Log in

Previous 10

Dec. 21st, 2009

Drawing the Year to a Close...

Aside from a possibly few minor tweaks and layout, I've gotten the book I'd been working on since fall of '07 done. Finito. Complete. What a wonderful way to wrap up the year! And such a busy, productive, tumultuous year it's been. While I work on the last few touches, I may do some tweaking here and there in my online writings while I try to figure out a way to promote what I've been working on. So, if you happen to read my journals here, don't be alarmed if you see a few changes here or there, it's all part of the larger plan! Just giving you the heads-up, because I know that people have been known to read my posts now and again. >;9 Hope to post more again soon.  

Aug. 11th, 2009

Review: "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra"

I may have gone into "Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen" ready to shred it apart, but this weekend I went in to see "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" toting a mental blender set on 'high'. To put it another way, a friend of mine called during dinner prior to the movie and I told her I was about to indulge in 'train-wreck syndrome' by going to see it. As hideously maladapted as the live-action adapted Transformers have been--the few exceptions being covered in my review of "Revenge of the Fallen"--I was convinced that a live-action rendition of Hasbro's companion 1980's toy and cartoon line would be equally grotesque.

Boy, was I surprised.

For starters, "G.I. Joe" has something that the (lovingly nicknamed) Bay-Formers movies miss like a rainstorm in Death Valley: plot AND suspense. I actually did not know what was going to happen next as the movie went along. Sure, the premise still asks for a good bit of suspended disbelief; if America's military-industrial complex can't equip its soldiers with newer body armor, how in the world could they afford a secret training base in the Sahara, complete with multiple levels and underwater courses? But then again, it wouldn't be the first time that taxpayers have unknowingly footed the bill for something outlandishly high-tech (think the Stealth Bomber). Other bits of technological wizardry in "G.I. Joe" represent either a fantastic elaboration of ideas already in development, such as the nanomites; or else were a flight of pure imagination that was at least visually appealing, such as the underwater M.A.R.S. base or the unnecessary-but-fun-to-watch sequence to weaponize a nanomite warhead. When I heard that the same director for the "Mummy" franchise was doing "G.I. Joe", I was more than a little skeptical. But to his credit, "Rise of Cobra" managed to present plenty of action that was still enjoyable to watch, furthered the story and didn't devolve into clutter being thrown at the screen, a' la Bay-Formers.

I have to give "Rise of Cobra" another unexpected high mark in its translation of classic concepts and characters. Frankly, I could only wish that Bay-Formers had done so well, but unfortunately that crew still can't figure out how to treat robots as real characters instead of just walking, talking special effects. The "G.I. Joe" filmmakers, by contrast, knew they were dealing with human characters that had to be made believable. While this new incarnation does take some liberties, especially with the Baroness, it manages to weave those liberties in well enough that discussing them is more akin to comparing the pros and cons of different intepretations of Batman, as opposed to a point-by-point list of where the filmmakers screwed up (as in the aforementioned property). Rival ninjas Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes were handled with true grace, Duke and Scarlett had more depth than I was expecting, Zartan was made both fairly believable and fun--how many people realized they were seeing him at the President's desk at film's end?--and Destro's backstory was used to great effect as the major plot thrust. Canon elements such as the sexual tension between Destro and the Baroness, phrases like "Knowing is half the battle" and even "Yo, Joe!" were incorporated deftly into the story. I came away from this movie with the distinct sense that its writers genuinely cared about the original property--again, unlike the vultures clustered around Transformers. "Rise of Cobra" even managed to use an element from that god-awful 1986 G.I. Joe movie by making Cobra Commander a scientist. I kept guessing who the partially-masked evil scientist working with Destro/James McLellan was. Is that Cobra Commander? No, it must be Dr. Mindbender! I, like probably much of the Gen-Xers in the audience, was kept off-balance about his identity until the very end of the movie. When he finally donned a full face mask and announced himself as Cobra Commander, I wanted to cheer but was too busy catching my breath. And while I can reluctantly admit that the Darth Vader-esque voice seems to work for the dear Commander, I still miss the acidic rasp he originally had through Chris Latta, and rue the apparent fact that nobody has the cajones to try to pull it off today. As my viewing partner and partner-in-crime Daryn said, to hear the Commander say, "Sssssitizens of the world!" would be 'like Christmas for me'.

