Thursday, December 22, 2011

Not with a bang but a whimper

I'm sick. Not hacking my lungs up sick, but rubbing my nose raw sick. And I've promised myself I can go to bed just as soon as I finish this.
I've been thinking a lot about the apocalypse lately. I've got this mini side-job now working for the awesome publication Dark Moon Digest, a horror fiction quarterly, a job I got through a particularly awesome friend. I get to read all manner of horror story and play critic. I've got to say, I'm letting the power get to my head a little. At first I was all "I'm going to be open-minded and not hyper-critical, giving everything the fair shake I'd like my work to get."
About two rounds of short stories later, I became this guy:

(I'm kidding, actually. Everybody gets a fair shake and I read every word of every story before I pass judgement. But, you know, a little power's a dangerous thing).
I've noticed the apocalypse is a popular subject. Enough that I've had to learn to spell apocalypse. I'm not sure if it's just a current trend or whether horror stories naturally trend that way, but tonight I learned I'm not the only one noticing it.
In an interview with professional sycophant Terry Gross (okay, maybe that's a harsh assessment, but damn, sycophant is a good word), film critic David Edelstein says that if there's on thing the film industry says about American preoccupations right now, it's that  "Apocalypse is in the air... there's just a vibe in the culture that our way of life is ending." He mentions global climate change in Take Shelter, dramatic squinting in Planet of the Apes, and plague in Contagion. "I'm not saying movies haven't always been fascinated with the idea of apocalypse, I'm just saying that not in so many different bloody ways."
I remember reading or hearing somewhere that apocalypse movies go in spurts. The early sixties saw the doomsday scenarios aplenty in some of the my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone like The Midnight Sun, The Shelter, and One More Pallbearer.   In 1964 alone you've got Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, The Last Man on Earth (based on the novel I am Legend, which also served as the basis for the 2007 film with Will Smith), all influenced, most of them directly, by nuclear anxiety. 
There's another spate in the mid-90s with Independence Day, The Stand, Twelve Monkeys, and Outbreak. I'm not sure what influenced this one, aside from maybe a big flurry of celebrities announcing they've got/dying from HIV/AIDS. That's a little bit of a reach, though considering the epidemic was hardly news by then. 
Now it's climate change, economic collapse, the Arab Spring perhaps driving up the popularity of the end times once again. 
It's funny, even though I know how doomsday predictions and obsessions come and go, I'm never quite convinced that Armageddon (named for Har Megiddo the mountain on which the Final Battle, according to the book of Revelation, will take place)  isn't just around the corner. I predict global pandemic a la Stephen King's The Stand, which has haunted my nightmares for going on three decades now.




Fire and Ice
Robert Frost


Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.



One of many apocalyptic poems written in the late teens and early 20s of the last century probably influenced by the horrors of WWI.

Monday, December 19, 2011

An angel gets his wings

Every year on my birthday, Jeremy and I watch It's a Wonderful Life. It started one year when I was so depressed I cried through my birthday dinner. To remind me to be happy I'm alive. I'm not saying Frank Capra's an acceptable substitute for modern psychology, but you could do worse for therapy. If you haven't seen it, particularly if you haven't seen it because you're put off by the title, you're robbing yourself. You can borrow it after my birthday's over.
I've always said I'd like to spend a day living in the world inside of Frank Capra's head. In fact, according to his biography on imdb.com, Capra's often rosy outlook earned him the scorn of critics, who coined the term "Capra-corn" to describe his typical fare. Critics accused him, among other things, of wandering about "wide-eyed and breathless, seeing everything as larger than life." Capra didn't consider this an insult, responding, "To some of us, all that meets the eye IS larger than life... Who can match the wonder of it?"
I'm with that. Nobody's ever accused me of being Pollyanna, but I do know that life, through all our suffering, is amazing, and if you want to see it for what it is, all you have to do is open your eyes. If that makes me corny, I guess I'm in good company. 


