Mr. Sandman's Sandbox

The musings of a Deaf Californian on life, politics, religion, sex, and other unmentionables. This blog is not guaranteed to lead to bon mots appropriate for dinner-table conversation; make of it what you will.

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Six Million Dollar Human

Hmm... I bet you're thinking to yourself, "Well, here we go... another political rant and rave today. Another diatribe about inequities, how everything's going down the toilet, etc., etc."

Usually that'd be the case, but you know what? Sometimes I read stuff that is so amazing, it gives me hope for the future. Often I reserve this sense of optimism and wonder for technology and medicine. Often I chuck my spam, but I do read jokes, "deep thoughts," quizzes, and such stuff sent on by friends. Often they get recycled or sent by several people at the same time. One of the things I've gotten over the years (especially when I was in academia) is the list, usually sent out in the fall, that says "people entering college this year..." and it goes on to list things that they are used to or have never been without, or significant events/dates that were before they were born. Just thinking about my own past, I could come up with my own list. Things like rotary phones, typewriters, carbon copies and mimeographs handed out at school, stamps that cost less than 20 cents, entire regions of the country without a McDonald's in sight... these are among the things that no longer exist. VCRs, DVD players, computers, UPC codes, microwaves, closed-captioning, TTYs, relay services... the list goes on and on. I can remember life before all of these came on the scene. (There's actually a pretty good book on the subject: Going, Going, Gone: Vanishing Americana by Jonas and Nissenson) The same is the case for medicine. Life before insulin, statins, and antibiotics was quite different, indeed.

In medicine, we've gone in less than 200 years from the beginnings of vaccination and anesthesia to open heart surgery and artificial body parts, such as hip joints. Now there's a new report out that the possibility of restoration of sight exists, by using stem cells. While I doubt we'll be conquering death anytime soon (and given the fact that the planet is already overpopulated, that could be very frightening!), I think we're on the brink of making some real jumps in progress in medicine. There is so much we still don't know about the body: we're still learning about the potential and function of the brain, for example.

As a deaf person, probably the greatest fear I have in my life is the fear of losing my sight. While I don't plan to go out and be reckless anytime soon, it's a comfort knowing that there may be some real opportunities to preserve sight. As the article points out, the operations that have been conducted so far have made a real difference in people's lives. All of this is due to the stem cell. It's amazing what cells can do, what they are capable of, and how fundamentally necessary they are to life. It really upsets me that people who claim they support life would focus so narrowly on the issue of childbirth, babies, and when life begins, and not see the broader picture. It's why I have far more respect for people who are both anti-abortion and anti-death penalty. How you can claim you support life by forcing women to either keep a child or give it up for adoption and then turn around and gladly murder someone in the name of the state is beyond me. It's not logical or rational. It also bugs me that these same people will insist that women that they don't even know or care about give birth, but once the child is born and breathing, whoops! Gotta go! People aren't willing to stick around and help the mother support and raise her child. We'll throw money at anti-abortion legislation, appoint anti-abortion judges, bomb clinics, and maim or kill doctors, but we're also willing to cut funding for Head Start, shortchange education, reduce welfare assistance for single parents and their kids, and withhold health care and insurance from thousands of kids. It's a troublesome paradox.

Wow... I meant to write about stem cells, saving sight, and I slide into yet another post about what I think is wrong with everything. Sorry 'bout that! Back to the topic at hand. It's going to be interesting to see how this news turns out down the road. Obviously these operations are recent, and there will need to be studies about the sustainability of sight, but it does seem on the surface that the repairs done in surgery are permanent. What will be next? I honestly think Christopher Reeve missed the boat by a few years. I expect at some point we're going to have operations for just about everything, and yes, that includes hearing. When I was at Deaf Way II a few years back, I had a conversation with an old friend, a member of a prestigious fraternity at my alma mater. He surprised me by saying he felt that in a hundred years, there wouldn't be any more deafness. Medicine will have eradicated or reduced deafness to the extent that the Deaf community wouldn't really exist anymore. The recent completion of examining and identifying genes in DNA, the ongoing discovery of genes that cause deafness, the continuing advancement of technology such as cochlear implants, etc. lead me to think this could very well be true.

From all indications, most of the public agrees that stem cells aren't to be ignored out of hand, and aside from the religious right and the politicians in their pockets, I think there's support for further exploration. It's going to be very exciting to see what happens next!

So despite the ranting and raving I slipped into this post, I *do* think this is exciting news, and I do look forward to seeing humanity's progress in the years ahead. Pretty soon we won't have to watch Lee Majors in reruns; we'll have our own bionic humans walking about among us.

Friday, April 29, 2005

A "Get Out of Army Free" Card

You know, for all the adulation politicians and certain segments of the population like to shower on the military, there have been quite a few controversies surrounding military service in our history. Usually these sticky issues revolve around the draft. During the Civil War, those who wanted to avoid serving in the Union forces could hire a substitute. "Commutation fees" were paid, to the tune of $300. Using the Consumer Price Index, the rough equivalent today would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000. Confederate forces fared no better, as the age limits widened over time, until just about anyone who was fit to serve was requested to do so. Of course, the planters and their workers were deemed "essential" to the wartime economy. Complaints on both sides of having to fight a "rich man's war" fueled resentment, and in the case of the North, draft riots-- notably in New York City in 1863. The draft and the issue of substitutes reared its ugly head in the post-war political climate when charges were hurled against Grover Cleveland for having hired a substitute in the Civil War.

The Vietnam era still resonates today, although the bitterness over "draft-dodgers" is not quite as intense as it was in the years immediately preceding the war itself. Still, a similar controversy erupted during Clinton's campaign in 1992, when he was tagged a "draft-dodger," after decades of presidents who had served in one form or another in WWII. Again, in 2000 and 2004, we had Smirk's questionable service in the National Guard, accompanied by mysteriously vanishing and re-appearing forms. I think he missed his calling as a magician...

These examples lead me to predict that sometime in the future, when I am much older, sadder, and wiser, we're going to see something like this happen again. Here's why. I'm not sure in today's press climate that this will become any kind of story at all, but it certainly merits examination. Why on earth when they are having such difficulty drafting soldiers would the Army be stupid enough to create different classes of soldiers? Why should someone who is atheletically gifted be permitted to circumvent the rules? I would think the average military enlistee or National Guard member would resent this. It's bad enough a lot of these athletes are going to earn tons more than the average worker today, but they get a "get out of the army" pass. This ain't Monopoly, boys and girls. It's a double standard, and I don't much care for it.

In the article, one fine specimen went to West Point. He knows, and admits in the article, that he has a five-year commitment to serve following his graduation. Yet he's chomping at the bit to get out early. To me, that's not acceptable. You get a fine education, you go in to the military academies with your eyes open, and you *know* you owe time afterwards. That's part of the whole deal. You can't have it both ways. The American taxpayer is subsidizing your education (the five military schools receive the lion's share of their budget in federal money) in exchange for your serving the nation. Trying to cut out early is not only stiffing taxpayers, it's also an affront to your classmates, the majority of whom don't have the same athletic talent you have. They followed through; why can't you? (Pat Tillman notwithstanding; and given the fact that he was killed by friendly fire probably isn't the best advertising for signing up, when you think about it)

If you truly believe you belong on the gridiron or the court or the diamond or *whatever*, then go there. Or go to a regular four-year school, play on the school team, and then get yourself drafted into the majors if you can. But trying to have it both ways is insulting.

That doesn't mean I'm encouraging everyone to stay in the army, go to Iraq, and get themselves killed. It doesn't mean I don't accept an occasional exception to the rule. But I've always felt fair play should be part of the equation in anything and everything, and military service is no exception. If you truly believe in military service, and you believe it's for you, then go ahead. But once you're there, follow through.

The army and our gummint think it's cool to be able to have soldier-athletes released early. They see it as a PR gimmick. I see it as a horribly mixed message. If you're an athlete, we'll be like everybody else and elevate you above mere mortals. We'll keep National Guardsmen and women beyond their contractual obligations because we're shorthanded by fighting on two fronts, but hey, if you have a wicked fastball or you have a record number of TDs, sure, go ahead and leave us. Just do a little PR for us, wink wink.

If you really want some equity, then Barbara and Jenna Bush should enlist. For that matter, all the children of our Representatives and Senators who voted for this debacle should volunteer for service. You supported the war? Put your body where your mouth is. You want a political career? Sign on the dotted line, son.

I doubt there'll be a serious issue with a soldier-athlete in some future political contest; but I certainly do foresee some history repeating itself should a draft re-appear.

[on a side note to my rants and raves concerning unemployment, the disabled and poor, etc. the other day, this article just popped up, bolstering my point: cuts in Medicaid that will ultimately lower the bar for all of us in terms of standards of health care. Look to even more bursting-at-the-seams emergency rooms in the near future.]

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Worth a Thousand Words

There's a lot of press this week, and I'm sure it will increase in the next couple of days, about the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. The end of that tragic conflict is one of the earliest things I remember reading, seeing, or hearing about that had national bearing. We didn't have a television when I was growing up, but we did get the newspapers, and I did see TV at friends' and relatives' homes. My mother also borrowed a TV for a short time when I was sick, and we ended up having it for something like six months before we returned it (the man who lended it was a good friend, or a friend of a good friend, and if I remember right, he had a large console set already-- the late 60s/early 70s huge floor models with wood paneling and all that... The set we borrowed was a small black and white portable). I recall seeing TV game shows (Wink Martindale, anyone?), portions of the Watergate hearings, and the evening news with the now-famous helicopters landing on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

It wasn't til I was older that I realized the importance of what I had seen, and learned more about the war. In high school and college, the courses I took were focused on providing overviews or in-depth exploration of American history, European history, and "Western Civilization". Very few courses were available on 20th century topics, Asia, Africa, or South America. I took one African History class in college, under Kinner, and it was an overview of sorts. I took Asian History under Smits, one of the toughest professors I had at Gallaudet. I never had the opportunity to take Latin American History at all until I started my Ph.D., and then finally I was able to explore the fascinating history of the nations and regions to the south of us.