The only characterization quibble I have, as alluded to previously, was with the Baroness. In the original cartoon and comic she was a spoiled European heiress with a Zsa Zsa Gabor accent thick enough to serve on Chinet, so I can appreciate the filmmakers wanting to move away from something that cliche'd and give her more depth. Tying her backstory in with Duke's also added a new twist that will surely be used in the sequels that are destined to come. My one complaint is this: our society seems incapable of letting a woman be evil simply because she's a bitch. Here, we discover that the Baroness was a treacherous sex kitten because her brother, who allowed her to believe that he was dead, manipulated her with his nanomites and then used her as a pawn. While it certainly makes her brother a suitably evil bastard, it says little for female empowerment. It implies that women could never have enough impetus or free will to choose, actively and voluntarily, a life of treachery. The real world has entirely too many women in it who do just that, even if they don't dress in cleavage-baring black vinyl and tote pulse guns. I would appreciate the catharsis of watching a femme fatale pursue evil--that is not tied to her sexuality--for its own sake, then cheering her inevitable downfall. Especially because the "G.I. Joe" franchise offers strong and heroic women like Scarlett, and hopefully in coming films Lady Jay (my personal favorite of the two), having a truly evil Baroness to counterpoint them would not be sexist in the slightest.

But the greatest virtue that "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" has comes long after the credits finish rolling. The next afternoon following our viewing, Daryn and I saw a friend of ours, just out of high school, who had also gone to see the movie. She had several questions for us to the effect of, "what did this mean?" and "what was that all about?" She was vaguely familiar with G.I. Joe, but had never seen any of the original cartoon nor read any of the comics. "The Rise of Cobra" ended up sparking a half-hour conversation between a teenager, myself and Daryn, and another thirty-something friend who seldom had enough common interest to join in our other discussions. This movie bridged a gap between generations and spheres of interest, and again it did so with a smoothness that the live-action Transformers films have yet to accomplish. I don't have to grimace and tell my younger friends, "Well, it's nothing like the original." With "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra", we all have something to enjoy, compare, and share. And that is the greatest aim that any film adaptation can accomplish.

Jul. 31st, 2009

And Now, Something for the Transformers Readers...

Been away preparing for, then going to, a big convention. Now I'm back, and this is a review I had been meaning to post. Enjoy...

An Expensive Learning Curve: Reviewing

"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"

by Sharon "Tut"


            I went in to see "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" ready to shred it apart. I hated the first live-action "Transformers" adaptation and early reviews for this new one didn't show much promise. So I sat down in the theatre with my analytic wits at the ready; and, I must say, I was a bit surprised. "Revenge" shows some marked improvements over the first installment. However, the gaps between these improvements betray several systemic flaws that continue to hold back this film franchise's potential.

            Several reviewers have already accused this movie of having no plot. Let me clarify: this movie has some plot, just no suspense. We figured out, through several different characters' explanations, everything that remained to unfold with at least a half-hour left to go in the film. There were no surprise twists close to the end, no additional revelations to have the audience wondering, "Now what?" This fault lies obviously with the writers, who seemed to make no effort to keep any story elements hidden and deliberately string the audience along. Consider a film's amount of plot as falling within a spectrum: popcorn fluff like the first "Transformers" and "Independence Day" are at the lowest end, while an example of the absolute highest end would be the "Bourne" trilogy (which has you guessing until the end of the third film). "Revenge of the Fallen" would be in the lower middle of this spectrum; which, again, is still an improvement over the last one.

            Plot in "Revenge" is stalled by another factor, specifically its pacing. It took forever for the story to build momentum--almost as bad as in director Michael Bay's god-awful earlier film, "Independence Day", which spent almost an hour just on exposition. I bet that as much as a full half-hour of "Revenge of the Fallen" could have been shaved off had the battle sequences not been so bloated with stock, slow-motion-running-punching-or-transforming, closeup-of-person-screaming, explosion-with-bass-effects footage. I kept wanting to say, "That's nice, Mikey, now put down your toys and finish telling your story".

            Which brings me to the issue of special effects. We have to stop judging movies based on the quality of their special effects, because those effects are no longer "special". The last truly groundbreaking visual effects came in the 1999 "Matrix" film, and ironically were made with more traditional camera techniques than computer imagery. So to revel in "ooh, wow, check out these nifty CGI transformation sequences"--or conversely, to carp on robots moving with gymnastic agility as not looking "real"--is no longer a valid argument. Ten years ago, when the technology was still being perfected, it would have been a more relevant complaint. But for better or worse, the blending of live and CGI elements we have in "Transformers" and "Revenge" is now commonplace rather than exceptional; this would be a good time for filmmakers to rediscover those traditional virtues of editing, creatively staging, and storytelling with imagery as well as words. The technology has been mastered, now filmmakers need to master its utilization.

