Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Were I Invited to the UN...

Hey, folks. I know it's been a while since last I posted, but after Google decided to not monetize my blog, I was a little disheartened. Even so, I can't stay away from my techno-journal forever, and I have something bouncing around in my head.

Namely, the Palestinian bid for statehood is commanding a lot of my attention. Blame Time and NPR. For those not in the know, Palestine's president, Abbas, is going to the UN to ask for recognition for the occupied nation, giving it observer status (like the Vatican).

Over the past few years, my feelings on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict have changed dramatically. I used to be, if this isn't too dramatic, a Zionist. I had little sympathy for people I viewed as terrorists, launching rockets into Israelites' homes and businesses, which is obviously despicable.

Tell 'em, Daffy.

Reaching college, as it has a tendency to do, opened my eyes to a more nuanced view of the situation. Certainly, there are terrorist elements in the Palestinian nation, people who will not rest until Israel is wiped off the face of the earth. On the other hand, Israel has perpetrated its share of violence against civilians, but that's not "terrorism" because a for real government said it was ok.

People tend to be radicalized by those sorts of crimes, leading to escalation and deep anger. So while the Palestinians are desperate enough, after years of failed negotiations, to go to the UN, Israel is not going to let what it views as a dog off its leash. To Israel, going to the UN represents a disavowal of the negotiations. For Palestine, years of negotiating without progress is just placating talk.

The motivator for both parties, the germ inside that desperation, is fear of losing identity, presence, justice. Yet haven't both sides seen been victimized by oppressors long enough to be able to decide to act with justice and mercy?

A few weeks back, my church discussed the Exodus story, and how whoever is listening at the time puts themselves in the Hebrew's shoes. We then asked ourselves whether that was the case, if we are not, at least occasionally, the Egyptians.

The reason the Egyptians strangled the Hebrew nation was out of fear the Jews would rise up and destroy them. No such thing, of course, happened. Instead, the continuing enslavement of the people caused death and pestilence to descend on the Egyptians.

That, and messing with this guy('s G-d).

I'm forced to wonder is Israel, with America's help, hasn't emulated this despotism. All sorts of economic sanctions are being threatened against Palestine for making this bid, and the first to suffer from those are always the people. It's the sort of punitive "justice" that will only intensify the dichotomy of who appears to be in the right, and who is wrong.

I'm not saying Israel doesn't have valid concerns in Palestine's becoming a nation, but if it does and attacks Israel (which it's doing anyway), Israel must have the rest of the UN on its side when it cracks down. Seems to me, the band-aid strategy of forcing a change in the status quo is the only way to move forward, for Israel to become a country not only democratic within, but without.

Foreign Policy

Monday, June 20, 2011

Batgirl v. Wal-Mart

Women in bat costumes have come to my aid before in making sense of the American political landscape, so I can't say I was very surprised to come across this crusade against the evil of one of my oldest foes: Wal-Mart.

Always staring

Six women who work for Wal-Mart filed a class action lawsuit against the Wal-Mart, the convex of the 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith, a tower of commerce plunging humankind into devolution by offering crap we don't want at slightly-less-than-average prices. The suit was over sex discrimination.

While the lower courts held that this could be a class action lawsuit, the Supreme Court, unsurprisingly, did not. It is exactly what is to be expected from a judicial system which can tell unions in Wisconsin they haven't a leg on which they can stand. The system, despite ample evidence of Wal-Mart's shortcomings, has decided to cut the retail giant another break.

When that system fails people over and over again, someone has to step out and make a statement for the rights of these women, and that person is Batgirl.

Female empowerment itself

The above link will take you to a PSA in which Batgirl demands equal pay for the equal work performed by Robin. To be fair, she gets to wear pants, but she's right to put forth the stipulation.

Batgirl has the right idea: if she won't be taken seriously (and Batman won't do so, even when about to explode), then she'll stop working. I would love to see what would happen if the Women of Wal-Mart took the Dominoed Daredoll's (I guess. I looked it up.) tactic for their own. I want to see the Women of Wal-Mart strike and empower themselves.

Not female empowerment

I wonder if the President would have to step in, or if another Ludlow Massacre might happen. Either way, the people who work for Wal-Mart here have a chance to stand up to the largest retail chain in the world, and they have the best reason to do so: they're right.

Me, I try to avoid Wal-Mart whenever I can, and I think it's a good idea for the rest of us to do so, too. Batgirl agrees.

Not that Batgirl

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Making Stuff Up

It has long been my understanding that middle-class people work for their money, while the wealthy make their money work for them. The former is the belief that if you work hard enough, long enough you will be successful. The latter means you're going to yoga at ten in the morning, going home and taking a nap.

My recent graduation from Columbia Chicago has me thinking about the school's philosophy and how it intersects with conventional wisdom, because education should never dare to challenge social norms. The pervading thought at Columbia is that you need to find something you can do to make money, and that might mean doing a set job you hate.

I understand this thought process, really I do. I even appreciate it, to a point. Everyone needs to eat, and Lord knows this culture is not going to tolerate the feeding of those who work to stimulate the imaginations of the populace. Next thing you know, we'd be paying teachers a living wage.

The common opinion making this all a necessity is the ubiquitous, "it's hard to make a living being an artist," which is pretty much the same as saying, "it's hard to make money off creativity."

This is rather true, but largely because art is undervalued. My wife has tried on several occasions to illustrate children's books, only to find the author was willing to pay her for the whole project what she should be getting for one two-page spread.

People have a tendency (and you'll find this everywhere) to suggest you should consider taking a pay cut for this sort of thing (or any sort of thing). The grocery store isn't cutting its prices, and neither should we.