But while I was taking a long break from my undergraduate studies and working full-time, I took evening courses. Some of them were to stay on top of my requirements for my BA degree, while others were for pleasure. I went to a local community college, and this is where I took a course on the Vietnam War. It was really fascinating from a historical perspective to learn about how Vietnam was part of French Indochina, then fought against the French colonial authorities after WWII, finally winning at Dienbienphu in 1954, only to have the U.S. step in and carry on the fight. As part of the class, we watched "Vietnam: A Television History". While this set of videos (now out on DVD, and apparently edited since!) originally came out in 1983 and thus is a bit too close to the actual war years for full historical objectivity and also doesn't cover everything (can you really do that?), it did help to educate me. It also hit home for me just how visual this war was. It was televised, photographed, and documented so extensively compared with earlier wars. Seeing the carnage in Hue, the carpet bombings, the pictures and tapes of GIs made what happened that much more real. It's something the Pentagon wasn't crazy about, and that they have since done a very good job of minimizing and concealing. It's one thing to talk about war in the abstract, but when you see what's really going on, when you hear in an actual eyewitness's words what is happening around them, when you read accounts, stories, articles, and books about events, then it becomes that much more tangible and understandable, and helps you to form a more accurate opinion.

When I taught 20th Century American History, one of my students was very pro-Vietnam War, pro-Army. He was an intelligent, hard-working student, and he brought a different perspective into my classes which I welcomed. I don't personally care for jingoistic chickenhawk right-wingers (or right-wingers, period), but this guy was far from that. He had his own personal opinions, of course, but he was thoughtful and truly tried to understand what had happened long before he was born.When I asked my students if they would have served, he stated that he would have done so, that he felt it was important to support his country. When we viewed footage from different sources of the Vietnam War, I was curious if anyone's opinion had changed. When I got to this young man, I asked him if, in the light of what he had recently learned, if he would still have willingly gone to Vietnam. He looked down for a minute, his face furrowed. Then he looked up at me and quietly said, "No, probably not." What was interesting was that it took images of war to change his opinion. This was especially significant considering I taught this class at about the same time that the rush to war in Iraq was taking place, so it was a timely lesson. Do we really belong in another country? If so, why? These are important questions, and questions that should be asked, debated, and answered before any action takes place. Unfortunately, in both Vietnam and Iraq, they weren't asked in time, or debated to the extent they should have been.

How we perceive war is as important as the reasons for war itself. The Pentagon knows this, which is why it has tamped down on any adverse reporting, photographs, video images, etc. from wars in the last couple of decades, including the current war. I think this is totally irresponsible; these are people's lives, homes, livelihoods, and environments that are being affected, whether here or there. People deserve to know what is happening, whether it's happening to them, because of them, or is just happening, period. Freedom of information and the ability to educate oneself is supposedly a tenet of being an American, a fundamental principle in democracy. By practicing censorship, it harms everyone.

This is why I was glad to see that a FOIA request led to the Pentagon finally releasing images of coffins being returned from Iraq. Some pictures had been previously released online, thanks to The Memory Hole, but this time the Pentagon (unwillingly!) released photos, rather than having such documentation leaked. Considering what has come out so far (Abu Ghraib, and continuing dribbling of unsettling information from Guantanamo), the military should know by now that you can't conceal information forever. It's a lesson our government seems determined never to learn, to everyone's detriment. I'm glad we are finally getting a chance to see these pictures. For one thing, it honors the sacrifice these people made in our names. I think they died for the wrong reasons, and should never have been over in Iraq in the first place, but the point is, they died in our names. The least we can do is honor their lives by remembering them. Second, it may help turn the tide of public opinion. I often think of my students, and wonder what they are thinking and how they are feeling about the events that have unfolded since I taught them. I know these pictures of coffins have to affect them; they are right at the perfect age to be entering the military, or to be drafted. Some of those soldiers making the final trip home may even be friends, acquaintances, or relatives. I sincerely hope I never have to see any of my former students' names in the papers, saying they've been killed thousands of miles from home. I hope people see these photos, and more, and realize that war really and truly should be reserved as the ultimate final decision, an action of last resort. As it is, I fear too many people see war as just another arrow in the quiver, and that we are captive to the decisions of megalomaniacs, whether they are dictators in the Middle East or dictatorial leaders here at home.

Even though these pictures are sad ones, like all good pictures, they are worth a thousand words. I'm just sorry they had to come at such a high price.


Just got back from Farmer's Market, and the first cherries of the season. *grin* These days, you can find most fruits and vegetables year-round; cherries are among the few produce items that still have a definite and limited season. I'm looking forward to the next few weeks-- strawberries and cherries. Pretty soon we'll be seeing peaches, nectarines, and apricots, followed by plums. Not to mention raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries, and boysenberries. Yum!

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Big River Lifts Actor's Boat

It's a treat when we can go out to see a movie; even more of a treat when we see a movie that's captioned, subtitled, or in any form remotely understandable! But just because a movie might be accessible doesn't mean we'll always go to see it. A lot of times I'll pass things up, because just like hearing people, I don't like wasting my money on bad films. I like lots of different genres (except for horror- classic horror I'll watch, but a lot of today's horror movies are horrific in the sense of "How could they spend perfectly good money to make THAT?!?!"), so I'll watch a diverse number of films, but I won't pay for dreck.

There's some movies I won't go to see in the theaters, but I'll rent them. Today we went to see one such movie - "A Lot Like Love". I'm not crazy about Ashton Kutcher, but that wasn't the main reason we went to see it. It's because the film has Tyrone Giordano in a supporting role as the brother of Ashton's character. Ty is a graduate of Gallaudet and a friend of my wife's, although I've only met him twice, if that. We went to see him in DeafWest Theatre's production of "Big River" at the Mark Taper Forum, in January 2003, after it had already opened in DeafWest's home theatre in North Hollywood ("Children of A Lesser God" also played at the Taper Forum before it went national- good portent!). In fact, that's Ty on the poster on the home page of DeafWest, even though he's no longer acting in the lead role of Huck Finn.

We've both been to National Theatre of the Deaf performances before, but never to a DeafWest show together (I saw "The Gin Game" years ago in Fremont, with Phyllis Frelich and Patrick Graybill-- very good show!), and certainly never to the Taper. It wasn't cheap, but we got the tickets as a Christmas gift, so we got dressed up and headed out.

It was a fantastic show-- definitely a cut above the average NTD production, and some very good actors. I was especially impressed by Ty's performance as Huck, and Michael McElroy as Jim was outstanding. I'd worked with Troy Kotsur before, and known him at Gallaudet, so I knew he would turn in a solid performance, and I wasn't disappointed. All in all, everyone in the show did a great job, and we left knowing we'd just seen a great show.

Several of the actors were people my wife knew, so we went backstage afterwards to see some folks. I was able to say hello to Troy, and my wife reconnected with Ty. Once all the introductions and catching up had been done, we headed home, and we thought, "That's that." Playing at the Taper is pretty damn good.

Well, if you are deaf, Deaf, or know anything about DeafWest or theatre, you know that wasn't the end. "Big River" lifted everyone's boat, including Ty's, as it headed off to New York and Broadway. We were glad we'd gotten the chance to see the show before it went big-time! Not long after, "Big River" went on a national tour, and bounced around the country, even returning to L.A. for a few nights. At this point, "Big River" is playing in D.C. at Ford's Theater (yes, *that* Ford's Theater!), and I understand has a completely new cast. I have no idea what McElroy or some of the others are up to now, but "Big River" lifted Ty's boat even higher than Broadway. He was now in a feature film, and working on a second one ("The Family Stone" with Diane Keaton, Claire Danes, among others -- I didn't see it in the last issue of Hollywood Reporter at work, so I think it may have finished shooting and be in post-production now, or close to it).

So here we were, with "A Lot Like Love" opening in theaters and a DTS showing in Van Nuys, and we figured we'd go. How often did we get the chance to see someone we knew or had met in a movie?

As far as the film goes, it wasn't something I'd recommend, to be perfectly honest. It's a story that's been done before many times, the best of which is "When Harry Met Sally...", and more recently in "Serendipity". Take my word for it that Billy Crystal and John Cusack are far, far, better actors than Ashton Kutcher ever will be. The plot was rather insipid-- I suppose in this day and age, having an encounter and joining the "Mile High Club" without having really met each other is possible, but it's rather implausible in terms of contributing to a great, long-lasting relationship. I've known people who have jumped in the sack before they even went out on a date, and the subsequent relationship, to say the least, sucked. As far as having each other's phone number/way to contact each other, I found the equally implausible scenario in "Serendipity" to be far more romantic. I also found the dictum of "do everything before thirty" to be a bit unrealistic, not to mention a terrible message to send to people. Is it really necessary to "have it all" before you hit thirty? Is that even possible?

Kutcher may be great on TV, but he doesn't translate well to the silver screen. As long as he keeps the company he does, look for him to be in the public eye, but don't expect him to be on any all-time lists of great actors.

Amanda Peet has some potential, but whatever talent she might have is wasted here. She definitely does have interesting looks, and maybe some secret Kennedy genes. She has that whole Maria Shriver look going. She has some chemistry with Kutcher, mostly during the car trip scenes, but if it's a good car trip romance you want, look again to John Cusack- "The Sure Thing" is an example that works better than this movie.

The only other cast members that have potential futures here are Gabriel Mann, who plays Peet's ex in the film; Kathryn Hahn, who plays Peet's best friend; and Ty Giordano. Mann was in "The Bourne Identity" and "The Bourne Supremacy" and has an element of screen presence. I think you'll see him again. Hahn has already appeared in "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days", among other movies. I don't see her being top A-list, but I think she has what it takes to be a solid supporting or character actress, especially in comedies.

