Wednesday, September 29, 2010

David Simon

So, I don't know, five years ago, maybe more, friends of mine started telling me I had to watch this HBO show The Wire. Gotta be honest, not only did I never take them up on that suggestion, most of the time I didn't even really hear them.  The show sounded like yet another police procedural, cops & robbers, crime scenes, blah blah blah.  I never mind watching those shows when they're on, but I never, never go looking for them.

Plus, a show about a wiretap? Really, HBO? Really? How does that last for more than a few weeks?

Flashforward to last summer. Don't ask me why, but I Netflixed the first two episodes of the Wire.

And oh my God, I fell in love.  Amazing characters, extremely well written, not at all a procedural but a drama, and a sort of Shakespearean one at that, with characters on many different levels of authority -- police chiefs, their underlings, their underlings, lawyers, judges, addicts, pushers and drug lords -- all treated as subjects, with desires and histories and pressures.

The premise: a troublemaking homicide detective in Baltimore wants to take down one of the main drug lord families in town, the Barksdale family, and has to fight against not only their incredible machine but his own demons and a screwed up criminal justice system to do it.

The Wire went five seasons, and in each season it took the extremely unusual tack of shifting its story to a different part of Baltimore, and different issues, like shipping or politics or education.  Some seasons took a little getting used to; others, particularly the season connected to the school system, grabbed you right from the first few moments and never let you go.  But all along that story of trying to take down the drug kingpins remained, and stayed compelling, right until the crazy, unexpected last season and conclusion.  

I mention The Wire because yesterday its creator, David Simon, won a MacArthur Genius Fellowship work.  Simon was a longtime journalist in Baltimore who went into television to do The Wire. He now runs the HBO show about New Orleans, Treme [treh-may], in which he yet again immerses us so fully in another world that you can't help but think, this is what it must really be like down there.

About his work the MacArthur foundation wrote: “With the nuance and scope of novels, Simon’s recent series have explored the constraints that poverty, corruption and broken social systems place on the lives of a compelling cast of characters, each vividly realized with complicated motives, frailties, and strengths.”

Simon filmed a very short interview for the Award. It's very interesting in his take on how his stories relate to the struggles in our country, especially for the disenfranchised.  I've posted it below. 

Do yourself a favor and check this guy's stuff out.  You won't regret it. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Funny Thing About Sunset

The view from my dining room has gotta be one of the more spectacular views you're going to find in my part of LA.  Loyola Marymount sits on a bluff that overlooks the Pacific, and our little community sits right on that bluff, our dining room facing out toward that amazing vista.

Which means, as we eat the sun sets right in front of us.   Sometimes it slips right down below the horizon, like it's late for a date.  Other times it's almost like as though it pauses, like a queen somewhat haughtily accepting her due approbation before slowly descending below.

But each night as it first hits the water, its redness burning like fire on the surface, all eyes in our dining room turn that way.  The room grows quiet, and stays that way until the moment finally... completely... passes.

When you've lived in a place a while, your attention to the details around you can easily begin to wane.  The amazing becomes the familiar,  the familiar the ho-hum, the ho-hum the-might-as-well-be-invisible.

But at my house, not the sunset.  Each night we mark its passing in this spontaneous and sort of sacred way.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

O Pinkberry, You are My Pinkberry, For You I Long...

You ever have that experience where you’re about halfway through a book, and it’s just not working for you, but you keep reading anyway?   This happens to me somewhat regularly, especially with TV shows.  I’ll say to myself, well, might as well see how it all plays out.  It’s only 11 more episodes.  Or, in some cases, it’s only about 3 more seasons. (!!) 

As if somehow, it’s all going to change, they’re going to hire new writers, or the book, or the movie will suddenly make a turn that makes all the waiting around worthwhile. 

Get a clue.  Trust your instincts.  It’s no good and it’s not going to be good.  I wish someone would shake me and say that sometimes. 

And right now, I’m having a sort of Pinkberry variation on the issue. Do you know Pinkberry?  It’s a frozen yogurt place in the States. Don’t ask me why it’s called Pinkberry;  makes no sense to me. (Its main competitor, as best I can tell, is called the even more mysterious “Red Mango”. I walked by one for a year without even looking in, thinking I just don’t like mangos that much.)

So anyway, I discovered a Pinkberry about a 3 minute drive from my house.  I can actually see it, or its vicinity, from my room. 

This is not a good thing.  Because, since venturing into the abovementioned Red Mango, I’ve developed a sort of addiction to original flavored frozen yogurt.  Sweet and yet also bitter, tangy, with a dash of strawberries and chocolate chips on top… seriously, once writing this I’m now thinking about bailing from writing this to go get some.  I’ve got it that bad (or good, depending on how you look at it).

