Thursday, December 18, 2008

Inauguration Outrage

There's been a good deal of blow back from the LGBT community over hater Rick Warren being asked to lead the invocation at his inauguration. Warren actively campaigned for Prop 8 in California and has said some nasty things about gay people; he's also strongly anti-choice.

Since President Obama's election (for which I put in a fair amount of time and legwork) I've been generally disinclined towards all the "tell Obama he must do x." People are demanding a great deal of the President-elect, especially in light of the compounding disaster that has been the previous administration. So I've been wary of signing anything to put pressure on Obama. I want to let him have at least 100 days to do what he wants to do, and I want to live up to my commitment not just to get him elected, but to push through his agenda. I trust him, which is why I worked so hard for him.

That said, this incident gives me pause. I like that Obama is trying to bridge gaps and work with people, but what if Warren asks him to delay repeal of DOMA, or not to rescind the global gag rule? Where does outreach end and capitulation begin. Via Bush and (until 2006) Warren and his ilk had control of the government and used it; they never gave an inch. And while the Republicans' despicable tactics are beneath Obama (and are probably what got him elected, in part), he should by no means give away the farm after he won such a deceive victory.

Ultimately the invocation at inauguration is symbol. If it proves to be a symbol of Obama's ability to unite our country, then it will have proved to be a great thing. If it turns out to be a symbol of his willingness to sell out the LGBT community, then it will have deserved it's denunciations. The problem with history is that by then it will be too late.

Also, on a related note but getting less attention, what's up with Obama having John Roberts swear him in. The guy's like totally conservative ;)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Trendsetter?

Barack Obama will be taking a train to Washington.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Repo Opera

They say it's impossible to engineer a cult classic, and in a way "they" are right. The classic example of this is Shock Treatment, the disastrous sequel to Rocky Horror Picture Show. That said, I saw Repo! The Genetic Opera this past Thursday, and it may have succeeded where others failed. Or, at least, it is what a cult classic should be: completely over-the-top and extremely appealing to a very small group. For me, the presence of Anthony Stewart Head was enough to bring me out, though the more I learned about the film the more excited I was. The sci-fi plot, the dystopian sets, and the over-the-top costumes, add up to make a really fun movie.

I had wondered why Kansas City, not the biggest market, was playing this movie when, say, Boston wasn't. As it turns out the director, Darren Lynn Bousman, is from the area. His parents, his eighth grade drama teacher (who he cites as his inspiration for casting him in Jesus Christ Superstar led to his interest in rock operas), and several friends were there, which contributed to the sold-out audience. Bousman is best known for directing Saws II-IV. These films are part of what are sometimes criticised as being "torture porn," so called because they create flimsy plot lines as excuses to show extremely graphic violence. While the first Saw film is seen as the start of this newest incarnation of the trend (although I recently heard a film critic cite Passion of the Christ, which came out months earlier, as starting the trend), the tradition of extreme graphic violence goes back decades. 

Personally, such movies don't interest me, and I haven't seen any of the Saw movies, or either Hostel. Some would characterize this movie as being in that tradition, but I would disagree. Yes, there are several scenes which involve the "repossession" of GeneCo organs from a live person, but there is always warning and they are often played for laughs. It isn't by any stretch of the imagination a horror movie. Indeed, the lack of horror the characters exhibit at the gruesome killings (except, of course, the victims) is part of the point. 

Which brings me to my next point, which has been all but overlooked. I think the movie deals with some really interesting issues. It's not preachy, but it raises some real question about our consumer society. It isn't that hard to imagine a future where elective transplant surgery becomes the new trend. And when the Repo Man sings (as he's cutting up a living person) "It's a thankless job / but somebody's got to do it / ... / No one ever thanks me when I'm done / How self-absorbed people can be," I was reminded of an interview I heard with the workers who assembled the toxic Katrina trailers complaining that no one thanked them for their work.

Another great theme is Shilo's (arguably the protagonist) struggle with her genetics, and whether or not they determine her fate. In a way, genetics are the modern scientific incarnation of fate, and Shilo must struggle against her genetics and her fate.

Good science fiction isn't about the future, it's about the present. Orson Wells' War of the Worlds wasn't about aliens invading, it was about the tensions in Europe building towards war. Similarly, Repo is about the way in which marketing and industry have invaded every part of our lives. It succeeds and in that way is the best of the genre.

I guess what I probably like most about this film is how post-genreic it is (I invented a term). It is a rock opera, in that the music never stops, but the music isn't always rock. Some of it is really operatic, some of it is various genres of rock, and some of it is more show-tuney. And while the setting is science fiction, the plot is more evocative of the soap operas that are the genetic opera's predecessor. And the back stories are told via graphic novel style cuts. It all fits together nicely.

In conclusion, ask your local indie theater owner to bring Repo! The Genetic Opera to town, and when she does, go see it. I think you'll actually enjoy the show.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

National Rally Against Prop 8

This Saturday, across the country, there will be a rally against Prop 8. I had a long conversation with a close friend who worked extremely hard against the California marriage ban, and was rightly devastated when it passed. He expressed some legitimate criticism for these events and the ones that happened previously. The Proposition has already passed, and many of these people (myself included) should have worked before the election to stop Prop 8 from passing. 

On the other hand, I think these demonstrations will show the very real frustration at the lack of progress on LGBT issues. ENDA (even after trans Americans had been sold out) lingered and died in the Democratic Senate. In two years democrats made no effort to overturn DADT or DOMA in the legislature. Barack Obama has promised action on all three, and yet did very little to help with Prop 8, even after his voice was used in Yes on 8 robocalls. 

I do have real hope that in the next 2, 4, and 8 years we are going to see real strides towards equality and prosperity for all Americans, including LGBT Americans. But it can't hurt to make sure we're seen and heard and that we do everything we can to help Obama change our country.

So please turn out at your local event if you can. Below are some links:

The national web site for the event, with a lot of information that isn't always updated.

Also, the Kansas City rally Facebook event page, which has links to most of the Facebook event pages for the rest of the rallies and tend to be a more quickly updated.

Finally, Keith Oberman has an interesting commentary on the passage of Prop 8. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sad and Hopeful

What at this point, to me, seems so unfair is how unhappy I felt Tuesday night. The election of Barack Obama is one of the most important events in my life, if not the most important, and it was a victory in which I invested more time and energy than any election so far. The people in the Kansas City office are the most incredible collection of folks I've every had the plesure of getting to know, and I believe President Obama will bring us together will literally save our country. His overcoming of the racial barriers is incredible, and has already made great strides towards improving our nation's sadly impoverished reputation throughout the world. And Obama's policies and positions are highly in sync with mine, perhaps more so than any viable candidate in American history.

So why am I sad? I'm sad because it seems that Prop 8 will win. After a long and brutally fought (especially nasty on the Yes side) campaign, there's little left to say. If Barack Obama's election is democracy at it's best, then the success of Prop 8 is democracy at it's worst; it is tyranny of the majority. A well-funded, entrenched group used fear-mongering and demagoguery to strip the rights of a minority of citizens.

While this blow is staggering, I can't help but be optimistic. There is a huge age gap in support for same-sex marriage, and history is on our side. As Dr. King said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. We have a long fight ahead, but there is a clear light at the end of this tunnel.