Some Wonderful Life trivia for you, courtesy of IMDB and my brain:

  • Speaking of corny, before It's a Wonderful Life, movie directors created artificial snow by painting snowflakes white and dropping them from above. This snow was loud, requiring filmmakers to record and add the dialog later. Capra didn't want to lose the authentic nature of dialog recorded live, so he came up with a mix fire retardant and soap pumped through a wind machine. Which is cool; I've always thought that the "snow" in George's hair when  he jumps after Clarence in the river looked like soap.
  • Much of the movie was set in the winter, but filmed during a heat wave. That's why George is sweating in many of the scenes. I always assumed he was feverish with fear and grief, although heat wave certainly makes more sense. 
  • The film, during the Red Scare, was accused of being socialist because it cast bankers and corporate greed in a negative light. However, Capra was a Republican who spied for the FBI during the Red Scare. I wonder why Elia Kazan (director of On the Waterfront) was strung up for naming names when Capra wasn't. Too many feel good stars in their eyes.
  • In an early scene, Bert the cop is reading a newspaper with the headline "Smith Wins Nomination." Jeremy and I were sure that this was a reference to Jimmy Stuart's character in another Capra film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Not so, says IMDB claims this article referred to a real-life presidential candidate Alfred Smith. Given the prominence of the headline in the shot, I have a hard time believing it was complete coincidence. Maybe it did refer to a real guy, but I you've got to wonder why that particular headline was picked.
  • Uncle Billy's pet raven was one of Capra's trademarks - the bird appeared in five of his films. I think I remember reading that Crook's pet bird in The Shawshank Redemption was an homage to Capra, but I can't corroborate. 
  • Jeremy just noticed that Mr. Potter is a thousand years old when he first appears in the movie, in what's supposed to be 1919. The main action of the movie takes place in 1946, at which point Mr. Potter doesn't look a day over a thousand and one. Dude's an evil vampire. Explains so much. Must've lost the use of his legs before he turned. 
    Mr. Gower must be a vampire too, because he was a thousand years old in 1919 too. But he must have been the victim of some gypsy curse that gave him a soul and made him not evil. Or something.

Here's a little Christmas gift from me and Clarence the angel to you: Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.
And if you don't have any friends, I'll be your friend. And we'll not be failures together.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Onward Christian Soldiers

And speaking of boycotts...
I just want to mention before you toss another handful of change into the ubiquitous red buckets that crop up everywhere at Christmas time.
For the last several years, leaders in the gay community have called for a boycott of the Salvation Army, alleging widespread discrimination against queer folk. I've read a whole lot of stories on the subject, and I've yet to find anything that substantiates the claims. 
The Salvation Army, however, is open about its position on homosexuality, stating:

Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage.
They do, however point out that there's nothing in scripture about "demeaning or mistreating" gay folk. That's blatantly untrue, of course. Leviticus clearly says,
If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
I'm glad the Salvation Army doesn't believe in doing bad things to gay people, I'm just saying that the bible clearly advocates demeaning and mistreating gay people. Unless murder isn't considered demeaning and mistreating.


Anyway, totally beside the point. The thing is that the Salvation Army isn't just a charity; it's a religious denomination. One that has views with which I wholeheartedly disagree. I've also not been able to find out exactly where the money we donate does go. Does the Salvation Army, as many sources claim, give money to anti-gay lobbies and other anti-gay groups? Do all of the dollars I give go to help people in need, or do some of them go to aid an agenda? I don't know, but I do know for sure that if I donate a can of food to the food bank, it goes to people who need food. Having worked at facilities that benefit from food bank organizations, I can state that for a fact. If I donate to coats for kids, the money goes to put coats on kids. Heifer International is consistently highly ranked in efficiency and wise allocation of resources. Something to consider. 
I'm not requesting you boycott the Salvation Army too; I do, however, suggest you check out their site, view their positions on stuff like marriage and homosexuality, and decide for yourselves. If you do decide to kick the bucket, if you will, consider donating to another charity; I think it's better to donate to them than to not donate at all.
If you agree with their stances, by all means, keep giving. They do good work. I just know that there are other charities that do good work and don't condemn homosexuality.