 [In the voice of Homer Simpson] "Mmm.  Delicious." 

But I kept telling myself, it’s only until I fill “the card”.  The first I time went in, they gave me a punch card.  Buy 9 froyos, the tenth is free.  7 more,  5 more, 3 more… I started thinking of it like the bad book analogy… yeah, it’s not so good for my figure, but might as well finish it.  

And so I kept eating. And eating.  And the cravings were growing more desperate, and my nerves more frayed.   Last week I went in and the girl at the register asked what I would like, and after I told her she began asking follow up questions.  Would you also like to try the other flavors? Trying to control the withdrawal shaking, I quietly shook my head.  How about, would I like other toppings as well, like honey or waffle-cone-bits?

I almost snapped. Honey? And what the hell are waffle-cone bits?

No, I said, now glaring and shrill. JUST GET ME MY FROYO.

And then, last night, end of my rope, I did it. Finished the card.  Got my free yogurt.  Totally home free.  It is finished. 

As I walked out, the man waiting on me called me back.  “Don’t forget this.” In his hand… a new card.  And the first box already stamped.

In the immortal words of Charlie Brown:

Here we go again.  

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Friday Film Fun

Did anyone watch Modern Family last night?  That last image of Luke with the bottle --  so cool. 

 If you don't know this show, start watching it right now. Seriously Half hour comedy on ABC Wednesday nights about an extended suburban LA family -- a late 50 something divorced man who is remarried to a beautiful Latina woman with a young son; the man's gay son, his partner and their adopted Korean baby; and the man's daughter and her husband and three kids.  22 minutes, and every episode a great glimpse of all the craziness and wonder of our own lives.  Really fantastic.  

Here's a link for this week's episode.  

Also, I don't know if you're a "Gleek" (i.e. fan of Glee), but their second season on FOX began on Tuesday, and it's a great place to jump in.  Lays out all the issues and characters nicely, and has some very fun musical moments.  Here's the link.  

And lastly, for something shorter: I discovered this mockumentary of an Australian who decides to snorkel around Australia.  It's 7 minutes long, and absolutely hysterical.  A good break on a Friday...

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Newest Fun Pomplamoose: Jungle Animal.

How Luke Skywalker is Helping Me Deal with Traffic

I've been in LA almost 2 months now.  People warned me, oh, the traffic, especially after New York that's just going to drive you crazy.

And I kept thinking, have you ever walked on the streets of New York? As readers of this blog already know, I think there should be stop signs strictly for the sidewalk.  And don't get me started on the subway (other than to say, people, when the doors to the train open, YOU NEED TO LET US OFF THE TRAIN before you get on).

Last six weeks, yeah, I've seen traffic, but I haven't been in much of a hurry and frankly after the experience of having strangers touching you all the time (and in a crowded train, all over), I've basically relished the solitude of car travel.

Today, I had my first full day of film school orientation.  And we needed to be there by 9:30, so rush hour traffic became a definite issue.

Now, I left at 8am.  That's 90 minutes to travel what is basically a 20, 25 minute trip.  There really was no way I was going to be late.

And yet, sitting in traffic, bumper to bumper, I realized I can't really guarantee anything. Yeah, 90 minutes should be way way way more than enough.  But who knows how long it's actually going to take me on the 405?  I don't.

So I got out off the highway, and bam, I immediately got stuck on city streets instead.  How long was it going to take now, I soon began to wonder.  Same answer: no idea.

For me, there was something a little existential in that realization.

And maybe there was also an invitation back to my old Star Wars, Episode IV, inside the Millenium Falcon faith.  Early in the original Star Wars, Luke's in the Falcon with Obi-Wan, trying to use his light saber to block the floating globe's little laser beams, and failing miserably. Then, Ben has Luke put down the blast shield on his helmet, rendering him blind.  And he does fantastic.

Point being: Sometimes to get by in life, if you close your eyes and have a little trust, things really will go much better.

(Not a bad reminder at the start of a whole new school adventure, either...)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Thoughts for a Monday

I came across two quotes this weekend, both a bit bracing for a Monday, but worth a good sip of coffee and a hmm. 
What you thought you came for is only a shell, a husk of meaning from which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled…the purpose is beyond the end you figured and is altered in fulfillment.   -- T.S. Eliot
And if that's not challenging enough, try this one on for size... 

