On Skyfall

Has anyone ever wondered where James Bond comes from? Ever since his earliest incarnations via Sean Connery, he has been a brooding, enigmatic, and dangerous character, already a man, never a child in spite of logic to the contrary. The 23rd Bond film is highly reminiscent of those earlier Bonds as producers, writers and directors strive to resurrect the fifty-year-old series. This Bond is not indestructible or infallible, and the opening series of shots, a high speed urban chase, end in disaster for the British Secrete Service, Bond sinking to the bottom of a river, apparently dead. As the movie progresses, the audience finds out that Bond is an orphan who has not yet dealt with a traumatic past which has left him vulnerable in a number of ways. The evildoer de jour is very evil, specializing in cyber attacks and dark personal vendettas, which make him dangerous and problematic because he is not driven by larger or universal ethical concerns for society at large. He’s a sociopath who is uninterested in larger geo-political concerns, driven only by the money he might extort from this or that victim. An ex-gent who has worked for M, the evildoer is a cinematic doppleganger of James Bond in the sense that they both have the same experience and training. The evil agent wants to kill M, the mother/father figure who, at some time in the past, gave him up to the other side. The entire movie then is about two things, vengeance and resurrection. The images of water in which James finds himself confronting death and life strongly clash with the images of dry death and decay with which the bad guy surrounds himself. Though one might question the mere existence of Bond, a violent assassin who is used outside the normal channels of law and order to eliminate, with deadly force and extreme prejudice if necessary, security problems that the Crown might have. This is a lingering question that haunts the film: are there problems which might invoke a state of exception? One would like to suggest that in a post-cold war world, that Bonds and others of his ilk would be superfluous. It would seem that, given the complexity of our digital/cyber world, other kinds of dangers may still lurk in the shadows that might require exceptional treatment. The movie humanizes Bond, showing what a remarkable subject he really is and that his special qualities, abilities, and strengths have less to do with physical prowess and more to do with mental toughness and mental agility, the ability to think six moves ahead of his opponent. The metaphorical chess match between the two combatants is of apocalyptic proportions, one combatant locked in his path of self-destruction and madness, the other blazing a trail out of the allegorical savage forest where he has been lost and pursued by old personal demons. The screenplay parses out these conflicts bit by bit, carefully peeling away layers of guilt, hate, betrayal, treason, sacrifice, cruelty, hypochrisy, nihilism, self-destruction, doubt, fear, and envy. One knight looks for his destruction, the other, his resurrection. The allegorical battle between good and evil plays out slowly, ambiguously, without clear answers as to who is good and who is bad. If the movie is about being reborn, it comes through small steps, small symbols, a classic car, and old country house, a hunting knife, thin ice, an old chapel, the wilderness. Though this is a classic Bond film, perhaps one of the best, and subtlety is not one of its great qualities, the 23rd Bond film gives viewers a lot to think about in terms of right and wrong, terrorism, vengeance, growing old, and, curiously, retirement. There is both the fresh air of innovation in this film and a wink at Bond tradition, shaken, not stirred.

On change

I seem to have muttered a few passing thoughts on change before in this venue, but I think there are some things about change that are worth repeating: one, change is ongoing, constant, chaotic, non-linear, fractured, and predictable. In fact, I see change all around me, predictable change, and I am glad for it. I’m not sure that humans necessarily fight change, but most humans dislike change intensely, especially when it comes to social issues such as gay marriage and the death penalty, two issues which were viewed by society very differently a hundred years ago. Those are big issues about which our ideas are changing, evolving, losing their “static” values as constants within a particular society. Some people fight change tooth and nail, hoping to conserve what they perceive to be as “traditional values,” and by that I mean, or they mean, values which they perceive to be constant and unchanging. Conservation is an illusion, unless perhaps one discusses the Hebrew Ten Commandments, a broad and abstract list of values that most people would agree to without too much argument. The atheists aren’t going to like the rules about God because they don’t apply to them, but not killing and not stealing are generally accepted as pro-social behavior. If you want an orderly society, you’ve got to have a few rules because anarchy and chaos do not make good neighbors (although going to the bar with those guys is a different matter). All the rest of the social “norms” about women and sex and marriage and the death penalty are changing. The society that does not change is doomed, without a doubt, to extinction. We have changed the way we feel about slavery, interracial relationships, and alcohol. The way we deal with marijuana is probably next. What people do in the privacy of their own homes between consenting adults should be irrelevant to everyone except the consenting parties. Legislating sexual behavior is not only ludicrous, it’s superfluous. I’m not particularly sure why this idea bothers so many people unless it has something to do with their own repressions seeming less relevant and less righteous than they did yesterday. The idea of “family” also seems to be evolving these days, and I would encourage all people to be involved in a family of some sort, shape, configuration, or abstraction because that helps fend off loneliness, which of course never changes at all. I guess all the shouting makes me think of hypocrisy, and all the people who scream about “conserving” this or that value when this is not only impossible, it dooms the screamer to a life-time of irrelevance and the ghosts that haunt their own closets.

