Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Real Reason for our Oil Crisis

A friend emailed this to me and I found it to be a hilarious, yet sad, commentary on our continual gasoline price increase. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Back in the Heat and Humidity of Hotlanta

Since late Friday night, I have been back in Atlanta (for the first time since I left nearly two years ago on 29 July 2006). My main purpose is to finally take care of my things in storage by getting rid of as much stuff as I can while shipping the rest to Portland. The biggest inticement for my return, however, is to meet my future brother-in-law.

That's right. In June, my sister got engaged and they plan to be married in May 2009. I've never met the guy, so I wanted to meet him before the wedding. I'm also tired of having to pay storage fees for two years and have been severely missing access to my awesome "Washington Seminar scrapbook" (200 pages of awesomeness!) and other things. The trick is getting everything reduced to a manageable level so I will only ship the essentials. That means parting with as many of my 1,000 books as possible. It's amazing how much I've managed to accumulate in the 18 years since I graduated from high school. When I left home for Basic Training in 1991, everything I owned filled five boxes. Two years ago, I filled up a 10' x 5' storage space (completely from floor to ceiling, which is 8' high). Now, I have a week to get it all down to a manageable shipping amount (Amtrak allows 500 pounds of property to be shipped per day). It's a task I've been dreading and looking forward to. We'll see if I can totally achieve zen and "nonattachment" after being away from it for two years.

So, I'll be taking a vacation from Blogging this week as I sort through my things for 12 to 15 hours each day. Have a great week! Check back on Friday, as I'll have a list of my favourite places in Portland in honour of my second anniversary of arriving in Portland.

This is Stone Mountain, the 800 foot granite rock about 30 miles east of Atlanta. The town and surrounding suburban neighbourhoods is my "hometown." Though my family moved here in the summer before my junior year, they have lived in the same house for 20 years and I'll always consider Stone Mountain to be my hometown, even if my parents move away someday.

A closeup look at the carved memorial on the side of Stone Mountain to Confederate heroes: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson (if I remember correctly). I'm not a fan of it, of course, because I believe Stone Mountain is America's equivalent of Ayers Rock (Uluru) in Australia. Someday, I hope to see that place as well.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Blast From the Past

In the past couple of weeks, I got a few emails from people looking for someone they knew, that I happened to write about in one of my blog posts. One of them was a sailor I knew in Italy, whom I had nearly forgotten about over the years. It's a nice surprise to re-connect and talk about where we were, psychologically speaking. He was someone I had sought to a friendship with because I felt we had enough things in common to be good friends: yeoman, interested in history and ideas, able to have an intelligent conversation on a wide range of topics. However, you can't force a friendship with people and you never know where a person is at mentally. After all these years, I finally get the backstory and what a backstory. It puts so much in perspective.

The hardest thing about living in an isolated place like La Maddalena, Sardinia is the difficulty in finding enlisted sailors who shared the same level of intelligence. I know it shouldn't matter, but over the years, when I looked for the common denominator in my diverse group of friends, I learned that it was the ability to have intelligent conversations over a wide range of issues. And the three college friends I visited in Utah last year, I noticed something else...the three friends I visited and I had a lot of the same books on our shelves. It made me realize that I don't have as diverse a group of friends as I thought. Sure, they might be different races or religions, but we share the same "culture", you might say. A "culture" of a certain intelligence level.

When I lived in Italy, one thing I noticed early on was that I had more in common with officers than fellow enlisted. However, the Navy has a policy against fraternization (enlisted and officers aren't allowed to be friends). At the time, it was like confining me to the kiddie table at Thanksgiving even though I was an adult. The cultural differences between enlisted and officers was huge. In fact, so many enlisted people I knew either had divorces under the belts or their marriage didn't last during the time I knew them. Officers had a lower divorce rate. Officers were less likely to smoke than enlisted people. And it was simply easier for me to have a meaningful conversation with an officer. If I wore civilian clothes when people first met me, quite a few did a doubletake when they saw me in an enlisted man's uniform. So many thought I was an officer by the way I carried myself.

So, after all these years, it's just one more amazing thing about this year that has me shaking my head. I love reconnecting with people and to see what twists their lives have made. I also like discussing our younger selves and know that I wasn't the only one who was insecure (though I was probably more secure about myself than most people were at that age about theirselves). When you learn a fuller picture about someone, it truly is an amazing thing. What doesn't kill you, only makes you stronger.

My dad discovered recently an unopened box I had sent to myself in 1994. I was shocked when he told me because I thought I sorted through everything when I moved back home in 1996 and again in 2000. Now, I get to open it up as though its a time capsule from my 22 year old self. I love surprises like this and look forward to opening it up and discovering what I found important enough to send to myself.

This is the town of La Maddalena, Sardinia where I lived from 1991 through 1994. The population was 13,000 full time residents (70,000 in summertime).

The colour of the water in Sardinia and why I loved it! The most beautiful blue (and green) I've ever seen. La Maddalena was just north of "la costa smeralda" (the Emerald Coast), with the town of Porto Cervo being the ritziest tourist spot in Sardinia.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Flashback Friday: Beaches

I know, I know..."chick flick." What can I say? This film is the ultimate "chick flick", but I can't help but like it. I became a fan of Bette Midler with her roles in "Ruthless People" and "Big Business." She was hilarious and I love people who can make me laugh. When this film was released during the 1988 Christmas season, I couldn't wait to see it, but I think I waited until it reached the dollar theater in the spring of 1989. At that point in my life, I only had one longtime friend, Nicholas Smith, but we had been friends for just five years (hard to believe it's now 24 years). The tagline for the film that "once in a lifetime you make a friendship that lasts forever" was very appealing to me. Besides, who could resist the beautiful song "Wind Beneath My Wings" (even to this day I can get teary-eyed hearing that song)?

The film seems like it had personal relevance to Bette Midler, as she had used material from her stage show in the film (the infamous "Otto Titsling" number). I also loved her selection of music and bought the soundtrack. Songs like "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" have a certain melancholy element to it that is quite appropriate to listen to when I feel sad about something. I also love the songs "I Know You By Heart" and "Oh Industry." Watching this film without knowing much of Bette Midler's life, I have to wonder how much of it is autobiographical. After seeing the film, I read the novel that its based on but it's a lot different. The film version makes the brassy C.C. Bloom more sympathetic. In the novel, she snorts cocaine and gets hit on by her best friend's husband.

What I like about the film is the idea that two people who are completely different in personality, interest, and ambition can remain lifelong friends. I often sought the male version of that and have found it in my friendship with Nathan. He and I met in Norfolk, Virginia in 1994 and we had hung out on Virginia Beach together. Over the years, I've visited him in Hawaii, Seattle, and San Diego...where we hit other beaches together. Amazing how that works out. And like the film, he and I are opposite personalities, with different interests and ambition. In the male version of "Beaches", he would be the Hillary Whitney Essex character while I would be the CC Bloom character (to a point. Our personalities would be the opposite character though). You probably won't hear many guys talk about being male versions of female characters, but I'm interested in art and ideas, so a part of me wonders if my fascination with this film manifested such a friendship so I can see that it's not just women who are able to have lifelong friendships. Men tend to be bad at keeping in touch, so I value all the male friends who've kept in touch with me over the years. A part of me wants to write a screenplay that would be the male version of "Beaches" (like the way you might consider "13 Going on 30" to be the female version of "Big"), but I have other writing projects on my frontburner at the moment.

One thing unique about my friendship with Nathan is that after he moved away from Norfolk (to Hawaii), he wanted to keep in touch with me by writing back and forth in a blank journal. He admitted to being horribly bad about keeping in touch, but we managed to fill five volumes of blank journals (from 1995 through 2001). He wasn't shy about letting other people know that he did this, and soon many people wanted to keep in touch this way, which turned out to be too much for him. He also expressed an interest in getting them published, but I'm not willing to have them see the light of day. I told him that the only way a publisher would be interested in publishing these journal-letters is if we both became famous. We'd have to be the equivalent of Jack Kerouac and Marlon Brando. If those two kept a journal-letter over a five or six year span before they were famous, you know there would be public interest in reading that! But, neither Nathan nor I wish to be famous so those journal-letters are safely private. There's nothing truly embarrassing in them except for my overuse of exclamation points and perhaps some witty critiques about Mormon theology that might offend my other friends (that's how it goes when you're a member of one "tribe" that is overshadowed by an even bigger "tribe").

When I recently watched "Beaches" again after not seeing it for many years, it's amazing how much of it feels like visiting with old friends again. It's that refreshing. And now I know where I my attraction to a certain look came from: Barbara Hershey. In the film, she has the looks that I find most attractive. One of my favourite actresses, Frances O'Connor, kind of resembles Barbara Hershey. In 2001, I briefly dated a woman who looked like Barbara Hershey. As a teenager, I had a crush on a girl at church who had the same looks. I guess if there's a certain type I find most attractive, its the face that Barbara Hershey if any of you know a young lady who looks like her, please let me know!