Yes, "we." This is about all of us: artists, wait staff, crossing guards, electrical engineers. We should be doing what we are because we have to, either in the sense of "I can't stand the idea of not filmmaking," (in which case it's hard to survive as a non-artist) or "gotta eat."

Either way, creativity is what our jobs need. All of them. For instance, take electrical engineer. You can go to work day in, day out and not put your personal stamp on anything, or you can use your creativity (and yes, science requires creativity) to rework a system and make it more efficient. Too often does shoddy work smack of someone's hand, so rarely is a good idea a personal one.

The reason's simple: you won't be rewarded. The way to fix this is to create a need for our idea. People want movies, but if I can pitch the idea of a Civil War veteran traveling to England to reconnect with his long-lost daughter and trying to stop a plot to seize the country with an army of steam-powered robots, then people want that movie. If you can figure out a different way to bus tables, then that's what you should do.

It amounts to us forcing people to pay for what we give them. This culture needs to value ideas more than stocks, concepts more than bonds and real, life-changing epiphanies over projected profit.

Or we could just pay basketball stars more.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

These People are Terrible and it Makes Me Wonder Why

This is the sort of thing people pay spin doctors to cover up, lest they be revealed as the monsters they are. If you don't feel like leaving the warmth of my page, the context is this: a democrat was recruiting gang members in jail to convince current gang members to knock of the shenanigans. While this has been shown to work before, the conservative politicians mixed up in the debacle have distanced themselves from it.

What I can't understand is why this got made: it's just the most offensive thing you can imagine toward women, black people and poor people. Someone had to write this down, someone had to write down that two black guys have to wave around AK-47s while a woman(?) shakes her booty. A vignette of Janice Hahn--the aforementioned democrat who is "bad for America"--floats in the foreground.

Moreover, someone had to put out a casting call for two (I assume) "thuggish-looking black men." And they got two people willing to do it!

But plenty of people do things with no sensibility, like the GOP in NC (am I hip now?) killing Planned Parenthood through budget cuts. Wherever you stand on the abortion issue, this doesn't really make a lot of sense. According to the HuffPost article, "Planned Parenthood says it will now have to axe its teen pregnancy prevention and adolescent parenting programs and force its low-income patients to pay out of pocket."

The people who will be hurt most by the legislation aren't dumb kids who got knocked up and want a quick fix, but rather poor people in a bad situation who want to improve their lives, which might nix the status quo and we just can't have that.

Someone had to sit down--knowing that most of the criticisms about Planned Parenthood are of dubious veracity, that low-income people will be hardest hit and we can afford to give adolescents parenting classes--and make sure the number of people whom Planned Parenthood could help will be drastically cut.

The thing is, it's just that video as legislation: it's not about morals or, really, politics. It's about people in power taking enfranchisement away from people who would otherwise improve their situations. It's racism, misogyny and selfishness.

It's making sure a bitch who don't have much money don't get to keep it, and that's just bad for America.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

And Wouldn't that be a Shame

I try to shy away from chains, and it's really changed the way I look at a place like Target, which I used to think of as a "Wal-Mart for picky people." My last visit to the bulls-eye boutique left me feeling irritated with humanity after watching miserable people waddle around ignoring everyone around them and what kind of world do we live in where all these middle-aged people are working at Target?

At least they're neutral on gay marriage now.

There is one chain I do embrace, and that's Caribou Coffee. I can't help but love that homey atmosphere, and if you're thinking what a sell-out I am, hey, if Howard Zinn can love Dunkin' Donuts coffee, I can have this.

Anyway, one of the reasons I'm tight with the 'Bou is they do, sort of, have a political slant: a major shareholder in the company is a pro-Palestine bank.

I'm not anti-Israel, but I am anti-a lot of the things they do in the name of security and "freedom," which is pretty similar to many of my opinions on America. I like the idea of getting a good cup o' joe and supporting people who want their own country back after it was sliced in two by England.

Pictured above: foreign policy

I understand that Palestine didn't, strictly speaking, have to launch a war against Israel to try to get their land back, and that terrorist actions aren't cricket, but I think America should have a little sympathy for people who decide to fight back against those who don't allow them representation in their government. *Insert belabored comparison to American Revolution here.*

I like to think that when I go to Caribou, I'm helping out my Palestinian friends (yes, I do have Palestinian friends). It's an easy way within the system to maybe convince myself I'm affecting a little change.

Sometimes that change needs to be a little more radical. If you recall my recent article on Americans being all for Egyptians taking control of their government, you'll see people are ready for the idea of bucking the system to get democracy.

Not so surprisingly, the EU doesn't feel this way about Palestine unilaterally declaring themselves a state. They're worried it will "
cause disturbances of the kind we've seen in neighboring Arab countries." Riddle me this: what kind of world do we live in where we deny people self-governance because it might inconvenience us, even when the means of reaching that governance is peaceful?

Libya is pretty much the only country in which the fight has come to blows, and the EU has no right to complain about that, so I suppose the only response is, it's ok to get democracy as long as it doesn't inconvenience the West.

Sorry for answering my own question, but the kind of world where this makes sense is the kind of world where people who should be able to save for retirement are wearing red polo shirts and stocking shelves. Maybe they have more in common with the Palestinians than they think.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Coasters and Patriotism

A while back my parents visited my brother out East, stopping in Chicago both ways to see me. On the return trip, my mom gave me a gift she picked up at the Smithsonian Institute: a set of Beatles coasters. There's four of them (coasters, not Beatles), featuring the covers of my favorite Fab Four albums: Rubber Soul, Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper's and Let it Be. It doesn't matter that our coffee table came from the alley, negating any need for coasters; it was a real nice thought.