On change

I seem to have muttered a few passing thoughts on change before in this venue, but I think there are some things about change that are worth repeating: one, change is ongoing, constant, chaotic, non-linear, fractured, and predictable. In fact, I see change all around me, predictable change, and I am glad for it. I’m not sure that humans necessarily fight change, but most humans dislike change intensely, especially when it comes to social issues such as gay marriage and the death penalty, two issues which were viewed by society very differently a hundred years ago. Those are big issues about which our ideas are changing, evolving, losing their “static” values as constants within a particular society. Some people fight change tooth and nail, hoping to conserve what they perceive to be as “traditional values,” and by that I mean, or they mean, values which they perceive to be constant and unchanging. Conservation is an illusion, unless perhaps one discusses the Hebrew Ten Commandments, a broad and abstract list of values that most people would agree to without too much argument. The atheists aren’t going to like the rules about God because they don’t apply to them, but not killing and not stealing are generally accepted as pro-social behavior. If you want an orderly society, you’ve got to have a few rules because anarchy and chaos do not make good neighbors (although going to the bar with those guys is a different matter). All the rest of the social “norms” about women and sex and marriage and the death penalty are changing. The society that does not change is doomed, without a doubt, to extinction. We have changed the way we feel about slavery, interracial relationships, and alcohol. The way we deal with marijuana is probably next. What people do in the privacy of their own homes between consenting adults should be irrelevant to everyone except the consenting parties. Legislating sexual behavior is not only ludicrous, it’s superfluous. I’m not particularly sure why this idea bothers so many people unless it has something to do with their own repressions seeming less relevant and less righteous than they did yesterday. The idea of “family” also seems to be evolving these days, and I would encourage all people to be involved in a family of some sort, shape, configuration, or abstraction because that helps fend off loneliness, which of course never changes at all. I guess all the shouting makes me think of hypocrisy, and all the people who scream about “conserving” this or that value when this is not only impossible, it dooms the screamer to a life-time of irrelevance and the ghosts that haunt their own closets.

On Yossarian (Catch-22)

He claimed he was crazy so he wouldn’t have to go on any more bombing missions, but his self-proclaimed insanity is a sign of self-preservation and mental health, so he had to keep on flying the bombing missions. That’s Catch-22. That’s the best there is. I totally empathize with both sides: Yossarian is afraid of dying, so he claims to be insane. The doctor recognizes this as the work of a rational brain, so he sends him back to fly more missions. The logic is inscrutable, but the irony is diabolic. I guess the problem is war and how pointless most wars are. People have fought wars for most of the history of mankind, but after the blood has dried and the dead buried, the only thing that has really changed are the increases in widows and a decrease in sons. Politics, ideologies, economics, geo-political domino theories are all washed downstream so that something new may take its place–a new religious fanaticism, other ethnic rivalries, extreme political infighting, fratricide. The reasons for sending Yossarian back up in his plane so he can bomb people without ever really seeing them are almost always irrelevant, or perhaps even trivial, perhaps non-existent. Revenge, hate, conflict, jealousy, irrelevant meta-narratives, petty thinking have always driven conflict to the extreme of killing. This is an old song for humanity, but the problem has never been a lack of new verses. Yossarian understands the pointlessness of what he is doing. He understands that you can bomb, and bomb, and bomb, and you change nothing except the number of dead. War is an insanity that cures no evils, solves no problems, does not increase the standard of living for anyone, does not prevent the sowing of new evils, new ire, new hatreds, new violence, and so the wheel turns but nothing changes. Peace can only exist as a state of mind when all sides decide that there are no sides, that humanity must stand together and accept the “other” as brother and sister and not as foe. When color and religion and gender and age and politics and sexual orientation cease to define who we are, then war does not stand a chance. Peace cannot be dictated by peace accords, or summed up in a treaty, it is not compromise to disagree. Peace exists when humans can get past their differences and find their commonalities. Yossarian is not less patriotic because he doesn’t want to kill anonymously, he is more human because the killing is entirely senseless. The war against Hitler and his ilk seemed to have a point–destroy Hitler–but in the end, it was a war of attrition that killed millions and solved none of the problems that Hitler developed and kindled. Hitler was inevitably destroyed because he engendered war, and there would be no other outcome. What is entirely tragic is the idea that a good man such as Yossarian had to do what they did–kill–to bring him down.

