Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Power of Myth Series

How's this for coincidence or synchronicity? A few months ago, I wanted to see The Adjustment Bureau with someone, so we could discuss it afterwards. Since all of my friends in Portland are married, I'm left to do things on my own. The movie was so amazing to me, that I wanted to share ideas with others after the film was over. I found myself wishing that there was a movie group, made up of people who are interested in the same kinds of movies as I am (the inspirational, thought-provoking kind).

Then, a few weeks later, as I ride the bus home from work, I notice a church sign that was advertising a series on Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth. How convenient! The church is located near the intersection where I have to get off one bus and wait for another bus. The series is held on Tuesday evenings over six weeks. Each week, the group will watch one chapter of the Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell, then we break into groups for a discussion on what we have just viewed.

Did I manifest this? Ten years ago, in June 2001, I started attending a discussion group in Atlanta called "Circle of Friends." One of the regulars was a guy a few years older than me who quoted from Joseph Campbell quite often. I had heard about Joseph Campbell in the 1990s when I learned that George Lucas was inspired by Campbell's classic, The Hero With a Thousand Faces and based his Star Wars saga on "the Hero's Journey." Campbell is an example of someone who made a living out of his passion. There was no such job title as "Mythologist", but he wrote books about mythology, taught in a university, and became best known for the phrase: "Follow your bliss." Hearing this other guy quote Campbell constantly got me intrigued enough to read The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth.

When the first installment of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings opened during the holiday season 2001, I had no idea if I wanted to see it. I've never been into the fantasy genre. However, the film received critical acclaim and became a cultural phenomenon. I decided to go (on my 30th birthday, with my best friend who came up to Atlanta for the day) and view the movie through "the Hero's Journey" motif. It worked! I saw so many parallels between what Campbell wrote about and the events in the film.

In the years since, I bought a book about how to write a screenplay or novel using the Hero's Journey motif (which is very useful and highly recommended for any writers out there). A few years ago, I found a workbook / guidebook about using the Hero's Journey motif in analyzing and living your own life. I've only skimmed through it, but it looks useful. I've come to believe that all churches should teach the Hero's Journey to everyone. Instead of focusing on converting others to your truth, how about having courses so that church-goers can try out ideas for their own lives. The Hero's Journey is exactly the kind of meaning that helps me view the challenges in my own life.

So, to come across this series offered by a church that is along my daily commute from work to home is just too convenient. Of course I'm committing myself to the group! When I looked on the church's website, I was stunned to find that the pastor of this Presbyterian church had started up a Meet-Up group devoted to viewing meaningful / inspirational movies with a discussion afterwards. Exactly what I wanted when I went to see The Adjustment Bureau alone. This group has not seen The Adjustment Bureau. It looks like the overall taste runs a little more artsy / intellectual than my tastes. But, we'll see what movies the group might want to see as the months roll by.

Tonight was my second session with this Power of Myth series. In the discussion group, I was tempted to share my thoughts, but I'm not that comfortable sharing quite yet. I enjoy hearing other people's ideas. I was stunned to hear one Christian man question the need for a heaven. He was talking like an atheist. Its sad to me when I hear people reject the false ideas of heaven (the winged angels playing harps on a cloud view of heaven) without an inkling about how one might learn more about the topic. There are so many books about Near Death Experiences and heaven to read. All one has to do is read up on the subject and see how the information resonates with them. Maybe its true, maybe its not...but your imagination gets ignited and your soul feels euphoric bliss.

Last week's discussion, I was stunned to hear comments by the elderly people of this faith community lamenting the lack of young people involved in church. So, even the Presbyterians are going through the same crisis that the Community of Christ is. In a way, that discovery was comforting, because it shows that its not necessarily a problem with our church denomination as it is with our generation (apathetic and cynical). I was stunned that even though the church is offering a thought-provoking series such as this to foster dialogue, the turn-out skewed towards retirees. But as I hear their stories, I'm liking what I hear. Though I belong to a different denomination, it is refreshing to hear the same ideas and concerns going on among members of this more establishment church.

Its going to be a great four more weeks. After tonight's session, I was beaming all the way home. My soul so needed this! Too bad the Community of Christ is not open enough to offer such a program for members. Its always preferable to experience things with members of my own "tribe", but its also good to meet new people (of a different "tribe") and see what we have in common. I guess this makes me more ecumenical than evangelist!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Madonna Video Monday: Holiday

On this Memorial Day weekend, I think back twenty years ago. I had just finished Basic Training on May 23rd, 1991 and returned home on leave before going to "A" School. Besides working a week for my recruiter so I wouldn't be charged five days of leave, attending church in my uniform, and getting my driver's license, I went to the theater to see Madonna's Truth or Dare documentary, the first documentary I saw in a theater. I still consider it a classic. I loved it. The film reportedly gave people a glimpse of "the real Madonna," even though she had control over the final edit. There was little that I found shocking about the Madonna that comes across. Since she cannot act, this persona seems to be real or as real as she could allow herself to be.

My impression of Madonna from this documentary is that she would not make a very good friend. She's a user to get what she wants and then discards you without a second glance once you've served your purpose. She also has some insecurities, such as when faced with Antonio Banderas' wife. However, like a jealous little school girl getting over her crush, she insults his manhood to her friends in the bathroom (is this what women do when they go to the restroom together?). I thought the scene with Antonio Banderas was interesting, because he was an unknown actor at the time (except to those who watched foreign films, particularly by Pedro Almadovar). Five years later, Madonna would co-star with him in Evita.

In the documentary, she makes fun of Kevin Costner for calling her show "neat". She makes fun of Belinda Carlisle. She calls her boyfriend at the time, Warren Beatty, a "pussy man" for not wanting to be on camera. She claims that Sean is her one true love during a game of "Truth or Dare." From what I learned reading her brother Christopher's book about her, he claims that his famous sister has always been uninterested in other celebrities. She wants to be the center of attention and can't stand sharing the spotlight or being friends with people who are equally or more famous than her. I was stunned to read that, because I think that one of the coolest aspect of being famous is the opportunity to meet and become friends with other famous people. For example, George Clooney seems very comfortable around his famous friends and not needing to be the center of attention all the time. Is Clooney the anti-Madonna? You would think that Madonna would take advantage of her fame to meet other interesting, creative famous people to be friends with and share ideas. But, you can see it in the documentary. Madonna prefers to surround herself with sycophantic dancers and assistants. But as Christopher wrote in his book, Madonna allows the dancers to get a little close to her to give them the illusion of friendship, but once they've been in her circle and learn "too much", they are cut off and never in Madonna's orbit again. How sad.

I love the documentary, though. It was a great mix of the documentary footage of her Blonde Ambition Tour of 1990 with concert footage (in colour) from that awesome show. The song "Holiday" did not have an official music video, so the footage from her concert became the one shown on MTV in 1991 and afterwards. On this Holiday, as we memorialize those who have sacrificed their lives in service of our country, most Americans are having barbecues or going camping or otherwise enjoying the first three-day holiday weekend of the year (considered the official start of summer). Hope you had a safe holiday. Best wishes this Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why Reality Television Doesn't Transfer to Real Life

I finally finished watching every episode of TLC's "reality series" Sarah Palin's Alaska. The show received huge ratings on its debut episode last November, but as the curiosity factor abated, the viewership dropped and the show was not renewed for a second season. On some anti-Palin blogs (which I have links to in the left hand column), some of the criticisms were very vicious. While I don't see anything remotely presidential about Sarah Palin, I don't think she's a bad person. During the 2008 campaign when she underwent a compressed vetting process, I felt then that she was born to be a reality show personality. She and her family are telegenic, with enough family dramas to make even the fictional Walker family on Brothers and Sisters look boring. When she quit the governor's office in 2009, I was certain that she would have her own reality show at some point.

Having now seen this series (I don't have cable, so I had to wait until it released on DVD), I can say that Sarah Palin has found her calling in life. Its not politics. She's a reality show star! In this series, she's likable, funny, and her love of Alaska comes shining through. There were many sweet moments with her family, particularly her youngest daughter, Piper. I loved when she laid down the law regarding no boys being allowed upstairs when her teenage daughter Willow invited a boyfriend over to the Palin mansion. He actually tried to sneak upstairs, even though cameras were present. Like he could actually get away with that.

This series works as a great travelogue for the state of Alaska. Each episode showcases aspects of Alaska and what it offers. Within the eight episodes, you'll see the Palin family go fishing for halibut (I had no idea that fish was so huge! It was hilarious to see Sarah take a baton to beat the halibut senseless) and salmon, camping, hunting for moose, watching bears, logging, panning for gold, trekking across a glacier, rock climbing, mushing with huskies, flying seaplanes, whitewater rafting, majestic helicopter rides, skeet shooting, ATV riding, and regular family downtime.

