Monday, December 28, 2015

It's All Greek to Me

The ancient Greeks had themselves a badass religion.

In their origin story, a few primary divine beings emerge from nothingness.  One of them, a female named Gaia (the Earth), needs no male assistance to give birth to Uranus (the Sky).  Uranus then proceeds to fertilize his mother, and from that union the Titans are born, six males and six females.

(Take that, Mary, Gaia immaculately conceived the father of her own children!)

Gaia eventually gets fed up with Uranus, and convinces one of her Titan children, Cronus, to castrate him, which he does, with gusto.  Cronus then becomes the ruler of the Titans, with his sister Rhea as consort.  But wait, there’s more.  So much more.

Cronus feared that one of his children would betray him just as he had betrayed his own father.  So each time his sister / consort Rhea gave birth, Cronus snatched up the baby and ate it.  Rhea eventually got tired of this, and so when she gave birth to Zeus she hid the newborn, and wrapped a stone in a baby’s blanket.  The trick worked; Cronus ate the stone thinking it was the new baby, and Zeus was saved.

Once Zeus grew up, he gave Cronus a drugged-laced drink which caused Cronus to vomit, and out came all of Rhea’s other children (still alive, of course) as well as the stone.  Zeus then challenged Cronus to a duel, with the prize being the kingship of the gods.  Zeus (and his thrown-up siblings) were victorious, and Cronus and the rest of the Titans were banished to Tartarus (the Abyss).  That is how Zeus became King of the Gods.

Just one more, this time rather than paraphrase I’ll quote the Wikipedia article directly:

Zeus was plagued by the same concern and, after a prophecy that the offspring of his first wife, Metis, would give birth to a god "greater than he"—Zeus swallowed her. She was already pregnant with Athena, however, and she [Athena] burst forth from his head—fully-grown and dressed for war.

The enthralling narratives go on and on.  Greek mythology is vast, complex and fascinating, and many of its themes resonate in “modern” religions.  Today, we study the religion of the ancient Greeks (as we study other ancient religions) in order to gain insight into their civilization, but we don’t think of it as sacred, or written by gods, or anything more than a collection of stories made up by people trying to explain the world around them.

Nobody sees the irony in this?  What is the difference between Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. and Greek mythology?  What makes monotheism somehow more “advanced” than polytheism?  Isn’t it really just another, less interesting, version of the same thing?  Will we ever learn to accept that there are things we just don’t understand (yet), instead of making up complex, irrational explanations that don’t even make sense within their own constructs?

Or, perhaps more likely, will the human beings of three thousand years from now study our religions, considering them the mythology of a primitive people, while believing in their own, “new and improved” fairy tales?

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


A funny thing happened last Sunday night.

During the Miss Universe pageant telecast, master of ceremonies Steve Harvey made the kind of mistake anyone who has ever spoken in public has nightmares about.  The field had been whittled down to two contestants, Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines.  It was time for Mr. Harvey to announce which one of them was voted first runner-up by the judges, and which one was voted the new Miss Universe.

“Miss Universe 2015 is…..,” Mr. Harvey says, pausing for effect, “...Colombia!!!”  

The requisite wild applause, crying and hugging ensue.  Miss Philippines, Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, is gently nudged aside while Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutierrez-Arévalo, is sashed, and then crowned by her jubilant predecessor, Paulina Vega, also from Colombia.  Ms. Gutierrez stands on center stage smiling and waving for about a minute and a half.  Then, the unthinkable happens.

Mr. Harvey walks back on stage, looking contrite.  “OK folks,” he says, “uh… there’s… I have to apologize.”  Ms. Gutierrez gives him a sideways glance.  Mr. Harvey continues, “the first runner-up is Colombia.”  Long pause.  “Miss Universe 2015 is Philippines!!!”  

In what must be one of the most awkward moments in television history, a bewildered Ms. Wurtzbach haltingly walks back to center stage to stand next to a stunned Ms. Gutierrez, while Mr. Harvey implores, “Miss Philippines, take your first walk as Miss Universe.”  