Ty is photogenic, and while he wasn't given much to do in the movie, he definitely can act. I think doing theater is much harder than doing film; on film, you can sort of blend into whatever's happening in the movie, and if you're in any sci-fi or fantasy stuff, you can let the special effects help you get away with murder. Often mere screen presence is the key thing-- witness Arnold Schwarzenegger-- a B-list acting type who's made it big in many A-list action films. But in theater, the setting is much more intimate, and in some theaters, you're quite close to the front rows. Additionally, you have to establish a rapport with your audience and make them believe you are the character you're playing. It's not easy-- it's why it's called *acting*, and is why acting is a *job*. When I saw "Big River", Ty convinced me he was Huck, even though he was nearly a good fifteen years older than the character is supposed to be. He has what it takes to be a good actor; he just needs the appropriate role and screen time to establish it for those who were not fortunate to see him in "Big River." All of the supporting characters, Ty included, were sort of accessories to the main story-- they could easily have been discarded, and no one would notice. That's how weak the script was for "A Lot Like Love". Here's hoping his role in the new movie is bigger and gives him a chance to show what he can do, and that it lifts his boat even higher.

Monday, April 25, 2005

What Investment Do You Want To Make?

It's disturbing to see what's happening under the government we have now, with all the tax cuts that benefit the upper classes, and the corresponding cuts to programs and services for people who really need it. It's not just a matter of politics for me: as a deaf person, I've met people that are nowhere near ready to enter the workforce, or who have some skills, but are chronically underemployed. That's not to mention people like myself who are educated and could make it, but are unemployed. It's not just the deaf-- there are others who have different disabilities or problems that truly need assistance from the government.

I just read an article about the proposed budget for the coming federal fiscal year, and it saddens me. In this Washington Post story, the former chief of the Rehabilitation Services Administration decries the cuts in jobs assistance for the disabled. It's not just Rehab that's facing problems; there are cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, and pressure to eliminate SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

I know many Deaf who don't see themselves as disabled; while I can understand that mindset, the reality is that deafness is a disability, and many deaf people have at one time or another availed themselves of the services out there: VR, SSI, SSDI, Medicaid, Medicare, Medi-Cal, etc. Some people (deaf or otherwise) just need a leg up. I've known quite a few people that have used VR services or received SSI for a few years, and are now successfully employed taxpayers. But there's always going to be a percentage of folks that will never cease needing some sort of assistance. This is true for the blind, those in wheelchairs, etc. For this government to take away the services and benefits that help people overcome whatever disadvantages they have is despicable.

The proposed cuts to Rehabilitation Services is especially disgusting, considering that its purpose isn't to provide a handout, as some people might claim in the case of SSI and other forms of welfare. The concept of rehabilitation is to get people into jobs, to make sure they are gainfully employed. It's not just those of us who were born handicapped, or became disabled at an early age; it's also the subgroup that Rehab was initially established for, the veterans. Today we're fighting wars in two nations, Iraq and Afghanistan, and once again, soldiers are returning to the States via hospitals and rehab centers with all kinds of permanent injuries. It bugs me that they will be seeking the same kind of services that we do, yet they're also gonna get shafted. How can we send our men and women off to war, in defense of this country, and then not uphold the bargain when they return? It's bad enough they're fighting for false reasons (anybody seen those WMDs lately, huh?). It's bad enough they're probably gonna be stuck overseas for years. It's bad enough that families are damaged in the process, and so much raw potential is wasted. But to turn around and say, "Gee, thanks for being willing to make the potential ultimate sacrifice. Sorry you got hurt. Welcome home. Oh, by the way, don't bother trying to obtain services so you can rebuild your life. We need the money instead for tax cuts, among other things." This administration is so damn shortsighted, selfish, and just plain mean. There's no sense of making any kind of investment in the people who make up this country, the people who support this country, and the people who defend this country.

For those of you that think that disabled people like me, my friends, the wounded vets, and others across the country are lazy bums who should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, consider this: when you don't hire us, we end up having to fall back on government assistance. This money comes from taxpayer money. That means either you can pay us to work, and we will respond by giving it our best, and be able to join the ranks of taxpayers, OR you can pay us to sit on our butts and waste our minds and talent.

Oh, you say, the government can just cut services and funding like they're doing now. That way none of "your" money has to help the dummies, the blind, the gimps, the crips. Well, guess what? That means we become part of the permanent underclass. That means we will have to rely on whatever welfare is provided (in other words, we'll still get some taxpayer money in the form of welfare). We may have less and less government-mandated healthcare, but no problem. We'll just end up in the emergency rooms as an alternative to regular care. That places stress on the hospitals and ultimately costs you in increased insurance premiums and medical costs. We don't get enough money to survive? We end up on the streets or crowded in with friends and relatives. That puts even more stress on the community, and adds to fiscal costs at the city, county, and state levels. In other words, you're still paying.

So, you have a choice: either you can pay now in the short run for education, rehabilitation services, and some welfare costs, and end up with people who can enter the workforce and help support the smaller permanent pool of people that are always going to need assistance, OR you can pay the same money, but end up with a larger pool of dependent people, and more social problems in the long run. What kind of investment do you want to make? It's your choice.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Avid Readers, Bookworms, and Bibliophiles: What Heaven Must Be...

I just got back from what a bibliophile's idea of heaven is: the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA. It's been around for approximately ten years now, and is very well attended. I was recovering from surgery the first year we lived here, so going wasn't possible. Last year, I can't remember why we didn't go, but we didn't. This year, I wasn't sure whether we'd still be here come next spring, so I decided it was time to go and see what this was all about, even if it was just for a couple hours. Unfortunately the resident J.D.-to-be was in the throes of writing three or four papers, and had exams coming up. Rotten timing...

I didn't want to go by myself, but we finally decided I'd go, and hopefully next year, we'd go together. So after dithering about all this, I took off. Since parking was most likely at a premium and cost $7, and we don't live all that far away (1.5 miles from campus), I decided to walk. It was really warm today, but luckily there was enough of a breeze I wasn't too wiped out by the time I got to the east side of campus, by the law school. The book fair started at the west end of the law school, and stretched out across campus, almost to the Wooden Center (yes, named after legendary coach John Wooden!). There were a couple smaller sections, one near Bunche Hall, and one northeast of Kerckhoff as well.

I had a vague idea of the Festival, and knew well enough to avoid Westwood the last couple of years that weekend (it's held on a weekend at the end of April-- 3rd or 4th week I believe), but I was astounded right away-- there were hundreds of people swarming in front of me, and I was just on the periphery of the whole shebang. I wandered over to the first set of booths I saw, and it turned out to be the children's book area. From there, I walked across the street to one of the central areas, and looked over the schedules. The L.A. Times publishes a pull-out booklet that lists all the events that go on on both days, but naturally, there were booths scattered here and there with information leaflets and the same booklets. There were panels with authors, writers, and publishers; these usually require (free) tickets, and I decided not to do that this year; maybe next year, if we both go, I'll obtain a ticket or two beforehand and arrange for interpreting (it's free, you just gotta let them know in advance). A few speakers were outside under huge tents and pavilions, so I knew I could pass by a writer or two. Additionally, many authors would be available throughout the day for booksignings as well.

The booths weren't limited to children's books: there were booths and exhibits of all kinds, ranging from the Society of Calligraphy, calendars (yep, I could've bought my 2006 calendar a good 6+ months in advance!), bed desks (I was intrigued by this-- maybe someday when I have a bit more money, I'll buy one), Ayn Rand, Dianetics, Pacifica Radio Archives, Buddhist works and publications, several booths with Islamic materials, and many that focused solely on mysteries and mystery writers. Additionally, there were the usual culprits: Borders, Target, Barnes & Noble, etc. Even Hi De Ho Comics had a booth, a rather large one filled with graphic novels, comics compilations, etc. Naturally I spent more than a few minutes there. *grin* If you're in the L.A. area, and you like comics, check it out. The other big store in the area is Golden Apple Comics, but I prefer Hi De Ho (not to mention it's just six blocks from the Pacific!).

There were quite a few single-book booths, with the actual author sitting there selling their own individual works, published either by small or independent presses, or by a vanity publisher. A lot of the booths were small and independent presses and bookstores, which I thought was great. What really excited me though, was the fact that there were *so many people* there! I know I bitch and moan a lot about the state of our world, but it excited me that so many people were there, solely to enjoy books. I was also heartened to see tons of kids there too, with mom and dad in tow (it helped that the entire section of Dickson Plaza South was turned over to children's books and publishers!). I've always felt that no matter what else you do or believe in, learning to read and pursuing reading is essential. It's part of being educated, and I think if more people actually took the time to educate themselves, there'd be greater participation in civic affairs, and then maybe people would want to actually try to change things for the better. Not only that, but reading is *fun*.

I didn't see a whole lot of famous faces, with the exception of Kevin Smith, who was giving a talk about his recent book. It was kind of fun to see that, as Silent Bob finally spoke (*grin*)! There were supposed to be quite a number of other well-known people either giving readings or appearing in panel discussions, but I'd rather find new books and see what's out there than spend the day being a celebrity looky-loo. One booth in particular entranced me: a cookbook company/store that had their booth filled entirely with cookbooks. I found one that was about berries-- since berry season is here (I've been madly buying strawberries at Farmer's Market now for about two weeks- they just keep getting better and better, despite the damaged crop from all the rain we had this past winter), I was tempted to buy it. I didn't, but I did write down the title, so I can always get it later. There were cookbooks on South American cuisines, Indian, Greek, and all sorts of other foods. I'm trying to branch out and learn how to cook recipes that aren't necessarily based on a mac-and-cheese or hamburger foundation. American food is good, sure, but there's so many yummy things to try, it seems a waste not to do so.

I found a few fiction books I want to read eventually, including Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I'd vaguely remembered seeing in a bookstore a while back. I picked up a copy in one booth, and after reading the synopsis on the inside jacket sleeve decided I'd be interested in it. If you've read this book, let me know if you liked it, okay?

It was nearly all books, all the way, except for a central "food court"-- can you say "overpriced" and "ridiculous"? One guy was selling novelty ice cream bars for something like $3.75 or $4-- these are the same popsicles and treats you can buy for 85 cents at 7-11. $4 lemonades, hot dogs for $5, that kind of thing. No thanks, I'll pass...

