Monday, November 29, 2010

Every Captain's Dream

Many have said it: Time is a river. We all ride this river, but we each experience it uniquely -- we feel the journey differently, depending where we are -- where the river bends; where the bubbles rise; where the rocks scrape the bottoms of our boats. And it is on a boat that we ride and that boat is filled with those who share our trip, whether by accident or by design.

As she goes, we spy scenery going by. When we look away from it and put our heads down to some task, either on deck or below the planks, we miss what is passing. Then we stop and say: "When did I get here? Where did the mountains go? -- the ones I remember so vividly from once before?" If we stay on deck and watch things passing, looking into the distance, it feels as if time is passing slowly. But if we watch the water rushing past our sides, we feel we are outracing the wind and maybe the river itself, though that is foolish, and days become minutes.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Men and Women of the TSA, Uncovered

(This ran Wednesday at When Falls the Coliseum, as well, but what the heck.)

I've got it! The solution is nigh. Listen carefully, everyone.

So, everyone is bent out of shape by the TSA's naughty little scanners. And for derned good reason. By this point, you have read enough Internet rants and debates about the issues, so I won't get into the fine points in detail here, but many of them are based on invasion of privacy, implication of guilt, etc. Maybe there is no way out of this. Maybe there is no way out of getting scanned and/or groped in airports. Fine. Here's how we make it fair (and maybe pleasant).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wake Up, Eggheads!

Yeah, I'm talking to you, buddy! (Click for source)
In our modern world, there are people who are not too bright; there are people who are pretty smart; there are people who have slightly better than average intelligence and there are geniuses. Imagine this as a sort of Kinsey scale for intellect, instead of sexual orientation. (We'll call it the "Matsey Scale." Well, I will, anyway, because it amuses me so much.) People fall in-between each point on the scale, so not everyone is able to be neatly categorized. But the problem in modern society is that the not-so-bright spend their lives attacking everyone else for not having "common sense;" the pretty smart people tend to fade into workaday, white collar nothingness; the slightly above average intelligences run things and the geniuses climb escape ladders up into ivory towers and look down on the world, shaking their heads at everyone else's behavior but refuse to jump into the fray and help with working things out, when, in fact, they are the best qualified to do so.

Monday, November 22, 2010

"The White Curve of Her Neck"

One passage from James Joyce's story "Araby" has always moved me; it reminds me so much of my perspective on girls when I was a boy and it makes me think how wrong we have gone in terms of the way women can be perceived in our society. Here is the main character's view of his friend Mangan's older sister (with whom he is desperately in love) in "Araby":

While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go [to Araby], she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent [school]. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps, and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.
Maybe I'm getting sentimental, but this nearly brings a tear to my eye every time I read it. It is as if Joyce reached into my brain and pulled out the innocent, aesthetic aching for female beauty that I felt as a boy; the attraction that had nothing to do with ulterior motives -- nothing to do with lust, yet. It was more like a tree's need for light than anything else. Does every boy go through this for a time? Or was it born out of the concept that had I somehow gathered -- that girls were something special, even magical?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Power-Washing the Lord

Click pic for source
One morning, I drove my usual route down an ugly business-lined road, dodging fools like I was in a video game -- fools popping out of driveways. Fools cutting across lanes. Fools standing on the double-line in the middle of a fifty mile-per-hour road. Then, as always, I made a slight right onto a rural road and slowed down to take in the rising morning sun over the trees and fields on both sides of the car.

On my way in to town, I passed a church. A sparkling cloud hung there as if someone inside a glycerine-water-filled snow globe had hit a drum covered with gold dust. I slowed down, watching, expecting the cloud to fall, but it remained, changing shape and drifting into nothing at the edges, rolling like cream does when it is poured into coffee.

Then, I saw the source of the golden, miraculous cloud.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How We Oil the Cold Machine

Issue 1:
In Connecticut, a drunk driver who is in jail, currently serving ten years for running over and killing a fourteen-year-old boy (the man was doing 83 in a 45 mph zone), is suing the deceased kid's family, claiming they owe him $15, 000 because of "great mental and emotional pain and suffering" and loss of "capacity to carry on in life's activities." He says the kid should have been wearing a helmet. Well, he should have, right?

Issue 2:
People are outraged at airports because the TSA is inspecting their nude bodies on X-ray scanners in order to -- claims the TSA -- keep the airways safer. The people who complain say this is an invasion of their privacy; it is akin to accusing them of being criminals -- worse, terrorists, they say. The TSA says these machines are going to keep the skies safer; the rest does not matter to pragmatists. They have a point, right?