I'll take that card back now?

The Online Etymology Dictionary's origin for boycott is so cool I've got to post it verbatim:
1880, from Irish Land League ostracism of Capt. Charles C. Boycott (1832-1897), land agent of Lough-Mask in County Mayo, who refused to lower rents for his tenant farmers. Quickly adopted by newspapers in languages as far afield as Japanese (boikotto). The family name is from a place in England.
That's so perfect I'd call bull in any other source, but Wikipedia and Dictionary.com corroborate.


So you've probably guessed, if you've checked a news site today and know me that I'm going to nudge you to consider not shopping at Lowe's. According to every news site on earth, but let's throw a dart at The Washington Post, Lowe's pulled ads from the TLC show All American Muslim after the threat of a boycott from The Florida Family Association because apparently the show is "propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda's clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values."
Anyway, it'd be pretty cool if lovers of religious tolerance managed to cost them a heck of a lot more than The Florida Family Association ever could have. And somebody's going to have to do my part for me because I'm not exactly the DIY sort. Unless DIY also refers to calling the landlord and complaining, which doesn't generally involve a trip to Lowe's. 
Anyway, I don't really feel like I need to make the case against religious bigotry. I just want to remind you all that corporations are only as evil as their customers allow them to be. Do the future of religious diversity in America a favor and send Lowe's a message. It's not like there's not a Home Depot across the street. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Sermon: The Kindness Conspiracy