When you have been praised a little and loved a little I will take away all your gifts and all your love and all your praise and you will be utterly forgotten and abandoned and you will be nothing, a dead thing, a rejection. And in that day you will begin to possess the solitude you have so long desired. And your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men [and women] you will never see on earth.
            You shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in me and find all things in my mercy which has created you for this end…'that you may become the brother [sister] of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.'        -- Thomas Merton


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Photos In Need of Captions...

Going Postal

Good friend of mine, writer and playwright Jeffrey Essmann, has a funny piece on trying to mail a letter in the New York City heat wave this summer.  Much fun. Check it out.  

Bill Cosby with a PhD in philosophy (and a Dirty Mind)

This is episode 10 of comedian Louis C.K.'s new FX-show, Louie.  I had never seen the show before this episode, but I heard a number of people talking about this particular episode, especially the guys at Pop Culture Brain, and I thought I'd give it a shot.

The episode is called "God", and it's basically a series of riffs on religion -- a very very funny take on Abraham and Isaac, a very unusual sexual take on faith,  and an extended piece on the crucifixion, the whole idea of Jesus dying "for our sins", and whether or not God actually exists.  

I think some Christians will find different parts offensive -- and watch out, because just when you think you see where he's going with the crucifixion piece, he turns it completely upside down on you. And then does it again.  It's definitely original and also pretty darn thought provoking.  

Personally, I think the Catholic Church has a lot of work to do on explaining what the heck we can possibly mean by Jesus died "for our sins".  It's a very difficult and in some ways troublesome concept.  It's great to see a comedian take it on.   And the God as drunk dialing friend of Abraham is equally funny as well as provocative.  

Louis C.K.: Bill Cosby with a PhD in philosophy (and a dirty mind).  Check it out.  

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Nazis in Delaware

There's a story circulating on the internet today about an comment newly-minted Republican candidate for the Senate, Sarah, sorry, Christine O'Donnell made in 1998 on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. 

Now, before I talk about the story, a moment on the soap box. Seriously, media/online blogger people, I know she's freaking you out.  Ventriloquist's dummies are always scary. But this was 13 years ago, people, and frankly, is it really that nutty? She didn't say she would tell the Nazis there were Jews there (although that's how you're spinning it.)  She said God would help her find a way out.  You want to call that naive, great, although you ask me, it also points to the extremity of the situation.  Nazi comes to your door, tell me you're not hoping God, however you imagine God, would help you find a way out.   

But you want to call that contemptible? I don't think so.  

At some point you guys are just out to demonize.  Come on. Be better than that.  

So, here's the story: on Bill Maher O'Donnell made the claim that she would never tell a lie.  Comedian Eddie Izzard pushed the point -- how about the classic example of a Nazi comes to your door.  Her response has been spun online as she'd tell the Nazis, because it's always wrong to lie. 

Intriguingly, what she actually said is, she believed "God would provide a way to do the right thing righteously."  My friends, you could fit a semi through the wiggle room in that comment. 

Here's the transcript.  

A Jesuit ethicist once posed a very very interesting answer to the Nazi dilemma.  Probably the best answer I've ever heard. (And it's killing me that I can't remember who it was. I read about it not long ago, actually, but having a brain meltdown this morning.)

He said, you can tell the Nazis no, there's no one here, with a perfectly clear conscience.  Because when a Nazi comes to the door asking if there are any Jews inside, he’s not asking a point of information.  This isn’t the census. What he’s really asking is, can I come in and kill any Jews in the house? And the answer to that question is a clear no.  

When faced with difficult situations, you need to ask yourself, what am I really being asked here? And that's the question you should be answering. 

Some may call that Jesuitical.  And it could be, if you choose instead really to answer the question they're not asking, to play the game as it were.  But applied properly, it's hugely practical, and not just with Nazis.  

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On 9/11, the Boring and the Scary

I wrote a little piece for America's blog on the 9th anniversary of September 11th.  You might find it interesting... 

New Orleans

The Jesuits of the US put together a little video about New Orleans (and Jesuit work in New Orleans) five years after Katrina.  It's not flashy, but it is a nice opportunity to put yourself back in that world for a few minutes and let it affect you.

Great quote at the end from a Jesuit pastor, Fr. Steve Sauer: "New Orleans has always been a place that believed more in living than in dying."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why the Brady Bunch Should Not Be In Charge of Liturgy

I am a Vatican II baby.  Which is to say, my life of faith has been entirely under the aegis of the Vatican II reforms.   I grew up with the St. Louis Jesuits, with communion by the hand and under both species, with the English liturgy (did I hear that’s going out of style?).

