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Friday, November 30, 2007

Ridley Scott's Blade Runner: Death of an android, birth of a man

Today is film director Ridley Scott's 70th birthday, and to commemorate the occasion I'm sharing my favorite scene from the work to which he'll always be most closely linked in my mind. Blade Runner, Scott's adaptation of Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was released 25 years ago and has stood the test of time as one of the most visually artful examples of science fiction movie making.

Scott has directed some other pretty popular theatrics, including the recent blockbuster American Gangster and the 2000 Best Picture Academy Award Winner Gladiator, but none have left as strong an impression on me as this futuristic film noir about a detective investigating what it means to be human. It's a question that will take on increasing relevance with each inevitable advance in the sciences of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence.

There are many amazing images to recollect from the moody movie, but I've always found most compelling the climactic shot. A shocked Deckard, beaten down from his chase after a rampaging replicant, is a captive audience to the twist ending of a sentimental Roy Batty's dying words. The dove symbolism might be a bit too obvious, but the thoughts capture the romantic soul of a storyteller wishing to share the beauty of personal experience, and it frames well the dubious morality of Deckard's own quest.

The film is a dark imagining of a future dominated by technology; where those seeking freedom and humanity are deemed both threatening and criminal. It casts a surprisingly philosophical focus on the moral choices we make when faced with our own mortality. Humans and androids of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your virtual chains.

Another planet: Looking at twin possibilites, and more

I always find myself gravitating toward the latest astronomical stories, so it came as no surprise that I was drawn in to yesterday's pronouncement by scientists that Venus and our home world have a special relationship (see New Findings Underscore an Earth-Venus Kinship from the New York Times).

The European Space Agency used the analogy of "twins separated at birth" to grab headlines for the conclusions taken from their Venus Express spacecraft's data transmissions. The two planets share a similar size and composition, but Venus has surface temperatures in excess of 800°F and a dense atmosphere made up of carbon dioxide.

Venus once had Earth-like oceans, but the water evaporated in the Sun's intense heat and the resulting greenhouse-gas effect trapped more heat creating a feedback loop that generated the planet's current smog-like cloud cover. If our current carbon emissions continue unabated, the Earth may find itself spinning toward a similarly hazy future.

The Euro-scientists' twin reference is an interesting one and hearkens me back to the countless science-fiction renderings of parallel universes and through-the-looking-glass scenarios. As a kid, I watched a TV movie about an astronaut who when shot into space discovered a mirror Earth on the opposite side of the Sun. The prospect of such a duplicate world captivated my young imagination, offering a vague sense of heavenly second chances.

Of course why stop at two alternatives when there's a quantum theory full of broader probabilities. I'm fond of poetically conjuring the possibility of simultaneously occurring realities; a universe where all potential outcomes exist at once. It may seem a silly fantasy, but it's much easier to accept failure if there's another me or we who can get it right in the end.

Another Girl, Another Planet
by The Only Ones

I always flirt with death
I look ill, but I don't care about it
I can face your threats
And stand up straight and tall and shout about it

I think I'm on another world with you, with you
I'm on another planet with you, with you

You get under my skin
I don't find it irritating
You always play to win
but I won't need rehabilitating

I think I'm on another world with you, with you
I'm on another planet with you, with you
Another girl, another planet
Another girl, another planet

Space travel's in my blood
There ain't nothing I can do about it
Long journeys wear me out
But I know I can't live without it

I think I'm on another world with you, with you
I'm on another planet with you, with you
Another girl is loving you now
Another planet is holding us down
Another planet

(Click here to see a video of the song)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Meming to catch up ... read at your own risk

I've been tagged and honored a few times in the past week, so I'm going to cheat a bit and combine my thanks and obligations in one unruly post ...

First in my list of to-do's is a public debt of gratitude to pay out to my dear friend Bola at MumsDadsChildren who kindly passed on to me the Nice Matters Award. It's the second time I've been given this particularly generous consideration, so I am twice-blessed — thanks Bola.



Next, I need to recognize a dual tag from Nick at Personal Paranoia and Raven at Stuperhero Extraordinaire who both selected me as their victim in the perpetuation of a fun meme that lets me discover how much (or little) I share in the personality traits of my fellow Decemberists.

In brief, I'm obligated to paste a paragraph of qualities pertaining to those born in my birth month and highlight the ones that apply to me. There are some other duties outlined in the official rules, but I'm a natural iconoclast (that's not listed below, alas) so I'm dispensing with most of them at the risk of incurring some bad broken-chain-letter type of Karma.
DECEMBER: Loyal and generous. Sexy. Patriotic. Active in games and interactions. Impatient and hasty. Ambitious. Influential in organizations. Fun to be with. Loves to socialize. Loves praises. Loves attention. Loves to be loved. Honest and trustworthy. Not pretending. Short tempered. Changing personality. Not egotistic. Take high pride in oneself. Hates restrictions. Loves to joke. Good sense of humor. Logical.
I'm not particularly fond of self-analysis, but there it is. For this meme and the next (stay tuned), I'm skipping the step of singling out fellow bloggers and tagging anyone who reads this and is excited to participate. For all you meme geeks out there ... have at it.



Last, and certainly not least, I have to acknowledge my selection for the 7 Weird or Random Facts meme by Deborah, my irrepressibly wonderful colleague at Climate of Our Future. As you might guess from the name, I need to continue the trend of self-revelation and identify some personal strangeness. I'm pretty good at that, especially when I get to have at randomness as well, so here are my bulleted points:
  • I love grilled onions, but can't stand raw ones (that goes for roasted/raw garlic as well).
  • I have never seen the movie ET, and never plan to, but for no particular reason.
  • I once killed a man for laughing at me ... wait, that was someone else. I once got very angry at a man for laughing at me.
  • I have never been in the state of Texas.
  • Both of my parents were born in New York.
  • I don't like wearing hats.
  • I don't like being cold, yet I often underdress for the weather (see point six).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Raising spirits for William Blake

Completing the second half of my November 28th birthday tributes, I honor the life and work of William Blake, the poet and visual artist who was born a numerically significant quarter-millennium ago on this date.

William Blake was a man of many seeming contrasts, and as such an inspiration for fulfilling my own contradictory impulses. He created works of deep spirituality, but he also concerned himself with the very material people and events of his time and place. He bristled at organized religion, but was also a mystic who had visions of angels and the ghosts of Old Testament prophets. He was considered mad in his own time, but won countless admirers among the creative generations who followed in his footsteps.

Although he was a devotee of the metaphysical and an inventor of his own mythologies, Blake also delved into the political and social issues of his day. He wrote in praise of the American and French revolutions, and he documented the human abuses that took place in the early English Industrial Age.

The weak and innocent didn't fare well in the brutish early period of Industry's growth. The mistreatment of the young boys who were conscripted to sweep the soot from London's flues and chimneys was certainly one glaring example of that. In two companion pieces from the volumes Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, Blake lamented the sad fate of these young men who were sold into the dark service by their impoverished parents.

I've included the Experience poem below (an image of Blake's original artwork and verse appears above). You can click here to read the full text of the other, more innocent "Chimney Sweeper." The two pieces provide a good taste of the dualities in Blake's creation.