Even though this film is considered a "chick flick", I think it's a classic. It shows the value of a long-enduring friendship, even if your differences causes friction over the years (my ongoing friendship with Nathan has often been a battle over wills, as I tend to do what he wants to do while he never wants to do what I want to do). Despite the battles, any longtime friendship deserves to endure because friendships are a rare gift. I've seen too many people throw away good friendships over small differences. The older I get, the more I realize how hard it is to find new friendships of high quality or commitment. It makes me think of that song: "Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Obama's Rainbow Tour

With apologies to Andrew Lloyd Webber, because I couldn't resist. Senator Obama's World Tour made me think of the scene in "Evita" when Eva Peron goes on her famous "Rainbow Tour." I love the song and was surprised how easily I could adapt it to Obama's trip. So, sit back and enjoy!

People of Europe, I send you the Rainbow of America

Germany has fallen to the charms of Obama
He can do what he likes, it doesn't matter much
He's our man of the new world with a golden touch
He filled Brandenburg Gate, four hundred thousand people

But if you're the next Kennedy, that's not hard
Germany's reign in Europe should last another decade
So you've just regained an ally who
Looks more secure in the world than we do
But more important current political thought is
Obama's a phenomenal asset, our trump card


Let's hear it for the Rainbow Tour
It's been an incredible success
We weren't quite sure, we had a few doubts
Will Obama win through?
But the answer is yes

There you are, I told you so
Makes no difference where he goes
The whole world over just the same
Just listen to them call his name
And who would underestimate the Senator now?

Now I don't like to spoil a wonderful story
But the news from Israel isn't quite as good
He hasn't gone down like they thought he would
Israel's unconvinced by Obama-mania
They equate Obama with Islam, can't think why

Did you hear that? They called me a Muslim!
They actually called me a Muslim!

But Mister Obama it's an easy mistake
I'm still called a neoconservative
Even though I never was a conservative

More bad news from Iraq; he met with Maliki
He promised withdrawal with a kindly word
I wouldn't say the Iraqis gave him the bird
But complete withdrawal, never a hope
He still looked the part in Baghdad, caught the eye

Will Obama win through?
But the answer is ...
A qualified Yes

Obama started well, no question, in France
Shining like a sun through the post-war haze
A charismatic reminder of the care-free days
He nearly captured the French, he sure had the chance
But he suddenly seemed to lose interest
He looked tired

Face the facts, the Rainbow's starting to fade
I don't think he'll make it to England now
It wasn't on the schedule anyhow
You'd better get out the flags and fix a parade
Some kind of coming home in triumph is required


Would Obama win through?
And the answer is Yes
And no
And yes
And no
And yes

Would Obama win through?

But the answer is Yes

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Canin's America

Last night, I went to Powells bookstore for the lecture and booksigning by Ethan Canin for his latest novel, "America America."

I know, I seems like that's all I do these days, attend lectures and booksignings. Consider it the indulgence of a single man without obligations to anyone else. Freedom is wonderful...but so are relationships. It's a trade-off.

Anyhow, I've only read one of Ethan Canin's stories: "The Palace Thief." I read it before the movie, "The Emperor's Club" came out. In case you haven't read his short story or saw the film version (my impression of it was that it was too much like "Dead Poets Society" and because that's one of my all-time favourite films, it's hard for "The Emperor's Club" to escape from comparisons), I will mention it later.

What impressed me about Ethan is that he's actually pretty funny and personable. When he read select passages from his novel, he prefaced it by warning the audience that some of the passages he will read contain profanity, so if parents wanted to excuse themselves so their children won't hear the words, he was okay with it. He also said that he has three children of his own and he's not hung up on profanity. Wow. Awesome! It's great to hear that someone else puts it in perspective (he's more concerned about the amount of violence his children are exposed to on television than "adult language"). But I think that's the mark of a true writer. Writers don't find words offensive. I've had debates with people about the use of profanity and it irks me that others say the same things: "use of profanity is a sign of their lack of intelligence." Um, no. Presidents have used profane words. There are times when it could prove useful (such as when I was in basic training and one guy wouldn't back off when I asked nicely several times. Only after I unleashed a tirade of obscenities did he back off and never messed with me again). Words are words. An appropriately timed profanity can actually be quite hilarious. Even how one says certain words or expressions can be funny. So, I'm glad to hear that Ethan has no hang-ups about language.

As he read from his novel, I couldn't help but think how much he sounded like a Baldwin. As in Alec Baldwin. His voice is similar. I liked how Ethan even used a prop (a Powells cup) in his reading. During the Q & A section, whenever someone asked him a question about writing, he would often ask the person if they were a writer. He's very engaging with the audience.

A few things I learned about him:

His career goal was to be an Engineer and he was working on becoming a medical doctor before he decided during his residency to walk away and pursue writing. Kind of like Michael Crichton.

In high school, his English teacher was Danielle Steele, before she became a famous novelist. That would be awesome to have an aspiring writer as a teacher who eventually becomes famous. He credits her with infecting him with a writing bug that eventually rendered him helpless in medical school. As he asked the writers of the audience when he said that writing is the hardest work he's ever done: why write? Science was a breeze compared to writing. But writers write not because they want to. They have to! Very true.

He's a teacher at the famous Writer's program at the University of Iowa. He believes that the best way to teach literature is to discuss the technique and examine the writing, rather than focusing on themes and feeling.

He went to a "Klan meeting" to see David Duke speak back when he was running for Governor of Louisiana in 1991. Okay, it probaly wasn't a Klan meeting, but he called it that. It made him uncomfortable, because he was alone in a place he had never been to before. I'm actually impressed, though. Man, I like this writer. I wonder why I haven't read more of his work. Now, I'm going to add another writer to my list of writers where I want to read all of their works. Out of all the book signings and lectures I've been to, Ethan Canin ranks up there because of how he engages the audience and asks questions back to his questioners. It shows a curiosity, which is a vital trait of writers. Another interesting thing I noticed is that whenever he smiled, he lit up the place. I've only seen a few people with that ability and he definitely has it.

As much as I want to read his new novel (it covers a political campaign), I'm waiting for the paperback version (sorry, Ethan!). But I still wanted to meet him afterwards and ask a few questions. I don't have "The Palace Thief" so I decided to buy that one and have him autograph it while he's answering my question.

When I got my chance to talk with him, I said that our current president reminded me of a character out of his story "The Palace Thief." He laughed and mentioned the 2004 debate when people speculated that Bush was wired. I told him that when I saw that debate and read about the speculations, the first thought that came to mind was his short story. I told Ethan "your writing is prophetic!" He wrote the short story back when Bush was an alcoholic ne'er do well son of the president. Ethan also talked about how watching the debate again, it's quite obvious that Bush was wired (because Bush had interrupted himself when he was talking. He said: "wait a minute!" in the middle of his own rambling). I'm glad that someone of Ethan's stature also believes that Bush was wired. It's not some liberal conspiracy theory.

If you've never read "The Palace Thief", I recommend it. The story is short but packs a punch. Though it was written in the late 1980s or early 1990s, no other story best foreshadows the Bush Administration. It's about the son of a Senator who cheats in a competition about history and how the character traits a person has as a teenager does often repeat itself in adulthood with even worse implications. In essence, Bush is "the Palace Thief." He's lied and cheated all his life and as Ann Richards summed it up best: "Poor George. Born on third and thought he hit a triple." Had he been born George Walker instead of George Walker Bush, our world would be so much better off!

I look forward to re-reading "The Palace Thief." I think the last time I read it was in 2001 or so and it didn't occur to me to think of Bush as I read it. Ever since the 2004 debate when he was wired, the alarming similarities can not be denied. Ethan Canin is genius! I look forward to reading all of his other works over the next year or two.

No Tangled Webb on Rose

Last night, Senator James Webb was on the Charlie Rose Show for a FULL HOUR! Awesome! I know only bits and pieces about him, but from what I do know, it's enough to put him at #2 on my list of current favourite Senators (Barbara Boxer of California has been my favourite since my internship in 2000 because her views come closest to mine). What I like about Senator Webb is that he has a military background, a son serving in Iraq, served as Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan Administration, and has experience as a journalist and a novelist (I still have to read his novels someday). With his background, you'd automatically think that he was a Republican, but then again, Republicans tend to be chickenhawk about actually serving in the military (all talk, no action). Many of the most decorated military members in Congress are that should tell people something.

