December 23, 2008

Santa On Saxamaphone

Christmas and the surreal go hand in hand when living in Beijing. Yesterday I was greeted by the following scene in my office lobby: A Chinese Santa Claus, skinnier than Zhang Zi Yi after a three week therapeutic fast in Phuket, playing Christmas songs on his saxophone, accompanied by a circa 1983 boom box.

Christmas in China has become an industry of its own. When I moved to Beijing in 2000, Christmas was in fact a year round event, although perhaps unwittingly. It was not uncommon to see random holiday decorations plastering the walls of the kind of cheap, neighborhood eateries that I preferred to frequent. People did not necessarily realize what these Christmas angels and St. Nicks represented, they just liked the way they looked.

Fast forward a few years, and I began noticing that Christmas was becoming popular among Chinese youth, especially students and office workers. I asked a few people why Christmas was so popular and the most common answer was that Chinese people need an excuse to spend money.

The truth is, anything Western is increasing in popularity. I have never been really big on Christmas myself as an adult, finding it a little too commercial and hypocritical for my taste. But for some reason, seeing Christmas celebrated in China has always perturbed me. It seemed like some kind of violation of a sacrosanct Western tradition. At least in Korea, where they are even more Christmas crazy, a large percentage of the population is Christian.

The lowpoint for me came a couple years ago, while eating at my favorite Buddhist restaurant. The decorations were in full affect, including a Christmas tree and Santa hats. Severely annoyed, I asked why a Buddhist establishment would be celebrating a Christian holiday. The staff informed me they were not celebrating it as a Christian holiday, but as a secular one. This response miffed me even more, since then all you have left is a commercial holiday based around consumption and consumerism. Oh, the irony!

But I have come to accept Christmas in China. I have decided if it makes people happy, why should I complain. It really is no different than me celebrating Spring Festival or Cinco de Mayo. These are not my holidays, but I enjoy having an excuse to party. And any holiday that involves a Chinese Santa Claus on Sax can't be all bad. So Merry Christmas everyone!

Next stop Vietnam!

Lyric Of The Day:
Could I write a requiem for you when you're dead?
'She had the moves, she had the speed, it went to her head'
She never needed anyone to get her round the track
But when she's on her back
She had the knowledge
To get her into college
But when she's on her back
She had the knowledge
To get her what she wanted

'The Stars Of Track & Field'
-Belle And Sebastian

December 21, 2008

A Little Karma Goes A Long Way

I am relatively new to the blogosphere, having just recently started writing Dance With Sunflowers. I have begun following some personal blogs and am showing a new interest in reading the blogs and comments on large sites such as the NYTimes and Treehugger. I have been struck by the amount of negativity and vitriol that is being spewed on these sites. Many people seem more interested in insults and arguments then participating in any kind of discussion. Even when some people are trying to be constructive or share thoughtful opinions, their voices are often drowned out under a deluge of epithets and unwarranted attacks.

Perhaps the most inexplicable situation I have come across was how on one environmental forum--I am unable to recollect which one--the discussion was dominated by one individual. He posted to every thread, almost always negatively, and was constantly denigrating people, shooting down any idea he disagreed with, and spouting off a list of scientific 'research' to back up his claims. It made it impossible to have any kind of reasoned discussion on a topic, because people were always getting into an argument with him and responding to his personal attacks. And this was from an ardent environmental supporter. I am sure you have all come across the spittle and venom coming from the sports and politics blogs. But it really seems there is no place on the internet you can find respite from such antipathy. I have even received a couple of anonymous insults on my blog, which hardly receives any visitors at all.

I just do not understand where all this hate is coming from.

Allow me to share a story with you. Back when I was in grad school in Washington, DC, I was walking onto campus when I saw someone struggling to push his stalled car off the main road into a parking lot. I was walking past, thinking to myself "Sucks to be him" when I had a sudden impulse that I should stop and help him. So I ran over, and helped him push the car around the corner to a spot where it would be out of the way. He offered me his thanks, I said "No problem," and headed off to class. It certainly was not a big deal, yet that moment stuck in my mind, and really got me thinking.

My stopping for two minutes to help this guy meant a hell of a lot more to him than it cost me. It probably helped, at least a little bit, to put him in a better mood. If he ever encounters someone who needs help, he will be more likely to help out himself. And from that experience, I have realized that all our actions are connected. When you are nice to someone, you create a good feeling. You help put that person into a better mood, meaning they are more likely to be nice to others, who will in turn be kinder as well. One good action thus will live forever. In the same way, the negative energy you create will reverberate and endure forever as well. Before this experience, I had never thought too much about the concept of Karma, but now I understand it. It is not about every good action being revisited upon you in an equivalent manner, but it is about the infinite life span of our actions. The more positive energy you create, the more likely it is to return to you in some form at some time.

I am not sharing this story to be mystical, and I am certainly not trying to applaud myself. I try myself to be a good person and to spread good will, but I am often thwarted by my own personality. I can be quick to respond with anger or resentment to someone who lashes out at me. It is not difficult to rope me into an argument. I often fail to be the kind of person I would like to be.

But this brings me back to the blogosphere. I always try to communicate constructively and politely in my comments. Especially to strangers and especially when I am being critical of someone's point of view. I find it much easier to restrain myself and behave civilly, because I have the time to consider my responses and can temper my remarks with a judicial waiting period before clicking post. And yet what I am finding is people are using the anonymity of online communication to vent their anger and resentment in a naked and unbridled way they would never consider acceptable in their personal interactions.

So I urge any of you reading this, think about what you say and how you say it before sharing your opinions. Insults, rants, and personal attacks will not sway anyone to your side. And life does not always need to be about winning an argument or proving you know more than someone else. When you attack someone, it will only serve to sour their mood, and make them more likely to behave negatively towards others. So every time you behave with hostility, you are making our world a little more negative, a little more unfriendly.

Think before you post! Let's all work together to make the blogosphere a little more congenial and inviting for everyone.

Lyric of the Day:
Instant karma's gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you're gonna be dead
What in the world you thinking of
Laughing in the face of love
What on earth you tryin' to do
It's up to you, yeah you

"Instant Karma"
-John Lennon

December 20, 2008

Vegan Time Traveling

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine recently, and as discussions often do, the subject turned to time travel. The following ethical dilemma was posited: If you were to travel in time, as a vegan would you be prohibited from eating meat in your past time, prior to when you first became a vegan?

It is natural as a vegan to want to travel into the future, to a time when our more enlightened society has forever transitioned to a meat and dairy free existence.

But let's assume I use my time machine to travel to 1994. I was not a vegan then, not even a vegetarian. We used to mock a friend of ours who had become a vegetarian to lose weight and replaced meat in his diet with Doritos and Macaroni and Cheese. When I reenter 1994, will I be governed by my current world view, or my past world view?

Of course eating meat in the past will affect our present, in the same way our dietary choices today will affect our future. That is the whole reason I became a vegan after all. But which present will be affected, our current present, or an alternative reality present that is spawned by my voyage into the past? Am I ethically bound as a vegan to think about all these separate realities? At the same time, what is the point of time traveling at all if you are unable to eat bacon when you get there?

One of the rare examples of a question of physics and morality left unanswered by Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure.

December 19, 2008

Norwegian Wood came up on random play as I was writing this, suggesting that either life is not random, or I spent a long time to finish this review

I just finished reading Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami. It is not an easy book to encapsulate, nor to recommend. It is at times depressing, and at other times quite graphic.

