Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Trap for the Unwary

In one sermon, Pastor Z was praising a cartoon from a recent issue of The New Yorker. I think he called it "profound". He said the cartoon featured a couple and their dog, gazing up at the starry sky, the man's arm around the woman as he says, "I'm not religious, I'm just scared to death."

Reluctantly leaving aside the inaccuracies -- the cartoon, which appeared on page 47 of the 1/29/07 issue, shows no stars in the sky, the couple have their arms around each other, the woman is speaking, and she doesn't say she is scared "to death" (the actual caption reads "I'm not religious -- I'm just scared.") -- it is still difficult for me to see a theologically helpful message in this cartoon. In fact, it strikes me as a somewhat self-satisified anti-religion message. (This is borne out also by the expressions on the couple's faces: the woman looks cheerful; the man has a complacent smile as he hears her remark.) While anti-religious sentiment is a perfectly legitimate point of view (and much more typical of The New Yorker than this week's astonishingly thoughtful work of fiction, see page 67 of the 2/5/07 issue), it is not one I necessarily expect a pastor to embrace.

To me, the point of the cartoon, on some level, is that people turn to religion (or a half-baked pastiche of "spirituality") not because they believe their particular religion is "true" but instead for comfort or solace.

Contemporary church-going New Yorkers tend to be drawn strongly to Christian themes of social justice and love (especially loving one's neighbor in the sense of embracing diversity and tolerating/celebrating alternative world views and lifestyles), but repelled by other aspects (especially themes of judgment, or restrictions on sexual freedom or divorce) and perhaps even openly skeptical of some of the miraculous goings-on reported in the gospel.

One risk for any Christian is that he or she will let go of the aspects of Christianity that strike him/her as "outdated" or "mythical"; the problem with doing this, of course, is that you are left not with Christianity, but with a religion of your own design -- a religion that doubtless jives well with your predilections, but one that is unlikely to be true. Real Christianity is very hard, and people of all backgrounds and all political beliefs who take it seriously will inevitably find themselves up against some doctrines that are very difficult for them personally. Imaginary Christianity, with all the unpalatable bits taken out, is just a bit of milk sop, a bromide for those who are scared.

Dr. Tewell made a good point several years ago one Easter Sunday: it's all very well and fine to have a cute little custom where you get up early for Easter, put on some fine Easter clothes, maybe an Easter bonnet, go to church, and then enjoy a nice Easter brunch -- but if Christianity isn't true, you are simply wasting your time. He challenged us to consider whether we really believe, and if so, how we should act. That challenge is a good one, an important one to wrestle with on an ongoing basis, even though -- or perhaps precisely because -- we all fail to live up to it at times (and he of course in an unfortunately spectacular way).

One closing thought: Dr. T's downfall was spectacular in a deep etymological sense, because his failing (unlike so many other sins great and small) became known to the public, a spectacle for others to observe and comment on.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Ah, but has he read the books?

A number of years ago, my family and I conspired to bring my grandfather into the computer age. We figured he would take well to a medium that allowed him to send and receive lots of messages for less than the cost of postage.

Little did we know: we created a monster. At age 96+ (although I think he tells the ladies he is a mere lad of 80), he lives in an apartment building that has a computer lab with internet connections ready for his use 24/7. He doesn't feel compelled to tell us what he's doing or thinking, but he sure as heck gets his money's worth out of forwarding endless cute pictures of animals, jokes, simple life philosophies, the occasional hoax warning, etc.

Among the dog pictures he forwarded, I particularly liked this rather clever Harry Potter themed costume for JK's most loyal canine fan:

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Brooklyn Bliss

Yesterday, I ran 0.75 miles easily (with two fleeces and a windstopper jacket, plus hat and gloves), then enjoyed a glass of Chardonnay with Waking Ned Devine - one of my all-time favorite movies - which I haven't watched since the summer of 2001, It is an absolute gem.