What I liked about the interview is that Senator Webb explained that he has always been a Democrat, even though he served in the Reagan Administration. He considers himself a "Reagan Democrat." The Republican Party of Virginia tried to recruit him to run against Senator Chuck Robb (another Marine) TWICE but he declined. Though he had interest in serving public office, it was the incompetent handling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath that lit a fire under him to run. He ran against a popular Senator who had presidential aspirations and through pure happenstance, a video posted on YouTube pretty much sealed the previous Senator's fate (the infamous "Macaca" comment).

When I left my previous job in Atlanta back in April 2006, a part of me considered moving back to D.C. Had I known about James Webb's campaign for the U.S. Senate then, I might've moved up there to be a part of it. He is one Senator that I'd love to work for because I like his views regarding the military, foreign policy, and on the economy. But, Oregon has a chance to elect a great Senator this November, so there's always going to be interesting candidates to support and help win elected office.

On Charlie Rose Show, Webb talked about the interesting phenomenon about corporate executives having no problem with exorbitant executive pay and benefits when their companies profit...but whenever the company needs to be bailed out, all of a sudden, they want everyone to shoulder the blame and pick up the tab. That's outrageous and wrong. I think it should be the opposite: when a company profits, all the employees should benefit, but when it falters, the government should not bail them out...especially if the company utilized tax shelters and such to get out of paying their fair share. Senator Webb said that if companies want government to bail them out in times of trouble, then they have to agree to stricter regulations. It's only fair.

Senator Webb talked about his reasons for why he took his name out of contention for the Vice Presidency. Basically, he loves the Senate. He said that he has a great staff (oh to be a part of it!) and there's a lot he can do as Senator that he wouldn't be able to do as Vice President. I agree. Although I still think he'd make an excellent V.P., he's right. The Senate needs his leadership and I expect a lot of great things to happen while he remains in that legislative body.

If you missed the interview, it was a great one. I'm glad Charlie Rose spoke to him for an hour. Webb's latest book ("A Time to Fight") is on my shortlist to buy and read this year (along with John Kroger's book). After I watched the interview, I am further impressed and now envy the people of Virginia for having a great Senator. Man, what I would do with a time machine! Virginia is my second favourite state and I wouldn't mind settling there. However, I made my choice and intend to stick with it. Besides, Oregon has a chance to elect the next great Senator in November and I plan to help out as often as I'm able to (my main priority is to help elect Charles Lewis to City Council).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Recreating Heaven on Earth

Last week, on Bastille Day, I had intended to go eat at a Creperie in the Nob Hill neighborhood of Portland to celebrate all things French. However, Powells had a booksigning that I simply could not miss. The book was "The Wishing Year", about one lady's experiment with wish fulfillment. You could call it that or you could call it "the law of attraction", it's all the same thing. One lady at work kind of teases me for my belief in such things, but I can't help it. I've seen too many things I've wished for or dreamed about come true, that it makes life difficult when I'm still stuck in a boring job I despise with nothing out there latching onto me to get me out of there. Because I'm stuck, I've been reading every book I can get my hands on about the law of attraction and how to make your dreams come true. I don't have a year to wait. I'll be coming up on my two year anniversary at work and I want to be gone pronto. So, that was the appeal of attending this lecture, to hear what she wanted for her life, what she did, and how her wishes materialized.

As she read from her book, I flipped through debating if I should buy it or not. My personal policy is to buy paperback for nearly all books except political autobiographies/memoirs, Michael Crichton and Nicholas Sparks novels. When you've moved as much as I have, you begin to hate hardcover books! Granted, they look great on bookshelves, but you fit less of them into boxes, which then becomes heavier to carry. The bad thing about not buying books in hardcover is that you have wait a year or more, so I was debating that internally and actually leaning towards not buying the book when I came across a sentence in Noelle Oxenhandler's book:

There on page 213 was a sentence that nearly made my eyes pop out of my socket:

"And actually Nicholas is happy now, with his new job."

Just the confirmation I need, the wish I've been making since January 2007. After her lecture, when I went up to Noelle to get her to sign the book, I told her what made me decide to buy it and she laughed. I also told her that I expected to see her book on the New York Times bestseller lists soon, and she seemed to like that idea. I don't think that's too unrealistic, though. Her book is in a similar vein as "Eat, Pray, Love" that is a current bestseller and I think Americans are hungry for this type of book. Plus, you can't beat the cover and it's title.

If there is anyone who is leery about "the law of attraction" or think it's some New Agey kind of thing, let me just say that I believe it is true because I've seen many things I've wanted and desired come true in my own life. I'm still trying to understand how it works, but I don't question why it works. It all fits in with what I believe spiritually, and my beliefs often cause such controversy among evangelical types or those who claim to be Christian and think that anything that's not in the Bible is false.

However, if you think about the parable of the talents, you could view it as a simpler version of the law of attraction. The one who hid his money lost it, the others who received money and went out with it were able to double theirs.

Here's my spiritual beliefs in a nutshell (and why I get into trouble with evangelical types).

I believe that God created our world as an experiment. Because the heavenly realm was perfect and only love exists, spirits needed a challenging place to test all the things we only knew about in the heavenly realm. The biggest test, of course, is love. In heaven, love comes easily because it's the only thing that truly exists. It's not possible to hate in heaven. However, how can you truly test your commitment to love in a place where love comes naturally? That's why earth is an imperfect place. We're tested in many ways. I don't believe that the Garden of Eden represented earth in any way. Man did not fall. The story is a metaphor for how humans became imperfect beings, that's all.

In the heavenly realm, we can manifest anything we desire by just imagining it and it will appear. That ability is diminished on earth, but we still have the capability to do so. However, it might not manifest as quickly as we want and there are subconscious blocks we must overcome before it happens, but I believe we always have that ability to manifest what we want for our lives. It's our natural birthright.

Since earth is an imperfect place where we are tested, our ultimate challenge is to re-create heaven on earth. When humanity gets to that level of spiritual advancement, I believe that's when heaven and earth will become one and death will be no more. We will all be able to transcend our human bodies into spiritual matter and we won't be able to tell who's truly alive and who had passed on earlier to the spiritual realm.

That's the reason why I find it disturbing that so many Christians desire to see the world destroyed. They think that destroying the planet will speed up the time when Jesus arrives to reward the faithful followers and commit mass genocide on the nonbelievers (that's the view of Jesus presented in the "Left Behind" series). They don't stop for a minute to think that they are destroying God's creation (the way a rebellious teenager destroys his parents' house by having wild parties when they are away) when we are tasked with improving our world, of bringing earth to heaven's standard. If we are tasked to re-create heaven on earth, Christians are failing in their desire to kill non-believers, take their oil, clear the land for industrial progress, etc.

Instead of destroying our planet, bit by bit, we should focus our energies on what kind of world we'd like our children and grandchildren to someday live in. What kind of world do we want to leave behind? Let's manifest what we desire instead of destroying things.

With that, it is still my intention to manifest my dream job that is more concerned about quality rather than quantity, where my intelligence is respected and valued, where my life experience and ideas contribute to the organization, where I can make a difference. I'm completely excited about the sustainable future that Vice President Gore recently pointed out in his landmark speech last week. I want to be a part of the movement to improve our planet to the standards of heaven. Now to find such an organization!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Visionary Leadership

Last week, Vice President Gore gave a remarkable speech at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitutional Hall. This is the kind of speech you would expect from the leader of the free world, but considering who our current president is, you know he could never give a speech like this. Bush suffers from many things: lack of curiosity and vision, blind ignorance, dogmatic personal philosophy, pride, and complete devotion to his corporate masters. Bush is truly a puppet figure if there ever was one. Better yet, Bush is the corporate whore who can't break out of the role he's been assigned. So of course you can't expect Bush to articulate any kind of visionary break from our current lifestyle. But we knew this on 9/11, when his solution to terrorism was to keep on shopping and go to Disney World.

Like an Old Testament prophet, Gore is sounding the alarm of the urgency to act on behalf of our environment. Taking data from various scientists and researchers, we can no longer afford to act like we have no power over our environment. The idea that the polar ice cap on top of our world might be completely melted during the summer months in just five years should alarm anyone. I personally like that Gore is moving beyond a plea that our individual lifestyle changes (of buying more efficient appliances and light bulbs, driving less, and using/reusing cloth bags for shopping) will help to change things. It's small potatoes and won't amount to much if corporations don't make huge changes in how they do business.

What Gore is calling for is a complete change within ten years (or less), where we are completely free of relying on carbon-based fuels. Investments and changing towards renewable energy technology will accomplish several things: create new jobs for people that cannot be outsourced to India; bring costs down as more people switch over to the new technology; and most important of all, will not contribute towards polluting our environment. It's win-win-win all the way.

In his speech, Gore said: "We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change."

If we can look rationally at the situation, we'd see just how irrational our dependency on foreign oil truly is. It doesn't make sense to borrow money (with interest) from a rival country to buy a product from other countries that have huge populations that hate us and want to kill us, just to keep up with our consumption-based lifestyle that pollutes our environment. It's the definition of insanity.