The story revolves around Toru Watanabe, whose best friend committed suicide while they were both 17 years old. A deathly pallor hangs over everything, and each character seems to confront reality in his or her own unique way. Just like Kundera's Immortality presents a group of characters struggling with their identity in the face of their own mortality, Norwegian Wood likewise delves into the meaning of self when faced with life in a meaningless void. The novel is gripping in the way it portrays these tortured individuals who are never entirely comfortable in their own realities, and is certainly thought provoking, but it is not an easy read.

Sanity is an issue for several of the characters. Two have been voluntarily admitted to a kind of psychiatric retreat, and they repeatedly say the only difference between the people inside and the people outside is that the people inside know that they are crazy. Indeed, Toru's friends on the outside are just as peculiar and maladjusted to society as his friends inside, maybe even more so. Toru himself feels isolated, and has few companions at his university, and struggles with the direction his life should take. He battles deep bouts of depression, and often retreats into complete solitude. He finds no comfort in the people around him, who are continually exposed as hypocrites. The one friend he regularly spends time with has overcome hypocrisy by living live as selfishly as he can, a kind of Nietzschean superman who feels nothing but contempt for most of the people around him, and in the end is revealed to have a pointless, empty life.

The ending offers little in the way of hope either. Life is lived until death, and their is no magical plan for happiness. The only sanctuary may be to find love, but love is fleeting and tortuous and convuluted and our own need to be wanted and understood too often gets in the way of our ability to return that love.
Gripping the reciever, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the phone box. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again I called out for Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place.
It is easy to get lost when we have no idea where we are or what direction we are headed, and when the road map presented to us directs us to keep moving forward but gives us no answer as to why we should go there or what to expect when we arrive. But for Toru, and all the characters in Norwegian Wood, that is the type of journey they are on. They can only hope they have a nice cold cucumber to enjoy along the way.

December 17, 2008

The Best Example You Will Ever Find Of The Phantom Menace Syndrome Apart From The Phantom Menace Itself

I would like to use this space today to heartily recommend that you begin reading The Wheel Of Time series of books, by Robert Jordan. I would like to say that they are among the greatest books, of any genre, that I have ever read. I would like to tell you that if you enjoyed Harry Potter, than you will be even more enamored by this complex fantasy epic.

I came across the first book of the series, The Eye of the World, while I was in high school. I had always loved reading, loved stories, and more than once had tried my hand at writing a novel of my own. But it was after The Eye of the World that I first seriously entertained thoughts of becoming a writer.

So I would like nothing more than to urge you to toss whatever drivel you are reading right now, whether it be Shakespeare, Joyce, or Hemingway (or this blog), and grab a book that is truly compelling.

Unfortunately I cannot. The first four or five books in this series became a part of my life in the same way your favorite cousins from Pennsylvania who you only see twice a year are a part of your life, the same way your winter boots are a part of your life. You wish you could play with them everyday forever, but you always have to say goodbye and wait until next time. That is how it was with these books. I would savor each new volume. After plowing through the first few hundred pages in two nights, I would force myself to slow down, because I knew it would be at least another year before a new one came out. And once I finished, a long slow wait would begin. Each time, when the next volume was released, I would read through the whole series from the beginning so I was fully primed for the latest one.

But gradually, things began to fall apart. Book five was not quite as good as book four. Book six was undeniably sub-par. By book seven, I approached each new book with an increasing sense of hope mixed with dread. Would this book be better than the last, or would it be even worse? By books nine and ten, the experience of reading these stories had become almost tortuous, all the worse because I could not put them down, just like you could never turn away from a loved one suffering from a debilitating disease.

These characters had become a part of my life, and I had no choice but to see them all the way through no matter what the outcome. It was so maddening. What had gone wrong? What had happened to Robert Jordan, the best fantasy writer since Tolkien? What were his editor's thinking. The last two or three books were so bad, they reminded me of my own nascent attempts to write novels in high school and college. It was nonsense. It was preposterous that someone had thought to publish someone's first draft and package it as a finished novel.

As the years went by, the pace of their release slowed down. I read book eleven probably four years ago. That's right, book eleven! Jordan began releasing several prequels in the meantime, none of which I have read. I was only interested in finishing the main series, and hoped that through some miracle the story would be redeemed before the end. At one time, he had been a masterful writer. And I was not alone in this belief. Anyone I ever encountered who had read these books loved them just as enthusiastically. I had never heard a bad word. At least until book six.

I found out today that Robert Jordan died last year. I had been wondering when to expect the next book, and did a google search, and discovered the bad news. He had apparently been suffering from a terminal form of heart disease for some time.

My immediate response was to wonder if this disease could be part of the reason why the series had so tragically deteriorated. I have no answer, and I am not sure it matters. According to his publisher, another author has been commissioned to finish the series, using the notes and manuscript that Jordan left behind. Book twelve was always intended to be the final book.

I hope that the final book will approach the quality of the first several. But even if it does, it cannot repair the damage caused by the second half of the series. And if the final book is a triumph, it will always be bitter sweet for fans of the series, since the series's rejuvenation could only come about after Jordan's death.

So I would like to be able to recommend that you read The Eye of the World, but I cannot. Because once you start, you will not be able to stop. You will become deeply entranced with a whole new world, a rich epic of marvelous adventure and powerful characters. And then you will become disappointed and frustrated as the story declines, to the point that you will probably wish you never started in the first place.

What a tragedy.

December 14, 2008

Betrayal Is A Thorny Crown

Prior evidence to the contrary, I have never really had a passion for poetry. I like the romantic poets, especially Keats, but even with them I am only attracted to a few of their most famous works. The bulk of their poems I find inaccessible. When I write my own poetry, it is more as an exercise in language than any deep attachment to the process.

What I do enjoy are epic poems by Homer and Dante and Milton, as well as the verse of Shakespeare's plays. Even when the language is dense and dated, if the writing is driven by character or story, that makes all the difference for me.

Maybe I have not been looking in the right place, but modern poetry has never drawn much interest from me. I am open to suggestions if anyone has some poetry they especially want to share with me. Until now, though, I have been entirely underwhelmed by even the most famous poets of the last century.

Except for songwriters. My favorite poetry all comes from music. Perhaps it is an unfair advantage, because being able to combine lyrics with music obviously provides for more of an emotional impact. Someone like Michael Stipe or Kurt Cobain can write nonsensical, even unintelligible, lyrics, but you marry it to the right tune, and you get magic. It will bore its way into your soul.

Yet somehow I believe that with the best songwriters--Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Liz Phair--their lyrics transcend the music and work just as well by themselves. All my favorite songs are based on the words much more than the music.

Just recently, I have become deeply entranced by the music of Jenny Lewis. She is the lead singer for Rilo Kiley, but she has also put out a couple solo albums. She's a supreme story teller, and able to capture an emotion with just a few lines. Her song Rabbit Furcoat feels like a four minute feature length movie.

From the song "Melt Your Heart":
When you're kissing someone who's too much like you
It's like kissing on a mirror
When you're sleeping with someone who doesn't get you
You're gonna hate yourself in the morning

It's bound to melt your heart
One way or another
It's bound to melt your heart
For good or for bad
It's like a valentine
From your mother
It's bound to melt your heart
From the song "The Absence Of God":
And you're not happy but you're funny and I'm tripping over my joy
But I just keep on getting up again
We could be daytime drunks if we wanted
We'd never get anything done that way baby
And we'd still be ruled by our dueling perspectives
And I'm not my perspective
Or the lies I'll tell you every time
From the song "You Are What You Love":
I'm fraudulent, a thief at best
A coward who paints a bullshit canvas
Things that will never happen to me
But at arms length, it's Tim who said
I'm good at it, I've mastered it
Avoiding, avoiding everything
And from what I am convinced is the happiest break up song of all time, "Breakin' Up":
It's not as if New York City
burnt down to the ground
once you drove away
It's not as if the sun won't shine
when clouds up above
wash the blues away
The truth is, I do not know that much about Rilo Kiley and Jenny Lewis, other than how fantastic their music is. I do know that other members of Rilo Kiley have their own side project called the Elected, so perhaps Jenny Lewis is not responsible for all the lyrics. But I am not going to take the time to look up all the liner notes myself. I will instead just recommend all of you to take a listen for yourselves. Just make sure you pay attention to the lyrics.