At this point Ms. Gutierrez still sports the Miss Universe sash and crown.  Neither young woman knows what to do.  Then, Ms. Vega, the 2014 winner who minutes ago crowned her countrywoman, comes back on stage and stands between Ms. Gutierrez and Ms. Wurtzbach, placing her arms around their waists.  In what stands out as a sweet gesture of compassion amid the surrounding madness, Ms. Vega caresses Ms. Gutierrez’s lower back.  The three women stand there while Mr. Harvey takes full responsibility for the error, explaining that the card he was handed lists Miss Philippines as the winner, and he simply read the wrong country.  The statuesque Ms. Gutierrez then gallantly crouches a bit so that Ms. Vega can reach up, remove the crown from her head, and place it on Ms. Wurtzbach.

You can watch the entire thing unfold here.

Ugliness ensued.  Racial slurs were spewed out at Mr. Harvey, who is black.  All sorts of conspiracy theories were bandied about: the teleprompter said Colombia while the card said Philippines, Mr. Harvey switched cards backstage, it was all a publicity stunt.  Colombians everywhere cried foul. Even Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, who certainly should know better, said in a radio interview: “To me, as a Colombian, she is still Miss Universe.  They put the crown on her head. The photos are there to prove it.”  Really Mr. Santos?

The uproar surrounding Mr. Harvey’s gaffe is repulsive.  Yet the conspiracy theorists do have a point: had Mr. Harvey read the card properly, I, for one, would have not even known that the Miss Universe pageant was taking place at all.  But what the publicity surrounding the incident did was remind me that here we are, in 2015, and we still hold contests where we parade young women around like livestock and judge them primarily on their physical appearance.  How can we possibly justify such unabashed objectification of women?  How can we send young girls everywhere such a misguided message?  

So, last Sunday night, a mistake made at a flagrantly misogynistic event elicited racist and xenophobic reactions.

I guess it wasn’t that funny after all.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Welcome to Canada

Today’s Toronto Star:

On behalf of the Star and its readers, we say ‘Welcome to Canada - Ahlan wa sahlan’ to the first refugees arriving this week from Syria.

Welcome to Canada.  Ahlan wa sahlan.

You’re with family now.  And your presence among us makes our Christmas season of peace and joy just that much brighter.

The people of Toronto are honoured to greet the very first group of 25,000 Syrians who will be arriving in this country in the next few months, and who have chosen to make a new life here. It’s been a long trek, but you are no longer refugees. Your days of being strangers in a strange land are over.

You are permanent residents of Canada now, with all the rights and protections and possibilities that confers.

You’ll find the place a little bigger than Damascus or Aleppo, and a whole lot chillier. But friendly for all that. We’re a city that cherishes its diversity; it’s our strength. Canadians have been watching your country being torn apart, and know that you’ve been through a terrifying, heartbreaking nightmare. But that is behind you now. And we’re eager to help you get a fresh start.

By the way, don’t be fooled by the gentle weather. You’ll need those parkas, mittens and boots before very long. And the kids will need skis, snowboards, ice skates and toboggans, too. We don’t endure winter. We throw ourselves into it.

And while you’ll find plenty of folks who speak Arabic, we have our own dialect that you may hear on the streets. Our city, Toronto, is pronounced Tronna. The hockey team is the Leafs (or Buds), not the Maple Leaves. The Red Rocket is our transit system. The local term for a loser is hoser. We’re cheezed when someone annoys us. We make a Timmy’s run to buy a coffee. And we end every sentence with, eh.
So that’s pretty much it for now, eh.

Welcome home.

That was supposed to be us.  That is who we are supposed to be.

Instead, here’s how the the Republican presidential candidates stand on the Syrian refugee issue, based on this summary from

Donald Trump would not only ban Syrian refugees from coming to America, but also deport the ones who are already here.

Ben Carson would cut off federal funding for any program that would help Syrian refugees resettle in the United States.

