiquitous in photographs, one feels he has already "seen" them, though they were wonderful to see. The Vietnam Memorial was moving simply because of the visual numbers of lost and dead...but, Jefferson and the Korean War Memorial were different.

At the Korean War Memorial, I felt my usual spiritual schism: two separate but strong feelings running in parallel: a deep pride in the men who fought and did what they believed in and a deep revulsion for the heinousness of war; especially of a war that achieved absolutely nothing and in which the soldiers were poorly equipped and inadequately supported by their government. Yet, there the men were, in the memorial, in rain gear and helmets, walking in formation and carrying their battered, poorly-functioning World War II reissued rifles, moving in formation through the dense vegetation. The lump in my throat was there in pride, but the anger threatened to push it out to the embarrassment of my family...

The staggering Korean War Memorial. 
We'd walked the entire National Mall on the first day and we were bone-tired by the time we reached the Tidal Basin. (My overused bass drum ankle was aching with staggering intensity.) Across the water, we all looked out at the Jefferson Memorial and I asked my wife and the boys if they felt up to it. Everyone nodded. (I'm glad they did, because any excuse to turn back would have been hard to resist.)

Thomas Jefferson has always been one of my favorite historical and philosophical figures and his monument could not have been more perfectly imagined. Looking back out over the city, the Tidal Basin sparkling between his statue and the White House, the water undulating as if to represent the silver thoughts of  democracy that Jefferson was so instrumental in promoting; as if the city had emerged from his rippling and twinkling ideals like Atlantis reborn, it was hard not to feel patriotic, in the real sense. It was cool, up there, as well, under and on the marble, the breeze blowing through and making the monument an oasis from the ninety degree heat and giving it the feel of a place of sanity, sheltering us under the column-lifted dome from the barrage of modern noise. I could have sat there for days.

Arlington, of course, was dramatic and moving, but it called up the same philosophical and emotional schism in me: a mix of pride and disgust. As we watched the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I found my eyes brimming. I'm still not sure if it was a result of the mechanical beauty of the ritual created by the soldiers themselves in honor of all of their lost and fallen brothers or whether it was because of the keen sense of waste of life -- the sense that the man in the sarcophagus was someone's son or husband or brother who died for -- what? Did he really die for the old boilerplate "freedom," as in WWII, or is that ubiquitously applied word just a cover up for lives wasted as they were in Vietnam and Korea? In those wars, did those guys die for "freedom" or did they die for the incorrect political calculations of men in suits and brass-studded uniforms? I honor sacrifice either way. Deeply. But I hate that they died for nothing. (I have friends who -- and this baffles me -- just cannot understand that position.)

At any rate, we came home back pretty tired, as if traveling through portals: from one stone-columned city into a stone-columned train station at Union Station and exiting through another stone-columned portal at Philadelphia's dramatic Thirtieth Street Station and then into a car and back into the tree-lined suburbs of home -- a home that would not be possible without human sacrifice and without that which occurs in those lofty Greco-Roman buildings in DC. None of that means, however, that I accept the absolute need for war or that every war is a battle for freedom or that I believe, wholesale, that America is a perfect place. Thomas Jefferson would surely scowl down upon me if I did. Blind patriots are fools.

The Union Station Portal

The Thirtieth Street Station Portal...and home. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mr. Holmes: How Ian McKellen Gave Us Back the "Real" Sherlock Holmes

On Friday, I had the pleasure of having seen the beautiful film, Mr. Holmes. Ian McKellen was, as expected, brilliant as Sherlock Holmes. As a film, in and of itself, it was beautifully photographed, well-written and wonderfully executed in every way. Most importantly, though, it gives us back a Holmes that has been slowly blanched away over the years; the "real" Sherlock Holmes.

Basil Rathbone
In my estimation, the movie vindicates Sherlock Holmes -- rescues the character from the common perceptions that were, in my opinion, sown by Jeremy Brett and reaped by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Sherlock Holmes might be the most commonly portrayed character in literary history. Even during Doyle's years of success in the late Victorian era (in which people many people believed Holmes was real), Holmes was being portrayed on the stage.

On film, Basil Rathbone became the Holmes, for quite awhile and, sadly, alongside him, Nigel Bruce turned Watson into a sort of blithering fool in popular perception. (He has since been saved from that fate by the likes of David Burke and Edward Hardwicke (BBC, with Brett), Jude Law and, masterfully, by Martin Freeman (Sherlock, BBC).