Issue 3:
In the quasi-historical film Braveheart, William Wallace, after fighting viciously for the freedom of Scotland from England, dies like this (warning -- brutal content, in case kids are around):

Monday, November 15, 2010

Crumbs to Build A Fortress

Imagine an ant is walking on the wing of a space shuttle.

Consider the complexity of the machine below him. It contains technologies that neither I nor (I'm guessing) any of my readers understand. In fact, it contains technologies that no one person is capable of explaining in full. Someone understands the guidance system. Someone understands the life support. Someone else gets, say, communications. But the thing is so complex that the grasp of it as a whole is beyond any single human, let alone an ant.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Happy Meal Fisticuffs in San Fran

I agree completely with San Francisco's decision to keep kids from getting toys in Happy Meals that don't meet certain nutritional standards. Fat kids, I think it is universally agreed -- especially those whose obesity is not their own fault but their parents' -- should not be allowed to have fun. And kids who behave in ways that might eventually cause them to become fat should not have fun either.

The logic is sound: if we help kids to eat more healthfully at fast-food restaurants, they will change their eating habits and become more healthy. And legislation like this successfully bypasses those pesky parental responsibilities that get in the way of practical life and it can end marketing that targets kids, completely. Either that, or it "sends a message to corporate America" . . . or something. (People love to send messages these days. I'm thinking of getting a job as a messenger.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Corpse in the Garden (A Parable)

"The Death of Socrates" by David (click for source)
There once was man who was confused.

He saw that everyone around him was in agreement about something; they all agreed that they should "live life to the fullest". The people were unanimously pleased with this idea. It made them feel good. It gave them a purpose. Now they knew what to do: live life to the fullest. Simple. If they did this, they would be happy. So everyone in the world set out to comply and to find happiness.

But, as I said, our hero was confused. He tried to follow this enticing popular wisdom, but realized he had no idea how to achieve such a miraculous, life-validating thing. This made him sad, because everyone else seemed to have run right out and done it without so much as a thought.

Monday, November 8, 2010

"And I Ran" (from 80s Pop Culture)

Whether we like it or not, we are all products of the time in which we grew up. Some of us cling to those times with the warmest fondness. Some of us don't. I don't.

The eighties were about as opposite to my own heart-of-hearts as a decade can get. In a candy-colored, shiny, ostentatious, flamboyant, synthetic, pop-driven time, I was a kid who read Sherlock Holmes stories, listened to orchestral music and progressive rock and who longed for the warm colors of fall and the pure, deep, pensive silence of winter.

In terms of ambiance, Easter: No. Thanksgiving: Yes.

The pop culture of the eighties was cold and insincere to me. The music seemed empty and over-produced and even the standard of beauty for women seemed cold and harsh. Every model was six feet tall and rail-thin with angry slashes of blush and eye-shadow like electric storm clouds.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Wrath of Cyber Christ?

So, this popped up all over Facebook, coincidentally, right after I published my last piece on restraint of expression with spirituality (I cleaned up some of the awful grammar):
Click pic for source
If you believe in Jesus Christ, put this on your wall. Do not just ignore this. In the Bible it says, if you deny me in front of your peers, I will deny you in front of my Father, at the gates of Heaven. This is a simple test. If you love God and are not afraid to show it, put this on...your wall
"This is a simple test"? A test created by what higher authority? Some lonely, Ned Flanders-looking dork at a Dell keyboard in Boise? Or is there an implication that God is now maintaining a Facebook page? (I'm not sure what the ellipses mean before "your wall" but they make me imagine the words like giant cartoon rock letters with cracks in them.)

My first instinct is to react to this with two words, one of them a verb beginning with "F" and the other, a pronoun that sounds like "ewe". But I will restrain my anger. This is just another case of something people mechanically accept but that really burns my biscuits.

Click pic for source
Similarly, I once received a "Christian" email that told me, essentially, that if I didn't forward it, I would wind up like the example people it listed who died a few days after deciding not to forward it. Of course, the email went to great pains to explain that one of the deceased was a father of three-year-old twins. (Incidentally, I lived -- presumably because I don't have twins and because the God of love doesn't like to punish transgressors unless he can ruin the lives of that transgressor's children, too, just so the little bastards don't think of stepping out of line in the future.)

Oh, I admit that I thought about it for a minute, because I do believe in God (for reasons that range from Aquinas to Descartes to C.S. Lewis to the wonders of music to a lifetime peppered with some excellent homilies) and, as a logical fellow, I am sure that he would certainly take me away from my wife and children for not forwarding an EMAIL!! It makes perfect sense that Christ would smite me deader than Lazarus for not "forwarding" and that he would damn me to writhe and gnash in the Eternal Conflagration for not pasting a poorly-written, self-righteous blurb on my Facebook wall.