I just checked-- there were apparently over 400 different booths today, and I definitely went into at least 3/4th's of them. I had planned to only stay an hour or two, but I ended up wandering about for nearly six hours straight. I've seen everything from the latest fiction on the market, to more children's books than I ever knew existed, to tons of mystery books, to poetry booklets put out by tiny little companies you never heard of. I'm not all booked out, but I'm close to it!

Friday, April 22, 2005

35 Years, & What Have We Learned?

Today is the 35th anniversary of the first Earth Day. While I wasn't really all that conscious of what was going on on that first Earth Day, I was definitely around for the 10th anniversary, and I fully participated in the 20th. In 1990, I was at Gallaudet, and although I bounced around from clique to clique, I was definitely hanging out with a rather eclectic bunch at the time. One particular group was very politically aware and eco-savvy, and I joined them in posting notices around D.C. about the impending 20th anniversary festivities. We all decided to go together early in the morning of April 22, 1990, and head to the Lincoln Memorial for the Dawn Patrol, which was the opening ceremony of a rather long day.

We arrived in the wee hours, when the entire city was dark and empty, save for the streetlights, and we wandered over to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. D.C. is a magic city in its own way, and I've been down to the National Mall many, many times at different times of the day, but this was one of the few times I've been there at that time. A small crowd gathered; maybe a couple hundred people, if that. We sat there and waited. Finally, just as the sky started to get a bit greyish and the air shifted subtly, the way it does when the hours are set in motion, beckoning the sunrise, a small passel of riders approached. They were Indians, Native Americans ready to help us welcome the dawn, a new day on Earth. We lucked out, as there was a volunteer interpreter on hand, who turned out to be my old friend JCI, from high school. He was at the time attending Georgetown, although he and I had our own lives by that time and hadn't gotten together as often as we would have liked. I know it was politically symbolic and all that, but I felt honored by the presence of the Indians, and excited about participating in the event.

After the prayers, the group slowly followed the riders, who led us down the side of the pool, past where the Korean War Memorial now stands, and down the length of the water, past where the WWII Memorial was just set up (thinking back on this, a lot of changes in just fifteen years!), and towards the Washington Monument. Somewhere on the hillside to the west of the Monument, there were photographers documenting the event. The next day I saw myself inside the Washington Times, in their Metro section. I don't think I saved a copy of this; I should try to make a xerox next time I'm in D.C.

We continued to make our way until we had reached the Capitol Steps, and here more and more people joined us. Finally, the Dawn Patrol ended, and that was it for the time being.

We were all exhausted, having stayed up the better part of a night, and so we went over to Roy Rogers, next to the Phoenix Park Hotel (RR isn't there anymore, although the Hotel still is, catercorner from Union Station), to grab something to eat. I remember this breakfast rather vividly (you too, P.! *grin*). Afterwards, we went back to the Capitol, where more people had showed up, including a larger contingent from Gally, and we listened to the speeches, the music, and celebrated the welfare of our planet.

Now it's fifteen years later; I pretty much wrote what I think of the current state of affairs a couple weeks ago, and again here, so I don't have a whole lot to add to that from a personal perspective. I didn't attend any events today, but I still remain concerned about what's going to happen to all of us. The environmental movement is too, if this article is any indication. I do agree that the unfair perception of "tree huggers" and "extremists" needs to be changed, and that people need to be encouraged to become more concerned about everyone's ultimate home, not just the McMansions and homogenized communities they live in. I wrote recently about the sex site that donates its profits to environmental causes, and while that's a bit extreme in a way, it's definitely a step in the right direction.

I do disagree about how the groups function and operate. I think the essential problem is that the right wing in this country has, for its own selfish, short-sighted (read: ENERGY & THE MONEY THAT COMES WITH IT) reasons, demonized environmental issues in the name of capitalism, states' rights, and property rights. This smearing, combined with the Corporate Media and its fawning agenda of pretending to be "objective" instead of serving the public good, has culminated in a public relations disaster. If people aren't properly educated, then it's difficult to muster public opinion towards preserving and saving the only home we have. What is needed is to find those hidden PR whizzes who sympathize enough to join in and create a fantastic campaign to educate the public and counter the years and years of selfish idiots who insist that we don't need parks, forests, animals, clean water, clean air, and reserves for swamps, wetlands, and farmland. The message has to be simple, consistent, and above all, persuasive.

Lately there's been a lot in the news about the perils we face with global warming, but despite the information about the changes taking place that are now out there, people seem to be saying the same thing they did about events like Rwanda: "Oh, my god, that's terrible!" and then going back to whatever they were doing before. I worry that people won't really "get it" until it's right on top of us, and there are water shortages, increased air problems, threats of famine, and similar catastrophes right in front of everyone's noses. Of course, by then, it may be too late.

I'd say the first thing is that all the pro-environmental groups need to join together in a coalition and concentrate on, say, one or two key issues/messages. Second, as I just said above, a succinct, persuasive message needs to be crafted and marketed. Third, just as in politics, keep it local, local, local. Sadly, people's eyes glaze over if you complicate what you're saying, but if it's something that will affect their pocketbook or the actual community they live in, boing! You've got LIVE people suddenly paying attention and ready to be receptive. By working with local environmental issues and then linking those to regional/statewide topics, a web can be developed to encompass the larger, global issues (such as global warming!). It's easier to understand the big stuff when you can see the connections with everyday daily life.

Let's hope that by the 40th anniversary, things have improved. I know one thing for sure: we'll have a different administration, hopefully one that will be more receptive to responses such as the Kyoto Treaty, and more willing to accept and act on the fact that there's plenty of evidence already in, and global warming is here, like it or not.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

New York's Finest

Whatever sympathy I had for New York police stemming from September 11 has vanished. I was never enamored of the NYPD to begin with; the stories of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo are just some of the more shocking and notorious incidents. It isn't just New York; there's tons of examples of police misconduct and incidents of abuse.

But after reading this article, and all the stories of the Secret Service and local police being misused during Presidential visits and campaign stops, I'm beginning to think that if the good people of this nation aren't careful, we're going to have a police state before we know it. It's bad enough there's abusive behavior on the part of cops, but to have the police willfully lie about the unethical and illegal things they do is not only shocking, but frightening. What really bothers me about the events of the Republican Convention is that it was bad enough that actual protesters were rounded up and held by the police (a definite affront to the First Amendment and everything the Bill of Rights and this country stands for), but that innocent bystanders were also caught, jailed, and fined without anyone acknowledging that a mistake was made. What's worse, the burden of proof did not rest with the police-- it lay with those who had been arrested.

New York isn't the only town that has problems with the police. Here in L.A., our cops seem to think they're in an action flick; any time they're chasing a car, they start shooting at it. Last year (or the year before?) they shot at a car that was slowly rolling backwards towards a cop car-- not just one cop shooting, but tons of them. Of course, they killed the driver. This was just a couple of blocks from a high school. Way to go, guys-- great role models. Lately it's been black kids on joyrides or adults cornered after car chases.

This doesn't mean I think all cops are bad, or that the police don't provide an essential public service. But I do think accountability is not always what it should be. We are according our police enormous powers in return for public safety, or a modicum thereof. This social contract shouldn't be abused or corrupted, but there are quite a few times when it is. Sometimes the problem is corrected, but as in NYC, incidents just keep on happening. It's not just one or two, either... it's a steady stream.

What exacerbates this is when politicians use the police and other security types for their own ends. This is what really troubles me about the misuse of security by the GOP. It's bad enough that a lot of communities get stuck with the bill for official government visits, but sometimes that's necessary. But to compound the costs of what is at times extremely excessive security with actions that violate our Constitution portends an erosion of what America is and should be.

I've visited NYC before, and have had no reason to encounter New York's Finest. In the wake of the tragedy of September, 2001, my sympathies were with the police and firefighters, and applauded their dedication to their job and to the public safety, at risk of their own well-being and lives. But then I read about the treatment of blacks, women, and others who are not powerful or connected enough, and I re-developed a certain disdain and wariness. What's sad is that ideally, the police should have the trust of our communities at large; but when they pull stunts like shooting at pedestrians and drivers, lying in courtrooms, and arresting people without cause, it makes it that much more difficult for a genuine relationship to develop, and for the social contract society has with authority to be honored and respected the way it should be.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

An Eggscellent Eggxample

Posted by Hello
A couple weeks ago was Easter, and I talked about my family traditions and memories. I promised if I could get my hands on one of my great-grandmother's eggs, or a picture of one, I'd post it. Well, here's an example: a beautiful maiden heralding spring!

Monday, April 18, 2005

Lotta's Fountain

Market Street in San Francisco is an old friend in some ways. Usually I try to avoid driving when I go into town, as parking is horrendous. Additionally, I'm not crazy about driving on some of the really steep hills. Finally, the tourist draws, fun neighborhoods, and general attractions are all on the east side of town, with the exception of the Presidio area, Golden Gate Park, and Ocean Beach. Plus, San Francisco is really a walking town, in the spirit of the best of the East Coast cities. Like Boston proper, San Francisco is fairly compact, and I personally think the best way to really see a city the way it should be seen is on foot.

Because I try to take BART whenever I can, I usually get off anywhere between the Embarcadero and Powell Street stops. This places me on Market Street, where I can easily visit the museums and sights in the northern fringes of SOMA, or head northward to Chinatown, the Financial District, North Beach, Telegraph Hill, and the wharf/pier area on the Embarcadero.

Up until fairly recently, going down Market was the great divide: north of Market generally meant the business districts, touristy neighborhoods, and the more prosperous residential parts. SoMa for a long time was an area of warehouses, gay leather bars and clubs, working class denizens, and a more gritty, "real" side to San Francisco, where San Franciscans lived, worked, played, and died. But on Market itself, you'd start at the Embarcadero and the Bay Bridge, and head all the way down to and past City Hall on a diagonal route, until suddenly it'd curve and straighten out, heading down into the Castro, the Mission, and other neighborhoods. Market Street is one of those old-fashioned grand boulevards, and in past years had quite a few statues, memorials, and the like at major intersections. Lotta's Fountain is one of these, and has sat at Market, Geary, and Kearny since 1875 (it's called "Lotta's Fountain" because the famed entertainer Lotta Crabtree donated it).