One thing that means when I come to liturgy is that I look forward to music that encourages participation.  Don’t give me lots of Latin choir solos, Gregorian chant or, for that matter, slow, dour, dirge-like renditions. It’s hardly Amazing Grace if I feel bummed out singing it. 

Bottom line, I go in wanting to sing and sing out strong. 

So, you know how they say sometimes God gives you what you want so realize what you need… well, today I went to liturgy at a well-reputed parish in the Los Angeles area.  Full congregation, everyone chatting before mass, lots of families, pastor walking up the aisle before Mass greeting people.  Great spirit.

But when it came to the music, I swear, if you had told me that the choir’s water bottles had been dosed with amphetamines, it would have made perfect sense. Imagine the energy (and even more the naivete) of the Partridge Family or the Brady Bunch – actually yes, imagine the Brady Bunch singing "Sunshine Day", but then instrumentalized for Vegas (i.e BIG).  Everything extremely up tempo all throughout the Mass, choir members not only swaying but sort of dancing along at times, repeated calls to “clap along” and a soloist during the presentation of the gifts doing American Idol style trills. (Being in LA, I said a prayer that Simon Cowell might be in the congregation, and might an end to Miss “I want to be Mariah Carey but all I can really manage are the ‘trilling now’ hand gestures.”  My prayer was not answered.)

It was not, as they say, a buena vista.  Actually, it was a poster child for everything the organ and chant Catholics fear from the likes of me – jumbo jets of ALLELUIA, and very little “And let us pray”.

Now, as Jesuits like to recite when they are in complete and total disagreement with one another while having cocktails, and don’t wish to fight -- de gustibus non disputandum.  About matters of taste, there’s no arguing.  One man’s amphethamine-induced jamboree is another person’s holy moment.  (I guess.)

But it’s also true if you push too hard on any part of the liturgy, you really do risk taking the whole ship down.  So here, each time the music would end and a reading begin, it was as though all the heart and hope went out of the room.  And yet the readers were just fine; no Eeyores killing us softly with their tepid despair; they read as well as anyone in your parish or mine.   The problem was rather the context.  The music was SO BIG, so HAPPY!, the Scripture could not keep up.  No spiritual space had been created to listen, to receive. 

So here we are, supposedly coming to be touched by God, and believing that a significant element of that is the readings, and we’re so hyperstimulated, there’s no room for that to happen. 

As David Byrne once sang, “This is not my beautiful house.”  (And also, "How did I get here?")

So, pastors, liturgists, parishioners – if you have a similar experience of the readings not “landing”, you might check the broader context.  Does what precedes the readings actually create a space for people listen? Do you have some significant moment for silence (and, implicitly, settling in)?  And is your music in balance with everything else? 

It really was like this clip from the Brady Bunch Movie (complete with the swaying).

(And I am the terrified guy just wanting to buy my umbrella, for God's sake!)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Stephen Hawking & The Fertility of the Universe

I've been thinking on the hubbub surrounding Stephen Hawking's comments that God was not necessary for the creation of the universe.  Frankly, I just can't excited about it.  Who cares?

I don't mean that as an attack on Hawking. He's one of the great scientific minds of our times.  And while other religious people have been making arguments like the rules of gravity had to come from somewhere (wink wink, nudge nudge), I agree with him. The more data we gather regarding the creation of the universe, the less that God seems a necessity for the equation.  Not because that data is skewed by atheist secularists who hate God, but because it shows more and more how every little piece and step of creation naturally fits together.

And while today we say, but where did the laws come from, I suspect at some point down the road, we're going to have an answer for that, too. So, God as necessity?  I think not.    

But whether there was a God involved in some way in creation -- that's a whole different question.  And it's not one that Hawking is equipped to answer any better than any of the rest of us.  When it comes to deities and transcendent reality, we're all just interpreters, taking in the data we've got in front of us, and making the best sense of it we can. It's all highly limited (and probably to God's mind also highly entertaining).

