Tuesday, May 21, 2013

From each according to his ability ....

I often find myself troubled by the emphasis we place on our children being "smart," on how much pride parents take when their kids seem to be "smart," etc.  Why should someone be deemed more valuable because she is "smart"?  What is the merit, if any, in simply being born smart?

Let's assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that intelligence is largely driven by inherited factors.  Studies appear to place the heritability of intelligence at 0.7 to 0.8, out of 1.0, with 1.0 being an entirely genetically determined outcome.  (I know that this is obviously a disputed point -- and I'm not saying I necessarily agree that intelligence is largely inherited.  I'm not a genetic determinist by any means.  I do think educated -- and therefore informed and likely affluent -- parents tend to replicate themselves in their offspring through private schools, their own involvement and interactions, their examples and influence, etc.  But that's another discussion, and one I've touched on before.)

If intelligence is in fact largely inherited (again, see caveats above), what is the merit in being born smart?  I can't see any.  It's just another outcome in the genetic lottery that Victoria's Secret model Cameron Russell was talking about.  Why should those who were born smart, who did nothing to earn or deserve their fine cognitive abilities, earn more, have more comfortable lives, better access to medical care, etc., than those who were not?

The only justification I can think of is that we reward these people in the hopes that they will use their abilities to aid others.  The brain surgeon is paid in recompense for her years of training, etc.  But, looking at our example here in the U.S., that largely does not seem to be the case.  Those who are born smart, who are able to obtain the finest educations and qualifications (again, factor in class and previous generations of success), appear to largely use that success to enrich themselves and ensure the replication of their success in their offspring.  See, e.g., the financial sector.  Many of our finest minds go to places like Goldman Sachs, where they make fortunes, which they pass on to their children, who go to Choate and Stanford.  Repeat as necessary.  (Side note: isn't the whole premise of a place like Stanford or Harvard built on genetic superiority?)

It seems to me that if you consider it, to value being born smart is, really, to endorse a form of biological hierarchy, which is what our system of capitalism in the U.S. sometimes appears to be.  Putting aside professional athletes, cognitive ability is the key to professional success in the U.S. today.  If cognitive ability is largely something we're born with, and if it is in fact largely inherited, and these people who've inherited fine cognitive ability make it into these fancy schools (with the aid of their successful parents), marry and have children with these inherited abilities, it does seem as if wealth, intelligence, and education begin to get hoarded among an elite class, especially as the wealthy and educated leave behind public education to the masses.  Hence the neurotic anxiety of parents we all know (including myself), about getting their children into the right schools from age 3 and up.  No one wants to be left behind.

It's an anxious awareness of competition in our society that lies behind the parent's admiration for the child who is "smart."

I'm not sure what there is anyone can do about this.  Humans are, it seems, in the main, self-interested.  Our choice of the type of society we have constructed likely helps determine this, sure.  But in this society, freedom appears to mean that those who are born able will get ahead.  Those who are not, will not.  And that's just how it is.  Perhaps that is the state of nature, the magic of the market.  But society is not a state of nature, as much as we might pretend it might be.  It is what we choose to make it.  

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

A Trip to Mecca

It wasn't my idea to go to Mecca.  It was my mom's.  This was about fifteen years ago.  I didn't have any other plans for the Christmas break, so I agreed.  I figured it would be an interesting trip, a life experience, to see the place, to see all the people that had made the pilgrimage, even if I was not going as a true believer.  I was actually a bit frightened about the trip, given its massive significance to so many believers who had saved all their lives for one trip, who hoped more than anything that perhaps they would die during the pilgrimage, ensuring their place in paradise.



It was easy for us to get to Mecca.  We waited for an hour at the Saudi Air gate at JFK, boarded the plane, slept a few hours, and then there we were.  What had often been an arduous and dangerous journey for pilgrims over the centuries went smoothly and effortlessly for us.  I dozed off listening to Massive Attack as a family acquaintance drove us from the Jeddah airport to his apartment.  There we took showers, took off our clothes, and wrapped ourselves in white sheets.  We had some Coke and some cake and then we were driven straight to Mecca.

We passed through the checkpoint outside the city of Mecca.  A guard peered in and asked if we were Muslims.  Seeing that all of us, including my nine-year-old brother, were brown-skinned and wrapped in pilgrims' garb, he was satisfied.

The person guiding us that night took us to our hotel, a relatively modern building perched on a hill above the Kaabah.  The massive mosque, the Grand Masjid, surrounding the Kaabah, remained bathed in light at all hours, and was brilliantly lit, though it was about three in the morning.  We washed again quickly and proceeded directly to the Kaabah.  It was now about four in the morning.  The sky above Mecca was a strange pink-purple, with dark and disturbingly quickly moving clouds.  The huge courtyard in front of the entrance to the Kaabah was mostly desolate.

Walking into the Grand Masjid, we passed under golden signs hanging from the ceiling, displaying red LED readouts giving the times of the day's five prayers in several languages, looking very much like airport displays.

We passed by the empty interior prayer halls, the women's prayer area with rugs set out on the ground and carved wooden partitions to shield the female pilgrims from the eyes of men.

We passed under a high arch and entered the interior plaza of the Grand Masjid.  The sky, framed by minarets, opened up above us.  Giant stadium lights shone down on the white marble of the plaza.  The light was dazzling and slightly green.  Thousands of huge bugs lay strewn across the white marble of the plaza, likely having been attracted to the blinding light and heat of the stadium lights.

The main plaza was largely empty, as it was the middle of the night, but there was a small, intimate, and ceaselessly swirling group of pilgrims, swathed in white, circling around the black cube of the Kaabah. I can't remember for sure, but I believe I could hear, from a hundred feet or so away, the droning hum of the murmured prayers of these pilgrims as the orbited the Kaabah.

I knelt with my family on the cold marble of the interior plaza, at a distance from the Kaabah.  My mother began to cry.  I mumbled several memorized prayers, the Arabic words feeling at once more charged and meaningful than ever and yet more incomprehensible and out of my possession, foreign in my mouth, poorly accented, improperly pronounced.  We were impostors, bringing the language and verses back to the source.  A family of Bengalis, removed just several hours from New York, awake under the sickly green lights, reciting the foreign lines we had been taught, had recited again and again under out breath, before surgery, at the gravesides of our grandparents, at the births of our children.  The prayers were at once the most intimate and deeply personal language we possessed, yet foreign and unknown to us, understood by each of us to mean quite different things.  They were words without definite meanings for us -- just sounds and the shape of our mouths -- open spaces that we filled with ourselves.

The black cloth covering the cube structure of the Kaabah was adorned with gold Arabic calligraphy that stretched toward absolute illegibility.  We wouldn't have been able to read it in any event.  It wasn't the sense that mattered, but the feeling that the illegible words evoked, or allowed.

The acquaintance we were with led us into the swirl of pilgrims surrounding the Kaabah.  Seven revolutions around the Kaabah, praying as you transit.

Inside the main plaza of the Kaabah, all barriers and divisions fall away.  There is only the terrifying, thrilling white space surrounding the black structure -- obstinate in its shockingly undeniable reality.  There were the pilgrims, a group of thirty or forty -- a tiny portion of the surging masses one sees in pictures and videos of the Kaabah -- pilgrims in white, men and women of all races, the skin of their shoulders showing, their feet bare, all chanting in one language, with their various intonations, speeds, pronunciations.  We became a part of this small crowd, my family slowly separating from one another as we circled the Kaabah, each of us alone, among the strangers chanting the same Arabic verses in their foreign voices.  The silver metal-frame eyeglasses of a light-skinned pilgrim glinted under the lights.  The glasses were square and modern -- the glasses of an accountant from Lyon, Frankfurt, or Istanbul.