The Kindness Conspiracy

Hi. If we've not met, I'm Brigid Brockway, and I've been a member of this congregation about four years now; occasionally they let me speak, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to speak to you all today.
You know when I picked “kindness” as the topic for this message, I didn't really realize how cliched the idea seemed. I mean, kindness? Isn't that kind of basic? We learned this one in Kindergarten... isn't it time we moved on to something bigger? Well yes, kindness is a pretty elementary subject, but I've been thinking a lot about it, and I think kindness is just about the most powerful force for good in the world. Greater, maybe even than love, because kindness is love in action. Love is inert without kindness to bring it to life. Without love there is no kindness, and without kindness, there is no love.
As most of you know, I'm a logophile, or lover of words. So naturally, when I sat down to write this, the first thing I did was check out the etymology of the word kind. The word, which The Online Etymology Dictionary defines as “deliberately doing good to others,” comes from an Old English word meaning natural, native, or innate. I think that's appropriate. Imagine a world in which kindness is everybody's default state of being. I don't know if we're born innately kind. If you look at it from a primarily evolutionary perspective, humans are probably innately pretty violent. They say the law of surviving in the jungle is kill or be killed. Luckily, we don't live in the jungle. In our world, I think the best way to survive is to love as relentlessly as we can, and here's why I think that.
When I was a kid, my church's pastor father Lou Miola, said in a sermon that every action we take either builds up or tears down the kingdom of God on earth. He said, “Whenever you're deciding on an action, ask yourself: 'am I building the kingdom?'”
Unitarian Universalists don't talk a lot about gods or kingdoms, but let me put it another way. Everything we do creates the world in which we have to live. The world in which our loved ones live, the world in which our children will have to live. We never know how much, and we never know how far our actions will reach, but every single thing we do, every single action we take, changes the world; changes the course of history. Every day.
I would like to ask Bob to stand up please. Bob recently participated in an Out of the Darkness Community Walk to benefit the American Society of Suicide Prevention. Bob collected roughly 1,100 for the charity, even though his largest donation was only $50. The smallest was $1.
The amounts of money, the acts of kindness, were small. But all of those donations together, that thousand dollars, that money could be on its way to saving a life as we speak. Brendan McWalters is one individual who credits the Out of the Darkness walks with helping save his life. In a testimonial he gave at one of the walks he said that when he first attended a walk in 2005, he was very actively suicidal. He said when he heard people from the organization talk about how “we walked out of the darkness and into a solution … into a way where we didn't have to think that way anymore; I really knew that was what I really wanted in my life.” Thousands of people tell the same story about attending walks or seeing ads or billboards for Out of the Darkness and getting the hope they needed to carry on. Now, Out of the Darkness has the funding to reach a few more people, give a few more people hope: All because Bob decided to do something kind, and asked the people around him to do the same.
But giving money's not the only way to live kindness. In this economy, many of us are already giving as much money as we can afford to give, or maybe we can't afford to give at all. But that's okay because some of the best acts of kindness don't cost us a thing.
Last week, I visited the New Vision UCC church here in Canton. It's a great congregation. As Andy's always saying, they're pretty much Unitarians who really like Jesus. We had their pastor come and talk to us a couple of months back and near as I can tell, that congregation is just as kind and magnanimous as their pastor is. Now last week I met a woman, a member of the congregation who regularly donates something that doesn't cost her a cent. She takes plastic grocery bags, cuts them into strips, and knits them into blankets for the homeless. These blankets are lightweight, weatherproof, less prone than regular blankets to dirt and bed bugs, warm, and surprisingly pleasant to the touch. She makes them, and then other members of the congregation who go downtown to feed the hungry every Sunday hand the blankets out to homeless people there. She told me that she works on the blankets at night when she's just sitting around watching TV. The woman, just by sitting on her couch and playing with trash, might be saving somebody from freezing to death. Or maybe providing a little comfort to someone who doesn't have many comforts. Maybe giving hope to someone who was beginning to lose faith in a society that seems ever more determined to pretend he or she isn't there.
