Monday, December 31, 2007

Welcome to Tomorrow

Under the gun, I'll post a quick set of commiserations for everyone with the passing of 2007. And a quick set of well-wishes for the arrival of 2008. There will be more extensive posts from me in the coming days containing reflections of old days and thoughts about upcoming days.

Wisdom and good fortune for all!

Friday, December 28, 2007

How Valuable is a Stranger's Attention?

As someone who consciously spends a portion of my life listening to people, it always catches my attention whenever someone professes the desire for someone, anyone, to listen to them. My heart goes out to these people, who have muscled down a prideful position and instead given over to the idea of self-expression.

There are entire professions devoted to listening to people. It's what people pay analysts a stereotypically high fee for. That movie scene where people pour their hearts out while reclining on a couch, box of Kleenex in hand, then pop up when the hour is finished and head out, refreshed and smiling, into the world. Just the mere act of spending time with a therapist is the weekly fodder for some sitcoms even, as the more neurotic characters boast of seeing two or three analysts in sequence.

This goes on in the Real World, too, though not necessarily to the same comedic excess. I've sit in on therapy sessions and accompanied people to the office, offering a reassuring presence in the waiting room. It's the only time I ever get to read People Magazines from four years ago, so I get something out of it, too. Did you know Tom Cruise is married? To a girl, even?

One of the blogs I semi-regularly visit belongs to an acquaintance. She's not a friend of mine, though that condition is more due to our lack of shared experiences than anything else. I see her often during the week, and we're basically at the level of nodding to each other in the hallway.

She did catch me by surprise at a restaurant last month. I was meeting a group of friends there, but I was (as usual) early. I wandered the floor of the restaurant, looking for my group of friends. Instead, I stumbled upon ANOTHER group of acquaintances. They shouted hello, and I walked over to their table only to say, “This isn't the group I'm looking for!” and walked away smiling over my shoulder. While dining with my friends, she left an hour later, waving at me as she headed for the door.

Owing to my unfamiliarity with her, my reaction wasn't immediate. I assumed she was waving to someone else. After all, since when do pretty girls wave and smile at me when I'm out on the town? Seldom, that's when! When I realized she was looking at ME and waving at ME, I did a double-take and waved back, feeling like I was back in high school. No matter how suave I think I've become since then, it never quite leaves me; it comes roaring back at a moment's provocation. Always relaxed around the ladies; that's me.

I told you that story so I could tell you this one: when I read her blog (one of the few who makes semi-frequent updates) and saw her make an entry in which she craves for the opportunity to talk to someone, it started me thinking about the sort of person who makes such a declaration. Her entry is in the context of life uncertainty and past disappointments.

Had I been asked, I would have thought her a quiet and withdrawn person who keeps to their own circle of friends. Does that kind of person make declarations about their personal life on a public blog?

Somehow I doubt that the class of people who types on blogs can be distilled into a “type”, complete with “common” characteristics.

It got me thinking about one of the oldest issues I've pondered regarding blogs: for whom to we write them? There's really only two answers. Either we write them for the outside world (which can be as limited as our groups of friends or as wide as the internet) or we write them for ourselves. I think a large portion of the healing power of blogs is seeing what we write “on paper”. Similar to the magical power of speaking things out loud, only to have them become meaningful, I think that blogs afford the writers a way to express what may be difficult in other circumstances.

So I believe in the therapeutic value of having someone, ANYONE, read what we have to say. In the same way we can draw comfort and direction from a one-sided conversation with a friend, whose only responses are nodding and “hmm-ing”, I think we can benefit from writing about that which troubles us. Writing about the things that make us nervous, anxious, heartbroken, expectant, fearful, and exhausted is a way to free the words. We can liberate the words from the bouncy confines of the padded cell between our ears.

And in doing so, it can alleviate pressure. As any physics student knows, removal of a quantity from a confined space reduces the pressure in that space.

Monday, December 24, 2007

It's a Life... Wonderful and Wide

It's somewhat of a tradition in my family that we watch "It's a Wonderful Life" on Christmas Eve. Sometimes it's the day before and sometimes it's on Christmas Day itself. The exact time doesn't really matter, so long as we all get together, pile on the couches, and watch.

