On waiting

It seems rather paradoxical, if not downright wrong, to write about waiting. We all wait–for the bathroom, for food, in line, on the phone, in the doctor’s office, at the grocery store, at the movie theater. We get in line and wait. I guess that’s because we can’t all be first. I have waited for the last plane, the last metro, the last bus. Yesterday I spent time waiting to board several planes, then waited to take off, then waited for my cup of soda, then we all waited to land, and then, of course, we all waited to get off the plane that we had all waited to get on. I waited in line at Starbucks for my coffee. I waited for a cook to make me a hamburger (but a real hamburger–not a fast food hamburger). I had to wait to go to the bathroom. I waited to get my suitcase after I spent the day waiting for everything else. But I am no good at waiting. In fact, I hate waiting for someone else to do their job. Today, I waited for my lunch. I was in good company, but it took forty-five minutes for my lunch to come out (it was worth it–why am I complaining?) Waiting seems to be one of those things that is an inherent part of the human condition: you want something; you have to wait for it. I remember as a small child I saved box tops, filled out the little cardboard form, taped a quarter to it, and mailed it in so I could get some prize that was being advertised on the back of the cereal box. I waited, and I waited, and I waited, and then it finally came when I had almost forgotten that I was waiting for something. Then, once I had the thing–whatever it was–I didn’t think it was a cool as I imagined it would be, and it wasn’t. But I had waited an eternity to get it. I am currently waiting for the bread machine to finish baking some bread. Yet, I hate to wait and am impatient. I get annoyed easily when the person in front of me at the grocery story decides to write a check–I have to wait. Couldn’t they just swipe a credit card? I take a book to the doctor’s office because I know I’ll have to wait—actual planning and scheduling is not a part of any medical curriculum anywhere. Waiting in traffic has got to be a special punishment dreamed up by Dante, but it leaked out of Hell and into the world. What did I ever do to deserve such a punishment as waiting?

On Avatar (the movie and 1,000 blog entry)

What can one really say about this strange movie about conquest, conquistadors, and a native population that fights back? James Cameron’s 2009 film is about intertextuality and dialogues directly with the ghosts of Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, and Ferdinand Magellan as they conquer and subdue the native population of the New World. The premise of the film is simple: the Earth is dying from mistreatment and overpopulation and the Earthlings are on the war path to find a rare element “unobtanium” (get it?) which they might then use to refuel their own burned out planet. They know that this element is on a moon called Pandora (another dialogue). The problem is that people are living on top of this element, and unless you move the people, you can’t get to the element. The conflict of the film the mirrors all stories of conquest and diaspora which are economically driven, giving rise to military invasions and crusades that litter human history with death, destruction, chaos, mayhem, and tragedy. Whether it was the Christian conquest of Jerusalem during the crusades, the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492, or the conquest of the Americas, military might has been employed to displace the weak, eliminate less developed cultures, and persecute religious minorities. Watching a couple of the battle scenes I thought the movie was eerily reminiscent of the jungles of Vietnam in which American troops labored in vain to fight off the Communist threat in Southeast Asia. The problem that the American/Earth forces face in Avatar is that they not only don’t understand who the enemy is, they underestimate the complexity of their opponent’s strength by imagining that the “other” is inferior because they live in harmony with nature and not at odds with it. The “natives” live outdoors with few or no structures, they wear almost no clothing, and their society is not mechanized at all. The invaders imagine, then, that the natives are barbarians who will be easy to defeat. Guns and bullets have always solved everything, so why shouldn’t that be the case this time as well. The movie strongly criticizes the military option as barbaric, inhuman, ruthless, and stupid. Again, the movie dialogues with all wars, invasions, police actions and military occupations as it criticizes the use of brute force to displace an already settled population, creating an intertextuality with the displacement of native Americans in both North and South America. Military action is justified against these people because the invaders ironically place themselves in the role of the culturally superior, rationalizing the death and violence they will use to subjugate another group of humans. The invaders have no idea, in the end, that the people they are killing enjoy a rich, complex life which is only different, essentially, in one way–window dressing. In this fable, the natives drive off and defeat the invaders, which is a fairy tale ending, but it is also highly satisfying. The subplot of the paraplegic marine who gets to experience life as the “other” is a quirky anti-war commentary about the soldier who is “humanized” and meets the enemy. Here he gets the chance to be the enemy, to experience the world first hand as they would experience the world–a curious tip-of-the-hat to Borges’ short story, “The Ethnographer.” In the end, the cannibals are not natives living in the trees, but instead are the gun-toting goons that have been sent to rid the planet of a humanoid infestation. A final note: Sigourney Weaver of Alien fame plays a misplaced scientist in charge of the Avatar project, which in turn dialogues with the entire Alien series, a cautionary tale about messing with things you don’t know about and can’t understand. You can’t always reach out and take just anything you want. Ethnocentrism can be a very bad thing. As an epilogue, I am sure that the damage done by the invading forces is irreversible and that permanent damage has been done–the locals, as it were, have been thrust from Eden never to return, and this is the great tragedy of Avatar.