On "Shattered Dreams"

“Shattered Dreams” is a real-time simulacrum of a drunk-driving accident that is staged by local law enforcement and fire authorities to raise awareness in teens about the dangers of drunk driving. The simulacrum is staged with real props and real people over a two-day period in Hewitt at Midway High School (near Waco, Texas). One young person dies every fifteen minutes in the United States because of drunk driving. The simulacrum is supposed to awake strong feelings of trauma, loss, and tragedy in the “surviving” students. Actual students play the dead, the injured, and the drunk perpetrator. The entire thing is filmed, and the actual parents of the students playing the different roles are filmed at the hospital, at the morgue, at the jail. The parents of the “dead” must write an obituary for their child before the simulacrum begins. As the day progresses students are spirited away by the “grim reaper” at the rate of four an hour, reflecting the current statistics of teen deaths in America. This can be a brutal experience for those involved even though no one really dies, goes to the hospital or goes to jail. The emotions are real, the tears are real, and the difference between reality and fantasy blur. The entire process was topped off today with a memorial service for the dead, who do not attend their own service, adding a strange note of verisimilitude to the entire process. The police are real, the fire/rescue squad is real, the district attorney is real, the handcuffs are real, only the blood is ersatz. I believe this is necessary because our teens are already too jaded about violence, have been raised with easy access to entertainment and gaming that take violence and death for granted. I believe it is almost impossible to shock children unless you make them the focus of the violence and death, but the question of how to do that without really hurting them is complex and paradoxical: how do you raise consciousness in a population that is jaded by Hollywood fakery and special effects? So yesterday students disappeared, some went to the hospital with horrible injuries, others to the morgue, others to jail. This is one situation where the simulacrum makes the experience real for both the participants and the spectators. A smoldering wrecked vehicle, injured and dead students lying in the middle of the wreck, real ambulances, real firefighters all add to experience that looks, smells, and seems actual and real. In the end, everyone knows that this is not real, but the emotions are very real and give real food for thought. Drink, drive, wreck. One thing is to be told that this is bad. It is, however, a different ballgame to experience it first hand, especially when your friends are involved. More information on the program may be found here.

On singing in choir

Today I sang in a combined choir of around a hundred voices, and it was a very uplifting experience to sing with other choirs, other singers who I never get to hear perform because we are all busy singing in our individual churches on Sunday morning. What is surprising is the number of friends from work that do exactly the same thing that I do, but at other churches in the area. We all love singing, and although our talents may very (I’m a bit of a hack, let’s face it–I’m the joyful noise part of worship) our hearts are true, our dedication is real, and our motivation is pure. The choirs varied in size, some small, some big, some less so. We all dressed in black and white, so the theologies that sometimes separate us were less evident, if not invisible. Our directors have a long row to hoe, so to speak, in that most of us are amatuers, have had little or no voice training, and most of our experience came from high school and college choirs a long time ago. We sing because we love it. We struggle with the notes, the harmonies, the changing key signatures, the rhythms. Many of us are not professionals, but we love to sing. At the end of a long day, rehearsal lightens the day’s load and brightens the dark heart. Music is a spiritual experience for many of us that gladdens our lives on a daily basis. We sing psalms (today the 23rd, which has both a dark and almost melancholy tone to it), hymns, songs of praise, but always with vigor and energy because it is also a part of our faith. Participating in choir is not just about the music; it is also about the wonderful people with whom I sing. We rehearse, we sing, we laugh, we celebrate life’s big landmarks–birthdays, weddings, baptisms and funerals–together. We are more than friends; a choir family, perhaps? We mourn when a member leaves (or dies), and we celebrate when someone returns to the fold. We are a sub-community within a larger church, and today we celebrated a reunion of sorts when people from various faiths and various churches found a way to come together and make a large group, and we made music together. In a time when people suffer from time poverty, when consummerism is more important than community, when our social networking obligations are greater than our face-to-face interpersonal relationships, a few of us put aside the noise of the mundane world and sang, beautiful notes, beautiful words, beautiful people. Our oldest choir member is only 92, and a few of our members are barely more than 18. We came together, we made some music in a most traditional sort of way, and it was a joyful experience in the middle of a complicated, electronic, digital age in which you can’t understand the words to most contemporary music and maybe you don’t want to. I highly recommend the experience, if you can fit it into your schedule.