Lyric of the Day:
Betrayal is a thorny crown
you wear it well
just like a king
revenge is the saddest thing
honey, i'm afraid to say
you deserve everything

-Breakin' Up
Rilo Kiley

December 12, 2008

The Most Preposterous Pleasurable Pop

You may have noticed that people, especially the media, love lists. I certainly have. So in a blatant attempt to drive more readers to my blog, I have come up with my own version of a Top 10 list.

What follow are the 8 greatest TV creations ever conceived. These shows are so deliciously bad, only a true connoisseur of entertainment can even begin to appreciate them.

#8 Boy Meets World:

I think one key to the kind of uber entertainment that cannot fail but become a cultural phenomenon is that there must be little or no sense of reality. The jokes are so bad, the acting so hackneyed, the story lines so shameless in their attempt to manipulate that no one would ever think to themselves "Yes, this is exactly what it's like to be a teenager." But at the same time, everything they do must be one hundred percent sincere. Everyone involved thinks they are making a relevant, touching, humorous work of art. Put all these ingredients together, and you end up with Boy Meets World. Best episode: Any one with Corey and Topenga

#7 Land of the Lost:

A show sophisticated enough that Will Ferrell himself is doing the remake, Land of the Lost realized that there was something that people would love even more than dinosaurs, aliens and cavemen. All three of them together. Thanks to a dimensional portal, Rick Marshall and his children stumble into the land of the Sleestak, where danger lurks around every corner and nothing can save you from the seventies fashion menace. Best Episode: The first one with Dopey the Dinosaur.

6. Sabrina The Teenage Witch:

A family of witches. A sarcastic cat. A 1960's television show transposed onto a teen sitcom. Is it any wonder this show ran for seven years? Mixing the fantasy of Harry Potter with the humor of TGIF, Sabrina showed that even for a witch, when you are a teenager, the most important thing is fitting in. Best episode: The one with Britney

#5 Saved By The Bell: The College Years:

No teen show has ever transitioned more smoothly into college. Zack and AC were growing up, but the show retained the same sensibility that made the original such a classic. Even with the new characters to breathe some freshness into the story lines, the heart of the show was as always the relationship between Zack and Kelly. Best Episode: Their marriage in the final TV movie brought closure to one of the best TV love affairs of all time.

#4 Charles In Charge:

The show went through several transformations. The Pembroke family only lasted one season, as did Charles' girlfriend, Gwendolyn Pierce. The second season brought the Powells and Charles' mom. But the most reliable change was that as we grew older, Buddy Lambeck kept growing dumber. And there can be no argument that 'Charles In Charge' is the best TV theme song of all time. Favorite episode: The one with Meg Ryan

#3 Small Wonder:

Stellar acting, gee whiz special effects, and cutting edge scripting combined in one definitive moment in the 80's, resulting in Small Wonder. Even today, you will watch Vicki the Robot and stare in disbelief as you contemplate how something so tremendous could ever have gotten made. Best Episode: The one with Vanessa, the evil robot version of Vicki

#2 Saved By The Bell:

The show started as Good Morning, Miss Bliss, was set in Indianapolis, and included Mr. Belding, Zack Morris, Screech Powers, and Lisa Turtle. Year two saw the whole school move to Bayside High School and witnessed AC Slater, Kelly Kapowski, and Jessie Spano join the cast. In that moment, television history was made. Best Episode: Zack Attack

#1: Days Of Our Lives:

Eternally frustrating, as almost nothing ever happens in any given episode, the greatest television show of all time provides viewers with the ultimate luxury. You can miss weeks, months or even years of episodes in a row, and yet pick up the action again after 15 minutes. Any one who doubts the magnificence of Days need be reminded of only one thing: Marlena was possessed by the devil, until John Black saved her by performing an exorcist. The best part, after 40 years, it is still on the air. Favorite Episodes: The year when Marlena was possessed by the devil.

Lyric of the Day:

It's my gradual descent
Into a life I never meant
It's the slow fade of love
"A Man-Me-Then Jim"
-Rilo Kiley

December 9, 2008

Alex The Talking Parrot

I recently listened to a Fresh Air interview with Irene Pepperburg about her research with Alex, an African Grey Parrot. Over the course of 30 years, in similar fashion to Koko the gorilla, Pepperburg trained Alex to speak, the only difference being that parrots do not need to use sign language. By the time of his death in 2007, he had a vocabulary of 150 words, could identify colors and objects, and could use his vocabulary to respond to new concepts. You can watch some examples of his abilities on YouTube.

The story of Pepperburg and Alex reminds me of a book I read a couple of years ago entitled, When Elephants Weep. It chronicles a great deal of research conducted over the years on animal behavior, looking specifically at instances that indicated that animals are capable of experiencing a wide variety of emotion. The chapters are divided according to emotion, beginning with those easiest to identify, such as fear and love. By the final chapter, the authors are providing much more controversial examples, such as bears taking the time to appreciate a sunset.

What struck me in both these stories was the resistance that these scientists have faced from the scientific community at large. Many scientists vehemently oppose this kind of research, even though it is based on scientific data and observation. Is it really any surprise that animals share the same kinds of emotional capacity has humans? Where do these scientists think human emotion evolved from? And how does the fact that animals are intelligent and capable of emotion somehow make me less human?

Of course, in light of this research, the efforts of activists to win government recognition for animal rights make even more sense.

Lyric of the Day
Our ideas held no water
But we used them like a dam

Missed The Boat
-Modest Mouse

December 7, 2008

If Only The Olympics Were Year Round

The other day, I was going to my office and saw the elevator doors standing open. The arrow was pointed up, so I hurried to catch it. When I got in, I noticed two other men were also headed towards the elevator so before pushing the button for my floor I held open the door for them.

Upon getting in the elevator, one of them brushed past me so that he could hit the button for his floor, in the basement. This was no accident. He knew that if he hit the button first the elevator would go down instead of up, and so he pushed in front of me in order to do so. I could only shake my head and smile.

Anyone who lives in Beijing can attest to countless similar examples. What to Westerners are simple acts of courtesy--holding the elevator door, waiting in line, yielding to someone in front of you, waiting for someone to get off the bus before you push your way on--are rare events in the Chinese capital. If you cannot shrug off the many instances of public selfishness which you encounter on a daily basis, then your time in Beijing will be a long, slow countdown to bitterness that will only end with your grateful return to a civilized world.

But there is another aspect to China that is not as obvious to the visitor. Whereas in public, with perfect strangers, people may behave atrociously--it is a rare week I do not witness two strangers getting into a shouting match--among their friends, Chinese people are extremely generous and kind. A Chinese friend will consistently embarrass you with his or her generosity, and from our Western perspective it can actually be quite awkward. I cannot count how many kidneys I have had offered to me.