-- () --

How many times I had renounced what I was -- or what I was supposed to be.  All my life I had been haunted by an incident in third grade, back in the early '80s in the small town I grew up in in suburban Connecticut.  It was social studies, or geography.  We were learning about the world's major religions.  We were reading a section about Islam, and how it had one billion adherents around the world.  The teacher asked the class: is anyone here Muslim?  She wasn't quite looking at me, the only non-white kid in the class, but she let the question hang for a bit, and I felt all its weight settling on me.  I fidgeted with my mechanical pencil and tried to pretend that the situation was not happening and the question had not been asked.  After what seemed like an awfully long time, the teacher relented, and said "I guess not."  I burned with shame and self-loathing.

-- () --

The black cloth shrouding the Kaabah is clearly about death.  About death, the mystery of origins, and destinations.  The Kaabah itself is empty.  It's just a masonry structure with a door that is opened once a year by a particular local clan that holds the key to the door.  On that one day a year, members of that clan and certain dignitaries, heads of state, et al., are allowed inside the Kaabah, where the members of the tribe conduct a cleaning ritual, using water from the Zum Zum spring and rose water.

-- () --

My mom took us to Mecca because she had made a deal with God.  I had been living in Japan the year before when, one day, I went blind in one eye.  The cause was mysterious.  I spent a day at a Japanese hospital, taken there by my Australian boss and her Japanese boyfriend.  We waited several hours in a hallway; I was eventually seen by a doctor, a kind woman in her thirties, whose English was slightly better than my Japanese.  From what I understood of what she told me, I was bleeding inside my right eye, and that was causing the loss of vision.  (This turned out to be inaccurate.)  I rushed home from the hospital, hurriedly packed my small room in Inokashira, outside of Tokyo, gave away many of my larger possessions, including a stereo I had saved for months to buy, and took a flight home the next morning.

In the middle of all of this, there had been a call, in the middle of the night, that I made from a glowing telephone booth near my local train stop.  I had explained what had happened to my father, and my mother began to cry in the background.  The sounds were transmitted by satellite, or perhaps a cable, lying at the bottom of the sea, running across the Pacific, across America, to a line going upstairs into my parents' bedroom in Connecticut.  It was apparently during my flight home that my mother made her pact with God, on the following terms: if I made it through okay, she promised to take the family on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

-- () --

At one corner of the Kaabah, set in silver, is the Black Rock, a glossy, obsidian-like stone of uncertain origin and great antiquity.  There is nothing else of note inside the Kaabah.  It has a small gutter extending from its roof, to drain rainwater.  Yet, kneeling before it at four in the morning, watching the small band of pilgrims circle it under the artificial light, and taking in the massive space of the courtyard, with the crazy desert sky gaping over us, at this destination dreamed of and prayed toward by more than a billion, the site sewn into prayer rugs -- rugs carried and unfurled in apartments in Karachi, offices in Jakarta, by the side of the road in Vancouver -- I could not help but feel the terrifying gravity exerted by this empty cube.  I imagined all the plane routes, arcing across the Earth, from every continent, to Jeddah, the pilgrims riding in buses, packed into vans, standing on ships, carrying some belongings in plastic bags, progressing rapidly or slowly, to this point, this silent black cube, fringed with illegible gold text.

These pilgrims, those teeming masses spilling out of the structure of the Grand Masjid during Ramadan, aren't praying to a building.  The building is nothing but four walls covered in a black veil, with a black stone set in one corner: it's merely a point of focus.  It's sacred not for any particular act or event that took place here, but because it's the focal point for more than a billion humans.

Jews face the Temple Mount when praying.  Muslims also prayed toward the Temple Mount for thirteen years, during Muhammad's lifetime.  If someone is inside the Kaabah, or at the exact opposite point on Earth, she can pray facing any direction.

During Muhammad's lifetime, the Kaabah contained hundreds of tribal gods, including Jesus and Mary.  Muhammad and his followers conquered Mecca in 630 A.D.  Muhammad then entered the Kaabah and proceeded to destroy all 360 of the idols worshipped within the structure.  The Kaabah itself has been destroyed and rebuilt several times since Muhammad's death.  The materials from which the Kaabah is built are not, of themselves, sacred or holy.  The building is, in effect, simply a target.

The black veil draped over the Kaabah is, in effect, a blank, a total emptiness, a limit.  The veil is as far -- and as close -- as one can get.  But even here, at the Kaabah, close enough to reach out and touch the veil of the Kaabah, one is simply touching the limit, the boundary line.  This is the destination; this is as far as one can go, yet where have we arrived?  At a wall.  And even if you were lucky enough to be invited inside the Kaabah, in the empty interior, where would you be?  On the other side of the Kaabah's walls, but no closer to God.  And no further.


-- () --



The one thing I always go back to is walking out into the interior courtyard, and seeing the Kaabah for the first time.  For weeks afterward, the image stayed with me.  Walking under an arch, the lights, the 2001 monolith-like apparition of the Kaabah looming, undeniably, in front of me.  It was one of those moments where you shiver with something like terror in the face of what's real and right in front of you. 

I can't tell you what I believe.  I don't know if I know myself.  I don't know if I'll ever know, for sure.  But that first glimpse of that silent black cube, shrouded in its black veils, stays with me, revealing nothing.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Is Bangladesh a Fake Country?

Okay, it's not fake, as in not real, but it's kind of a weak country, as far as history and logic.  And please keep in mind I say this all as a Bengali with family from and in Bangladesh.

Brief context: What's now Pakistan and Bangladesh were both contained within what was historically India for as long as anyone can remember.  Then the British came.  Occupation and colonization were followed by Indian resistance, and then a departure of the British.

As a departing gift, in 1947, the British helped divide India into "Hindu" India and "Muslim" Pakistan.


As you can see, the newly created "Pakistan" was split into two parts.  West Pakistan on one side of India, and East Pakistan on the other side of India.  What could go wrong?

The new state of Pakistan, made up of two noncontiguous states, separated by India, in which two separate languages were spoken, and two separate and distinct cultures prevailed, would not survive for long.  In 1971, West and East Pakistan had a civil war, in which India played a major role, helping East Pakistan gain its independence from West Pakistan, and thereby creating yet another new country: Bangladesh.

Here's the part that bugs me: Bangladesh, which came into being in 1971, is arbitrarily separated from West Bengal, as state in India that it borders.  Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal, was historically the capital of Bengali culture, the cultural center of Bengali literature and science, etc.  The region of the Bengal was defined by its language, Bengali.

Partition created a completely arbitrary line in the middle of the Bengal.  One of the greatest mass migrations in human history accompanied partition, with Hindus fleeing into India, and Muslims fleeing into "West Pakistan."  But nearly all of these people spoke Bengali.  The closest parallels I can think of are the partition of Germany after WWII, and the partition of Korea after the Korean War.  Both of those partitions clearly felt artificial, and against the grain of history, and the pull of a shared language and culture.  The Wall fell in Germany.  The DMZ will surely one day be cleared in the Korean peninsula.  One wonders if the border between Bangladesh and West Bengal can be maintained.  It actually would make more sense for West Bengal and Bangladesh to merge into one separate country than for Bangladesh to be maintained as a Muslim half of the region of Bengal, the remnant of the imagined country of Greater Muslim Pakistan.

What was the purpose of creating Pakistan?  Hasn't the creation of Pakistan done more harm than good?  Yes, Pakistan was created to allow Muslims to have their own state, but was there really a need for that?  India has one of the largest Muslim populations of any country in the world (160 million).  Yes, there is Hindu-Muslim strife, but India is a country bursting with various languages and religions.  That's how it is now, and how it always has been.  Quick, what's the first image you have when you think of India?  The Taj Mahal, right?


That's a Muslim building, built by the Mughals: Muslim rulers of India from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

Anyway, I know there are all sorts of arguments to be made in response to this.  But my point is this: the line separating Bangladesh from West Bengal is the same type of line that we tried to draw between East and West Germany, the same type of line that currently separates North and South Korea.  A border like that is untenable, in the long run.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Selected Pictures from My Cell Phone



Taken at an infant and adult CPR class I recently attended

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reading the February 2011 Edition of Trader Joe's "Fearless Flyer"



For some reason, today, for the first time, I sat down and read the monthly flyer from Trader Joe's, the "Fearless Flyer." It really is an incredible document. Now I know where all the English and lit majors go: they go to work for Trader Joe's, writing and editing the monthly flyers.

