2016 and the USA

 

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The upcoming presidential election is going to dominate the news, as it should. The person who emerges from the grotesque carnival we have constructed for this purpose will be able to make decisions that may seem important, but in the end life is going to move forward, no matter who it is.

I have my preferences, and I won’t be shy about sharing them here as the year goes on. But it’s not a process I’m going to want to watch too closely, because it seems to appeal to what’s worst in us, when it should be anything but that.

Yesterday my younger daughter was at the orthodontist’s office, and I was in the waiting room while they were doing what they do with her. Good Morning America was talking about the Republican debate from the night before, and they labeled it as “Showdown in South Carolina.” And the whole evening seemed to turn on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and whether Cruz could serve as President because he was born in Canada. It made me sick to realize that the combative, frivolous nature of that moment was all that the media saw fit to show to We, the people. Grown men in engaged in a glorified schoolyard squabble. It made me ashamed for this country.

Republicans can say whatever they want to say, and do whatever they want to do. Unless they can cure cancer and bring David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Dan Haggerty back for an awesome episode of Grizzly Adams on the run from Professor Snape with a cool soundtrack and cameo appearance from the Thin White Duke, I won’t be buying what they’re selling. But that’s beside the point.

The media can play this from whatever angle they choose to, but what they give us instead is “Showdown in South Carolina.” It’s a good thing that Montreal isn’t this country, because we would have had the “Brawl in Montreal” if it was.

Someone in the bowels of ABC had to think this one up, and they were probably very excited to see their idea up on the screen for the morning audience to absorb. But it’s a terrible reflection on us all that they feel empowered to give us that.

We deserve media coverage that befits our country, and if “Showdown in South Carolina” is truly what that is, we’re a global laughingstock for reasons that don’t have a single thing to do with ISIS or al Qaeda.

Rant over.

Art, Religion, and David Bowie

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 This is a tale about art and religion, with some David Bowie added in for good measure.

The story begins in a Catholic grammar school during the 1970s and early 1980s. The pastor of my parish was an elderly man who called every boy “Butch” and every girl “Sissy.” The priest’s name will not be used here since–as with most of my recollections–it’s not really germane to anything. But he was the leader of my church, and a figure that everyone in the parish was familiar with.

I never embraced Catholicism very much, and by the time I started high school in the early 1980s, I was going through the motions of going to mass every Sunday morning. I’d routinely find ways to get out of it, usually by claiming to go to Saturday mass instead and then driving around for an hour. My parents always went to mass on Sunday, and we (my brothers and my sister) went with them more often than not.

After I went away to college in the late 1980s, I found that even the pretense of attending mass was no longer necessary, so I stopped going altogether. My break with Catholicism was several years in the making, but by 1987 it was finally done. I became the “recovering Catholic” that I have been ever since.

In the summer of 1988, I attended a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ at the Biograph theater in Chicago. It played in very few cities, and on a very few screens, because of the controversial nature of the book that it was based on. In a nutshell, the movie plays out the story of Jesus’ life, and then adds a twist as he is nailed to the cross. He is offered a chance to live as others do, with a wife and children. And Jesus is shown with Mary Magdalene and a family. And that was more than some were ready to handle, including my old parish priest.

A week after seeing the movie, I went home to visit with my family before classes began again in the fall. And, as per family custom, we all went to mass on Sunday. I hadn’t gone in a long time, but I didn’t want to create a scene by refusing to go, and so I joined in.

The mass was the same old same old until the time came for the priest’s homily, and that’s when it got interesting. It turns out that he had an opinion about the movie, and he wasn’t afraid to share it, either. The very idea that the movie showed Jesus “fantasizing on sex” (an odd phrasing, but one that he kept repeating over and over throughout the sermon) was just too much. It was a reprehensible movie, in his view, and no one in our parish should go and see it.

After years of mass attendance, and hundreds of services, I had finally heard too much. It was obvious to me that the pastor had not seen the movie at all, and had only read or heard about it from someplace else. The very limited release of the film meant that anyone in his parish could not see the movie for themselves, absent a 400-mile round trip to Chicago. And nobody should ever go to those lengths to see a movie.

The movie didn’t show Jesus in the way that the priest was claiming. People might fantasize about something of their own volition, but temptation–as I understand it–comes from an external source. The devil in the movie holds out the possibility of a different life to Jesus, with the hope that he will find this way preferable to dying on the cross. But Jesus rejected Satan’s offer, and at the end of the movie he dies on the cross, instead.