Gore also quoted an OPEC oil minister saying: "The Stone Age didn't end because of a shortage of stones." That's a very keen observation and one we should burn into our long-term memory. What I most like about his speech is that he compared our current challenge to the one issued by President John F. Kennedy about wanting to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. When people talk about leadership, too many think that having an MBA from a prestigious university qualifies. However, what business school often teaches is how to effectively climb the corporate ladder and to make short-term profits (monthly and quarterly) without regard for the long-term effect. Such management training teaches a short-sighted greed for personal gain and has resulted in spectacular collapses as we've seen in Enron, Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae and others recently. How is that visionary leadership?

Compare that to the foresight of Washington, who told Americans to stay out of the European alliance system. That alliance system ended up breaking down in 1914, plunging the world into its first global war. Eisenhower warned against the growing power of the military-industrial complex, which would have no ethical qualms about selling weapons to enemy countries for the sake of pure profit. Kennedy saw the need for humans to land on the moon, fulfilling humanity's longheld dream to reach the place that shines so brightly at night. Carter saw what the energy crisis of the 1970s did to our country and encouraged energy saving practices.

Visionary leadership, as we've seen in the Bible and throughout history, is often unpopular because the prophet is telling things people don't want to hear. People don't want to change, so they pretend like nothing's going to happen. Then when the inevitable does happen, future generations recognize the visionary leadership of the person after they had passed from the scene, while ignoring the new generation of visionary leadership. That's the part of human nature I despise...the one influenced by ego and unwilling to listen to reason and make necessary changes to transform our world.

Near the end of the speech, Gore said: "This is a generational moment. A moment when we decide our own path and our collective fate. I'm asking you--each of you--to join me and build this future."

One thing that disturbs me about our corporate media is how often they still refer to the people who brought us the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan for their opinions and plans. If a person or group of persons have been consistently wrong, why are they considered to be "credible"? And why are those who warned what might happen if we go to war, when proven right, are still ignored by the mass media? It's truly baffling how a nation can hope to remain a superpower if it has such a blatant disregard towards truth and discerning who's credible and who's not. Making people who are consistently wrong to be the prophets while those who have been proven right into unpatriotic subversives, the media is only helping to contribute to the eventual collapse of the American way of life.

Bush famously said in 2001 that our American way of life is not up for negotiation. He was wrong. Mother nature, in all her power, has the ability to humble any nation that thinks it can continue on the path of destruction. Empires don't last forever. Greece and Rome fell. As did the Ottoman Empire. The Thousand Year Reich turned out to be a measly dozen years. And the sun did eventually set on the British Empire. Americans are stupid if we think we're somehow the exception to history, when all signs are pointing to an imminent collapse. How many more corporations will disintergrate before our eyes before we're willing to wake up to reality? How many more droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, etc?

My belief is that someday, future generations will admire Gore as a visionary leader and come to look at the Bush years as the darkest days of our republic. They will wonder why Americans were so dumb to allow an inexperienced idiot to steal the presidency from a man who had eight years as an understudy to the previous president. One lacked a vision and made costly mistakes that will take decades to fix. The other had a vision that Americans weren't ready for. In the end, Gore will be the hero in textbooks of the future because he had the foresight to see where all of our consumption based lifestyle was leading towards. That's the tragedy of visionary leaders: scorned in their own time, but justified by history. I guess humans never learn how to distinguished between prophets and demagogues.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Why China Might Destroy the Planet

Last week, I went to a booksigning/lecture on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday night. There was another one on Thursday night that I wanted to see, but since I had plans to go to the midnight showing of "The Dark Knight", I decided to relax at home before heading out. Then on Friday, there was another lecture I wanted to go see (about how to make the law of attraction work for you), but I poked around too much after work that I wouldn't make it there on time. At any rate, last week was simply too busy in the evenings to take care of things at home, but I'm not complaining.

J. Maarten Troost spoke on Tuesday at Powells bookstore. His first book was "Sex Lives of Cannibals," which I haven't bought or read yet. I have his second book, "Getting Stoned with Savages" but haven't read that one yet. Now he's on his third book, which I won't buy until it's on paperback (and hopefully I'll have read his first two by that point). The fascinating thing about him is that he has MY DREAM JOB! And he got it "accidentally." What that means is that he never intended to be a writer of travel books. He majored in International Relations with a focus on Eastern Europe (see...even his major is similar to mine. I was an International Politics major with a focus on human rights).

After college, he saw a job listing for a new start-up English-language newspaper in Prague. Back in the early 1990s, Prague and Budapest were the places to be: free of communist oppression, hungry to understand the freedoms of the Western world, and VERY inexpensive to live (when I visited Prague in 1993, a streetcar ride was 3 cents, a bottle of Coca-Cola was 22 cents, a ticket to see "Jurassic Park" was at the most expensive ticket price the Czechs had ever seen: $1.25!, a one bedroom hotel-apartment was $25 a night while the hostel was under $10 a night). So, that's how Maarten got his start.

He happened to be living and working in Kirabati in the South Pacific and wrote about it, which got him a two book deal. Luck? Or the fact that he happened to write about a place very few people have heard about. That's the trick. If you look in the travel narrative section of any bookstore, you will see that places like Paris and Italy fill rows on bookshelves. How many books can people write about those two places? Sure, I love traveling there as much as anyone, but I don't think I'd write any more books about Paris or Italy when other parts of the planet are neglected. Though, I do dream of writing a book about Sardinia someday since I lived there as a young man and think of it as the world's best kept secret.

Anyhow, I found a new idol in J. Maarten Troost. He has the job I am meant to have! I don't begrudge him my envy, but I will definitely read his books and keep working at making my writing and traveling dreams come true. Thus, why I wanted to go to his booksigning and lecture. Besides, his latest book is very timely. No other country in the world is as full of rapid change, growth, and excitement as China right now. It truly is "THE IT SPOT" on Planet, I mean "Planet China." Just the other week, Ted Koppel was being interviewed by Charlie Rose about his week long special on the Discovery Channel (if I'm not mistaken) about China.

Here are some interesting things Koppel had to say about China:

The most popular American car in China is a black Buick. More Buicks are sold in China than in the USA. Go figure! Who would buy a Buick? I've never looked at that car with any kind of desire. I always got the impression that it was an older person's car. Do they even sell Buicks in America anymore? I don't see them around like I used to in the 1980s.

Koppel said that the Chinese government fears its populace (with 1.3 billion people, I can understand why). There are over 80,000 protests each year in China but they are never allowed to be photographed or reported on the news. Koppel said that with China's economic growth rate at 8%, things are relatively peaceful, but if it ever drops down to 4% or less, watch out. Protest and riots might occur. The trick for the authoritarian government is to continue its economic boom, which brings more materialism into people's lives without actually changing the form of government (can we truly call it a communist regime anymore if it has endorsed capitalism as the economic model to follow?).

Koppel interviewed a teenage girl who worked in a factory making stereos. She was bright and funny, but I really felt badly for her. She said that she's intelligent and has dreams of a different kind of life than working in a factory. She also couldn't believe that Americans bought the stereos that she helped put together day in and day out. She couldn't afford one, so she wanted to know how rich Americans were. Koppel wouldn't tell her how much he made, but he kept saying that it was a lot of money. She wanted a figure but he wouldn't give it to her (or perhaps, he didn't want to divulge it to American audiences). Her wide eyes at the realization that people halfway around the world made huge amounts more than she or everyone she knew made made quite an impression on me. What must be going through her mind about the economic injustices in our she builds things she cannot afford to buy, yet knows that there are people on the other side of the planet who snap it up.

The biggest startling figure is that China only has 300 million people in the middle class. That means a BILLION people live in poverty. Yet those billion people want to be in the middle class too someday...and I don't know if you heard but some scientists say that if everyone on this planet lived an average American lifestyle, we would require FOUR PLANET EARTHS to sustain life. Since there is only one planet of limited resources, that leaves us with few options. The most ethical option is to live on less and consume less. Since Bush claimed in 2001 that our American lifestyle is not under negotiation and that he wants us to keep shopping until terrorism gets defeated, it means that we, Americans, are going to have keep on killing people in the developing world who insist that they have a right to our oil, our water, our resources. We can continue to do it Bush's way, but then we'll have to answer to God for that at some point...and who's to say that God won't intervene? How many more Katrinas, droughts, floods, fires, earthquakes can our nation withstand? How many more money-draining wars can our economy endure?