And since I'm about to lend out P.G. Wodehouse's A Damsel in Distress, here's a passage I'd marked to share, in which Lord Marshmoreton, an English aristocrat, attempts to explain why he cannot permit his daughter to marry the American composer George Bevan:
Lord Marshmoreton: Ours is an old family, I would like to remind you that there were Marshmoretons in Belpher before the War of the Roses.

Mr. Bevan: There were Bevans in Brooklyn before the B.R.T.

Lord Marshmoreton: I beg your pardon?

Mr. Bevan: I was only pointing out that I can trace my ancestry a long way. You have to trace things a long way in Brooklyn, if you want to find them.

Lord Marshmoreton: I have never heard of Brooklyn.

Mr. Bevan: You've heard of New York?

Lord Marshmoreton: Certainly.

Mr. Bevan: New York's one of the outlying suburbs.

--P.G. Wodehouse, A Damsel in Distress, ch. 16

(Editorial comment: The "B.R.T." to which Mr. Bevan refers is "Brooklyn Rapid Transit," a precursor to the current New York City transit system. Apparently, the book was later made into a movie starring Fred Astaire and Gracie Allen.)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Wow! Saturday!

So it's 9:15 a.m. on a Saturday, and I already cooked breakfast and am on my second load of laundry. How cool is that? What a feeling of accomplishment! I'm going to get my chores done AND still have most of my weekend free. Who knew? Can hardly wait to bundle up and face the great outdoors....

Last night's play, The Jew of Malta (by Christopher Marlowe), was a bit of a letdown. It's one of those self-consciously post-modern productions where they make anachronistic asides to the audience, exaggerate the characters to the point of caricature and the acting to the point of absurdity, and provide heavy-handed "modern" readings of archaic language for cheap laughs. I haven't read or seen the play before, but I feel quite confident that the friar who finds the 14-year-old girl Abigail dead does not, in the original, feel up her breasts as he prepares to cart off her corpse and then lie down and speak tenderly to the body after impulsively fucking it up the butt. It's just a hunch on my part, of course. You never know with these Elizabethan writers.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Theater Week

I saw "A Beautiful View" at the Under The Radar Festival -- a little too obsessed with Silence and The Nature of Conversation for my taste. Plus both characters spoke with the name annoying lilt? at the end of each phrase? as if their words were punctuated? with extraneous question marks? It's annoying even in print -- it's much worse when you listen to it for over an hour. The story and characters didn't really grab me either, although some individual scenes were well done. The best was when you see the characters mauled by a bear -- it's done entirely through sound and light effects, particularly a short stunning display of 4 or 5 red lights at the top of the stage accompanied by a fierce growl.

Yesterday, I saw "The Great Divorce" at the Salvation Army theater. It was well done. I mostly delighted in the text, which is very familiar to me. But the acting was well done, and staging was also very creative and effective. At the "talk-back" session afterward, someone asked about turning it into a movie. Some things could probably be done more effectively on film -- in fact, the most powerful scene of the play would work even better on film. But other things I think would be very difficult to do on film, such as the waterfall that is also a water giant. A film-maker would probably do that with CGI, and it could be very well done, but the more realistic the waterfall, the more fake it will look. The waterfall/water giant on stage worked precisely beccause the audience already has to suspend its disbelief to see the waterfall (a long blue cloth draping down from a height over several actors who bounce and gurgle and laugh under the sheet). It's already a bunch of people under a sheet, so then to see that it's one giant human form animating the waterfall is quite believable. To me, it is a tremendously Christian work -- you really can't miss the themes -- and it had an inordinate effect on my theology. But the actors of the Magis Theatre Company are apparently from a number of different faith backgrounds, and they were careful to talk about "spirituality" during the talk-back rather than religion. One actress, who said she is Catholic, reported that her friends and relatives variously thought the play was "Christian", "Hindu", or "Buddhist."

Monday, January 22, 2007

Say Cheese[cake]

The first snowfall didn't stay long, but the light dusting on the dead boughs (and the muted colors) made me think of a Japanese painting:
Lower East Side - Delancy Street:
You may be wondering: How do sophisticated New Yorkers spend their time? What kinds of high-falutin' activities do they undertake to unwind on the weekends? The answer: They head out to the suburbs to hang out with small children at places like The Cheesecake Factory.