I found something disturbing and off-putting about the obnoxious, pretentious, and smug tone of the flyer. The thing reads as if it were written by a particularly self-satisfied junior at Dartmouth.

Here are some choice excerpts from this month's flyer: "Though nominally credited to the Danes, it is generally assumed in culinary circles that this particular pastry originated in Vienna, alongside its sister flaky pastry, the croissant." (p. 6) This is the only grocery-store flyer on earth in which you will find the word "nominally."

Continuing in that vein: "What's different about Trader Joe's Strawberry Cream Cheese? . . . . [W]e eschew artificial colors and flavors, instead choosing to use copious amounts of strawberries to achieve our ideal strawberry-to-cream ratio . . . ." (p. 6)

"First there were Joe's O's. Grammatical inconsistencies aside, Joe's O's = great product, excellent value, only at Trader Joe's." (p. 1) Yes, a sentence in the Trader Joe's flyer starts with "[g]rammatical inconsistencies aside," and mocks the grammatical errors appearing on other Trader Joe's products.

Who the hell are the writers of this flyer writing for? Oh, that's right: the judgmental yuppies (like myself) who shop there. Besides not recycling or eating caged-bird eggs, there is no greater sin for this class (viz., us yuppies) than grammatical error. Or misuse or abuse of punctuation: "Though we aim for judiciousness in all things, an argument could be made that we tend to overuse exclamation points. In this case, however, we will argue that the exclamatory punctuation is more than warranted: it's necessary." (p. 7 (Vintage Reserve Cheddar $3.99!))

Because we, the elect Trader Joe's customers, are so fucking smart. We so obviously know what "eschew" and "nominally" and "copious" mean, and we so clearly enjoy coming across these words in our grocery-store flyer because, when we do, it massages that special secret part of us that likes to be reminded that we are the type of people that shop at a grocery store that uses words like "eschew" and "nominally" and "copious" in its flyer, the kind of place that notes "grammatical inconsistencies" in the names of its products, etc.

Perhaps that's why these flyers are written like they are campus magazines from the fancy-ass colleges we, the anointed Trader Joe's customers, attended. Because that makes us feel at home. The message one is meant to take away: smart people shop here, not dumb people -- those people shop at Vons.

Again: "A recent trip to France revealed, quite as we'd hoped and expected, some great foods that we've been really excited to bring in to our stores. . . . Each makes a hearty meal for lunch or dinner, and is bursting with vivid flavors you won't find in the frozen entrees in most supermarket freezers. Our freezers are different, though, so these flavorful finds fit right in among our featured frozen foods." (p. 11) Read: Our freezers are different, just as our customers, like you, are different. You're not like the customers one finds in most supermarkets. You're by no means a fat, ugly American who drinks milk from cows treated with growth hormones or who has no idea what naan is. Because you shop here, you're basically almost French.

Okay. I know there are people being shot on the street in Manama right now and this post is a ridiculous waste of energy, but I had to share.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

View from the Tank: Valu-Pak (very brief reviews of some movies I've seen recently)



It's been too long since I've done one of these. (I may be the only person who feels that way.)

UGETSU (1953): An incredible, haunting, beautiful film about greed, ambition, and being seduced by a sexy ghost with weird drawn-in eyebrows in feudal Japan. Easily one of the greatest Japanese movies I've ever seen. There are several scenes in this movie of stunning beauty -- especially the river-crossing scene in the night fog. A

KNIGHT & DAY (2010): It's hard to think of a more aggressively stupid movie. Watching this, all I could think of was the pitch meeting where someone must've said something to the effect of "Think Bourne Identity meets What Happens in Vegas!" And then some producer said "Love it! Love it! Here's a hundred million dollars. Get Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Oh, and just for kicks, get Peter Saarsgard and that weird kid from There Will Be Blood." Also part of the plan: for the role of the main villain, who is supposed to be Spanish, cast someone who cannot speak Spanish, and who will be dubbed during the more challenging lines. This is the kind of movie that features the couple having little spats while they are being shot at by tons of bad guys. So cute! Also, Cameron Diaz's character, a ditzy, previously aimless single thirtysomething, after meeting the super-agent assassin guy played by Tom Cruise, realizes that she has these awesome latent assassin skills that she totally had no idea about before! Her methods are irregular and fortuitous (accidentally opening a car door at the right time during a car chase and whacking some bad guy on a motorcycle) -- but they gets the job done! (Think back to Janie Lee Curtis's character dropping an Uzi down a flight of stairs and killing all the bad guys in that scene in True Lies -- just like that!) A profoundly stupid film. D+

THE KING'S SPEECH (2010): Predictable, formulaic, serviceable, forgettable. Mostly well acted. The perfect movie to take your parents to. No sex! Just some cute swearing from our challenged noble. The uncritical acceptance of the position and privileges of royalty in this movie is a little gross. It all comes off like a modern, very decent Hallmark Card. Nothing offensive or disturbing here! (Well, there's the interesting and scandalous story lurking here of Prince Edward's abdication for Wallis Warfield, but that story is a little too hot for this mild, family-friendly film, so it's basically brushed aside.) The ending is unforgivable cheesy, and tiresomely inevitable. You will forget the movie as soon as you get back to your car. In fact, you may forget the movie before it's over. B




SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD
(2010): Kind of like eating an entire bag of sour gummi coke bottles and washing it down with Cherry 7-Up: you're either going to absolutely love it or it's going to make you want to hurl. (You'll be more likely to love it if you are between the ages of 27-38 and grew up in a middle-class household in North America in which you had access to video games and/or comics.) Hilarious little lines ("Being vegan means you're better than other people"). I am not a huge Michael Cera fan, and I was primed to hate this movie, but I ended up totally loving it -- much to my surprise. Director Edgar Wright manages to master an entirely different world here: the nerd-world of comics, late-80s/early-90s video games, and high-school garage bands. Jason Schwartzman is also surprising with some fine, self-mocking work here. A-

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (2010): A very fine film. Great acting all around. A relatively simple, but involving story. A somewhat perplexing (and slightly cheesy) ending. Good endings are very difficult. Beginnings are easier. Hey, wait, is that part of the point of this film? A-

Saturday, January 01, 2011

2011: Year of the Revived Blog

Happy New Year, Eagle Rock.

It's 2011 and I'm still alive. Apologies for the long hiatus. I just ate like 20 nonpareils right before the clock struck midnight (one of my resolutions for this year is to eat fewer things that are likely to bring on a heart attack).

I haven't been blogging much this year. I'm going to try to get back in the habit this year. The focus of this blog has varied wildly over the past few years. In the next few months, I think I'll focus on movie reviews, book reviews, and Eagle Rock-related posts. I realized earlier this year that I'm no food critic. I don't even really care about "good" food. Mostly, I like to shovel food into my mouth as I talk with people I like. (Or watch TV.)

Anyhow, best wishes for 2011.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A History of Violence, or Why Sarah Palin Knows Exactly What She Is Saying



Why are Americans so enamored with guns and violence? What is the dog-whistle code in which Sarah Palin is speaking when she urges her Tea Party followers not to "retreat" but to "reload" with the "U.S. and Alabama flags" whipping in the wind behind her? Why does she insist on using the images of crosshairs on a map on which she "targets" Democratic incumbents?




Recognizing that the question of why we are so violent and into guns is well covered ground, here are what I would consider the primary historical factors.

First, our country was born out of armed conflict with -- an insurgency against -- Great Britain. Armed revolt holds a hallowed place in our history.

Second, the land on which our country was founded, and on which it grew, was ripped from the original inhabitants at gunpoint and (often) through actual slaughter. Might equalled right of possession in early American history. The image of swarthy savages being held off and precious beacons of (European) civilization spared through the use of violence is a standard part of American mythology.

Third, our nation relied heavily, in the first half of its history, on the peculiar institution of slavery, which was policed and managed through violence. The plantation masters' monopoly on violence and weapons allowed them to contain and discipline their slaves, who of course outnumbered their European masters.