It got me to thinking, though, "why would the gift shop from 'America's Attic' carry the penultimate British band's memorabilia". What does it say about America if our repository of pop culture ephemera has been infected with foreign elements. I decided, considering Fonzie's jacket is kept there, not much.


Beatlemania was an American invention just as much as an English one, so in a roundabout sort of way it makes sense to peddle knickknacks emblazoned with the Lads from Liverpool. Realizing that, it dawned on me that if it makes little difference to what America is, it might have something to say about who I am.

You might have heard that Superman has renounced his US citizenship and Mike Huckabee's a little mad about it, going so far to say he "won't buy the comic." I'm sure DC Comics has lost sleep over the loss of Huckabee's patronage.

Huckabee goes on to say that he doesn't cotton to any of this globalization garbage, which is interesting considering that he is a member of a political party which rewards multinational corporations for being, you know, global.

What he's saying is that he doesn't believe in being a citizen of the world, that American Exceptionalism is correct. I can't understand his position, considering that an ordained Christian minister maybe should be for the whole world like its Creator is, but maybe that's just, like, my opinion.

I hold it because I do consider myself a citizen of the world, and maybe that's why at a place where my mom could have bought me any neat little bauble, she chose a British rock band's. Granted, she and I have bonded over the Beatles, but we also share healthy, American appreciations for James Taylor, Carol King and non-coked up Neil Young (who's Canadian, but I didn't know that until just now).

Not my favorite

Huckabee's right in that there are a lot of great things about America, but there are a lot of great things about a lot of countries (not so much with Azerbaijan, but you can't win them all), and I'm going to embrace that every time I protect my table from condensation. Here's to being a citizen of the world.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Doomsday Cult of Free Thought, or, How Standarized Tests will End the World

When I was in high school English, we studied Romeo and Juliet, because if teenagers need one thing, it's to read a story of people their age committing romanticized double suicide after going out for a week. Blue Oyster Cult would be proud.

On the test (constructed mostly of the usual sort of "what, literally, happened?" sorts of questions) was an essay question, "was Count Paris a victim or did he victimize?" I thought this a pretty silly question.

I answered "no," citing that Shakespeare, being a good writer, did not make cardboard cutouts, but rather characters with nuance and motivations beyond a binary system.

Like that, but with a reasoned argument

Instead of being lauded for my lateral thinking, which Sir Ken Robinson would have lauded, my teacher rewarded me with "-5 YOU MUST PICK A SIDE!" It was like being asked who I wanted to win the Superbowl, only more inane.

Of course, this is the sort of thinking championed by recruiting gang members in turf wars and standardized tests, which have gone so far as to use computers to grade essay questions. I doubt they've made a computer sophisticated enough to understand the argument I made, but computers work best when the answer is one of the first four or five letters of the alphabet.

Last night I asked my wife the question from my recent superhero comics post about Superman's powers. When I told her he had all of them, including super-reading retention, she complained I asked her a trick question.

Superman can also be a super-dick, so Jimmy knows all about no-win situations.

I told her that I shouldn't have to give her permission to say "no," but the fact she felt the need for a "none of the above" option is telling: in the American school system, we are taught that only the options presented to you can contain the correct answer.

This thinking is going to kill us all.

If you were asked to solve hunger as a multiple choice question, it might look something like this:

I'm so hungry I can barely lump all 10th-graders together by asking them how to solve global hunger. The answer you should give me is _____________ .

A) Allot more land for farming
B) Build better food with GMOs
C) Lower food prices
D) It'll work itself out

While "D" is clearly wrong, everything else seems to be right. Well, blind men, elephant, you know what I mean? The answer to the question requires creativity, not dogma, but standardized tests (which are informing how students are expected to learn) only offer four or five options.

The problems facing our world, things like food shortages (actually, there's enough food for everyone), oil shortages (also, enough for everyone) and water consumption (guess what) all require thinking outside of binary systems.

It's been said that if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. Makes sense, but we need to take a step back and realize that if we think the way we always have, we'll do what we've always done. We need to stop standardizing thought, since the thinking we're doing doesn't seem to be working, and instead demand of ourselves an education system in which creatively answering questions is rewarded, not punished.

Either that, or we can see how this will pan out for us.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Turn to Systemic Change

Luke 6:30 has Jesus telling us to give to anyone who asks of us. I try to take this a little seriously, although some people come to me with unreasonable requests.

There are some requests I can neither take seriously nor grant.

Living in Chicago, with its high number of unemployed and homeless people, this sometimes leads to moral dilemmas: I don't want to tell a guy to screw off, but if he waves me over from across the street and asks me to buy him a sandwich, why shouldn't I? (I did buy him a sandwich, by the way, because I was feeling nice.)

In the time it took me to get from the Orange El at Clark and Lake to the Blue subway, I dealt with both a grateful homeless man and a complete jerk. I was going home with some leftovers culled from friends around the table at a Mexican joint, including a burrito I really, really wanted.


The first guy who asked me for food got a taco I didn't really want, but he was thrilled to receive. Wonderful: he got food, I felt good, all was well.

The second guy asked me if he could have the whole thing. I told him no. He pursued me, and I offered him another of the tacos. He demanded the burrito. I said no. Then my companion told me to just give him the whole thing. I'm still a little sore about that.

Today's event makes me downright mad. I was approached by a man telling me, as beggars often do, that he doesn't mean me no harm. I suppose they think I am a small, frightened thing which would be terrified of black people.