            That being said, I think this film also proved why the looking-down-the-nose prejudice of CGI versus traditional animation is utterly baseless. Remember those repetitive, drawn-out transformation sequences from animated classics like "Voltron", the original "Transformers", and many others? Remember how 'cheesy' we called them as we got older? Well, they live on in "Revenge of the Fallen". In fact, all of the vagaries present in the original Transformers' conversion sequences have been reincarnated in "Revenge". Some sequences were quick--one or two seemed almost nonexistent--while others were prolonged just to show off the 'ooh neat' factor, and there were inconsistencies between the various transformations. I've studied examples from the original cel-animated characters in order to map out their transforming sequences step by step for my own art; I saw some of the same deliberate shortcuts and shortfalls in "Revenge" as I did in the original 1986 movie. Which ultimately proves that, no matter what medium or technology is used, the human artist's capability is still what makes or breaks the final animation. And again, it illustrates why effect sequences should be treated as a component, not the focal point, of a film.

            From this point on, if you want to avoid spoilers, I advise averting thine eyes!


            Certain elements of "Revenge" did show tremendous potential. The feline Decepticon Ravage, for example, was spot-on. I wholeheartedly nominate him as the best translation of a G1 character to live action in either film, and frankly, he needed more screen time. More opportunities for him to slink behind enemy lines, hack into the humans' computer systems, or generally wreak covert havoc would have be fun and creepy and great. Also fun and creepy was when Megatron pinned down Sam Witwicky in order to have one of his minions scan Sam's brain. This sequence directly pitted human frailty against cold, unforgiving machine, something I would like to see more of in these movies. My only complaint with that scene--other than it being too short--was that the little minion robot was too comical. This problem, again, is systemic within "Revenge" and its predecessor. The exchange might have been even creepier, and thus more compelling, had Megatron himself been able to perform the scan. The conflict between him and Sam would have been even more immediately personal at that point.        

            Megatron's interplay with Starscream was also rather well done. I accept, however heavy-heartedly, that we will never have Chris Latta's version of Starscream back. But his old colleague Charles Adler is forging a new Starscream that could certainly hold his own in these new movies, provided he's given enough screen time to do so. Starscream actually had the third element on my list of "fun, creepy and great, but we need more": his ominous circling over the climactic battle at the Great Pyramids and knocking out communications from the air (which is something of an homage to G1 Starscream's ability to disrupt electrical circuits with his null rays). A jet circling overhead might seem like a minor element, but if carried further than it had been here, it could have played up the vulnerability of the ground-based human and Autobot forces as Starscream attacked them from the air, cold and aloof and untouchable. 

            Unfortunately, small diamonds such as the ones I've just described have to be picked out from the coal and muck of several gross caricatures. Aside from the aforementioned comic buffoon minions, if I ever hear another critic of G1 complain about how anthropomorphic the original characters looked, all I have to do now is point out the idiotic Autobot twin with the gold tooth, Jetfire's beard and cane, and the coup de grace, Devastator's "Decepticles". Thank you, Michael Bay, for justifying scores of X-rated Transformers fanfiction writers who luridly describe anthropomorphosized sex acts between robots in so-called "sticky fics". And no, I am NOT making any of this up.

            I found two glaring mistakes made with two established characters, but otherwise the classic cast was well-done. Soundwave, appearing for the first time in "Revenge", stayed wonderfully faithful to his original persona, especially with his G1 voice actor Frank Welker reprising the role. I clapped and wanted to cheer when I heard him, though I still openly regret that Mr. Welker wasn't given his due with Megatron as well. That was not one of the two specific characterization errors I found, however. The first occurred very early in the film, when Optimus Prime levelled his blaster at a defeated Decepticon and asked, "Any last words?" before a short exchange and shooting said Decepticon in the head. Prime should never have done that, because it contradicts his canon-established value for all life, including Decepticons'. Recall that in the 1986 movie his demise came when he refused to shoot Megatron unarmed, and then when Megatron took another Autobot as a shield. What Optimus should have said in "Revenge" was something to the effect of, "It doesn't have to be this way," allowing the Decepticon to remain unrepentantly defiant, maybe even trying to fight back. Optimus' killing shot should have been accompanied by, "Then you leave me no choice." He never gloried in the dirty job he had to do.

            The second problem was with Megatron essentially playing second fiddle to The Fallen. Megatron bows to no one. He is absolute. On one hand this situation could have presented some wonderful story potential, such as a badly-needed surprise twist at the end; Megatron could have turned on The Fallen once their doomsday machine was activated, killing him and claiming the potential glory for himself. This would also foreshadow any potential treachery with Starscream, since Megatron would have overthrown his master and Starscream would repeat the cycle. But for Megatron to sincerely choose discipleship to any being is quite out of character, and furthermore it steals his thunder. Good villains don't deserve that.


            This movie did manage to pique my 'inner geek' with a few things, though. The calligraphic symbols Sam kept seeing and scribbling everywhere look like a cross between Siddham script (a type of Sanskrit used in Buddhist mandalas), Arabic and maybe a little Tibetan. Using this Cybertronian script for subtitles was another fun addition; has anyone bothered to develop a "Cybertronian alphabet" with this? If so, the armchair calligrapher in me wants to break out my brush and ink and get my fan geek on.