The legacy of all of this is to lend a very special weight to the Tea Partier's -- and especially Palin's -- fixation on guns and arms. They are not simply referencing the celebrated history of armed resistance against the tyranny of King George; they are also referencing the greater firepower that allowed Europeans to clear the land of the savages and the monopoly on violence that allowed Europeans to enslave Africans. That's why, I believe, Palin knows exactly what she's doing in deploying her reckless terminology.


Fear of a Black President

To the Tea Party contingent, guns represent (1) what they view as their sacred right to violently overthrow the tyranny of a government lead by a black, crypto-Muslim man; (2) the power/right with which this land was claimed by their European ancestors (i.e. "true, blue-blooded [sic] Americans"), and (3) the force with which Africans (not so different from the ones currently living in the White House) were kept subjugated and obedient. Given our current position in history, one quickly sees why Palin's choice of words has so much resonance among this crowd. The Tea Partiers represent a dwindling demographic, feeling threatened by the encroaching blacks and browns, convinced that they are oppressed by a tyrannical government (from which a good number of them are happy to receive governmental assistance) run by a socialist crypto-Muslim half-breed.


The crypto-Confederate flag of Alabama, which was flown proudly behind Palin at the Searchlight, Nevada Tea Party rally.

Considering the recent rash of violence and threats in the wake of the passage of Health Care Reform, the charges against Christian militants in the midwest, etc., I hope that the reckless incitements of Palin and her fellow travellers -- and their moral responsibility -- are not forgotten should someone inspired by her or her crowd act upon those words.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Children, Parents, and Merit



As we move into the season of college acceptance (and rejection) letters, anxious seniors tearing open envelopes thick (or thin), my thoughts turn back to that ancient (and tired?) debate about individual merit.

Merit, in the context of school admissions, etc., is, in my view, an interesting and complicated issue that defies simple categories or easy answers.

For example, is the cultured, well rounded, articulate, well travelled high-school senior more meritorious than the daughter of immigrant parents -- parents who don't speak English well? Some kids grow up having Dickens and Austen read to them by parents who themselves went to the finest schools; the parents of these children usually have libraries full of books, engage their children all their lives in intelligent discussion, encourage their children to be well rounded, expose them to art, sports, other cultures, languages, etc. Other kids are raised by parents who don't speak English that well, who can’t afford to provide these kinds of opportunities to their kids, etc. (Many children of non-English speakers will, no doubt, have intelligent and thoughtful discussions in other languages, but that these discussions are not in English has consequences, I believe, on the SAT, in English verbal facility and confidence, etc.)

Is it fair to look at a seventeen-year-old and her accomplishments, many of which were scheduled, programmed, set up, and, not to put too fine a point on it, paid for and guaranteed by her cultured, educated parents and deem all of the seventeen-year-old’s accomplishments her own? Even the seventeen-year-old’s verbal facility, vocabulary, self-assertiveness, etc. -- the very core of her personality and qualities -- are not, if we’re being honest, I think, really her “own” –- whatever that may mean in this context. (And looked at this way, this may make any discussion of "owning" personal qualities impossible, given parenting, genes, disease, environment, etc.)

I don’t envy the position college admissions committees are placed in. The finest and most “meritorious” candidates – based on grades, activities, interests, abilities, skills, etc. -- will almost always come from households of educated parents –- whether those parents are rich or not. Children of parents who speak another language, who lack the same resources (financial, educational, cultural), etc., will often lack an entire childhood of education outside of the classroom.

I don’t know how these disparities should be accounted for. It’s not simply a question of affirmative action, though that is unavoidably part of this discussion. It’s also a question of taking economic and social status into account, and, further, recognizing that class perpetuates itself not solely through money, but through education as well. The children of parents who went to Stanford or Dartmouth or Amherst, etc., are likely to receive the benefits of seventeen years of education and stimulation that children of other parents will not be able to provide. And there's really no way to figure out what a child without such parents would have been able to accomplish if she had had such parents.

I believe what I’m saying is that a child’s accomplishments and achievements are often, to put it too simply, in truth the achievements of her parents.

I recognize that there’s an interesting discussion lurking here about the beneficial incentives to parents in doing the most they can to “improve” their children, that if the parents put in the effort, have the resources, it is not in the end “unjust” that their children reap the rewards, are deemed more “meritorious.” And I obviously haven't even touched on the issue of why children who have fast responses, whose brains process quickly, who learn quickly, etc. -- perhaps, not to be crass, children who have inherited "good genes" -- should be deemed more "meritorious" than other children. Are we rewarding genetic inheritance? Is it meritorious simply to be born smart? Or should we be instead rewarding effort, discipline, struggle? That is, should merit be something that should have to be earned, not simply inherited? What qualities or characteristics are "meritorious"? In determining merit, should we be attempting to consider individual achievements while correcting for the fortuitous benefits and advantages some children were born into or without (an obviously impossible task)?

Just something I was thinking about. As I said, I think the question defies easy answers. And it’s obvious, and will be the case till the end of time, that most parents (like my own, like yours) will do almost anything they can to try to improve the prospects of their children. That won't change. The question will always be, I think, how we decide which children -- who had no say in their parentage -- will be deemed "worthy" of access to the finest educations and opportunities. (And perhaps there's a question here for a lot of us about what we've actually "earned" and what we've simply received out of dumb luck and/or efforts made by others -- a question with answers that I know, for me, are humbling.)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

View from the Tank: Multi-Pak



BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966):

A stunning film. Beyond its remarkably balanced and thoughtful treatment of both the resistance fighters and the French colonial forces, the film is also a technical marvel, in its use of music, its editing, and its cinematography. The film is shockingly relevant today, especially in highlighting the fluid and malleable nature of the label of terrorism, the futility of occupation, and the corrosive effect occupation has on the occupiers. Simply one of the greatest films I have ever seen. A+

SHUTTER ISLAND (2010):

Gripping, over-the-top, and enjoyable for a good part of the movie. The ending is a bit disappointing, as everyone has noted, though there are minor hints thrown in to try, unsuccessfully, to make the ending more complex than it is. As absorbing as the film is, the effect seems to dissipate immediately upon leaving the theater -- nothing stays with you. B-

A SERIOUS MAN (2009): (SPOILERS)

In many ways, a hilarious film -- but possibly also a profound film. An often trippy take on the Book of Job, set to Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix, and set in the aluminum-sided, squat ranch neighborhoods of 60's or 70's American suburbia. The Coen brothers riff on their greatest works here, but to a new, often dazzling effect. Their movies often feel like they keep trying to say something, over and over, in a way that we ultimately don't quite get (though we're kept thoroughly entertained all the while). Never has that feeling been as acute as it is here.

It does seem that the filmmakers are trying to say something by having the protagonist, Larry Gopnik, say, over and over, as the people around him take action and begin to destroy his world, "I haven't done anything!" Indeed, the film opens with the quote: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." Gopnik is hounded throughout the film by someone calling from the Columbia Record Club: they want to be paid for the records they've been sending Gopnik. Gopnik (or his son) has apparently signed up for the Record Club, and they send him records, and charge him, if he doesn't do anything. As Gopnik's wife is telling him she is leaving him, Gopnik protests that "he hasn't done anything," and his wife says, "That's right. You haven't done anything."

The theme of passivity and reception, of allowing things to happen to one is highlighted in Gopnik's opening scene, where we see him in the doctor's office. The doctor is looking into his ear, and then checking his pupils: we're looking at Gopnik's portals on the world. We aren't shown Gopnik's hands or his mouth, with which Gopnik would actively participate in the world -- with which he would take action and do something. (When Gopnik later takes action, the shot focuses on his hands, taking action in the world.)

Later, Gopnik is on his roof, adjusting the television aerial, and as he touches it, he begins to hear television signals: he becomes a receiver, an extension of the antennae. Later, his son Daniel, at his bar mitzvah, is holding a metal staff, pointed at Hebrew script in the Torah. Daniel hesitates and a rabbi pushes the staff across the text -- and there's a sound like a needle across a record (record players keep showing up throughout the movie) and then Daniel catches a groove, and begins to read, singing a prayer, the staff moving along the text as he reads. (Daniel, in his opening scene, is shown in a close-up of an earphone in his ear; the earphone is playing rock music in his ear as he sits through a Hebrew class.)

