“You are what you eat,” they say. If you believe advertisers, we are what we drive, what home we live in, what rental car agency we use, how manicured our lawns are. And, if ads are getting it right, a clean, sanitized bathroom becomes the wished-for goal of every woman (clean bathrooms appear to be the exclusive domains of women in America).
On a more personal level, a friend and I were discussing used cars. She is at a point in her life when she can’t afford a new car in spite of the “Only-$250-a month-and-$2,000-down” high-decibel ads blaring from the television every fifteen minutes. My friend painfully tells me that she sometimes feels embarrassed about her tired, thirteen year old Camry with its 190k odometer miles. And God knows what the suburban neighbors think about the small gravey-like oil pools in the driveway.
I shared my own concerns with her about driving my 2005 Corolla, which only has 61,000 miles. This from a guy who traded his cars in every three years. I still feel the draw of those bright, shiny new BMWs, gas-pedal to the floor, as I speed into the Interstate from my usual entry lane, not quite from 0 to 60mph in 20 seconds. After all, I blithely think to myself, I am still the thirty-year old metrosexual stud with a walkup fourth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village. Not. Continue reading
Roman Catholicism and the Marian Miracles
I grew up in a 1950s Roman Catholic culture in which I was taught that a virgin gave birth to Christ. I was later told that, several centuries later, the same virgin, Mary, appeared to a select group of barely literate, impoverished Portuguese children at a place called Fatima. Secrets were to have been revealed to these children, the specifics of which, to the best of my recollection, neither my elementary school teachers, nor my pastor ever revealed.
The dogma of the virgin birth was complemented by the infallible ruling of a nineteenth century pope that Mary was taken to heaven, body and soul. This dogma is celebrated in the church as the feast of the Assumption.
The Catholic Church, an untiring supporter of these Marian miracles, added to the repository of these mysterious events by claiming that Mary was to have been conceived without sin (the Immaculate Conception) and that she was to have received a visit by an angel announcing to her that she would be the mother of Christ, the Messiah (the Annunciation). Continue reading
Religion’s Dependence on Leaders, Credentializing Insiders, Myths
Throughout our 200,000 year existence on this planet, humans have never suffered from a lack of gurus, priests, imams, ministers, rabbis, popes, bishops, monsignors, and rinpoches. Or even, if I may be so bold, spiritual motivational speakers.
If history tells us anything, most faith-believers seem to have a need for religious leaders. They want to feel secure in a religious institution that has someone at the head of the class.
India: The Sacred and the Sensual
India, as I have said in another Blog Post, is a land of many contradictions.
On the one hand, India is deeply rooted in its Vedic/Hindu sacred culture, a culture of inward-journey paths, self-knowledge journeys, enlightenment/liberation rituals and transformations, and a monistic view of the universe that tells us all is “one.”
Some scholars claim that the Vedic tradition is steeped in mysticism, giving the tradition an aura of otherworldliness and the inexplicable.
Islam and Buddhism have also had many followers in India. And both religious traditions include spiritual paths and codes of moral behavior. Continue reading
Growing Up in the 1950s: Be Vigilant, “Watch Your Step”
I was a teenager when I first saw and heard the adage, Semper Paratus (“Always Prepared”), the official Coast Guard motto. My two brothers joined the Guard back in the 1950s, and the motto became a kind of meme of the 50s culture.
Of course, those were the times of the Red scare and the Cold War. It was a time when school kids were trained to duck under the chairs during a nuclear air raid drill, and Catholics prayed every day to “save Russia.”
I was taught early in life that I had to be vigilant. I had to “watch my step.” I had to avoid temptation or, as the Catholics of my generation used to say, “the near occasion of sin” (Over time, I desperately searched out those near occasions as an antidote to my increasing repression).
And I was always told to “look both ways” before crossing a street. Continue reading
The Christian Soul and American Culture
In my Christian tradition, I was told that every human being has a soul. That soul, I was led to believe, is created by God and is comprised of a mind and a free will. And that soul, I was also taught by my church, would live on after I died. (I was not taught that, since I have a free will, I could choose the after-life habitat I wanted. That decision would be made for me based on my earthly track record and an omniscient God’s foreknowledge—a very tricky combination.)
Using that philosophical and theological model, Hitler, Stalin, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer also had souls. According to that same paradigm, they also had minds and free wills and therefore were to be held accountable for their actions (Christian theologians, to my knowledge, do not accept paranoid schizophrenia, psychosis, or bi-polar disorders as viable excuses for getting off the hook on the final day of judgment). Continue reading
Mystery and the Legacy of Christianity
I continue to be grateful for my Christian heritage. If I can thank that heritage for nothing else, it has deepened my affection for mystery and my need for the transcendent. Granted, I still may be experiencing the collateral damage of that heritage by holding on to a need for the inexplicable and the otherworldly. Perhaps I was conditioned all to well.
And yet, I truly believe that mystery and the transcendent can be experienced without the access to a panoply of myths and rituals that feed into what can’t be explained as natural phenomena. Continue reading
Evangelism, Psychology, Neurology, and Buddhism
And neurologists are getting into the act by having us face up to the reality that our behaviors are linked to certain parts of the brain. The neurological school is closely allied to the empirically proven conviction that pharmaceuticals can mediate and alter many neurologically based dysfunctions from anxiety to bi-polar disorders.