On success (or failure?)

Success is a strange animal. A little bit like bourbon, a little is very tasty and makes your head swim a little, but too much will make you sick and might even kill you. We live in a society obsessed with material success—intellectual success, not so much. We tell our children that only winning will do, and success is gauged by how many wins you have. We sign our children up for every team there is: football, dance, tennis, baseball, debate, color guard, wrestling, track, equestrian, gymnastics, science fair, tiddly-winks, twister, but other than making them take all AP classes, do we worry about their intellectual growth as people? The only possible outcome is victory. As someone who wasn’t very good at sports, or competitions in general, I could never measure success in terms of victories. I measured my success in terms of participation. Participation is great, of course, but the accolades go the victors, not the losers, not the also-rans. In many senses, I am one of an enormous anonymous multitude plodding along doing my thing. People who live in the public eye as movie stars or rock stars or politicians let popular success go to their heads. I’m thinking about people like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. The pressure of living in public 24/7 is just too great for any one person to tolerate for any expended period. Eventually, they needed drugs to sleep and drugs to wake up. Privacy was impossible, and living like a normal person was a fantasy. Eventually, all three imploded under the stress and died due to drug overdoses. Students who are very successful in high school and college always run a similar risk of risk of believing their own press clippings. I much prefer to students who have garnered fewer accolades, and have substituted hard work for genius. Hard work in education is always more valuable than genius. The genius might have a great insight and be horrible glib and charismatic, but the hard worker will finish their thesis or dissertation, and the genius will struggle and may never finish. The Einsteins of the world prove the rule: they are so rare that they stand out as oddballs and iconoclasts. Real success, the kind of success that endures, the kind that matters, is based on hard work and dedication. Having a big ego will only ever get in your way, and if you actually think you are star in your field, you are probably only a legend in your own mind. There is always someone else who writes better, has more insight, and has a better job than you do. All success is fleeting and cruel, demanding a high price of those who would pray at that altar. Real success is not about getting trophies or medals, gold records or money. Real success is not about receiving any material goods at all. Success is about the journey, doing the work, demonstrating loyalty and humility, working in the shadows, finishing a job, turning in a paper, getting a degree. Success, any success, is fleeting and cruel and devours the successful from the inside out. Real success is never measured; it is lived on a day-to-day basis, based on humility and respect for those around you, and the daily assurance that you owe all of your success to the kindness of others.

On learning to read

It was not a simple thing to learn, but it was probably the most important part of my development. I struggled through first and second grades with reading. My mother, bless her heart, is (and was then) an avid reader who could devour a thick novel in a matter of days, if not hours, worked tirelessly with me on word recognition, phonics, and reading. I had a pile of books which she generously read to me, pointing out words I might know, might recognize. We had flash cards. Toward the end of second grade, a couple of “light bulb moments” occurred and reading became a little easier. I was moved up from the second reading group to the first reading group. I had been pulling double duty all year, doing the work for both groups. I wasn’t quite good enough to be the first reading group, but the second group was too easy. My liminal status granted me the rare opportunity of getting double the reading practice, but it also left me a little breathless as well, swapping time between both groups. Mrs. Jensen, my second grade teacher, was a little exasperated by my lack of obvious progress. I didn’t read well out loud, which was the pedagogic technique at the time (1967). Of course, I didn’t understand that reading and reading out loud had nothing to do with one another. My reading comprehension was fine, but my performance in reading circle was mediocre. By third grade (and with lots of practice at home with lots of trips to the local library) my reading was getting lots better, and by fourth grade the mystery was solved. Since then I’ve read a book or two, learned to read another language, and I’ve even written a book, so Mrs. Jensen’s fears about my possible illiteracy were unfounded. Reading has been a great pleasure during these fifty-three years. I haven’t read everything, but I enjoy a good mystery, ironic social commentary, comedy or anything that is just a little off-beat or strange. I’m not a great fan of thick Victorian novels, but some people love them. I have no favorite book to read, and I seldom re-read a book. Poetry is like eating candy. A well-written essay is a feast for the mind. Short stories are like eating potato chips. I’m always willing to give a good avaunt-guard writer the chance to thrill me. “Waiting for Godot” is a tour de force in existential thought. I read all the time. Sometimes I have to read things that don’t thrill me–part of the job–but then again, that’s also a part of what makes reading great: wading through the junk and dross to get to the gems. Loving reading and doing lots of it has brought me success and vocation, and I thank Mrs. Jensen and my mother for their energy, their concerns, and their dedication. It worked. I’m literate.