The idea of simply allowing things to happen to one's self seems to be connected, at a profound level, to the distinctions between ancient Greek and Hebrew thought -- a foundational division in Western thought. Greek (and not-so-distantly related Indian) religion and philosophy emphasized the image, the aspects of vision and form. The Romans continued this. In contrast, God's command to the Jews was often "Hear, O Israel!" Where the Greeks (and Indians) reveled in physical forms, depictions of bodies, God forbade the Jews from creating or worshiping graven images, and emphasized the word. Greek and Indian gods appeared, took physical form; the Jewish God was never seen -- only heard.

So there is plainly a theme here, of being open to the world, allowing it to act upon you -- perhaps as a way of hearing God's voice -- but it's unclear if the filmmakers endorse this attitude toward the world, find it flawed, or simply find it a hilarious premise: have a character to whom things happen, and who is unable or unwilling to actually do anything. The film suggests, undermining its opening quote, that doing nothing is not always the moral, ethical, or wise choice.

In the bizarre but fascinating opening scene, a husband and wife confront a possible dybbuk -- a possessed body. The husband laughs off the possibility that the visitor is a dybbuk, but the wife takes action, stabbing the dybbuk with an ice pick. The strong suggestion, in my reading, was that the wife was correct to act -- though we cannot say with certainty that she was not wrong, and did not bring down a curse upon the family. Either way, the scene seems difficult to square with Gopnik's story.

Later, the father of one of Gopnik's students, referring to a perplexing situation Gopnik does not understand, urges Gopnik to "accept the mystery." In his class, Gopnik completes a proof "showing with certainty that the only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty" (a line that seemed a bit on-the-nose). The filmmakers seem to be trying to underline this theme of allowing the world to happen to one's self and accepting uncertainty, but they show how this posture can lead to the collapse of everything. And when Gopnik does act, at the end of the film, it appears that he's immediately punished for it, with an ominous call from his physician (following up with Larry on the results of the physical exam we saw at the opening of the film). At the same time, a tornado is approaching Daniel's Hebrew school, and the children are milling around in the parking lot, watching it come -- doing nothing -- suggesting that passivity, and allowing the world to happen to you is often a terrible idea.

No doubt, the contradictory messages were intentionally constructed. And perhaps the filmmakers mean for us to accept the mystery of not knowing whether the film is suggesting that we should accept the world as it comes to us or attempt to change it. Perhaps the ultimate answer, as one of the rabbis Gopnik consults suggest, really does not matter -- or we're not entitled to it (if there is one). That the film raises these questions in such an interesting way is in itself a major feat.

The technical aspects of the film are superb. The story of the inscribed teeth, set to Jimi Hendrix, is hallucinatory, incredible. The actors, mostly unknowns in Hollywood, are all excellent. The cinematography is wonderful.

To say to the audience "accept the mystery" could be seen as a cheap cop out -- somewhat like the "twist" in SHUTTER ISLAND. But it feels richer, more substantial that that. This film is full of substance, full of matter to be considered. It is confusing, seemingly contradictory, and not fully coherent, but it feels like an attempt to struggle with how to see the world. But that may be a reading too serious for the film, which in its choice of title, goads us not to take the film seriously, and to laugh at the absurd things that befall Gopnik. A-

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why Do Countries Care About Winning Olympic Medals?



I may have brought this up back during the 2008 Summer Olympics, but I’m too lazy to go back and look.

Why do countries care so much about winning Olympic medals?

For example, Australia is apparently one of the top spenders on Olympic programs, investing $250 million dollars in its Olympic program and other sports annually. Canada is currently spending upwards of $150 million on a program devoted to the Winter Olympics called “Own the Podium.” (Notably, U.S. Olympic athletes currently receive little or no government funding; they rely largely on private sponsors.)

Why would Australia, Canada, or their citizens care so much about winning medals? Why would Australia or Canada be willing to spend a lot of money funding programs in efforts to win Olympic medals? Is this effort and expenditure made to demonstrate dominance and superiority for the benefit of a foreign audience? For what purpose? Is it to demonstrate dominance and superiority in relation to other countries for the benefit of the domestic audience in Australia or Canada? Again, for what purpose? To buck up their sense of pride? What is the benefit obtained in that?

I can imagine the ready responses: It’s a natural patriotic impulse, to want to win, and defeat other countries, show that Australians/Canadians are the best. The people of Australia/Canada can experience a vicarious sense of superiority when they watch one of their own win a gold medal. It’s no different than rooting for the Bears if you live in Chicago, or for the UNC basketball team if you go to UNC. (But professional sports exist to make a profit, and college sports often make money for the schools, raise the profile of the schools, etc. What does Canada actually get from winning medals -- besides a feeling of pride?)


Fischer vs. Spassky, 1972

During the Cold War, the Olympic battles between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (and East Germany) were just another front in the Cold War -- a continuation of the ideological battle fought by other means. Olympic victories were seen to validate the ideology and system of the prevailing side. So, the U.S. hockey team’s Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid demonstrated the vitality and spirit of the Capitalist system; the U.S.S.R.’s domination in figure skating, gymnastics, wrestling, etc. demonstrated the glories of the Worker’s Paradise. The Olympic victories during the Cold War were part of an ongoing propaganda war between the two sides, the purpose of which was to attract or keep others within the Capitalist/Communist fold. But what would Canada or Australia have to prove to other countries? Why would they care what other countries thought of them based on Olympic performances?

(Of course, there could be other benefits. National unity, perhaps providing inspiration for kids to be active and get into sports, thus producing a healthier and more productive population, etc. But these seem like pretty attenuated results.)

Winning Olympic medals doesn’t really achieve anything for Australia or Canada, or earn them anything. It’s just a nice thing, and the Australians and Canadians back home get a nice feeling inside when their athletes win. But what is that worth? I guess there’s no accounting for preferences, and if that is where a country like Australia or Canada wants to spend their money, that’s their decision. It’s probably a better use of money than spending trillions on invasions of other countries. (And maybe that is the very point?)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

BMW's "We Make Joy" Campaign



I wonder if the ad-makers for BMW's new advertising campaign, "We Make Joy" (see ad above), debated whether to use that particular slogan, given the ugly history of the Kraft durch Freude ("Strength through Joy") program, and its associations with the German auto industry under the Third Reich:
From 1933, [Kraft durch Freude ("KdF")] provided affordable leisure activities such as concerts, plays, libraries, day-trips and holidays. Large ships, such as the Wilhelm Gustloff, were built specially for KdF cruises. Above all, KdF was supposed to bridge the class divide by making middle-class leisure activities available to the masses.

Borrowing from the Italian fascist organization Dopolavoro ('After Work'), but extending its influence into the workplace as well, KdF rapidly developed a wide range of activities, and quickly mushroomed into one of the Third Reich's largest organizations....

The Nazis also sought to attract tourists from abroad, a task performed by Hermann Esser, one of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda's secretaries. A series of multilingual and colorful brochures, titled "Deutschland", advertised Germany as a peaceful, idyllic, and progressive country, on one occasion even portraying the ministry's boss, Joseph Goebbels, grinning and hamming in an unlikely photo series of the Cologne carnival.