I've never been to San Francisco on April 18 of any year that I can remember, nor have I spent a lot of time hanging around Lotta's Fountain. But since 1907, the survivors of the 1906 quake and fire have gathered there to remember that momentous day. I have, though, walked on Grant Street north to California, and looked up at Old St. Mary's. Both Lotta's Fountain and St. Mary's are survivors of the old San Francisco, reputed to be even more beautiful before April 18, 1906 than it is now.

Today is the 99th anniversary of this event, and amazingly enough, there are actually people still alive who were in town that day. Granted, they were quite little or babies at the time, and remember very little, if anything. Some of these aged witnesses gathered at Lotta's Fountain, and ate breakfast at the St. Francis on Union Square, which served the exact same fare that was scheduled for the menu of the morning of April 18, 1906. I'd read an article about one of the survivors, Herbert Hamrol, a few years back. He was still working, at close to 100 years of age, stocking shelves at a supermarket a few days a week. He was mentioned again in articles, and it was astounding to realize he is still working three days a week at age 102. Amazing. I should be so lucky. Naturally, when you're three, you don't remember a whole lot, but even so, what's happened during these people's lives is just amazing. When they were born, cars were still fairly new, and most people didn't yet own one. Airplanes had just been invented, and wouldn't be practical for use for a few more years. Air conditioning was a dream in someone's head. The telephone had been around for a while, but not everyone had one, and those that did were often on party lines. It was an entirely different world, and a completely different San Francisco.

I've read some books about the disaster, one of the best being _The Earth Shook, The Sky Burned_. There's a new book out by Philip Fradkin, _The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906_. I've been meaning to read it, and probably should do so before next year's centenary rolls around. Since 1906, it's been clear that the actual total number of dead was much higher, which is frightening considering that the earthquake is already considered a major calamity in U.S. history.

I've been fortunate never to be in a major earthquake, but considering how much I love my home state and how long I've been living here, it's probably just a matter of time. My mother lived in San Francisco when she was a little girl, and told me that one time she experienced a fairly substantial earthquake. She was living in an apartment at Baker and Clay at the time, and remembered a huge hole in the middle of the street outside afterwards. Older members of my family went through the Long Beach earthquake of 1933, and also the 1971 earthquake in Los Angeles.

I was at Gallaudet when the 1989 earthquake took place. I was in a friend's dorm room in Dorm 5 (Carlin for those of you that are sticklers!), watching the World Series with my guys, the San Francisco Giants. I've never been a baseball fan, but when I do watch, it's the Giants for me. My aunt and my sister are the only A's fans in the family. My aunt is a diehard A's supporter, and actually treated us all to an A's game once. My sister just cheers them on because she's a contrarian who likes to do anything that's different from the rest of us. I mean, hell, she's a California native, has never lived anywhere except Yolo County, and supports the Dallas Cowboys just because she knows it'll piss me off (I of course am a loyal 49ers fan. Yeah, yeah, I know they're in the bottom of the cellar and it's the 1970s all over again. They'll come back eventually).

We were settling in to watch the game, when all of a sudden, the screen went haywire. Great, something's wrong with the reception... but just minutes later, the news came through that it was an earthquake. I got a little nervous, and decided to call home as soon as I could. Luckily, no one in my family was in any danger. The ironic thing is that I had visited San Francisco shortly before during the summer, and while I was driving across the Bay Bridge, idly wondered what it would be like to have an earthquake strike while I was in the middle of the bridge. Thank God that didn't happen to me, because as it soon became clear, quite a few people were on the bridge at the time, and had died when a section of the upper bridge collapsed onto the lower portion (the upper decks are inbound traffic, while the lower decks carry vehicles out of San Francisco. I felt a little guilty afterwards for even wondering that, but I suppose if it had to happen, it was probably a good time to happen. Most people were either at home, in the bars, or actually at Candlestick (and no, I'll never call it 3Com, Monster Park, or anything else stupid-- no self-respecting Californian would do that. It's the `Stick, baby!) watching the game, and thus the roads were a bit lighter than normal. It could have been worse...

The only person that would have been in trouble was my aunt, who lives in Berkeley. But in 1994, I was definitely a bit worried. Again, I was in D.C. as the Northridge earthquake hit the Los Angeles area. My great-grandmother's house is perched on a hill overlooking Chavez Ravine and isn't in the best condition, and other relatives lived in town, so I was hoping everyone was safe. Luckily no one was hurt and there was no damage, but it was definitely a mess for a long time, with various roads and freeways closed, and buildings damaged.

The area I grew up in in California is relatively safe. No wildfires, floods, mudslides, or earthquakes. But now I live in Los Angeles, and since we've moved here, we've felt quakes quite a few times. There's been about three or four over the last few months, actually, so the possibility of being in a big one looms. Still, maybe I'll get lucky again...

In the meantime, on this anniversary, I'll remember those who lived and died on April 18, 1906, even if I won't be at Lotta's Fountain at 5:13 a.m.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

My Second Home

No matter where I've lived as I've grown up, my second home was always the library or a bookstore. Even today, if you turn me loose anywhere near a bookstore, be careful. Because the minute I cross the threshold into a store, you won't see me again for quite a while. Usually upon entering a library or bookstore, I start with the newest books, and then work back to other sections and specific genres. I usually spend the most time in the history section (surprise, surprise), travel, and comics/graphic novels. I will check out fiction, reference, and other areas, and as of late, I've started checking out cookbooks as well. I'm always looking for new recipes/cuisines to try. There are some types of books I don't generally read, such as mysteries or sci-fi, so I rarely stay a long time near those shelves. When it comes to children's books, it depends. Sometimes I'm doing Christmas or birthday shopping for family members, and with quite a few younger cousins, and a young niece, I like to get them a good book to read. Books are the kind of gifts that last for a long time, because you can read them again and again, unlike other gift items. Plus it encourages literacy and the love of reading, which is a gift in itself.

Sometimes I wander over to the children's section to re-visit old favorites. Some of these books are classics that can be enjoyed by any age, such as the Chronicles of Narnia, or the Oz books. Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are fun to read, and some of her stories actually bring a different perspective with them as I re-read them again.

When it comes to fiction, my tendencies vary. I read a lot when I was in elementary and secondary school, and devoured a lot of the "classics." Once I went to college, I spent less time reading non-school material and more time enjoying life. Today I think I have a better balance. But one thing is pretty consistent: I must read before bed. It's peaceful and relaxing and allows me the opportunity to read a book or magazine and finish them, bit by bit. I've read right before bed for as long as I can remember, and there are pictures of me from when I was a child, taken by my parents, of me asleep, with a book still in my hands or by my side.

Unfortunately, it bothers me when I read articles like this. It's sad to know that our society doesn't value books or the joy of reading as much as I think they should. I know I was shocked to learn the city of Salinas here in California, a city of 150,000, planned to close all their libraries due to funding cuts. Fortunately, they received enough outside donations that people in the city came to their senses, and from what I understand, they now have enough money to keep a few branches running part-time for a while. That would have been ironic, not to mention embarrassing-- the hometown of John Steinbeck sans libraries. There's a pretty good John Steinbeck museum in downtown Salinas not too far from the house where he was born and grew up. I went there not long after it opened, and went through the whole museum. It was fun, and I learned a few things about Steinbeck that I didn't know, but I will say it's worthwhile only if you've read at least a few of his books. Otherwise, it doesn't have the same meaning and would be rather boring.

When I was in high school, Steinbeck was one of my favorite authors, and I still enjoy his works. By the time I graduated from high school, I'd read nearly all of his writings, with the exception of a few of his more obscure works (such as _Bombs Away_) and _East of Eden_. I finally read what was probably his most famous book a few years ago, and was blown away.

I know not everyone likes Steinbeck, or likes to read for that matter. But at the most fundamental level, books represent knowledge. Entertainment, fantasy, creativity and the like are all great side benefits, but the heart of reading is the acquisition of knowledge through language. When a society is willing to abandon that, then it's in deep trouble.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Doc and Me

When I go to the doctor's, I have a reasonable expectation that we enjoy doctor-patient confidentiality. I also presume that if I need medication, he will prescribe the correct drugs. I expect to go to the drugstore, get the prescription filled, and hopefully be treated, whether through being cured or managing whatever problem/disease I have.

Yet in this age of HMOs, religious right-wingers, and an increasing erosion of privacy rights, I'm not so sure that my expectations and rights are guaranteed anymore. Since I possess a penis, I don't suffer quite as much as those that lack one. The topic of patient rights at the drugstore has been in the news lately, as first the governor of Illinois, to his credit, passed an emergency resolution requiring pharmacies to fill birth control prescriptions. Just yesterday, it's reported that Congress has followed suit with a similar proposal.

I'm probably saying the same thing thousands of other (and better known!) people have already said on the subject, but I'm gonna pitch in my two cents. What business is it of anyone other than me and my doctor to determine what medicines I'm going to take or not take? Why is it a pharmacist's, pharmacist's apprentice's, or a drugstore clerk's right to decide whether or not to give me my pills? For that matter, why is it their prerogative to wield that kind of power over anyone, male or female? In this day and age of chain superpharmacies such as Walgreen's, Long's, Rite Aid, and CVS, chances are pretty high I don't know my local druggist. The day and age of the local, independent drugstore has passed. These people don't know me, only see me a few times a year for five minutes, tops, each time, and know nothing about me beyond my name, my address/phone number, my insurance company, and the medication I'm taking. Yet there are druggists all across this country that have taken it upon themselves to pass judgment on me, my wife, my family and friends, and my neighbors. If one of us is taking something that druggist deems objectionable, we don't get it. Bam. That's it, too bad.