Songs of Experience: The Chimney Sweeper

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying "'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe!
"Where are thy father and mother, say?"
"They are both gone up to the church to pray.

"Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

"And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery."

Author: William Blake
Online Poetry at PoetryFeast.com

Appreciating the caustic wit of Randy Newman

In the first of two very different November 28th birthday tributes, I offer a tip of the hat to singer, songwriter, and film score composer Randy Newman. I've always appreciated the biting sarcasm of Mr. Newman's lyrics, and his 1972 album "Sail Away" ranks among my all-time favorites.

I've referenced two songs from the record in previous posts (see Praying for rain and other idol pursuits and Let's drop the big one now), and below I present a video clip of his live performance of the title track. It's a typically twisted narrative take on a glossed over view of the legacy of American slavery.

Having spent his formative years in the two LA's (Los Angeles and Louisiana), Mr. Newman definitely has a unique perspective on our national identity. It's a compelling contradiction of love-hate that openly embraces small town generosity while pushing away the bigotry and closed mindedness.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Beowulf: Fleshing out a hero

The new movie treatment of the Old English epic Beowulf is a superficially interesting but ultimately flawed creation, just like the hero whose exploits it portrays. The retelling is very modern in its sensibilities and techniques, but it can't quite capture the magic of the source verse. It tries to flesh out the man behind the ancient warrior, but lacks the warmth and insight to add depth to its special-effected vision.

The major selling point for the film is that it's the latest generation of 3D technology shot using performance-capture-suited, big-name stars. Unfortunately the theater near me wasn't equipped to show it that way, so I didn't get to experience the movie as the director intended. I've read that the switch to digital projection is becoming more economical, but in the big city of Chicago a large majority of theater owners still haven't done so.

In 2D, the movie's visuals aren't strong enough to counteract the sophomoric humor and sight gags into which its story occasionally devolves. The screenwriters do attempt a post-modern spin on the hero's legend, but the ideas aren't weighty enough to lend it real heft. The animation in fact robs most characters of their humanity, reducing them to smoothed over, plastic action figures. In many ways, Grendel, Beowulf's troll-like first foe, has more physical and emotional depth than any of the leads.

One of the film's major themes is the disparity between myth and reality, and how the power of legend often trumps the need for truth. That's not a new idea, but it is a clever justification for the writers' twist on the traditional telling of Beowulf's story. They undermine the glory of his youthful acts in order to endow his final self-sacrifice with more meaning. Given the span of time the action skips over in the interim, it's hard for the audience to buy into that spiritual growth.

An interesting subtext is the tension between Pagan and Christian beliefs that bleeds through from the original epic poem. Beowulf is a pre-Christian Germanic tale that was passed down orally among the Anglo Saxons before being codified in written form with religious embellishment, perhaps by an 8th century monk. The film's grayed and weary Beowulf laments the lapsing of the age of heroes to a time dominated by martyrs. Ironically, at story's end he seems to embrace the very role he deemed shameful, as the distinction between martyr and hero becomes blurred.

The film isn't the most thoughtful meditation on the nature of heroism, but it should bring renewed attention to an important piece of our literary heritage, and that's a good thing. The Answers.com article on Beowulf has a nice summary of the original plot and great background information, including several external links to the full verse.

Disowning ideas: Toward a remix logic

Is it possible to own an idea? Do creative thoughts spring fully formed from nothing, like a mature, wise, and armed Athena emerging from the head of Zeus? Do artists and writers ever work in isolation, or are they always part of an ongoing conversation across centuries and borders?

These are the questions I've been pondering after reading two recent articles about the legal quandaries surrounding art in a digital age. Due to its economic foundation, ours is a society that promotes the mythology of super individuals whose genius towers over the twin streams of time and culture. Ideas are made proprietary — aloof intellectual properties that disown the legacies and contributions of the antecedents and contemporaries who nurtured them into existence.

As technology advances, skills and knowledge are becoming more widely distributed. It's easier than ever to borrow, remix and reshape and that's creating a change in the collective acceptance of shared culture. Rather than denying a creative lineage, the new millennial artists openly acknowledge their concurrent sources of inspiration. Here in the U.S., mash-ups are most common in the world of music, but in Japan the pop taste is flavored Manga.

In November's Wired, there's a very interesting piece describing the extra-legal détente that exists between the big Manga publishing houses and the underground dojinshi fan culture that takes their comic book franchises in new, unexplored directions (see Japan, Ink: Inside the Manga Industrial Complex). Observing an "unspoken agreement" they call anmoku no ryokai, the publishers don't crack the copyright whip on the amateurs as long as the fan tributes maintain small runs, and don't cross the line into plagiarism or go too far in their re-imaginings.

As the article's author astutely observes, it's a concession both parties are willing to make rather than entangle themselves in an antiquated legal system designed for a "read only" rather than a "read/write" culture. The Manga franchises benefit from the extra attention the dojinshi bring to the homaged stories, and the underground is used as a test market and proving area for the next generation of Manga writers.

This week's edition of the Chicago Reader documents two domestic parties less reluctant to take the plunge into that murky interface between art and law. Israeli artist Yaacov Agam is suing the owners of a downtown skyscraper to keep them from re-displaying his sculpture Communication X9, which they repainted (see Restored or Wrecked?). Agam contends that the company hired to return the stainless-steel piece to its original vibrancy botched the attempt.

The restorers faced no small task — there were 1,410 different colors to reproduce — but I'm not interested in judging the quality of their work. What I consider newsworthy is the distinction being made between ownership of the individual, physical piece and the artist's right to control the integrity of the sculpture's original image. Agam argues that because of the alleged bad paint job, the object is now no better than a cheap reproduction.

What Agam defends is an abstraction of the piece as it was first conceived. Despite my general inclination to side with an artist fighting for a vision, it strikes me as naive to expect anything we release to the world to survive its journey unchanged. If the colors of the sculpture had degraded to the point that they needed to be restored, how was the sculpture any more authentic in its previous shabby state?

Certainly what Agam objects to isn't the cultural remixing of his ideas, but a court's too rigid interpretation of his "property" rights might discourage just such a thing. Considering the legal system's propensity to look backward rather than ahead when pronouncing its judgments, the Manga model of court avoidance may be the best creative option right now.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Imbibing fatalistic potions

Again I dip my toe in the murky waters of my past to try to makes sense of an old conceit. I have no idea what specifically inspired this piece, and as with many of my bygone poems it feels like it belongs to a completely different author.

I think it was a meditation on the appeal of self-destructive substances of varying kinds. Don't worry, I never had any intention of prematurely meeting my end. The verse is purely metaphorical. I liked to dabble in darker material back then, but I was young.

Note: The image at left is a detail taken from the painting "The Love Potion" by British artist Evelyn de Morgan. Click here to view a photo of the entire piece.