Back to Troost. Originally, he wanted to live in China for a year with his family and write about it. However, with young children, he simply could not allow his children to live in such polluted air as Chinese cities have become. In fact, he pointed out that the average lifespan of a traffic cop in Beijing was mid-forties. And they don't die because of being hit by cars, but because of breathing in the toxic air, which he described as swirling black soot in the sky. He said that people cough up black stuff constantly. Yikes. For me, the most polluted city I've ever been to was Naples, Italy. Everytime I went there in the Navy, I'd always get a massive headache within the hour of arriving. I don't know how people could stand living there. It's a majorly dirty city with poor air quality and perhaps it wouldn't be a bad thing if Mount Vesuvius decided to blow again to clear the area of its polluting inhabitants. If you don't take care of the earth, why should Mother Nature look after you?

Troost also said that while some people are hoping that the Beijing Olympics will fail or prove embarrassing to China, he said that would be a bad thing. China views the Olympics as its "coming out party" in which to show off to the world that China is a major player in the world and needs to be taken seriously. So if anything happens to where they lost face, it might have serious repercussions in other areas. If the Chinese government feels that the Olympics were a success, it might lead to greater reforms and other positive changes.

I'm not sure I buy into that. When they made a bid for the 2000 Olympics, they had signs saying "a more open China awaits the 2000 Olympic Games." They practically promised that if the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to China, that they would improve their human rights record and make other reforms in their government. The IOC made the right choice in awarding Sydney the Olympics (I consider the Sydney games to be the best Olympics ever, including the opening ceremonies with the unique torch lighting involving fire, water, high-tech transformation, and an aboriginal athlete). China eventually won the right to host the Olympics and we'll find out in a few weeks if that has been a good thing or a bad one.

China is growing so fast, you have to wonder about where it's going to go. My fear is that China's increasing consumption lifestyle will wreak havoc on our planet. While I believe that it's arrogant to expect the majority of the world to continue to live in poverty when we are blessed with material abundance, I also don't see how the world can sustain itself if more people fall into the kind of lifestyle we enjoy in the Western world. I believe that we have to set the example by moving towards a less consumption based life and focus more of our energies on sustainability issues. When you think about China being the same size as the U.S. geographically, it makes you wonder how they amassed such a large population. If people lived long lives in the old China, while the pollution is now cutting lives short, maybe progress towards a materialistic lifestyle is not the way to go. I fear for our planet if the Chinese economy and consumption patterns continue at the growth rate its going. At some point, growth becomes unsustainable and will hit against something that causes a decline. It'll be interesting to see what happens at that point.

Troost's next book will be on India. As a writer of books about travel, he said that all he does is propose ideas to his agent or publisher and see if they sign off on it. If they do, he gets to travel and write while getting paid for it. Like I said...he has the career that I've wanted for most of my life. But, I'm still seeking an agent on my novel, so who knows when that might happen. Soon, I hope...because there is a book on Thailand that I want to write and I am just the person to write it (because of my Thai roots on my mother's side and my not having been there since I was what an interesting emotional journey that would be to travel there as a man and wondering how different my life might have been had my father been like some of those who left women and children behind when their tours of duty were finished in the far east during the Vietnam War era).

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Dark (But Not Stormy) Knight

I went to the midnight showing of "The Dark Knight." I've been a Batman fan for as long as I can remember (back when I was in the second grade, watching the cheesy TV show reruns after school). In the summer before my senior year in high school, my family made a return visit to Omaha, Nebraska, where we had lived in the early 1980s. I got to visit with my best friend Nicholas for the first time in four years and we went to see "Batman" (the Tim Burton one). That summer, I bought Converse hightops with the bat symbol printed all over it. My parents were hesitant to get it for me and made me promise that I wouldn't be too embarrassed to wear it if they bought it for me. During my senior year, I wore those shoes every day and endured the laughter until it became old news. I became known as "Batman" and one guy was concerned that I'd "ruin" our Graduation ceremony by wearing it. I didn't even consider wearing them for that ceremony until he told me not to. So, of course, I did. At the time, I saw it as my one act of nonconformity when the guys all had to wear the same green cap and gown.

While I was pleased with Tim Burton's vision, the subsequent films had proved disappointing as they kept adding more and more villains and neglected the importance of a story. It just became a farce under Joel Schumacher's direction, with his homoerotic fascination over adding nipples to the Batsuit. In my late teens/early adulthood, I became a fan of the darker "Batman" comic books and wanted to see a film that was geared towards adults. My all-time favourite comic book is "The Killing Joke" because it dealt with the nature of insanity. I wanted to see a "Batman" film that featured Arkham Asylum and cover insanity (is it sane for a man to dress up as a bat to fight crime? Are Batman and the crazy criminals more sane than average humans stuck in the rat race?). "Batman Begins" was the perfect "Batman" film. The director brilliantly captured my vision of what a "Batman" film could be and he did it flawlessly. Because I don't think you can create a better superhero film than that one, I lowered my expectations for the new one.
Like Tim Burton's "Batman", "The Dark Knight" is upstaged by the Joker. Back in 1989, critics all said that no one will ever be able to outdo Jack Nicholson's Joker. He truly made the film what it was. But that was then (I can't believe it has been 19 summers ago when Batmania first hit). Now, Heath Ledger has raised the bar even further. He is simply fantastic in his (sadly) last role. Back in January, there were quotes that he struggled with this role, as he seems to be a bit of a method actor, and if there's one type of role a method actor should not play, it's a crazy person. How do you keep your sanity if you feel the need to become the character during the duration of the shoot?

Anytime the Joker is on screen, Ledger owns it with his crazy clown. What are his motives? Well, there's a certain deja vu quality to this film in that he challenges Batman in similar ways that Nicholson's Joker did to the 1989 Batman. The difference is that this new incarnation is geared towards a mature and intelligent audience. There are several scenes that are relevant to political debate in our country today in regards to war and spying on citizens. The current that runs through this film is the idea that an insane person (think of it as "Joker bin Laden") without moral qualms most desires to see a person who claims a superior moralty lower himself to the same level of brutality. It's a victory of sorts. The kind of film our misguided president needs to see (though I doubt he has the depth to understand nuance).

Overall, though, this film won't dislodge "Batman Begins" from its status as my favourite superhero film of all-time. It's infinitely better than the previous series of four films, which is no surprise. They don't overkill it with too many over the top villains. Only the Joker and his goons are allowed to act crazy, bringing mayhem to Gotham. I have a feeling, though, that the filmmakers are going for continuity between the previous one (Scarecrow makes an appearance) and hopefully the next one (the set-up makes me excited to see where they'll go with the third one). In a summer lacking in interesting movies (this is the first one I've seen since "Prince Caspian" on Memorial Day weekend), I might see this again in theaters before Labour Day (there aren't any other interesting films on the horizon until Oliver Stone's "W" comes out in October).

The director (Christopher Nolan) knows how to add characters to the ongoing saga without diluting the story. Harvey Dent added an interesting angle to the story. In 1995's "Batman Forever", I thought having both the Riddler and Two-Face weakened the story, and the purple half of Two-Face's face looked like some cheap plastic mask. Fans of the comic book know Harvey Dent as "Two-Face" so that's all I'll say about that.

A scarier looking Batman and Joker. This film is definitely not for the pre-teenager set. Leave the kids at home and enjoy a superhero movie geared towards adults.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Mandela Reaches 90!

An important milestone in the life of a great man: 90 years old! I was pleasantly surprised last week when my Time magazine arrived and on the cover was none other than Nelson Mandela. The cover story was written by the man who helped write Mandela's excellent memoir: "Long Walk to Freedom." I read that in 1996 and it remains as one of the best autobiographies I've ever read (I highly recommend it). The most alarming thing about the article, however, is that the writer seems to hint that he doesn't think Mandela will be around much longer. Will he live to see triple digits? Who knows?

The article seems to be the last chance to lionize the man once again, with a new twist: Mandela on Leadership. The article stressed a few points on what we need in a leader, which could be read as a jab against our current president because he has none of the great leadership qualities which Mandela excels at. The qualities include: leading from behind; able to negotiate with "enemies" while bringing allies along; the ability to realize when one's ideas don't work and making changes. It's a very good list.

Mandela has been one of the people I most want to meet since the late 1980s. I first heard about him in 1986 when I read an article about Winnie Mandela. Its kind of humourous today to think that I only heard about him after I read about his wife Winnie, but I was an apolitical teenager who didn't come into true political passion until the summer of 1989 (the massive student protests in Tiananman Square, Beijing was the wake-up call). As I learned more about Mandela, I became a fan. My favourite singer, Johnny Clegg, even had a beautiful song about him ("Asimbonanga"). After his release from prison in 1990, he went on a Goodwill tour around the world and came to Atlanta. I didn't go because I would've had to go by myself and I knew it would be a massive audience, so I stayed home. That's too bad. It was one of those events that I wish I had decided to see, when he spoke to a stadium audience at Georgia Tech.