I guess they met him first.

He also told me he hadn't worked since 2002. Why I didn't ask what he's been doing for the last nine years is beyond me, but again, I wanted to be nice, do what Jesus did, that sort of thing.

So I offer to buy him a slice of pizza. The shop's out of pizza, so I order a hamburger, but he doesn't want a hamburger. I just look at him. He starts talking about the price, saying that if what he wants is too much, than forget it. I don't say a word. I'm dumbstruck.

I once told a guy at one of my role-playing games that we can't project our comfort on the homeless, that giving them money rewards them for begging. I know they aren't choosing to poop in alleyways just so they don't have to work, no one would.

On the other hand, I'm done with this crap. From here on out, I'm only going to worry about systemic change, because I'm tired of being punished for trying to help someone out, especially when I see that person, like earlier today, immediately go smoke a cigarette after begging from me. I don't have money for cigarettes, so that's not going to work. I want to help people, but today's beggar seemed like he just didn't feel like working.

Jesus could produce magic bread and fish. I'm going to help food pantries.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

I'm Just too Excited for (fewer than 600) Words

For those of you who haven't heard (which is probably all of you, since you have lives), DC Comics will be restarting its whole superhero universe from square one in September and offering those comics in both print and digital media every Wednesday. This means that Superman, Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and a bunch of stalwarts are going back to issue one, like, for real.

My knee-jerk was pretty much the same as Hitler's: these are characters I've known since I was knee high on a grasshopper. There's no need to change them; they're working. You can't just take everything I've so meticulously studied and do away with the entire continuity. I mean, I'm the guy who can tell you why Green Lanterns' rings are weak against the color yellow. I know why Wonder Woman has those bracelets. I know why Speedy did heroin. Hell, I know who Speedy is!

He's the one with the needle in his arm.

Then, aware I was having a Comic Book Guy ego reaction, I stopped to think about it. I mean, it's not like the stories I love (Batman: Year One, Superman for all Seasons, Rage of the Red Lanterns) never happened. They just didn't happen in this new continuity. Realizing this, I saw the possibilities of what a restart could do.

Remember that whole "yellow weakness" thing I mentioned earlier? This article can explain that, as well as what yellow rings can do. Oh, and violet, orange, indigo, red, white and black rings can do. This is all well and good (I like the spectrum), but that black rings bring something important to mind.

They can only be wielded by the dead, which means that a bunch of characters who had been alive for years were suddenly back to being dead and Black Lanterns. Jason Todd was not among them, even though the Joker had killed the second Robin and he was resurrected by Superboy Prime ("Prime" being our world) punched reality so hard he came back to life.

I'm not joking.

In the new continuity, maybe Jason's never been dead. Maybe no one will be brought back to life, but will just stay dead. Wouldn't that be just great?

Think of all the other stupid, stupid things they've had to retcon (yes, there's a portmanteau for "retroactive continuity") or explain away. All those things are gone. Imagine what else could disappear.

Without peeking, tell me which of the following powers comic book Superman has never had:

A) Super-smelling
B) Super-ventriloquism
C) Super-hypnosis
D) Super-reading retention
E) Microscopic Vision

...Done? If you answered "he's had all of those," you're right, but not necessarily so when September rolls around, the Flashpoint event ends and everything restarts.

Not even Pre-Crisis Superman could withstand this.

You may know DC has rebooted its continuity several times before, but those caused more harm than good, like when the Justice Society of America, a superteam composed of Earth-1 heroes who survived the Crisis, found Superman from Earth-22 on New Earth.

See? I won't have to tell people stuff like that with a whole-new continuity. And if you read that last link, you read Constantine von Hoffman--who I can only assume wrote this in his Nuremberg-assigned cell--speculate that now the women will be showing even more skin.

He's wrong: that Catwoman costume, adored by all, is a hold over. Wonder Woman's getting a costume with pants. In fact, all the uniforms will be more practical.

Or, at least, better than this

DC has a huge opportunity to make a more cohesive, practical and inclusive superhero universe, in which new and old readers can relearn what made them love all these characters in the first place.

Or, at least, I'll be able to read Batman again, which I haven't been able to do since Grant Morrison made a flying Batmobile and ninja Man-Bats.

I'm still not joking.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

It Is My Problem

Today was Slutwalk Chicago. I was thinking of going, but I had yoga. I did catch the tail end of the Daley Plaza gathering, but by then it was just tables of people wanting my e-mail address, bad pop music and some shirtless guy dancing.

And really, that guy is the reason it's that much harder to care about important things like violence against women
. It's sort of how I want to exercise my enjoyment of anime more, but there are certain fans who make it a little tedious.

Yet, violence against women is something we need to stop. Then again, we can all take little steps to stop victimization of people in general.

A couple of years ago, I was at GameStop picking up some cheap movies while they were cleaning out their DVD stores. I got in line behind some redneck whose little was trying to return his Xbox 360.

As you can expect, a several hundred dollar system is kind of a big deal in a place which makes most of its money by selling high, buying back low and reselling high. I am not a fan of GameStop for the way they exploit gamers.

Proven business model

So while GameStop may be actively evil, it's wage slaves are only, at worst, passively evil. The poor guy behind the counter trying to explain to the angry, Budweiser-swilling hillbilly that he cannot take the Xbox back is not trying to make the world a worse place or anything; he's just locked out of the computer. Seriously, the guy literally could not enter it back in the system and give the kid store credit.

That did not make that good ol' boy happy at all, and he let the clerk know in no pleasant terms. The GameSlave offered to call his manager, who was attending a going away party for his soldier pal headed to Iraq, and summon him to deal with the problem.