Back to Blog

My friend Jackie (shout out to Seth and Jackie's Swiss Watching blog) tells me I should be blogging more, and now that the election is over, it seems as good a time as any to recommit to writing every day. I never did blog about the end of my trip, but I can't help but notice that my previous blog about the RNC was a bit precient, when I mentioned she was implicitly contrasting those who work with city dwellers versus those who serve "real Americans" (she went on to be far more explicit in the contrast).

I think I'll posts on the elections seperately.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ask Brad and Janet, they're Republicans, they'll lie

I know, I haven't posted for DC or Norfolk, and it's been weeks. I'm sorry. But if I don't post when I feel the need to, I'll never come back to this blog. I caught very little of  last night's convention, and all of it was unpleasant. The Republicans were, as expected, mean spirited, intellectually dishonest ("drilling will lower gas prices"), and cynically hypocritical ("country first...and now the random governor who happens to lack a Y chromosome for VP"). But what I found most shocking was when Mike Huckabee (I believe, it's not in his script so he must have added it at the last minutes), said something like "I'm sick of hearing Sarah Palin called inexperienced. She got more votes in the election for mayor of Wasilla than Joe Biden got in the whole primary." 

The crowd went wild, which struck me as doubly odd, because it was perhaps the most absurd claim Huckabee has ever made, exceeding even Creationism and Supply-Side Economics. First of all, this is clearly untrue. A cursory search reveals that Biden got well over 60,000 votes in delegate primaries not counting Florida and Michigan, where he got over 17,000 more. By contrast, the city of Wasilla in a census just a year later, was found to have less than 6,000 people, and she received less than 1,000 votes in the election (which still constituted more than 70% of the vote).

Second, the claim that votes somehow equal experience is equally absurd. By that logic, David Cook (guy from American Idol) should be president, since he got some 54 million votes (more than Bush received in 2000).

This disregard for the truth is appropriate, in a way, as the Republicans seem to be the party of willful ignorance. Sarah Palin doesn't "believe" global warming is caused by humans, which is like not believing in Haley's Comet or the moon landing. The same is true with abstinence-only education. If kids don't learn about sex, they won't have sex. As for research that shows it doesn't work that's not important. The good kids won't have sex, statistics be damned.

Many before have observed the double standard that would be applied if the daughter of a democrat did you-know-what (I completely agree with Obama that families are off limits, so will not discuss this again). But the level of attack from Palin was really vicious and mean spirited and, again, hypocritical. You're attacking Obama for being a community organizer? Three public jobs ago Sarah Palin was a beauty queen (or PTA president, if you count that as a job). If this is really about putting country first, she should celebrate Obama's service. The undertone, of course, is that he was serving urban people, not real Americans.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Weekday Vegetarian

In a conversation with my cousin last night, we both decided to be weekday vegetarians. That is to say, we will not eat meat, poultry, fish, etc. from Monday morning until Friday night (but will eat meat at shabbat dinner on Friday nights).

This is something I've been thinking about for a long time, and feel good having committed to doing. In light of my no-flying, it seems a small step, but on the other hand I've always had trouble turning down food. I hope this is successful.

The primary reasoning behind the decision was environmental, but moral and health concerns also factored in to it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

In Manhattan

I arrived in Manhattan on Sunday evening, and took the subway to the Columbia University area in the upper west side. I stayed with a friend from college, Adam Levine, and was able that evening to see some other people I hadn't had the chance to see in some time. In the morning I went to Penn Station where I met my friends from school Seth and Jackie.

Seth and Jackie are moving to Switzerland for a couple of years so I wanted to see them before they go. Right now they're staying with Jackie's parents in Livingston, New Jersey, which is where I visited them. Monday we went back to Livingston and Jackie's dad cooked dinner.

On Tuesday, we went into New York midday and went to the Tenement Museum. However, the museum doesn't have a general exhibit, just some guided tours, and by the time we reached the museum the ones that would finish in time to make dinner and our show were all sold out. Instead we browsed the gift shop then walked around the Lower East Side. We walked around and found Guss' Pickles, an apparently famous pickle place. The pickles were good, and we continued to walk around the area. We also went to a delicious kinish place and had egg creams, and finally to Curry Hill, to a kosher, vegetarian Indian restaurant.


After dinner, we went to Times Square to see Spring Awakening. It was a really great show, and enjoyed seeing it, though I don't feel like I have any especially insightful observations about it, so I'll end the post here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cambridge/Cape Cod

I haven't posted since I got to Cambridge, the longest I've gone so far without posting. I think this is in part because I have been in Harvard Square where I lived for four years, and in Cape Cod where I have visited for almost 20 summers (writing that phrase made me feel old). There hasn't been the same sense of discovery, of finding new things.

Dark Knight was a great movie, but I'm shocked that it got a PG-13 rating. The last vestiges of respect I had for the MPAA are gone.

I found out about Pandora Radio, which is pretty cool.

And I had a great time at the Cape. I was really nice to spend time with my grandparents, aunt and uncles, and cousins. I went to a couple of the Cape Cod League baseball games with my grandmother, which are a lot of fun. The players are college students, and there's an old-fashioned, upbeat sense of competition and sportsmanship that feels more like some kind of fictional ideal then what baseball has become.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

When the Levees Broke

Wow.

I watched Spike Lee’s four-part documentary about Hurricane Katrina on the train. It is among the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen, and it is absolutely the duty of every American to watch. Lee deals with every major aspect of the disaster (up to the time when it was made, around the first anniversary), but not based on how much coverage it got. “Heckuvah job” and “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” each garnered only a few minutes, while a number of incidents that never made the main stream media were covered in much greater detail.

Buy it. Rent it. Borrow it from me if I’m on my way to see you. However you get a hold of it, see this movie.

On the Train Again

I was scheduled to leave on the MegaBus from Minneapolis to Chicago on Sunday night. However, upon finding the bus stop, we discovered it had the combined sketchiness of an abandoned warehouse, a secluded parking garage, and an isolated underpass. As a result I decided (with the encouragement of my parents) to spend the night in Minneapolis and take the Empire Builder in the morning. I booked the train and the room while we were at dinner, and in the morning, took a cab to the train station. The cabbie drove me to what appeared to be a light rail stop near the stadium and announced, “this is the train station.” I informed he I needed the Amtrak station, and he told me that it was all right, we’d get there in time, but that everyone knew that this was the train station. If he was so sure, he wouldn’t have announced it (in 4 years taking cabs at college, I never had a driver announce a location when we reached it), and if he wasn’t sure, it would have been nice for him to check. If you got into a cab, at a hotel, in New York, and said, “the airport,” I imagine the driver would ask if you were going to JFK or La Guardia. Anyway, I got on the Builder just as it was departing, and it was a scenic, if dull ride. I got to Chicago with a couple of hours to spare, rather than 13, depriving me of the use of the storage lockers that use finger print scanning technology and had (from my informal study) a success rate of somewhere around 40%. Next I boarded the Capitol Limited, and rode from Chicago to Pittsburgh, the City of Brotherly Discord (just kidding, no disrespect to Pittsburg). From there I caught the Pennsylvanian to Philadelphia, and from there I got on the Amtrak regional. In total it’s about as long as the Southwest Chief, though in this case on 4 different trains. In a way, it’s nice to break it up, though it was tough having to get up and change trains at 5:30 in the morning, and made Tuesday a very long day (more than 18 hours). Still, I made it to my friend's apartment near Harvard Square, safe and sound.