Buddhists remind us that all human behavior is about karma, the somewhat inexorable, but, we are told, “ripening” law of “cause and effect.” Whether that cause happened in another life, of course, is another matter. (The skeptic, Alan Watts, once remarked that he had no Buddhist friends who actually believed in reincarnation, the notion that we had or will have another life as an animal, a plant, or even another human.)
In any event, one of the commonly repeated clichés of Buddhism is that a “good cause” leads to “good effects”; a “bad cause” leads to “bad effects.” Continue reading
“You know he’s gay.”
That was a response of a friend of mine. His remark came after a young man walked out of his restaurant job as a waiter, leaving the staff stranded and several customers still waiting to be served.
Although the waiter may very well have been the object of some anti-gay comments by the chef, I was convinced that the original remark of my friend was a way of distancing himself from the young man by commenting on his sexual orientation. Continue reading
“Feelings,” I have been told by many of the old timers in the AA rooms, “don’t matter.”
I have always struggled with that notion because, as a kid, I learned very early in the game that I needed to be a silent observer in my family. If I weren’t, if I decided to confront my siblings or my parents, I would pay the consequences—a smack across the face, a sarcastic remark, or worse, just indifference.
In this early family environment, it would be safe to say that I had learned to shut down, not just as a defense against negative reactions from my family, particularly from my emotionally unpredictable mother, but as my way of surviving.
I thought for a long time that being detached from my emotions was, of course, a far more superior form of living than those in the muck of emotional tantrums. (I might add here, that I used to think that any strong emotional reaction related to joy, grief, or rage was a reaction “out of control.”) Continue reading
Theism as a Cultural Heirloom
As a non-theist, it is often difficult to talk about the God of Western culture without offending someone. Even if individuals aren’t theologians, there is a tendency to fall back into a default mode with any discussion about God.
In that mode, some go on the defensive trying to protect what is considered sacred and allegedly timeless, not because they are necessarily connected to a specific sky-god theology, but because the culture has committed itself to a belief in an exterior anthropomorphic deity.
Inside of this mind-set, any discussion of God can descend into a defense of a Western cultural norm, a societal commitment that must be protected because traditionalists often believe that a culture will lose its integrity if it gives up its theocentric beliefs. Continue reading
Every so often, I return to thinking about the Ten Commandments.
In those revisits, I continue to discover how far removed I am from those ancient Christian tenets I grew up with as a child.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” says the first commandment. This is the I-am-the-leader-of-the-pack commandment telling humanity that there is only one God and, as my grandchildren would say, “He’s it.” Continue reading
Baseball, says one sports commentator, has to be won “on the field.” He goes on to comment: “You have to steal. You have to punt. You have to sacrifice. You have to have men in a scoring position. You gotta bring ‘em in.”
“You don’t do that with a bunch of statistics,” he continues. Later on in the film, another sports pundit repeats a variation on that same theme: “You don’t put a team together with a computer.”
Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, thought otherwise in 2002. In Bennet Miller’s film, “Moneyball,” Beane would become American baseball’s game changer when he hires a Yale economics graduate, Peter Brand, a young, overweight self-deferential-to-a-fault geek. Brand specializes in “player analysis.” Continue reading
This blog-post is a kind of no-brainer. It is about money. But it is also about all the things that many of us encounter in our relationship with money: financial insecurity, freedom, autonomy, gratification, ownership, deferring payments, borrowing, owing anonymous institutions—unless we’re out on the street, we, in America, are all in on it
Money, it was once said, is the root of all evil. “Filthy lucre,” the medievalists called it. On the other hand, I was reminded many times in my youth that “money doesn’t grow on trees.” That was a statement that usually came out of the mouths of parents to remind their kids to give up even thinking about another handout from good ol’ mom and dad.
I think I first became aware of money when I was a Catholic elementary school student. “Second collections” were part of the Sunday-service ritual. I learned from that ritual that there were “needy causes” out there (usually in the Catholic Missions or in the Catholic Charities movement), that, no matter how poor my own church was, there was always some pocket change we could come up with to send to those we just assumed were more in need. Continue reading
This is not an atypical response of a caretaker. Someone asks the caretaker for money. The caretaker responds simply and to the point. And the response is positive. Caretakers are like that.
Suspend your disbelief for a few seconds, however, and listen to how another type of caretaker, the self-aware, over-the-top caretaker, might describe themselves: Continue reading
If it’s a dark satire like “Dr Strangelove,” or “Catch 22,” or even “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the viewer always gets the feeling in the pit of their stomach that there is something not right with the world, that some impending dark force is going to place the world in a state of implosion.
In these hard-edged satires, that dark force often exists in the possibility that a nuclear holocaust could be started by a bunch of crazies; that our revered institutions could be run by psychopaths; that maybe we all have the potential for evil. Continue reading
Several weeks ago, I was informed by my ophthalmologist that the cataract in my left eye had reached London-fog level. “We’ll remove the other cataract in a month,” he said.