At this point, I just wanted to buy my flippin' movies and watch them, instead of watching someone who's probably chained to the counter wilt before the wrath of Hick Supreme.

Very much akin

So I asked the yokel to leave the guy alone and the bumpkin had the audacity, the audacity, to ask me if I worked for GameStop.


"Then is it your business?"

"Yes. He said he can't help you."

The provincial, taking in the litmus test of jackassery I offered, relented and left, much to the GameSlave's joy.

Which made me feel good, since I helped someone whom I didn't need to help, but saw his pain and remembered that "the enemy of my enemy is a guilt-free target."

Which brings me back to Slutwalk. Say you don't really mind the systemic misogyny and violence against women. The least you could do is side with them in putting street scum in jail. You don't have to be part of the solution to be a dick to the problem.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Venn Diagram That

I was recently at the kick-off event for Borderless, a non-profit organization started by a few kids who aren't sure what they want to do, exactly, but know they want to make the world a better place. They gave me meat they grilled (I think some of it maybe not long enough) and we chatted. There were also some readings done: original poetry, hip hop rhymes, letters from Malcolm X (not to Borderless, specifically, but enlightening nonetheless).

One of the people I met there was a young socialist who volunteers for the party and has been posting flyers in my neighborhood. I tend to think of myself as a socialist (which is why I have ads on my blog, because I can't get a real job, apparently), so the two of us hit it off pretty well, despite his silly bicyclist cap.

Pinstripes. Classy

One of the topics to come up was this year's political uprising in Egypt. You remember, the one that the news stopped covering after, like, a month. Maybe the coverage should have continued, what with all the problems of the military continuing to show what we'll call an excessive interest in things like government and women's viginity.

Even so, the people rising up and demanding a change in government (which has gone so far as to actually jail Mubarak) made my new socialist friend glow a little. He said we need to emulate that sort of activism in our own country and maybe our leaders would listen to us instead of motorbiking all over Creation for what, I'm not sure.

"I love that smell of the emissions!" --Sarah Palin, at a motorcycle rally in Washington, D.C., where she rode in on a Harley, May 29, 2011

A couple days later, I heard another person say he was "proud" of the Egyptians: a Marine. I'm not going to tell you who, since I'm not sure how the government treats people who say things the government may or may not like. But, anyway, he was glad they decided democracy was cool.


And that got me to thinking: if a socialist and someone who has been trained, specifically, to kill Commies (they still teach them that) can agree on something, all of us in the middle should listen. Lincoln said, "a universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded." Americans need to disregard their universal apathy, seeing as how, essentially, a hippie and a Marine have agreed that complacency isn't working.

So go out, get involved, have a political debate, something. Just fight like an Egyptian.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Evolving Christianity

About a week ago, my wife's cousin visited us for the weekend. It was a lovely time going around the city and showing her some of the things we like to do here in the City of Broad Shoulders, which included going to our church.

When we were getting worried we might be a little late, she offered, "there'll be about ten minutes of music, so we might miss that." I realized how different our church is from others, in that we don't follow the same format every service, let alone the same as every other church.

Which got me to wondering why most churches have a system of "come in, stand, sing, say 'hi', sit, sermon, announcements, stand, sing". A couple of those might get moved around, but that's the gist of it.

I think the answer lies in the sort of language used in the sermons. What pastors tend to say when they talk about a passage of scripture is, "this is what this passage means." A "correct" answer is being presented, which doesn't actually help.

At Wicker Park Grace, our pastor, Nanette, has offered the idea that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. When we stop doubting, we stop learning; this applies to God as much as anything else. If there's a right answer, than when you reach it you can stop thinking about the question.

Problem with God is, there is a lot of unknowable there, and I think we need to change the way we think about Jesus and God. That is not to say we need to change what we think (although that might be a good call in some instances), but our methods of thought should change.

This is obvious when you look at how prayer has evolved over the centuries. Jesus offered certain prayers as templates, and most people do not take those as the only proper words to say. Likewise, the early church looked into the sky when they prayed. If our method of talking to God can change, so too can the way we think about speaking with God.

The whole "right answer" schema comes from a misunderstanding of knowledge. When I was in high school, I knew people who said they liked math because it had right answers, unlike English (even though when you're in high school English, there is certainly only one right answer). This only embraces the most rudimentary way of thinking about and doing math, a field which has so much room for creativity.

If Futurama can create new theorems to solve its plot, then there aren't just a set of known quantities. It's the same with faith and theology. We need to move past the comfortable, legalistic ideas of "right answer" and "wrong answer" and embrace "rewarding answers".

Reason being, the world needs people who care about each other the way Christ did, and he was creative about it. It takes creativity to fix the military-industrial complex, corporate farming and health care systems that aren't working.

The best way to mobilize Christians is to move past the kind of binary thinking for which God didn't design humans to settle and to ask better questions; we can find comfort in not having answers.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Unlucky in the Force, Or, How Authority is Abused

When I was in high school, I was fond of wearing a long, black coat, and I only did this after checking the handbook and finding no rule against it. The only restriction on jackets and the like was that they were not to be worn between classes.

Eventually, the principal took me aside and asked me to stop wearing it, explaining that there was, in fact, a rule, but it was not in the handbook. This might have been a lie, but it doesn't really matter.

In high school, the time when we learn (or are told) how to think, we are taught that we are responsible for our actions by people who have a vested interest in keeping us from acting as if we were in the "real world," which leads to our skewed sense of how authority is supposed to work. The existence of the phrase "too big to fail" bears this out: a person with power can't fail, but he'll still foreclose on you. This, of course, is hypocrisy, but that's power for you.