After eight episodes, though, I can understand why TLC decided not to renew for a second season. They pretty much covered all that one can do in Alaska and there was no need to spend any more time on this travelogue. Also, the show was rather kind of boring. With all that is known behind the scenes about Palin's petty vindictiveness (which makes for great drama), none of that is on display here. Palin and her family are on their best behaviour, so its all about love, love, love. We don't see any fights or arguments. The most insulting comment that is made was when Bristol called her mother "prom hair." Perhaps most surprising to me was Sarah's comments when Kate (of Jon and Kate Plus Eight infamy) decided that she couldn't hack camping out in Alaska's wilderness. Palin was not petty, mocking, or nasty in her comments. She was quite charitable. Why can't we see this side to her in the political sphere? Why can't she be more charitable to the Obamas?

If Sarah Palin and her family were truly this likable, she would not have the kind of critics that she does. After all, when she was first elected as governor in 2006, she was able to work with the Democratic minority in the Alaska legislature. It was not until her selection of the 2008 Vice Presidential nomination that she pandered to the worst elements of the conservatives, where everything is black or white, if you're not with us, you're against us. This unnecessarily created enemies where none need exist.

When I was part of Sarah Palin's Facebook page (before I got banned), I was stunned by how her fans were unable to look at things with reason. Any critique of her statements that did not make sense was viewed with hatred and censorship. You couldn't engage in a meaningful debate with her fans, because they don't tolerate reality. Whatever their beloved Quitter Queen says is TRUE! Pointing out the falseness of her "Truth" means you're a "hater"! Even more stunning is that her fans think that if you criticize her positions or statements, or if you say that she is not presidential, you're afraid of her because she'll become president. Nope. I have no fear that she'll be president, because even the Republican establishment does not like her. She's toxic to the party, but the Republicans are in a bad position. There are far too few wealthy people to ever win elections in the U.S., so they've had to rely on the base of ignorant, morality-obsessed social conservatives to win the elections for them. Since the end of the Bush years, this group has become uncontrollable to the point that no presidential candidate can afford to alienate the true believers (the teabaggers) if they hope to pick up their support after Palin decides not to run or she fails to win the nomination.

I know that I baffle my liberal friends when I say that I like Sarah Palin. But liking her as a person doesn't mean that I would ever vote for her. People need to realize the complexity of humanity. Also, Sarah Palin needs to realize herself that she was not meant to be a political leader. The universe found a way to give her what she really wanted: fame and fortune. That's all she really wanted: to be famous. Just like Madonna, who wanted to be famous by any means necessary. Madonna dreamed of being a famous actress, but she couldn't act. She found her calling in music and is the biggest female artist of all time. There's nothing wrong with that. People just need to realize where they fit into the grand scheme of things. Palin lacks the discipline, intellect, and experience to ever be a credible leader in the political realm. She's perfect, however, for the reality television era. She's a pop culture phenomenon who can milk money out of the whole "famous for being famous" category of celebrity (like Anna Nicole Smith or Paris Hilton). If she plays her cards right, she can fill the niche left by Elizabeth Taylor, who made news for decades despite not having starred in a film in years.

This Memorial Day weekend, Palin has received press attention for her planned RV trip to visit several historical sites on the East Coast, starting in Mount Vernon and ending in New Hampshire (seen as a political move). I think its all part of a big tease, though. I don't get the sense that Palin is serious, because she has to know that she can't hack it as president if she resigned her governorship mid-term (following a pattern of quitting colleges and jobs). Her star is fading, though. After her disastrous speech in the aftermath of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Palin has kept a low-profile. Her reality series is also cited by critics as a bad move for someone hoping to be president. No one can view that show and walk away thinking that she is in anyway "presidential material." Her non-stop chatter comes across as annoying. Her husband doesn't speak much, but after hearing him I can understand why. He's far more soft-spoken than his wife.

My advice to Sarah is to enjoy her fame while it lasts, but leave politics to the professionals. Also, she should drop her cultural warrior persona and be more like the way she portrayed herself on her show. She avoided making political comments for the most part, though she still had a few jabs thrown at the media and bloggers.

For the anti-Palin bloggers who still find something every day to blog about her (and when they don't, to repeat their old obsessive complaints about her), this reality show wasn't a bad thing. How often do we get to see Alaska portrayed on television? Her show was the best travelogue on Alaska that I've ever seen. I'm ready to book my Alaska vacation right now! I would love it even more if Sarah Palin was the tour guide. She knows how to elicit laughs, and that's a good thing.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Bangkok Hangover

On Friday after work, I went to see The Hangover, Part II. Not that I was overly excited to see this sequel. I thought the first movie was okay. Sure, there were some big laughs that appeals to the raunchy sense of humour most guys have (myself included), but I thought the first film was overrated. I'm still stunned that it made over $400 million, setting the record as the most successful comedy of all time. Really? That film broke records? I can watch 9 to 5, even though I've seen it plenty of times, and still laugh at the same jokes in the movie. Now that's a classic that never gets old. I've only seen The Hangover once and that was enough for me. I'm certain that repeated viewings won't be any funnier.

So, why see the sequel, then? Well, these crazy film producers just had to film the sequel in Thailand. There aren't a lot of movies filmed in Thailand and I really want to see one. I love the exotic locales in movies, which is a big reason why I love foreign movies, because I get a glimpse into lives of people in other countries (without the distraction of a famous face playing some character). I saw a Thai film earlier this year (Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives) that was strange and ultimately disappointing. When I learned that the dudes (The "Wolfpack") of The Hangover were going to Thailand for the sequel, I decided that I would go see this one, even though I'm not expecting much out of it other than the same movie as the first one, with a Thai twist.

The movie essentially is The Hangover in a new locale. Instead of a tiger, there's a monkey. Instead of a baby, there's an old Buddhist man in a wheelchair who made a vow of silence. Instead of a missing tooth, Stu has a Mike Tyson-esque face tattoo. There's a wedding (Stu is getting married to a Thai lady at a resort in southern Thailand). There's a knock-out drug that causes the guys to wake up hours later clueless about what happened the previous night. Someone is missing and the wedding is a day away. Strangely, though, the groom from the first movie (played by Justin Bartha) is not in on the adventure this time (last time, he was the missing person in Las Vegas). He gets to hang out with his wife and the wedding party at the resort while his buddies are trying to figure out how they ended up in Bangkok. The sequel follows the same formula as the original. There is a slight twist, though. But as I noticed with the audience, the laughs weren't as many or as gut-busting as the original film was (this is one reason why I wanted to see the movie with an audience rather than wait to see it on DVD).

Though I would not give this movie high marks, I did like seeing Bangkok in all its glory. The best scene was a breakfast scene at the top of a skyscraper's outdoor patio. Man, if such a building exists, that would be a great place to have a wedding! The architecture is amazing and so is the view! Like the original film, the Asian dude with the strange accent and mannerisms stole the movie, hands down. He made the movie funnier than it otherwise would have been. I felt sorry for the monkey, though. Someone should really call PETA for what they made the monkey do in the movie. Seriously.

While I expect the movie to have a strong opening weekend, I think it will suffer a huge drop in the second week. It may be lucky to make it to $200 million, but that's all I would expect it to make. Some of the jokes / situations were just too off the wall absurd. The original film had the advantage of feeling unique, because there was never a film quite like it. That made it feel fresh and many people gave that movie great word of mouth. Since people who will see the sequel likely saw the original film, its going to feel very, "been there, done that." Instead of trying to be more original, they stuck with the same plot / formula and figured that just setting the movie in Bangkok would give it enough of a different flavour from the first film to satisfy filmgoers. Unfortunately, it doesn't work. They should have taken notes from the remake The Karate Kid, which shows exactly how you can film the same movie as the original, but make it feel just different enough to stand strong on its own.

Another thing I wish the people who made this film would've done is commission an update of a classic 80s song, "One Night in Bangkok." I love this song, especially the melody and chorus line. This song would make an excellent hip hop / rap song, similar to the way Warren G updated the classic Tina Turner song "What's Love Got to Do With It" or classic Michael McDonald song "I Keep Forgettin'" (into "Regulate"). That would make an excellent theme song to this recycled drink in a new shotglass. After you see this sequel, getting wasted so you don't have to remember it might be considered a great idea! Let's hope they don't make a threequel. There's no one left to marry...except Allen, the creepiest member of The Wolfpack.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Flashback Friday: The Oprah Winfrey Show

This week ends the long reign of the Queen of Talk Shows. After twenty-five years on television, Oprah Winfrey is ending her show. I'm not sure what the reasons are, but I imagine that she wants to do something different. Her decision is a sad one for those who love quality shows that elevate the public conversation, but I totally understand the need to move on, especially if you believe that you have accomplished everything you set out to do and your heart is not in it anymore. Although I haven't seen her show in years (because I'm at work when its on and I don't have Tivo), there is no question that nobody did daytime talk shows like Oprah has done. She truly was "The Gold Standard" that all others failed to replicate.