I knew I was at a critical point with my vision. I could read most of the large signs as long as they had polar-bear-size white letters and arrows on dark green backgrounds. When the city decided that small flower-lined islands would beautify one of our major streets, I found myself cursing at their invisibility when I made left turns at night, barely shaving the blunt edges of the raised islands as I turned into the right lanes.
On rainy nights, I would squint at the front windshield trying to see through the patches of unstreaked clarity. The wipers would do their bump and grind, making vain attempts to clear away the glaze of film built up from the oil vapors unobtrusively spewing out of exhaust pipes at urban intersections. Continue reading
“Who doesn’t want to see their kids prosperous?” says the mother of Qin and Yang in the documentary, Last Train Home. This is a refrain begun earlier by the grandmother: “But who doesn’t want their children to live a good life?”
If we are to believe the mother and the grandmother, prosperity and the good life are the two goals of all families. China appears to be no exception to this rule in Lixin Fan’s brilliant documentary of one family’s attempts to achieve some form of prosperity in the new hypercapitalist China.
But it is a prosperity that has a profound emotional price tag. Over a period of thirteen years, the Zhang family becomes fractured when the mother and father leave their two children home with the grandmother as the parents pursue the Chinese dream to succeed.
And they don’t just leave home to go to a nearby city. They travel a little over 1300 miles to work in a makeshift factory in the city of Guangzhou in Guandong Province. Like the other 130 million migrant workers working in cities all over China, the Zhang couple returns only once a year to their small village. Continue reading
In the first part of this two-part essay on the anti-multiculturalism movement in Europe and United States, I attempted to carefully note that the backlash against multiculturalism was far more niched against specific groups—the Muslims in Europe and the UK and the Hispanics in the United States.
I did not mean to suggest, however, that there aren't other groups that are singled out in those cultures. For example, ever since 9/11, Muslim communities in the US have certainly experienced bigotry in their many attempts to purchase buildings or to obtain zoning rights to build mosques. And the historic persecution of the Roma (Gypsies) in Europe recently prompted a strong list of specific recommendations from a European Commission to counter that prejudice.
In the second part of this two-part blog post, I will focus entirely on multiculturalism in the United States.
America has consistently had tensions around immigration and foreign-culture issues. Ben Franklin complained about the “swarthy” Germans and expressed his fear that Pennsylvania would become a haven for a “stream of their importation” into Pennsylvania. Franklin's ethnocentrism would eventually match the intensity of prejudice against those of German heritage during World War I and World War II. This, in spite of the fact, Germans, at one time in American history, were the largest reported ancestral group in the United States.
The Irish also experienced extreme prejudice, particularly after their arrival in the United States during the great Irish Famine of the 1840s. They were often stereotyped as “shanty Irish” or “Lace-Curtain Irish”;were consistently harassed as papists; and stereotyped as criminals and paupers as they were in this famous passage from a Chicago Post editorial: “The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses…Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic.” Such prejudice, of course, led to their ostracism from many urban business communities that often put “No-Irish-Need-Apply” signs in their windows. Continue reading
This Blog Post is the first of a two-part article on anti-multiculturalism in Europe and the United States.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that multiculturalism is under severe attack throughout many Western countries, including the United States.
UK's Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave an impassioned speech in Munich advocating what he called, “muscular liberalism.” It is a concept deeply troubling to minorities in England, particularly among Muslims.
Cameron's call for a kind of testosterone-driven toughness on foreigners to assimilate into a homogenized English culture speaks to the fears of many other Europeans that their Caucasian, secular, mono-language base will be diluted by non-Western cultures and values.
Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in a 2010 speech, claimed that the attempts at multiculturalism in Germany have, in her words, “utterly failed.” There is no doubt that she was aiming her comments at the 4 million Turkish and Kurdish Muslims in Germany. Continue reading
“Business—that’s easily defined: it’s other people’s money” (Peter Drucker); “The social responsibility of Business is to increase profits” (Milton Friedman); “First amendment never shows why freedom of speech….did not include the freedom to speak in association with other individuals, including association in the corporate form” (Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission).
There it is folks. The American way: Profits. Corporate free speech. Other people’s money.
There is little doubt that America has become the global symbol for upward mobility, profits, and economic success. But we have also become the global capital of commodification in all of its forms, including prisons, education, health care, and, more cruelly, in our political arenas.
There are few institutional venues in the United States that aren’t, in some way, touched—some would say tainted—by the profit motive. Politicians curry favor with the wealthy who contribute to their campaigns. The health care system continues to be driven by ever increasing profits. The national defense budget has become so entrenched with defense contracts that it would be safe to say that United States Defense is an industry in and of itself.
And some of the top universities are run as corporations with heavy endowments, investments in the stock market, and huge government grants. Not to mention the sports industry that dominates the budgets of many very wealthy universities and colleges throughout the United States. Continue reading
I recently became a member of a group (three's a group, right?) that has been having an online discussion about issues brought up in a video-taped dialogue about egalitarianism.
The taped conversation had its bright moments when one of the philosophers stated that she knew a colleague who had left Southern California because, according to her male colleague, the area did not value intellectual competence. Apparently, Southern California culture is more into acquisitions and does not put a premium on academic achievement.