            The Egyptian references were certainly not lost upon me, either. I could tell several shots were done in the famous Hypostyle Hall at the temple of Amun at Karnak--the mock-up set imitated it fairly well, although technically there are no ruins that look like that immediately near the Great Pyramids. It was a rather appropriate irony, though, that a device meant to destroy the sun emerged from an ancient monument that was built (by the Egyptians, not aliens!) to evoke the mythical Primeval Mound from which the sun god Ra first emerged. I also noticed that The Fallen's head design included blue stripes reminiscent of the pharaohs' traditional nemes headdress; think the mask of King Tut, or check www.kingtut.org for another visual comparison. So for all those who've commented bemusedly at my Egyptian headdress with the Autobot and Decepticon symbols on it, I say, "HAH! I called it first!"


            On the whole, "Revenge of the Fallen" represents essentially a multi-million-dollar learning curve. The production team seems to be learning how to work with the Robots in Disguise, but all of their progress is being weighed down by bad habits and egocentric notions. If they can just get over their own "ooh, wow, special effects robots!" and ridiculously unwholesome sight gags, instead concentrating on just telling their story, they can cover some real ground with this franchise. Maybe if they take some of the revenue from "Revenge" and use it to make a few practice pieces, "Transformers 3" will be a genuinely good film.

Feb. 4th, 2009

I Hate Armchair Experts.

So I did a table at World Religion Day last month, representing Egyptian paganism. Bit of a departure from my usual venues, where I have a table and I'm actually selling stuff. This time around, I wasn't selling anything, just representing one little-known aspect within the larger Neo-religious movement. (Gee, sounds pretty dignified, doesn't it? I do try...) It was as much a learning experience for me as it hopefully was for some of my visitors: based on the types of commonly-asked questions I got, I know what areas to address more specifically in the book I'm writing. I've also learned that the Muslim guys tend to be just fascinated with my sistrums and keep catching themselves starting to sing and even dance along with them. (If you don't know what sistrums are, http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/sistrum.htm has a decent article on them.)
      What really got me, though, and irritated me to such a high degree that it's taken me this long to finally overcome my contempt enough to write about it, was all the "armchair experts" on Egyptian religion whose first statements to me were some variation of "Did you know that...?" Hey, which one of us put up a whole freaking BOOTH on the subject, huh?!?!?   Do I just look like a neophyte because I'm not old and wrinkly, and have only stopped being carded in the last couple of years?! I don't know if these offenders--and it was mostly middle-aged guys who'd converted to non-Christian religions and probably weren't clean and sober through the entirety of the 1970's--were just trying to start a conversation, or if they assumed I'm dumber than (I hope!) I look. But it happened with such an incredible regularity over the course of one day that I have to vent. Caught in the moment, I was polite and let them have their say. After all, I was there basically as the sole representative of an entire ancient culture's values and beliefs, and I was not about to make the Egyptians or me look like an ass. (Unlike the creepy white guy at the Hindu table, but he's another segue entirely.) But now that I'm not in the role of representative, I shall turn to my cherished medium of blogging/venting and regale my readers with the smartass answers I wish I could have retorted with. I'll start with the single most common statement... 
STUPID QUESTION No. 1: "Did you know that ancient Egypt had the first monotheism?"
WISHFUL ANSWER, Version A: "Nohhh, really?! I've been reading and researching ancient Egypt for twenty years [yes, really!], been to five different museum exhibits--including one titled "Amarna: Egypt's Place in the Sun" that dealt with Atonism!--and even corresponded with a couple of PhD's in the field, and I never knew that Atonism, which is still controversial but generally considered to be early monotheism, came from ancient Egypt! Wow, who'd have guessed?!?!" 
WISHFUL ANSWER, Version B: "And what's your freaking point?!?!? Don't tell me that you, along with every other namby-pamby esoteric religion that claims to hold a 'secret, original truth' (*ahem*Rosicrucianism, Sufism, Eckankar, etc. etc.,*ahem*) somehow trace your lineage, whether in whole or in part, back to the Pharaoh Akhenaton? Come ON. When the Amarna period ended, Akhenaton's religion disappeared under the sands until modern scholars found remnants in the 1800's. Can I see a day when Neo-Atonism becomes a legitimate new religion? Absolutely. In the meantime, have there been plenty of people since the early, 19th-century days of Egyptology who have totally misunderstood and misrepresented the Aton Revolution? You bet they have. And that is to be discussed in a section of my book. 
To tangent for just a moment, I'm really irritated by these "lumper" religions. Everything had to come from one primeval source, to them, so naturally whatever they preach is the closest and most orthodox version! Give me a break. Do you really think that, if all the myriad different religions in this world had one primeval source, that we'd be so varied and in many cases opposed to each other now? At least the Baha'i guys are looking forward in saying that religions are separate now but should come together in unity (which is why they put on World Religion Day). Like them, I see humanity as moving toward common truths that we did not realize in antiquity--however, I don't think all religions should merge. I like the Dalai Lama's assessment that there are six billion people on the planet, so there should be six billion different faiths. Now, back to the rest of the goofy statements I heard...
STUPID QUESTION No. 2: "Did you know that hieroglyphics and other forms of ancient writing cannot be translated correctly into modern languages?" 
WISHFUL ANSWER: Really? Gee, don't tell that to Jean Francois-Champollion, that funny little French guy who was fluent in Greek and Coptic, and who actually was the first to translate hieroglyphic texts that had matching sections in Greek and Demotic! And I guess noted Egyptologists like E. A. Wallis Budge, Sir Alan Gardiner, Miriam Lichtheim (who was a genius, btw, I have copies of all three of her translated volumes) and James Allen were, and are, just wasting their time....       
COMPOSITE STUPID QUESTION: "Did you know that the Egyptian word for 'pyramid' means 'fire in the middle'/ the measurements of the pyramid match precise mathematical calculations/ they weren't really tombs/ etc. etc. etc....?"
WISHFUL ANSWER: What the f#$k, people...?! And this is why I say the Discovery Channel has lowered its standards to the base common demominator. This whole line thought, involving Pyramids and Pyramidiots, is so cliched and outright false that I'm going to respond tersely--
1) The Egyptian word for "pyramid" (which is itself a Greek word) was mer, and no it does NOT mean 'fire in the middle'. IIRC it just means 'monument', but rest assured I can find the answer in my library.
2) People have been looking for 'precise measurements' that don't exist on the Pyramids for a couple of centuries. Antiquities staff have even caught a guy taking a fricking file sander to the blocks of the Great Pyramid, just to make it match a supposed measurement! What makes the Pyramids an engineering marvel is that they're still standing so well considering they were built by folks who used the distance from their elbows to the tips of their middle fingers as a standard unit of length.  
3) See this link.
     Whew. That's that. There may have been one or two other dumb questions or assertions that I heard which I've managed to exorcise from my brain. For the record, I have yet to find any reference to Solstice festivals in ancient Egypt--and believe me, I've been looking!--so the Egyptians should not be lumped in with Druidism, Wicca, or other European religious systems that observe the Winter Solstice. And the "parallels" between the Osiris-Horus myths and Christianity are so dead they need to be reburied. (Catch the joke?) 
     Again, this is just the smart-mouthed stuff that I find myself thinking when I get questions like this. Ranting about it here in my journal is just my way of making sure I can stay composed and smiling when I hear wackball lines in person.