When I was a kid, I remember my mom watching Phil Donahue's talk show (along with a few soap operas). I remember thinking how boring the show was: people watching Donahue talk to a guest. Based on that impression, I pretty much had a negative view of talk shows...until 1986. I can't remember if it was when I was sick, and stayed home from school or if it was during the summer months, but I was bored and watching whatever was on T.V. (I was living in Germany at the time and there was only one channel for the Americans to watch: AFN, which stands for Armed Forces Network). Instead of Donahue, there was an overweight black woman hosting a talk show. I was intrigued. I liked her personality. The guest was a pop group called The Jets, which was a group of siblings with a Samoan or Tongan heritage. This talk show host with a funny name (Oprah, of course!) kept asking them how they managed to live in a house with only one bathroom. They would talk about something and Oprah would keep coming back to the bathroom. It was that level of curiosity that intrigued me about this woman and made me like her. She was not boring like Donahue. However, in fairness to Phil Donahue, as I got older, I began to appreciate what he offered to television audiences. He was considered the king of the daytime talk show and some thought Oprah was nuts to try and compete against him.

In the fall of 1988, when I was back in the USA, Oprah made headlines when she lost weight through a diet program. Her goal was to fit into the same pair of jeans that she once wore. She walked out in front of a cheering audience, wearing her old jeans and pulling a wagon full of fat that weighed the equivalent of the amount she had lost. She remarked that she could not believe that she had carried that weight on her body for years.

Of course, that body did not last long. She returned to her old weight and even surpassed it. Her struggles with weight was an ongoing process and in 1994, she came out with a combination fitness and diet regiment with personal trainer Bob Greene. She told audiences that diet is not enough, that it takes discipline and regular exercise to keep the weight off. In the years since 1994, I think she has done a pretty good job managing her weight. In those years, as well, her brand increased in success, even as everyone seemed to have their own talk show on television.

I remember the culture shock when I returned to the U.S. in the fall of 1994 after living three years in Italy. I watched T.V. while on leave at my parents' house and could not believe the number of talk shows that populated daytime television. I think I counted about fourteen different shows, with the most popular being Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Ricki Lake, Geraldo Rivera, and others long forgotten. None of them had Oprah's class, though. Most seemed to prefer feuding guests, where chairs were always in danger of flying in the air (Geraldo once had his nose broken on his show by an unruly guest). Jerry Springer was the worst of the bunch, because he and his audience seemed to encourage fights to break out among the dysfunctional, inbred redneck guests. By contrast, Oprah was geared towards conversation / dialogue to understand one another, to learn lessons from people's lives, and to make the world a better place. She wasn't without controversies, though. Here's a few memorable ones...

In 1997, Oprah did a show about Mad Cow Disease and in her horror of learning this information, she remarked on her show, "This has stopped me cold from eating another burger!" That remark infuriated a group of cattle ranchers in Texas that they sued her in court, claiming that her influence has hurt their business. The lawsuit wasn't exactly laughed out of court, but it did make national headlines because of the absurdity. Oprah is influential, but if there is a drop in meat consumption, can she legally be held responsible? More than that, less consumption of meat is better for the environment anyway, so if Oprah's comment really did change people's consumption habits, isn't that a good thing?

Out of the trial, she became good friends with Dr. Phil, the no-nonsense counselor who tells it like it is. He became a regular on her show, dispensing marital advice that was remarkable in its brutal honesty. He didn't mince words. Thanks to his association with Oprah, he has become famous, with many books of his own and his own talk show.

In 1996, Oprah scored a major interview when John F. Kennedy, Jr. appeared on her show. He was promoting his magazine, George. What I remember most about the interview is that John said that he doesn't remember much about his father and how seeing all the photos of himself with his father (or the famous one where he salutes his father's casket), he can't tell if its an actual memory of his or one that has been imposed upon him. What he did remember about his father was that the president would call him "Sam" and he hated it. He would tell his dad, "My name's not Sam! It's John!" He said that his father loved to tease him like that.

In 2005 or 2006, another guest made an impression on Oprah. That would be the couch-abusing Tom Cruise, who was so uncharacteristically giddy about being in love with Katie Holmes that he jumped up and down on her couch like he was a teenage girl. Oprah was stunned. In the video, she had a look on her face that could only be interpreted as, "This guy is crazy!" Though the behaviour seemed a bit odd (being "in love" should not have prompted him to act that way), shortly after the airing of this episode, the public learned that Katie Holmes was pregnant with his child. That makes a little more sense why he would be so crazy excited. Though he had two adopted children with ex-wife Nicole Kidman, Katie was giving him a biological child and I can understand his enthusiasm for that.

However, the couch-jumping actually harmed Cruise's career. I don't think he has recovered from it yet. But that could be the combination of factors: couch-jumping craziness alongside a public sympathy for Katie Holmes being sucked into his lifestyle and his aggressive promotion of Scientology. The American public can no longer look at him as the quintessential All-American guy who represents the best of what America is about (that has transferred to Brad Pitt and George Clooney). He's no longer "the fortunate son" of America.

Perhaps the biggest legacy and influence Oprah has had on the American popular culture is the creation of her book club, which has made best-sellers of obscure novels. There was a time when every unknown novelist's dream was Oprah picking their novel as her reading group's choice for the month. It was the equivalent of winning the literary lottery. Book clubs weren't really in vogue when she launched this idea for her show. Now, there are all kinds of book clubs (as much as I love reading, I have not found a book club worth joining. Most of them skew heavily towards women, and I've learned that my reading interests don't necessarily coincide with the kinds that women who are part of book clubs prefer).

Oprah's Book Club actually has two parts. The first part, in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, Oprah generally selected books by living writers who were unknown. She did them a favour by highlighting their novels and having her loyal audience rushing out to bookstores to lap them up. Then, she had to pick Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections in the early 2000s (2002?). This novel was already a best-seller and a critically acclaimed novel, so the author didn't need Oprah's endorsement to find success. It was successful in its own right. Unlike an unknown author who welcomed Oprah's attention, Franzen actually criticized Oprah and worried that her Book Club logo on his novel would somehow lessen the prestige of his own novel. He claimed that some of her previous Book Club selections were "schmaltzy." I actually agree with his assessment. I've tried to read some of her selections and I could not get into them. Blah! Feelings got hurt and Oprah decided to do away with her book club, claiming that no good novels were being published anymore.

The hiatus did not last long, however. In 2003, she re-started her Book Club by only choosing classics, such as John Steinbeck's East of Eden, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and others. Though it may have started out as focusing only on the classics by dead authors, she did eventually select non-fiction works by living writers. The most controversial one was James Frey:

James Frey wrote a memoir about his drug addiction and attempts at recovery in a book called A Million Little Pieces, which was actually a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. He achieved some recognition for his work and it may have stayed that way if Oprah hadn't brought her endorsement of his book to major media attention. Someone started digging and it turned out that some of Frey's claims were false. As the controversy grew, Frey admitted that he had written it as a novel, but his publisher thought it would sell better as a memoir. Call it the Milli Vanilli of the literary world! So, Oprah had to call him onto her show to explain himself. He made Oprah look bad, who didn't need another controversy after Jonathan Franzen's bruhaha.

The most interesting moment of synchronicity that I experienced with an Oprah Book Club selection was in 2009, when I saw paperback copies of Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth in a clearance sale at Powell's City of Books. I decided to buy a copy and read it. The bookstore had stacks of the book on sale at a bargain price of $7.98 or so. Not bad. I bought it just in time, though. Shortly afterwards, within a week or two, Oprah had selected that book as her club's next read. Like any good bookstore, Powell's no longer sold it at that price and sold them at the regular price as printed on the back cover (the full price)! Oprah single-handedly saved a book from remainder bin clearance sales! It was a great book club choice, though. I didn't get to see her discussion show on that book, but I was definitely interested in what she might've had to say about the ideas in that book. Very worth reading and discussing. Out of all of the books Oprah has selected in her book club, I would say that A New Earth is probably her most relevant choice. As I read it, I was dealing with the dramas of "School Marm" and this book helped me understand why School Marm behaved the way she did.

The Oprah brand extended to a monthly magazine. I can't remember what year, but Oprah devoted a season of her show to "Living Your Best Life." She swore off of the kind of guests that other talk shows loved to book. She wanted to make a deeper impact on her viewers, by inspiring them into making better choices and living life of purpose. Her feel good pop spirituality is not without its critics, though. The cynical materialists and the evangelicals seem to have a problem with her message of living life with gratitude, focusing on the positive, and embracing a universalist view of spirituality.