Equality is often based on commonly-held values. If a community values owning things over intellectual ability, it's going to be very difficult to gain equal stature in that culture if you're an ABD history major working as a part-time faculty in a local community college and shop at Wall Mart. Continue reading
I grew up in a family of screamers, duckers, fighters, and scramblers. If that didn't work, my family withdrew into icy silence. That's what we thought bedrooms were for: our little caves of isolation where we could get our way in frozen-lake invisibility.
If that didn't work, we could always go to plan B: smart-ass sarcasm.
At the same time I was watching the pro-active survival skills of my siblings, I was being taught in Catholic elementary school that saints suffered quietly. They accepted their lots in life with passive surrender. And many quietly walked the gauntlet of martyrdom with angelic resignation, assured of a first-class room in the heavenly kingdom.
In my little elementary school mind, Christ was the icon of emotional stability. He may have thrown the gambling rabble out of the synagogue in a fit of rage, but his life seemed more about waiting his turn in the queue of acceptance and surrender. He was the gentle fisherman, the quiet shepherd. Not the raging truck driver or the sweaty faced hockey player, fists thrashing the air.
In my childhood, adolescence, and throughout my adulthood, I constantly pursued the “key” to sanctity. At one time, I thought all I had to do was go to mass, receive holy communion, confess my sins, and read spiritual books. The world, over time, I thought, would adapt to all the higher spiritual goals I had set out for myself. Or, on my journey to sainthood, I would be above it all. Continue reading
This is the second in a series of blog posts in which I expand upon key concepts from my e-book, “A Recovery Journey: The Beginnings”
So, you have a great day at school. Your teachers laugh at your jokes. You get a 95 on your math exam. You talk to one of your teachers during lunch. They tell you are a remarkable young man. You leave the school at three and walk home. You’re in high gear. The world is your oyster.
Then you walk through the front door of your home. Your mother is screaming at your father. You duck as a frying pan comes flying across the kitchen. She’s yelling at your dad, “you took Janet to the drive in, didn’t you? I saw the popcorn in the back seat of the car. You’ve been sleeping with her again.” Janet was my red-headed Brenda Star look-alike aunt, my mother’s sister-in-law.
That was the daily routine: Great day at school. The Inferno at home. Kids, of course, learn to make connections, as irrational as they may be. When they are nurtured in one place and are dragged into the emotional muck in another, they begin to believe that, not only are there no guarantees in life, but that life cannot be trusted to offer any permanent security. They will always ask themselves, “when is the other shoe going to fall off?” And they view happiness as an occasional blip on the machine of life, more often than not, set on disappointment. Continue reading
This is the first in a series of blog posts in which I expand upon key concepts from my e-book, “A Recovery Journey: The Beginnings”
Knowledge has always been important to me. I grew up believing that if I knew things, I wouldn’t be invisible, especially in a family where high drama and chronic volatility were more the rule than the exception.
Knowing things gave me the kind of security I could not depend on my family to supply. If I had intellectual competence, I knew, at the very least, that my worth would be valued, that I would not be another cog in the machine of my family’s dysfunctionalism.
Little did I realize that, over the years, I often used knowledge as a substitute for living. I came to believe that my identity was exclusively defined by my ability to acquire information, know historical time periods, pass a college test, get a good grade on a paper, give a convincing presentation in a speech class, shape a college lecture. Continue reading
Now that I’ve got your attention.
It took me a long time to discover that I had learned, from early childhood, to be a detached observer. I was the youngest of five children. My family was in constant turmoil. My parents argued all the time. My two older brothers were always fighting. And my mother’s volatile and often violent mood swings continued to keep the family on pins and needles.
So, kids do what kids do. They protect themselves. They go to their rooms. They stay away from the chaos as much as they can. And when they are in the midst of the family tornadoes, they often withdraw into silent observers. They become recorders, television cameras, quiet witnesses. They learn, very early in the game to passively take in what’s happening and not to participate. It is the only recourse they have; it gives them some kind of order and safety in their lives.
Then they become adolescents and adults. They can’t figure out why others tell them they are “too analytical.” They find themselves observing again as they did when they were children. But the observation mode begins to implode when a friend breaks down after his girlfriend tells him the relationship is over.
The first instinct of the grand observer is to look around for the nearest exit. Continue reading
It is one of the beautiful peculiarities of writing, if you do it often enough, that content often unfolds in ways you had not expected.
As I was writing about conservatism, for example, I would discover the need conservatives have for “order”; that they need a chain of command; that a golden-age past looms very large in conservative thinking; that their obsession with “states rights” is an extension of their belief in “rugged individualism”; and that religious conservatives depend heavily on “sacred texts” for their values.
I am still discovering more about conservatives. Continue reading
When I was growing up, every adult I knew seemed to be conservative. They watched Lawrence Welk. They dreamed of having a family like Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. They feared blacks. They played pinochle and drank lots of beer.
They all had dinner around five in the afternoon. They loved roast beef. They huddled around their televisions at night. They smoked cigarettes or cigars in the house.