I once got run into by another biker while pedaling near Wang Fu Jing. Of course the woman saw a foreigner and tried to blame me. A crowd gathered and the police were called in, even though neither of us were hurt. I had to go to the local police station where no one spoke English. They called an off duty officer who could speak English, and he asked me several times if I had a friend that could speak Chinese that could come down to the station.

This was in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday. All my friends were at work. But he kept prodding me to call someone to come down to the station. Later, after observing the way Chinese people will drop everything to go and help a friend in need, I realized for this police officer, it was only natural that one of my friends would leave work to come help me translate with a traffic cop.

The lesson is you can never judge a foreign culture. Just acknowledge that it is different and try to understand it more deeply. It is no better or worse than your own culture. What seems normal to you, like taking a vacation on your own, may seem outrageous to a Chinese person. And what seems outrageous to us, like the left turn lane cutting off oncoming traffic as soon as the light turns green, may be an everyday occurrence in Beijing.

December 6, 2008

Genocide Porn

I suspect that like me, many of you are regular readers of the New York Times. There op-ed columnists are among the most popular in the country. But amid all the partisanship and narcissism, the one writer that is consistently tackling serious world issues in an even-handed and illuminating manner is the one most likely to be ignored.

The National Geographic Adventure blog just ran a very interesting interview with Nicholas Kristof. One especially compelling exchange had to do with why perhaps Kristof slips by less noticed compared to his more bombastic peers like Friedman, Dowd, and Krugman:
NGA: Do you ever worry that you might overwhelm your readers or turn them off somehow? You know, maybe someone’s drinking his morning coffee, reading the paper, and he finally throws up his hands and says, Enough! I can’t handle Kristof this morning.

NK: Sometimes I worry about writing what might be called, frankly, "genocide porn." Darfur is so painful a topic, and so brutal, and so graphic that it becomes almost titillating. I worry about that when I pile on horrifying examples. But I don’t know any other way to get people to actually act—and maybe write a letter to the White House.
I always find his stories quite courageous. He consistently writes about issues that lack commercial appeal in a serious and informative manner, hoping to have an impact. He does not get involved in the red vs. blue back and forth that characterizes most of our public discourse, and which quite frankly is more likely to drive up readership and ratings. And he has not been afraid to insert himself into dangerous areas and complicated issues without having a preconceived notion of what kinds of answers he will find.

Go back and read about the way he dealt with the illicit sex trade in Cambodia and the young girls that have been exploited to gain an idea of what I am talking about. Here is his archive page on the New York Times.

The Fly

Of all the things of I have ever written, this is what I am most proud of:


Who am i
to kill a fly?
For though a fly
knows not it dies,
and to say goodbye
makes me sigh,
it would be a lie
for me to try
and separate that fly
from i.

December 3, 2008

Miming Doesn't Pay

To show everyone what a brilliant teacher I am, here is an excerpt from an essay my student wrote. He is a Korean 8th grader. The assignment was to write a five paragraph essay on the best way to achieve success:
The last simple, but important element is that it is realistic. It should be something that the person has a chance of doing. Yes, that might sound brutal and discouraging, but a person from a farm has no or almost no chance of becoming a professor in Harvard University. Also, no one should ever dream of living a happy, rich and comfortable life being a street mime.
I take full credit for this display of genius. I hope everyone can learn from his sensible advice.

December 1, 2008

Waiting For The Raven King

Susanna Clarke took over ten years to write her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. So the five years I have been working on mine seem like a pittance.

It was time well spent. You can read any review and find the basic premise: England of the early nineteenth century watches as two magicians battle to revive the lost art of English magic. A cross between Jane Austen and The Lord of the Rings. A Harry Potter for adults.

It is much closer to Austen than to Tolkien. We open on the English countryside, at a meeting of the Yorkshire Society of Magicians. Except these are not practical magicians, but theoretical. The last English Magician who could actually do magic disappeared over 200 years ago. No, these magicians merely debate and squabble over what magic used to be like, back when the Raven King still ruled the north.

That is, until a gentleman from Hurtfew Abbey named Mr. Norrell, shocks all of England by proving himself capable of casting spells. He comes to London as the only practitioner of English magic, but soon gains a rival, the younger and more handsome Jonathan Strange. Together they alternately excite and horrify London society as they battle to return English magic to glory.

The comparisons to Austen are just. Two qualities especially stand out as exemplary. First, is the description. The houses, the clothes, the manners, the social hierarchy, all are explained in rich detail. A delight and a humor gives the entire affair a serious levity. The greatest effort is made to infuse a narrative history into everything. The absence of magic can only be fully appreciated when juxtaposed with all the memories of England's glorious past. An example:
Upon the instant, bells began to toll. Now these were nothing more than the bells of St. Michael-Le-Belfrey telling the half hour, but inside the Cathedral they had an odd, far-away sound like the bells of another country. It was not at all a cheerful sound. The gentleman of the York society knew very well how bells often went with magic and in particular with the magic of those unearthly beings, faeries; they knew how, in the old days, silvery bells would often sound just as some Englishman or Englishwoman of particular virtue or beauty was about to be stolen away by fairies to live in strange, ghostly lands for ever. Even the Raven King--who was not a fairy, but an Englishman--had a somewhat regrettable habit of abducting men and women and taking them to live with him in his castle in the Other Lands. Now, had you and I the power to seize by magic any human being that took our fancy and the power to keep that person by our side through all eternity, and had we all the world to chuse from, then I dare say our choice might fall on someone a little more captivating than a member of the Learned Society of York Magicians, but this comforting thought did not occur to the gentlemen inside York Cathedral and several of them began to wonder how angry Dr Foxcastle's letter had made Mr Norrell and they began to be seriously frightened.
Second, even more impressively, is the way she uses character to drive the story. These are characters in the fullest sense of the word, each with his or her own idiosyncrasies. The heroes are not trying to save the world. The villains are not out to do evil. An excessive pride afflicts every male character of a certain social standing, almost as an afterthought. Clarke wants us to know that to be a gentleman in the nineteenth century means being elevated to a place of privilege that has nothing to do with your character, and that elevated status makes it impossible to escape a heightened egotism. The main antagonist, the man with thistle down hair, is a fairy, and so his motivations and ideas about right and wrong are quite foreign to us, but nothing in his character is especially malicious. He cannot help his capriciousness any more than Mr. Norrell can help his infuriating pettiness or Strange his melancholy temper.

Casting his shadow over the whole affair is the Raven King, the long departed king of Northern England who was the greatest magician to ever live. Legends of his exploits abound. Clarke has created an entire mythos, a lattice of folk tales and memories and place names and even whole geographies that have been left behind by John Uskglass, and everyone lives in either fear or expectation of his return.

Like Don Quixote and other massive epics of their ilk, the story is filled with digressions, interludes and side stories, not to mention a copious amount of footnotes. Every character has a story to go with him or her, and every story is filled with character. She allows the story to meander over its first two thirds, as we become fully immersed in this world, and then drives it to a furious conclusion.

Every one of you should read this book.

November 30, 2008

She Walks In Beauty

I am almost finished reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel. At just over a thousand pages, it has provided a thoroughly enjoyable read over the last few months, interrupted by a Hong Kong adventure that left me stuck reading another book for a while. Look for a review in the next few days.

One of the characters in the book is Lord Byron, the famous poet, who in his time was as well known for his scandalous exploits as his writing. During his lifetime, he won fame throughout Europe for his charming good looks, his controversial writing (exemplified by his unfinished Don Juan), his political career and involvement in the Greek war for independence, and his many bisexual love affairs, including rumors that he seduced his half-sister. Truly, the Lindsay Lohan of his time.