Dec. 31st, 2008

Here's to a Triumphal 2009...

I'm going to skip the obvious cliches of "gee, hard to believe... let's look back over..." yadda yadda about 2008. Today's the last date of '08. That's it. It's about to be outta here like, well, last year.

What's got me feeling upbeat after an otherwise lousy month is that I've made some hella-progress on my website. The Egyptian site is up to date and up to snuff, after much work and re-work. Now if I can just get it back on an ad-free space! (That's for '09...) If you're so inclined, the URL is http://tuts-tomb.50megs.com/

But the BIG victory for me is getting to update my main Transformers site, VOICES OF CYBERTRON. Some of you guys will be familiar with its original printed form; whether you own any issues of VOC or not, though, you'll definitely want to see what I've done with the web version. I've added some more images, including color versions of pictures that originally went with one of the essays, and links to a couple of images on DA. I've added another article from the 1980's titled "War Toys on the March"--this thing was hysterical when we first ran it in 2000, but it's even funnier now. And I've got more stuff planned for the coming year, so be sure to bookmark Voices of Cybertron! You can find it at: http://voicesofcybertron.awardspace.com/

I've also got dealer space for two conventions paid for, got one left to finish reserving and a local pagan festival that I should be able to do this year since it shouldn't conflict with Mechacon. Here's hoping that, after all the confusion and chaos of this year, 2009 will be the year to forge ahead!

Dec. 3rd, 2008

Follow-up Posts...

Just wanted to post a few random updates. If you haven't already read my last entry, "Feeling Charitable This Season?..." then I recommend it, as it ties in somewhat to this one.

Of course, this being the holiday season and times being tough for most folks, there are plenty of calls for giving. If you're considering donating money to a particular organization, check them out first on www.guidestar.org. You'll probably need to set up a free account, but it only takes a couple of minutes and once you're set, you can look up any charity you can think of and find out their tax ID numbers, plus what they say their money goes toward. If you're suspicious about a group, it's a great way to find disparities.