If that weren't enough, Oprah used her enormous wealth and influence to open up a school for girls in South Africa. Though there has also been controversy with this (particularly allegations of sexual abuse), I think its a great thing overall. Critics are just looking for faults, but is she to blame for what goes on in the school? She's not the administrator, only the founder and financier. The girls who get educated there have a chance to succeed in life. This is giving at its best.

Perhaps the biggest legacy of all (even more than her Book Club, magazine, and girl's school) is her endorsement of Barack Obama as president in 2008. It was the first time that she made a political endorsement. In 2000, she only invited both Gore and Bush onto her show, but she did not endorse either candidate. She just let them tell their stories and let her audience decide for themselves who they liked better.

Shortly after Barack Obama had won the Illinois Senate seat in 2004, Oprah invited him on her show. What I remember most about that show is that she had asked him about a laugh line from the show Will and Grace, where Grace was in the shower and claiming that Obama could "Barack her world!" Obama said that his wife did not find that line amusing. When Oprah endorsed Obama for president, I wasn't surprised. Both have made Chicago, Illinois their adoptive home. Both have unusual names with an "O". They are the same race. And as one African American intellectual writer had claimed in a book, both Oprah and Obama are what he calls "bargainers" (which is the belief that an African American person would make an unspoken "bargain" with white America that they would not talk about controversial racial issues if white America won't hold their race against them). I don't agree with that view, though. Neither Oprah nor Obama would be successful if they made a life hating white people or looking for a racial motive everywhere.

I read an article that made a convincing case that Oprah made Obama presidential. I can't remember who wrote the article, though I think it might be by the writer of the Freakonomics book. The article claimed that a lot of middle class white women watch Oprah, especially in Iowa. Without Oprah's endorsement, many might have voted for John Edwards or Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Caucus. Because Oprah has enormous influence and credibility, she made it feel "safe" to vote for Obama. Without Iowa's win, Obama might not have gained the momentum he needed. Hillary squeaked out a win in New Hampshire over Obama, but had John Edwards won Iowa, the dynamic of the Democratic primary could have been far different. The Oprah Effect is worth looking into. Its hard to imagine what the outcome might have been without her endorsement, because Obama's Iowa victory opened the door to victories elsewhere. As we saw in 2004, Iowans killed Howard Dean's campaign, who was leading in all the major polls. In 2008, John Edwards was expected to win the Iowa Caucus. So, Thank You, Oprah for saving us from that disaster!

Recently, Oprah launched her own network. I guess the Oxygen Network wasn't good enough. I haven't been able to access OWN, so I have no idea what kinds of shows it has on, but hopefully its consistent with her life's mission to inspire people to live their best lives. The world needs more positive programing.

Above is the best photo I've come across that show Oprah as how I see her. She's a dynamic woman who I actually find to be beautiful. That's the cool thing about someone with a beautiful soul. She may or may not be "physically beautiful" (beauty is in the eye of the beholder), but whenever I see her, I can definitely see beauty because her beauty is reflective of the shine from her inner soul. By contrast, some find Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann physically beautiful, but whenever I see pictures of that woman, I can't see her beauty at all. Bachmann appears ugly to me, and I'm not saying that to spite. Just wanted to make the point that the way one develops one's soul can have a huge impact on the way others see their physical selves...to the point where an average or okay looking person can appear more beautiful than they really are, whereas someone with an unattractive soul can make their outer appearance to be ugly or unattractive.

The world needs more people like Oprah Winfrey! I wish I could have seen more of her shows over the years. Maybe she can put them all on the Internet and index them, so I can click on the ones that feature the topics of interest to me. I have no idea what she intends to do next, but I hope she's aiming bigger. She is the wealthiest woman in America and has the influence and credibility to make a huge impact for our country. I'd love to see her get involved in helping to lead America towards a more spiritual culture and away from the crass materialism it embraces today. I'm certain that in her absence from daytime television, others will rush in to fill the void. However, they are merely imitators. There will never be another Oprah, just as there will never be another Michael Jackson. He was the King of Pop and Oprah is the Queen of Television. Best wishes in your future endeavors!

As a treat, here's a video of the first song I heard by The Jets back in 1986. I wonder if Oprah ever got her answer about how this family lived in a house with only one bathroom. Hopefully the members of that family had smaller families of their own when they all grew up. The song title is very appropriate for Oprah: "You Got It All"!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Would You Buy Snake Oil From This CONgressman?

Sometime last year, I saw a Charlie Rose interview with Congressman Paul Ryan and I was actually impressed. This was the first time I heard about him and I was surprised that there was actually an articulate Republican politician who seemed to have a grasp of economics. That was then. This is now.

After his dismal Republican Response to President Obama's State of the Union Address earlier this year, I wondered what happened to him. Someone must have gotten to him after the mid-term elections. No longer is he a reasonable and principled politician who wants to do the right thing. He's drunk the GOP Kool-Aid. He's an ideologue now. Just another in a long line of Republicans who have made it a career objective to destroy FDR / Truman's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society.

It is no well-kept secret that the Republicans want to destroy the social safety net and return America to the days of the Robber Barons at the turn of the 20th century (the President William McKinley days). What did George W. Bush want to do after the 2004 elections, when he claimed to have a mandate and "political capital" that he intended to use? That's right. He wanted to privatize Social Security. Fortunately, the good sense of the American people (often in doubt) did not falter on this one. Bush's Social Security Reform plans were considered "D.O.A." (Dead on Arrival). A few months later, Hurricane Katrina turned New Orleans into a lake and Bush never recovered his presidency (his approval ratings never got above 40% after Katrina). What Bush did manage to accomplish, though, was squander the surplus that his predecessor left behind. Then rack up a huge debt that actually make big spender Ronald Reagan look like a frugal tightwad and penny-pincher.

I've read in some essays that there is a belief that the reason why Republicans rack up so much debt during their presidencies is because this forces the Democratic president who follows to clean up their mess, thus never getting a chance to initiate their dream list (like, say, Single Payer Universal Health Care or tuition-free college education at state-run universities). Another reason the 2000 election had to be stolen: there is no way the Republicans want a Democratic president to inherit a surplus. This is why, if you look at history over the past 125 years, Republicans leave office in a recession (or Depression) and Democrats spend most of their time bringing the economy back to life.

Now comes the latest scheme. The Republicans have tapped fresh-faced, boyish looking Paul Ryan (seriously...is he old enough to drive a car, yet?) to act as their snake-oil salesman in their never-ending quest to turn America into a feudal serfdom. I can imagine a lot of grannies wanting to pinch Ryan's cheek and flirt with him, while in secret, he's working to cut out their medicare payments so they could have the decency to just die already (the "death panels" that Sarah Palin had accused President Obama's Health Care Reform plan of wanting to establish is actually more fitting of a typical Health Management Organization. Insurance companies don't want to pay out because it hurts their CEOs salaries and stockholders). The Republicans are so cynical in how they use physical looks to distract the superficial while they deliver the body blow like some two-bit mafia goon. Paul Ryan reminds me of Ralph Reed, the boyish-looking leader of the Christian Coalition in the 1990s (since Pat Robertson simply scared too many people to be an effective face for politically active conservative Christians). Paul Ryan looks like the boy next door. The sweet neighbour that girls have crushes on. If they made a movie about his life, Paul Rudd would be the natural actor to star as Congressman Ryan. But don't let those baby blue eyes fool you. Congressman Paul Ryan is nothing more than a snake oil charmer who would sell you down the river to make a quick buck.

Its funny to hear Republicans scream about the debt crisis, when this was not even a concern or an issue worth debating when their beloved leader was running up huge deficits in the previous decade. First with the tax cuts in 2001, then with the launching of two expensive wars on credit from Chinese bankers. Then another tax cut on top of that, followed by a stimulus tax rebate to every adult American citizen in the amount of $600 to spend as we saw fit (mine paid for a vacation to San Diego). Not one word out of any Republican's mouth about any of that. They truly are the Lemming Party: follow the leader, even if he leads you off a cliff!

Now, with a Democratic president, deficits finally matter (Vice President Dick Cheney famously said: "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter." Where is such talk today?). But it apparently does not matter enough, because the Republicans will not budge on ending the tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. This inability to compromise means that the wealthiest Americans are willing to screw everyone else just so that they can have more money in which to buy more politicians to vote their way. Its such greedy unwillingness to sacrifice for the good of the country that makes me hope that what Jesus said is true: that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. These greedy, wealthy bastards should go straight to hell when they die. It is unpatriotic to demand more and more money at taxpayer expense. They already have more money than they know what to do with. When you live in a mega-mansion, you already wasted money on frivolous stuff and should have to pay higher taxes for the impact on the planet your lifestyle has.