In keeping with the poem theme of beauty, here is his most famous poem, 'She Walks In Beauty':
She walks in beauty—like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to the tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress
Or softly lightens o'er her face—
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.

And on that cheek and o'er that brow
So soft, so calm yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow
But tell of days in goodness spent
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent.
I will not try and provide any criticism. The poem speaks for itself more eloquently than anyone will ever be able to do so on its behalf.

But how cool is it to have a name like George Gordon, Lord Byron. Another poet with a similar name is Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I need to figure out how I can marry into a Lordship. It will definitely help my writing career.

November 28, 2008

Stealing Beauty

Here is another poem I wrote a long time ago. It also was influenced by the All This Useless Beauty song. I really love the idea that beauty that has been stored in museums somehow has no use. Of course the title and original idea was also inspired by the Liv Tyler movie of the same name.

It is just one stanza, from an original five. The others are not very good (or should I say, much worse than this one). When I get the time I will work on them and maybe post the whole poem.

A fire burns between his legs
spurring him on.
He’s prowling through the night
hidden in the light, the smoke, the heat of humanity
crowded around him with smiles and combative eyes.
His own eyes troll the depths--
of sleeky steel legs, slithering on the dance floor,
of bouncing ball breasts, wrapped to impress,
of whirlpooling hips and sweet-tasting lips--
fishing underneath.
And his sex clanks back and forth
between his legs
like the bell that signs midnight
hoping that by its last chime
it will be
Stealing Beauty.

November 26, 2008


I just recently found out from a coworker that Greenpeace has an office in Beijing. I had no idea. When I moved here in 2000, Greenpeace was only operating in Hong Kong because of issues of how to approach the Mainland. There traditional campaign model obviously would not work here.

Well it turns out that they have now opened up multiple offices in China and are working with the government to conduct campaigns and educate officials on how to become more environmentally sustainable.

One campaign they conducted recently was to educate people on the issue of disposable chopsticks. This is an issue near and dear to my own heart, and I always try to bring my reusable chopsticks with me where ever I go.

The numbers are staggering. Chinese factories churn out 63 billion pairs each year. By bringing your own chopsticks you can not only help conserve resources, but you also avoid worrying whether the chopsticks provided by the restaurant are clean or not.

Also heartening, another Greenpeace China campaign is being conducted by several young Chinese environmentalists. The fact that Chinese youth have begun become involved with environmental activism provides hope that the overwhelming issues that China faces will begin to be addressed before it is too late.

November 24, 2008

Magic & Loss

One of my favorite songs, lyrically, is Lou Reed's Magic and Loss. I think it really encapsulates the human condition.

My favorite line is: "They say no one person can do it all/but you want to in your head/But you can't be Shakespeare/and you can't be Joyce/so what is left instead."

When I first heard this song, I was in University. The idea of conquering the world seemed possible then. This song deals with coming to terms with your own limitations.

But the song also deals with fire, and the passions of our life, and the drive we have to live.

I think this song can be inspiring to anyone. Everyone has a mixture of both magic and loss in their life, and the key to happiness is enjoying the magic as much as possible and not letting the loss hold us back.

Here is the entire song:

When you pass through the fire
you pass through humble
You pass through a maze of self doubt
When you pass through humble
the lights can blind you
Some people never figure that out
You pass through arrogance you pass through hurt
You pass through an ever present past
and it's best not to wait for luck to save you
Pass through the fire to the light

As you pass through the fire
your right hand waving
there are things you have to throw out
That caustic dread inside your head
will never help you out
You have to be very strong
'cause you'll start from zero
over and over again
And as the smoke clears
there's an all consuming fire
lying straight ahead

They say no one person can do it all
but you want to in your head
But you can't be Shakespeare
and you can't be Joyce
so what is left instead
You're stuck with yourself
and a rage that can hurt you
You have to start at the beginning again
And just this moment
This wonderful fire started up again

When you pass through humble
when you pass through sickly
When you pass through
I'm better than you all
When you pass through
anger and self deprecation
and have the strength to acknowledge it all
When the past makes you laugh
and you can savor the magic
that let you survive your own war
You find that that fire is passion
and there's a door up ahead not a wall

As you pass through fire as you pass through fire
try to remember its name
When you pass through fire licking at your lips
you cannot remain the same
And if the building's burning
move towards that door
but don't put the flames out
There's a bit of magic in everything
and then some loss to even things out.

November 21, 2008

We All Got It Coming

In a recent edition of Fresh Air, David Edelstein reviewed the new Clint Eastwood movie, Changeling. I have not seen the movie, so I will not comment on his negative review. But I do want to respond to his criticism of Eastwood in general, and in particular the dismissal of his Academy Award winning film Unforgiven.

What disgruntled me about Edelstein's review is that he did not seem to really understand the great depth of a film that went great lengths to eschew action and concentrate on its portrayal of morally ambivalent characters in a society that provides only arbitrary justice.

His chief denunciation of the film stems from the fact that most people have labeled it 'revisionist.' In a New York Times review of another Eastwood film, he writes, "After the town's fanatical and sadistic law-and-order sheriff (Gene Hackman) whips Munny's friend (Morgan Freeman) to death, the gunfighter returns to wreak a holy vengeance -- and this so-called anti-violence western ends with a predictable blood bath. True, it isn't a rousing climax, and Munny is presented as hellbound for having returned to his killing ways. But the greater challenge for the character would be walking away from retribution -- or vainly seeking justice via a higher authority."

A genre picture that breaks new ground subverting the traditional conventions of the genre should rightly be labeled revisionist. Any number of elements can be cited in Unforgiven which mark it as a groundbreaking western, including what I consider its unprecedented depiction of the prostitute characters. Edelstein himself refers to another break with canon:
The movie has many dense and beautifully shaped scenes, but its most harrowing is the one in which Mr. Eastwood's Will Munny, a once-notorious gunfighter lured away from farming and parenthood by a large bounty on two cowboys, finally confronts his prey. Munny's last shot hits the more innocent of the two men in the stomach, after which he must listen to his victim's cries (''They shot me, boys, they shot me!'') and pleas for water. Munny's head drops heavily in shame, and he is isolated in the frame: it is the first time that an Eastwood character has murdered a harmless man on screen, and the acknowledgement seems revolutionary.
Indeed, the movie does end in a spectacular shoot out, as Eastwood confronts a saloon full of deputies single-handedly and emerges unscathed. But William Munny's survival in itself represents a break from traditional action movies. As an audience, we have been conditioned to two types of climaxes in a movie with an outlaw protagonist. Either the hero atones for his past sins and finds redemption through love or some other new found virtue, or the hero dies in the end. Sometimes both.

But in Unforgiven, there is no redemption for Eastwood, nor any of the characters for that matter. Eastwood is not coming out of retirement in order to avenge a slighted woman, but to earn the much needed bounty. In fact, the entire movie revolves around an ambiguously defined moral dilemma, in which Eastwood and his partner are seeking a reward for murdering two cowboys who cut up a prostitute but were allowed to walk free for the price of seven horses. Little Bill, the antagonist, clashes with Eastwood because he does not tolerate gunslingers in his town, and is determined to protect the cowboys from vigilante justice. Who is in the right, and who is in the wrong? One of the beautiful aspects of the movie is that everyone follows somewhere in between, with both flaws and redeeming qualities on full display.

I have deliberated a great deal on why we chose to root for the Eastwood character. What endears him to the audience? He's old. He's a murderer of women and children. It might seem that because he has reformed for the love of his wife, we are attracted to his redemption. Except that as soon as he finds out his partner has been murdered, he takes to drinking again and murders anyone who is even tangentially connected to the event, including the saloon owner where the body is put on display.