Rathbone had most of the elements of Doyle's written Holmes, from his described (and illustrated) appearance to his rapid shifts from languid boredom to high-energy (and physically quirky) fits of enthusiasm. Courageously, the producers even allowed reference to Holmes's use of drugs to fend off boredom -- at least, in The Hound of the Baskervilles: "Watson! The needle."

Between Rathbone and Brett, there were several Holmes portrayals, but none really significant. When Jeremy Brett came along, I was disappointed. Many like him, but I found his portrayal to be a bit disturbing. I couldn't help but think Brett's Holmes was the kind of guy I wouldn't leave my kids alone with... his quirkiness seemed unwholesome in some way. And with Brett, Holmes started to be more closely associated with what amounts to something more subtle in the actual texts; he turned from the socially uninterested fellow to a rude and self-centered person. One could easily diagnose Brett's Holmes with Asperger's syndrome.

Robert Downey Jr. is not bad, but he does the ne'er-do-well Holmes; the likable, wayward genius. (The writing of the movies...not so much.)
McKellen's Holmes and his buddy Roger.

Then, Benedict Cumberbatch came along. I love his Holmes -- I really do. And I love the Sherlock series, much to my surprise. (I expected Holmes to be ruined by the modern setting.) In spirit, I think Cumberbatch is a wonderful Holmes. The writers, though, have chosen to label Holmes as -- and Holmes calls himself this -- a "high-functioning sociopath." (I wouldn't leave my kids with Cumberbatch's Holmes, either; not because I fear what he might do to them but because I would fear he might  forget he had them and they would wind up wandering onto the tracks in some nearby Underground station.)

I should not be surprised by the extreme characterization of Holmes. It is very fashionable to be messed-up in the head, these days. There is a common perception that a genius must, as part of his resume requirements, be a mentally unhealthy person. I disagree strongly with this and I also disagree strongly that Holmes, on the page, is ever even close to either Asperger's or to the level of a high-functioning sociopath.

That said, interpretation is what keep literature alive and a character like Holmes can only benefit by fresh renditions.

Therefore, I am glad that McKellan came along and wrenched Holmes back into what I think is the proper place. He is a man who, though brilliant about logic and in following in the footsteps of human action, never really gave time to understanding the human heart; who (and this is in the text) dismisses love and friendship as something that is unnecessary and that is a hindrance to his work.

But, McKellen's Holmes is is sympathetic and likable, but never saccharine. He even -- ironically, considering my statements about Brett -- mentors a the little boy of his housekeeper in a relationship that is as beautiful as that of any grandfather and grandson.

Let it suffice to say that the elderly Holmes finds many things he has long lacked, after great trials.

While I am a lover of the Sherlock Holmes stories, I have never been a detail freak. It is the character that I have always loved, not the memorization of the contents of 221B or the regurgitation of Holmes's steps to solving the mystery of "The Five Orange Pips." I like Sherlock Holmes and I recognize his flaws and I admire his tremendous strengths. Ian McKellen and Mitch Cullin (the writer of the screenplay based on his own novel) gave me back the Holmes I knew: a man who I would, in fact, leave my sons alone with because not only do I trust him but I believe they could benefit from not only his example of logic and brilliance, but, also, from his kind heart and good humor.

See this movie, especially if you love Sherlock Holmes.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why Dogs Are Better Than Humans

I have often said, only half-jokingly, that dogs are superior to humans. They have no egos, they love
Me and my dog-in-law,
Harley, in Cape Cod, philosophizing.
May he rest in peace. 
without condition and they are (to echo the centuries-old cliche) loyal beyond compare.

But, in the end, we find ourselves, humans, to be superior to dogs. What does this mean, though? I can only equate it to one thing: we are more complex. So, does complexity equal superiority? Does the ability to create and build more things equal superiority? Does the capacity to build financial webs and to wage wars do it?

Complexity allows us to dominate other species. Is domination equal to superiority? -- does the ability to dominate all other species actually make us better than they are?

I'd argue, unequivocally "no."

Isn't it interesting that some of the most revered philosophies from Taoism to Feng Shui to Good Housekeeping cleaning tips seem to always be about simplifying life -- boiling it down to its essence? -- to the things that really matter?

So, if dogs are made of love, companionship and loyalty, shouldn't we aspire to be more like them? And if we should aspire to be more like them, are they not superior?

Greater complexity may, as I said, allow dominion, but it does not necessarily equate to betterness, if you will allow me to invent a word.