On Good Friday

From any perspective, it may not be possible to understand Good Friday. The human tradition of capital punishment has a long and dark history that probably originates in the obscure reaches of our history that even anthropologists and archeologists cannot fathom. Trying to answer the question of why we want to kill each other is a mysterious, if not enigmatic, pursuit that inflames emotions and raises questions about human life. The Romans were good at executing people, using various painful and horrifying methods of executing criminals, terrorists and other human detritus. Of course, their methods for determining such categories were a part of their law codes, and I am sure they were justified in having non-conformists eaten by wild animals, for example. Good Friday is about capital punishment, however, and I think that Christians, probably above all others, should be sensitive to the modern practice of capital punishment. Yet, living in Texas, a place that prides itself on its beliefs and plants churches everywhere, I find that this is often not the case, and our state officials have carried out more executions than any other state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. I know what people are thinking because I have also thought about this: the crimes these people have committed are so heinous that they don’t deserve to live anymore. How can you forgive a person who has used a pickax to kill another person? For this reason, however, the debate about the legitimacy of the death penalty is hot and full of conflict and polemics. The biggest problem with the death penalty, specifically, and capital punishment, in general, is that the result is irreversible. Justice, as we all know, is not handed out evenhandedly. We would like Lady Justice to keep that blindfold on and her scales evenly balanced, and I don’t know who lives in that ideal world, but I know I don’t. Innocent men and women are convicted of crimes every day in spite of the best efforts of judges, juries, prosecutors and defense lawyers. Good Friday shows me that an innocent man may be executed given circumstances beyond the control of even the judge. I would not ask for grace for a murderer, but I would suggest that that kind of punishment is not within our purview. Grace, forgiveness, these cannot be just words on a page. They must mean something to all of us, the imperfect people of this world. It’s true: this man was surely innocent.

On canceled

If there is a sorrier or sadder word in the English anguish than “canceled,” I don’t know what it might be. So yesterday, in the chaos of a hail/lightening/tornado storm at the DFW airport, they canceled five hundred flights, affecting thousands of passengers, and I was one of them. All these cancellations collapsed the airline’s ability to rebook anyone in any kind of orderly fashion. I received a sad little text message letting me know that my flight was canceled, but they would be back to me soon with re-booking information. Well, that was yesterday, and they still haven’t contacted me. My friends in Admissions, a very resourceful group, re-grouped, made a new plan, Stan, and we made it back to Waco this morning with the help of a very kind admissions counselor who got up this morning at 5:30 to retrieve us from the DFW area. As of this moment, I have heard nothing about rebooking, although, paradoxically, I did get my suitcase back this evening, and they even brought it out to my house. What sweethearts! Yet, sitting there in the airport with all hell breaking loose, with nowhere to go, with a sinking feeling in my stomach, with pressing appointments back home, I had no hope of making it home on time for anything. Ironically, I had made it on the plane to return home, only to be kicked off of the plane by the cabin crew. The weather went dark, the wind came up, the rain started to fall, and before we knew it, we had a full-fledged hail storm pounding the airport, the planes, the cars, the people. Canceled. They canceled everything in sight: the only things moving on the ramps were nickle-sized pieces of hail that were pelting everyone and everything. I went to a hotel for the night, knowing that I would be retrieved in the morning, which made the delay and cancellation a little more bearable. I couldn’t blame the airline. They didn’t order hail and tornadoes for the early afternoon. Many of planes took hail damage, so there was no getting out of DFW by air. Our contingency plan was the only effective way of resolving our castaway condition. We all work for a pretty good organization, and they were not about to let us stay stranded and unloved in the Metroplex. We rolled into Waco about 10 am, went to the airport to do the paperwork on our lost bags, and headed to work. So we were canceled, stranded, castaway, and abandoned by our carrier, but it’s all good, thanks to the kind generosity and sharp ingenuity of all those involved. My only regret was having to use the same clothes for two days straight. My spare change of clothing, you ask? In my lost suitcase, of course!