So now, the latest push is to privatize the Medicare system, which is considered one of the most popular government programs. Even teabaggers who rally against the government are enamored of their Medicare (as signs seen at rallies attested to their ignorance: "Keep gubmint hands off my Medicare!"). To dismantle this program, the Republicans have dusted off the old standby: vouchers! Vouchers have been their answer for public education, which they've been pushing since the 1970s. It has never gained traction, though. Although the average American can be conned into voting against their economic self-interest in election after election, there still seems to be a baseline of conscience somewhere in the mix. Or an understanding of how awful vouchers truly are. I guess most Americans can see through that scheme, because right now, all children are required by law to go to school (at least until they reach the age when they can legally drop-out) and public education is free. If the Republicans had their way, public schools would be abolished and each parent would be given a voucher for each child that is equal to how much the school cost per child per year. Of course, this is very difficult to pin down to a number, because school budgets depend on the district and a lot of other factors. One can take a school's annual budget and divide by the number of students, but that still does not reflect that actual cost of an education.

The scary thing about vouchers is that each parent would only get a certain amount per child. They would take it to the various private schools to redeem, yet there is nothing stopping the private school to raise their tuition rates above the voucher amount, to screen out poorer families. Middle class parents wanting to enroll their children in a good school would have no choice but to pay out of pocket expenses on education that should be free (and has been for centuries). Its a scam.

Its pretty shocking when both the Wall Street Journal and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich have attacked Ryan's Medicare voucher plan as extreme. Gingrich, himself, got into serious trouble with his party when he called the plan an extremist right-wing agenda, which is going to play very well next year for Democrats all over the country. The retirees are the most consistent and heavy voting demographic group in our country and by promoting a voucher plan to drain Medicare, the Republicans are going to lose big on this one, as the recent special election in a very Republican district of upstate New York has proven on Tuesday. This was a district that once reelected Chris Lee by a whopping 50% points higher than his rival last November. This Chris Lee happens to be the Congressman who responded to a Craigslist ad with a shirtless photo of himself and claiming to be a single lobbyist (rather than a very married Congressman). Gotta love the Republicans in their complete lack of morality. What does it say about a political party when an amoral presidential candidate is calling them out on their lack of compassion? I mean, Gingrich is the guy who ditched his first wife when she was recovering from surgery in the hospital!!!

So, thank you Gingrich for speaking the truth once in your life. Feels good, doesn't it? Its about time some Republicans stop drinking the ideological Kool-Aid and call out their party's bad ideas. I honestly can't wait for the debates to begin for the 2012 elections. Each and every single time the American people have given the Republicans a chance, this party has abused that trust. I really hope that voters wise up finally and realize that the Republican Party cannot be trusted with power under any circumstances. As the years roll by and they keep trying to chip away at the foundation of what makes our country great, the more I despise the Republican Party. I wish they would make like Sampson and just utterly, completely destroy themselves and let the rest of us build an America that offers universal health care under a single payer, where college education is affordable, if not free, for those who are serious about learning, and where truthful debate flourishes. The hucksters and con men belong to a different era: the days before the Information Age. Paul Ryan is just one such person. Nope, those blue eyes on a boyish face don't fool me none.

Should we be surprised, though? Paul Ryan had said that it was his reading of Ayn Rand books that got him interested in a political career. Really? Her brand of selfishness and unrealistic portrayal of human society was the inspiring fire that ignited his political aspirations? That's actually pretty scary. The news also came out recently that Ryan was a recipient of Social Security when he was a teenager, after his father had died. Another typical example of something being good enough for a Republican, but not good enough for anyone else.

Well guess what, Mr. Ryan. You can take your medicare voucher and go straight to hell where you came from. You are nothing but a con artist trying to destroy the lives of millions. How do you sleep at night? I truly hope that the voters of Wisconsin wake up to the nightmare that they've unleashed on the country (with the reelection of Congressman Ryan, the election of Governor Scott Walker and his union-busting agenda, and the election of a Reality TV star, Sean Duffy to Congress). Haven't they learned the lesson that their Senator Joseph McCarthy taught us back in the 1950s? Sometimes the real enemy is not out there (in Pakistan or Iran), but within. And I don't mean "reds in government" like McCarthy meant it. Red is considered the Republican colour and that is what's wrong with our country: too many reds in government, trying every which way to destroy all that is good about society. No thanks. Looking forward to 2012, when the retirees vote in droves against the Republican Party. Yeah, it will feel like the end of the world for every Republican when they are voted out of office.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Another Milestone

On Tuesday, at 12:24 p.m., someone in Juneau, Alaska did a Google search on "drugs" and became the 200,000th hit on my blog. Amazing! I added a hit counter to my blog a year and a few months after I started blogging. Two years later, I reached the milestone of 100,000. Now, a year later, I have doubled that. And I might have reached this milestone sooner if I had not privatized my blog for a few months late last year to prevent my former employers from reading it.

May has also broken other records. There's still a week left in the month and I already have more than 13,000 hits this month (only a couple times has my blog passed the 10,000 mark). A lot of this has to do with my anti-drug post, which is still the most popular post I've written in over a year. I have no clue why this post has attracted such attention in people's Internet search, but I saw a disturbing thing a week or so ago when I looked at my statistical data tracker. Someone in Montpelier, France (a university town where I once dreamed of doing a semester abroad during college) did a Google search on a phrase that turned out to be a word-for-word phrase from my anti-drug post! Then, a few hours later, there was another hit on the same phrase from someone in Mexico. These were the only two incidents in the thousands of hits that this controversial post have snagged. How is it possible for someone to do a Google search on an exact phrase that came from my mind? The obvious answer is that someone might have lifted my post for a paper and a professor was doing a check on the Internet for plagiarism. This has happened before with a blog post of mine and the only reason why I knew about it before was because the person had found my blog post through a plagiarism check website.

If people are lifting words and ideas from my blog for papers they are submitting to professors, I'm more flattered than anything else. After all, I ghostwrite for someone and that person truly needs my writing ability to have a coherent paper. Since so many people are coming across my anti-drug post, I hope my thoughts and ideas will have a good influence on people. There were some nasty comments that various readers have left, which baffled me that drug-users are so defensive about their habits. I know marijuana users like to think of their drug of choice as being relatively harmless, but the facts are undeniable: regular use can contribute to memory loss, lack of ambition, increased appetite (especially of junk food), poor judgements, and even impotence in males. Who wants any of that?

Above is a photo that I found in a Google image search of Juneau, Alaska, which is a popular cruise line stop. It is also the capital city of the great state of Alaska, where Sarah Palin once worked. An Alaska cruise is on my list of things to experience before I pass on to the spiritual realm. Its the #1 cruise I would like to experience (the Panama Canal Zone is #2).

So, here's a happy congratulations to my blog for passing the 200,000 mark. The next major milestone will be 250,000 and I predict that I will cross that mark by September.

In other news, another person de-friended me on Facebook. This came as a shock, because we had an interesting dialogue on spirituality / religion just last week. He did not like my comments about how the Republican Party views Affirmative Action. Here's what he said: "you sound like an old school white-supremacist Nicholas. run-of-the-mill fake Republican, not an original thought in your bow-tied body. I posted a few weeks ago on my wall "if you think like the Klan, defriend me now, please". You didn't defriend me! So I'll have to do that for you."

Okay. Weird! My friend Michael, though, posted that I shouldn't consider it a loss that this guy had de-friended me. I agree. I don't know the guy. He had friend-requested me several months ago, aparently because he liked what I wrote in comments on someone else's Facebook wall. In all our dialogues in the following months, I never could get a handle on the guy. He seemed like a chameleon to me or a shapeshifter. He had no consistent message and made arguments out of both sides of his mouth. He would write something, then something opposite and then delete his previous statement. Even more odd, he would make comments that did not relate to what was being discussed, which did not make logical sense and were hard to understand. He was a strange guy, so it's not really a loss to have him de-friend me. His final comment only proves how strange he is, because he didn't seem to understand what I was saying in my comment.

It was about Herman Cain's announcement that he was running for the Republican nomination for president in 2012. I had written that Cain couldn't even get elected as senator in Georgia, so how would he get the 270 electoral votes that it takes to win the White House. Since I'm from Georgia, I think I have a clue about the politics of that state. There is no way that the conservative Republican voters of Georgia are going to vote for a black man or woman to the Senate or the Governorship. The Confederacy still lives on in Georgia. Teabaggers might like Cain's views, but a part of that could be their need to prove to the country that they aren't "racist" like their protest signs portray them as. Its that whole defensive, "Some of my best friends are black!" Yeah, right.