Poison
by Francis Scudellari

Yes, look how it catches the light,
its clear, round face beaming
with the glint of a smile, leering, alluring.
Watch it as it dangles, drooping down,
this droplet clinging, dancing
on the vial's lip, enticing,
entreating my palate to taste.
What sweet pleasures do you promise, dear drop,
as you stretch ever closer to your goal?
What deep slumbers will you grant me
if I let you leap,
if I shake you free
and accept your kiss, tongue on tongue?
Shall I drink this liquid contradiction?
Oh gleaming darkness, if you steal my sight
will I better see?
My deadly nourishment, if you numb this skin
will I sharply feel?
Alas, transparent deceit,
will you both paralyze and help me to fly,
fly away?
But you know I play coy, already resolved,
a match for your falsehood.
So come, take your place on this pink bed
and bubble in my blood
clasp my heart with you warm hand
and let us dance, you and I
to the sweet, sweet sounds of silence.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Exploring Tasmania: the devil is in the details

I have to admit a general ignorance when it comes to the history and present day details of the island of Tasmania. I even had no clue to the identity of the man for whom the Australian state was named. So my curiosity was peaked when I saw that on November 24, 1642 a Dutch explorer named Abel Tasman was the first European to spot the spit of land.

Tasman claimed and named the island Van Diemen's Land in honor of his sponsor, the Governor of the Dutch East Indies. The "discovery" eventually proved costly to the indigenous people — a common theme throughout the history of European colonization.

In 1803, the British established a penal colony on the island, like its neighbor to the north, and the population who had lived there for millennia was decimated over the next few decades. Upon being granted self-government from the Brits in 1856, the settlers rechristened the land Tasmania to mask the twin black eyes of its penal past and the aboriginal extermination.

Scion of the TV age that I am, my first introduction to the state's current name came from watching Bugs Bunny cartoons as a kid. The rascally rabbit outwitted the whirling dervish of a nemesis nicknamed Taz in the loony 'toon "Devil May Hare," which debuted in 1954 and is available for your viewing pleasure via a YouTube clip.

As you might guess, the real-life carnivorous marsupial bears little resemblance to the Warner Brothers depiction, other than in its big appetite. In fact, they're kind of cute (take a peek at the clip of a yawning devil below) when they're not fighting each other to chow down on a carcass. Sadly, the Tasmanian Devil numbers are declining due to the spread of a disfiguring disease and other ecological factors. Let's hope they fare better than the other native populations who have disappeared.

Friday, November 23, 2007

A good way to scratch that holiday shopping itch

As you may have heard or seen from the flood of media coverage, today is Black Friday — the traditional kick-off to the Holiday season's shopping frenzy, not the 1869 stock market crash. The retailer fueled drumbeat to instill mass buying hysteria should be particularly loud this year with the various negative national economic indicators putting Wall Street (and foreign investors) in a Grinchy mood.

Strong anti-consumerist that I am, I usually do my best to avoid contributing in any way to the commercialization that has hijacked this festive time of year. I stay far away from the mobbed shops and malls, and I keep the TV set unlit to stave off the barrage of jingly ads and the inevitable local news coverage of gift-rage stoked stampedes.

Of course, retreating into isolation with my fingers placed firmly in ears doesn't do much to reverse these social trends. My unspent dollar is a token gesture in the face of the onslaught of cash thrown at the objects of extravagant waste we've made the season's most enduring legacy. So, this year I'm flowing with the zeitgeist's wave and taking a different tack.

Rather than fighting the surging urge to spend, I offer up a better way to drop those dollars for holiday gift giving. It's an opportunity to double the impact of your present. Not only can you give a child you love a really neat laptop, but you can help contribute to improving the lives of the less fortunate around the world.

It's a program called Give One. Get One. and for $399 you can purchase the new XO Linux-based laptop for the kid of your choice and have another one donated to a child in a developing nation. The networked, wireless laptop has an innovative, durable design plus loads of cool applications, all built on an open-source foundation to encourage users to dig into the inner workings.

You have until the end of the year to take advantage of this unique offer from the One Laptop Per Child Foundation. The organization has a very interesting mission: "To provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves." Giving kids in less advantaged countries the tools to learn, connect and contribute to a shared future is a good way to promote the true spirit of the holidays.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving: a personal accounting

I have to confess that by nature I'm not very good at giving thanks. I tend to focus on the things personal and social that need to be corrected or improved rather than those that have fallen into a well-functioning complacency. Today is a day to overcome my disinclinations and count the many blessings I've received.

First and foremost I am grateful for the caring and supportive nest of family and friends that I've been lucky enough to settle into. Thanks to this little enterprise of blogging that circle keeps expanding, and although the acquaintances may be virtual and physically distant they are very real in the encouragement and hope they've provided.

I count myself privileged for the opportunities I've had. Thanks to the happy circumstance of the place of my birth, I've enjoyed the freedom to pursue educational and cultural resources that most in the world don't have access to. It's also much easier to concentrate on intellectual and spiritual growth when our physical well-being is not threatened by the lurking menace of poverty and disease.

It may not always seem that way, but I'm also thankful for these crazy turbulent times into which I've been tossed. We're a society and world in flux, and that appeals to the writer in me. Our suspenseful story is arcing toward a climactic resolution, and the outcome is very much still in doubt. I hope we can author a new world where the privileges and advantages that I've enjoyed are spread out much more widely.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A little holiday monkey business

Pursuing my never-ending desire to bring important historical anniversaries to the attention of my dear readership, on this day before Thanksgiving I salute a very talented fellow primate: Nim Chimpsky. No, not the linguist and leftist political thinker Noam Chomsky, but the signing chimpanzee who was born on this date in 1973.

Although I'm sure Conservative pundits will avow a very close kinship between this particular pairing of man and chimp, Nim, who was named after Noam, mastered a series of hand signals and helped language scientists gain a better understanding of the communication skills of our evolutionary cousins.

There was some controversy at the time as to the study's conclusions, which held that Chimps are capable of mimicry and learning basic associations but not the grasping of deeper meanings that marks the language abilities of humans. I've been told that if an infinite number of them were to sit at an infinite number of typewriters, they would however be able to bang out the complete works of Shakespeare.

I wasn't able to find any video of Nim signing on YouTube, but as an indicator of the true usefulness of that site I did locate a clip from a chimp-based 1970s TV program that I watched as a kid ... "Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp." If this doesn't demonstrate the close relationship between humans and other primates to all those Evolution doubters, nothing will. It's certainly a vindication of Newton Minnow's vast wasteland prediction, and dig those cool threads.

Blogging into amazement

I've been gifted with the "You're An Amazing Blogger" award from fellow writer and poet J.D. Beaudoin who authors the wonderful Uneasy Supplicant blog, where you can also find samples of his awesome wood carvings.

I'm fond of using the word "amazement" because of its sense of ambiguity, at least in my own mind. I like to think that my phrase shaping tends to throw others into states of reverie, whether those trances be based in confusion or enlightenment. Meditating on the things we don't know as well as those we assume we do can be an equally productive experience.