Marco Rubio believes the United States won’t be able to take more refugees.  “It’s not that we don’t want to,” Rubio said on ABC’s This Week. “It’s that we can’t.”

Ted Cruz plans to introduce legislation banning all Muslim refugees from Syria from entering America. Christian refugees from Syria, however, would be allowed.

Jeb Bush believes America should refocus its efforts on taking in Christians instead of Muslims.

Rand Paul believes it’s “misplaced humanitarianism” to continue accepting refugees into the United States in light of the Paris terror attacks, and said he would be introducing a bill to block visas for travelers from “countries with a high risk of terrorism.”

John Kasich believes that Syrian refugees shouldn’t be allowed to resettle in the United States.  

Carly Fiorina believes that the U.S. has done its fair share in terms of humanitarian aid.

Mike Huckabee advocates closing our borders and placing refugees in “encampments” abroad.

Chris Christie has said that If elected he would not accept Syrian refugees into the United States — not even “orphans under the age of five.”

Instead of extending a helping hand, we want to pull up the proverbial ladder behind us.  We got ours, so screw everyone else.  Terrorism already turned us into a surveillance state, and our fear is slowly peeling away our humanity, exposing our primordial tribalism and xenophobia.  We are playing right into the terrorists’ hands.

As the Republican candidates sell us selfishness under the false guise of self-protection, and the Democrats hem and haw, I’m beginning to think this proud lady would feel more comfortable in Toronto Harbour.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Scenes from an American Supermarket

Yesterday I was at the Publix (Where Shopping is a Pleasure) checkout line.  The gentleman ahead of me purchased four items.  One of the items was a pouch of prepared seafood salad.  When the cashier announced the gentleman’s total (around $8 or $9), he glanced at the display in front of him, said, “The seafood salad is $2.99.  You charged me $3.99,” and glared at the cashier as if she had kicked him in the groin.

I thought about taking my wallet out and handing the guy a dollar bill to defuse the situation, but reconsidered, thinking it likely I would have enraged him even more.  But this being Publix, where slogans don’t lie, the cashier neither challenged the gentleman’s assertion, nor responded to his glare.  Instead, she kindly asked him to please stand by, left her post at the register, and made her way to the shelf where the pouches of prepared seafood salad live.  The gentleman fumed, and those of us behind him in line looked on in amusement.  

About two minutes later, the cashier returned, holding up two pouches of seafood salad.  “Sir,” she said, “the item you selected is priced at $3.99.  The one to the left of it on the shelf is priced at $2.99.  Is that the one you wanted?”  “Yes,” the man replied.  Just “yes.”  No “I’m sorry, that was my mistake.”  No acknowledgement to those waiting in line behind him that he felt any remorse for causing them a delay.  No, this gentleman (I use the term loosely) could not have cared less about making a mistake, compounding it by acting petty and mule headed, and affecting others in a negative way.  He looked on impassively as the cashier re-scanned and credited him for the originally selected yet now unwanted salad, and scanned and charged him for the lower priced one she had brought.

The gentleman’s appalling behavior was no match for the cashier’s remarkable poise.

Today I found myself again at Publix, at checkout line number 8, behind a couple of women with overflowing shopping carts.  Realizing I had a long wait ahead, I took out my phone to catch up on the news.  

Next thing I know, the woman behind me in line says, “Sir, they just opened register 9.”

Now, I was totally absorbed in the news and oblivious to what was going on around me.  As it turns out, the woman ahead of me was already in the process of loading her purchases onto the conveyor belt, so I was next in line.  Although the woman behind me could have gone over to the newly opened register herself, and I would not have been the wiser, she chose to alert me, for my benefit and to her detriment, because I was next in line.  Because it was the right thing to do.

So one day, poise, elegance, and grace utterly defeat boorishness.  The very next day, preemptive kindness and a sense of fair play appear out of nowhere.

Pleasure indeed.  Somewhere, George Jenkins is smiling.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Who Are We?