The conservative adults I knew complained about the teenagers “going to hell in a hand basket” after watching Elvis gyrate. Some conservatives even read “Peyton Place” or saw the movie as one of their few radical ventures into the forbidden. Or they secretly sneaked off to a movie theater to watch Marilyn Monroe sleaze her way through “Niagara.” Continue reading
The reality of impermanence has always seemed a no-brainer to me. People and animals come into existence; they live out their lives; and then they die. Or, in the words of the bumper-sticker, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die”
More importantly, my own experiences with memorial services, funerals, hospice, suicides, emergency rooms, psych wards, and drug and alcohol rehabs have helped me to understand the fragility of life.
On the other hand, I was recently confronted with someone’s concern that, in being aware of life’s impermanence, there may be a hidden agenda to “glorify” it as a license for moral relativism, an excuse to bow out of commitments and responsibilities. After all, if nothing in this world is permanent, why bother to be loyal, to love, to be grounded in anything?
The ancient carpe diem (“seize-the-day”) philosophy was certainly based on the notion that, since the world and its pleasures are finite, we should wring from life every moment of pleasure we can get. Continue reading
“Abandon holiness,” says Lao Tsu. and “See with original purity.”
Although these lines are just fragments of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching, they are typical of the ancient thinker’s radical take on reality.
Who, for example, would “abandon holiness”? After all, Western culture prides itself on Christian values, especially those values gleaned from the Old and New Testament, saintly teachings, and church pronouncements. And, for those who believe in an afterlife, heaven, the “holiest” of places, is the ultimate goal of those on a Christian journey of virtue and sinlessness.
Lao Tsu challenges us, however, to give up the pursuit of the holy, for it is a goal fraught with other people’s notion of what holiness is. It is also a journey that can be riddled with self-righteousness and arrogance. And it can be a path that will often distract us from paying attention to what is in front of us. Continue reading
Ayn Rand once wrote that a butcher, a brewer, and a baker do not make a dinner a success because of their “benevolence”; they are motivated by their own “self-interest.” She also believed that humans should participate in the world as heroic beings pursuing their own happiness and their own “productive achievement(s),” limited only by what she calls the facts of “reality.”
Rand refers to her reason-based philosophy as objectivism, a hard-edged ism that focuses on objective reality as the only rational plain on which humans can, and ought to live. All other forms—faith, religion, theism—are nothing more than subjective, irrational, even delusional venues that humans have devised for any of a number of subjective motives. Continue reading
Mind you, I have my own ongoing battles with academic theorists in the Humanities, Communications, Social Sciences, and the Arts.
Many of these tenure-track theorists continue to live in the realm of abstraction that has become elitist, exclusionary, and so far removed from primary sources that their journal-driven monographs have morphed into theoretical meta-narratives about themselves, not about the works or events they are supposedly critiquing.
Having said that, however, I do not sympathize with Slavoj Zizek’s not-so-subtle contempt for what he sees as the moral relativism of the academic left. Continue reading
I never liked contact sports. Whenever I worked out, it was always a single-player engagement like jogging, swimming, or running frantically on a tread mill. Even today, I continue to exercise by myself, even though I am sometimes in a gym or in a park walking with others.
During my college teaching years, committees were, for me, the most difficult arenas to get anything done. Discussions were often endless, tangents seemed to be the norm, and listening levels almost non-existent.
Even my experiences with institutional religion, growing up Catholic and attending Catholic institutions right up to my Masters Degree, my notion of community was limited to Sunday services or singing in a choir. Continue reading
In his recent controversial Munich Multiculturalism speech, UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, called for a “muscular liberalism” in the face of what he refers to as state-supported multiculturalism.
According to the Prime Minister, multiculturalism, as it exists in what he considers to be its segregated form, is the disease; complete assimilation, of course, is the cure. Continue reading
I grew up in the 1950s. Men were considered “real men” if they were either the strong silent type or the tough, “you-talkin’-to-me?” street type with their ducks-ass hair style and pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up inside their short t-shirt sleeve.
These “real men” played sports and avoided the arts; loved manual labor and hated desk jobs; were hard drinkers; drove stick shift; and dodged commitments, especially marriage (“tying the noose,” we called it), until the 11th hour, after a brief courtship of prom night, drive-ins, street dances, roller rinks, a summer at the beach, and making out in the balcony back row at a movie theater.
A “man in a uniform,” fresh from active duty, always had the upper hand on the street. Women, of my generation, loved a guy in a uniform.
Television, of course, had another narrative of the male ideal. Ozzie Nelson, of “Ozzie and Harriet” fame, was presented to us as the classic suburban husband and father in his button-down white shirts and tie-clipped thin ties. Reticent to a fault, even in his wry humor, he was always pathetically even tempered. Continue reading
When I retired from college teaching many years ago, I had become radicalized by my experiences with teaching International film and culture and African-American Literature.
Both courses led me to my belief that “story” is an essential ingredient in teaching students how to understand another culture. Once a student can identify with a person in a story, once they can follow a fictional narrative of a person’s life and conflicts, they are more apt to “identify”with that person, to humanize them. Continue reading
I recently went to South Beach, Florida, to escape the gray, wintry skies of Buffalo, New York, my home town (I am reminded of those skies, as I sit here today, listening to a neighbor frantically scraping the ice off his car windows).