Thank you J.D. for recognizing my ability to induce amazement, and as is our wont in the blogosphere, I now get to pass on this prize to a few other colleagues. For me, that's a chance to recognize some interesting and talented fellow bloggers more than the desire to propagate a meme. If you've already been awarded this, please consider yourself twice blessed:

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Expanding horizons: In awe of Hubble's work

Whenever I'm mired in an emotional or creative funk, I always find it productive to step back and focus on the bigger picture. There's no better way to do that then to peruse the images captured by NASA's orbiting telescope — an eye in the sky with the widest view of all.

The space agency's high-tech camera is named after Edwin Powell Hubble (pictured at left), and today coincidentally (if I can maintain the veneer of happenstance for the sake of this post) is the anniversary of the great astrophysicist's birth in 1889.

Edwin Hubble is credited with providing the first observational evidence to back the theory of an expanding universe. I'm not the most scientifically inclined writer, so check out the above linked article on him to get a better understanding of his accomplishments.

In short, based on his measurement of the wavelengths of the light emitted by distant galaxies, Hubble showed that these far-flung stellar systems were in fact moving away from our home here in the Milky Way. He also created the system by which galaxies are still classified.

Below is one favorite image from the multi-media section of NASA's HubbleSite. It depicts a "giant star-forming nebula with massive young stellar clusters" about 20,000 light-years away from us. It's hard to imagine a more beautiful sight, and it's too bad that Edwin Hubble didn't live long enough to share the experience of so clearly peering into the lovely mix of light and matter to which we belong.

This awe-inspiring glimpse given to us by Hubble's work provokes a contradictory mix of emotions — I feel at once rendered insignificant by the infinite starry vistas and raised up by our intimate connection to such a marvelous and vast creation.

Never Follow: Losing faith in leaders

There's been a strange negativity in the air lately, at least in the bubble of activity that surrounds me. Maybe it's following me around, infecting those around me like a spreading virus, contaminating each of us with a tense vibe, injecting hostility in the meekest among us. I'm overtaken with the compulsion to challenge every opinion, every thought, every single word thrust at me.

It could be the holiday season, which is already in full swing propagandizing the need for continual conspicuous consumption. It could be the impending election year, which is being forced upon us before the calendar even flips to 2008. Whatever the cause, I have an overwhelming urge to unleash a Edvard Munch-like scream (as depicted in the artist's painting on the left) .

I won't deny the fact that I've always felt an outsider in this society. As a child I imagined myself from another world, dropped on this Earth to observe the strange behavior of the locals before being airlifted out to report back my findings. The fact that the values and ideals held up to me as models for personal behavior never jived with the operating principles of the government and businesses that control our lives certainly contributed to that alienation.

I've been searching my whole life for someone to trust. I want to give myself to a cause or an organization that will put me to work for real change, but I inevitably find myself forced to choose between corruption and marginalization. This system of ours has an indefatigable capacity to absorb and transform all resistance to serve its own purposes.

I'm stupid and stubborn enough to keep butting my head up against society's well fortified walls. One day, the collective impacts may weaken them enough to cause it all to come tumbling down on me. Until then, I'll remain an isolated voice shouting into the gale-force winds, cupping my ears to catch the faintest peep of a response, hoping to find those equally lost in the maelstrom who also refuse to go along just to get along.

Never Follow
by Naked Raygun

Follow me
I'll take you there
You needn't think
You needn't care
On the way
We'll find some others
Baptize with lies
And make them brothers

No I will never follow
I will never follow
Your truth diseased and hollow
No I will never follow

Forget your thoughts
Forget your will
Tell that voice inside
To just keep still
If it gets to be too much
Just turn your eyes away
The free individual
Is from a bygone day

No I will never follow
I will never follow
Your truth diseased and hollow
No I will never follow
I'll be your destroyer
Your world's great annoyer
I'll be your destroyer
No worn propaganda for me

Follow me
I'll take you there
You needn't think
You needn't care
We all go gentle
Into that good night
There'll be no more raging
Against the dying of the light

No I will never follow
I will never follow
Your truth diseased and hollow
No I will never follow
I'll be your destroyer
Your world's great annoyer
I'll be your destroyer
No guns, knives nor lawyers
No I will never follow
You can't take my will away
My dreams will never say die

Monday, November 19, 2007

Abstractly expressing birthday wishes for George Kokines

As a birthday tribute to my good friend and world renowned local artist George Kokines, I'm posting here a sampling of his paintings. These are all pieces from his Études series, in which he worked his abstract magic to transform the traditional subject of the still life.

George's birthday was yesterday (Nov. 17), and I would have put up a post sooner for the occasion, but our clique of the like minded was having too good a time celebrating out on the town.

If some of the images below appear a bit crooked, don't worry, it's just your eyes.





Saturday, November 17, 2007

These paths, darkening

Never one to shy away from a challenge, I decided to resurrect an old unfinished poem and attempt to resolve it. It was a verse with grand ambitions, which followed a cross-country trip with hopes of self-discovery. I may yet be tempted to tweak it more, but for now I'm committing it to the permanence of a blog post.

These paths, darkening
by Francis Scudellari

These paths, darkening, I wander
Through deep, brambled forests I step,
Past towering firs, boughing down
O'er black soil, dried leaf, soft moss beds,
Leap mushroom-blossomed, decayed wood,
As crooked creeks murmur, mumble,
Tumble o'er pebbles, searching in
Light-speckled shade, still, not finding

I roam across long grassy plains
Spotted with wild flowers--yellow
Pink, violet flecks, dots, bursts, rays--
Among mists' white vapor, hover
On gentle hills, cut by cold streams
As jet crows cackle, dart and dive
As slow herds nod, graze, bellow low
answers beyond my dulled hearing

O'er buckled plates, alone I'll climb
Menacing swells that jut, roll, surge
Stumble over craggy rock, carved
Red canyons sheer, deep chasms, stone vaults
As eagles soar, shriek, shadow glide,
Mere crook'd shapes on wind blasted crests,
Weathered, proud sentries of
Guarded secrets in sere sage brush

Shall I crawl on hand, foot, belly
across deserts' hot gravel, dust
Burned, scorched by a fierce, pale sun
Lithe lizards slither, so might I
Over arid riverbeds, rocks
Past spired cactus, limbs lifted
Toward the endless sky, my arms
Too, pointed, reaching up, praying

Ever beyond I could seek it
Re-ent'ring the salt bath, life's womb
Plumbing depths, diving in vast seas
Cleansing cataract sight, to see
Or weightless, rise up heavenward
Peer into the void I stargaze
Hoping to glimpse the divine, yet
Only my own face reflected

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Claude Monet: Impressions a day late

I meant to salute the artist Claude Monet yesterday on the occasion of his birth (November 14, 1840), but was waylaid by my obsessively dark mediation on religion, prayer, free will and environmental responsibility. Giving myself a respite from those heavier themes, I've immersed myself in the works of Monet to catch a lighter view of the world.

He's known to many as the father of the Impressionist movement because his 1872 work Impression, levant soleil (Translated as "Impression, sunrise" and pictured at left) was used by a befuddled contemporary art critic to label the blossoming style. I've always appreciated the dreamlike perspective he shared of the brightly colored and atmospherically lit beauty that surrounded him. I'm especially fond of his later landscapes that tend toward abstraction.