My point about Affirmative Action is that Republicans have always criticized it as "promoting an inexperienced minority or female over a more qualified white person." This is a real fear that many people have and it is an issue. The Democratic Party believes that Affirmative Action helps correct the mistakes made when minorities and women were denied promotions in favour of white males. Its not a perfect system. The 2008 election illustrated perfectly how the two parties viewed Affirmative Action, because it was an "Affirmative Action election." On the Democratic side, there was the usual lineup of white male politicians, as we've seen in every election since the establishment of our government. In addition, there was a Hispanic candidate who had the best resume of any presidential hopeful: Bill Richardson. There was Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was considered the first viable female candidate for president. And then there was Barack Obama, who only won his Senate seat in the previous presidential election year. He was inexperienced and the Democratic primary voters and caucus goers made him the nominee (bypassing more experienced white male candidates).

On the Republican side, John McCain selected the least qualified female politician to be his running mate (bypassing such qualified female Republicans as Condoleezza Rice, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Elizabeth Dole, and Christine Todd Whitman). The competence of Palin is highly dubious, yet it didn't matter. Strange, isn't it, that a political party that claims that Affirmative Action promotes the inexperienced minority (which female candidates are, by the small numbers they occupy in politics despite being a little over 50% of the population) over the qualified male candidate (in 2008, all of the primary candidates were white males).

After Obama got elected as president, in which Americans endorsed Affirmative Action by choosing an inexperienced minority candidate over the experienced white male candidate, the Republicans selected Michael Steele to be the Republican National Committee Chairman. Call it the Obama-effect. Because the Democrats "went black", the Republicans had to prove that they weren't racist (in spite of the evidence taken from the McCain and Palin rallies with their Curious George dolls wearing Obama buttons and the race baiting comments in stump speeches) by selecting an unknown black Republican. The tenure of Steele proved disasterous, as he was incompetent and often had to backtrack on his comments to appease Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. The replacement RNC chair is another white guy.

Now, Herman Cain is running to prove that the teabaggers aren't "racist." What political experience does he have? Nada. Funny how the teabaggers take issue with Obama's "inexperience" but their support of the equally inexperienced Sarah Palin and even less experienced Herman Cain is irrelevant. Cain is best known as the CEO of Godfather's Pizza. Sorry, but that's not enough of a qualifier for the job of president. Try again. Besides, like the teabaggers and Republicans are really going to want a presidential election in which they have to choose between two black men. I just don't see them as that liberated.

In the interest of disclosure, I will state here and now that I am pro-Affirmative Action. However, competence matters. Inexperience is an issue, but it needs to be balanced with other criteria. For me, Obama's inexperience was a small issue of concern in the 2008 election, but the combination of his life experience / personal narrative, his intelligence, and his vision, I thought he was the best candidate for this challenging period. I also loved his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention about ending the culture wars and not letting political issues divide us from each other. I thought Hillary was too divisive (not her fault, but it would still pose a problem in getting things done), but I heard several Republicans liking Obama. I had no idea that as soon as he was sworn in, an astro-turf movement would pop up with all kinds of lies and obsessions about his religion, birthplace, and political views. I look at the whole of a person and I also knew that Obama's election wouldn't just be good for the country, but also for the world. Hundreds of millions of people around the world were hoping and praying for Obama to win. So many people want to claim him: Kenyans, Indonesians, Arabs, and even the Irish!

The point is that Obama's fast rise to the top of the political world represents exactly how Affirmative Action should work if its done correctly. By contrast, the Republican scheme is nothing more than "tokenism" similar to how the apartheid government in South Africa created "African homelands" to show the world that they do allow black people to "vote" (in sham elections of no real consequence). The Republicans cynically use a person's race or gender to supposedly give voters what they want, but don't think that voters can tell the difference between a Hillary Clinton and a Sarah Palin or a Barack Obama from a Michael Steele (or Herman Cain). As their beloved president once loved to say: "Bring it on!" Bitches.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Music Video Monday: Extreme

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the day I left Basic Training. After nine weeks, I entered a boy and returned home a man. It was an exhilirating day. I made it without being set back in training (my biggest fear). On the final day, I was the last person up in the morning. I woke up and everyone was already up and doing last minute things, such as packing their seabags, cleaning the barracks for the last time, exchanging personal information with guys they wanted to keep in touch with. The day was euphoric bliss for me. In fact, the last few weeks of Basic Training was for me. We had our pass in review ceremony on May 17th (a Friday) and our uncontrolled liberty day. My family drove down to Orlando, Florida and took me to Disneyworld's The Magic Kingdom (even though I wanted to see Epcot Center).

On this day, those of us in the company with an "A" School billet boarded a bus to go to the airport. Most of us were taking two weeks leave before reporting to our various "A" Schools. I knew that I would see a few guys from my company in Meridian, Mississippi in a couple weeks. Those who didn't have an "A" School billet were the unlucky ones. They had to march to a different part of the Naval base called "AT Land" where they had three additional weeks of training in basic seamanship, firemanship, or airmanship before reporting on board whatever ship the Navy assigned them. Had I enlisted for only two years like I originally planned, I would have gone to "AT Land" and then to the ghetto of whatever ship I was assigned. The Navy guy at MEPS (where the enlistment process begins for every recruit in all branches of the military) convinced me to sign up for four years to get a guaranteed "A" School assignment. That made all the difference in the world. As I learned on my first ship, the recruits who went to their ships as undesignated seaman, fireman, or airman faced a harsh fate in the department that got them. Hazing was a real threat for newbies in Deck Department (or Air Department on aircraft carriers). I learned that basic IQ / intelligence made a huge difference in the mindset of people. I was very lucky, indeed.

This week's music video is "More Than Words" by Extreme, which was a huge hit for the guys in C093 (my company in Basic Training at RTC Orlando 1991). One guy's girlfriend had sent him a cassette single of this song and it became one of our company's evening ritual, listening to this song (as well as other songs). I can't tell you the kind of "magical feeling" that fills you after a long, challenging day at Basic Training and unwinding in the evening before bed by listening to the radio or a song like this. This song has a strong identification with my company and the boot camp experience, even though the "official song" for me is Wilson Phillips' "The Dream is Still Alive" (which I first heard in Basic Training).

Twenty years later, my Navy Basic Training experience still remains as THE GREATEST EXPERIENCE OF MY LIFE (yes, even more than my White House internship, which I rank as #2). For me, it was a rite of passage: the moment I became a man. More than two months earlier, I had come down to Orlando a slightly nervous teenager with five or six other guys. On this day twenty years ago, I returned to Atlanta alone, in my uniform. When I arrived back in my old bedroom, it felt strange. I also didn't know what to do with myself because for two months, every minute of my day was regimented and I was never alone. This was the first moment in nine weeks that I was alone and the only thing I could do was cry.

During my two weeks at home, I spent one week working for my Navy recruiter so I would only be charged for five days vacation, instead of ten. My job included calling friends to get them in to see a recruiter, visiting my old high school, and answering questions that newly enlisted young men had about basic training. I also got my driver's license, which caused other people at the testing center to watch me since the only car my parents had was a VW Vanagon and I had to parallel park that thing, which I did without knocking over the traffic cones. After two weeks at home, which included a request for me to wear my uniform to church, I was off to two months of my "A" School experience, which had its own set of unique experiences. The interesting thing is that while in the beginning, I hung out with my fellow C093 companymates, once my class formed, I gained new friends who were in a different company at RTC Orlando and hung out with them more. My "A" School experience had its own soundtrack and adventures.

Ah...those were the days!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Welcome to the Rest of Your Life

If you're reading this, you obviously didn't get raptured. But the good news is that neither did anyone else. I read some articles about the aftermath for the true believers. I was most interested in the man who cashed out his retirement savings of $140,000 to buy billboard ads such as the kind pictured above. He said that he was baffled that nothing happened. He can't figure out why nothing happened. Um...because you got punk'd?!? I know the preacher Harold Camping claimed that there was no doubt that the rapture would occur on Saturday. His radio station guaranteed their devoted listeners that this would happen on Saturday, May 21st at 6 p.m. in EACH time zone!!! How ludicrous is that? He thought as soon as it turned 6 p.m. in each time zone, a major earthquake would strike, destroying cities with only the righteous getting raptured. When 6 p.m. came and went in places like Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and China...we in the western hemisphere did not hear any news reports about major earthquakes happening. By days end, no reports of people flying in the air. There were about 7 earthquakes ranging from 3.0 to 7.0 around the world, but this is normal. And Iceland's most active volcano has erupted again, sending ashes into the air, which may affect flights to and within Europe again. But none of these natural occurences caused a disappearance of 200 million people.