South Beach. I had no clue what to expect, other than a few friends who hesitated when I told them I was going there. Apparently, they knew more about the place than I did. I should have listened. Continue reading
I have these recurring variations of the same dream. I am running down a school corridor, desperately trying to find my next class or I am in front of a class that is paying no attention to me. In yet another panic-dream, I am a substitute teacher in a Chemistry class (I was an English teacher).
And then there’s the dream where I constantly punch in the wrong phone number of someone I am frantically trying to call or I am darting through mazes of streets trying to find a relative’s apartment. Continue reading
The central character in the movie, “Eat, Pray, Love,” is a thirty-something woman who breaks up with her husband and goes on a global journey in order to rediscover her passion for living.
She travels to Italy and has an orgiastic love affair with pasta and pizza while bonding with what we can only assume is a typical community of Italians who love their food and wine and lead rich, full extended-family lives with their significant others.
On the more spiritual side, she connects with a shaman and eventually does a retreat at an ashram in India.
On the final leg of her self-awareness voyage, she ends up on the island of Bali and finds the love-of-her-life, a Brazilian expatriate.
The message in all of these wanderings is that no woman can be complete without a man. The movie is replete with men who seem to hover around the central character like stray animals looking for a place to crash—a husband who can’t decide what he wants to be when he grows up; a young new-age, sexually pliant actor whose cuteness would make any adult woman’s teeth ache; an Italian teacher looking more like a forlorn Gucci model, five-o’clock-shadow-and-all; a disgruntled Texan and father-figure who exposes his vulnerability to the central character by telling her his story of coming home drunk and almost running over his child; and, finally, an emotionally wounded widower now ready and willing to settle down into a happily-ever-after relationship (the movie makes it quite clear that both he and the central character have gone through their own baptisms of fire—he, as a widower, and she, as a rite-of-passage world traveler sufficiently enriched by pasta and a short-lived stay in an ashram).
I realize that the central character in “Eat, Pray, Love” has no grand pretensions to make her mark on the world. Her psychological cosmos is quite small in spite of traveling to Italy, India, and Bali to reignite her passion for living.
However, the self-awareness journey she takes feels more like a mix of a bourgeois global tour and a prom-queen’s fast-forward speed-dating exercise.
And the film is quite blatant in its didactic message that men, all men, are essential ingredients to her journey—a dreamy, irresponsible husband; a care-taking divorcé; a parody-of-himself shaman; a hunky Italian teacher; and a widower who has had his own life’s tragedies. As the old song goes, “It’s raining men” all the time in her life, and I mean all the time.
Some of the men may be in the shadows as she tries to reorient herself to being single, but Hollywood is not about to let the ghosts of male availability out of the central character’s reach, even though she is supposed to be on a self-awareness journey without any intimate entanglements.
The company of men, in itself, doesn’t necessarily have to be a deterrent to her journey. However, the constant potential they have to either have an intimate relationship with her or to be a permanent codependent caretaker for her spiritual and grown-up needs tends to diminish her own strength as a character in the movie.
Her final surrender to Mr Right, the Brazilian expatriate, is not so much an agonizing acquiescence after a hard-fought soul-searching battle to find herself; it is more an adolescent girl’s surrender to the guy who just happens to be at the end of the queue, the default guy after Hollywood ran out of available male options.
This is Part I of a two-part series on Images of Women in Western Culture. This first blog post will look at the current movie, “Black Swan,” through the lens of women’s many images and prototypes in Western Culture. Part II will continue the same theme but focusing on the movie, “Eat, Pray, Love” and the image of a woman on a spiritual/self-knowledge journey).
In two recent Hollywood movies, “Black Swan” and “Eat, Pray, Love,” moviegoers have been presented with two more celluloid peaks at different images and prototypes of women.
In “Black Swan,” we have a shy, self-conscience, self-deprecating, and certainly virginal ballerina who yearns to be the “perfect” swan in a performance of “Swan Lake.” In her own personal life, Nina, the central character and wanna-be prima ballerina, lacks even a vicarious connection to the seductive wiles required of her as the black swan in the same narrative. Continue reading
Buddhists tell us that desire and craving keep the wheel of samsara (suffering, the threat of mortality, the cycle of fight/flight, emotional/physical pain) in constant motion.
And desire can be both the cause and effect of suffering. As a cause, it can lead us into more suffering. As an effect, it can drive us away from suffering in the same way that we can dive into momentary pleasure to avoid pain. Continue reading
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that Americans love instant solutions. Chris Prentiss, in a television ad promoting his book, The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure, does not claim outright that a cure for alcoholism can be acquired immediately. But there is no doubt that he views recovery as much less than a life-time endeavor. And there is little doubt that he views recovery within some kind of time-frame in which all the recovery/cure process will take place.
For all intents and purposes, once the cure process begins and the client surrenders to Prentiss’s approach, there will come a time when the addiction will be in complete remission (make no mistake about Prentiss’s model here; his time-frame for a cure is quite finite).
Prentiss’s how-to-reach-the-finish line approach is very similar to the world of television ads about instantaneous cures from headaches to menstrual cramps. The entire subtext of these pharmaceutical ads is all about the finishing line, the immediate conquest. Continue reading
Conservatives like to malign liberals as naïve adolescents, big spenders, pot-smoking pacifists, tree-huggers, moral relativists, Marxists, and worshipers of big government. They also like to think that liberals would rather write to a criminal in Attica than offer public sympathy to a rape victim.