What’s been remarkable is not the differences in different legs of the journey but the consistency along the way (although cocktails went up from $5 to $6 somewhere between Chicago and Philadelphia). Though in many ways the Northeast Regional couldn’t be more different than the Empire Builder, there is a distinct feeling of train-i-ness that connects them. There is a comforting inevitability about a train, on a set track, headed for a location, not to be diverted. It’s comforting it what ever more seems like an uncertain world.

In Chicago, we passed alongside a train that had probably 100 large box cars with small holes, which were filled with cars (automobiles) and trucks. I’m used to seeing those on trailers, not trains. On the train to Philadelphia, we pulled aside for a freight train that had, among other things, about a dozen flat cars with truck trailers on them. These seem like things that previously would have simply be transported by truck before the sharp rise in the price of gas. There’s been discussion of increased ridership on the train, and more funding. The snack car attendant on the Pennsylvanian said he was running out of food. And the New York Times printed a great pro-Amtrak editorial.

That's all for now.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Herzl Camp

We arrived at camp during lunch. Herzl, like many camps, does not go on standard time rather than daylight savings time. As I understand it, the purpose of this is to get the kids to bed earlier (they do not want the extra hour of daylight). This can be confusing, though especially when one’s cell phone (roaming) is ones main form of timekeeping, and cannot be set to the “proper” time. We saw Jonathan (my brother), and there was a good deal of hugging all around. Additionally, my parents know about 1/3 of the people at camp, so there were frequent greetings throughout the day.

Once we had gotten settled in, we showered and dressed for Shabbat. On Friday night, it is the tradition of the camp to wear white, which ranges from buttoned-down collared shirts to sleeveless tee shits to sports jerseys. The program (age group) in charge of Shabbat that week gathers in an open space near the chadar (dining hall) at 6:45 for what is known as caravan. The group walks around camp, hand in hand, singing, along the main path, and are joined by each group they pass. They arrive at the central field around the flagpole and the line circles back on itself, forming a huge ring. The lower the flags and sing the national anthems of Canada, the US, and Israel, and then sing a string of other (parody) songs, each prepared by a different program.

After that was a boisterous Kabbalat Shabbat. Since the sky was threatening the service was held indoors. Afterward was dinner, which was the standard fare: matzoh ball soup, chicken, potatoes, and salad. After dinner, there was a song session which, according to my brother, lasted twice as long as it usually lasts. As it turned out, during dinner a huge storm had hit camp, downing a number of trees including one that fell onto a bunk, and taking out power to much of the camp. This caused quite a stir, though there was no serious damage to the cabin (though the girls did sleep elsewhere that night), and most of the campers slept in bunks without power.

Saturday saw morning services in an outdoor sanctuary overlooking the lake (it had dried by then), and was an abbridged but spirited service. Shabbat was fairly quiet, though there was a large Ultimate game between the two oldest groups of campers. At dinner, there was a play called 12 Gates which happens every week, and is a very popular tradition. Afterward was a wonderfully choreographed havdallah put on by my brother's program. They sang "Lo Yisa Goy" and walked in circles carrying candles while dressed in all black or all white. It was very cool.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to walk into a musical? Not a play or a movie, but some sort of real-life situation where everyone broke into song/dance. The closest thing I’ve ever come to that happened when I walked into breakfast on Sunday morning. There was music playing, and about 70% of the people in the large dining hall were on their feet, doing a huge, ecstatic dance along to some very upbeat music. The dance was nothing brilliant, and the dancers far from perfect, but it was more than compensated for by the fact that, expecting to go in and eat, I instead found hundreds of people dancing. Moreover, it seemed completely natural to all involved: those dancing, those eating, and those doing both. What was even more spectacular was about twenty minutes later the whole thing happened again, and it was no less amazing, even when I was (somewhat) expecting it. This seems like a strange diversion from my usual themes, but the very heart of travel writing is the report of the spectacular and hidden. Later my brother told me that the Ozos (essentially councilors in training, the position is highly coveted and a huge amount of work; the word presumably derives from the Hebrew ozair, meaning [to] help) choose a song and do a dance to it, which everyone learns over the course of the summer. This may be the case, but the extent to which I am impressed has not been deminished.

Minneapolis

The Empire Builder arrived just about on time, so I caught a cab and went straight to my hotel. It wasn’t even eight in the morning, so my room for the evening wasn’t ready. I checked my bags and headed onto the campus of the University of Minnesota. Rather than ask for directions, I followed the people who looked most like students, and was led to the main campus. Eventually I found the student union, where I was able to check my email, kill some time at a bookstore, and eventually have lunch at a bagel place I like in Kansas City (Einstein Brothers) after checking in to the hotel. On the way back I got caught in a huge storm and was pretty well soaked. I spent much of the afternoon waiting for the storm to pass, after which I took a cab to a nearby laundry mat.

The laundry mat was interesting. It appeared to be in a largely Somali (Muslim) area, as indicated by the Halal market down the street and the Somali attendant at the laundry mat. When I first arrived and tried to use the change machine, he accosted me, insisting that I only use it to get change for the laundry mat. Once I showed him I had dirty clothes to wash, he let me use the machine, and I began washing my clothes. Meanwhile, he settled into a chair, and began asking me questions in new, unpolished English. He noticed my kipah and asked if I was Jewish. I told him I was, and this led to a discussion about religion. He felt that one couldn't really change their religion, that it was somehow "in your blood." Usually when I meet someone with a radically different worldview, my Midwest insticts kick in and I politely smile and acknowledge the things they say without agreeing with them. However, when he listed gays and lesbians as two of the four things that were wrong with America (lack of religious conviction and disrespect for parents were the other two) I challenged him on it, asking why exactly it was bad. He insisted that such attraction was impossible, and was simply wrong. I worked him for a while, and got him to the point of saying that he couldn't understand it. The conversation was much more interesting and less awkward than I expected, at least until he threw a guy out for trying to use the bathroom and made a dispariging remark about "African Americans."

I spent the evening in, tired from both the train trip and the laundry. I did go out to find some Boulevard Beer. It is a local Kansas City Microbrew, and my favorite beer in the world. I knew it was available up in Minneapolis, and decided to take the opportunity (this is the closest I'll get to Kansas City) to have some while I could. I ended up the University Liquor store, where I was able to get some Unfiltered Wheat, one of my favorites.

In the morning I met my parents for breakfast and a meeting (their meeting, I just sat in and fed the parking meters with my leftover quarters from laundry day) with some people from Herzl Camp. After that, we left for camp, which will be covered in the next post. It was really wonderful to get to see my parents, as the traveling can get lonely.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Empire Builder

First of all, what? The Empire Builder? Which empire is that? So, I don’t like the name. The train is a different story. The Cascade mountains were gorgeous, and while the vistas weren't as breathtaking as in Southern Oregon, we passed over and alongside a number of spectacular clean, fast moving rivers (or perhaps just one a number of times). Then we got into Montana and "big sky" country, which was underwhelming. I don't see how the so-called big sky country is any different than, say, Kansas, which is more known big empty country. It's the same thing, just not as well marketed. Which isn't to say that it wasn't nice, just that it was not as nice as, say the Coast Starlight.