There is one charity I was able to send a little cash-ey to, which I will plug here. It's the Sioux Heating Assistance Fund sponsored by the Link Center Foundation (www.linkcenterfoundation.org). They help Lakota Indians on the reservations in South Dakota pay their heating bills in the winter months. The Lakota reservations are some of the poorest in the nation, with unemployment at 85% and yearly incomes less than $4K. That averages to $333 to live on per month; I remember how hard it was to live on $630 a month! According to the Link Center's website, some Indians have had to burn their own furniture just to keep warm during recent blizzards. My own Cherokee ancestors never lived on a reservation, but I consider it a good way to honor them by helping fellow Native Americans who do live on "the rez". If you've got ten or twenty dollars to put toward a good cause, you can check out either the Link Center's website or Network For Good (www.networkforgood.org) and send 'em some Paypal.

   Meanwhile, I'm currently working on overhauling parts of my website. If I'm going to indulge in self-gratifying effluvia, I want it to all be ad-free, dimmit...! I'll post links once I have everything up to snuff.

    For those of you who are fellow Transformers fans, I like to emulate Ravage's profile--people may not hear from me, but rest assured it's cause I'm up to no good. Funny thing, it seems to apply to my cat named Ravage, too! So, it's back to work being up to no good!


Nov. 26th, 2008

Feeling Charitable this Season? Keep Some Things in Mind...

Figured I would share a timely editorial I wrote...enjoy!

I've lived in government-subsidized housing for the past ten years. It's certainly not a 'badge of honor' in many people's eyes, but it is definitely a unique vantage point from which to observe how society behaves toward the less fortunate. I've seen what comes in those Christmas gift bags from the Salvation Army (travel toothbrushes and pictures of Jesus, oh boy,) and I know that yes, government-issued cheese really is that good. But, having received donations of canned goods from friends, family members and others, I've learned that sometimes you actually need to look a gift horse in the mouth. Otherwise, you might end up really sick.

Consider the case of my close friend (who shall remain anonymous) and her two grocery bags full of food. She and her mother cleaned out their pantries to give some food to their local food bank, but since my fiance' and I were on a tight budget, she offered to bring them to us instead. The gift was certainly appreciated, and we made several meals out of her donation. However, somewhere along the way I noticed an expiration date on a canned good or a pack of mix. Keep in mind that I was reading this label in early 2007--the expiration date read 2003. I checked a few more canned goods; several also had expiration dates of 2003 and 2004, respectively. If you consider that most canned soups, vegetables and gravies have a shelf life of one or two years, this meant the items in question had to have been bought in 2001 or 2002!

This kind of situation has two possible motivations, but one common and very innocuous beginning. Something gets bought from the canned food aisle and put in a cupboard. Maybe it was purchased on a whim; maybe the buyer's tastes changed after that particular item was bought; or maybe they just stocked up on something and one extra can got pushed to the back of the cupboard. But for whatever reason, there it sits on a shelf for a couple of years, never used. The process repeats a few times in the interim. Then the annual season of giving sounds its call, and prompts a kitchen cleaning. These old cans of food are suddenly discovered, and rather than feel wasteful for throwing away something they surely won't eat, people pass them on to a food bank. We all know the old saying, "beggars can't be choosers", right?

That's my kinder reconstruction of events. I know that many people are indeed genuinely concerned about those who have less, such as my friend and her mother, who probably don't even realize how old the foods are that they donate. Most people don't read labels as thoroughly as I do, either. But that leaves the other motivation, and the other group of people. These individuals go through life wearing figurative blinders, and don't even bother to think about the ilk that live in a lower tax bracket or, worse, depend on programs supported by what taxes their betters can't get out of. The only time these blessed upper-middle-class patriots think about the poor is when they vote to curtail social programs, then feel guilty afterwards and drop coins into a red bucket outside the mall. For those people, donating expired canned goods is a better salve on the conscience than just throwing old food away.

Whatever the intention or lack thereof, the end result is that less fortunate people can end up with food that isn't really safe for them to eat. And, having a better education and way with a keyboard than many others in my position, I consider it my duty to speak out on all of our behalf. This is one social problem that is easily solved. It involves only the most minimal of sacrifices: a few moments of time, and maybe a few dollars at the store. If you plan to donate canned goods this holiday season, then by all means, do go through your pantry and look at all of your wares. But check for expiration dates on all of your goods: if something has a date that's expired, throw it away. If it has no date, it's probably still good, but be thorough; some dates get stamped on the bottom, on the sides, or sometimes crimped onto the end of a packet. If you end up with nothing to spare at the end of your cleaning, just get an extra can or two of something you normally buy and donate that instead. The meaning at that point is much more personal, more truly generous. Instead of just saying, "here, have this," it says, "I like this, I hope you do, too." At that point, you are indeed being a friend to the poor.

So remember this holiday season: Before you donate, check the XP date.