On my 1994 trip of a lifetime to South Africa, I was in the country around the time of his 100 days in office and the media was rating his first 100 days, which I thought was odd. I asked a tourguide about it, saying, "this is a crazy American tradition that is unfair to all presidents. It all started because FDR made it a goal to have sweeping changes in his first one hundred days as president. America needed those kind of changes back then, but ever since then, every president has been held hostage to that legacy and I'm sad to see that now, Mandela is as well." That led to an interesting discussion about the inappropriate levels of influence our country had on other countries. If I remember correctly, we started talking about lofty things and eventually devolved to a discussion on Michael Jackson (whose career started to decline after the child molestation allegations hit in 1993).

What I most enjoyed about South Africa were the people. When Africans found out I was an American, they had many questions to ask and some were not even afraid to quiz me on my knowledge of South African politics (I passed). I saw taxis around Johannesburg with pictures of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, so I asked a store owner about it. In a nation that gave the world great figures such as Desmond Tutu, Stephen Biko and Nelson Mandela, I was pleased to see that South Africans found our Civil Rights icons inspirational as well. It reinforced the idea that South Africa and the United States were tied together in a unique bond that no two nations on earth share. In many ways, I found South Africa to be the photo negative of the United States. Everything was flipped (the seasons, the side of the street they drive on, the racial statistics between blacks and whites). Even our histories paralleled: South Africa counts its history from 1652 when Jan Van Riebeck of the Netherlands founded a colony at Cape Town for a trading company. America was first settled in 1607 at Jamestown, for a trading company. Both countries passed discrimination laws, which reached intensity in the 1960s. It just took longer for the blacks in South Africa to gain their freedoms.

With the rise of Barack Obama in the United States, it would not surprise me one bit if he is already popular in South Africa, with many people hoping that he becomes our next president. And I truly hope that Mandela will be around to see that day, as well as get invited as a special guest at the Inauguration. Out of all the events that has happened since my birth in 1971, I consider the Inauguration of Nelson Mandela to be the greatest event in my lifetime (I'd put the fall of the Berlin Wall at #2). Leaders from around the world (Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers, and dictators) all put aside their political differences to honour a man who achieved a dream that was a long time in coming. I still get high thinking about that day when I watched it live on CNN International from my barracks room in Italy.

In college, when I took a human rights class and a discussion occurred over Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, there was a white South African in the class who called them a "terrorist." I was shocked, but even more shocked when he praised Mangosutho Buthelezi (Zulu chief) as the kind of African to admire. Buthelezi was behind some of the vicious attacks that occurred into the lead-up to the first universal elections in South Africa. I remember a scene of one man throwing a huge rock at another man sitting on the ground, his head red with blood. Buthelezi is what one would call a conspirator who sold out the interest of his people for a little bit of power for himself. The apartheid government often did this, particularly with the creation of the "homelands" where they made tribal leaders into "Kings" of their reservation for a bit of "autonomous rule" (think of the American equivalent: Indian reservations--hardly areas worth "ruling"). But, the white South African classmate was biased, of course. True to form, he was a conservative in his political view (as anti-communist as any Republican in our country), so of course he wasn't going to admire Mandela or Tutu.

The biggest lesson I learn from Mandela's life is the power of forgiveness. He was imprisoned for 27 years during the prime of his life. When he finally received news that he would be released from prison immediately, he wanted extra days to prepare. As a prisoner, he was known to help his white jailers with some legal advice. By his leadership example, he showed that reconciliation is the best way to move beyond the past. Instead of seeking vengeance against those who participated in the apartheid system, he sought truthful disclosure in exchange for amnesty (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one of the greatest ideas ever conceived by man). If there is one person to nominate as the best representative of the 20th Century, I would nominate Nelson Mandela.

Unfortunately, his wisdom, grace, and spiritual enlightenment is rare among leaders. On a continent that has produced a Mandela on one end and an Idi Amin at the other end, too many leaders have followed the Idi Amin leadership example: liberate the country from the white colonizers, then abuse your fellow citizens and live a lavish lifestyle while everyone else struggles along in desperate poverty. We've see it time and again in places like Liberia, Nigeria, Zaire/the Congo (first with Mobutu then his successor Kabila), Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, the Central African Republic (they once had a crazy leader who modeled himself after Napoleon, complete with a coronation and a renaming of his country into the Central African Empire), and of course, the current atrocity in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, who has ruled since 1980 and was knighted in the 1990s (which was finally rebuked this year, I believe).

Why don't more African leaders aspire to Mandela's greatness? If they are egotistical (which you can wisely guess that they are), you'd think that they'd have their eyes on history and for the sake of eternal posterity, they'd want to leave the world having improved their nations standing and the lives of their citizens. Instead, people hundreds of years from now will remember Mandela as an example for all humans. No matter what was done to you, if you are on the side of universal justice, you can achieve a kind of power that no one else can touch. There is power in forgiveness and no one need look further than the life of Mandela to see that it's true.

Happy Birthday, Nelson! Hang on for another ten years!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Failing a Spiritual Test

Last night, it happened. A spiritual test. It couldn't have been more obvious. And yet, I failed. Normally, when I do good things, you won't hear of it here because I believe that the good we do others is not to brag about. When we do good, it's enough that God, the other person, and ourselves know. Besides, it's a pet peeve of mine when people list the good things they do in an effort to impress people.

On the flip side, I'm going to write about an event that happened last night that I deeply regret. And I felt the regret immediately. It might make me look like a schlump or whatever, and yes, if you want to pile on the criticism, feel free because I deserve it. So, why write about it? It's part of my desire for redemption. Confession to others so that you can hold me responsible if I fail again. Also, I want readers to know that we are tested spiritually all the time and maybe it might help you make a different decision than I did.

Here goes...

Last night, I went to a booksigning at Powells bookstore for Barbara Ehrenreich, writer of "Nickel and Dimed" and the current "This Land is Their Land." It was the largest gathering I've ever seen for a lecture/booksigning at Powells. She was hilarious and so right on target with a lot of things about our country. I'll write more about her for Sunday's post. However, I left feeling kind of frustrated about America because she said something I believe more and more. She told the audience to skip college or not push your children to go. She believes its the biggest scam going on. What she said really hit home: "why get into college loan debt for the chance of landing a job that pays $30,000?" That's where I am now...making EXACTLY the same amount of money that I made in 1996. However, back in 1996, I was DEBT-FREE (no credit card debt or college loan debt) and I owned a car (no car payments). So, I was better off financially before college. After college (it has been 8 years since I finished), I struggle along in low wages with a lot of debt. Had I known I would be in this situation, I never would have gone to college. My whole purpose in going to college was because EVERYONE told me that a college degree gets you the better paying job. Where the hell are they?

So, I walked home with these thoughts in my head about how bad our country has become and how I wish our government would do more for poor people. I also have thoughts about homeless people and how to solve the problem of homelessness when I decide to go out of my way to the downtown McDonalds to grab a quick bite to eat. Outside, a man approached me. His clothes are dirty, he smells bad, and his hard-scrabbled face had sunken cheeks and hollow eye sockets. He looked awful and seemed on the verge of tears as he explained how hungry he was. He said that he was on the verge of throwing up if he didn't get any food in him, so he asked if I could buy him one of the double cheeseburgers for $1. I said, "Okay" and went inside while he waited outside smoking a cigarette.

Inside, I see a line of ten people that's not moving and only one cash register open. I wait for a couple minutes before getting frustrated and deciding that it's just not worth it. I never wait in fastfood restaurants if the line has more than three people in it. McDonalds is definitely not worth waiting in line for anything they offer. So, I walked back outside and apologized to the man that I won't be able to get him a cheeseburger because the line was too long and not moving. He asked for spare change, but I rarely carry cash (I'm such a debit card guy these days), so I had none to give him. As I crossed the street, he yelled at me, including using the F-word and the whole time, I'm thinking, "I'm such a scumbag." I wasn't angry that he yelled at me because I so deserve it. A man approaches me for food and because the line is too long and I don't want to wait, I basically give up and walk away. I felt bad about it, but not bad enough to buy food at another fastfood place or 7/11 along the way and return to the man.

What does that say about me? Honestly, I didn't feel good about the whole thing. I'm still beating myself over it. If there is a hell, I so deserve to go there for turning my back on a guy in desperate need.

How do I know it's a spiritual test?

It was obvious to me, when I had a sudden urge to go to McDonalds, when it was several blocks out of the way as I was walking home from the booksigning. Then to be approached by a guy who really, truly did look like he needed some food. To top it off, I've never seen that McDonalds have that many people in line before. It was between 9 and 9:30 P.M. Where did everyone come from? In the past, when I got the urge to eat at that McDonalds (always a late night craving), if there's a line, I always take it as a sign that I shouldn't eat there, so I usually comply. If I wouldn't wait in a line of three people to buy food for myself, then this was a true test: would I wait in a non moving line of ten people for another person who was severely hungry? And I was that selfish that I did not want to wait.