(Fashionistas, take note: the model in this picture is bedecked with small butterflies in her hair and on her sweater. You saw it here first.)

The ostensible purpose of the gathering was to celebrate Rantik's release from - er, I mean successful completion of - his second residency program. (He's now licensed to knock people out.) But it was really just to give him a chance to mug for the cameras.

To see this next picture in its proper orientation, simply rotate your computer monitor clockwise 90 degrees. (Other helpful technical tips available upon request.)

Monday, January 15, 2007


Looks like I ran* a bit over 1 mile today when I suddenly started feeling really ill - the details are a little unpleasant - so at about the 1.4 mile mark I went in to a coffee shop and ordered a capuccino. After the break, however, I went back in to the park and ran another half mile. That felt much better, and my iPod got to some great tunes. It was good to run in the light drizzle, and good to find out that I could resume (and enjoy) running after a forced break.

Although I have long been an advocate of shuffling songs (ever since I got my 5-CD disc changer in the early 90's), and I still shuffle songs using iTunes on my computer, I actually do not like the shuffle function on my iPod. I find it is too slow in between songs that way. So I'm going through my entire iPod song list in semi-random alphabetical order, choosing a starting letter each day that I run. Today was "L" ("Land of the Living") although I reached "P" (a "Pure Energy" medley of songs from cassette). When I get to "T" it will be very exciting and unpredictable, because there are so many songs that start with "The".

Tonight, I'll see Charlotte's Web, which should be fun.

*I use the verb "run" in the loosest possible sense. I'm not setting any speed records here... it is at best an incredibly slow jog. The only people I pass are people who are actually walking. My goals do not involve speed, but rather frequency (once per week - preferably Saturdays, with the occasional Wednesday thrown in) and distance (1 mile comfortably by the end of February, all the way around the park by June, and 5 miles at a stretch by the end of the year).

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Ace in the Hole (1951)

After my haircut last night (at a salon where people keep asking me if this is my natural hair color), I went over to the Film Forum to see "Ace in the Hole", another Billy Wilder flick. From the Time Out New York reviews, I was expecting something slightly different.

The movie was pretty good, with some very funny lines and some biting observations about how people can be bought and how a humanitarian relief effort can be twisted for self-glorification, but I still was a bit disappointed. Among other things, I expected more of a metaphorical media circus instead of a literal media circus (in the movie, a huge carnival is installed on the side of a cave collapse disaster).

Most disappointing of all: the antihero reporter at the center of the plot was somewhat less resourceful than he should have been. He couldn't figure out how to milk a disaster in which the victim died (albeit as a result of his own interference in the rescue operation)??? What kind of reporter is that??? He had a self-defeatingly narrow conception of what the newspaper-purchasing public would want to read; why wouldn't the public want to know all about the wife/widow who couldn't wait to get out of her marriage and stuck around only to make money while the rescue operation brought in zillions of tourists to finance her getaway?

Perhaps Mr. Wilder pushed the envelope of cynical satire as far as he could in 1951; perhaps we have just seen so much worse, in reality, in our time, that his satire has lost its edge.

But I think the satire is somewhat defanged as well, even in the movie's own terms, because there is a good and wholesome newspaperman and publisher -- one whose offices are decorated with framed home-made needlepoint works stating "TELL THE TRUTH" -- who offers the antihero a position and welcomes back the prodigal young photographer who cast his lot with the antihero. At the end of the film, the antihero collapses on the floor of that newsroom, destroyed by his greed and manipulations, a physical manifestation of his moral collapse. There could have been redemption for him, but he rejected it. It is a story of an individual's failure, not an indictment of the industry, and that weakens the point.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


"As soon as we rationalize or try to talk away our negativity, we will cause suppression and disconnection from our true nature. Rationalization ... drains us of life force and results in sickness, boredom and lifelessness. ... Even more important, rationalizing can cover up our feelings of remorse that allow us to self-correct. We may do something that hurts others, but by rationalizing we deny our soul's desire to be compassionate. ... Even when we are not responsible for a loss..., it is natural to feel sorrow and wish that it could have been different. ... [C]old rationalizations harden the heart and prevent us from connecting to the world.