For this stretch of the trip I was in the small sleeper. It's two seats across from each other that fold down into a bed, with a fold-down berth above. It also has curtains and a door that locks, allowing for privacy, which is nice. With the bed down, that's about all that fits in there. There's a closet wide enough for two hangers, and the area between the bed and the door was about the width of my shoes. Still, the bed lay flat and compared to the coach cars, was luxurious. Other perquisites include a mini-bottle of campaign upon boarding, an attentive attended, and the inclusion of the three meals the dining car served every day. The dining car has limited selection, though there are at least two things I can eat at every meal.

What's nice is the opportunity to be placed with other people from different parts of the train, and to get to meet them and hear where their from. I met a middle-aged couple from Montana who loved camping but were headed down to Chicago to see their son. I met an older woman who was going to Mayo Clinic for laser back surgery before taking her family on an Alaskan Cruise. I also met a couple from Los Angeles, who worked for a prominent talent agency (I didn't ask the name but the represent some big stars), he on the business side, she for the company's foundation. They were traveling to Glacier National Park (another area we passed through with some beautiful views) to see it before the glaciers melted. They were fellow travelers, at least to some extent, and were interested in alternatives to flying and other ways to help reduce global warming.

They also told me that some scientists now say that there is a 50-50 chance the Artic Ice may be gone THIS YEAR. This is very bad. On a scale of one to ten, with one being George W Bush/Exxon Mobile's fake science, and ten being The Day After Tomorrow's fake science, this is like an 8 1/2. At the beginning of his term, the total loss of polar ice was seen as a disaster, but one no one expected this century. Even a few years ago the most pesimistic outlooks were for 2012. To be upon this marker so soon should raise the concern of everyone who cares about the future of the planet. I did not intend for this blog to preach on the subject of global warming, this is truely terrifying new information, and ever effort must be redoubled to stop the spread of warming.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Art to Artifact, Artifact to Art

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to post this while I was in Vancouver. I went to UBC (University of British Columbia) Museum of Anthropology on Monday. Generally, I don’t like anthropology museums, since they tend to make cultures, usually those that were wiped out by the white people who created and now run the museum. This is supposed to have gotten better in the 60s or something, but if you go to the Anthropology museum at Harvard, every third caption is something like “this is the (item) that (armed white male) took from (unarmed person), Chief of the (group) Tribe, (white guy) shot the chief in the back of the head and ordered his slaves to take all of the chief’s stuff.” Yay!

The museum at UBC felt different. Yes, there were numerous artifacts taken from a variety of cultures, most prominently, there were a number of totem polls. However, the most prominently featured item was a giant redwood sculpture by an artist who is a member of an indigenous group. It was huge, made of wood, and portrayed the story of his tribe’s creation myth. After the Great Flood receded and there was again dry land, Raven, the trickster, flew through the air surveying the damage. He found a (giant) clamshell, and prying it opened, discovered the founders of the tribe, the first humans. The fact that this piece of what is clearly art
Why is the Sistine Chapel, painted in 1512, or the Mona Lisa, painted in 1503 considered art, while a totem poll carved in 1884 is considered artifact, a relic of history? When a civilization is destroyed, the humanity of that group disappears. The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci,while the totem poll was made by "native Americans." What was different about the totem polls at the museum (and the ones at Stanley Park, which I forgot to mention) is that they are contextualized in the living, continuing history of the cultures to which they belong. The museum at UBC had a declaration of rights signed by a group from one of the First People tribes asserting the right to their land. At Stanely Park, totem polls from before the potlatch ban (the most serious form of persecution against the indiginous peoples of British Columbia) were mixed among more modern ones, which served as art, and in doing so, restored to their fellow pieces that status.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Vancouver

Shabbas

In the morning I took the SkyTrain into downtown and walked into Stanley Park, a large park adjacent to downtown. It's bigger than Central Park in New York, and really well maintained. The park is almost an island, surrounded mostly by water, but connected to downtown. There are walking/running lanes around the outside of the park along the water, and inside that, a pair of biking/rollerskating paths.

Walking around downtown, it was a pretty cool place. I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery, which was a very contemporary museum. There was a large, two-floor series dedicated to comics, cartoons, and video games. Another exhibit was showed the work of a Chinese performance artist who worked with forms of the body. There are pictures of him and others, generally naked, doing unusual things. It, along with some of the other exhibits were not exactly my thing. There was a large exhibit of paintings by female Canadian artists that contained some more conventional forms, some of which I really liked. I also enjoyed the work of an indiginous artists, which included some instillations and an exhibit about a project where she took a giant megaphone she took around the country, having people talk to the land.

The video game section was curated by Will Wright who created SimCity and The Sims. It featured eight video games that were important to the field. What upset me about this exhibit was that two of the video games were The Sims and Spore, a game Will Wright is currently making. What role exactly he had in choosing the games and coming up with the copy I don't know, but in more than one places it described Spores as highly anticipated and predicted it would change the industry forever. Additionally, The Sims is described as being important because it took as it's subject every day life. I would surely agree that The Sims is an important game, and maybe for the reasons he talked about, but I have some real issues with the exhibit. First and most important, the text on Spores and the images of the coming game looked a lot like an advertisement. These days video games permere to first weekend grosses comperable to big budget movies, so for a promotion for one of them to come in the form of art exhibit feels like what is sometimes refered to as corporate creep, the sense that private corporations are making their way into all aspects of our culture. Naomi Klein talks about this in No Logo in the section No Space.

Another issue I had with the exhibit is that I have never seen the video game read as a form of art. As a recent student of the liberal arts, I don't reject the possibility, but there should certainly be some sort of standard for evaluating each work. What consitutes the game? The game art? The standard play of the game? Secret levels? Cheat codes? What about modifications (mods)? One of the games featured was Quake, in part for the numerous mods made for it. What about MMORPG or other linkable games. Is the online interaction part of the form? When you play Super Smash Brothers Brawl, it warns you that content is not rated by the ESRB. What about Second Life, which may not be a game at all, but rather a platform. Video games are a form of performace art performed not by the artist but by the viewer. It has the potential for a very interesting dialogue about the nature of art, but none of this was discussed. Rather, there were eight short reviews, two of which featured the work of the curator, one of which he will soon be trying to sell to all those people who came through the museum.

Still, I enjoyed the exhibit, and walking around downtown Vancouver, and definitely had a good day.

Friday, July 4, 2008

First Day in Vancouver

So, I was definitely profiled at the train station. Of all the passengers arriving, three of us were pulled aside. Canadian Customs does not like men traveling alone. The concern according to the customs official, was that I would run out of money and be unable to support myself. Presumably they do not want poor Americans taking advantage of their generous social welfare system. I assured the official that I had adequate cash on hand as well as plenty of reserves, but he still took nearly every article of clothing out of my bag, which makes me think he may not only have been concerned about me supporting myself, unless he was looking for unpaid bills.