KdF managed to set up production of an affordable car, the Kdf-Wagen, which later became known as the Volkswagen Beetle. Buyers of the car made payments and posted stamps in a stamp-savings book, which when full would be redeemed for the car. Due to the shift to wartime production, no consumer ever received a Kdf-Wagen (although after the war, Volkswagen did give some customers a 200DM discount for their stamp-books). The Beetle factory was primarily converted to Kübelwagen (the German equivalent of the Jeep) production. What few Beetles were produced went primarily to the diplomatic corps and military officials.
(Wikipedia)

Below, a fascinating 1943 U.S. war-effort propaganda cartoon, featuring Donald Duck, and parodying the Nazi's "Strength through Joy" leisure programs.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Soundings (Audio Reviews): Heligoland - Massive Attack (2010)



The tyranny of our best years. In the mid-nineties, opening the mail for the college radio station, finding the promotional CDs the record companies had sent, I stumbled across a sound that immediately sucked me in: bands from England (Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky), with a dark, hopeless air -- like Don DeLillo set to music. There was a certain aesthetic -- of gray, of twilight, of a new Brutalism in a way; a style England -- mother of the theories of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, of the factory workday, and moth evolution affected by industrial pollution -- always seemed to flirt with.

It was music for places shrouded in mist, darkness. There is generally no sunshine in Massive Attack. If there is light, it is artificial, stark, soulless.

Portishead returned in 2008 with the masterful Third. Massive Attack has now returned from the darkness as well, with their first album since 2003.



There is more life in Heligoland than in Massive Attack's last effort, the brittle and empty 100th Window. Whereas 100th Window was flat, and much too thin, Heligoland is thick and layered, like a forest floor, covered in an imbrication of dead leaves in various states of decay, of becoming soil again.

Massive Attack have always seemed to dwell somewhere a few years in the future. Their music was often claustrophobia-inducing, attuned to the absence of choice, the institutional imprisonment of the monetary economy in the era of late capitalism. (I always think of the line "Give me evenings and weekends" from Mezzanine.)


Exemplar of the Brutalist style: Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, by by Mathers & Haldenby Architects (1973)

The glorious Blue Lines had moments of soaring, of emotions other than brooding, menace, and paranoia. The sun broke through here and there. There is more sun on the new album than one would expect.

The first track, Pray for Rain, is a good example. The song proceeds as a somber, electronic funeral dirge for much of the track, aided by vocals from TV On the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, before giving way, somewhat inexplicably, to a few moments of joy. Splitting the Atom bops along in an underwater slow motion, but not unhappily: sort of a low-key Monster Mash. Girl I Love You is like Massive Attack after a big bowl of Fruity Pebbles, brooding with a beat you could dance to: you could put it on your workout mix and you wouldn't slow down too much. The stripped-down but insistent final track, Atlas Air, has the distinct feel of the new, but with a firm grounding in a certain familiar growling, beeping dread.

I've listened to the album only three of four times so far. Right now, it feels like the type of album that will continue to reward repeated listening, as one gets more and more lost in the layers, the heady mix of old and new, the familiar and the strange.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

View from the Tank: Multi-Pak Edition



It's been a while since I've done one of these, so I figured it was time.

LE SAMOURAI (1967). Wildly overrated, in my opinion. Alain Delon is comical (unintentionally so), not cool. The whole super-cool hitman schtick is ridiculous. The story is not nearly as clever or intriguing as the filmmakers appear to imagine it is. (Longtime readers may recall that I had a similar reaction to LE CERCLE ROUGE.) I think most people who profess to love this movie are into it because it is a French "gangster" movie, and that sounds cool. I guess some of the shots are interesting enough, but really, what is the big deal? B-



INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) This was the best movie of last year. This may be Tarantino's best film -- or perhaps just behind PULP FICTION. The story is fantastically inventive. The writing is never lazy. I knew something special was going on during the first scene, when Hans Landa (the incredible Cristoph Waltz) is speaking to a French farmer about rats, eagles, and squirrels: the conversation seemed like an absurd tangent, but it was irresistible, deeply satisfying -- much like the opening discussion of Big Macs and Quarter Pounders in Europe in PULP FICTION. The French pub scene must be one of the greatest scenes in any of Tarantino's films.

The film works together the best qualities of Tarantino's earlier work, brings it into an alternate history, imports fantastic German, French, and English actors, and it all works. Diane Kruger (Bridget von Hammersmark), Mélanie Laurent (Shoshanna), Daniel Brühl (Frederick Zoller), and Michael Fassbender (Archie Hicox) all turn in astoundingly good performances -- Kruger and Fassbender in particular. Brad Pitt as Aldo Raines is fine, and not nearly as much of a distraction as I expected. (The one misfire on the casting, I thought, was Eli Roth, who was terrible and over the top as Donny Donowitz, Raines's right-hand man. I cringed every time Roth spoke.)

This is a rich movie experience. It's a movie in love with movies, paying homage to Spaghetti Westerns and the films of Weimar Germany, with sly nods to gangster films, earlier Tarantino films, etc. Writing, story, and acting are all crucially important here. This film is the anti-AVATAR. Whereas AVATAR represents the elevation of the visual and technological above all else -- INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS represents what is possible when filmmakers care very much about each word of dialogue, about the inventiveness and originality of their stories, and the quality of their actors' performances. A+



THIS IS IT (2009) The one thing I remember best about this movie was being shocked by how good Michael Jackson still was, just days before his death. His voice sounded strong, and his dancing, though slightly slowed, remained mesmerizing. There was a moment during the movie (perhaps during "Man in the Mirror") when I formed a Twitter update in my mind: "Put up a satellite. Aim it away from Earth. Play this soundtrack on repeat." Thinking about it now, that would have been a dumb tweet, but it says something about the emotional impact of this film, especially for Jackson fans. We won't see his like again anytime soon. Not a great movie, but a useful historical document. B-



THE HURT LOCKER (2009) I could have done without the little quote at the beginning of the movie, something to the effect of "War is a drug." That's not a particularly interesting or insightful message, but that's all THE HURT LOCKER appears to offer. A friend of mine put it best: "It's like a Fox television show about the war." That observation seemed exactly right to me. This movie looked and felt like the makers of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS had done a show about the war, right down to the jerky, frenetic camera work. The tension inherent in the movie -- it is, after all, mostly a series of scenes about finding and defusing bombs -- works and is handled well, the acting is fine, the dialogue simple and believable, but, still, I left the movie thinking "So what?"

Part of this might have stemmed from my disappointment with the movie's studiously apolitical approach to the war. I can somewhat understand the choice not to delve into the justness or unjustness of the war -- not all movies have to be about politics or ideology -- but the robotically neutral point of view in this movie left it feeling soulless and empty. War is not a drug. War is a choice. And this movie offers no insight into why we made our choice. B-



(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (2009) Gimmicky and cloying, with flashes of interest, but mostly mass-produced "indie-friendly" pabulum. Relying on The Smiths and "wacky" Ringo Starr references to establish some kind of "indie" or "quirky" atmosphere is lazy. The random, mixed-up chronological order of the movie was occasionally effective, but mostly felt like a gimmick. In fact, most of the embellishments in this movie (with the exception of the excellent scene set to Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True") felt like gimmicks.

It's my view that this movie felt the need to load up on gimmicks because what was under all those gimmicks was a standard romantic comedy -- something neither indie nor quirky. So swap out Meg Ryan, swap in Zooey Deschanel (who, by now, like Michael Cera, is permanently typecast as herself), throw in some cartoons, an annoying pseudo-ironic narrator, references to The Smiths, a hip soundtrack, a scene with a table Ms. Pac Man, and, Voila! You have tricked out your standard romantic comedy as something palatable for twenty- or thirty-somethings who see themselves as hip. Note that even the title of this film is pointlessly, ostentatiously gimmicky, to no effect. What is the point of putting parentheses around 500? None. There is no point to it (besides weakly gesturing toward stale pomo maneuvers, blah). The title tries to broadcast, loud and clear, that "THIS IS A HIP MOVIE -- NOT AT ALL A STANDARD-ISSUE ROMANTIC COMEDY". It's like putting thick black-rimmed "smart" glasses on Tom Hanks. Speaking of which, Josh Gordon-Levitt is okay here, but nothing special. C



AN EDUCATION (2009) A strong, finely crafted, finely acted film, with a disappointing ending. Carey Mulligan, Peter Saarsgard, and Alfred Molina are all excellent. There's nothing groundbreaking going on here; it's just a compelling, well put together coming-of-age period piece featuring some fine actors. The ending sucked away a little bit of my enthusiasm for the film. Still, a very fine film. B+

Thursday, February 04, 2010

View from the Tank: TOP-SECRET LOST Formula for Success



Here is the Top-Secret LOST formula for success:

(1) kill off characters [for DRAMA!];
(2) introduce new characters [for INTRIGUE!];
(3) include miraculous CPR procedures every other episode;
(4) add close-ups of Kate/Jack/Sawyer getting weepy with the Sad Music (TM) in the background;
(5) have characters leaving "trails" or tracking "trails" in the jungle;
(6) include new mysterious sets in the jungle;
(7) play contemplative music with slow-motion scenes at the end of each episode;
(8) end season with a large explosion;
(9) liberally apply ghosts, time travel, alternate realities, and Smoke Monster.