* * *

Some people lose touch with what they really want by overdefending or justifying their position. Rather than make up after an argument by looking at how much they contributed to the problem, they refuse to acknowledge their contribution until the other person apologizes first. By making their feelings of regret and responsibility [contingent on the other person's behavior], they disconnect with their inner desire to learn from everything and grow. They justify what they did rather than feel true compassion or remorse."
--John Gray, How to Get What You Want and Want What You Have, ch. 15.

Mr. Gray then gives an example of the knee-jerk uncompassionate (i.e., defensive) response. Imagine that on Monday, you said hello and gave someone a friendly pat on the arm. All was well. Then on Friday, you say hello and give the same person a similar friendly pat on the arm -- but this time, the person screams in pain. Unbeknownst to you, your friend's arm was seriously injured during the week. You couldn't see the wound and had no idea there was a problem. Question: did you make a mistake?

Gray's answer: yes. It was an innocent mistake, but it was still a mistake. He then discusses two categories of possible defenses/responses which shut down the opportunity for compassion and connection with others.

First set: "I'm sorry if I did anything wrong" or "I'm sorry if I hurt you." By using the word "if", these statements deny responsibility -- in fact, you did (albeit inadvertently) do something wrong and you did hurt the other person (albeit unintentionally). These statements deny "our heart's desire ... to find an appropriate way to ... comfort the person or compensate in some way. Wanting to make it up is an important link to our inner feelings of conscience, which motivate us to do what is good and wholesome."

Second set: "Well, I didn't know your arm was injured" or "I was just trying to be friendly", etc. With excuses based on our ignorance of the friend's condition (or the friend's failure to warn us), "we not only deny our natural remorse and regret, but we suppress our desire to be more attentive and caring."

Monday, January 08, 2007

New York: A City for All Seasons

A Brit's take on New York:
"One of the extraordinary things about life is the sort of places it's prepared to put up with living. ... It will even live in New York, though it's hard to know why. In the wintertime the temperature falls well below the legal minimum, or rather it would do if anybody had the common sense to set a legal minimum. The last time anybody made a list of the top hundred character attributes of New Yorkers, common sense snuck in at number 79.

In the summer it's too darn hot. ...

Spring is overrated. A lot of the inhabitants of New York will honk on mightily about the pleasures of spring, but if they actually knew the first thing about the pleasures of spring they would know of at least 5,983 better places to spend it than New York, and that's just on the same latitude.

Fall, though, is the worst. Few things are worse than fall in New York. Some of the things that live in the lower intestines of rats would disagree, but most of the things that live in the lower intestines of rats are highly disagreeable anyway, so their opinion can and should be discounted."
--Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless, ch. 2

Sunday, January 07, 2007

First Saturday at Brooklyn Museum

I'm afraid the word is out about the Target-sponsored free evenings at MoMA (4-8 Fridays) and the Brooklyn Museum (5-11 on the first Saturday of each month). On Friday, I went to MoMA at 4 p.m.; the line snaked around outside, so I went to Lee's Art Shop to pick out a frame for my brother's birthday present. I came back at 4:35 p.m., and the line was just as long. So I went home, changed clothes, and came back in to meet up with a friend at Home. (Home is not the same as home; it is in Manhattan.)