My reaction? If you can't handle being a pharmacist by keeping your yap shut and your morals to yourselves, then maybe you need to consider another line of work. Right now it's the politically and emotionally charged medications and prescriptions related to abortion and birth control. What happens down the line when it's something else? Maybe someone I know has AIDS-- will they be denied their lifesaving drug cocktails because someone presumes to pass judgment on the fact that they have AIDS? What about the brave new world of stem cells? Will some righteous pharmacist deny me my medicine simply because it originated in stem cells or stem cell research? What if someday cannabis is legalized nationwide? Am I going to have to forego my painkillers simply because someone decides it's pot and I shouldn't have it? Where do you draw the line?

A pharmacist's job is to fill prescriptions, pure and simple. Nothing else. Personally, I think pharmacists should do their jobs or get out, but the bills and rules being considered now will permit a pharmacist to refuse to handle a prescription as long as another druggist at the same store can fill the order. I think that's a cop-out, but I suppose it's a good compromise for all concerned. I hope these bills can be passed without the kind of problems that have plagued abortion and birth-control related legislation, but I'm probably being too optimistic.

Still, I have yet to have any problems with pill-popping. So far, when it comes to determining how to manage MY health, it's just Doc and me.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Never Again

We don't always stay on top of the latest films, but sometimes we go out and catch one in the theatres when it's open-captioned or has rear-window captioning. Usually we try to get films as they come out on DVD. Again, it depends on our schedule.

Tonight we watched a movie that came out this week, "Hotel Rwanda." I know the Academy wanted to embrace "Million Dollar Baby", and Clint Eastwood has made some good movies ("Mystic River" and "Unforgiven" among them), and Hilary Swank is a very good actress, and deserved her nomination. But I think "Hotel Rwanda" should have gotten far more acknowledgement than it did, and I certainly hope people watch this movie, and then ask themselves (and others) some hard questions.

In case you haven't seen the movie, here's a brief synopsis (and then, go out and rent it!!!): As manager of the luxury hotel Mille Collines in the Rwandan capitol of Kigali, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) knew how to take care of hotel guests and visitors, from Rwandan bigshots to European travelers. In April, 1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed when their plane was shot down. The assassination escalated ethnic conflicts between the Hutu and the Tutsi, the two peoples of Rwanda, leading to the genocide of the Tutsis at the hands of Hutus. "Hotel Rwanda" narrates how the Rwandan genocide affects Rusesabagina, the Mille Collines, and Rusesabagina's response to events. He was ultimately responsible for helping over 1,000 people survive the horror.

No, it's not the most pleasant movie, and it's one of the few films that left me wanting to just disengage for a while. It's very rare that I will react that way to a movie. Even when I watch a horror film, or a heavy drama, or a generally intense movie, most of the time I'm able to move on-- maybe a second film, or bedtime, or taking care of little chores, or whatever. Once in a great while, I will see a movie (or TV program) that leaves me stunned and in need of time to regroup. I watched a couple episodes of "The Simpsons" to remove myself temporarily. But afterwards, I found myself still thinking about what I had watched.

Part of what I ruminated on was how people could do this to each other. How can you suddenly just decide to go out your front door, walk down the street, and kill your neighbors? How could a person casually kill women, children, and babies that you don't even know? How can you justify torturing, raping, and murdering your fellow countrymen?

The rationale in Rwanda is the same rationale that, in one form or another, has been used as a justification for murder throughout centuries of human history. They're different from us. The origins of the current Tutsi-Hutu schism date from the era of European colonialism and imperialism in Africa during the 19th century. As a historian, I often tried to explain to my students when I assisted in World Civilization classes that much of the tragic landscape that passes for the continent of Africa stems from European arrogance and interference in local politics, traditions, and social norms. Most nations in Africa had their present day boundaries initially determined by the extent of European reach within the region, disregarding social, ethnic, religious, and historic borders that already existed. Nigeria is a great example of this. The northern half of Nigeria has a much different geography from the southern half. The northern half shares more physical characteristics with the regions to the north; the deserts, the plateaus, and the highlands. It also was the southern region of the vast reach of Islam, and many people in this part of Nigeria are Muslim. The southern half has lowlands, is more tropical and lush, and was exploited by Europeans who sought gold and slaves, which is why the western coastal region of Africa carries the historical appellations of the "Gold Coast", the "Slave Coast", and the "Ivory Coast". Along with European hegemony came Christianity and Euro-Christian animosity towards Islam. Pile this on top of already existing differences such as ethnicity, and you've got yourself a recipe for a mess. The Hausa in the north, and the Yoruba in the south are the major groups, but in the eastern portion you had the Igbos, who tried to secede and set up their own nation, Biafra. The impetus for this move was the slaughter of 30,000 Igbos in the northern states.

While I understand Rwanda is one of the few places that hewed to its historical borders, you still have conflict between different groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Belgians (of Belgian Congo fame) came in and determined the Tutsis to be racially superior based on the now discredited Hamitic theory, referred to in academia as the "Hamitic Myth." This set the stage for an ingrained sense of injustice (deserved or not) among the Hutus.

European racism of this kind rooted itself deeply all over Africa. When my sister worked in Kenya a few years back, she told us how the locals often still deferred to whites and to lighter-skinned Kenyans, even though Kenya has been independent since 1963. The reverse is true-- In history classes that I've taken or taught in the last twenty years, there's always a greater emphasis on the Mediterranean Basin nations and peoples such as Egypt, and very little about the rest of the continent. I was fortunate enough to take an African history course with Joe Kinner while I was at Gallaudet. One of the books we read in class was Chinua Achebe's _Things Fall Apart_, which is a great literary introduction to the chaos the Europeans instituted in Africa (and in this particular book's case, Nigeria). I highly recommend it if you haven't yet read it.

Racism was at work again when the tragedy of Rwanda occurred in 1994. Nations that had no problem sending troops to the Balkans, newspapers that had no difficulty running out of experts, witnesses, and victims to interview regarding the Croats and Serbs, and a United Nations that had no barriers whatsoever to sending a contingent to a war-torn, genocidal region-- all of these different interests suddenly had far more important things to do during the 100 days that a million Rwandans died.

Unfortunately I must count myself as one of these indifferent people during this time. I was still in college, on the brink of finally earning my bachelor's degree when all this took place. Granted, I focused on my studies and not as outspokenly political in my activities as I am now. But I did read the Washington Post and I kept myself informed. Yet I didn't write any letters, phone anyone, or in any way lift my finger to say anything about what was happening. I remember reading about this in the paper at the time, and feeling sad that another mess in Africa was taking place. Yet now that I've seen the movie, it hit me just how horrific the massacre was, and how it wasn't just "another coup" or flare-up of violence. It was an example of coordinated violence that extended to the highest branches of government. One line from the movie exemplifies my probable reaction at the time, and the reaction of a lot of people everywhere to events of this type. A cameraman in the movie, played by Joaquin Phoenix, commented on the carnage he taped: "If people see this footage, they will go, 'Oh God, that's horrible,' and go back to eating their dinner."

I've studied the Holocaust extensively; I've taken courses, read tens of dozens of books, and for a brief time, I worked at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I've often wondered what I would have done had I lived back then. As a person, would I have resisted? Would I have helped surrepitiously? On the other hand, would I have silently disagreed, but stood quietly by even though inside I'd be horrified? As a deaf person, I would definitely have been at risk for sterilization. As an individual of (remotely) Jewish descent, would I have been ostracized (according to the racial and genealogical precepts of the Nazis, I would have been safe from personal injury, but I would not be acceptable as a full "Aryan," and I most certainly would have been watched closely, perhaps denied opportunities)?

I don't know what I would have done back then, but I didn't do anything in 1994. Paul Rusesabagina certainly did something. At his own personal risk, he sheltered not only his own family (he was Hutu; his wife and by extension his children were Tutsi) but neighbors, hotel guests, and other refugees; some 1,200 people altogether. For many years, when asked if I had a "hero" in games, quizzes, and just in general conversation, I couldn't come up with anyone. I was too jaded, too cynical, a child of an era of mediocre politicians and flawed humans. Yet I can now safely say Paul Rusesabagina is my hero.

When I worked at USHMM, there were a few days when I'd arrive at work (my day started before the museum opened to the public) and there'd be demonstrators outside, loudly proclaiming through signs and their own voices that the Holocaust never happened, that it was all made up. It always pissed me off. I spent my days in the Oral History division, analyzing and summarizing the personal testimonies of survivors. How could anyone fake the terror, the horror, the evil these people went through?

But at the same time, it's always bothered me that our global society has such a fixation with the events of the 1930s and 40s. It bothers me that a good number of Jews, from Israeli politicians to museum directors to academics down to the average man insists that what happened to them was unique, that only the Jews truly understand the evils of genocide, and use the Holocaust as a catch-all defense any time anything happens that is remotely anti-Semitic.

Yes, six million died. Yes, the Jews have suffered persecution for centuries, in various nations on every continent. Yes, genocide occurred on a scale previously unreached. But it is not the first example of genocide in recorded history, nor is it the last. Just in the 20th Century alone, 1915 saw the Armenian genocide, which predated Kristallnacht and the concentration camps by a good twenty years at minimum. Since 1945, we've had acts of genocide in Cambodia, where Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge systematically murdered an estimated 1.7 million people-- about 1/5 the Cambodian population; in the Balkans, where the three-sided war between Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia resulted in the rape, torture, and murder of hundreds of thousands of people; in Rwanda, where approximately a million people were slaughtered; and unfortunately, it is all happening again in Sudan.

In the wake of World War II, the leaders and peoples of the world said, "Never again." Yet it has happened again. And again. And again. If people really want to prevent it from happening again, they could take some of the time and energy spent talking about and remembering the Holocaust and applying it to the far broader reaches of genocide, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or nationality. This does not mean the Holocaust should be forgotten, but so far it seems like its lessons have gone unheeded.

We need to start by taking action, not just talking, so that the next time we say "never again," it will truly have meaning behind the words, not just a hollow reminder of genocide past, present, and future. If we can do that, we will never have to say "never again" again.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

To Reach the Unreachable Stars

Today was a pleasant day here in L.A. My big event for the day was to head over to UCLA, where I'd join the wife in participating in a marathon reading of Don Quixote. This month is the 400th anniversary of its publication, and the grad students in the Spanish and Portuguese departments were responsible for the marathon reading, which was held in the rotunda of the beautiful Powell Library, one of the four original buildings at UCLA's Westwood campus.