Rinse, repeat (for six years).

Congratulations, you have created a Hit TeeVee Show that Smart People (TM) will love!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Pete's Blue Chip in Eagle Rock



I feel like this review will write itself. Pete's Blue Chip, which has apparently been around forever, is a neighborhood treasure, though often invisible, sitting in plain sight on the corner of Mt. Royal and Colorado. It offers an authentic, non-chain, unslick, unsexy approach to greasy food -- an approach that has become rare. Places like The Oinkster make a big deal out of and put a lot of effort into trying to recapture the feel of an old-school neighborhood fast food joint. Pete's Blue Chip doesn't have to put in the effort, doesn't have to hire interior decorators to achieve a retro, nostalgic effect: that is because Pete's Blue Chip is in fact the real thing, not a simulation.


Zucchini fries.

This is a place where the people at the counter remember their faithful regulars, and greet them in English and Spanish. This is a place families come to regularly on weekend mornings for the massive and delicious breakfast burritos, Orange Bang, and crappy coffee. Where Eagle Rock high schoolers and neighborhood hipsters in tight jeans come for cheap but tasty zucchini fries, burgers, and the most incredible milkshakes in the neighborhood.


Orange Bang fountain.

I had my first Pete's milkshake not long ago. It was a vanilla milkshake. At first, the shake was too thick for me to be able to pull up through the straw. I kept at it, and then the first taste of it hit me. I was immediately taken back to those humid New England summers when I was a kid, getting ice cream scooped into those Eat-it-All cones, the taste of non-gourmet vanilla ice cream in that mass-produced cone that felt like styrofoam: rich, delicious, vaguely industrial. It was the best milkshake I had had in years. (I had a chocolate milkshake tonight, and it was equally amazing.)



On that same trip, I tried the zucchini fries for the first time. They were a revelation. The fries had a thick, almost breaded crust -- reminiscent of Burger King's onion rings, with the zucchini still soft and green inside. It was only later that I realized what they reminded me of -- vegetable tempura. They were fantastic with both the ranch sauce they were served with or with ketchup.


Gigantic breakfast burrito.

The garden burger here is decent. Not too different from the garden burger offered at The Oinkster. The fish sandwich I had was forgettable -- sort of an overgrown cousin of a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish.


Fish sandwich.

I couldn't finish the breakfast burrito in one sitting. The thing was gigantic. It must have weighed more than a pound. A very fine tortilla wrapped around massive portions of egg, potatoes, onions, cheese, mushrooms, spinach -- maybe some other stuff. Pete's breakfast burrito is rightly famous. It's enough for two meals. It's a delicious kitchen-sink, Pynchonesque interpretation of the breakfast burrito.


Garden burger.

I almost forget to mention the Orange Bang. People get excited about the Orange Bang here. (Senor Fish also has Orange Bang.) I like the Orange Bang okay. Mostly, it tastes to me like a melted Push-Up Pop.

The food is cheap here and wildly unhealthy. (The menu is extensive: I can't offer you opinions on the various meat offerings here, though I've heard good things.) If you get stuff to go, you'll need a plastic bag, in addition to the paper bags the food comes in, to hold in the grease. I've eaten here a couple times recently for the purpose of this review, and I'm certain I've sacrificed several weeks off my lifespan as a result. This is what I do for you, dear reader. You should go to Pete's and drink in the atmosphere (and a milkshake) -- just don't make it a habit.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mediterranean Triangle in Eagle Rock


Chicken Breast Sandwich

You will like this place.

(I've got to get this review out before all of this leaves my memory: I've recently given up chicken. I'm moving upwards on that busy and productive first week in Genesis. Once I leave behind sea creatures, I'll be up to the third day, just "plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.")

I've been to Mediterranean Triangle dozens of times now. I had to be sure that I wasn't just falling for it because it was in the Super-A-grocery-store mall next to CVS, Subway, and some other nondescript, non-boutique shops, on the south side of Colorado, down Eagle Rock Boulevard, where the expensive baby strollers rarely go (unless they're parked outside of Auntie Em's).


You'll see pictures of this military-looking guy in the four painting reproductions on the wall in the dining room. The paintings are Persian, and they each feature a Persian woman in a garden; this military guy appears in small medallions once in each painting, in a different location, tiny, and a little out of focus, sort of like the royal parents in Velázquez's Las Meninas. The guy behind the counter told me, after some prodding, that the guy done in miniature in all the paintings was the old Shah. He didn't specify which one -- though it doesn't look like The Shah we think about. (The moustache is a bit too big.)

Mediterranean Triangle is trying hard to be a decent Middle Eastern place in a crappy, soulless shopping center. And they are doing a decent job of it. The restaurant is tastefully appointed, with small touches that I found instilled the dining space with some dignity -- like cloth placemats on the tables, with nice lamps hanging down over each table. Not bad for a place that's next door to a check-cashing center. You feel human eating here.

I haven't had the lamb or beef here (those are from the fifth day, which I left behind many years ago), but the chicken dishes I have had here have been excellent -- moist and tender. The chicken breast plate comes with large chunks of chicken breast, nicely seasoned, not overly marinated or doused in sauce, served on a generous bed of fluffy rice, with a bit of salad and a grilled pepper and tomato on the side. The ground chicken (the luleh) was also nice, with a little bit more of a kick of seasoning. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the chicken breast sandwich they offer at lunch. It was huge, with a delicious sauce, onions and lettuce. It was drippy and messy, but a seriously satisfying lunch.

There's a little bar of side dishes, with Persian equivalents of hummus, baba ghanoush, and some other stuff. I was happy to find that, in addition to the standard soda fountain, they also carry mango juice here.



I have no idea why they call this the "Mediterranean Triangle." The restaurant is run by a family of very friendly Iranians, and the names of the dishes are Persian. Iran doesn't touch the Mediterranean. I guess they didn't want to go with "Caspian Triangle, ""Persian Gulf Triangle," or "Gulf of Oman Triangle." Just another mysterious detail here.

I won't oversell you on the food here: it's good, not fantastic. But for the prices (~$6 for lunch, ~$9 for dinner), you get a very solid meal, with civilized touches. You might even think about eating in here, where the TV hanging near the counter is silenced, and you can sit in peace and contemplate the cryptic paintings, with their Persian maidens, their bowls of cracked pomegranates, and a mysterious old Shah.


Chicken Luleh Kabob Plate

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

View from the Tank: UP IN THE AIR (2009)



Every time there's a scene in a movie where someone runs through an airport, driven by love, I cringe a little. There's a scene like that in UP IN THE AIR, which is a fine movie, but not a great one.

The film is about Ryan Bingham (Clooney), who works for a company that contracts to handle firing employees for employers. Bingham flies around the country to different companies, firing individuals, handing them a glossy packet "that contains the answers to all of [their] questions," and delivering a speech about how everyone who has ever built an empire once sat in the position the person being fired finds himself in. Bingham delivers motivational speeches in various hotel ballrooms about the virtues of living with a metaphorical "empty backpack" -- free of attachments, long-term commitments, etc. All so much dead weight that ties one down -- harbingers of stagnation and death. Bingham loves the regular and standardized comforts of airports, airport hotels, airport lounges, rental cars, etc., and his life goals include reaching a certain astronomical number of frequent-flyer miles.