I have concluded that the one quality every one of the antagonists shares, and which Eastwood definitively abstains from, is pride. Little Bill is exceedingly proud of himself, and pontificates at great length of his achievements to the journalist. He treats the town of Big Whiskey as something of a personal fiefdom. English Bob is smarmy with his British airs, and mocks the republic for assassinating its president, something that could never happen to a monarch. The Scofield Kid brags about his murder count and adorns himself with false bravado to cover his obvious callowness. All three get their comeuppance in different ways.

But Eastwood, an aging pig farmer, a widower with two kids to feed, does not look back on his outlaw days fondly, and finds nothing in his character or his past to brag about. Perhaps the most sophisticated element in this script dealing with multiple themes threaded neatly through a winding narrative is that what is perhaps the central theme to the movie is never actually acknowledged. I do not believe the words pride or arrogance are uttered even once. It is up to the viewers to discover for themselves.

To look at Unforgiven and see a violent movie that preaches against violence is too miss the point and to ignore the complexity of what I consider one of the all time great scripts. The movie is not trying to condemn violence. Instead, it is a portrayal of law, vengeance, and death in a society where no central authority exists. The only authority is violence or the threat of violence. We see different tribes--the deputies, the cowboys, the bounty hunters, the prostitutes--all trying to protect their own and secure justice when one of their members has been harmed.

Anyone who expects justice to be paid out to all those who deserve it has only to listen to William Munny himself. When Little Bill pleads that he does not deserve to be executed like this, Munny responds, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." And when the Scolfield Kid regrets his first actual shooting, lamenting that his victim had no idea it was coming while he was sitting in the outhouse, Eastwood concludes "We all got it coming, kid."

Death comes when it will, not when it is deserved, and eventually it will come for everyone. The irony is that the one major character that death has eluded so far is the character that seemingly appreciates it least.

November 19, 2008

Only Sixteen Percent, Part II

As a follow up to my earlier point, I have been thinking a lot over the past 48 hours about the often unnoticed and largely unchallenged bias against women in our society. How is it so blatantly allowed to persist?

And to be clear, I am not talking about the overwhelming issues of poverty and oppression that women face throughout the developing world. Those issues can seem far away and distant and it is no wonder they largely get ignored. No, I am referring to our own modern, Western society, where men still make more for equal work, and where women of all ages and social backgrounds are constantly bombarded with demeaning and trivializing treatment from the men around them.

I come from a middle class family, am well educated, and run in a circle of friends that is generally ahead of the curve when it comes to progressive social issues. My peers are openly accepting of gays and lesbians, and are quick to pounce on any behavior that might be considered racist, especially towards blacks (although, as I live in Beijing, I do see a lot of largely unconscious racism among Western ex-pats directed towards Chinese.) It is not unusual for people to immediately denounce any kind of untoward comment or joke that crosses the line of political correctness when it comes to race, even in all white company.

But my male peers (and I include myself, in some cases) have no compunction about making derogatory comments, inappropriate jokes, or even exhibiting physically hostile behavior towards women, even in their presence. And no one says anything. It is tacitly accepted. I am CERTAIN that the level of awareness and self reflection regarding racial issues is far more advanced than gender issues.


I do not have an explanation. All I know is that we as a society need to better address the issues of gender. Now.

November 18, 2008

Only Sixteen Percent

The election of Barack Obama was indeed historic, and means a lot to Americans and the World in terms equality of the races. But had Clinton been elected, having a female president-elect would have been just as historic, if not more so.

The NY Times just highlighted this editorial from 1992 about Hillary Clinton as the new first lady. The most striking aspect of the article to me is how little has changed in the past 16 years.

Some quick facts: Women hold 87, or 16.3%, of the 535 seats in the 110th US Congress — 16, or 16.0%, of the 100 seats in the Senate and 71, or 16.3%, of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. This under representation of women in elected offices is shocking, especially considering how little attention is paid to the discrepancy by the media. In a fair and equal society, our elected officials would be fifty percent women.

Women did not gain the right to vote in the United States until 1920. African Americans gained the right to vote in 1870. Will we have to wait another fifty years before we have a female president of the United States?

November 14, 2008

A Panorama, Not A Profile

It is possible that sometimes a book comes along and changes your life.

In the novel Immortality, by Milan Kundera, Agnes encounters a women in the sauna who vociferously proclaims her love of cold showers, and just as passionately makes it clear she detests modesty. This leads Agnes to reflect on the nature of identity.

Because our self-identity is such an insubstantial, undefinable, slippery and intangible concept, people are forced to carve out concrete signs of who they are and project them outward into the world. This passionate vocalization of ourselves not only allows those around us to categorize us, it just as importantly provides us with our own understanding of who we are.

We live in a dichotomous society, one that constantly divides us into us and them. We love lists, we go crazy for rankings. Think of the enthusiasm with which sports fanatics, political party members, religious followers, and fanboys devote themselves to the objects of their obsession. We tend to think that we join groups because of our desire for companionship and affirmation. But I think Kundera highlights an even more fundamental agent at work. We have a need to know who we are:
When we are thrust into the world just as we are, we first have to identify with that particular throw of the dice, with that accident organized by the divine computer: to get over our surprise that precisely this (what we see facing us in the mirror) is our self. Without the faith that our face expresses our self, without that basic illusion, that archillusion, we cannot live, or at least we cannot take life seriously. And it isn't enough for us to identify with our selves, it is necessary to do so passionately, to the point of life and death. Because only in this way can we regard ourselves not merely as a variant of the human prototype but as a being with its own irreplaceable essence. That's the reason the newcomer needed not only to draw her self-portrait but also to make it clear to all that it embodied something unique and irreplaceable, something worth fighting or even dying for.
In order to feel secure in our identity, we must delineate ourselves clearly for all to see. Thus we become secure in ourselves. Upon reading the book, I immediately became self-aware of numerous examples of this behavior. I have ever since tried to cull these idiosyncrasies, to try and avoid branding myself. I now notice that other people pick up on certain life choices, my veganism for instance, and link them to my identity. But although veganism is an important part of my lifestyle, I do not define myself by my veganism, or try to project that as part of who I am.

We are not the groups and labels we choose for ourselves. So who are we? We are the way we treat people. We are the way we react to bad news. We are the amount of emotional empathy we give to those around us. We are our sense of humor, our sense of fair play, our sense of entitlement. We are our perceptions, tied to our memory. We are our full selves, impossible to contemplate in our total panorama, but only viewable in profile. And every time we force ourselves into the narrow categories provided us by society, we are losing parts of our full dimensionality.

Are Boots Really The Future Of Footwear?

If you are a fan of science fiction, then you realize that we are headed towards a fully booted future.

Flash Gordon wore boots. Captain Kirk wore boots. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker both wore boots. Apparently, everyone is going to be wearing boots.

How is it that all these fashion prognosticators are so certain that future generations will decide that leather boots are the best fit for piloting star craft and fighting aliens?

I suppose because they are also the best fit for flying and fighting super villians.

November 12, 2008

The Exploding Plastic Inevitable

I see that Mayor Bloomberg, trying to divert attention from his recent power grab, is proposing a new NYC law that will require shoppers to pay a 6 cent tax on every plastic bag.

This tax really works. The Chinese government passed their own version earlier this year. The first week after it went into effect, I was in line behind a man buying exactly three items. In the past, it would not have been unusual to see him walk out of the store with three separate bags. When asked if he wanted a bag, the man responded yes. When informed that he had to pay 2 mao per bag (the equivalent of 3 US cents), he decided he could manage all right without one after all.