During World War II, the United States forcibly relocated and incarcerated between 110,000 and 220,000 people of Japanese ancestry.  More than 60% of those forced into so-called internment camps were U.S. citizens.  Wikipedia (edit mine):

Such incarceration was applied unequally… ...more than 110,000 Japanese Americans, nearly all who lived on the West Coast, were forced into interior camps, but in Hawaii, where the 150,000-plus Japanese Americans comprised over one-third of the population, only 1,200 to 1,800 were interned. The forced relocation and incarceration has been determined to have resulted more from racism and discrimination among white people on the West Coast, rather than any military danger posed by the Japanese Americans.

The internment of Japanese Americans was an embarrassing chapter in U.S. history, and an affront to our national values.  We do not judge people by their race, religion or ethnicity.  This is not who we are, we want to say, and actually did say (again, WIkipedia, edit mine):

In 1980… ...President Jimmy Carter opened an investigation to determine whether the decision to put Japanese Americans into internment camps had been justified by the government. He appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to investigate the camps. The Commission's report, titled Personal Justice Denied, found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty at the time and, concluding the incarceration had been the product of racism, recommended that the government pay reparations to the survivors. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 to each individual camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." The U.S. government eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to 82,219 Japanese Americans who had been interned and their heirs.

“Race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”  Sounds familiar?  It should, if you’ve listened to Donald Trump lately.


Shockingly, Trump told Yahoo News that he would consider requiring Muslim-Americans to register with a government database, or worse, mandating that they carry special identification cards that note their faith.

Fear brings out the worst in all of us, and the worst among us harness that fear for their own benefit.  It’s not that hard to do; in fact, it’s the easy way out.  When bad things happen, the easy thing to do is to unfairly point a finger at ready-made targets.  The difficult thing to do is to defend those unfairly targeted.  Thanks to Islamic extremist terrorists, we live in fear.  But can that fear compare to the that felt by law-abiding American and European Muslims, who not only have terrorism to be afraid of, but also that many of their countrymen consider them treacherous just because of their religion?  

As is his wont, Aaron Sorkin nails it, this time through President Andrew Shepherd in “The American President,” referring to his opponent in the presidential election:

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.  And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it.  He is interested in two things, and two things only, making you afraid of it, and telling you who to blame for it.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.

Among many qualified applicants, Donald Trump gets the nod for closest current incarnation of Bob Rumson.  

Ohio Gov. and presidential candidate John Kasich released a campaign ad last week featuring Col. Tom Moe, a former Vietnam POW.  In the ad, Moe adapts a poem from the 1950s by the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller into a commentary on Donald Trump.   Niemöller’s original poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Moe’s adaptation:

You might not care if Donald Trump says Muslims must register with the government,
Because you’re not one.
And you might not care if Donald Trump says he’s going to round up all the Hispanic immigrants,
Because you’re not one.
And you might not care if Donald Trump says it’s OK to rough up black protesters,
Because you’re not one.
And you might not care if Donald Trump wants to suppress journalists,
Because you’re not one.
But think about this: If he keeps going, and he actually becomes president,
he might just get around to you.
And you better hope that there’s someone left to help you.

Yet as I write this, Donald Trump easily leads the field of Republican presidential candidates in the polls, with an average of 27.5% of the vote, and would narrowly lose a hypothetical general election against Hillary Clinton, garnering 43.2% of the vote.  His racist, sexist, bigoted, exclusionary message has somehow resonated with many Americans.

Is this who we are?

“Race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”  All over again.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Movie Review: Steve Jobs

I have thoroughly enjoyed Aaron Sorkin’s writing through the years.  Besides being a brilliant playwright and screenwriter, Sorkin seems to always “get it.”  Whether “it” is how a late night TV sports show operates, or the inner workings of the White House, or “Code Reds.”  Or a late night live comedy show. Sorkin is able to somehow grok the essence of any environment or situation and astutely present it in a compelling manner.