Yesterday, fifteen of us went to "First Saturday" at Brooklyn Museum. Given the spectacularly temperate weather, we were not the only people to think of this. We thought we could dodge the crowds to some extent by not standing in line for the special items, such as guided tours of exhibits and free showings of "The Muppets Take Manhattan" (which I haven't seen, but gave to my brother and his family as shameless pro-NYC propaganda) and "Laura" (which I own). But it turns out that everyone in Brooklyn turned out to see the main attraction: an exhibition of Annie Liebovitz's photographs. The photographs were all in black-and-white, with crisp detail, and were a mixture of personal and professional works. Some of the photos - e.g., celebrities featured on the cover of Vanity Fair - were very familiar, but were still worth a look because they are so much more gorgeous when blown up and framed. Other photographs were much more intimate. I particularly enjoyed the commentary Ms. Liebovitz provided for some of the photographs. A very few of her landscape photographs were displayed. Most of her landscapes were rather grainy, but this one had particular depth and beauty:

There were also about 100 photographs I couldn't get to see because I wasn't in the mood to shove people out of my way. Those photographs were 4"x6" or smaller, and simply tacked up on the wall right next to each other on each side of a narrow corridor. They pretty much covered the entire wall. They were small enough that people had to stand right in front of them to appreciate them, and they were so densely packed that people crammed in shoulder to shoulder (there was no blank space between pictures where a person might slip in to see at an angle without blocking someone else).

Also of particular interest were the watercolors by Walton Ford, in a show called "Tigers of Wrath." Here is a description from the Brooklyn Museum site:
Ford's large-scale, meticulously executed watercolors from the 1990s to the present ... depict birds and animals in a style resembling Audubon's prodigious Birds of America—but with a significant twist. While beautiful, Ford's paintings often portray scenes of violence and offer a wry critique of colonialism, the naturalist tradition, and the relationship between man and animal.
I would have to say that that is an understatement. His paintings are often macabre, and more so on closer inspection. In some paintings, there does not appear to be anything wrong at first... until you see (for instance) the gloves of a lady who has recently been eaten by a crocodile at a fountain.

In one, a number of birds are on the back of a rhinoceros -- not an unusual image, except that on closer examination you notice that the birds hold a string in their beaks, which goes through the rhinoceros's mouth like reins. They are actually riding on the rhino's back in an almost human sense.

Another one has a strange reversal of predator and prey, where it appears that a white bull is attacking and apparently overpowering or even devouring a leopard -- and then you realize that there is a small glimpse of pink connecting the underside of the bull and the leopard's rear. In other words, the bull is actually overpowering or (metaphorically speaking) "devouring" the leopard sexually. The leopard seems to be enjoying the experience, with its head tilted up adoringly in the bull's grasp.

There is also a painting of a tiger with a stream of bees or hornets or wasps flying up from his paw to its tail... and then you see that his tail has a spot without fur, all swollen up from the repeated stings. And many of the tiger's stripes are actually human silhouettes, though it's hard to see in this small format:

Well, after this educational experience, 12 of us adjourned to Junior's, a Brooklyn institution which is also available in Manhattan (two locations in Grand Central Station alone) and Las Vegas.

The smart-alecks among you may be counting heads in the photograph above and snickering to yourselves. Stop it!!
I can count all the way to 20 without running out of fingers or toes. Jeff left early because he was not feeling well, and Paul took this picture for the rest of us. So there!

Junior's is all about cheesecake. (You can get other things there, and the portions are indubitably ample, but they just aren't very good.) In this picture, our model Elizabeth is displaying the amazing chocolate mousse cheesecake.

Junior's theoretically has a bar (and presumably a liquor licence), but the place really feels like (and is) a diner. So Paul and Carolyn shared a Norman Rockwell moment with their ice cream soda.

Despite the naysayers and other "doom and gloom" types who claim that Generation X and beyond are all going to hell in a handbasket, we can take comfort in the fact that many solid American values and traditions continue unabated to the present day. Case in point: the time-honored "rabbit ear" prankster tradition. God bless America!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Everything Old is New Again

With the purchase of a simple stereo-to-computer cable, I have ended a long audio drought. It has been years since I listened to my cassette tapes; now I am transferring them to my computer and a brand-new iPod.

For some time, I had been looking for my old favorites at the iTune store and the pay-per-song booths and regular stacks at music stores.... But some of them were nowhere to be found. Most of Erasure's songs are available - except the one I really wanted, "Perfect Stranger". And I couldn't find anything by groups such as Bruno Loves Danger (responsible for the lovely "It's My Heart") or Jon Astley (a world apart from his famous brother Rick).