On banning books

Any book that is really worth reading has probably been objected to by someone. You see, when you tell the truth about the world, it offends the sensibilities of those who would falsify it with rancid beliefs, white lies, bigotry, spurious myths, and half-truths. Censors would have us think that they are doing us a favor by cleaning up the world by banning books, editing the content, and eliminating a certain subversive element that is out to destroy “our way of life.” Books, any books, usually bring change. Writers are like forensic social anthropologists–they look under rocks, brush off the dirt, make observations about the way the world works, hypothesize about truth and other abstract conditions. People who ban books usually do it with best of intentions. They get a whiff of a title that someone tells them is bad, that book contains gratuitous violence, or graphic sexual scenes, or subversive political ideas, or magic, or irreligiosity, or communism, or anti-American sentiments. Of course, the poor book banner has probably never had an original thought of their own, they probably don’t own books, they probably don’t read books. People who would ban books don’t read and usually operate completely on hearsay and rumor. They function by fear, reacting, not thinking, not thinking critically about the foolishness that they are committing. Books inspire thinking, reasoning, but they also raise questions, explore ideas and inspire creativity and spirit. Readers will always fight to make their own decisions, assume responsibility for themselves, live with doubt and ambiguity, explore the paradoxes of suffering and failure. Readers can live with the moral responsibility of freedom and all of its implied ethical problems. Freedom can bring uncertainty and the ethical dilemma of having to make personal judgments. People who are willing to ban books usually have a very simplistic, if not naive, black and white view of the way the world works. They equate books with the changes that are ruining their ideal existence, that challenge their morality and ideals. They think that if you read something, you are automatically a proponent of that idea. That idea is, of course, idiotic, simplistic and naive. Actually, banning books really has the opposite effect on readers. Readers will search out a banned book and read it. Nothing drums up interest like a little controversy. Perhaps I should thank all those censors and book banners for raising a ruckus about so many wonderful titles—Harry Potter, Huck Finn, the list is endless. Historically, the Church’s Index, a catalogue of banned materials, was used as a sales list for booksellers across Europe, selling legitimate titles out the front door and selling banned material out the back door. Ban a book and you will insure its success. Those who would ban books live in fear that truth about their world will hurt them, whether that truth be political, racial, religious, sexual, or economic. Yet, I would also suggest that their attempts to protect themselves only shine light into the darkest corners of their repressed lives. There is no chance that banning a book ever had the intended consequence of repressing an idea or killing the truth. Just ask Galileo.

On airports

Oh, how I love going to the airport. I both love and hate airports at the same time. On the one hand, the aesthetics of airports are horrific at best, at worst they are cross between the Inquisitions dungeon and public courthouse designed by drunk engineers (why are there nothing but foyers in this building?). I am imagining that airports are hard to design because you have to be able to park airplanes outside the building, but you also must manage foot traffic to the tune of hundreds of thousands a day. These requirements are not compatible. So the architecture stinks, the chairs are not comfortable, the bathrooms are lousy, the restaurants, with a couple of exceptions, are awful and expensive, a beer costs twelve dollars, Micky D’s makes the hamburgers, the bookstores only have the latest bestsellers, the candy is overpriced and stale, and those little carts that run up and down the concourses are trying to run you down. Even going to Starbucks is of little comfort. And then there are the endless gate changes and waiting, the flat-screened televisions tuned to CNN, the crying babies, the announcements for other people’s flights. I swear if I didn’t know any better that this is the second ring of hell in Dante’s Inferno, right next to the hedonists and the gossips. All of this after you passed through security. And the dramas: airports are full of lost people, lonely people, sad people, crazy people, crazy business people, people who should be on meds, in a hurry people, passive people and strange people. And what about the first time flyers who think they have just landed in the middle of an insane video game with no way out? The cast of characters is almost inexhaustible, but if it exists, you will see it an airport. If I run into Captain Renault and Rick, I’ll take a picture. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, the problems of two people really don’t amount to a hill of beans. And the people carrying the family chihuahua in a neat little case? Finally, I will get in line, go through the gate, and get on my plane, and isn’t that the ultimate function of any airport? Get me where I’m going? Enough said

On Oscar

What did Billy Crystal say last night? “Tonight we are going to watch a bunch of millionaires give each other little golden statues.” I have watched the Oscars for a couple of decades, and they really are no more transcendent now than they were in 1929 when the Screen Actors Guild started handing out the faceless statuettes. They just add another level of mysticism, elitism and glamor to an already very selective and exclusive club to which no mortal has access. Like a bunch of crazed voyeurs, we tune in each year to stare at the beautiful people come together to out-stage even each other. Their pathetic attempts at saying “thank you” border on the banal and boring. Basically, the Oscars are here to tell us all that we are just normal human beings and have no chance of ever attaining the fame and stature of the stars who will possibly win a little golden statuette. Oscar is a talisman of exclusivity. The people who receive the award have worked hard, but they also have had their share of good luck. And how many, exactly, have sold their souls to the Devil to get that little golden guy? Far from jealous, I would say that having a normal life is a pretty special thing. I can walk into any Starbucks in any airport in the world and not have to worry about being recognized, about having to be nice to fans, about having every inch of my life under a microscope. While I am out in public, my stress levels are very low. I can go to the grocery store, get my junk and get out. I’m not so sure that giving out autographs, getting lots of photos taken, and having my life scrutinized at every turn would be that interesting. In a sense, any of those famous people is just a regular person as well. Notting Hill (1999) is an unglorified look into the public/private pain of an actress (Julia Roberts) who is looking for love, but her all too public face makes that impossible. The stress of living a public life cannot be at all very fun. Having a face that half the planet will recognize has to be a pain in the neck. Oh, I wouldn’t mind the money, at least at first, and I’m sure the fame is great for the ego, at least at first, but in the long run, the press, the paparazzi, the news channels must be both tedious and boring. You cannot gain a pound or grow old, you cannot have a movie that goes bad, you cannot play characters that your fans might hate, you cannot fail to live up to their expectations. So let them pass out their little statues. The movies may or may not be good. Some of my favorite films were never nominated for anything, and, as far as I’m concerned, many of the big names might never have been made at all.