In his fictional writing he creates such perfectly crafted characters that the actors portraying them instinctively and seemingly effortlessly become them, and the viewers watching them instinctively and effortlessly identify with them, admire them, and love them.  I’d like my President to be Andrew Shepherd, or Josiah Bartlet.  I’d love to have friends like Matt Albie and Danny Tripp.  Or Jeremy Goodwin.  And so on.  Sorkin’s characters are endearing, enduring, and unforgettable.

When asked to recreate non-fictional characters, such as in “The Social Network,” Sorkin is somehow able to make them ring true.  Even though every single scene in his Oscar-winning adapted screenplay is a pure fabrication (as was the case with the book it was based on), watching them makes us feel like we understand the characters and their motivations.  We feel like we know all about Facebook’s origin story.  Even though we don’t.

When I first heard that Sorkin took on the adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography into a screenplay, I was beyond myself with excitement.  My favorite screenwriter, writing about a subject dear to my heart.  I couldn’t wait to see it.  Yesterday, I saw it.

And I was uncomfortable during every minute of it.

Steve Jobs” is, without question, a major accomplishment as a motion picture.  Using nothing but character interactions and dialog, Sorkin and director Danny Boyle crafted a dramatic tour de force.  The writing is crisp, dense, and meaningful, and the actors slip into their characters brilliantly (Kate Winslet’s in-and-out Polish accent notwithstanding).  The problem is, those characters, and the scenes they find themselves in, simply don’t ring true, at least to anyone even somewhat acquainted with the facts.  

For once, Aaron Sorkin didn’t “get it.”

As Sorkin and Boyle have pointed out ad nauseum, “Steve Jobs” was not meant to be a biopic.  It is not a photograph, they have said, it is a painting.  Like “The Social Network,” “Steve Jobs” is made up of scenes that never took place.  But unlike “The Social Network,” “Steve Jobs” feels as artificial as it is.

Granted, I may feel this way simply because I am unfamiliar with the details of Facebook’s true origin story, and quite familiar with those of Apple’s.  Or maybe Sorkin nailed the essence of Mark Zuckerberg to the point that the “painting” came alive despite its infidelity with the truth.  Regardless, although “Steve Jobs” is compelling as a movie in a vacuum, it fails to capture the essence of Steve Jobs, the man, or of Apple, Inc., the company.  Maybe it would work as a film à clef, but then it should not have been named “Steve Jobs.”  “Citizen Kane” was not named “Citizen Hearst” after all.

Aaron Sorkin’s work has always made me feel comfortable, and I have always cared about his characters, fictional and nonfictional.  But, again, I was uncomfortable during every minute of “Steve Jobs,”  because I knew that everything was wrong.  And the problem was not that it was a painting instead of a photograph.  The problem was that the painting was flawed, misleading and incomplete.

As I indicated, I’m not familiar with Facebook’s true origin story.  The fabricated scenes in “The Social Network” rang true to me, whether due to my ignorance of the details, or because the scenes captured the essence of the subject matter.  “Steve Jobs,” failed to capture the essence of my personal understanding of Steve Jobs, and, because of that, I was unable to suspend disbelief at the egregious liberties the movie took with the facts. It made me uncomfortable to see all of the personal  interactions taking place in the minutes before product announcements, even though I knew it was a storytelling device, because not only did they not happen, they are implausible.  It made me uncomfortable to see John Sculley interacting with Jobs after 1985, because I know he never did.  It made me uncomfortable to see Steve Wozniak imploring Jobs to acknowledge the Apple II team in 1998, since Woz left Apple in 1985, and the Apple II was discontinued in 1993.  It made me uncomfortable to see NeXT so inaccurately portrayed as nothing but a ruse designed by Jobs to get back to Apple.  And it made me uncomfortable that the movie ended without even considering the last 14 years of Jobs’s life, which perhaps would have represented the perfect counterbalance to the 14 years portrayed in “Steve Jobs.”

Unlike any other Sorkin work I am aware of, “Steve Jobs” failed to capture the essence of the subject matter.  While a compelling movie, “Steve Jobs” is a gross misrepresentation of Steve Jobs.  

And that is unfair to everyone involved.