Since the law was passed, this scenario has repeated itself in front of me a number of times. Cloth bags can be found everywhere. It is true that some people still want bags, and they ask for them as if to show that they are above such petty money concerns. But many more people are refusing to pay for bags, and bring their own with them to the grocery store.

My own shopping habits have changed as well. I used to be more likely to take plastic bags, which I would use as trash liners. Now I only take a bag if absolutely necessary (for something liquid that will leak in my backpack). Now I reuse food bags and containers to put trash in.

Every community should pass such a law. Place a higher price on something that is a problem for society and the environment, yet which does not cause any undue hardship when you remove it.

What a fantastic idea!

November 9, 2008

Sonic Clatter, Sonic Harmony

Before I moved to Beijing, I spent three months in Shandong Province. Jinan is the most backwards village of 6 million people you can imagine. This was before the days of digital music players, so I had to make do with a few cd's and the mixed tapes I brought to play on my walkman.

My first foray into a music store uncovered more or less what I expected. Cantopop was everywhere. From the West, you could find lots of Celine Dion and the Backstreet Boys. Britney Spears was popular. Yanni and Kenny G were played incessantly in every mall, on every bus, and from every cell phone. The biggest surprises were the Carpenters and John Denver. But they were little consolation for me in this musical wasteland.

Soon thereafter I learned that in addition to the pop drivel, there was a thriving underground rock scene in China. But before you get too excited for me, you have to understand that this consisted of the most hardcore thrash metal you can imagine. Almost every serious CD store had a section devoted to this kind of music, lined with names such as Rammstein, Sepultera, Testament, and Onslaught. I like a wide variety of music, but this was pushing beyond my limits.

There was one saving grace. Among all the Pop and Thrash, one of my all time favorites could be found. For some obscure reason, there seemed to be a huge following for Sonic Youth. And not just the most popular albums, like Dirty and Washing Machine. You could find their newest album, one I had not even realized had been realeased, as well as their earliest albums that were no longer available in the States.

I have no idea why Sonic Youth is so popular in China, except possibly because they are totally awesome. It is hard for me to explain even to my friends what appeals to me about them. With Sonic Youth you get the bare essentials of the most beautiful pop songs you can imagine, and they infuse and surround those three minutes of magic with 5 minutes of feedback and clatter.
For an example of how their songs gorgeously combine melody and noise, listen to them cover Superstar by the Carpenters.

I had the good fortune to see Sonic Youth play in Beijing last year. They were fantastic, and their latest album, Rather Ripped, is one of their best yet. I do not get to see many live shows here, and I miss having a thriving, vibrant, eclectic music scene. But the one concert I go to every year usually turns out to be worth the wait.

November 8, 2008

Pussy Galore

I will forgive the earlier Bond movies their sexism. The first movies were before my time and from a different era. The Pierce Brosnan entries into the franchise verged on the cartoon, and are hard to take seriously. The utter ridiculousness of Denise Richards in The World Is Not Enough has the same comedic pedigree as the best Saved By The Bell episodes.

But the latest Bond incarnation, played by Daniel Craig, models itself after the new Batman and Jason Bourne franchises. They are grittier, more realistic action movies, that value story and character as much as glitz and gadgetry. And in some ways, the new version succeeds in that vein. It has done away with Q. Fight scenes look like they were directed by Paul Greengrass. This is a more human Bond, and the movies focus on his psyche and motivations, and how the mental and physical hardships take their toll.

So it is inexcusable the way they treat the female characters in this movie. We are in the 21st century, not the 1960's anymore. I have nothing against populating a genre film like this with beautiful actresses. But at least make an attempt to give them some kind of actual character. I have no idea what the main female protagonist's name was, because her role in the film was nothing more than to give Bond a beautiful sidekick to share in the action. Was she a good actor? I have no idea, because the only acting she had to do was deliver one liners, be frightened of a raging fire, and get angry when the would be dictator attempts to rape her.

Her function in the plot is to want revenge against the would be dictator, while Bond is after the would be oil magnate that is helping the would be dictator to carry out a coup. Nothing we have not seen in countless other Bond films. Why does she want revenge? If you guessed it was because the would be dictator murdered her father in cold blood while she was a child (by burning down their house of course, thus her fear of fire) then you have seen any one of the thousands of other movies that have recycled the exact same plot device.

So her character development is thin, bordering on non-existent. No different then any other Bond movie. At least the wonderful Judi Dench is there, stealing the movie every time she turns up on screen. Of course the weight of her performance, and the nuanced way it builds on her previous appearances in the franchise and adds tremendous depth to a role that really has only a marginal function in the story only draws more attention to the lack of any development in any of the other female characters. But none of this would be unexpected in a movie of this sort.

The real atrocity here, the unpardonable sin committed by this movie, is the climactic showdown between the female protagonist and the would be dictator. It is a brutal scene of sexualized Hollywood violence that happens way too often in movies. The violence is as demoralizing as it is unnecessary. This cardboard cut out of a human being that has done little more in the movie than to provide eye candy for the past hour and a half now must go through the ritualized attempted rape that continually thrusts itself into mainstream Hollywood movies that are generally marketed to young adults around the world. What does that say about the society we live in?

After a few days to reflect on the movie, I realized it was quite poor. Is this really the best they can do?

November 7, 2008

Your Cow Wallpaper And Floating Silver Balloons

I was predisposed to like Andy Warhol from the beginning. I had of course heard his name, but I knew very little about him, and his death barely registered on my teenage sensibilities. But by the time I got my hands on the Songs For Drella album by Lou Reed and John Cale, I was already a huge fan of the Velvet Underground. That same year the documentary Nico Icon played at the Vogue in Louisville. I needed to find out as much as I could about Warhol after that, the avante-garde artist responsible for bringing the Velvets together.

A few months later, while on a road trip to New York City, I stopped in Pittsburgh, Andy's hometown, to visit the Warhol museum. The Campbell's soup can. The silk screens of Elvis, Marylin Monroe, Chairman Mao. That signature banana. But nothing stood out as much as the balloons and the cows.

One of his shows consisted exclusively of a room filled with silver balloons. The walls were covered with his by then patented silkscreens, this time of purple cows. I cannot think anything else of Andy except that he was totally having a laugh at every art critic's and investor's expense. And why shouldn't he?

I am by no means an expert on art history. But it seems to me that I am not too far wrong if I summarize the history of art thusly: In ancient and medieval times, artists were striving for perfection. They wanted to recreate nature as accurately as possible. Their collective striving culminated in the Renaissance, with Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and they finally achieved this perfection. But once perfection was achieved, artists started working in the other direction, going from the impressionists to the cubists and surrealists until we got to Jackson Pollack splattering paint on a canvas.

Andy Warhol was a 20th century graphic artist who was genius enough to realize that by taking the images that thrust their way into our popular culture, whether from the covers of celebrity magazines, or the advertisements inside them, he could copy them, color them, and sell them for lots of money. The lines between art and commerce, Hollywood and Fifth Avenue, were forever blurred.

Perhaps Lou Reed says it best in his song "Images":

I'm no urban idiot savant
spewing paint without any order
I'm no sphinx, no mystery enigma
what I paint is very ordinary

I don't think I'm old or modern
I don't think I think I'm thinking
It doesn't matter what I'm thinking
It's the images that are worth repeating


I am glad that Obama will be president. In terms of civil rights, and what it means for minorities not only in America, but throughout the world, his election provides a powerful signal we are moving closer to equality.