The only difference between Jesus in the movie, and Jesus the way I learned the story in Catholic school, was that the fictional Jesus was tempted, unsuccessfully. The devil’s failure to persuade Jesus to give up his divinity for a domestic life instead was intended to challenge–but ultimately reaffirm–the traditional ideas about Jesus. Roger Ebert understood this, but it was somehow lost on my parish priest. Perhaps this is because Ebert had actually seen the movie in question.

I began writing this piece in the summer of 2013, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the film’s very limited–and very controversial–release in theaters. Something came up on that day, and I saved a draft of what I had written, with the  intention of finishing it off and getting it onto my blog. It wasn’t until the death of David Bowie earlier in the week that I even realized this was still here, languishing in my Drafts folder. And at this point I’d like to pivot to Bowie’s involvement in the movie, in one scene as Pontius Pilate.

Bowie was certainly no stranger to the silver screen, and his list of film roles underlines what a screen presence he really was. I don’t like like writing about him in past tense, either, but that’s the way it has to be now.

So the film’s second-worst character (after the big serpent, of course) was filled by one of the biggest musical stars of the decade. If there was any sense that this could have been a hazardous or toxic role for Bowie’s career as an artist, it didn’t prevent him from brushing them aside and taking the role, anyway. And he nailed the part, playing a Roman official with a gravitas that made you forget about his Ziggy Stardust days and his jumping around with Mick Jagger in the Dancing in the Street video.

Art, such as the Last Temptation novel and the film it was later turned into, has the ability to challenge us, and make us question who we are and what we’re all about. It has the power to change us, if we want to be changed, and the power to reinforce things that we may already know. But art’s ability to do either of these things is limited to our willingness to expose ourselves to it in the first place.

I wouldn’t have allowed a priest to tell me I can’t see a movie, not in 1988 and certainly not today. And if I hadn’t already seen the movie when I heard that ill-informed homily back then, I would have missed an interesting film and a very credible performance from an artist who’s no longer with us. And that would have been very unfortunate, indeed.

David Bowie could do it all: sing, play guitar, write music, act, and look the part of a Roman with a style that nobody else had. Dusting off an old, half-finished idea from long ago and posting it online is a humble tribute to him, but one that I’m still very glad to offer here.

Art has always been made, and will always be made, and Bowie’s role in this process is worth remembering and emulating, whenever possible.

 

Powerball and the flip of a coin

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One time, just for fun, I found out what the actual odds of winning the Powerball are. Then I compared it to the real-world action of flipping a coin.

If you took a quarter and flipped heads (or tails, but I’m saying heads because it’s my example), you’d have to then flip heads another 25 times in a row, and you’d still be a flip away from getting there. My numbers may be off by a flip or two, but try flipping even seven or eight in a row and you’ll see how laughably improbable it is. Or, if you have more quarters than you do patience, throw a handful up in the air at once and see how they all come up. If the number is more than about three, they’ll have different results. No $1.5 billion  payout for you!

Yet some people (a lot of them, apparently) believe that the 27-straight-heads-flipper will be them. That’s some very wishful thinking, indeed.

A Farewell to David Bowie

 

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I’d be lying if I said I was a huge David Bowie fan prior to January, 2016. But the circumstances around his shocking death, two days after his 69th birthday, have forced me to re-evaluate things. The loss of Bowie is a reminder of his enormous influence on the world of music, fashion, cinema, and personal identity. There won’t be another one like him.

Today I downloaded Bowie’s final studio album, Blackstar, from iTunes, because I wanted to know what music a man puts together while staring his own mortality in the face. As I listened to it for the first time on my drive home, through a gentle snowfall in suburban Chicago, I was anything but disappointed. In fact, during a sax solo near the end of I Can’t Give Everything Away, I felt very privileged to experience such an extraordinary work of art. If I’ve ever felt that way before, I don’t know when it was.

Music is as old an art form as humanity has, but growing up I thought that art was limited to painting and drawing and perhaps sculpture. Things like music and dance and writing and photography didn’t fall into this realm. But Bowie presented us the whole package. To call his music and all his various personas art was exactly the point. He created his sound, and his look, and his words, and you either got them or you didn’t. That’s what art is, in whatever form it might take.