I walked around the Mt. Pleasant area, where my hotel is. There are a lot of independent shops including two Indian markets, three Ethiopian restaurants, and a single-screen theater called The Rio. It's not the hippest area, but it's nice. I had planned on taking the sky-rail (a raised mass transit system) but it looked very crowded. Also, wasn't thrilled with the height of the thing, and didn't know how long it would take to go and come back.

Shabbat is approaching, and not much else has happened, but I want to try to keep up with the blog unlike in LA, where I waited until the end to post.

Coast Starlight / Cascades

In my last post discussing the more existential elements of my trip, I neglected to discuss the more concrete elements of my travel. The Coast Starlight was supposed to be 34 hours, and ran about 2 hours late. The biggest difference from the Southwest Chief was that the Coast Starlight did not have electrical outlets at every seat (the same is true with the Cascade, which seems to be a similar train model). This restricted my activities somewhat, as I was unable to charge my electronic devices, so I had to ration power. There were outlets scattered throughout the train, but I they were inconveniently located and often in use.

As a result, I finished A Wrinkle in Time, which I had picked up at my parents house and started reading. I also read Ella Minnow Pea, a really creative novel I’d heard reviewed a while ago (I don’t remember when), and finally got around to reading. It’s set on a fictional island off the east coast of the United States, where the founder is venerated for his creation of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” But when the tiles that make up the pangram begin to fall, letters become outlawed, and a struggle begins to save the language and the island the characters so love. The story is told in a series of letters, which must abide by the restrictions of the disappearing letters. As language becomes more strained, the one of the word-loving characters becomes more desperate. It’s a worthy read about tyranny and the power of language to combat it.

My seatmate for the entire trip was a high school teacher from a small southern California city named Jim. He was going to Seattle to take an Alaskan cruise. Jim was friendly, and we got along well, but what surprised me was that he had no books, no music, no diversions at all. Perhaps it has to do with him being from another generation, but he spent the whole 36 hours, most of it in his seat, looking out the window or sleeping. His patience impressed me a great deal, and I wish I wasn’t so wired to need constant stimulation.

The view out the windows was beautiful. There was a lot of agriculture in California, but also a lot of beautiful mountain vistas, a few of which were on fire. I’m not kidding, we passed no less than three wildfires, which put out huge columns of smoke that blanked the sky. The reason the trip takes so long despite being a much shorter distance (I think) than the chief is that there is a great deal of curving to get around the geography. There was one mountain, identifiable by the fact it was on fire, that we seemed to circle all the way around, presumably because crossing over on through it was not, to the railroad’s planners, worth the effort. Waking up on the second day, I saw the day breaking on some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever witnessed. In the pre-dawn glow, huge mountains covered in thick forests stretched all around us, towering above and plunging down below. As the light grew, the scenes became no less spectacular. It was around the California-Oregon border (our last California station was at 1:00 a.m., and our first Oregon stop was at 7:00). The California coast (which was much earlier in the trip) was also quite a sight to behold, and at one point we passed a nature preserve and saw sea lions lounging in the shallows. But for me, the Puget Sound was the superior body of water, not as vast as the ocean, but hauntingly serene. The scenery so far on the Cascade has been typical of the Pacific North West, which is to say, glorious.

On the Coast Starlight I got even less sleep than on the Chief due to the fact that a person nearby was snoring like a buzz saw. Seriously, I’ve slept alongside snorers before, loud ones, and I can sleep through almost anything (including, my family will tell you, storms that shake the house), but I’ve never heard sounds like these made by anything that wasn’t mechanical and high-powered. I also had an aisle, making it that much harder to find a comfortable position. The experience convinced me to spring for a sleeper on the Empire Builder (from Seattle to Minneapolis, though it goes on to Chicago).

The passengers on the Starlight were a bit more interesting than on the Chief. There was a pair of Buddhist monks in full orange robes. There was a couple who appeared to be Mennonite or some other traditionally dressing, technology spurning sect (though I guess since trains have been around a long time, they’re okay). There was also a very goth looking couple. Each pair stood out brilliantly against the backdrop of a wash of “average” Americans. Which is not to say that those riding the Chief and the Starlight weren’t racially and socioeconomically diverse. Rather, that diversity has become, beautifully non-noteworthy. When a the children from a white family and the children from a black family were playing together in the aisles of the car in front of me, no one, myself included, seemed to take any note of it other than, look out, kids coming through (or perhaps, damn kids, make noise on the train…grumble, grumble). I think it may have been these pairs, each standing out from the crowd, yet each with someone to share the experience with, that brought on my bout of loneliness expressed in the last post. There is a kind of closeness in joint isolation, where you and the person you are with are brought that much closer by having no one else to take a share of your attention, perhaps a reason for travel I neglected.

I just went to the food car in the Cascade, and it is outrageously good. There are gourmet-sounding food items like spinach quiche and foccacia margarita pizza, and more importantly, a selection of 3 PNW microbrews, including two of my favorite beers, the Pyramid IPA and the Windemere Hefeweizer. The closest thing to a microbrew on the Chief or the Starlight was Heineken, a far, far cry from what’s being offered here. Since it’s a morning train, there will be no beer consumption, but it’s a promising sign that there is at least a potential for quality in Amtrak food, even if it is for the time only regional. Even if I don’t get to try any of the food, it’s one step towards my dream of sitting on a train to Boston eating curried quinoa with roasted vegetables and toasted almonds while discussing politics with a businessman enjoying a t-bone steak. (I’m eating the quinoa for health reasons; I would have rather had the sustainable Pacific Cod/Yukon gold potato fish and chips. The quinoa is very good though, and goes great with the 2009 Red Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon I’m drinking. Also, McCoy, the businessman, chokes on his steak after claiming Reagan helped curb the budget deficit and has to be given the Heimlich maneuver by the RN from Worchester sitting behind him. She went into medicine after her son’s life was saved because under Massachusetts’s universal health insurance system, her son’s life was saved when a melanoma was caught early.)

Heading to Vancouver now, I feel better about the trip. Seattle was nice, and though I was only there a few hours (less than 1/3 the time I was on the Coast Starlight), it seems like a nice city and somewhere I would like to visit. I missed dinner on the train, and walking to the hotel, I passed a place called Mideast Mix (or something like that). It was one of those places you can just tell is good (how else could an unstylish ethnic restaurant survive and be open past ten in an uber-hip neighborhood like Pioneer Square. After checking in and getting settled, I returned to the eatery, not three short blocks away, and discovered the secret of its success. In addition to selling really good falafel and (disturbingly) cigarettes, his menu included gyros, cheese-burgers, and something called a cream cheese [hot] dog. They were open late to cater to the hungry and intoxicated, who the man behind the counter treated with shocking rudeness (possibly due to the fact that they were obnoxious and drunk; he was perfectly polite to me). The food was, as predicted, delicious and the service was fast (if not, as stated before, always friendly).

This far north, Shabbat does not begin until 9:00, so I may blog again this afternoon. If not, I’ll try to do so on Sunday. Shabbat Shalom to all.