Okay, so but what if you don't have the time or crafty inclination to do something like that. Fear not. Great feats of kindness can be performed even more simply than that. So I used to work at a Caribou Coffee up in Cleveland. It was one of those work environments that was just really positive. For whatever reason, the staff and clientele just joined up to create a perfect storm of kindness, so that it was the sort of place that everybody – even the employees (even those of us who went in at 5am) – wanted to be. One day, a customer sent the staff this beautiful, eloquent letter that none of us expected. It was from this customer Fred* (or as we called him, dark roast in a travel mug). Fred was a really cool guy who came in after his overnight shift stocking the shelves at the Borders next door, and we liked him a lot. He was really smart, hilarious, really fun to discuss – and argue – literature with. Actually claimed Hemingway wasn't a misogynist, but I didn't hold it against him. Anyway, Fred had a reasonably severe case of cerebral palsy. He could walk, but required canes and had a pronounced hunch. His speech was slow and difficult to understand and his movements were often spastic. He was one of those people, though, who has a personality so much bigger than his disability that you barely notice it. Or so we thought. In his letter, he wrote about a life of pain, of disability. About living through surgeries and indignities and to add insult to injury, people treated him like a freak. People assumed he had cognitive impairments and so spoke to him as if he were a child. People stared, but pretended not to stare. Even when people were nice to him, he said, they weren't really seeing him, they were just doing a nice thing for this poor disabled person. But, he said in his letter, the staff at our coffee shop made him forget all that. He said that the time that he spent with us made him feel like he was experiencing what it was like to be everyone else, because that's how we treated him. Not like he was invisible, or stupid, or an inconvenience, or a pity, but like he was a real live human. Well after we were all done crying, we were kind of baffled. We all knew Fred and liked him a lot, but none of us remembered doing anything for him that would warrant such an outpouring. We were kind to him, sure, but we were kind to everybody. And I think the fact that we were kind to everybody was what made the real difference to him. If we'd been kind just to him, and not to everyone else, it would have been only because of his disability. We'd just have been more people in the long line of folks who put on a show of being nice to him out of pity.
The kind of kindness that existed inside that coffee shop? It didn't cost anybody anything. You memorize somebody's coffee order. You ask Small Cappuccino guy about his cat, you offer to carry Large Espresso Mom's cup to the table because she's got her hands full. In fact, it would have cost us a lot, in that environment, not to be kind. We had this really pleasant workplace and everybody got along really well. To throw a wrench in it by being a jerk, well that would be cutting off your nose to spite your face.
I don't know how that particular coffee shop got that way – it was like that when I found it. I suspect it was an intentional ploy by a couple of relentlessly pleasant staff members who were there when I started, but it kept on being that pleasant even after those staff members were gone. I guess once it got started, their whole kindness conspiracy just took on a life of its own.
When I was younger, one of my favorite passages from the bible was Romans 12:18-20.
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
I think about that now and I think Paul didn't have that quite right. Being kind to someone for the purpose of upsetting them isn't being kind at all. It's being fake. I don't want to live in a world where people are all nice on the outside but committing horrible acts of sadism on me in their heads. How about being kind to your enemy because you want to live in a world where people are kind to their enemies? How about being kind to people because you want to live in a world where you don't have any enemies? Hating people is hard work and little spots of meanness in our hearts tend to spread. Now there's a fine line between loving your enemy and laying down so that they can walk all over you. I was actually talking to my mom about this yesterday. My mom's about the friendliest lady in the world and probably hasn't had an enemy since she was ten. Of course there are people that drive her nuts. But she once told me her tip to dealing with those folks. She said you just have to put the blinders up.
Blinders are little leather flaps that are placed near a horse's eyes that keep the horse from being distracted by the things next to or behind her. Now “living with blinders on” is a metaphor some people use to describe a state of ignorance or foolishness, basically, to remain oblivious by ignoring important facts. But my mom never said to live with blinders on – just to put them on sometimes when you need help moving forward. Put them up to keep from looking back at the ways the person has wronged you. Put them up to keep from thinking of all the ways that person is harming you right now. That doesn't mean ignore the bad things about the person. It doesn't mean ignore potential dangers. It just means that sometimes a person or a relationship is so difficult, or a history you have with somebody so ugly, that your only option is to keep your eyes in front, focusing on how you can have a kind relationship of at least mutual respect from here on out. It might not work. Your enemy might never stop finding new ways to make your world less pleasant. But I think that if you're that focused on being kind, that relentless in your pursuit of positivity, you might be able to push the meanness to the periphery, keep yourself warm in the kindness of the bubble you've created, even if your enemy chooses to remain out in the cold. I don't know if it's always possible, but I can tell you this: my mom's got no enemies, so she's doing something right. I can tell you this too: she once told me that every time she has a tough decision to make, she thinks of Father Lou's sermon many years ago, and she asks herself “Am I building the kingdom?”