There you have it folks. We're the bad-guy liberals. We are profligate. We are undisciplined. We love to be taxed. We don't like guns. We hate religion. We would rather date a Mexican. We love to run other people's lives from some Kafkaesque, bureaucratic big-government agency. We want every home in America to have solar panels. We despise war. We want to have an equal number of non-Caucasians and Caucasians in all of our elementary schools and high schools. We think men should stop being gynecologists. We want to annihilate all embryos. We love to fantasize about just when fish started growing the two legs Adam and Eve eventually sprouted. Continue reading
I grew up in a Christian tradition. My education, all the way up to my Master’s Degree, was at Catholic institutions. I was steeped in Catholic liturgy, studied for the priesthood, wanted to become a Trappist monk.
Even though I have formally left the Catholic Church and its theistic tradition, I still think of myself as a cultural Christian—I discuss Christianity, I participate in dialogues about Catholicism, I make references to classical Christian music, I often refer to the role of Christianity in Western history. I do all of this with the inherited legitimacy of an insider.
I say all of this by way of an introduction to prepare my readers for the voice I purposely take on in this essay. It is the voice of a very secular “Mother Jones” writer who sees himself as a guerilla-journalist camping out in the hills of a very foreign institution.
I must also make it very clear that, when I question some of the outdated theology and dogmas of the Catholic Church, I do so as someone still culturally and intellectually connected to my Catholic heritage, even though I have officially left the Church. I also think it is important for my readers to know that I continue to be positively affected by so many of the nurturing and loving clerical servants within the Catholic Church who taught me so much about the need for self-examination and service. These humble and poorly-paid servants will always be in my heart. Continue reading
Michael Haneke’s films are never easy to watch. I believe it would be safe to say the Haneke tends to assault his viewers out of their complacencies.
If you like your films to have a soft-edged, feel-good resolution, you should definitely save your ten bucks—twenty-five with popcorn and a beverage– and wait for Hollywood’s romantic-comedy summer fare.
Haneke is not your man.
That said, let me begin by saying that “The White Ribbon,” Haneke’s latest, is a tour de force. It is no wonder that Cannes gave the film its prestigious Palme d’Or award. It was well-deserved Continue reading
Before I began reading “White Tiger” and V.S. Naipul’s “India: A Wounded Civilization,” I had developed several stark stereotypes of the country.
As Buddha’s birthplace, India had become mythologized for me as a culture steeped in self-examination, the interior life, meditation, and the renunciation of the material world.
Gandhi was the other part of the jig-saw puzzle; he fit quite naturally into my notion of India as the golden land of serenity, inner peace, and wise teachers. Although he raised consciousness to more political, social-justice levels, I continue to imagine Gandhi as this austere, simple, reflective man who never raised his voice, meditated daily, and led quiet passive-resistance demonstrations for social equality, Indian independence, the end of English colonial rule, and reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. Continue reading
I am not willing to go far as to say freedom is the last refuge of the scoundrel. But Tea Party patriots often make me feel as if my own patriotism can never possibly match the depths of their own brand of flag-waving and highly demonstrative calls for pledges of allegiance. I am not and have never been a flag-waving patriot constantly in need of some kind of pre-game national anthem ringing in my ears. And, in all honesty, I have never liked parades ushered in by all of our veterans, an iconic display that continues to narrow the frame of patriotism to war and a physical defense of our country.
My love of this country, however, comes from a different source—its artists, its writers, its musicians, its thinkers. When our country was attacked on September 11, 2001, my soul sank. Here was a country of Walt Whitman, August Wilson, Benjamin Franklin, and Aaron Copland that had been knocked on its ass by a group of religious fanatics who had no clue of the range and depth of America’s soul. Continue reading
I grew up in a religion that preached “poverty of spirit.” It was a high-church Christian religion with lots of rituals, pomp, icons, and incense. As a child and an adolescent, I was told that poverty existed on a higher, more spiritual plain than wealth because, if I were poor, I would not be distracted by the material world.
I was taught, in no uncertain terms, that just as it would be impossible for a camel to thread its way through the eye of a needle, that it would be a cold day in hell before a wealthy person would ever enjoy eternal bliss. From that small kernel of a moral presumption, I learned to be suspicious of wealth and to pursue “higher,” more spiritual goals. I saw no contradiction between the poverty message and the comfortable, sometimes extravagant lives of the male messengers. Continue reading
Those of us who are cultural-diversity followers continue to be intrigued by the global verbal battle going on between the conservatives on both sides of the “which-culture-is-superior”topic.
In the West, the Berlusconi followers continue to rant and rave about the superiority of Western Civilization. On the other hand, Islamic fundamentalists and militant jihadists believe that the infidel West is going to hell in a hand basket. Both sides have reduced their enemies to demonized objects. Continue reading
In my last blog essay, I attempted to unravel the many complaints of the Tea Party followers. Three issues, however, seem to stick in the craw of those who believe in their heart of hearts that America is on the road to self-destruction: (1) The continuing loss of freedom because of big government and what appears to the Tea Party followers as a move towards socialism, the inevitable political paradigm that will only exacerbate that continuing loss of freedom (2) The desire to return to a golden age of a true America (3) The end of Patriotism in America Continue reading
Patriotic fervor takes many roads these days. Now there is a new highway entrance for the disgruntled and the angry in America. They are the new-and-allegedly-improved original tea-party patriots of America’s legendary Boston Tea Party.