On Travel

As I’ve sat aboard the Coast Starlight over the past dozen or so hours, I’ve thought about why it is that people travel. There are the old reasons: to find a new home, to find food or a livelihood, to conduction business, to buy or sell goods. Then there is leisure travel, conducted by those with means not for survival or to earn a profit, but rather to gain pleasure or enjoyment. Yet this is not a simple distinction; today’s resorts are descended for European sanatoria, which were health resorts in climates seen as more favorable to the treatment of disease. And the modern cruise infrastructure was built from old transatlantic transport ships.

So why travel? One reason is to go to a more favorable climate during some season or another. Certain parts of the country see their populations cut by half or more come Labor Day and the cultural end of summer. A variation on this would involve going somewhere to do an activity available only part of the year: skiing, boating, hiking, etc. Other destination activities like gambling or shopping are available indoors year-round. Another reason to travel might be to be at an event such as a festival, world premiere, or fair. One might visit an individual who lives in another city, state or country. Or they may simple wish travel with people they know and love, and by being away from the distractions and responsibilities of home, get to appreciate those people’s company. There are also more problematic reasons for travel. Medical tourism (an ironic anachronym in a post-sanitarium world) in which people go for procedures that are prohibitively expensive or, more often, illegal in the places they reside. And sex tourism almost always involves human trafficking and sex-slavery.

I pose this question because when I set out, I answered the question of why train travel, but I never considered why travel. Having traveled all my life, it seemed a given, yet now as I approach Vancouver, I’m not quite sure why I’m going there. Many people have told me they liked visiting the city, and I’ve researched a number of places to go. Yet spending time in LA the best part was the time I spent with my friends, not the very interesting places I visited. I’ve traveled alone before, and I’m not someone who minds doing things like eating out or seeing a movie by myself. Yet as I visit a new city in a (somewhat) foreign country, with the real possibility I’ll leave having not really met or known a single person, is somehow a lot lonelier then riding solo for any length of time. Perhaps the fatal flaw of my trip, revealed just 10 days in, is that I didn’t try to find a friend will and able to take the trip with me. Having planned this for months, it seems likely that I could have found someone willing to share with me the journey.

More so, I think this underscores my own concern that living in Kansas City over the passed year, I have failed to create any kind of peer social network, and whether that is due to inaction on my part, or if living there is not socially viable at this point in my life, something I don’t want to think about, as living elsewhere would make it extremely difficult to maintain the level of closeness with my family I value, especially given my decision not to fly.

These questions stray from the original topic, but delve into the heart of what this blog is about. A week from Friday, I am to meet my parents in Minneapolis and accompany them to Herzl Camp to visit my brother on Visitors Day. However, if the Empire Builder is as late as the Southwest Chief was, the plans won’t work. Transportation connections, business travel, and event start times (including the Sabbath) are just a few of the massively important reasons why a form of transportation needs to be reasonably punctual if it is going to gain wider use, especially when trains leave just daily. A weekend visit is made much more difficult (and may in some instances require an additional 24 hours of leeway) when the potential window of lateness is 7 hours or more. Taking a train to Houston for my friends’ wedding was simply not possible given my work schedule. Until these things improve, train travel may be relegated to a quaint old practice. But in a classic Catch-22 dilemma, it may only get the infrastructure improvements it needs if it can make itself more relevant. Rising fuel prices and concern over global warming may help, but there is work ahead if we are to have a rail system that is worthy of our place in the world.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Los Angeles

I've now been in Los Angeles five days and have enjoyed it very much. After arriving mid-day Wednesday, I rented a car and drove to Westwood where my friend Russell, with whom I'm staying, lives. I was pretty exhausted, so I took it easy that day. Since then I've visited a number of places, in addition to doing some work here at the apartment:

The Getty - A beautiful museum perch on high ground overlooking the city. The architecture and the gardens were stunning, and there were several exhibits I enjoyed. In particular, there was a retrospective on the museum's collection of photographs, ranging from the earliest days of photography through modern techniques and works.

Pico-Robertson - Over Shabbas, Russell and I walked to have lunch at the apartment of Erica Farbar, a very good friend of mine at Harvard. There were a dozen people, and there was both good food and good company. The area where she lives is a predominantely Jewish area of the city, and I returned on Sunday to have a kosher hot dog at Nathans. It was pretty good. Also in Pico-Roberston is the Museum of Tolerance, described below.

The El Capitan Theatre - a Disney owned flagship theater, it is used to premiere films and promote their brand. They have a VIP option which includes popcorn, a drink, and reserved seating. I went with Russell and his cousin to see WallE, which had just opened the day before. The show opened with a mixed live/film performance of a variety of Disney/Pixar films, with costumed characters dancing onstage while the films they were in flashed below. I'm no fan of Disney as a coroporation so the Disney love-fest was not exactly my cup of tea. There was also something more subtle happening: the shots from Finding Nemo transitioned directly into The Little Mermaid, and the scene from A Bugs Life into a similiar one from The Lion King. Disney is appropriating the films it had not part in creating.

On the other hand, Wall-E was a fantastic film. As with past Pixar films, it combined skillful storytelling with breathtaking animation. It also had a pretty stark vision of the future and was a cautionary tale about material waste and automation.

Venice Beach - Sunday morning we went to Venice Beach with Erica and Dave, who I met at Shabbas lunch. The beach is a Los Angeles landmark, and I figured it wouldn't hurt to get a little sun. After brunch on the boardwalk, we lay out and discussed the merits of different systems of metered parking. At brunch, Dave had suggested that free parking was bad because it subsidised the relatively wealthy (those with cars) over the relatively poor (those who could not afford cars) and had many negative side effects, namely people circling for a parking spot and emitting additional greenhouse gasses. After lying out for a while, we walked along the boardwalk, which was a lot of fun, and generally enjoyed our day.

The Museum of Tolerance - Entering the museum parking lot, I had my trunk searched, something that has not happened to me in the states as long as I can remember. By that point, I'd become so sick of looking for parking that I would have submitted to a strip search to get access to a free covered public lot. The Museum itself was very well produced. I particularly liked a video on the Civil Rights Movement. However, I had some issues with other parts. One interactive exhibit was called the Millennium Machine, which focused on terrorism. I found the whole thing to be very alarmist (for example, presenting chemical and biological weapons as an imminent, grave threat, while ignoring facts that suggest otherwise). I was also a bit upset that the only question it posed as subjective was one on the merits of racial profiling of Muslims to prevent terrorism. While it presented both sides, I would expect a more robust opposition to racial profiling from the Museum of Tolerance. Also, from this and other exhibits (including a Never Again anti-genocide anti-war crimes exhibit), I took the message that terrorism needs to be made a war crime/crime against humanity. A reasonable proposal, but from the Simon Wiesenthal I would have expected a push to fight genocide in Sudan or the arrest of wanted criminals in, say, the Balkans.

The Holocaust exhibit was fairly large, and took about an hour or so to get through. It was similar to, but much small than, the USHMM or Yad Vashem. There were a couple of unusual things about it. First, there were no written descriptions of the instillations. Rather, an automated tour illuminates one panel at a time, while one or more voices narrate. The first several panels, and several more throughout, are told from the perspective of three people designing the exhibit. Whether or not they are fictional characters, it must take a gigantic ego to think that the best way to tell the story of the Holocaust is through a fictional version of you, the archivest. The automated narration also forces the viewer to keep to their pace.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Southwest Chief

I've arrived in Los Angeles and made my way to my friend's apartment. The train arrived 7 hours late, which was caused in part by the flooding in Iowa which forced Amtrak to uses buses in place of trains. There were other factors, though, one of which is the regular stopping of the train to allow freight trains coming the opposite direction to pass where parallel tracks aren't available. There needs to be a good deal more infrastructure before the train can really begin to compete with other transportation options.