There's the absurdity dealt with. But how about logic? Nah -- no need for that in electronic evangelism!

First of all, is neglecting to repost that blurb the same as "denial"? Of course not. Denial would be: "Jesus? Nope. Never heard of him. Sorry." Peter stuff. Denial is not refusing to be spooked into reposting a pre-fabricated Facebook post.

And don't make me go all theological about it, 'cause I have connections. A friend of mine who is a priest pointed out that, intrinsic in this blurb of damnation, is the implication that the writer could, by sending this blurb around, cause God to take an action. Even the most rabid of mentally terroristic zealots couldn't think that arrogance was okay.

I understand the concept of spreading the "good news". I get those who dedicate their spare time to preaching, but there is a fine line between wanting to help others see the light and dragging them into in by any means possible. Convincing someone to believe in God (as Lewis and other theologists/philosophers did for me) is fine, but shackling someone to a pew and forcing him to pray at metaphorical gunpoint is ridiculous.

A maniac can force someone to have sex with him through fear and show of strength, but can he force someone to fall in love? So why would anyone want to intimidate or shame someone into faith? Would the Genesis story about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil exist if that were the way the very God that the writer of this Facebook post presumes to speak for thinks?

People believe (or don't believe) in their own fashion. I realize different belief systems place varying evangelical burdens on those who follow them. But I can't believe any denomination would advocate the use of shame and intimidation. It can only yield false results, much in the same way that torture reputedly brings out false answers -- answers given only to stop the pain.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Recollected in Tranquility

There are things that embarrass me that don't embarrass other people. But these things always seem to come from inside. They always seem to involve things I see as intensely personal; something that should burn deep in one's heart and that one should reveal only in a controlled, dignified, selective forms. Wordwsorth called poetry "the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility." In other words, no one wants to read a poem written in the midst of an emotional meltdown -- it is too messy; too undignified; too close. I think a few things in life are like poetry. I think intense feelings need to be filtered before they are released to the world. If they are not, I get downright embarrassed for people.

Spirituality is like this for me. It seems this should be between a person and his chosen deity. I am embarrassed by unfettered displays of spirituality, not because I don't respect the passion of those who perform these displays, but because I feel like an eavesdropper on their spiritual conversations. It feels like I'm in the birthing room of a couple I don't know. Those moments should be intimate, to me; private, not public. (Yet another way in which I am weird, I guess -- people invite their lawn service guys into the birth room now.)

Patriotism is like this, too. Its unabashed, brazen display seems to reduce the profundity of something so important. When people trumpet about patriotism and paint flags everywhere, it feels like cheering at a football game. It is especially tough, for me, in wartime. Obviously, war is so much more than a football game. Unity as a nation is wonderful, but fist-pumping and scowls at cameras meant for anyone "dumb enough to mess with us" is puerile.

I am spiritual and I am patriotic in my own way -- in my personal way. In my heart. And if I am going to display these feelings, it will be with control and restraint.  In short, not like the first video, here, but like the second.

I want to make it clear that the following song is a parody of patriotic songs by a guy named Cledus T. Judd. He is described as "the Weird Al Yankovic of country songs" on You Tube. I did not want to insult anyone's favorite patriotic song. But this makes my point with no harm and no foul. It is called "Don't Mess With America."

"We'll beat you red, white and blue"? Classic.

Now, an example of sensitive patriotism and controlled spirituality in one song -- a song that, in its subtly, taps into the idea of bravery and sacrifice in a way that a million American flag-waving football fans couldn't capture in a century, Gino Vannelli and Roy Freeland's "None So Beautiful as the Brave." The video was made as a tribute to a fallen soldier and, so, focuses on people, not bombs and guns:

Notice the difference even in the images of the video when they are not playing: the first, soldiers. The second: a man who is a soldier. Clearly, a shift in focus.

Maybe my embarrassment is driven by shame for the ways patriotism and spirituality can divide us. One video here uses patriotism as a club with which to beat others; one defines it with real pride in the beauty of bravery and in the wide-eyed dedication to idealism that results in the bittersweet of ultimate sacrifice. But we can only really see the beauty of the human spirit by looking inward. Wearing a flag shirt does not make you a patriot, nor does screaming loudly, stomping your feet, having the World Trade Center airbrushed on your car or parroting "If you don't like America, get out." Loving the spirit of freedom does; really feeling and understanding that spirit does. For Americans, understanding the Constitution does. Voting (when informed) does.

If you love the spirit of freedom, you are a patriot and, strangely, a patriot who could easily belong in many of the free countries of our world. How mystically unifying that sounds.