I'm not going to mock with derision those who really believed that they were going to be raptured. I can understand their disappointment. They really believed what they were told. But it is time for them to face the facts: they are gullible and need to learn how to protect themselves from charlatans and hucksters, which I believe Harold Camping most definitely is. There were reports that he had amassed millions of dollars in recent weeks from all the donations. So, if he really believed the rapture was happening, why hold on to the money? Hedging his bets, maybe? Which is ironic, because the true believers were supposed to believe with zero doubts. Their beliefs had to be absolute, otherwise God wouldn't rapture them. Those who had quit their jobs are the biggest fools of all. Should they get their old jobs back? Hell no. If I were a hiring manager and some employee quit because he or she believed that the rapture was upon us and they wanted to enjoy their last few days on earth, I would not hire them back no matter how good of an employee they were. Their credibility is shot.

I know about gullible people because I see how it works in my brother's involvement with the people in his life. He has no ability to defend himself against predators who somehow manage every payday to get part of his income by whatever conning flattery or get-rich quick scheme they can come up with. Whenever I bring it up with him, he gets very upset and defensive so I've given up on trying to help him. I've gotten criticism from some people for not doing anything about it, but what can you do? He doesn't listen to the advice of family members (none of us wanting a penny from him) and gets defensive about his "friends" (who manage to con him out of money). I've always liked the expression "God helps those who help themselves." The phrase can be misinterpreted, though, and used to justify ignoring any suffering, but the sense I get out of it is that you really can't help people because they have to want to change. My brother has to become so sick of being taken advantaged of by his "friends" and the evangelical church he attends that he decides to break off contact with his leeches. That's unlikely to happen, though, because he gets lonely too easily and depends on other people entirely too much. I'm the opposite. I'd rather be alone than be around someone who is draining my energy or using me. I don't get lonely very easy (its what I call my "monk mode" because as long as I have a book to read, I'm learning something and you can never learn too much).

So, because of what I've witnessed in my brother's life for more than 20 years now (since our graduation from high school), I really have a low opinion of charlatans and hucksters who prey on the naive, the gullible, and those with a mental disability (and an inability to recognize the kind of people one should not trust at all). I really hope people will sue Harold Camping for his deceit. I'd also love to banish Camping, along with Qur'an burner Terry Jones, and obscene military funeral protester Fred Phelps to Pakistan to preach their ugly brands of Christianity to the hardcore Islamic radicals. I bet they wouldn't survive 48 hours in Pakistan. According to the news, Camping has not made any public appearances or addressed the non-rapture on his radio station. Is it out of shame? Embarrassment? Consulting lawyers to spin this? Working his fuzzy math equations to find out the correct date this time? No really. Its a 200% guarantee that it'll happen. Maybe we should update the morality tale that all children are familiar with: The Boy Who Cried Wolf. We can call it The Preacher Who Cried Rapture. He's zero for two (his 1994 date came and went with no rapturing Christians). I don't know if he feels awful about this. How would an authentic spiritual person react if he knew that his confidence about some event had caused many gullible people to abruptly change their lives because they wanted this for themselves? I wouldn't be surprised if he committed suicide over this.

Anyhow, I spent Saturday afternoon at the New Renaissance Bookstore, attending a lecture called "Clearing Your Clutter" (or maybe it should have been called "Rapturing Your Clutter"!). It was a three hour event by a space clearer. There were nine of us: 7 women and 2 men, all of them Baby Boomers except for me (why am I always the youngest person at these spiritual lectures?). The lady kind of resembled Sally Fields, which I liked. She had my attention the whole time. She had everyone introduce ourselves and say why we were there. I wasn't sure I was going to attend this lecture / workshop, but since my goal is to reduce my things by a significant amount before summer ends, I figured I needed help breaking my "pack-rattiness" that I inherited from my father, who inherited it from his mother. Interestingly, my father, myself, and my brother have the "packrat gene", but my mother and sister do not. I wish I had my sister's gene!

My brother has the worst case of it, because he's actually what would rightfully be called a hoarder. When I helped him move from one apartment to another one in 2008, I was shocked that all his assurances that he was packed and ready to go was a lie. He wasn't packed because he was overwhelmed. I could see the expression on his face that he was panicked and didn't know where to begin packing. When I helped him try to sort through stuff, he wouldn't let me throw out a lot of junk, such as a plastic tub full of old cellphones. He had bags of bicycle tire innertubes. He had a drawer full of video game joysticks. He had about two dozen backpacks, some with children's names on them (my brother is a custodian at a school and he'll save whatever he finds in the lost and found if no one claims them). He had bulky exercise equipment that I know that he doesn't use (such as "The Gazelle"!). It was hell trying to convince him to put most of that stuff in the dumpster.

My problem is paper. I'm an infomation junkie. And, as I learned at this session, I'm also an "archivist." I'd like to be cured of this. Its a curse. However, it was nice to hear other people's stories about being packrats. One lady said that she has been on a purging binge lately. Another lady went on a bit too long about her life story and I worried that she was going to be one of those. You know, the chatty kind who makes any seminar or workshop all about her. "I need attention!" I hate those types. I didn't pay money to hear her life story, I wanted to hear the expert talk, which she did. But there were two women who seemed to hog the limelight any chance they could get. The neuroticism in some middle aged women is annoying. The other guy and myself were quiet listeners. No surprise. I've been to enough of these things to realize that it attracts a mainly female, Baby Boomer crowd and these women love to gab as though they were Kathy Lee Gifford.

In the picture above (not mine, but swiped in a Google image search), that's what clutter can do to a room. Take a good look at it. How do you feel? Edgy, right? Clutter has an amazing effect to make energy become "stuck." The space clearer lady who was facilitating this gave a general rundown of our spirituality, by describing the physical, astral, etheric, and Ego bodies. She said that the clutter affects the "astral body", which can affect our lives in ways we don't even imagine. She's helped a lot of people de-clutter their lives and has seen a remarkable change in people who were able to let go of things they did not need, no longer wanted, or held them in the past. This space clearing in our physical living space will ultimately clear out our astral bodies.

Much of the session was centered on the spiritual principles of energy, chi, Feng Shui, Universal Law of Attraction, astrology and even past lives. No one batted an eye to any of her New Agey talk, but as I listened to her, I couldn't help but think of how an atheist packrat might react to her "woo-woo talk." If one does not believe in an astral body or etheric body or that by clearing the clutter, the mind will clear and the things you really want will start showing up in your life, they might reject everything she had to say. One example of her "New Age talk" is that she said, "My Saturn likes to organize my closet, but my Venus likes to organize by colour because I like things to look pretty." I've been too intimidated and even lazy to conquer my boxes of paperwork. As I've told friends before, I'm like a one-man bureaucracy. Time to streamline, baby.

She said that its best to have a big goal to work towards, so I decided on one after the session ended. My goal is that I will reduce my belongings to a manageable level and maintain a more efficient system because I don't want to burden my future wife with my "stuff." Sometimes I wonder if all this paper is what has been keeping me from attracting the woman of my dreams. So, this summer will be one of discovery, to see if the woo-woo is true. By reducing my clutter, will it really change my life in ways I can't even see right now? The other thing I hope to get out of this reduction is a better paying job (that includes travel!). So, this is my summer project.

It can be done. In the summer of 2008, I returned to Atlanta to meet my future brother-in-law as well as to take my belongings out of storage and get rid of as much as possible. I had a week to do it and I was so overwhelmed. Long days / nights, learning to accept the annoyance of mosquito bites and the sweltering heat as I went through box after box and sorted into three different piles. I managed to reduce it. Because I was crunched for time, I could not deliberate over much. I had to get rid of my cool looking bamboo-designed drinking glasses and dinner plates. My rattan and bamboo tables, bookshelves, and end tables were given away. I off-loaded more than 300 books, most of which I had not had a chance to read nor will I buy again. It was a chore. I even had boxes of newspapers, covering such events as the 1996 Olympic Games. Recycle bin. I had several boxes of printed articles from online websites. I had bank statements and cancelled checks dating back to 1990. All that had to be shredded. It was actually fun going through stuff and reducing what I had. It can be done and it should be done daily. The problem is, I would rather read a book a lot of the times. However, I realize that I can reduce my things in the evening when I listen to Coast to Coast AM for four hours a night before bedtime. If I work on one box a night, eventually, I will complete my task. I already have big clearing plans for the Memorial Day weekend. But I will have schedule some time to do fun things next weekend, too.

The photo above shows how much better organization looks. Despite the chaos at home (only my bedroom...the rest of the house is pretty zen), my cubicle is actually organized. I don't know why I am much more orderly and efficient at work than I am at home. Its always been this way. One thing I learned in this session is that clutter actually does make you lethargic and lazy. Sometimes I'll come home from work, eat, and sit on the futon reading a book, then wake up hours later with the light still on, my work clothes still on, my glasses on the floor. So, maybe there is something to this idea. Perhaps instead of laying down to read a book after dinner, I should just work on clutter control. It is amazing that I feel more energized when I'm cleaning up my room and throwing things out, putting information into files, setting up organizing systems. Its a process. Here's to a great summer clearing!