When I worked at America I had the great opportunity to interview Fr. George Coyne, SJ, former director of the Vatican Observatory. He had a great take on God and the dynamism of creation.  Here's some of what he had to say:
God did not create a ready-made universe, he did not create a universe like a Lego kit, putting all the pieces out and having somebody out there, over time, assemble them. He created a universe that has a dynamism, a creativity of its own. He shared his own creativity with the universe that he made.
You know, theologians have for centuries had this notion of continuous creation, creation as not a single event in the past, 14 billion years ago, but ongoing. It really helps me in my religious belief, in my prayer for instance, to think of a god who is constantly nurturing the universe; he gave the universe its own creativity, its own dynamism, and he’s working with the universe rather than dominating the universe.
This requires reinterpreting what we mean by omnipotence and omniscience. Did life come to be in such a necessary way that in the very beginning of the expansion, God could have predicted that life would come to be? It is an open question, but I lean toward no, he couldn’t, because it’s not certain that it would come to be. There were some chance processes involved. It wasn’t just chance, but there were chance events involved in the evolution of life....
How did life come to be? Did it come by chance or by necessity? Speaking scientifically now, there’s a third element involved, it’s what I call the fertility of the universe. There are 10 to the 22nd power stars in the universe—that’s 10 with 22 zeros behind it. Each of those stars is born and is going to die, and as it dies it spews out all this chemistry into the universe—carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, etc. Another generation of stars is formed from some of that material—the sun is a third-generation star—and that process is extremely important. If it were not happening, we would not be here. The hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon emitted—these are the building blocks of all the sugars, amino acids, and then up to DNA, etc. In fact, in order to have the chemical abundance necessary to form even primitive life, we had to have three generations of stars. That is, we needed three generations of stars to get enough carbon to make toenails and hair (for those who have it), earlobes and all that.  
The universe has been doing this for 14 billion years. That’s what I mean by fertility, all these stars pouring out all this chemistry over a long period of time. Now that sounds very materialistic, and it is. But does that deny that God is working with this process to make a human being? To me, a universe that has such a dynamism to it doesn’t deny God, it glorifies God. God did not take a rib from the side of Adam. He did not preconstruct life. Rather, life came to be because God made a universe in which he hoped and thought life would come to be in his image and likeness. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mary and the Preordained

Anna after the birth of Mary: That kid might be without sin, but she's not without size.  Phew. 

Today (Sept 8th) was the feast of the birth of Mary.  For most of us, birthdays and anniversaries are the two really big personal landmarks.  But in the grand scheme of Marian feasts Mary's birth actually ranks pretty low.  You've got the Immaculate Conception, the conception of Jesus, the Assumption... hard to top those.

And even the readings for the day sort of indicate that.  Instead of a scripture reading from the life of Mary, on this feast day we get the reading from Matthew in which the angel tries to convince Joseph to stay with Mary.   Mary's talked about, but she's not even in the scene.  The only person for us to identify with is Joseph; makes you wonder, did the makers of the lectionary have this thought that on this feast, we'd all be asking what exactly are we doing here? Why specifically are we celebrating this? And they provide the conversation with Joseph to remind us of the big picture. 

The feast of Mary's birth is an occasion on which the readings in general are all about predestination.  God's got this plan and everything fits into it. It's one long chain of dominoes.   

And maybe that made sense just as is back in the day.  But these days, lean too heavily on the domino theory and you're going to have trouble.  It's hard to see God planning hurricanes.  Or heart attacks, for that matter.   

But beneath this idea of predestination is the concept that God is so interested in us that he has prepared all the worlds we will enter in our lives for us.  He is the good host, or the wedding planner, setting everything up before we get there for us, and then walking with us once we arrive, every step of the way.  

It might be a comfort to recall that God loves us in such a particular and thorough way.  And maybe it also reminds us that the worlds we find ourselves in, no matter how awful they are, have also been in some ways provided for us.  Not that God plans our suffering, but that he's there with us in it.  Or maybe like a good mystery, that he's planted some little treasures even in its horrible midst.  

The band OK Go has a great music video for its song "This Too Shall Pass" that features a super-extensive Rube Goldberg machine (which is like dominos on steroids).  It's amazing.  And it seemed somehow appropriate for today -- could Anna & Joachim have had any idea that the birth of their daughter would lead to you and me? 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Case of the Vermillion Rockfish

Last week I visited the Vancouver Aquarium.  I can't say I'm a big fan of aquariums.  Usually, it's just nasty dirty fishtanks and some seriously freaked out (or heavily medicated) fish.  Let the poor things go, you know? Come on.

But while wandering in the Vancouver Aquarium, I came across this guy.

This is a vermillion rockfish. And while I don't know this specific fish's age, vermillion rockfish can live to be up to 60 years old.

When you go to a seafood place and see "rock cod" on the menu, this is what you're eating. 

Is it me, or is the idea of consuming a lifeform that might have had 60 years of life and experience way disturbing? 

Ben Folds, Nick Hornby, & Pomplamoose VideoSong!!!!

If you didn't see this on my other blog, you might like it. It's half music, half spoken word (with the words by great writer Nick Hornby) about life and the way we think about things.  Really pretty cool.