Oct. 15th, 2008

There People Go, Assuming Again...

I've noticed a very irritating tendency people tend to have, a common assumption that I must clarify. And, unfortunately, since it has to do with religion, I have to save my ranting and criticism for the wilds of the Internet. Let's enjoy this textual gunslinger's frontier while we still have it, shall we?

I suppose you can call me bi-faith, for lack of a better description. I practice Nichiren Buddhism (which is a Japanese school) and Egyptian paganism in parallel to one another. Typically when asked, though, I claim the Buddhist part because it's more established and socially acceptable. I would compare it to the famed New Orleans native Marie Laveau; she was a practicing Catholic but also a Voudoo priestess, and found no conflict between the two faiths. But Catholicism was more accepted in the 1800's, so you can bet which answer she always gave officially.

Here's where the problem comes in. People know just enough about Buddhism to make some basic assumptions, not all of which are true; this morning being a case in point. My coworker was complaining about a religious spam email another coworker sent both of us, and commented, "Well, you're Buddhist, so it doesn't bother you. They accept all religions." For one, thank you for just telling me how I'm expected to practice, I really needed someone else to direct me...!!! And another thing--


Because, bottom line, that just ain't true. I'm still human.

Buddhist practice aims to seek Enlightenment. And it acknowledges that everyone seeks, and finally comes to understand, Enlightenment differently. To delve a little deeper, Enlightenment is an intrinsic understanding of a greater level of consciousness, where all boundaries of everyday existence--young, old, male, female, even 'me' and 'you'--are irrelevant and it is possible to grasp the inherent connection between all phenomena in the Universe. From what I've come to understand of it, this idea is both liberating and frightening, because it means you have to be willing to shed even your basic understanding of 'self', realizing that some of your most dearly-held truths are shaped by circumstances and are not absolute. That's probably where most popular conceptions about "attachments" and Buddhists somehow being spaced-out peaceniks with no opinions about anything comes from.

Ah, but here's the thing: in its quest to destroy illusions, Buddhism also acknowledges that most of us AREN'T ENLIGHTENED YET. Buddhism also cherishes balance, which means--among many things--that while it's good to study and meditate to understand Buddha-nature, in the meantime you have to live your life. How are you going to understand the meaning of something without experiencing it? Eat meat and be attached to your sense of self, just understand that it's still your own concept and subject to change. 
That also means--ta-dah!--having opinions is okay too. As long as they're informed, reasonable opinions, it's allowed. And guess what? I'm not the only Buddhist who has opinions! There are lots of them out there!

(And while sarcasm is technically one of the 108 defilements of Buddhism, I couldn't make that point very well without using some here. Another example of balance.)

Beyond that, yes the ostentatious display of Christian religiousity does irritate me. I'm a Buddhist, but I can acknowledge that I have emotional baggage just like every other human does. Between going to a Catholic school run by psycho-penguin nuns trying to convince first-graders of the 'evils of abortion', then later being an impoverished Catholic at a  junior high dominated by overpriveledged Protestant kids all in the process of becoming "born-again Christians" (like your first birth is that out of date at 13!), and then the final insult, being blackballed for "witchcraft" because I taught a bunch of kids in a Bible-Belt community some ancient history that didn't involve the Old Testament...yeah, I have my opinions about Christianity. That dissatisfaction is one of the reasons I am Buddhist, and Egyptian pagan, in fact. That's a part of my story, and part of my own quest for eventual Enlightenment. And having those opinions is my right as a human being.     

So please don't assume otherwise.

Sep. 30th, 2008

The Michael Douglas School of Economics...

Anybody remember that movie "Wall Street" from the 80's, with Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen? The one where Michael Douglas's character makes that whole speech about how "Greed is good?" In the end, his protege' Charlie Sheen acted on conscience and turned him in for fraud, even though it meant possible jail time for Sheen's character too.

That was Hollywood. In the real world, both of 'em would be scrambling on Capital Hill to get support for this bailout plan right now. 

I'll admit it: I'm watching this whole Wall Street meltdown with an intense feeling of shadenfreude. The timing of this whole thing couldn't have been more classic. Here we are, right before an election, and our financial system is in such a pickle that the government has to get involved to "unclog the markets"--yet Washington itself is paralyzed because of upcoming elections! Isn't this beautiful? For once, the government actually fears who it should--us, the voters! I say, let Wall Street burn.