My lovely wife was teamed with Susan Plann. Their reading was first, with Professor Plann reading the text out loud in English, while my wife simultaneously narrated the chapter in ASL. When they finished, I took over the next chapter, and did a dreadful rendition in Sim-Com. Lesson: when you give a public performance, practice, practice, practice! Additonally, I probably should have taken up a grad student's offer and had her do the reading in English, while I followed my wife's lead and signed my bit. I keep forgetting that trying to speak in two languages is impossible, and one way or another, you're going to butcher at least one of those languages. I have an increased respect for interpreters following my stint. Luckily, the only person there to really notice was my gorgeous companion, and possibly the good professor (not sure how up to par her receptive skills are now, though). To the rest of the handful of listeners present, it just looked pretty, I suppose. *grimace*

UCLA has a number of events celebrating Cervantes and Don Quixote going on during the month. I was interested in possibly going to the Ball, but we have a dinner date Saturday night, and I think I'd enjoy the company of our friends far more than the Ball. Maybe some other time...

After we finished, I stopped in the central hall of the rotunda, and viewed the exhibit cases. This was kind of interesting, as each case had items related to Don Quixote. There was a early copy of the book, from 1735, comic book versions of the tale, movie posters, stickers, stamps, and all kinds of esoterica.

It was just a reading in a small corner of UCLA, sure, but I thought it was fun to participate in an event like this. It's kind of neat to know that literature can survive that long and continue to have an impact long after the author's death. It's a kind of immortality that I envy. I'm not sure if I'm cut out to be a writer. I'm still struggling with that notion. But if I do take up the quest to write, I hope someday to reach the unreachable stars.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Our Terrorists

September 11, 2001 was not a day any of us will ever forget. What has happened since has colored all of our lives in different ways, whether we were anywhere near NYC or DC or rural Pennsylvania or not. While I agree that terrorism needs to be combated, I strongly disagree with the present efforts of doing so. Even more than that, what really bugs me is the hypocrisy of the righteous, sanctimonious people in this country who lambast anyone hailing from the Middle East, Central Asia, possessing dark skin, a questionable surname, a particular piece of clothing, or even holding a belief in Islam, and then conveniently ignore the fact that we have our own home-grown extremists in this country.

It also pisses me off that any form of dissent by "unacceptable" groups is potentially an act of terrorism, yet those who have actually committed violence are shuffled aside, out of sight. Yet they're still there, and the things that they did still echo through our collective consciousness, even if we choose to be blind. For example, we're rapidly coming up on the tenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. The principal actors who perpetrated that unforgivable calamity are either imprisoned or dead. Though McVeigh is dead and Nichols et al are in prison, their ideological kin still roam among us. Go up to rural Montana sometime, or Boundary County in Idaho. Look in the reaches of the suburbs and rural areas of dozens of states. Right-wing groups, extremist bands, fanatical religious separatists, neo-Nazis, the KKK... they haven't vanished or melted away; they're still with us.

The proof of this appeared in the news this week, with the arraignment of Eric Rudolph. Rudolph has pled guilty to the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing in Atlanta, as well as three other bombings, including a gay nightclub and an abortion clinic. His day in court allowed him to deliver a rambling screed filled with bigotry, hate, and extremism. He's now bound to prison, and this will probably be the last of him for a great long while.

Well, that's that, you say. But that's not true. Rudolph isn't alone. There are others who hold the same beliefs as him, who could very well cross the line into terroristic acts.

You might say, "Well, abortion is murder. Safeguarding the unborn is justified." I strongly, vehemently disagree. Whatever a person's stance on abortion, violence is NEVER acceptable. Whatever you might think of Rudolph's beliefs (and you may be a reader who agrees, even in part), he is and was a terrorist. It bothers me that people just sort of shrug that off.

Let's step back for a moment here. What's the definition of terrorism?

"The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons." [American Heritage Dictionary]

Webster's has a similar definition. Let's see-- Rudolph anonymously set bombs at properties or sites [Olympic Games, a nightclub, a building that housed in part an abortion clinic] that went off. Bombs by their nature are forceful and violent; weapons of war that have no other reason or purpose for their existence. Rudolph stood up in court and said he did this because he believed "force was justified" and wanted to send the message that abortion, homosexuality, and what he termed the promotion of "global socialism" was unacceptable. Let's see, those are ideological or political reasons, if I'm not mistaken.

Open and shut case of terrorism, if you ask me. Yet did the headlines scream "domestic terrorist" or "domestic terrorism"? No, instead we were told that the "Olympics Bomber" was given a life sentence. Our media obviously isn't willing to explore and expose cases of domestic terrorism, much less educate the public that extremism at home is as much or more a danger as the so-called "towelheads" overseas. What about our government? Well, it seems that our gummint has decided to cast a blind eye. Congressional Quarterly noted that in Homeland Security reports, certain groups were excluded. While I have no use for the tactics of groups such as ALF and ELF, it's beyond appalling that there is a partisan divide between what groups our gummint will keep an eye on and which ones they will conveniently pretend don't exist. They've got one eye on the ballot box and the other aimed elsewhere, as they plug their ears and try to wish it all away. But the Tim McVeighs and Eric Rudolphs will pop up again and again, and we will have cause to regret any inaction. When you have doctors targeted and killed, and judges and their families threatened and murdered, you can bet there's domestic terrorism. Extremism of any kind is dangerous. I just hope we do not suffer additional consequences by further ignoring the existence of such hate-filled, tortured people.

Norwegian Wood

Normally I eschew paying for sex; after all, I'm a red-blooded married American male, with a fantastic wife who is good to me. What more could I ask for? But I saw this article today, and it got me intrigued. For years, I've bewailed the fact that the right-wing fanatics in this country have made "environment" and "environmental" dirty words, and that most Americans seemingly have their heads in the sand when it comes to the world we inhabit. I've wondered how organizations like the Sierra Club could best market the message that we have but one planet, and we don't get a second shot at taking care of it. These enterprising Norwegians have taken a proven commodity (SEX SELLS) and yoked it to eco-preservation. I don't know if it'll fly, but the fact that they've merited some media attention means they must be doing something right. I'm half tempted to sign up, just to advance the concept a bit more. After all, if a nation of porn addicts are going to sate their lust online, why not achieve a worthy end result, such as saving good ol' Earth?

I once had a girl,
Or should I say
She once had me.
She showed me her room,
Isn’t it good?
Norwegian wood...

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Equality or "Special Privileges"?

Last February, Gavin Newsom, the photogenic mayor of San Francisco, threw caution to the winds and announced that gays and lesbians could get married. I don't know a whole lot about Newsom, compared with what I know about Willie Brown. He just seemed like another rich politician with a moderate bent (moderate for S.F., that is!), and I wasn't really sure if he was making this move out of the goodness of his heart, or because he truly believed in equality for gays and lesbians, or if it was a political move. I decided to give him credit for opening up the city marriage bureau, but I also saw it as a shrewd ploy. At a time when the coffers are going dry and the state has been stealing money from local and county governments for its own expenses, collecting marriage license fees seemed like a brilliant stroke: earn points with the gay/lesbian community, and go to the bank at the same time.

Boy, I don't think that the response he thought he was gonna get is the same as what happened. Everybody and anybody who could, jumped onto planes, trains, and automobiles, hot air balloons, motorcycles, Segways, cable cars, and Muni trams in their mad rush to City Hall. In the melee were people I knew: an old high school friend of mine (he's known me the longest, if not the best, of all my friends), and friends of my wife (friends of mine as well, but more her friends). Joy and Keltie not only had beautiful wedding gowns, but for some reason they showed up at exactly the right time: for the next few days, I could not go anywhere online without seeing them. Keltie and Joy on Slate, Yahoo, and a number of other sites. They even wound up in People Magazine's coverage.

I talked with Keltie and Joy soon afterwards, to congratulate them. At that time, they were excited, but slightly wary: after all, it remained to be seen if the state would recognize Newsom's declaration, and hold all the marriages that had occurred to be valid. Joy felt that it would be at least a generation before gays and lesbians could get married anywhere in this country. I told her I thought it would be less, maybe five years. Some days I think I'll be right, while other days, I think Joy has a better handle on what's going to happen.

So far it looks like California's marriages will remain valid. Since then, Massachussetts, Oregon, and now possibly Connecticut have jumped on the bandwagon. Oregon, unfortunately, has since invalidated the original decision. Vermont has civil unions. There's a groundswell-- slow, sure, but it's there. On the other hand, quite a few "red" states have passed statutes declaring marriage to be the sole province of a man and a woman, and nothing else. So it's a tossup as to what will happen next, but my feeling is, the genie's out of the bottle. It may not happen as quickly as I predicted, but someday things are going to change.

Personally, I don't care whether gays get married or not. Contrary to the hysterical, emotional arguments of bigots everywhere, gays and lesbians do not "threaten" my marriage. Any philandering I or my wife do, or a third person trying to get in between us is far more of a threat than Joe and John down the street, or Susie and Vicki at the grocery store. I also don't feel that "they" will change the "meaning" of marriage. Throughout history, marriages have far more often been initiated, conducted, and ended based on power, kinship, and that great Mammon, money, than they have developed out of love or genuine feelings of friendship. Even today, among "straights," marriage is wrapped up in class and ethnicity. It's okay for Billy and Susie to be friends with Shamieka and LeChester, but woe to them if they decide to date, or worse, get married. Nowadays, Mary Margaret getting married to Moses isn't as big a deal (especially if Moses is richer or in any way better off than Mary Margaret's folks), but interfaith marriages were usually frowned upon until pretty recently (and even then, there are people out there today who will only marry "our kind"). It wasn't until fairly recently that the notion of romantic love stepped out of the pages of the medieval chansons and fairy tales and grounded itself in reality. There are still regions and cultures that practice arranged marriages. As for the canard that procreation is a holy function between a man and a woman and a great dividend of marriage (and gays and lesbians are just wasting themselves in the eyes of God), check around with the thousands of single mothers out there. You don't have to go down to City Hall to take your pants off, and it certainly doesn't take a ring to bring a new life into this world.