Bingham's way of life is threatened by two women. His beloved business-class nomadism is threatened when his company hires a young go-getter, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who proposes eliminating the face-to-face method of terminating employees and instead using something like Skype to terminate employees by webcam. And Bingham's "empty backpack" philosophy is threatened when he begins to develop feelings for a fellow corporate road warrior he meets in a airport-hotel lounge, Alex (Vera Farmiga).

A lot has been made about how timely this movie is, how tapped into the current Zeitgeist. There's some of that, sure. And the initial interviews with real-life laid-off people helps bring the pain of the last year and a half vividly to the screen. But there's something glib about the movie's attempt to tap into the pain of the recession. The final interviews suggest that getting laid off is okay, because it helps you realize what's truly important: family, the little things, etc. That may be true, but one wonders how the laid-off feel as the unemployment checks come to an end, as the house is foreclosed, etc. It's just a little too easy for the filmmakers to suggest that, hey, these laid-off people are going to be okay, they've rediscovered their love for their spouses, kids, and pets, etc.

For the most part, UP IN THE AIR does not dwell on those issues -- though it does suggest that the consequences of being laid off can indeed be terrible. But the ending interviews with the non-actors felt a little too pat, and I felt like the filmmakers were, in a way, letting themselves, and the audience, off the hook, by assuring us that these real individuals, whose pain we were contemplating as we sipped our Sprites and munched on our Gummi Bears, had found something deeper and more significant than their former jobs. It all came off as a bit glib.

As did a lot of this movie, which was, undoubtedly, well acted, well edited, and well written. It was a pretty good movie, a fine, mildly intelligent entertainment. It just wasn't a great movie. For the most part, it was predictable and unsurprising. Its main saving grace was a bravely ambiguous ending.

Part of my problem with the movie is that I have a hard time feeling sorry for George Clooney -- and we are supposed to feel, at certain points in this movie, sorry for his character, Ryan. It just doesn't work. Despite the comic antics and grimaces he's picked up from his Coen brothers work, Clooney somehow always ends up playing himself. He's always the same smooth-talking slick guy looking sharp in his suit, whether in MICHAEL CLAYTON, OCEAN'S 11, or UP IN THE AIR. (He did bravely shed his hunkiness and get fat for his relatively minor role in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. And I should note that I haven't seen SYRIANA.) I have a hard time worrying for him, or feeling that things are not going to work out for him -- because he's George Clooney, and things will always work out for him. So, even during the darkest parts of this movie, I had a hard time sympathizing with Bingham, even though the movie was trying to get me to.

Clooney's a fine actor -- but I feel that he still hasn't been pushed out of a standard comfort zone (a zone that has come to include wackiness, in films like BURN AFTER READING, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, etc.). When he's supposed to be crushed, I still end up feeling like his situation is as in INTOLERABLE CRUELTY: he's supposed to be pathetic and sad, but it's cute and funny, because it's hilarious that we're supposed to feel sorry for a purportedly heartbroken George Clooney.

My advice, George, if you're reading this, is to play a truly dark character -- an irredeemable character -- one that doesn't come out as the hero in the end despite our initial doubts (as in MICHAEL CLAYTON). That would be something to see.

OG Rating: B+

Saturday, January 02, 2010

View from the Tank: AVATAR (2009)



This movie, is, in a way, James Cameron's avatar: it's a multimillion dollar product made with the latest technology, funded by huge corporations, which product Cameron uses to (ostensibly) turn against huge corporations and technology. But what is the purpose of Cameron's AVATAR? To advance his interests or the interests of his corporate backers? Their interests are intertwined: it's symbiosis. Here, the corporate interests profit by coopting protest against corporate interests. All resistance is ultimately incorporated and marketed back to the masses. And here, it's the same old shit, but in a fancy new 3-D package.

As most people on the planet know by now, AVATAR is about, in part, an alien race called the Na'vi, who live on a moon called Pandora. The Na'vi are ten feet tall and blue-skinned. Humans want a mineral ("Unobtanium") available on Pandora. As part of its attempts to convince the Na'vi to cooperate, the corporation that seeks to extract the Unobtanium finances a hugely expensive research project that grows Na'vi bodies from a hybrid of human and Na'vi DNA. Human "drivers" then "link" to these laboratory-grown Na'vi bodies and control them, like a puppetmaster manipulating a puppet. Think MATRIX, but here, the users aren't jacking into a computer grid, but into flesh -- but the concept is largely the same.



I've been fascinated to see so many smart people twist themselves into contortions in their attempts to redeem AVATAR's story and have been wondering if these people have taken leave of their senses. The story is straight cheese. There's nothing remarkable about it -- other than its slavish obedience to predictable cliches and standard genre tropes.

A lot of virtual ink has already been spilled regarding this story, so I'll try to be concise [I would say SPOILER ALERT, but really, is anyone surprised by anything that happens in this movie?]: Jake Sully, disabled former marine ends up becoming an Na'vi avatar "driver" for the corporation planning to mine Pandora; he meets a Na'vi princess and impresses her; they develop a special bond and fall in love and have sex in a magical glowing forest to an Adult Contemporary soundtrack; the princess's father is killed when the corporation attacks; Jake becomes a great Na'vi warrior, perhaps their greatest warrior (see also THE LAST SAMURAI) and decides he must help save the Na'vi from the rapacious evil corporation he works for, so he turns against the corporation and leads the Na'vi (and all of its animals, which he has summoned) into battle against the corporation and its Blackwater-style military forces; the corporation is ultimately defeated, and Pandora saved; in the end, Jake is able, through the magic of the Na'vi's Magic Tree/Great Spirit/Mother Pandora, to transfer permanently from his human body to his bioengineered, laboratory-produced Avatar body.

Sound familiar?



Yes, the world of Pandora is richly imagined, and the technology is impressive (though the power of the 3-D effects wore off on me after about twenty minutes or so), but the story is nothing better than you'd get in a decent anime film (a genre from which this film seems to have borrowed heavily), or a standard sci-fi flick.

I think what's most fascinating is how, even given this technology that allows the rendering of an alien world in minute detail, with extraordinary 3-D depth -- that is, given the ability to imagine and depict almost anything -- Cameron's alien race are ten-foot tall humanoids with blue skin, who ride horses, thank the animals they kill, shoot bows and arrows (complete with feathers), wear loincloths and headdresses, use warpaint, emit war cries, believe in the Great Spirit, etc. AVATAR displays at once both the potential of imagination, and the very real limits of imagination.

Is this movie so new and radical in its sympathetic view of the Na'vi and its cartoonish depiction of a super-evil corporation bent on devastation and plunder?



Is it so radical and bracing to come out against "shock and awe" and fighting "terror with terror" years after the administration that used these terms and tactics is out of power and national opinion has turned firmly against the preemptive war in Iraq?

Is it so radical and bracing to put out a "green" message when Exxon-Mobil, G.E., et al. are all about being "green" these days (complete with a hip soundtrack from The Postal Service)?



In a word, No. (It's funny how proponents of AVATAR's story will blithely dismiss the comparisons to DANCES WITH WOLVES. One wonders, have they seen that film recently? Do they remember its plot? But that's not really the only parallel, of course.)



It's not really new for a film to present a hero who rebels against his own civilization, or who sides with the natives against encroaching imperialists, etc.



The visual effects were impressive, and the film is undoubtedly a breakthrough in computer-generated effects and 3-D. That doesn't really excite me that much. Regardless of the technology, film will live on or die based on story, writing, and concept. Today's mind-blowing effects will soon become standard and expected, just as we got used to the once mind-blowing developments of sound, color, Smell-o-Rama, etc.

As the story goes, when one of the first motion pictures was publicly screened -- the Lumiere Brothers' 1895 short film of a train pulling into a station -- the audience screamed and fled in panic. I feel like the puzzling attempts to find great meaning in the relatively meaningless AVATAR are a higher-order version of that panic in the face of a terrifying new technology of representation. The technology is powerful, strange, and new, sure -- but we'll get used to it soon enough. Probably by next summer. No need to take leave of our senses.



OG Grade: B-