In honour of the Rapture that didn't happen, I am posting the classic Blondie video "Rapture." I loved this song as a kid. Blondie was my favourite band at the time because of the brilliance of their Autoamerican album. Deborah Harry's rap always made me laugh. Its pretty bad, but I didn't know what rap was at the time (I learned in 1985 with Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J and Run DMC). Enjoy!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rapture Day and Why I Have Better Things to Do

Today has arrived. The day of doom by an extremist group of Christians who believe the predictions of some preacher named Harold Camping. I'm not sure why the media has spent so much time talking about this. Predictions of the end of the world are so commonplace that its not really newsworthy. After all, this preacher, Camping, had predicted that the world would end in 1994, yet we're still here and we have nearly a billion more people on the planet than we did in 1994. Rapture is supposed to lessen the world's population, not increase it!

What I don't understand about the media and people is that if someone makes a claim that has proven false before, why does he have credibility for a new prediction? Why give him attention? Camping has the same degree of looniness as the Florida preacher who burned a Qur'an. Unfortunately, though, there are gullible saps who really believe that Camping knows what he's talking about and some low-rent Christian television stations have stated that there is an "absolute guarantee" that the rapture will occur today at 6 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. They have "no doubts" that it will happen. One man in his 60s cashed in his retirement savings of $140,000 to buy billboard ads proclaiming that May 21st is rapture day. Come Sunday morning, how's he going to feel when he realizes that he had just squandered his life savings for a hoax? I wish I had that amount of money in my bank account! I'd use a small portion to travel the world. I've read some articles that mention people quitting their jobs, selling their homes, giving away their belongings, all in preparation for this event. A group of atheists found a way to make money by agreeing to look after the left behind pets of "true believer Christians" who believe that they will be among the ones raptured. Of course, the atheists have a non-refundable policy. It might sound humourous to some, but I consider the same as stealing. Just because someone is not rational or is a gullible sap doesn't mean its ethically right to take advantage of them financially.

In my last job in Atlanta, I worked with an evangelical Christian lady who believes that she will be raptured. However, though I'm not in touch with her, I'm certain that even she would joke about today being the day. Most Christians who believe in the idea of rapture also believe the verse in the Book of Matthew, which states that no man, nor the angels in heaven, nor Jesus himself knows the day that God had selected for the end of the world and Christ's return. The point of being an authentic Christians is to live each day what you claim to believe and not worry about what may or may not happen.

I've heard about rapture since I was a young child. My mom used to tell me about it and it sounded scary to me. As I grew into a skeptical person in my late teens and early adulthood, I began to examine the whole meaning behind rapture, the end of the world, and what it means when God gave us "free will." The conclusion I came up with is that rapture and the end of the world, with Jesus' return, would represent a violation of the free will that God gives each person born on earth. The reason why God's existence cannot be proven by science is because He's not meant to. There are mysterious events that happen in every person's life (such as coincidences and synchronicity, law of attraction manifestations, prayers being answered, little miracles that even defy doctors and atheists). Its up to us to search for answers to life's mysteries. If everyone knew that God exists because we can see Him like we see a tree in our yard, what would the point be in self discovery for this journey that we're all on?

The belief in rapture is ludicrous to me because a lot of people who believe that they will be the ones raptured actually behave in ways that indicate that they have no clue what Jesus was really about. In the South, I would occasionally see cars with a frame around their license plates that said: "Warning: In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned." The rapture scene in the first Left Behind movie was frightening, as people disappeared on planes in flight, babies disappeared from the wombs of their mothers, and cars crashing because the drivers suddenly disappeared. All ludicrous. This belief in the rapture is based on the idea that our world exists in linear time, that God created the world less than 7,000 years ago and will destroy the earth any day now because we imperfect humans have so angered God that we deserve death and destruction and eternal torment in the firey pits of hell. The reward for "true believers" is that God will make them disappear before the days of tribulation occur, sparing them the pain and suffering of a world gone to hell. They will get to meet Jesus in the air, as some ancient passage in the Bible proclaims.

I find such thinking preposterous on several levels. For one, many of the most fanatical true believers are still rooted in ego. Despite their ignorance of history, psychology, spirituality, and other cultures, they believe that they are the elect that God would save, even though many of them probably voted for Republicans since the 1980s and are thus complicit in the greed and war-mongering that has occurred in the past 30 years. This belief in rapture is the ultimate in avoiding responsibilities for one's conduct on earth. They will be magically spared the sins of the karma they planted and watered all these years. Sorry, life doesn't work that way. We don't escape our karmic debts that easily.

The second aspect of this ludicrous way of thinking is that it encourages an egotistical view of spirituality. These "devout, true believers" will be saved while those who have doubts or are skeptics, or perhaps even just "Sunday Christians" are left behind to deal with the tribulation. In one article I read, the author was actually compassionate towards those who really believe they will be raptured tonight. In his attempt to understand the mindset of such people, he can see where the fear stems from. We've seen for several decades now that the wealth keeps getting concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Wages for everyone has not kept up with inflation and in terms of actual purchasing power, the average salary today is worth less than the average salary in the 1970s. To use a more concrete example, my dad was able to buy a three bedroom ranch house in Lawrence, Kansas in the mid-1970s for $15,000. He was a college student who just got out of the Air Force and was in an ROTC program to become an officer. Today, that house is probably worth more than $150,000, yet how many college students today can afford to buy a house? Another example: I'm making the exact same amount of money as I did in 1996, when I had zero debt, no college degree, and I owned a car. My college degree has not helped me to find a better paying job. I'm not unique in this regard. Many people I know with college degrees are underemployed, underpaid, and stuck in jobs they aren't passionate about. With such stagnant economy made worse by the Bush years, its easy to understand why some people just want an end to their miseries by any means necessary. Being raptured away from all of it and meeting Jesus sounds like a great deal to these people.

The best idea of rapture that I've ever come across is from The Celestine Prophecy and its sequel. In it, the author writes about the idea that as we become more spiritual in how we live our lives, that there will come a point in time where our bodies will be transformed from the physical into energies of light. The ability to transform our bodies and "disappear" to those who aren't spiritual is supposedly the point of human evolution. The day will come when heaven and earth will join together and humans will be able to see those who have passed over long ago. There will no longer be any fear of death because humans will see that only the human body dies, not the spirit. To me, this is a more beautiful example of rapture might really be about. In this case, though, becoming spiritual is an active process. The Christian version is passive and reflects a belief that by being obedient to your religious leader, you will be saved. It requires no personal study about spirituality nor the active involvement of working towards greater spiritual understanding and living your life in a way that enhances the quality of life for oneself and other people. Voting for politicians who advocate a selfish existence (much of the Republican Party, I'm afraid) is not helping to enhance a more spiritual life on earth. In fact, its doing the very opposite. So, these "rapture-ready" Christians have a long way to go before they ever transform into beings of light.

Another idea I heard regarding rapture was at BYU, when a religion professor said that no human can have a physical encounter with God and survive. The reason for this is because the intensity of God's love for us is so powerful that our bodies would explode. Thus, in order to "meet" God face-to-face, our bodies have to be "translated" into light form. When I heard it at the time, I thought it was ludicrous. But when I had my spiritual enlightenment experience in August 2001, it was so intense that I really thought my body was going to explode! Then I understood what the professor at BYU was talking about. I have to say that I agree with that viewpoint, as well.

My sincerest wish for any Christian who might be reading this (particularly those who believe in rapture and the end times prophecies) is to not take at face value what some evangelicals are preaching. What is their motive for saying what they are saying? Harold Camping is old. Maybe he wants to die, but doesn't want to die alone. Why do they promote a fear-based spirituality? There's nothing to be afraid of. God is love, perfection, and understanding. The trials of this life is meant to grow us into better people. There's no point in creating a world for seven thousand years and destroying it (even though I believe our planet is likely billions of years old) just because humans are imperfect the way God created us to be.

I hope that when the rapture does not come and the sun comes up on Sunday morning the way it always does, that people realize how silly all this talk about rapture was and get back to living life, enjoying life, loving others, and learning as much as we can while we're still living and breathing on this planet. Let's ignore fear-based religions and fear-based politicians and help make our planet the best that it can be. Have faith that God has faith in our abilities to evolve towards greater understanding and compassion for one another. Maybe when we all reach a more spiritually mature life, then we will see our bodies glow in ways that feels good for the soul and for our planet. May we live to see the day when heaven and earth become one and death shall be no more.

On this day of rapture, I wanted to feature a couple music videos. One by REM and the other by U2. I love both songs. Enjoy!