More than anyone else I can think of in my lifetime, David Bowie personified art itself. And until he died–and I considered all the ways that he had offered himself to us–I never understood this. But I get it now, and I’ll carry this new appreciation with me for as long as my body and my mind will allow.

As I mentioned earlier, David Bowie died two days after his 69th birthday. My father–who is as unlike David Bowie as anyone could be–will be 69 himself in about a month’s time. So in addition to expanding my understanding of art and how to appreciate it, Bowie has given me a much-needed reminder of how precious and finite life can be. Like everything else in the 18 hours or so since I learned of his passing, it is a reminder that I’m thankful to have received.

May we all go out with such a flourish.

California Dreamin’

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I took this picture last year, on a family visit to California. And now, nine months and a few days later, I’m in this cold Northern town that I call home. But at least there’s a place like this somewhere in the world.

Thanks to the President

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It’s clear to me that no amount of bloodshed or carnage would ever move Congress toward restricting guns in this country. Dead citizens are the price of having access to guns, in the minds of the people who make and sell guns. And the politicians who feed at the trough of their largess aren’t going to say otherwise.

So when Barack Obama–who could just be coasting to the finish line of his presidency, but is not–signs executive orders to close gun show loopholes and require background checks of people wanting to buy guns, that’s a ballsy thing for him to do. He knows the price that guns have extracted from our society, and he knows it’s too high.

There’s many Ammosexual types who get thrills from the power a gun provides. But they look the other way or shrug their shoulders when children are shot and killed. The never-ending gun violence in this country demands a response, but it will never, ever come from Congress.

Thanks for saying enough is enough, Mr. President.

Year 6, begin!

 

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I started writing this blog in the summer of 2011, which means this is my sixth year of putting words and pictures here for posterity to look at some day.

In 2015, my blog was viewed in 82 countries, and on every continent except Antarctica. The number of viewers has never interested me very much, but I love the global reach that doing this affords. It is the World Wide Web, for certain.

My Northwestern Wildcats got crushed in their bowl game today, so the year isn’t off to such a great start. But if that’s the worst thing that happens to me today, I’m still exceedingly blessed.

Here’s to a year filled with interesting events, good times, and Bernie Sanders, too.

2015 is slipping away

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Now that Christmas is behind us, there’s just a few days left in 2015. It’s been quite a year, as I suppose is true of every year on the crazy blue marble we call home.

Our losses this year included Ernie Banks, Minnie Minoso, Stuart Scott, Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper, and lots of people who weren’t ballplayers or sportscasters or pro wrestlers.

We lost many people– just as we have every year–but we also gained some people, too. People who will change the world someday, as they grow and learn and figure out what it is the world needs, and how they can go about providing it. That day will come, even if many of us won’t be around to see it. As long as the world is spinning on its axis, people will be finding new ways to make life better.

But we also got a few things back in 2015 that I thought were gone forever. “Bloom County” was my favorite comic strip back in the 1980s, and its creator Berkeley Breathed has recently revived it for the 21st century. I genuinely look forward to seeing Opus and Milo and Steve Dallas and the rest on Facebook every day.

But even more than that, 2015 was the year that Star Wars came back. I never really followed the first three movies in the series as they were coming out over the past decade or so. I had resigned myself to thinking that the series came to an end–at least for me–around the time we first saw the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. But Disney has rejuvenated the franchise, and reminded me of how much I had enjoyed the characters and the story when they first came into my life back in the late 1970s.

It’s been an interesting year, and given the rate I’m posting in this space lately, this could very well be the last time I’ll post anything here in 2015. With that said, let’s hope that 2016 will bring us more surprises worth writing about.

 

The calendar says it’s Christmas time

 

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I must point out that this is not my house. I drove by it yesterday, on my way to work in suburban Chicago. The warm weather, dense fog, and lack of anything suggesting winter temperatures made the collection of lawn ornaments seem forlorn and out of sorts.

Everybody has their passions in life, and whoever lives in this house has probably been collecting these things over many years. I understand that they’re lit up at night, too, which must take this display to another level altogether.

This planet is in trouble, everyone. Blame it on El Nino if you want, but I’m more than a little concerned that my younger daughter could walk around this evening, at night time in Chicago, and hand me her coat because she didn’t need it. On December 23.

We love our fossil fuels, myself included, but they’ve come with the price tag of a warmer planet, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels. And while these lawn ornaments won’t actually get flooded, they will look a little silly on those warm December days in the years ahead.

I wish peace to everyone, whether they read this or not.