So, there you have it. An obvious spiritual test of what I stand for and my compassion failed in the face of my selfishness. Striving to be better and show a greater willingness to help another person in need doesn't seem enough to make up for the sin I committed last night. I have a feeling that man's sunken eyes and plea for food is going to haunt me for a long time.

And because I believe in a life review that we all experience during our first moments in the heavenly realm, I know that this situation is going to be replayed, where I experience that man's point of view. I'm not looking forward to it, quite honestly. It will be very painful. Deservedly so.

Go ahead...lash on the criticism. I know it's deserved. I failed one of the most important tests we are given in life. I hope you won't make the same mistake as me. If I could do it over, I would've waited in line, no matter how long it took and I would've bought the man a full meal and maybe had a conversation with him. But last night, I wasn't in the mood to talk with a stranger or to wait in line. I guess I'm no where near the person I envision myself to be. A painful lesson that will remain with me for a long time, I think.

Taunting A-Rod in Toronto

As Madonna once sang in Vogue: "Whatchu looking at?"

I lifted these photos from the Huffington Post. Gotta love those Canadians in Toronto for taunting the A-Rod during a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Toronto Bluejays. Anything to rile one of the most over-priced, over-hyped players in the history of professional baseball. I find stuff like this amusing.

I wasn't going to comment on Madonna's rumoured split with hubby Guy Ritchie, but after I saw these photos, I couldn't resist. When I bought her latest cd in May, the song that most stuck out for me lyrically was "Miles Away" because it comes across very personal, as Madonna complains about being miles apart and how they don't talk much anymore, and how he's most thoughtful of her only when they are "miles away." It's a great song, lyrically and musically, but the message was disturbing. Then, I noticed that the liner notes on the CD featured a cryptic line: "Guy, be careful what you wish for." Yikes! I had hopes that Guy was "the guy" for Madonna, but I can also understand how she might be a major pain to live with. She's a bossy control freak (watch "Truth or Dare" when she called her camera shy boyfriend Warren Beatty a "pussy boy" for not wanting to be in her documentary). Plus, I got the impression that Sex and the City's Samantha was based on Madonna. In a biography I read on John F. Kennedy Junior, she supposedly pursued JFK Jr. to live out her Marilyn Monroe fantasy but was disappointed that he wasn't all that into her. Madonna has been linked to a lot of men, so maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that as she approaches the big FIVE-OH, she's going through a midlife crisis similar to what too many middleaged men do. She can't stand being monogamous when there is a new generation of famous men to conquer.

I think Alexander Rodriguez is younger than me, so if that's the case, I'd say "ewww." If I had a chance to, I wouldn't touch Madonna. She's past her prime. I love her music, but she needs to keep her wedding vows. Apparently, Sting and Trudie introduced Madonna to Guy in 1999 or 2000. Their marriage is supposedly going strong, but maybe it's all that Tantric sex they're having. Perhaps we can finally admit that maybe some people just weren't meant to be monogamous. You have to wonder if CBS's new steamy show "Swingtown" is going to cause a huge uptick in extra-marital flings. Maybe they can get Madonna to make a cameo appearance on the show and introduce her to Jack Ryan (the Republican who ran for Senate against Obama until news came out that his actress wife Jeri of "Deep Space Nine" fame had complained about him forcing her to have sex in swinger clubs in Paris). They both seem to share sadomasochistic fantasies, with Madonna going so far as to publish a book full of provocative photos in 1992.

Hey, it's all connected, right? Sports, music, politics. Some folks just can't stay faithful so they shouldn't bother to get married.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Are Americans Too Dumb to Appreciate Satire?

To respond to my title question, the answer is a resounding

Y E S ! ! !

Blog readers of the world, listen up! Yes, I am an American citizen since birth and no, I don't hate America as some conservatives would like to believe. But I am bluntly honest and I don't believe in "my country, right or wrong" (unless it's that excellent Midnight Oil song, which expresses my views exactly). I don't believe America has the best of everything. In fact, I know we don't. We are falling behind in so many areas, but to point it out to the Bush-brainwashed followers is to invite accusations of treason, "hate America first!", and other such nonsense. I daresay that it simply is not possible for any liberal to commit the kind of treason that the entire Bush Administration has done these past seven years.

I've had the fortunate experience of living six years of my life in Europe as a teenager and young man. One thing I learned when I traveled throughout Europe and had dialogues with various Europeans as well as traveling Middle Easterners, Africans, and Australians, I noticed that even if we disagree in our views, there's still an underlying respect. The disagreements are on facts, with no devolving into personal and ad hominem attacks (such as, "oh yeah? Well, your mom is ugly!").

Try doing that with the average American...particularly one who only watches the Fox News Propaganda ("We distort, you comply!"), listens to reichwing radio, and reads screeds by Hannity, O'Reilly, and Coulter. Chances are, if you talk with people of that persuasion, you'll be dissatisfied because they are angry (why are they angry? Their peeps controlled the White House for seven years, with a rubber stamp Congress for six). You can't have a reasoned debate with these people because they remain ignorant of facts and like it that way. That's why they are deathly afraid of Obama's rockstar popularity. We haven't seen this level of popularity in a politician since Mandela, and he was a black man, too. They're jealous because their president has been hated by half the country and the rest of the world since day one. Now, he's hated by over 70% of the country and the rest of the world has fallen in love with Obama.

When you saw the parade of geriatric old fogies running for the Republican nomination this year, you can totally understand why they are still angry. Not a rock star among them. The youngest guy happened to be a Mormon, of all religions! They are a party floundering under Bush's mess, nostalgic for the mythology of Reagan, and completely void of any politician who would rival Obama's star quality (no, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal does not count! He might be Indian-American, but he's still governor of a state that almost elected Klansman David Duke in 1991, also a Republican).

But, I'm getting away from myself here. Though I personally found the cartoon in "The New Yorker" magazine to be an amusing satire about the false beliefs some Americans still have about Obama, I agree that it was poorly thought out and in borderline bad taste. The reason is simple...too many people are sending around the email that Obama is a secret Muslim agent who, when elected president, will enforce a sharia law on us in which we'll have to convert to Islam or die. Any rationally minded person can see the lunacy in this belief, but when you know so many gullible conservatives who believe everything Fox News tells them, you can see why this cartoon is dangerous.

On a personal level, I have received that notorious email from a church member back in my home congregation in Atlanta. That congregation was always too conservative for me. Back in the late 1990s, I kept getting emails from fellow churchmembers about Bill Gates giving away money to everyone who forwards the chain email. I always hit the delete button, but not before noticing the name of the gullible sap who sent it to me. They often sent me other chain emails as well, promising varying amounts of good fortune depending on how many people I forward it to. Each time, I'd shake my head at how gullible some people can be...people that I went to church with, for God's sake! It's unnerving to me how stupid our fellow countrymen can be. I've been a fan of logic for as long as I can remember. I don't believe anyone's claim without verifying the info for myself. Some are obviously false that you can dismiss outright (Fox Propaganda is full of them).

If you want proof that Americans don't understand satire or irony, here are a few examples:

British singer Robbie Williams has released a few great cds of catchy music with even better lyrics. Many of his songs are hilarious, but you have to be a bit sophisticated to catch his humour. It hasn't been a secret that he had hoped for a successful career in the U.S., but I had a theory that he was just too smart for the average American music buyer. If you listen to his lyrics (particularly on the cd "The Ego Has Landed"), you can see a huge difference in quality between his lyrics versus someone like Justin Timberlake.

Would Adam Sandler, Jack Black or Will Farrell even have careers to speak of if America understood irony and satire? Here are some examples of great satire in movies: "Down With Love", "American Psycho", and "I Heart Huckabees." Were any of them hits? No. But "Talladega Nights" was!

Look at the bestseller lists and see who dominates. It's mostly formulaic fiction by the likes of James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, Danielle Steele, and John Grisham. If you want to find good literary fiction, you really have to search for it. Would Americans find Voltaire's "Candide" hilarious? Probably not.

So, I'm joining the chorus of people condemning "the New Yorker" magazine for their illustrated cover that will most likely cement in the minds of America's average voter all the stereotypes that they read about in the circulating emails they get regarding Obama. It's one more example of the bubble that the New York literati class live in. Yes, it is a sophisticated place and residents there look down on the rest of America, but they also forgot that while they might find humour in people believing the most outrageous things about Obama, if they truly want to help him get elected president, they did him no favors with that cartoon.