My opinion is that marriages in the strictly legal sense (call them civil unions if you want) should be open to any man or woman of majority who are not closely related (I'm not gonna get into the whole kissin' cousins thing right now, 'kay?). I think the social, legal, and ethical responsibilities and protections are far too important to deny to people. Granting legal rights to marriage isn't going to diminish or threaten anyone, and it will place everyone on a legal footing. As many thousands have said before me in other writings, blogs, and the like, we "straights" have really done a great job (*snort*) with the institution of marriage; how could gays and lesbians do any worse?

But I do think that insisting on the right to marry within a religion or in a house of worship is an entirely different matter. As much as I wish all churches were flexible and open-minded about equality and the celebration of love and humanity, religions are not cafeterias where you can pick and choose; each faith reserves the right to its own tenets, and if their beliefs exclude marriage for same-sex couples, then that's the way it goes. If it means that much to have a church wedding, then I think the individuals in question should take a long, hard look at the church they belong to, and decide whether they're better off with or without it. Spirituality and devotion do not have to be confined to four walls; there's nothing that says that if you don't go to church, you don't believe in a deity or deities. At the same time, churches should expect that if they're going to discriminate, they run the risk of losing adherents.

So, personally, I really don't care if John and Joe want to get hitched. More power to them. What I *do* care about is when mean-spirited behavior, ill-advised rhetoric, and discriminatory legislation gets in the way and destroys people. This particular case hit home, because I know the people involved. I cannot understand for the life of me why two loving people have to be separated because society can't get a handle on the concept of two responsible people of the same sex raising a child. I don't think the definition of marriage needs to be changed so much as the definition of FAMILY does. What is a family? How do you define a successful family? For that matter, how do you define a successful parent? It really gets to me that you have to have a license or get permission or an education for tons of things, but you don't have to meet any standard before you become a parent. I know that reproduction is a fundamental, biological issue, and that the human race has made it this far despite the varying degrees of dysfunction that has prevailed in millions of families throughout the ages. But when you have parents physically, verbally, and sexually abusing their children, when you have foster children starved and neglected, when you have parents leaving their kids at home alone for days at a time, or in locked cars in midsummer, not getting involved in their education or lives, or letting them stay at places like Neverland with a man who has had years of allegations swarming around him, then they are unfit for parenthood. As with marriage, "straights" have done a terrific job of parenting; how could gays and lesbians do any worse?

I don't see the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood as special privileges; if anything, I see them as solemn duties and sometimes, as burdens. The joys are mixed in with the sorrows, but overall, the experience is part of what makes us human, what defines our lives. Why should any healthy, loving, responsible person be denied that?

Friday, April 08, 2005

A View From Abroad

Often when the topic of foreign films comes up, people generally have three possible opinions. The first is that they hate foreign films. "Too depressing. Too dark, too complicated." They're boring, hard to follow, etc., etc. Another view is that they're okay, but the person expressing their thoughts hasn't seen very many movies from other countries. If they have, sometimes they'll say they're "okay" but that again, it's not as exciting as the average Hollywood product, or they aren't crazy about subtitles. The third group loves foreign films, but again, opinions vary. Some just like specific titles, or a specific genre, or even films from particular countries only. Hardcore film lovers will dissect foreign films and directors just as much as they do our domestic product.

Tonight we went to LACMA to the Ingmar Bergman film festival to view "The Seventh Seal" and "The Virgin Spring," a double billing that opened the series. Generally, Bergman's films are dark and depressing; I guess living in a land where part of the country is within the Arctic Circle and sees only darkness six months a year has its effect. I've seen quite a few of his movies, and only like a couple of them. One of them is "The Seventh Seal." One reason why it appeals to me is that it depicts life during the height of the Middle Ages, and throughout the movie I usually try to immerse myself in the film, and try to get a "feel" for what it was like living back then. Second, unlike a lot of period films, the movie uses sets, costumes, and scenery that looks as if though it was a movie shot during that time and place. Third, there's dark events and dialogue, sure, but there's also life, comedy, and sex, mixed in with the death and gloominess. Last, it gives a sense of what it was like living during the infamous Black Death. Most people have at least seen a still shot of Death with his arm outstretched, or a photo of Death playing chess with the knight, Antoninius Block. Block is played by Max Von Sydow, who I think is a terrific actor. Essentially the movie is about Death coming for Block, who has returned from the Crusades. Block staves off Death by challenging him to a game of chess, and uses the time to achieve some meaning to his life.

A specific reason why we went was that since we're deaf, it's nice to go to a movie and understand everything. We were actually on equal footing with the other moviegoers, since the movie's dialogue was in Swedish. I wasn't sure how many people would be there, since it was a Friday night, and as I said, Bergman is not everyone's cup of tea as a director. Still, it was about three-quarters full in the auditorium at LACMA when the movie started.

Another reason we went is that it's rare to see older films in the theaters and thus in their proper perspective. There are quite a few places that hold revivals, but because of the need for captioning/subtitling, we rarely attend. I did go to see "Sleeping Beauty" a couple years ago, when Disney showed it for a couple of weeks at the El Capitan in Hollywood, across from the famed Mann's (Grauman's) Chinese Theatre. The El Capitan is a renovated old movie palace now operated by Disney, and is where most Disney films nowadays have their premiere.

There was a ten-minute intermission, and quite a few people left, even though it was a double bill. "The Virgin Spring" also starred Von Sydow, and was equally short (something like 90 to 100 minutes?), but was much darker and more harrowing than "The Seventh Seal". I'd never seen this second film, so it was entirely new for both of us. This one was again set during medieval times, and told the story of the rape and murder of a beloved only child, and the aftermath. It depicted a time when Christianity was overtaking pagan beliefs, and so the movie was more than just a crime flick; it sought to explore what Christianity meant then, and what it meant to Bergman.
We left LACMA a bit drained due to "The Virgin Spring", but we both enjoyed ourselves, and our evening out. I just wish we had the opportunity to go see more films like this. It's a pain sometimes to have to wait and see if a movie we want to watch is either subtitled or open-captioned, or even has rear-window captioning. Then we have to decide if it's a movie worth watching, and if the limited showtimes correspond with our schedule. Our pinched budget these days means we're far more selective than we used to be, and a lot of times, we'll wait until it's out on DVD and get it through Netflix.

One thing I enjoy about movies from other countries is that they represent a view from abroad; while our films run the gamut from comedy to action to thriller to drama, and can represent anything from entertainment for entertainment's sake to a political commentary to a piece of trash that should never have been made, foreign films are much more focused on the director's message (although not exclusively! Foreign directors do make entertainment, and trash as well...). Sometimes a movie made outside the U.S. has a more nuanced view of a historical, political, or social event/message, and represents a perspective you don't find here. There definitely is less gratutious violence, which I think reflects the fact that a lot of countries have had personal, up-front experiences with war that we have been fortunate to avoid since 1865. There's a looser emphasis on sex compared with American films, but I'm ok with that. I'd rather see a few cocks and pussies and lots of cleavage than be exposed to brains pouring out, blood spurting everywhere, and images and feelings of hate every thirty seconds.

A lot of times original films are much better than the American remakes, although that isn't always true. One example is Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" which I thought was an extremely convoluted film. Its remake, "City of Angels", has its own flaws, but was a much more approachable movie. On the other hand, the French film "The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe" is better than its remake, "The Man with One Red Shoe", despite having Tom Hanks in the leading role. The same is true for "The Return of Martin Guerre" (which I highly recommend-- one of Gerard Depardieu's best roles, IMHO), while "Sommersby" was a bit lackluster by comparison. Sometimes both movies have their highs and lows, such as "La Femme Nikita" and its counterpart, "Point of No Return".

One thing I enjoy about foreign films is a lot of the larger themes in these films deal with the biggies: life, death, sex, and the meaning of it all. A lot of Hollywood films try to do this too, but somehow I guess Europeans, Asians, and South Americans "get" the angst of it all a lot better than we do. Also, some of the overarching or background themes are the historical/social events of the nation where it was made, which with the exception of our wars, isn't something American moviemakers necessarily do a good job with. Some of the best WWII movies I've seen have been American ("The Great Escape", "The Longest Day", "The Big Red One", "Saving Private Ryan", "The Bridge on the River Kwai", "The Guns of Navarone", etc.), but there are some good international collaborations, such as "Is Paris Burning?" and "Tora! Tora! Tora!", and then the foreign entries are great, like "Das Boot", "Hope and Glory", and "Soldier of Orange". But when it comes to the Holocaust, some of the best movies are European, with American directors only catching up lately. It's a depressing topic, I know, but films like "Au Revoir Les Enfants", "Europa, Europa", and "Life is Beautiful" are only now being matched by movies like "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist".

Sometimes foreign films are a great way for me to learn more about another country's history and culture. For example, Peter Weir's "Gallipoli" was a great film about one battle during WWI (one of Mel Gibson's earliest, and IMO, best films). But because many of the dead were Australian and New Zealanders, the battle and its aftermath has a special resonance for Aussies. ANZAC Day is their version of Veteran's Day, and a big deal there. When my sister went to live in Australia, I encouraged her to watch this movie, so she would understand a little better how Australians felt about this incident.

Crime movies are a big deal here, but I don't see a lot of such movies coming out of other nations. One exception is one of Peter Jackson's films, "Heavenly Creatures" (one of Kate Winslet's earlier roles). It's well done, and I learned about this sensationalistic crime that took place in Christchurch in 1954 (if you've seen the movie and want to know more, this is a great site -- a fan site, yes, but full of information and details!).

I could go on and on (and I probably have!), but I did want to share what I've been up to tonight, and my thoughts on foreign movies in general. Often the cinematic view from home is fantastic, but the view from abroad ain't bad, either.