In terms of politics, there is only one issue which substantially stands out for me. Obama came out strongly against the invasion of Iraq from the very beginning. I respect that. But that stance alone would not have been enough for me to vote for him. One other policy proposal I have heard from him that appeals to me is his proposal to help provide scholarships for anyone who does public service, whether in the Peace Corps, the Military, etc.

Overall, although Obama is closer to what I stand for than McCain, I do not really think that he is any closer to representing me than Clinton was. I think he will continue the same types of economic policies that we had in the nineties. I think he will support giving more power to big business. I think more money will be funnelled to environmental and energy causes, but it will still be done by government subsidies that favor the powerful.

What I am really curious about is what all the fuss has been about. Why is everyone so crazy for Obama? Is it just because of race? That part I can certainly understand. But I think beyond the issue of race, the real factor here is not so much Obama, but just how terrible Bush was as a president. He alienated so many people that now everyone has latched onto Obama as someone who will really bring changes to Washington. In terms of Iraq, and our international standing, these changes will be obvious. But any Democrat would have brought the same kinds of change. So what other changes will Obama bring? He certainly has not made that clear yet, and people seem to be following him with a kind of blind hope that his election really will mean a new America.

I do not see it. I think people will find that a lot less change will occur than they were hoping for. Obama is a Democrat, and as long as America embraces this two party system, our government will be controlled by a cabal of big business and special interests, with a slight drift from right to left depending on which party is in power. The erosion of our individual rights will continue, and more power and wealth will congregate in fewer hands.

I really think the people who just voted for Obama should take a serious look at the Green party or another third party that might be more aligned with their personal outlook. This country needs more plurality in its political system. Badly.

November 6, 2008

Just a Quantum of Solace

I watched the new James Bond movie tonight. It was, as expected, pretty good. Daniel Craig makes an excellent Bond. The best moments probably come during his scenes with M. It was not, however, outstanding. For all of its cool moments, the action was often obscured by the fast editing, and the plot was just as thin as the last one.

Absolutely nothing in the movie changed my opinion that the best James Bond movie of all time is The Thomas Crown Affair.

November 4, 2008

The Green Stone

"One day in Berlin came a telegram: 'Found a wonderful green stone. Come immediately, Zorba."

This missive comes near the end of Zorba the Greek. The idea of that green stone, and Zorba's desire for his friend to drop everything and travel across Europe in order to see it, has informed my world view ever since.

To be most accurate, Zorba's ability to find the utmost pleasures in the simplest yet purest experiences has pointed me in the direction I would like my life to follow. I want to be a person that would drop everything to go see a green stone. I crave that spontaniety and passion for aesthetic. But only in my finest moments have I lived with such zest and disregard for 'common sense.' Most of the time it is just an ideal to be thought of fondly in moments of reflection, but discarded in the everyday pressures of daily life.

My own green stone has become the ancient gingko tree in Xiangshan park to the west of Beijing. A few years ago, in late October, early November, I found myself in a secluded corner of the park, no easy task under the crush of thousands of autumn leaf watchers. The tree struck me immediately, its leaves were a brilliant yellow, the branches twisted upward and outward in the most stereotypical majestic manner. I immediately was reminded of Zorba and I wanted to share that tree with someone. I thought, "This tree would be worth a trip around the world to see."

I have tried to go back and see that tree every Fall, and bring friends with me each time. But as time has passed, I realized something about that tree, and in conjunction, about Zorba and the stone. As amazed as I was by the leaves of that Gingko tree, no one else ever seemed as struck by its majesty. In truth, and this was hard to admit to myself, not even I could reconjure the same feeling the next time. As beautiful as the tree was, viewing it was no longer a transcendent experience.

I want to be the person to drop everything and go see the beautiful stone, but if I allowed myself to be beckoned in such a way, I would inevitably find disappointment in the stone itself. The green stone might have affected Zorba in a profound way, but anyone else would see it differently. We each have our own reactions to the stimuli around us, and are enamored in our own manner. My return to the Gingko tree proves that we cannot even rekindle our own experiences in a different time.

And I have realized that the point of the green stone is not a question of whether you want to go and see the stone or not. The question is whether you are willing to allow your friend to call you across time and space to share a experience that for her is profound. Zorba is enamored of the rock. Am I the kind of friend that will drop everything to be with him as he experiences it? Zorba's request is to see his friend and share a moment with him, a moment that may seem trivial to anyone else but to Zorba has great meaning.

I would love to be able to summon my friends to my side to share my most profound moments with me. But I believe I lack the empathy to be able to share my friends' moments. I am too self involved. And this is one of my greatest failings.

November 2, 2008

Picasso Girl

Everyone wonders about my email address. I am not gay. It comes from a poem I wrote.

The poem is one of my favorites. The inspiration comes from an Elvis Costello song, All This Useless Beauty. The same song inspired another one of my poems as well, but in particular this one. The idea of the main character in the song walking through the museum and reflecting on all the beauty, and what a waste it was, immediately attracted me.


The museum
light floods me a shower
white light vacuums
the colors into the
air and bleeds them
together into the colorless
rainbow of every color
a white noise that blinds with its
omniscience i
watch a
thousand dreams live and
die through their windows of
time hanging forever a frozen
their immortal
flirtations dissected by the
light and the eyes and the
cutting remarks
almost forgotten in that formaldehyde
starkness a
Picasso Girl
winks like a one
eyed queen staring
out through the darkness
between her teeth an
eviscerating brightness
in the moment
of that smile a history
of jagged lips and tongues melts
around the edges
of my jaded gazes
to puncture the paintings hung behind my eyes
body parts collide
a siamese monster in flame
joined to a wintery profile
by elbows and teeth and lips
kissing knees
a closer vivisection
of her jigsaw perspectives and
i prick myself on the corners until
her colors bleed into me
the black lines that surround our
anatomies skew themselves on
the chemicals that act as our
emotions until
i gently rake my fingers
across those marble romances
carving from her icy emerald glances
a time statuesque
until i see the
Picasso Girl
frames a truth
and until
i learn to forget the
blank canvas of her lies
to remember
time always blinds
and only monuments
can be left behind

The idea of the Picasso Girl, immortalized askew, a beautiful mishmash of perspectives, haunts me. The idea that the object of our desire is not viewed in a platonic manner in all its perfection has been reinforced in all my relationships. We distort our view of the people we love by the very act of loving them.

November 1, 2008

Conscientious Objector

I have only voted once in my lifetime. When I turned 18 I could not wait to vote, and my enthusiasm led me to cast all my votes for the Republican ticket, except one. I do not remember who was running for mayor that year, but it was not William Hudnut, who had up until then been the only mayor I had known. His retirement did not stop me from writing him in.

In college, I remember reading Thoreau. He laid out quite reasonably why voting, contrary to popular belief, took away your right to object. Most people say that if you do not vote, you have no right to complain. Thoreau saw things differently. He said that by voting, you are acknowledging the right of this system of government to hold sway over you. By withholding your vote, you retain your right to object to the system.

I tried voting in '04, but I somehow failed in my registration. I wanted to vote for Nader. I felt like he had enough attention that my vote could matter, especially since so many people blame Nader for Bush being elected in the first place. I still regret (not too much, but a bit) I did not get to vote that year. I viewed it as something of a protest vote.

My biggest contention with the government in the United States is the two party system. It is totally whacked. If I ever move back to America, then I will definitely get involved with the Green party. But for now, no voting for me. I am definitely not represented in this system, and I have no desire to give up my right to object to it wholeheartedly. At least not yet.