As for the 40-some hours I spent on the train, they were better than I expected. I managed to get a fair amount of sleep sitting up in my seat, though it was the kind of discomfort that wakes you up every thirty minutes. You turn over, adjust a little, and go back to sleep. The first night I had a pair of seats to myself, but on the second a young Albuquerq sat next to me and it limited my sleeping space. The seat was comfortable, compared to airplanes with more room and probably three times the leg room. In terms of food, there were two options. One was a club car that was something like a very well stocked snack bar. There was some food the guy would heat up in the microwave (hot dogs, pizza, cinnamon rolls), and a lot of cold options, plus some beer and little mini bottles of booze you get on an airplane. There was also a dinning car, where you would make a reservation (someone would come through the cabin asking who wanted to eat a meal in the car). I had dinner there Tuesday evening, and had a decent vegetable lasagna which included some steamed veggies on the side. There was about four choices, all of which came with salad and a roll.

It was a long ride, but never uncomfortable. I could walk up and down the train whenever I wanted, there were cups and water in every car, and nice people. Knowing I have many more tirps ahead, I'm not exactly thrilled about the coming trips, but I'm not worried about it. I want to reserve judgement until further along in the trip.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Floods and Fires

I'm sitting in the lobby of the Westin hotel, across the street from the train station, waiting for my train and using their wireless Internet. My train will be delayed a couple of hours leaving because of the flooding in Iowa and Missouri. While the trains between Kansas City and Los Angeles are not affected, the trains from Chicago to Kansas City cannot get through, and have been replaced by busses which won't arrive until around 1:00 or 1:30, despite the normal departure time of 10:55. I'm using the extra time to blog.

Weather is periodic, and it is difficult (if not impossible) to directly link any single weather event to global warming. But hearing about the 500-year flood plane makes one wonder. And my delays show that no form of transportation is immue to the whims of mother nature. As forrest fires burn in Northern California (another region of the country I'll be passing through), John McCain announced a $300 million prize for the American who can build a better car battery. This seems unfair, as Tony Stark will almost certainly win with his arc reactor, and he hardly needs the money.

In all seriousness, McCains proposal is an interesting one. I'm inclined to dislike it, not only because I dislike him, but because I feel that if you plowed $300 million into government funded research (or even, say $250 million), it would most likely yield a similar result, and be better institutionally. While the prize might be more exciting, it's hardly a model under which we can have careers for scientists, who cannot support a family ig their only incentive is prize money. That said, I do like the idea of vaccine prizes, and this is certainly similar. Plus, there would be at least some companies persuing the prize, which would offer a more stable work environment. I have to admit, if Barack Obama had prposed it, I'd be a lot more excited. I have to admit it's a good idea, and I hope Barack Obama at least considres it, if he gets elected. I'd want there to be a clause that would forbid selling the patent to oil companies, who've bought up companies with new battery inovations for suspect reasons (i.e. Chevron with Cobasys).

I should head for the train soon, so I'll end the post here. I'll try to blog from the train if possible, but if not will post next when I arrive in Los Angeles.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

John McCain uses the same racist tactics used against him in the 2000 primary

I was going to my local Jewish paper to write a letter to the editor as part of this campaign by J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-Peace lobby. But when I got to the opinion page, I saw the ad by the McCain campaign shown below. On the surface it makes McCain's "point" about negotiating with world leaders openly hostile to the United States. He says Senator Obama's willingness to do so shows his lack of experience. But the truth is, there's much more going on in this ad. By juxtaposing the two faces, it makes Obama look scary, angry, and foreign. It reinforces rumors that he's a Muslim, and uses his race to paint him as alien.

(http://www.kcjc.com/opinion/ viewed 2008-06-19)

In the 2000 South Carolina primary, someone who may or may not have been Karl Rove created what is known as a push poll. Republican primary voters received calls asking if they would be more or less likely to vote for John McCain if they knew he had an illegitimate black daughter. This was a particularly insidious canard, as McCain and his absurdly wealthy wife—whose tax returns his campaign refuse to release—adopted a Bangladeshi daughter from Mother Theresa's orphanage. She was about eight at the time and campaigned with them (family values), thus visually confirming for people what they had been indirectly told. This dirty tactic cost McCain South Carolina and the primary campaign. Richard H. Davis, who worked for McCain, describes it here.

The ad I saw was not the same as the 2000 smear. It does raise a legitimate policy question (which I will address later on). One could also legitimately claim that by now anyone who uses the internet has seen (and likely clicked on) dozens of pop up ads that claim to be asking a question, but in fact just want to "give" you a "free" laptop, and this political incarnation is not the same as feeding information as a question's premise, assumed to be true. Finally, the McCain campaign is taking credit for it, unlike the anonymous push poll used against him.

However, when the race for the White House really gets going, the 527s will slither out from whatever rocks they've been hiding under, and they will, undoubtedly, use race as an issue to attack Obama in sneaky, disgusting, underhanded ways. I had hoped that John McCain, having experienced such attacks, would stand up to this. This ad, and the way his campaign and the right wing media machine has presented the issue makes me much less hopeful. The question of whether talking to Ahmadinejad is appeasement is one thing. But it is being used as part of a larger effort to portray Barack Obama as Other, as foreign: using his middle name, describing his school as a madrasah (which is just the Arabic word for school), and asking if he might secretly be a Muslim. All of this is having an effect.

As for talking [to Iran, Syria, et al.] equaling appeasement, it is an absurd argument. Israel, people will say using the Jewish State as a model, doesn't negotiate with terrorists. This is wrong, Israel just negotiated a cease-fire with Hamas. The operative word in the sentence is negotiate. The reason for the don't negotiate with terrorists idea is simple. If you take a building full of people hostage, and I give you what you want, what's to stop you (or anyone else) from taking another building full of people hostage tomorrow? However, when the terrorists your dealing with are the democratically elected government of your neighbors, this strategy falls apart. Had Israel refused to negotiate with Hamas while they were firing rockets into Israel (the position for some time), they would have simply kept firing rockets. Similarly, if we refuse to negotiate with Iran until the stop developing nuclear capacity, they'll keep doing it. And while the effect of Hamas firing rockets (besides Israel's blockade and periodic raids into Gaza) was the destruction of property, constant psychological devastation of it's population, and the occasional, tragic death or injury of a civilians, the effect in Iran will be worse; it will be a drastic shift in power that will lead to a geopolitical pool-pah large enough to make Henry Kissinger plotz. Negotiating is not appeasement. Appeasement (to paraphrase Ayn Rand) is appeasement. The fact that appeasement results from negotiation does not mean we should refrain from negotiating any more than the fact that STDs result from sex mean mean we should refrain from sex; we just have to do it carefully.