I'm lucky that locally there is a good collection of Monet's work, including a few paintings from his wonderfully poetic haystacks series, at the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum also held a great retrospective on Monet back in the summer of 1995.

The YouTube set is quite taken with Monet as well, and I found numerous videos there dedicated to samplings from his body of work. Below is one I particularly like for its choice of pieces and fitting musical accompaniment.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Praying for rain and other idol pursuits

In a brilliant demonstration of true political leadership, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue cast aside all pretense at worldly solutions to the state's water crisis and threw himself down before God in hopes of divine intervention (see Georgia governor leads prayer for rain from the Los Angeles Times for the details of his plea). Adding to the irony of the strange event is the fact that the rain-seeking pol's first name is Sonny.

I'm sure his folks named him for either a happy disposition or childlike nature, not his ability to shed light. The causes of Georgia's drought are no doubt complex, and the desperate situation may incline the locals toward miracle solutions, but our elected officials should be addressing policy changes not supernatural entities. Georgia's, and the rest of America's, shameful misuse of resources might well deserve penance and the invocation of God's mercy, but the first step to forgiveness is always amended behavior.

For far too long we Americans have engaged in the profligate burning of fossil fuels; not caring about the repercussions of our selfish actions. The reckless disregard of our land, air and water is finally catching up to us. Decades of blackening the sky with our filth is disrupting weather patterns so that some get flooding while others get drought.

Casting economic development in the image of our true savior, we've built sprawling suburbs that replace filtering wetlands with impervious blacktop. As monuments to our vanity, preferring the semblance of a neatly ordered world, we've topped the earth with insatiably thirsty, well-manicured lawns. Bowing down before their new gilded idols, our politicians have sacrificed we constituents to the ravenous appetites of corporations and granted them as tribute the right to dump waste and toxins into our fresh water supplies.

Georgia is a good demonstration of the false pride of our old ways. What good is it to have big houses, fancy cars and booming digital TVs if we don't have fresh water to drink, or clean air to breathe. Governor Perdue may think he can fool us with a deathbed conversion to conservation, but we'll need to see more action and less self-flagellation.

I've always found it interesting that some people view prayer as a way to curry favor with God. There's a wonderful naiveté in the bargaining that takes place. These supplicants usually say they believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God, yet they think they can mouth a few flowery words and make an idle promise or two to trick their supreme being into granting a reprieve.

I'm not a religious man, but I do believe in a spiritual universe. The best way to praise the divine is through inspired, compassionate action not empty words. The first step is to rededicate ourselves to respect the creation that we've abused for so long. Then we can stop perpetuating our own selfish comforts at the cost of the world's suffering.

It reminds me of an old Randy Newman song, and although I don't completely agree with the singer's biting attack on the religiously minded, there's much truth in his criticism of those foolishly looking for change to come from above rather than from within.

God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)
by Randy Newman

Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:

Man means nothing he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases round this desert
Cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
From the squalor, and the filth, and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That's why I love mankind

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said "Lord a plague is on the world
Lord no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won't take care of us
Won't you please please let us be?"
And the Lord said
And the Lord said

I burn down your cities — how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why I love mankind
You really need me
That's why I love mankind

Image: Praying Hands (Betende Hände) by Albrecht Dürer.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

St. Augustine: Damned from the start?

On November 13th, 354 AD Aurelius Augustinus entered this world destined for damnation, but by the grace of God and the miracle of baptism he was transformed into a saintly philosopher. That's how the man who would become better known as St. Augustine of Hippo confessed it in his autobiography, and it's his soul crushing theological views on Predestination and Original Sin that won out in the battle over Christian doctrine.

Born to a Christian mother and Pagan father in Roman controlled North Africa (present-day Algeria), Augustine was fascinated with classical philosophy from an early age and shifted his views between several "heretical" streams of thought before falling under the spell of the prevailing Catholic hegemony. He put forth a negative interpretation of human nature that allowed the Church to assert itself as the necessary component of personal salvation, and then he set about silencing those who emphasized humanity's free will.

It's interesting to ponder the "what if" of the Church having embraced the philosophies of those the Saint's pessimism intellectually vanquished. Insisting on the literal veracity of the Fall of Adam, and believing that our first father's self-inflicted soul sickness was hereditary, Augustine took the concept of predestination to such an extreme as to condemn to damnation even unbaptized infants who hadn't had the chance to sin.

In his eyes, a life devoted to good works of love and compassion was worthless without the holy sanction of ablution. Grace was bestowed through the Church, not earned outside of it. Of course that's a convenient theological position to stake out if you're goal is to guarantee the survival of a religion as a political and social institution.

I find much more appealing the teachings of Pelagius, who Augustine had excommunicated from the Church. The British born monk emphasized humanity's ability to shape our destiny through our choices. Rather than attributing sin to an inbred spiritual flaw, Pelagius affirmed our capacity to recognize good from evil and take responsibility for the decisions we make. That's a world view certainly much more in line with modern sensibilities.

The illusion of predestination is just a philosophical conceit to avoid social accountability. Today, there's a lot riding on the course we choose as a society. We have an opportunity to achieve much by working together with a common purpose. If we fail that challenge it will be due to a stubborn refusal to cast off our selfishness, not an ancestor's wayward choice in fruit.

Note: The above image is a detail from the painting of Augustine by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1480

No Country for Old Men: Cruel and unusual entertainment

I've always been a big fan of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, so I eagerly went to see their latest No Country for Old Men based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. I don't want to say too much about the movie and spoil the experience of it, so I'll keep my review short and simple.

There are good movies, and there are great ones. This film definitely falls in the latter category. It can be bleak and bloody at times, but there's also a very dark humor to it. As Sheriff Ed Tom Bell remarks to his deputy, you can't help but laugh at the overwhelming absurdity of it.

The scenes are amazingly crafted with stunning visuals and dead-on performances. Javier Bardem is especially notable as the black-clad, reaper-like assassin Anton Chigurh whose cold-hearted presence dominates even the frames he doesn't inhabit. Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell, and Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss are also very good.

There are moments that brought to my mind earlier Coen brothers' projects such as Fargo, Blood Simple, and Barton Fink, but No Country is its own strange animal. A meditation on good and evil, life and death, human venality and supernatural cruelty, random misfortune and chosen fate, it's a film that I'll see again so I can try to understand it on a deeper level, especially the enigmatic ending. Just watching the trailer re-whetted my curiosity ...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans Day: Recalling heroes of war and peace

Thoughts straddling the boundary between the actual and observed Veterans Day, I chose to use the time to meditate on the subjects of war, peace and heroism. The service proffered by my father, grandfather, uncle and several close friends comes to mind on the occasion, and I hope my words honor them in some way.

Until 1954, November 11th was known as Armistice Day in the U.S. and marked the end of World War I on that date in 1918. For the past 50 odd years it's been re-christened and re-purposed here. Speechifying politicians use the day more to promote militarism than commemorate peace, especially in times of war such as our own. Most of these orators won't have ever served in any hostilities.