Now, as I select and record them from cassette, I am rediscovering old loves. How could I have forgotten my passion for ska? The horn soaring over a propulsive beat ("like reggae on speed"), with often intriguing lyrics. My friend Becky and I used to seek out The Toasters' concerts whenever they were playing on the eastern seaboard.... Ah, memories of The Skunks and AWOL... Here are the Toasters outdoors (oddly, I think it was in Baltimore) back in the day:

And of course there are the mix tapes from ex boyfriends; usually a song or two captures the spirit of that time.

The unexpected treasure, however, is a tape of some friends reading "The Neverending Story" by Michael Ende in 1988. The five of us - Steph, Suzie, Becky, Jen, and I - went up into my parents' attic one night, armed with plenty of snacks, soft drinks, and a camera and tape recorder. We all took turns reading, and recorded the proceedings on at least five cassettes. (Afterward, I distributed the tapes among the group, snagging the first tape for myself.) On tape, there is plenty of laughing and joking and background noises: hints of the loyalties and rivalries in our little group, and the irrepressible personalities involved. Jen and I stayed up the whole night continuing the reading; the others dropped off at some point. (There was some teasing about that later, because Jen and I got hungry in the middle of the night and raided the refrigerator -- one of the items we discovered was some apple cider, which we finished up. My mom informed us in the morning that the cider had been around for quite a long time. So all the sleepyheads claimed that it was "hard cider" that fueled our endeavor.)

It's funny to think about this episode, and the natural human desire to memorialize events. Of course, the episodes that make the news (Abu Gahrib, snuff films, et al.) are twisted and sick, but the desire itself is innocent, as shown here: five high school kids reading an entire G-rated fantasy adventure novel out loud to each other all night, complete with commentary and reactions.

We had a great staged picture -- or rather, two staged pictures -- of our marathon reading event, which I unfortunately cannot find. In the first picture, we hold up a sign saying "11:59 p.m." and we're all smiling and alert. In the second picture, we hold up a sign saying "12:01 a.m." and we've all fallen asleep.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Blast from the Past

Now that I'm cruising through memory lane (more on that in my next post), my mind flits back over old crushes. Unrequited of course, since that is the nature of a crush.

Here is Gabe D'Eustachio from my college days at one of our Glass Onion concerts. I thought he had a face like an angel. Not the romanticized "sweetness & light" type angels that are totally imaginary, but the ones that always greet people in the Bible with the words, "Be not afraid."

And casting further back in time, there was Nathan Lauer, who won me over (from a distance) with his habit of prefacing all his stories with "When I was in Taiwan,..." or "When I was in Shanghai..." It was exactly the way I thought of my life, since I too had moved so much that I always remembered events in my life with respect to where I happened to be living at the time. A girl named Linda French kind of tried to set me up with him, but I didn't dare admit in any way that I liked him (even as I hoped he would like me).

Then back in junior high, there was an unfortunate English-speaking Canadian named Robin, who was very sweet and every bit as lonely as I was in the Francophone environment of L'Ecole Internationale Le Verseau. I secretly liked him -- and liked all the attention from him -- but very carefully ignored him even though we both spent lunchtime in the English classroom (a repository of books, books, books, which I loved!). One time, he thought for sure he could get my attention -- I got up for some reason, and when I was about to sit down, he pulled the chair away and I sat down with a thud on the floor! But I continued nonchalantly eating my sandwich on the floor as if that's what I had planned all along.

Wherever they are now, I wish them and their families well.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Weekend at the Museum

On the road with an 18-month-old and a 12-week-old:

The lions featured in Night at the Museum? Unfortunately, they kicked us out at closing time, so we couldn't be sure....

After watching the Disney movie, "Roving Mars" or "Mars Rover", we took a break among the dinosaurs et al.
OK, I left the museum and enjoyed both a movie (guess which one????) and fireworks on New Year's Eve.