What brought this to mind for me today was an article on about two students who were not only suspended, but barred from their graduation ceremony, for staging a lightsaber duel in their high school cafeteria.

I'm callin' you out!

The principal, despite all the people on Facebook who are supporting the students (because Facebook=moral rightness), is sticking to his guns. He says that since someone could have gotten hurt, they should be punished to such a severe degree.

At first glance, that makes sense. These two boys hadn't really considered that their lightsaber toys, approved for children eight and up, might so egregiously hurt a 17 year-old that that victim would have to sit out graduation. Well, fine. That works, since we are all punished equally for what might happen, but doesn't.

Oh. No. Wait, that would mean the principal isn't full of crap, but I can prove he is.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, since most drivers disobey speed limits, so, too, has this principal. That doesn't, at first, seem like a big deal. You speed. I speed.

A reason for us all to speed.

Going a little over the limit isn't a big deal, but thanks to moral luck, it's actually a pretty dicey issue.

You've probably never run over a child while speeding. I haven't (and gotten caught). But if we were speeding and ran over a child, that would be a contributing factor. So, by the principal's logic, we should go to jail for manslaughter whenever we speed, because it could happen.

If you read the wiki article on moral luck, you will see the philosophical contention that a person who doesn't run over a child is just as blameworthy as the person who does, but the kid-killer should feel worse. This is the plot of the indie mope-fest Bella.

There is no argument for depression beards

The principal isn't going to ask to go to jail because he's sped, but since he's a person with power, he gets to take other people's freedom away for trivialities.

The rub is that this is how everything is run in our society: the wealthy and powerful can manipulate, steal and kill, but as long as it's done through "contracts, foreclosure and war" it's ok. I think it's about time we point out that children are being taught this is how the world is supposed to work.

By the way, that coat of mine? I guess the reason the teachers were so nervous about it is because they were afraid I'd bring a gun to school. I think they would only have worried if they gave me a reason, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, there was another student who violated the rule in the book and wore a windbreaker all day, every day.

He brought a gun to school.

Maybe if high schoolers were treated like thoughtful adults, we'd have more thoughtful adults.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Before he was Professor X... He was Doctoral Candidate X

Last night Allie and I went to see Priest. It's pretty much about a Catholic Jedi rescuing his niece from a trainload of vampires. It was just as cool and terrible as it sounds, which didn't surprise me.

What surprised me, though, was the US Army commercial beforehand. Nestled in-between the usual sugar water and car ads was the usual Army ad, because your average moviegoer, mallrat and high schooler have nothing better to do than join up with the military.

Those groups in Venn diagram.

I'm used to seeing these ads constructed with glamor shots of what you get to do in the Armed Forces: rappel, ride in helicopters, travel on a ship. You know, all the things you do on vacation in Australia. The audio will be some baritoned man telling you this is how you are going to make yourself a better American by going to interesting places and shooting interesting people.

The best ones are those cut with music videos. You could say 3 Doors Down is not the kind of band that would make you want to put your life on the line for your country, and I can understand that (I wouldn't want to die with "Kryptonite" stuck in my head). On the other hand, knowing Kid Rock got paid by the US government to tell you how awesome soldiering is makes me want to kill someone, and you can do that in the Army.

Be all you can be, kids.

But even compared to the absurdity of some rich hillbilly singing that I should sacrifice for his freedom, last night's military fetishism/thing kids like mash-up had to be the weirdest I've ever seen: between the derring-do of our people in uniform we saw clips from Matthew Vaughn's upcoming X-Men: First Class.

At first glance, this might make sense. The military has stealth jets, the X-Men have a stealth jet (although, in the movie, the Blackbird hasn't been painted and is a... white bird, I guess.) The X-Men have uniforms, the Army has uniforms. The X-Men and Army both get intelligence through sometimes questionably ethical channels.

Just like the Patriot Act

But then I considered the differences. In the trailer for First Class, you can see the heroic Prof. X (or maybe, since it's a prequel, Grad Student X) trying to talk Magneto into not killing humans. The Army seems pretty pro killing humans.

In fact, they're probably more so than Magneto. Magnus won't kill humans willy-nilly; I saw him divert missiles from what I think was the coast of Cuba. Or America. Either way, a country in which he wouldn't be free.

The Army, on the other hand, uses "Freedom isn't Free" as a carte blanche to kill all sorts of people different from us Americans.

These are only dissimilarities though, and metaphors are never perfect, otherwise there would only be tautology. That last point, though, presents the most egregious difference between the X-Men and the military: the military keeps the mutants down.

I know, I know, I'm comparing our actual military to a fictional, multiculti superhero team, but think about it like this: how many Americans were killed by communists in America during the Vietnam War?

And how many by soldiers?

The commercial use of a deeply (and heavily-handed) subtextual franchise asks us to call the mutants and soldiers "good," and that doesn't always work. I think we need to question if "X-Man" and "Soldier" are equal values, which will make us ask what kinds of violence we justify.

And what fashion sense

Friday, May 27, 2011

He Asked, No, Demanded I Punch Him

I feel relatively safe in Chicago. I bike under the assumption that no driver wants to
  • dig me out of their grill
  • wrench my bike out of their axle
  • go to jail
... but I still wear my helmet.

I also don't worry too much about the occasional gangland executions in earshot of my apartment. While I know these events make everyone less safe, not being in a gang myself, I'm less likely to get shot in a gang war.

Even so, I don't leave the house at these times (well, mostly. I did step out with my roommate the first time, but that's because I wanted to make sure she would be ok).