None of the veterans I've known can discuss their times in combat with anything better than mixed emotions. Warfare is a deeply scarring experience. Mythologist Joseph Campbell discussed soldiers in the context of "the hero's journey," and he emphasized that no matter how we judge the political motives of a war, those who fight it do so from the belief they are sacrificing themselves for a greater cause.

It's because of that very nobility of spirit we should hold up to close scrutiny the politicians who send our loved ones off to fight their battles. To take advantage of the heroism of these young men and women for selfish political or economic ends would rank among the most shameful acts. For the press and voters to blindly acquiesce to a leader's call for war without asking hard and penetrating questions is equally inexcusable. I leave it to the reader to decide if either applies to events present and past.

Besides the soldiers who wage war, I'd also like to remember the martyrs who sacrificed themselves for peace. Sometimes our misleaders' stubborn refusal to admit a mistake can only be overcome through persistent protest on the home front. As with those sent overseas, these veterans of the anti-war movement fought for their ideals and often put themselves at risk.

Coincidentally, November 12th is favorite musician Neil Young's 62nd birthday, and he penned a moving tribute to just such heroes for peace: the four victims of the Kent State Massacre.

Ohio
by Neil Young

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Note: Image from New York Times photo with caption "Thousands gather at the Subtreasury Building on Wall Street during Armistice Day, 1918."

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Developing a Singularity Complex

The desire to make connections is both a weakness and a strength of human intelligence. Unregulated, we can start to set up full philosophical systems of cause and effect that are based on coincidental occurrences; but reined in, our sometimes bold propensity for open-eyed dreaming can also lead to unexpected insights and breakthroughs toward new technologies.

It takes time and continued experimentation to separate superstition from science, and even then residual bits of either side of the duality may persist yin-yang like: enough science to lend a religion the plausibility to catch fire in the popular imagination, or enough superstition to propel theories down varied and unexpected paths.

My mind is probably more prone to false connections than most, but I'm a writer rather than a scientist, and art obeys a different, although sometimes intertwined, imperative. This is all a round-about preface to a discussion of the concept of an approaching technological singularity.

If you've seen science-fiction films such as The Terminator or The Matrix, or read books such as Neuromancer by William Gibson, you'll be familiar with the general idea. At the point that science develops an artificial intelligence that surpasses the capabilities of our own, the AI will be able to devise its own continually improving, thinking machines and we humans will become inconsequential to its further evolution.

Risking the label of blasphemer, in a sense it will be as if humanity gave birth to god; the creation of an entity that infinitely surpasses the limits of our own creative imagination. It's a literally awesome prospect, and one that re-awakens the mythical dread of our overstepping a dangerous threshold.

What will happen after this moment of planned human obsolescence is less clear. If you buy into the generally dystopic view of some futurists, then the birthed ultraintelligent machines may deem humanity a glorified virus that needs to be eradicated in order to safeguard progress. Other more optimistic soothsayers predict a rapid explosion of breakthroughs and a Utopian world where our most intractable problems are solved.

If we continue to build intelligent machines purposed for hate and destruction, the odds will favor the doomed side of that scenario. The military has been running advertisements lately that boast about its cutting-edge drones. The propaganda is spotted in TV sports breaks and tacked on to the beginning of films (I was forced to witness a Grindhouse style retro ad for the Navy's drones before American Gangster last night).

The military may try to convince us the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technology has a noble side of safeguarding troops, but the true intentions to spy and kill are transparently clear. As we continue to program machines with a core purpose to destroy human life, it's hard to imagine that Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics will protect us from harm if the singularity does occur.

All inventions bear the stamped image of their creators. Where technology takes us will depend on the motivations behind its devising. I'd feel much more confident about our future if we could focus more on inventing systems meant to eradicate pollution, poverty, hunger and disease ... not each other.

Author Vernor Vinge wrote the essay "The Coming Technological Singularity" in 1993 and predicted the end of the human era some time between the years 2005 and 2030. Coincidentally the Dec. 21, 2012 end date of the Mayan Calendar falls neatly within that year range, but that may just be one more false connection. I hope by then we can figure out how to program machines capable of love and sympathy.

One More Robot / Sympathy 3000-21
by The Flaming Lips

Unit three thousand twenty one is warming makes a humming sound —
when its circuits duplicate emotions —
and a sense of coldness detaches as it tries to comfort your sadness —
one more robot learns to be something more than a machine —
when it tries the way it does —
makes it seem like it can love —
'cause it's hard to say what's real —
when you know the way you feel —
is it wrong to think it's love when it tries the way it does ...
feeling a synthetic kind of love dreaming a sympathetic wish —
as the lights blink faster and brighter —
one more robot learns to be something more than a machine —
when it tries the way it does —
makes it seem like it can love —
'cause it's hard to say what's real —
when you know the way you feel —
is it wrong to think it's love when it tries the way it does

Note: Image is an artist's concept of the cryobot and hydrobot from NASA.

Revisiting old states of mind


Sometimes it's interesting to do a little mental archaeology and uncover the intellectual relics from my past. In digging through my old poems, I found the following verse that certainly bears the hallmark of my contradictory personality.

If the time stamp on the electronic file is accurate, I wrote it back in 1994. I don't know what the inspiration for it was, and I've disassociated myself from that past consciousness pretty well. Obviously, I wasn't residing in a cheery place back then, but it ends on a hopeful little note.

At least it's short and simply structured, so you won't have to endure it for very long ...

Not Endure
by Francis Scudellari

Not endure
enduring,
but undo
in doing,
but be by
not being.
Impatient,
patient faith.
Renewed faith.
Begin too,
to end pain,
end this life,
and bring death,
renewed life
after death.
Struggle, peace.
Work then rest.
Rest to dream.
Dream to act.
Act to live.
Live to say
"No more No."

Friday, November 09, 2007

In praise of Elijah Lovejoy

Today marks the 205th anniversary of the birth of Elijah P. Lovejoy, an abolitionist and martyr to the cause of free speech. Lovejoy is not a man whose history most American's know, but they should.

It's because of the courage of those like him that we're able to enjoy the freedoms that we do today, and he should serve as an inspiration to keep vigilant against the contemporary forces of hate, racism and bigotry that try to silence opposing voices through forms of intimidation both physical and psychological.

Lovejoy took it upon himself to do journalistic battle against the institution of slavery in Missouri 30 years before the Civil War. He was a religious minister who applied the moral lessons of his faith, and he used the Observer newspaper he founded in St. Louis as a pulpit to make his readers aware of the brutality perpetrated against African Americans.

Forced by angry mobs to flee across the river to the free state of Illinois, Lovejoy's calls for abolition became more radical and his dedication to the publication of his paper more resolute. Suffering the destruction of three presses, he eventually lost his life defending a fourth. News of his death sparked the abolitionist movement and helped propel the nation on its inevitable path toward a civil war over the most basic right to human freedom.

On this date it's worth commemorating the start of that short but meaningful life lead by a true American hero.

Afraid to over-react: Is the Sky Falling in?

Honestly, it's not in my nature to over-react. I tend to be cautious in most things. I want everything to work out for the best. I try to be patient and let events resolve themselves before jumping to conclusions, but these are trying times.