Previous Sermons:
Last Year's Thanksgiving (I've since been told that all my sources on Squanto's motivations were wrong, but hey. I'm a pontificator, not a professor).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Totally getting my knee-jerk liberal card revoked for this.

Yesterday, my friend Mike posted this link to a fifteen minute video showing the context of the pepper spray incident at UC Davis. In this video, the police arrest a handful of the protesters, after which the rest of the protesters form a circle around the officers and inform them that they won't "let" the cops leave until their friends are set free. 



The group greatly outnumbered the police, they surrounded the police, and they told the police (in unison) they were not permitted to leave. Repeatedly. Is it an exaggeration to say that the protesters were taking the cops hostage? I'm not sure. But it is a great deal more than an exaggeration to call them "peaceful" protesters, is it not?
This is not to say that the police were correct in their choice of action. It is, however, to say that these were not peaceful protesters, they were protesters who were making threats, protesters who were declaring the intent to take the police hostage, protesters who were flat-out breaking the law. It is accurate to call the protesters unarmed. It is accurate to say that they had not yet committed any overt acts of violence. It is not accurate to say that they were peaceful. 


Nick Christie was pepper sprayed ten times over the course of a two day detention in Lee County, Florida for disorderly conduct. The last two times he was sprayed, he was in a cell, strapped naked to a restraint chair, with a spit mask over his face. He was covered in pepper spray, was still covered in the stuff days later when he was autopsied. All of this occurred in March 2009.
The man had several serious health conditions, information that was available to jail employees, but which jail employees neglected to read. He was denied all of his medications, despite his repeated requests and despite the fact that all of his medications were written down and carried in his pocket at the time of his arrest. 
That he had a mental illness was well-documented yet at no time was a psychiatrist consulted nor psych meds administered, even after his wife contacted the county sheriff's office with information about his condition and treatment.
 The final jolt of pepper spray sent him into shock which, according to the coroner, caused him to go into cardiac arrest and later die. The death was ruled a homicide. The Lee County Sheriff's office was later cleared of any wrongdoing, and if criminal action was taken against the jailers who administered the spray, I cannot find reports covering it. 
That's because the story received little to no national news coverage. 


No word yet on how many privileged college students have staged protests against Christie's treatment.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sincerity

Jeremy tells me that he learned in Dan Brown's book The Lost Symbol that the word sincere comes from the two word phrase without wax. The phrase, according to Brown, originates from the fact that sculptors, back in Roman times, would cover imperfections in their work by filling the cracks with wax. A true, honest sculptor would only sell sculptures without wax. In The Lost Symbol, the main character, Robert Langdon, remembers learning this etymology while reading what he calls a mediocre thriller. Jeremy, as it turns out, had read the same mediocre thriller. It was Dan Brown's Digital Fortress
Dan Brown was clever there, preventing anyone who noticed the duplication from accusing him of repeating himself. He was not, it would appear, clever when researching the origin of the word. I find it's usually the case that if an etymology seems that perfect, it's probably fake. And the Online Etymology Dictionary agrees, telling us that the phrase is from the Latin sincerus which means pure or sound. This, the Dictionary goes on to explain, is probably from sin, meaning one, and crescere, meaning grow, so that the expression originally meant out of one growth, referring to something that wasn't hybridized or mixed in with something else.
I'm not sure whether I plan to tell Jeremy this. It's a weird thing, not knowing whether to burst someone's bubble. In my etymological travels, I've found out quite a few of the more entertaining phrase origins aren't true. "Cat's out of the bag" doesn't refer to a ship captain keeping his cat o' nine tails in a bag (something I read about in a mediocre blog post once). In same said mediocre blog, I learned that "mind your own beeswax" doesn't, as myth claims, refer to the fact that women used to use beeswax as foundation. The phrase "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" has nothing to do with the fact that entire families in the 16th century used to wash using only one tub of water and they always washed the babies last and thus the babies could often be lost and then tossed out with the bathwater (I mean, really?). 
Once, I told somebody that I'd learned on NPR that "dead ringer" comes from the fact that in olden times, they'd tie a string around the wrist of people in graves and then tie the string to a bell. Then if the not-dead-yet individual moved, the bell would ring and so people who looked exactly like someone else would be "dead ringers" because... wow, this is seeming less and less plausible as I write it. I mean, I'd heard it on NPR. I'd read it on a placard at a museum. I'd even heard it on that great repository of truth, the Internet. I don't remember who I told this to, but they burst my bubble and told me my story was untrue. And I felt really foolish. And I think I thought the person who told me a little rude - although would it have been more rude to let me go on telling people wrong things? It's kind of like the classic quandary over whether or not to tell someone they've got a booger hanging out of their nose.
Etiquette tells us that when someone's got a booger hanging out of their nose, the polite thing to do is to inform the boogerer discretely. Probably by doing the old quiet voiced "you got something..." trailing off, and then making a gesture toward the nose that the hearer almost never seems to interpret correctly. And then there's the whole "my right or your right" thing... none of which helps us determine how to burst someone's etymological bubble. I generally go with a gentle shake of the head and the understated "Snopes it."
Man, I love Snopes.
This sculpture is both without wax and an epic win. It's from a
Canton art gallery, and I can't remember which one. 

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