Art can affect the world for better or worse. Above are examples of both effects. Dignity of expression and intelligence are the defining factors. And they are the elements that I ask for in the expression of others and that I strive for in my own.

Monday, November 1, 2010

So You Think You Can Be President

This is a proposal of the most grave and honest intent.

Here it is. We have two years to get ready for this. I propose that we replace our current system of electing the President of the United States. Instead of the campaign/election process, the President should be chosen based on the call-in votes of Americans during a reality competition television show called So You Think You Can Be President. I submit that we will get better, more reliable results than we get with the current system. Voters will know their candidates much more deeply and they will be more confident and informed in their ultimate voting decisions. But the show must be carefully planned to yield the most reliable results.

First, there will be no party affiliations. Let's get that done from the start, because that is an archaic idea and parties cause more troubles than they abate. Parties are a smokescreen for cowardice and laziness of thought.

Second, all candidates must be over the age of forty and they must carry a master's degree in an academic discipline. (This helps to insure their potential as learners and thinkers.) Career politicians are welcomed to apply, but so are, say, English teachers, laywers, doctors, business people and librarians, etc.

Stage one of the competition:

People from each state who want to be President will upload a five-minute video speech to their state's designated site. They will explain in this speech why they want to and think they can be President. The people in the state will vote and the top vote-getter from each state will be sent to the So You Think You Can Be President White House -- an exact replica of the White House constructed on an undisclosed site. All 50 of the Internet picks will live there until the first big elimination: the American history test.

Stage two:

The American history test will be written by a panel of history professors chosen from American universities. The lowest twenty of the contestants will be sent home after the first episode of the show. The top 30 will remain and they will begin competing.

Our panel of American history professors will be replaced, at this point, by a panel of political science professors. These professors will administer a test, each week, on the Constitution. Any contestant who scores below an 85% on the test for the week will receive a penalty of a 10% decrease in his or her popular call-in votes for the week. Any competitors who receive below a 70%, at any time, will be immediately eliminated from the competition, regardless of their popularity. The test will be as objectively oriented as possible. Interpretation will be left for the ensuing competitions.

The show will be produced, of course, by the producers of American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. On the show, there will be a panel of commentators who will have nothing to do with the voting process -- they just comment. This panel will consist of John Stewart, Dennis Miller, Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow and Ben Stein. These judges will comment on the contestants' performance in much the same way as the American Idol judges comment when the votes are in the hands of the public. Since no one will be part of a political party, these judges will not be swayed by preconceptions and their backgrounds should be from diverse enough places that there is a give-and-take in their evaluative process, no matter how asinine or agenda-driven some of them might have been in the past. (It will be interesting to see where they stand on things when there no pre-labeling of contestants. If George Carlin were still with us, he would have been invited to be on the panel as the unwavering voice of reason, though he would undoubtedly have turned the offer down.)

Stage three: The weekly show will consist of challenges in which the contestants have to prove themselves in the areas of 1) ethics, 2) logic, 3) current issues and 4) presidential scenarios. The challenges will be devised by professors in areas related to each of these topics. Representatives of the religions of our country will also be part of the "ethics" element. The professors, clergy and producers will create and present the contestants with challenges and, each week, the public will vote for the winners after the breakdown and commentary of the judges; the three least-voted-for contestants will be eliminated each Friday. (The producers can iron out the process, but you get the point.)

During the process, contestants will be required to keep daily blogs regarding the show's progress. Everyone in the country (and the world) will have access to these blogs twenty-four hours a day.

The winner of the show will be our next President.

The prize: being President. There is no salary. For four years, the President and his or her family will be supplied with food, clothing and a pretty nice place to live in Washington, D.C. After that, he or she is free to compete on the show again, but after the second term, that person is on his or her own. No lifelong salary, no special benefits. The former President is free to work in any area he or she wants, but is no longer to be called "President." The ultimate reward will be to have served the American public, with no personal gain.

After this process we will have a President who is well known by the people before he or she takes office and who was chosen based on a display of intelligence, knowledge, logic, ethics and performance under pressure in simulated presidential scenarios. This person will have been chosen based on his or her ideas and not based on people's prejudice against or for subjective party stereotypes. The President will have been tested by experts in their fields and grilled, publicly, by some insightful comic and political minds. And, perhaps most importantly, the American public will have participated in the electoral process with the same energy they give to dance shows and singing shows, which, by my estimation, is about three-times the attention and thought they give to elections, including those who vote.

All advertising proceeds from the show will go to the country's poor. And me.

WHADDAYOU THINK? Revisions? Other ideas?