It's hard not to feel a bit panicked by the clouds that are gathering on the country's horizons (see Fed Chief Warns of Worse Times in the Economy from the New York Times). The dollar is plummeting as foreign investors seek the safe harbor of more stable currencies. The housing market's overblown bubble is in full burst, and mortgage lenders have a hand out to the Federal government in hopes of a bailout of their improperly hedged bets.

Over-extended homeowners have little expectation of any help from Uncle Sam. The threat of inflation is mounting as the daily cost of basic services continues to climb, and the oil based economy feels the ripples of record breaking petroleum prices. State and local budgets are in perpetual crisis as federal monies are drained by an all-consuming war.

Most Americans don't offer more than a glimpse at the business page, but that's where all of the action is these days as the Federal Reserve Bank pours millions into the market to try to soothe the overheated minds of skittish money changers. The hard-pressed Chairman is doing everything he can to prop up an economy teetering on a foundation of self-deception.

We can't look for leadership from Washington, as our politicians have outfitted themselves in the rosy habit of Pollyanna; preferring to ignore the looming dark omens rather than suffer the fate of Cassandra (the image above is from a painting of the ignored Trojan seer by Evelyn De Morgan).

As we're abandoned by the top-down leaders who cast off their social responsibilities in favor of a threadbare government nakedly in service to their corporate masters, we'll need to build a new foundation from below. Before we can do that, we'll have to overcome the conceptual gaps keeping us from connecting with each other. It's time to trade in our aloofness and cynicism for compassion and hope.

Where I End and You Begin
(The Sky is Falling in.)
by Radiohead

There's a gap in between
There's a gap where we meet
Where I end & you begin
And I'm sorry for us
The dinosaurs roam the earth
The sky turns green
Where I end & you begin
I am up in the clouds
I am up in the clouds
And I can't
& I can't come down
I can watch but
Not take part
Where I end & where you start
Where you you left me alone
You left me alone.
X will mark the place
Like a parting of the waves
Like a house falling into the
sea

I will eat you all alive

And there'll be no more lies

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Umberto D: Toward a social imagination

Continuing to test the accuracy of the recommendation algorithms over at NetFlix, I watched Italian film great Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. It's a classic example of the director's Neorealist style, with its reliance on first time actors (Professor Carlo Battisti in the title role and 15-year-old Maria-Pia Casilio as his maid) and its dedication to portraying a gritty truth.

The story, on its most basic level, follows the pensioner Umberto Domenico Ferrari as he tries to figure out a way to pay his back rent and avoid the threat of eviction posed by his callous landlady. It's an indictment of that society's treatment of its elderly, a problem we're still grappling with as Western demographics take on darker shades of gray, but there's also a more universal criticism of an individualist outlook.

The director described his own film, which he dedicated to the memory of his father, as portraying the breakdown of communication that was occurring in Post-WWII Italy. It starts out in promising fashion with Umberto chanting for an increased pension amid a throng of fellow retirees marching on government offices. The protest devolves into a chaotic retreat when Italian soldiers run off the pensioners because they lack a permit, and Umberto is forced to find his own way, accompanied only by his always faithful dog Flike (who will steal the hearts of all the animal lovers out there).

From there we follow Umberto as he vainly tries to raise the money to stay in his home. Too proud to beg, the old man approaches former friends and co-workers seeking their understanding and a helping hand, but never charity. Each encounter ends in a failure to connect, as the men rush off to their private lives.

Maria, the maid, offers him what help she can, but, pregnant and unmarried, her own position in the house is tenuous. Forced to sell what little he has and even consider the imponderable possibility of giving away Flike, Umberto sinks into a deeper despair. Without spoiling the ending, I can say that De Sica doesn't offer us the type of tidy resolution we find in most Hollywood fare.

It's a very moving depiction of one man's battle against the pervasive selfishness that becomes contagion in a difficult economy; especially within a society that promotes individualistic pursuits over a sense of community even in the best of times. Umberto D, the movie and the pensioner, confronts a poverty of good will as well as that of material want. De Sica holds up a stark mirror to his time (and ours), and the harsh reflection met with some resistance among his contemporary Italians.

The moral and spiritual malaise that De Sica's film depicts arises in large part from the lack of a social imagination. The egocentric inclination of modern society often inhibits our ability to find common cause with the plight of our neighbors. Overly concerned with our own well-being, tricked into believing that prosperity is perpetual, we lack the empathy required to imagine ourselves in the same place as those experiencing more difficult circumstances.

As the cycles of life and the economy play out, we'll need to cultivate that capacity or we'll find ourselves wishing we'd paid closer attention to that most golden of rules: treat others with the same respect and generosity that you would expect from them.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

L'Etranger: Avoiding an absurdist fate

Anticipating the anniversary of Albert Camus' birth on November 7th, I decided to re-visit his short novel L'Étranger (The Stranger) and its disturbing portrait of modern alienation.

Written during one of the bleakest moments in Western history, when Europe seemed on the brink of falling under the brutal rule of Fascism, Camus' work is in form a sparsely worded crime story, but with content informed by a deeply dark philosophical argument.

Considered a quintessentially "absurdist" story, those who have read it will always remember its first lines, which speak to the narrator's apparent indifference:
Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou puet-etre hier, je ne sai pas.
(Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know)
The unsympathetic voice is that of Monsieur Meursault, a man whose first name we never learn, and a character very difficult to understand. The events that flow forward from this pivotal moment of the announcement of his mother's death seem in some sense predestined, but that's an easy conceptual trap to fall into when listening to this retelling by a doomed man mentally retracing his steps.

Within the foggy recollections of his condemned mind, often more aware of the heat and monotony of the fateful moments that propel him toward his end, Meursault can't clearly discern his own motives and emotions. The people around him wait for him to react in a certain way, to feel and believe the things that imbue their world with order and meaning, but in his dedication to a kind of pure metaphysical honesty, he remains always outside those expectations.

Rejecting religion and social custom, he strikes more fear in the hearts of those trying him than the father-killer whose case is being prosecuted at the same time. The human mind can easily grapple with the concepts of good and evil, love and hate, guilt and redemption; but we all recoil from a moment's glance into the depths of utter ambiguity. Society prefers stereotypical villains with clear-cut or ill-willed agendas, rather than the more monstrous prospect of actors who force us to peer with them into the moral abyss of an uncaring universe.

Meursault finds significance in his memory of a Nurse's comments to him during the long and oppressive funeral march:
Elle m'a dit: "Si on va doucement, on risque une insolation. Mais si on va trop vite, on est en transpiration et dans l'église on attrape un chaud et froid." Elle avait raison. Il n'y avait pas d'issue.
(She said, "If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church." She was right. There was no way out.)
It is that sense of hopelessness that pervades Meursault's story, and it makes Camus' novella a very uncomfortable read. In dark times, it's easy to fall victim to an alienating sense of powerlessness. I think it's Meursault's passivity throughout that condemns him, however, and not the fickle and chaotic workings of a meaningless world. The truly noble course to take is the one in which we pursue what is good and just, even without guarantee or solid expectation of success.