Some pundits like to point out that "The New Yorker" had a cover cartoon featuring a White House in a flood, representing the aftermath of the Katrina fiasco. The pundits want us to think that there is some level of equality there, which is false. To make it a true analogy, a cartoon would have to feature McCain posing with a black prostitute, holding a baby, while being brainwashed by the Viet Cong, while his wife is shaking down babies for their drugs. We forget that voters in South Carolina in 2000 also received circulating emails from their religious folk portraying false rumours about McCain's adopted daughter from Bangladesh. Such a cartoon would only reinforce in their minds what they read in the emails that they are so quick to believe without investigating the veracity of it.

When I saw the cover cartoon of Obama and his wife, the first thought that came to my mind was: "Finally, an issue that Rush Limbaugh will actually buy and frame to display on his mantle!" He probably wouldn't read the articles because the magazine is too "liberal elitist" for him, but the cartoon image speaks a thousand words. It is the desperate strategy of the right, knowing that they can't win on ideas when they have none nor on their record because it has so tarnished our country, so what else do they have to go on in order to retain the White House? Complete and utter character assassination, plain and simple.

"The New Yorker" should have known better.

This is my favourite headline from the aftermath of the 2004 election. A British newspaper printed it and I remember reading that many Bush voters were offended by it, but what can you do? The truth hurts. Hopefully many of them will wise up and make amends by voting for the party of competence this time. The Repuglicans have done enough damage.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Conservative Fear of Black Women

Recently, I read an article in the newspaper that conservative Evangelical ministers are criticizing Oprah for her promotion of a universalist view of spirituality. Her views have come under fire quite curiously after she selected Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth" as her latest Book Club sensation. The book has been out for a few years and now with Oprah's blessing, it followed the pattern of other books that received her endorsement: instant bestsellerdom.

I started reading that book before she selected it, so the timing was perfect for me. It's the kind of book you want to read and discuss with others. I've never belonged to a book club and have been curious to join one, though I haven't made an effort to find one. When I finished reading the book back in February or March, I was struck by the truth in a lot of what the author wrote about. I know what he says has merit because I have seen similar things in my own life and have tested it and it works.

The latest controversy reminds me of the one that occurred a few years ago over "The Da Vinci Code." When that novel was first published in 2003, it didn't receive universal condemnation. It was basically ignored...until it became a HUGE publishing sensation (selling well over 25 million copies, or was it 40 million?). Only when something achieves that kind of success do Evangelical ministers start to panic, because now people who've read the book are asking too many questions and thinking deeper about what they believe and why. I can understand their panic because they have every reason to fear "an idea whose time has come." If you teach people since childhood that the same old Bible stories are literally true, any ideas that reflect a different way of looking at the world is going to be a threat. So, to counter the threat...instead of examining your own beliefs for once and seeing if it meets the test of logic, you start to attack a viewpoint that gains in popularity or attention, which only brings more attention to the idea you're hoping to kill.

This latest conservative outrage is just one example of their fear of the kind of power and influence a woman like Oprah Winfrey has. And her power has only grown because when she first endorsed Barack Obama, he was way behind Hillary Clinton in the polls. Now he'll be the nominee and he plays to stadium-sized crowds. Who can deny Oprah's magic touch now?

So, what is this idea that they are fearing?

A friend of mine told me about how she saw an advertisement by a church that was going to speak about this book. She and a friend went to it, thinking it was going to be a nice lecture about the ideas presented in "A New Earth", but what they found instead was a completely negative trashing of the book to the point where it was obvious that the preacher didn't even read the whole thing. He selected passages and used Biblical quotes to contradict Eckhart Tolle's "New Agey" ideas.

I'm a bit curious to hear the evangelical views of the book, but because I was made to go to those type of groups as a teenager, I don't think it would be any different from when they ripped on secular music. It's all fear-based, which I've moved far beyond. Fear is never a good motivating factor to join any group. I seek inspiration, inspiring ideas, and inspiring people. People who preach fear will only see my back as I hurry the hell away from them.

When I read "A New Earth" earlier this year, a situation occurred at work between a coworker I don't like and myself. I didn't handle it the best way I could have. Tolle wrote about how some people are so used to anger and fear that they subconsciously invite more of that into their lives and if we play into it by falling to their level, we're just feeding the problem and it will bring us down. This might be considered basic psychology, but Tolle goes into more depth about how to act around negative people who seek conflict to feed their egos. It truly is challenging to step outside of those situations and remain calm, even if someone is screaming and yelling at you for no reason and your every impulse is to lash back. That's exactly what they want, so the trick is to not give them what they want.

So, if you're one of those who condemns a book without reading it because your minister claims its "of the devil", I hope that you will read it for yourself. I simply cannot understand why anyone would think it's "anti-Christian" at all. The whole book is about becoming a better person that understands how one's ego operates and how to subvert your natural instinct to lash back at abusive people. When you can recognize the subconscious human dramas that our egos always try to pull us into, you can rise above it all and live a truer and freer existence.

I tried some of the techniques he mentions and it actually worked. It's a challenge, but take it from a guy like me who remains skeptical of any spiritual claim: there is nothing in "A New Earth" that will make you turn your back on God or Jesus. If you strive to live the way the book talks about living, our world will change for the better. How can that be a bad thing?

A final word about Oprah...what's so wrong about the spirituality she promotes on her show? Why do conservatives attack her for desiring to lift people up and inspire people? These are the same people who never criticize Rush Limbaugh, a talk show host who tears people down and seeks to divide Americans from one another. If you'd compare the two, Oprah is far more Christlike and Rush is living the role that would make Satan quite proud. So, it should tell you something when an Evangelical minister will condemn Oprah and her spiritual book selection while remaining silent when Rush rants about the latest religious controversy he helps to fabricate.

Now, I wanted to write about Michelle Obama, another strong black woman who has raised the ire of conservatives. What caused them to go into crazy rants on their propaganda networks? It was her statement: "For the first time in my adult life, I'm really proud to be an American."

What's wrong with that statement? I can't find a single thing wrong with it. Even Bill Maher pointed it out in his show on Saturday night. He then read quotes by conservatives like Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, and even Dan Quayle's press secretary. The quotes he read were baffling, because these conservatives asked her why she didn't feel proud when the U.S. Hockey team beat the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics, or when the Statue of Liberty reopened for business in 1986, or that pharmaceutical companies have created drugs to improve people's lives (that was Malkin's question), or even Oprah's success.

It's outrage like this that has me wondering just how dumb conservatives are anyway? Have they been asleep at history? Are they that vacant between their ears?

Let's recap American history, shall we?

For over 400 years, blacks have been abducted from their families and homes in Africa to live in slavery on a new continent with no hope of ever seeing freedom. Many have seen their families split apart on auction blocks as different buyers made bids on their worth. When slavery was finally abolished, they still faced discrimination and harassment for another century. In the South, blacks were lynched by mobs, KKKs burned crosses in their yards, and many homes and churches were bombed during America's domestic terrorism years. All of this was overlooked by our government. When they rose up to demand equality in schools, public transit, and all areas of commercial life, they were beaten, spat at, called ugly names, bitten by vicious dogs, fired with water hoses, etc.

In our lifetime, many still face inequality in schools, in being hired to good jobs, getting into colleges, approved for home loans, finding a willing taxi driver after sunset, etc. We've seen race-tinged ads win elections for white politicians over black rivals (such as the case with Jesse Helms in 1990 and more recently when Harold Ford of Tennessee got bamboozled by a misleading ad that conjured up all the bad stereotypes white people have about African Americans).

So, given the history of our country, can you understand why an educated woman like Michelle Obama would be really proud of our country with the political success of her husband? With our racist history, I can completely understand why the white caucus voters in Iowa made Michelle proud when they cast their votes for Obama back in January. It was a sign that America has turned the page, willing to rise above fears and prejudice to give a minority candidate a shot at the most powerful job in the world. We should all be as proud. I know I am.

I find this example to be a simple case of selective outrage. The rightwing always has selective outrage. They let Bush statements go un-outraged, but if a Democrat (especially if he or she is a minority or a liberal) makes a statement, they just run with it ad nauseum and into the ground. That's the power of having a propaganda network that operates as an echo chamber, repeating the talking points put out by the RNC. It has nothing to do with truth, patriotism, or decency. It has everything to do with the conservative fear of any idea that didn't originate with them that has taken on a kind of popularity rarely seen in our country. That two highly educated and strong black women have raised so much of the conservative anger is fascinating to me. I have only one more thing to say about that:

"You go, girls!"

Oops...I shouldn't even say that (how about: "you go, ladies!"), so let me just say that I love strong women who aren't afraid to stand up for what they believe in, even if it causes controversy. Now's not the time to back down from the regressive ideas of the right. Justice is on our side, and Oprah and Obama are leading the way! If conservatives want to fear anyone, they better start looking to the heavens for misrepresenting God all these years.