I'm worldly enough to know, and this is partly from watching No Country for Old Men a few too many times, that violence is partly random.

And looking sad at it won't make it stop

So I work out, study the martial arts and have developed a disdain for those who would hurt me or others. I wouldn't say this disdain has reached a crazy level, but one that I think has balance the fear I naturally have of being hurt with the anger that someone would try. Which, again, I don't think makes me crazy.

Being Rorschach makes me crazy.

So, like in Watchmen, I had an experience which amounted to, "he tried to [rob me]. I mean, can you believe it?" Ironically enough, it fell squarely into my passive, non-target defense style.

My wife and I were getting onto the train (Blue Line, if you're curious) and I had my yoga mat sticking out of the top of my backpack. I wasn't too worried about it, since it was fairly secured and I figured the kind of person who boosts your stuff on the train don't do yoga.

He's stressed out 'cuz he hasn't done no Savasana.

As I was getting onto the train, I felt my mat getting pulled up. I turned, my first thought being to apologize for bumping someone. My gaze was met with an angry look and that's when I pieced together what happened. I returned the look.

I guess the guy expected me to back down or something, which is why he got up in my... grill? Is that what the kids call it these days? Yes? Well, that's what he got up in and started asking me if I thought he was "rolling" one me, if I was (*ahem*) [screwing] with him and the like.

I assured him I wasn't screwing with him, but that's when he said something I didn't expect. He told me to "start swinging. Swing [insert nasty word here]! Swing!" I didn't, but I also didn't back down. At his behest, I let him on the train and assured a concern-expressing fellow passenger that I still had my wallet.

That fellow later congratulated me for handling the situation as well as I did.

The next day, my father (who was a police officer and works in a prison) explained the behavior as one of being tough and expecting me to apologize for the whole thing--I had no intention of being a bitch. This plays into Allie's surprise that he was, you know, asking a superhero to punch him.

Lucky for him my parents are alive.

Even if he had known all that, would he still have been all... fronting on me? Probably. It's like the King and Duke in Huckleberry Finn, or the guy in Sandman: Season of Mists, the one who says Hell is only possible to bear because someone else is punishing him: we can't forgive ourselves, and we meet that inability with anger.

I did that very thing this morning: I got angry because I felt like I ruined plans Allie and I had made. I didn't, but I got angry at myself, and by extension her, which exacerbated things. When I calmed down, I realized that this was the same thing that thug on the subway tried on me, and, like Roy Batty, maybe that's the reason I didn't hit him. Maybe I saw that, deep down, that thief and I are more similar than either of us would like to admit.

Though being like me would be trading up.

(PS: BATMAN, BLADE RUNNER and NO COUNTRY all in one post! Woo-hoo!)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reading Things on Things

I just saw an ad for Barnes and Noble's Nook. It's an e-reader, named a bucolic epithet to put it in direct competition with the Kindle. If you were to use both at once, you would find your favorite reading perch is, in fact, a Thomas Kinkade painting, so homey would be your e-usage.

I knew this thing existed and haven't given it too much thought. I own books I haven't read, others I'll reread and others still I just like having around, and they all have a feature the new Nook proudly totes: they are all touch-controlled.

I was surprised to find the Nook didn't already have this function, as I supposed it was the obvious thing to do. The Nintendo DS had a touch screen years before the Nook, Kindle or Hearth (or whatever the next one will be called) existed. The technology was there, but a device created to ape the effect of holding a book didn't have a book's number one feature, one an old .45 record told me to do in my youth. That is, *ding dong* turn the page.

There are plenty of things to like about e-readers, enough that I would accept one as a gift, should the opportunity arise. As Neil Gaiman has pointed out, they make any book large type with the push of a button, they are often more portable than bound volumes (Perdido Street Station is a monster of a book) and you don't have to go to the pesky library to get another one. The last one may seem like my trademarked tongue in cheek humor, but you haven't met some of the Chicago librarians. Seriously, they're not even eccentric about being stuffy; they're just kind of mean.

My favorite thing about the e-reader, though, is what it will do to books themselves. Every e-book feels the same, its texture and tone that of your Warm Blanket or Tree Shade, but a book like The Yiddish Policeman's Union has a feel all its own, with distressed pages and fold out covers (even in paperback!). It's sort of like the introduction of the PSP's competition made the DS get off its duff. Similarly, the printers' monopoly on printing is at its end.

But for all the good points of an e-reader, they're one step-backedness seems to work against the people who make them. You're a large bookseller, with stores across the country, stores which you are staffing with people who you get to pay below what their English degrees deserve, but still you pay them. You're paying utilities, property taxes, kick backs to the mafia, all those niggling fees to exist, yet you decide to sound your own analog death knell by entering the digital sphere. With the advent of your Patch of Sunlight (wait, no, that's where cats relax, not where people read. Sorry.), you have effectively ended your support of books made out of trees.

I understand the desire to diversify, but I also think giving people a reason to not come into your store is questionable business. Seems to me, I come out with the Umbrella-Protected Beach Blanket or the Grassy Knoll, I start selling my stores like mad and let the artsy-fartsy people careen to their doom on their Gutenberg raft.

It's not that I don't think both platforms will survive, but Barnes and Noble, Borders and that half-aisle at Wal-Mart can't really spread themselves too thin and still compete with libraries and independent booksellers, especially when they're working against themselves. Seeing as how e-readers offer less of the book experience, maybe it's just time for the big boys to pack up and let people have their readin' the way they want it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to flip through pages just because I can.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Accidental Produndity 2: Bookstore Closings

It was in some book about Neil Gaiman in which he said that it seemed bizarre to him that the ghost stories of Dickens should be in the LITERATURE section of a bookstore while the ghost stories of most contemporary authors (whose names I don't know) are consigned to the horror section. I might add that I find it bizarre that the willfully-ghosty Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger made it to FICTION.

