Cultural Values

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Moonlight, A Review

“Moonlight,” won “best picture” award at this year’s Oscar’s after a traumatic envelope mixup. It is a one-of-a-kind film about a coming of age black young man who discovers, early in his fragile life, that he is gay.

As a pre-teenager, Chiron’s gay identity comes down on him like a falling meteor when his alcoholic-drug addicted mother, in a fit of self-loathing, screams “faggot” at him.

In high school, Chiron is bullied, taunted, and beaten but has a spontaneous, first-kiss and consummated sexual experience on the beach with one of his classmates.

Many years later, he ends up being a drug dealer mirroring the behavior of an older man who became a kind of surrogate father to the younger Chiron teaching him to swim and who, with his girlfriend, occasionally offered the young boy a place to hang out, eat, and escape from his cocaine-addicted mother.

Unexpectedly, Chiron receives a night phone call from his high school buddy with whom he had his first and only sexual experience. He eventually decides to take the road trip to make a surprise visit. After his friend makes him dinner, Chiron awkwardly admits he has never been touched by anyone else, as his friend cradles him in his arms in a final tender scene.

What I loved about this film is that it is not rushed. Each scene is given its moment, sometimes painfully, sometimes tenderly, without stealing or overshadowing the other. Although the central character’s life choice to sell drugs gives the film an ominous tone of fatalism, the restrained optimism of the narrative has more than its day in court—-Chiron eventually forgives his mother after she ends up in a rehab and at least two sets of characters are on Chiron’s side: the young couple who offer him refuge from his addicted mother and the high school friend who, even after his own marriage and separation, is still emotionally attached to Chiron.

Chiron’s character has heavy layers of loneliness, isolation, introversion, and painful shyness. But, in the end, the movie gives us an emphatic sense that he’s a survivor. And, viewers leave the film feeling Chiron has at least one moment of psychological relief in his friend’s obvious emotional and physical affection.


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Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann  a German-Austrian production about a father and adult-daughter relationship. The father is a playful eccentric who loves to impersonate. The adult daughter is an up-tight, angst-driven corporate executive trying to succeed in a male dominated work environment.

Her father, impersonating an executive, uses the interventionist, in-your-face approach by invading her corporate world.

The psychological clash between the two of them vacillates between her rage and frustration with her father’s antics and an occasional surrender to the playful world and love of life he is trying to convince her has more intrinsic worth than all the compromises of self-worth she has to make in the corporate world.

Does the father succeed in winning her over to his side of life? Well, let me just say the movie’s ending gives you an ambiguous clue.

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I Am Not Your Negro, Review

I am not your negroEDITEDDirected by Raoul Peck, the documentary, I am Not Your Negro, is based on an unfinished book by James Baldwin about the three modern iconic black leaders who were assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X.

All three represented the three distinct movements in contemporary black history and culture: the NAACP, the peaceful resistance movement of MLK, and the more activist Nation of Islam Movement of Malcolm X.

The documentary, on so many levels, is almost impossible to take in in one sitting. Its sweep is large, including archival photos and footage of lynchings; some of the divisions among the black leadership; the civil rights era, including the school integration crisis in the south prompting visceral white reaction: the riots and the Black Panther confrontations with the police; footage of the trauma within the black community after the assassinations of Evers, King, and Malcolm X.

All of these historically momentous events became more compelling with the brilliant language of Baldwin’s text woven into the documentary and footage of Baldwin’s provocative speaking and debating skills (Baldwin had early training as a preacher).

Peck’s brilliant directing made use of images of the volatile civil rights era seamlessly blended in with the more contemporary images of Obama’s presidency, the Black-Lives-Matter protests and the photos of some of the young blacks killed by the police, prompting the protests.

Peck managed to brilliantly incorporate brief excerpts of classic films showing either how blacks had been demeaned and stereotyped as characters or how they began to be slowly given substantial character roles. He also included snippets of some classic white films with characters who were portrayed as western heroes or as romantically desirable, two characterizations denied blacks in the Hollywood film industry for decades.

Be prepared for an emotionally engaging film at the top of its game in presenting a comprehensive look at post-World War II black America under the exquisite direction of Raoul Peck and the literary brilliance of James Baldwin.

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Senior Special

She didn’t know much
About the guy.
His name was Steve,
He drove a taxi at night,
Owned two German shepherds,
Used to work at a plant
That made cardboard boxes,

“It closed in August,”
He later told her,
“The asshole owner
Lost interest,
Bought a condo in Tampa,
A red 2012 Mercedes
With real leather seats,
Left his wife of
Forty years.”

She met Steve on
A Christian dating
Website for seniors.
Their first date
Was in late September
At the local VFW post,
Bingo-and-spaghetti
Friday night special.

“Does the spaghetti
Come with salad?”
He texted her.

“I don’t think so,”
She texted back
“Not on their Website.”

“No problem. Can we
Meet there right at 5:00?
My eyesight sucks
After 7″

“Sounds good,”
She wrote.

They both arrived promptly.
A couple’s interlude, they decided,
Better than the solitude
Of the evening news
And stale headlines.

 

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Only $3,000 Down

 

As a classical recitalist, it is impossible to get through a Schubert song cycle without encountering the word “Sehnsucht,” (longing or desire).

Buddhism’s second Noble Truth tells us that “craving” is at the root of all “suffering,” which is the reality the First Noble Truth informs us is the malady every human will experience in life.

And desire certainly drives advertising in Western culture—in magazines, in newspapers, on cable tv, on billboards, on metro busses, on the radio. Even if we didn’t know we had the desire for that SUV, a tv ad will energize that desire into a purchase, for only $200 a month and $3,000 down.