I've read what some analysts are saying: people don't understand the ramifications of this crisis, and that if credit markets freeze up then jobs will be lost and loans for cars, houses and college will be impossible to get. Well, I have news for these folks--it's hard for a lot of ordinary people to get these things now. February must be too long ago for most people to remember, but I recall an article on the front page of USA Today back then that described how more and more Americans had to use credit cards to pay for daily expenses. Until I started working this spring, Daryn and I were in the same boat. Guess what, folks, when you have to use a credit card for a necessity, you're living outside of your means. Period. And that's exactly what a lot of Americans are doing now--not just bum recent-college-grads and 'liberal ilk' like myself and Daryn, but even supposedly 'respectable' red-state SUV-driving Americans. That veneer of smug affluence that so many of my 'betters', socioeconomically speaking, had wrapped themselves up in is about to be shattered and I say BRING IT.

Reagan, Shrub, and everyone who ever supported their insane economic ideas has it wrong. This is not a 'trickle-down' economy, it is a trickle-UP economy. It starts at the bottom and works its way up. People on blessed "Main Street" started biting off more than they could chew, putting themselves in greater and greater debt so they could make a show of living the American Dream. All those subprime mortgages bear witness to this American Obsession with materialism. Now the money's gone on precious Main Street, and that's why there's no hot air left to inflate Wall Street. It's a culture of greed, right out of Michael Douglas' character's speech, so is it any wonder that Bush and the Feds, the real fat cats, are only interested in saving themselves? I bet the Commander in Thief was hoping all this would come crashing down after he got out of office and could retire to his Retardo Ranch in Texas--wouldn't be his first miscalculation...

And while I'm slamming all of the people and ideologies that frankly are in desperate need of it, let me add one other thought: in light of this meltdown on the stock market, do we REALLY want to privatize Social Security like Bush wanted to do in 2000 and 2004? Do we REALLY WANT to put the money we'll depend on when we become old or disabled--that so many elderly and disabled depend on already--at stake when it could be mismanaged so badly? If people are stupid enough to forget about what's going on right now, mark my words, I will be sure to voice a resounding reminder! Those who forget, as the saying goes, are surely doomed to repeat.

Let the blue chips fall where they may. Solutions to this crisis have to start where the problem did--from the bottom up.

Sep. 17th, 2008

...For All the Corn in Iowa

Last night I got some groceries from the sad-sack local Wally-world that's directly on our way back home; I have a rather low opinion of Wal-Mart to begin with, because the franchise's massive size has them convinced that they can dispense with any notion of customer service and that they can sacrifice variety and good items for sheer volume and supposed markdowns. But when I went to pick up a box of Cokes, I felt like I'd woke up into (not out of) some kind of nightmare. 

The same box of Cokes that had been about $2.50 - $3 earlier this summer was suddenly about six bucks! The hell...?! I checked around to see if there was a cheaper pack--no dice. There were some that were actually about seven dollars (the bottled packs). This was a price spike, proportionally speaking, of epic proportions. I ended up not buying any Cokes, despite being low--at this rate, a six-pack on a ring at the gas station would probably be cheaper. To indulge a Southern accent for a moment, I ain't payin' six bucks for no damn Cokes. >:P

As I commented to Daryn, where's the petroleum in Coca-Cola? Beef, grains and milk are more expensive nowadays because gas is more expensive. And thanks to the two hurricanes Gustav and Ike, gas is spiking back up again. But Coca-Cola? That's not exactly farmed by big diesel-guzzling combines, you know... 

But then again, if you look at the ingredient label on a can of Coke, (like the one next to my monitor right now), it does have a diesel-guzzling combine-threshed derivative: high-fructose corn syrup. Yeah, that stuff that everybody thinks will be the answer to petroleum--that farmers across the American breadbasket are sacrificing wheat fields to grow as a cash crop--the base ingredient for ethanol, which ironically is less efficient than petroleum gasoline and actually more gunky on your engine parts--that lie so many people are now sold on as the supposed "cure" for oil dependence that will in the end only hasten our own deaths through starvation....? Yeah, that stuff is used to make Coca-Cola too. Can it be that we've sold off so much corn for 'fuel' instead of FOOD, even if it is the modern scourge of high-fructose corn syrup, that even a syrupy can of soft drink is more expensive to make? I'd hate to think we've come to that.    

If we have reached such a sad state of affairs, though, it probably won't make the news until it's reached the point where most people will panic. Because people, in groups, tend to do things like panic. That why I've decided that living outside the city limits is a good thing--so if a crisis blows along (like the next Katrina or Rita, or the next 9-11), I won't be in the middle of an entire city full of panicked humanity. Maybe I'm just paranoid that way, but the odd thing about paranoia is that it's never called that after the fact.  

If I find a cheaper pack of Cokes somewhere, that will help me feel better about all this wierdness. But if not, I may just start buying more Blue Sky soda from the health food store--funny thing about all that "green" food, while it may have been more expensive to start out with, it's stayed about the same price since these ridiculous gas price surges. If I'm going to pay more, it might as well be for something that isn't so bad for me. I wouldn't pay gourmet prices for Coke for all the corn in Iowa.


Previous 10