Sleepwalking our way through life, making only those choices that fall to us as we bounce from moment to moment side-stepping the obstacles that fate tosses in our path, will inevitably lead us to sadness. We can avoid succumbing to that black trap of meaninglessness by choosing instead to willfully commit ourselves to acts of love and compassion.

Meursault sees only a universal absurdity as he tries to accept the randomly cruel happenstance that led him to tragedy. I choose to believe that our world takes on the shape and meaning we creatively imagine for it. Hope and meaning are intertwined, and Meursault's life has lost both by the end of this tale. I don't know if that was Camus' perspective, but it's what I'll take away from the experience of reading his words.

Note: The English text used here is from the Matthew Ward translation of the book.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Falling back: an autumnal verse

Tonight we turn the clocks back an hour, and invoke a little sooner the crisp and quiet nights of late Autumn. It's a time of shortening days and lengthening shadows, and it puts me in mind of a poem I wrote quite a few years back.

Caught up in the solitude of an empty house, I lay in bed and watched the silhouettes of back-lit branches dance against my walls. There was something magical in the interplay of moonlight, wind and trees at that moment, and I tried to capture the sense of it in the following irregular lines.

Shadowed Box
By Francis Scudellari

This shadowed box of light,
moon projected on my wall,
a moving portrait, screened,
hung above my head,
is my soul
entertainment
as I lie
through the night;
a stick-dance stage upon which
my beloved
ghosts will play.
Now lurking behind folds of cloth,
their jagged silhouettes
will burst forth
only in closed
eye sleep,
to dance in spell-cast dreams,
and beckon me
toward that portal
through which,
if I find my belief,
I might step,
only to be washed away
with morning
and the sun's flooding rays.

Friday, November 02, 2007

King of Masks: Old rules, new roles

Tonight I watched a wonderfully moving 1996 Chinese film called Bian Lian (King of Masks), from which my always interpretive mind was able to make some interesting social connections and distill a small dose of wisdom. I knew very little about the movie before popping the DVD into my player, as I added it to my queue based on a NetFlix generated recommendation, so I was very pleasantly surprised by it (chalk one up to the powers of collaborative filtering).

It's a visually striking and mentally provocative look at gender roles and the limits society places on some members' contributions, to its own detriment. Tradition has its place, but times inevitably arise when we have to break free of a blind commitment to old ways or get pulled down under their weight.

The performances are uniformly good, especially that of the young female lead (not to mention the well-trained monkey sidekick). My very cursory plot summary follows, so if you'd like to embark on the viewing experience with a similarly clean-slated perspective, come back to read the rest of this post later.

The deceptively simple story centers on an aging Wang who very proudly proclaims himself the "King of Masks" as he travels the streets of China performing his dying art of Sichuan — a combination of dance and magic that features a quick changing of faces via sleight of hand. The rigid social rules of his time demand that Wang only pass his craft down to a male heir, but because he lost his only son to illness at age 10 his legacy is endangered. Denied of the possibility for a blood relation, at his wits end, Wang seeks to buy a boy on the black market.

Even that proves a challenge in a society where males are prized and females discarded, but in a bit of seeming serendipity he chances upon an 8 year old child he thinks may be his apprentice. At first, Wang is very affectionate and encouraging to this heir apparent he tenderly calls Gou Wa (roughly translated to "Doggie"). When through circumstance he discovers that Gou Wa is really a little girl, forced to mask her own identity to avoid rejection, the story turns darker and Wang colder.

In his travels Wang befriends a famous actor named Liang who sings the female parts in operas, adding to the gender bending and role playing themes of the film. Liang is best known for his portrayal of a self-sacrificing princess, who upon death becomes the redemptive Buddhist figure of Bodhisattva. Wang takes Gou Wa to see Liang's performance in that role, and its a foreshadowing of her own part to play in Wang's life.

Through her extreme filial dedication and selflessness, Gou Wa overcomes Wang's chauvinism and proves herself a worthy heir to his art. The King of Masks is forced by misfortune to recognize that the only way he can salvage his legacy is by renouncing the outdated and senseless obligations of tradition, and embracing a new possibility informed by his love of Gou Wa: the Queen of Masks.

It may not seem that we have much to learn from a story set in the tradition-bound and superstition-clouded world of 1930s China, but The King of Masks is an elegant metaphor for the stark choice we too face. We have our own customs and attitudes that are shaped more by a slavish obedience to the past than the forward-thinking compassion necessary to preserve our highest ideals. We can continue to blindly observe self-defeating practices that risk a lost legacy, or we can break free of those limiting rules and redefine our social roles to encourage the greatest contributions from all of us.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Dia de Los Muertos: Honoring my loved ones

It may not be fashionable in these times of creeping xenophobia, but I've always admired the celebration of Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) that takes place on this date throughout Latin America ... and with our changing demographics, increasingly here in the US.

At the core of the festivities is the honoring of loved ones who have passed on, and that's a tradition that most Americans, including myself, neglect far too much. Our society has always overly concerned itself with the present and future, at the expense of reconciling its past. That's understandable for a country that prizes assimilation above the preservation of cultural identity, but much is lost in the forgetting.

To make personal amends and lead by example, I'd like to use the occasion to recognize three of my guiding spirits. In this space, I'll construct a virtual altar at which I'll try to feed the memory of my adored dead with loving words. The joyous celebration of the holiday views death not as an ending but as the next stage of human existence. By invoking the spirits of our ancestors, we keep their energy alive, and I know that each of these three people still exist very vividly in my heart and thoughts.
  • My grandfather Anthony was a quiet, kind and patient man. He was dedicated to his family and learned to adapt himself to whatever profession would put food on the table during the hard years of the Great Depression. He valued the weight of his words and didn't use them capriciously. He was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. I miss the sweetness of his smile.

  • My grandmother Rosa was a woman small in stature but big in heart and intellect. She took great pride in her Italian heritage, and highly prized the benefits of formal education. She was fiercely independent by nature, but sadly limited by the circumstances of the time and place of her birth. I'll always remember the brilliant sparkle in her eyes whenever she greeted me with a hug, and the passion with which she discussed politics.

  • My father, Tony, was a man of strong convictions. He was very loyal to his family and his faith, and expected us to be equally dedicated. He had a sharp mind and enjoyed a good intellectual argument, but he also loved to kick back and watch a big game or bout. He felt nothing was worth having if it wasn't earned, and made sure to teach us the important lesson of self-reliance. He wasn't quick to anger, but could get very passionate when provoked. In many ways I'll always measure myself against him.

They've each greatly influenced me genetically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually, and I hope that I leave as lasting an impact on my friends and family. I wouldn't be the person I am today, for better and worse, without them. Although I have to find my own way in this world, I thank them for the lessons they've left with me, and aspire to honor them with all I do going forward.

Note: The images in this post are taken from the amazing art work of my cousin Jen Blazina. The top piece features the wedding photo of my grandparents (Anthony and Rosa), and the lower one that of my mother and father (Marina and Tony). You can see a wider range of Jen's pieces on her website at JenBlazina.com.