In the alcohol and drug worlds, desire becomes a deeply entrenched craving, enhanced by a chemical dependency, that seeps into our bodies and minds, taking over our lives. That over-arching control of every aspect of our lives is certainly true for other addictions—food, sex, gambling, relationships, cars, shopping, among others

So, whether it’s romantic longing, an addiction, or an impulse to buy something we don’t need, the common denominator of desire, with all of its variations, is a part of our humanity, at least our modern humanity. And we can add to those modern forms of desire and cravings our finger-driven daily obsessions with Facebook and texting, not to mention the addictive need to scroll our way through our emails everyday.

Aside from addictions or the repetitive actions on our smartphones, both of which have multiple psychological and physical components, desire often arrives because something is missing in our lives.

That absence may be the lack of positive feedback at my job, of a positive image of myself that goes back to my childhood and adolescence. Or I may have had a week in which the second-floor toilet overflowed into the kitchen, my car’s muffler fell off in the Wegman’s parking lot, or one of my kids had a projectile vomit attack in the back seat of the family car in the middle of a traffic jam.

On my way home from work, do I want that new flat screen or smartphone, because my boss gave me a mediocre evaluation? Or just because I need to “come down” from all the craziness of my week.

Desire, I have found, often arrives as a form of emotional compensation. I may buy something because I think I need a pay-back from overwork. I rationalize the purchase saying to myself, “I deserve it; it’s been a rough week at work; the boss has been on my ass all week about my underperforming.”

Or my life sucks; I feel under-appreciated or left out; I can’t stop gaining weight; I fucked up another relationship; I offended somebody again.

Ordering a large pizza and streaming a favorite horror flick on Netflix can be just the right recipe to make us “feel good” in that escapist, prophylactic world where our bodies and minds just numb out the pain of feeling bad.

At the same time, the effect of acting on the desire makes us feel worse. That’s the second level of suffering.

The first level, of course, is that some painful experience enters our life (a shitty week with a boss, a client, a student, a relationship, at home), and we decide to binge.

The second level of suffering is a kind of buyer’s remorse, a regret, because now we’ve put on more weight, food binging. Or we have a huge credit-card bill after purchasing the entire series of “Six Feet Under,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Dexter.” Or we wake up with a person we’ve never seen before in our lives.

Just some thoughts in sobriety…..John

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My Enemy, My Friend

How should I react to those, I believe, don’t like me? Especially, the corporate, four-testicle, country-club guys who love to be master of their fates and everybody else’s?

I read, today, Pema Chödrön’s phrase, “the sweet spot,” giving me some clue about the need to live on the mountain of kindness, no matter how craggy. Maybe even to accept my enemy’s perception of me as too cocky, too self-assured, too sarcastic, too intellectual.

Where can I retrieve that soft spot from when I feel judged? Too often, I pull back. I start to invent an image of my enemy as a cold, detached, cruelly confident man, who beats his wife; says “fuck off” to his kids at least once a day; argues with a Mercedes Benz salesman to include, in the base price of his new car, a flat screen on the backs of the driver and passenger seats. As an added resentment, I will probably hold him responsible for the 2008 Great Recession. Continue reading

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Capitalism and Corporatism

All My Sons, Big Business, Moral Responsibility

I recently saw the Arthur Miller play, All My Sons. It reminded me of how much Miller was in tune with so much of American culture.

The play revolves around Joe Keller, an entrepreneur, who owns a factory that shipped out cracked warplane cylinder heads during World War II. Twenty one pilots died in crashes as a result. His associate, Steve Deever, warned him of the defective engines, and Joe told him to seal the cracks. Deever tried to call him, not wanting to take sole responsibility for the shipment. Joe, later, claims that he had the flu and was not able to answer the call.

After a courtroom trial, Deever is sent to prison. Joe is exonerated in an appeal of his case. The rest of the play is about all the collateral damage Joe’s big lie has on his own family and the family of his associate. Continue reading

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Another Wreck

One more ascent
To success.
Bruised before
It’s opened,
By your insistence,
The tired claim
Of another’s failures
And cat hairs
Of false promises
In your warrior’s
Muscled strength.
I’ve heard it
All before,
My love,
Closing my eyes
On your descent
Into another wreck.

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Transgendered Me

I dedicate this poem to Kricket Jerná Nimmons, a black low-income New Yorker, who recently had genital reconstruction (From the “New York Times” article, “‘A Whole New Being’; How Kricket Nimmons Seized the Transgender Moment” by Deborah Sontag—12/13/15)

Swimming against
The orders
Of others
To be
Who I am not,
Body parts
From my mother’s womb,
Gifted back
To the cruel source
Who made me
What I never was,
The old world’s contract
Broken by my
Own stern will,
Penis as memory
Vagina as hope,
Breasts mounted
To my willing chest,
Hair shaven
From my bony legs,
Communion miracle,
The old host
Disappearing
Into new flesh
And flowing blood
Of this, the
Newly honed
And tender me,

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Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, a Review

Fates and Furies
Lauren Groff
Penguin Random House, 2015
359 pp

On one level, Lauren Groff’s novel, Fates and Furies, is easy to write about because it has a fairly straightforward plot about a very modern couple who fall lustfully in love, marry, and experience all the travails of a typical marriage—money, trust issues, psychological insecurity, secrets. The husband, initially a struggling actor, becomes a famous and successful playwright but dies an early death. The wife lives out the rest of her life on the wealth she’s inherited from her husband’s family and the financial success of his career.

That, of course, would be the Cliff Notes summary of the plot. Continue reading

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