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.