Her science fiction book's movie's poster

Michael Chabon has, as an author who has migrated from "naturalistic fiction"--stories about divorce, homosexuality, drug abuse, the death of a loved one... divorce--to a writer of "genre fiction" (which is a story about a detective or a 10th century mercenary or a comic book artist, etc. dealing with divorce, homosexuality...) said in his interview with the AV Club, "when these labels are used to prevent discussion, to prevent a work from being taken seriously, on its own terms as literature, because of how it came packaged, that's what bothers me."

We can tell you where your book belongs.

That marketing is what bookstores use to tell you what you're reading. You like stories of people in love? Here's ROMANCE. Comic books? GRAPHIC NOVELS. Actual novels? FICTION. Never you mind that Pride and Prejudice is a romance, that Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Boy on Earth has nothing to do with Superman, that Pulitzer Prize winners are regularly left out of FICTION. Each has its proper, arbitrary place.

Until the ship starts to sink.

Borders is, largely, going out of business. Small wonder, really. There are so many books in the world, I sometimes wonder whether we need to actually reprint so many. Seriously, people, check out a used book store.

You can find something in there you want.

I stopped by a closing Borders on the way home today and found the most bizarre thing: ASTROLOGY mingling with wedding planning guides, FICTION cavorting with ROMANCE, RELIGION and SCIENCE frolicking on the half-priced shelves (it was actually the shelves they were selling).

In In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch discusses how changing about one gene makes a human into a monkey; moving one scene of a film turns a comedy into a tragedy. Likewise, consider how unified knowledge is: Astrology is superstition, but how much hokum is in your average wedding?

Rice doesn't make this happen

FICTION and ROMANCE? Harper Lee thought To Kill a Mockingbird was a simple love story. I purposed to my wife with a soap carving and some chewing gum in a knothole.

RELIGION and SCIENCE? Science is magic explained. Magic is science understood. Both go well with guacamole.

So does everything else.

I think about how we've compartmentalized thought into a bento box of consciousness and realize Chabon was right: it's all about marketing. Capitalism determines what goes where, since it's all about consumption, and labels are the easy way to make something consumable; they are the sugary BBQ sauce of literature.

Make that a mental image. I already have 4 pics in this post.

Sure, the system is capitalist, but what if you were to step outside the system? What if you thought for yourself? Certainly, as Chabon points out, genre is workable. It's not bad to say a book is a fantasy story, but it's bad to say it's "only" a fantasy story. Capitalism reduces things to their most cursory parts, while true appreciation for art (a political stance in and of itself) uses genre as a way to free art.

The best way to do this is to read in a sense that doesn't vote with the dollar, but with the mind. Check out that used book store I mentioned earlier or even (hold on tight, I'm about to blow your mind) the library you've already paid to use! Reward people who want what we have and let the chain bookstores know we don't need to be told what to want.

If we do that, we will read better, think better and live better and maybe, someday, we can get those labels down to FICTION and NON-FICTION... and then start thinking about how gray those terms are.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Summer in Chicago

So it was nice out yesterday. It's nice again today! I live in Chicago and let me tell you, we thought winter was never going to end.

Winter has our name all over it.

So to celebrate how lovely this weather, I'm going to tell you what I love to do when it's warm and sunny.

Fallout: New Vegas is amazing

I really like Chicago: the CTA shuts off platform heating on April 1st, regardless of the temperature, sidewalks in tourism-bereft areas don't have a snowball's chance of getting salted and you have to dig your car out yourself. Word to the wise: those lawn chairs mean "dibs" and that if you park there, you will lose your windshield.

But for the next couple of months I can look forward to my favorite summer activities. Many of you might be thinking about the beach, but I hate the beach. Here are a few facts:
  1. Sand is the worst.
  2. The cover band the beachside restaurant has is redoing Queen's Seaside Rendezvous as Lakeside Redezvous.
  3. I single-handedly ended the debate of whether black or white was the absence of color by taking off my shirt at a convention of artists, biologists and paint manufacturers.

Perfect translucence is perfectly hot

So the lakeside is out, but some of you who know me already knew that and had sports in mind. "Brandon's active, right? That's something to do in summer." Wrong. I run, so it's great when it's nice out, but the best run I've ever had was on a cool, misty day. You know how a hot day gets your shirt to stick to your back and you feel sweat inundating your socks and you start to worry about the smell. Now imagine that, running.

What about basketball? Baseball? Any other sport? Guys, I'm terrible at all of these. I only enjoy one sport: fencing. Those masks and vests in 100+° weather are like your own chain gang punishment box like in Cool Hand Luke or episode 23 of Batman: The Animated Series.

Obligatory Batman reference achieved

So what, you wonder, do I like to do outside? The same thing every other good Chicagoan likes to do: drink beer.

Remember when you were a kid and nothing was quite like a cold bottle of Coke on a hot day? I sure don't. I hate Coca-Cola, anathema and ichor to my delicate digestive system. On the other hand, beer is full of things my tummy loves, like grain and hops and not much else.

On a hot day I can hold the still glass bottle and sip at a drink designed to make me feel great, an artistic ambrosia demanding the sun step off and let me enjoy the world. And it's great with a burger.

Seriously, head outside to your favorite pro-patio restaurant or grab some brew from the store and enjoy the sun.