If there is a bonding message among the Tea Party followers, it is simply that they are not being heard by their politicians.
And their messages are seamless streams of rage that have become the sound-bites of this new generation of discontented: “it’s up to the people to take back the government”; “we rule the government”; “people are fed up with the government that won’t listen to them anymore”; “government crap”; “I just want my government back”; “people should keep as much of their own taxes as possible”; “government should stay out of the car and banking business”; “pull the plug on Wall Street”; “screaming at my tv”; “I had to do something out of frustration”; “they don’t have a clue.” Continue reading
Nothing in life is certain, as the saying goes, except death and taxes. We live in a world of profound arbitrariness. No one has any control of where they’re going to be born, what kind of parents they’re going to have, and what economic and social status they’re going to born into. We don’t come into our lives with a warranty even if our parents are wealthy and live in the Hamptons. Life, in general, has an arbitrariness that few teleologists are comfortable with.
When it comes to Health Insurance in America, the crapshoot world of arbitrariness becomes even more transparent. If you just happen to be employed by an employer who pays 60% of your premiums, you’re one of the chosen. If your employer pays the deductible, then you’re one among the few. If you just happen to have a health-insurance policy that has dental, you are definitely in a minority, unless you’re willing and can afford to add dental to your basic coverage. And if you can afford a gold-plated policy with all of the medical amenities,including face-lifts, then you are, indeed, among the rich-and-famous.
In economic hard times and an ever changing economy, older Americans are becoming increasingly paranoid about being let go or bought out by their employers—for the sake of raising the bar, let’s just call it the Willy Loman syndrome
Older full-time employees are often a high needs group in spite of the experience they bring to a workplace. Our salaries are often at the prime-rib level, our equity loans more numerous to pay for children’s colleges, our medical needs more extensive and expensive than they were when we were in our twenties.
In the recent controversy over Health Insurance, it occurred to me that I remain an incorrigible Jekyll-and-Hyde when it comes to public services. On the one hand, I want my roads to be fixed, my DMV to have short lines, my Social Security Office to answer its phone. On the other hand, I complain every time an interstate highway toll is increased or when my real estate taxes go up.
In the same way, now that I’m on Medicare, I want to be assured that my doctors (for the most part, specialists required for old birds like me) will give me the same care I had when my private insurance was my primary insurance. As one of the lucky ones who got under the wire because of my age, being born at the right time, and choosing the right career, my drug copays are chump change in contrast to what I would have had to pay out of my pocket—$7,000-a-year—if I didn’t have my private insurance drug plan. Medicare Plan D? No thank you.
Sociologists have given us pretty accurate stats about the majority of us marrying or having intimate relationships, endogamously—that is, inside of our class, race, religion, and/or economic status. Exogamy is the exception, not the rule. Even if we know someone from another culture in the workplace, most of us still go home to our homogeneous and segregated communities.
The notion of marrying or living inside one’s own heritage and culture was constantly reinforced when I was growing up in the 1950s, an era that was in denial about how deep the racial and ethnic divides actually were.
I was listening to an NPR program, “On Point,” the other day and a writer was being interviewed about his book in which he claims that alcoholism is not a disease but an ism of choice.
I don’t believe there are too many recovering addicts or alcoholics who would give themselves over to the generalized assertion that all you have to do is “will” yourself into sobriety. Those of us who have been in the rooms for a while would not deceive ourselves into the naïve belief that one’s individual will can unilaterally “conquer” or defeat the enemy of addiction.
I recently read a very touching story of an English couple who had gone to an assisted-suicide clinic in Switzerland to end their lives together. The wife, in her seventies, was a television producer, choreographer, and former ballerina. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her ailing, eighty-five year old husband, was a former BBC conductor and Verdi specialist.
Sir Edward Downes and his wife, Joan, both agreed to terminate their lives at the Dignitas clinic outside of Zurich. Members of their family were at the bedside of the couple and watched the elderly couple eventually die.
A biopic, a non-documentary film that dramatizes the life of a real, historical person, presents a challenge not only to film-makers but to audiences as well. Accuracy issues are always at stake when a director decides to do a dramatic narrative about a famous person, particularly about someone who carries a lot of mythological baggage.
If movie audiences have even a faint knowledge of the historical character, they will come armed with predisposed beliefs about how a character should be portrayed. Hagiographers and groupies are going to be particularly difficult to convince if a film’s portrayal violates their own notions of their heroes.
Vittoria de Sica’s classic 1947 film, The Bicycle Thief, has probably been written about more than any other film in history. At one time, film audiences considered it to be the best film ever made; unfortunately, it has slipped off the charts in recent times.
I have longed maintained that films consistently use visual and auditory images as stories in and of themselves. They often become complementary social plots replete with cultural values and world-view perceptions. The central story line in many classic films becomes more than just ornamented with these visual and auditory images, it often becomes a kind of call-and-response complement to the less evident images of a film.