I had a conversation yesterday with someone who told me he wouldn't vote for Barack Obama because "he [Obama] scares me." This is someone I've known a long time, but have never talked politics with. He says he votes for the candidate, not by party, and that he'll vote for McCain. When I pressed him on what scares him about Obama, he raised the issue of Obama negotiating with "those guys." He couldn't understand how I, and for that matter, how my uncle (much more hawkish when it comes to Israel), could support Obama, who's willing to talk to a man who threatens to annihilate Israel. My uncle, I assume (I haven't much talked to him), wouldn't vote for a warmongering, flip-flopping, antichoice, homophobic, plutocratic, fearmongering, corporation-loving jackass. Actually, that's me; he just like's Obama's charisma, and knows the two parties are identical on Israel.

My friend said another person told him he was racist for this view, but I think that's oversimplifying it. Instead, the Republicans have tapped in to a pervasive climate of fear, that there are those out there—Islamic terrorists, Mexican immigrants, Chinese sellers of poisonous toys—who are different, who are other, and who threaten us like never before (at least, not since the Cold War ended). And Barack Obama may just be one of them. They aren't saying he is, they aren't saying he isn't, they're just asking if you want to take that chance. That's why I couldn't convince my friend to support Obama (yet). That question, never explicit, but kept forever in the back of peoples' minds, is this year's push poll.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Reason to go Back to the Movies

I saw the Incredibly Hulk today. I know, I should be preparing for my trip, not going to the movies, but something came over me and I headed out to the theater. I actually opted to take the bus rather than my car, and had a very pleasant experience on Kansas City's mass transit system, specifically The Max bus line. The weather was perfect for bus travel, and everything went very smoothly.

I've been very excited about this summer's movies, Hulk included (once I found out it was a remake rather than a sequel to the last bomb and included Ed Norton), even after IJ4 was such a massive disappointment. SPOILER ALERT! It sucked. Still, The Incredible Hulk exceeded expectations. The backstory was artfully and silently blast through in the credits (a wise choice because, in the case of The Hulk, it's stupid). Afterward Ed Norton brilliantly led a great cast of characters and actors (I take back everything I said about Liv Tyler the last time I watched Empire Records), with great action, nicely balanced with well-paced story telling.

Most importantly, I fell that the movies Marvel makes now contain some of the best elements of comic books. They are fun and succeed at telling the story visually. Even everything were dubbed in Urdu with no subtitles, I still would have enjoyed the film, and comprehended a good deal of the plot. Yet they are also wry and cleaver, constantly winking past the kids with in jokes, double entendres, and of course the Stan Lee cameos. This nodding done to a new level in the last scene before the credits (I didn't stay passed because I was late for a book signing by David Sedaris); I didn't stay but the scene makes repeated refrence to the recent Iron Man film (which I thought was the best adaptation of a comic book to date).

Finally, the two flicks Marvel has made this summer offer a glimpse into the wider Marvel Universe. I was frankly disappointed that through three Spider Man and three X-Men films, plus a slew of others, the fact that other characters were out their was never even hinted at, unless they joined one side or the other in their respective films. One of the great things about Marvel is the big stable of characters, so that while you may be reading a Spider Man comic, you never know when Wolverine, Iron Man, or Daredevil might show up (or for that matter, Magneto, Doctor Doom, or Kingpin). Yet despite the fact that the Fantastic Four spent two movies living in New York, they never once called up, or even alluded to, their neighbors (I'm actually just assuming this to be the case, as I was too disgusted by the trailers, and justified by the reviews, to see Rise of the Silver Surfer). Hopefully, all of this will lead to more prolific crossing over of the film franchise, better movies, and a revised film industry.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

There is a War Going on for Your Mind

This is primarily a travel blog, but since I'm not leaving for about a week, and I want to get into the habit of blogging (I hope to post something almost every day), I'm hoping to do some writing that reflects on who I am and grounds the blog going forward.

I've been listening to the Flobot's album Fight with Tools. I heard the single, "Handlebars," on the radio, and decided to get the entire album. It's fantastic. I've always liked music with a story or a message, especially a good political one, something too rare in today's music. Fight with Tools is a refreshing exception.

The single that inspired the purchase ("Handlebars") is about how the creativity and drive to achieve that is the bedrock of our society's meritocratic world view can lead to harm and destruction. It also has a strong anti-corporate overtone. The rest of the album, however, is much more political, addressing racism, the war, economic inequality, and other subjects of concern to the modern progressive. The tone of the message ranges from playful to angry to stark to hopeful. The title of the post is also the title of the first song, a poetic but harsh denouncition of marketing and propaganda (between which it makes no distinction). The phrase also comes up again in later songs with messages like "there are no civilians [in the war for your mind]" and "if you are thinking, you are winning." The overarching message is a directive to resist the control of those with a voice, and to battle the hegemony of their ideas.

I also like the musical style that mixes hip hop, rock, and spoken word. I am hardly an expert, so cannot offer solid analysis of how they use the viola and trumpet, other than to say that they're really cool, and I like it. But it does seem to highlight the lyrics rather than distracting from them.

Having listened through a few times, I like "There is a War Going on for Your Mind," "Same Thing," "Stand Up," and "Anne Braden" at least as much if not more than "Handlebars." When I buy a CD for a single, my standard for success is 2 other songs I really like, and this album does that for me. Also, as mentioned above, the different tracks on Fight with Tools will make reference one another, bringing a cohesion to the album. I'd recommend checking it out.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Trains vs. Planes

When I was young, I used to travel a great deal with my parents. As a result, I was so accustomed to air travel that for a long time it never bothered me. Even after 9/11, I was never really nervous, flying out of National about 3 months later. But around the time I turned 18, I started to have a lot of anxiety around flying. It didn't help that I somehow managed to watch Die Hard 2 on TBS the night before every single flight. At the same time, I began to hear about people not flying for reasons related to global warming. This, along with disgust over how the industry was run, led me to swear off air travel in all but the most urgent and important occasions.

At first, I thought this would be like any other self-denial; like a no-carb diet. And though I've never done Atkins, I feel like keeping my feet on the ground has been more radical than that. For many Americans, at least those with the means to do so, there is an assumption that one can travel anywhere, at any time, in a matter of hours. Challenging that assumption not only surprises people, but it changes how I see the country and the world. The two times I've traveled so far: visiting friends in Chicago and attending a wedding in Houston have made me think how we as a country might get away from airplanes and cars as our primary form of transportation.

In the short term, this is unrealistic. Taking Amtrak from New York to Los Angeles takes 61 hours, 45 minutes and requires a 5 1/2 hour layover in Chicago; meanwhile, we have a culture of driving tied into a rugged individualism and a spectacular (though fast and dangerously decaying) Interstate Highway System. Yet for some trips, some of the time, train travel may be viable, and could be even more so with more infrastructure investment. Considering the extent to which airports, airlines, and roads are subsidized by the government, further investment in railroads, a relatively safe, relatively efficient form of transportation.

My plan is to spend the summer (or a large part of it) traveling by train and seeing the country (and bits of our neighbor to the north). I'll be starting in Los Angeles, visiting friends. More importantly (at least for this blog) I'll be taking the Southwest Chief, which has been described as one of the most scenic train trips on earth. Among many other things, I'm trying to find a way to blog a wireless device over 35 hour trip.