Tonight was no exception. With a brand new DVD-copy, lovingly restored and cleaned, it looked the best I've ever seen it. Details I had never noticed were in practically every scene. And when it got to the end, I cried, as usual.

That's no great achievement nowadays. I'm extremely sentimental and anything from a old movie to a really nostalgic commercial for soap can get me to shed at least a few tears. I don't know what emotion those tears express; all the usual ones associated with tears (sadness, pain, happiness, empathy) don't really seem to apply.

I seem to end up with the idea that I'm crying because people often cry in such situations. Which is a weird thing to think, I tell you what.

It's Christmas time again. Tomorrow morning, after we all get up, we'll head down to breakfast and spread out in front of the Christmas tree. The presents will go round and round. A good time will be had by all. For that period of time, there is nothing else in the world that's important. It doesn't matter who's got jobs or who needs to get their oil changed, or who scratched the table in August putting down a metal basket. All that matters is the family, together.

I remember a few years ago trying to explain what Christmas was like to the fine lady I was dating. We each thought Christmas was important, but for very different reasons. And no matter how hard we tried, we didn't seem to be able to put together a coherent package to show to the other person and say "this is what Christmas means to me."

It was frustrating to me, because Christmas was important. It is important. In a way, it represents all that's good about life. I'm sure it seems corny to distill it down to a sentence right out of guileless film from the 50's, but there's no better way. The feeling at Christmas is like being able to place all that's good about life and hold it in your hands. That glowing ball that fits in between two palms is the core of what life is about.

I don't mean to imply that Christmas itself is the special thing, because it isn't. Though it seems utilitarian to say it, Christmas is really just a means to an end. A reason to allow people to gather round the fire, reconnecting with old friends and family.

So much of today is sharp and cynical. The humor is pointed, people make fun of each other constantly, and we all thicken our skins. We all shrug on heavy coats to dull the impact of other people's barbs, all the while jabbing each other. We all try to score the hits first, to take the pain away from all that follows. Protected by insincerity, we feel free to advance opinions that are not our own, using them like straw men to be picked apart. Even worse, we hide our own true comments in a sleeve of sarcasm, pretending as though they're false, if only to prevent our own thoughts from being ridiculed.

The Christmas holidays, to me, are a time of the year when all that insincerity burns off like fog. If I feel and act generously, then it doesn't matter WHO knows it, or how much they kid or joke about it. It doesn't matter because the honesty and truthfulness carries the day, making it (for the length of a passing season) THE way to behave. Making it THE cardinal virtue.

It's easy to dismiss my thoughts as crazy-eyed idealism, or as the oblivious longings of someone hopelessly out of touch. I can certainly step outside myself and see the valid point. But I happen to believe that it's important to believe in the fiction (if it even IS a fiction), even for the length of a single day. It's our actions that shape us and how we behave towards our loved ones is a large part of how we treat the world.

It might be called a fiction or hopeless dream. I think, though, that for the length of time that the spirit endures, it moves us each in the best direction.

Merry Christmas to all.

Peace and honor be upon your houses and your names.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Shopping at Full Speed

This morning, I decided it was the right time to go shopping. That decision was reached by my thinking a few things:

1. I hadn't done any shopping yet.
2. Christmas Eve is tomorrow.
3. I wasn't doing anything else right then.

Shortly after 11:00 AM, I began my shopping odyssey. On my way out the door, my mom said something about "beating the church crowd to the stores." I had debated about whether or not to eat lunch before heading out, before deciding to postpone food until after the shopping. It was a good choice.

First stop, a Barnes and Noble. Unlike some previous years, I had been able to put together a working list of possible gifts for my mom, dad, and two brothers. I'd looked online earlier to see if a particular gift was available, so I had a pretty good idea of scratching off two gifts for two people at B&N. Thanks to some in-store browsing, I switched one gift for something found at the scene, and picked up additional gifts for some others.

Back to the car and down the street about a quarter-mile to Best Buy. Here I had an even better idea what to buy, though I had no idea if it would be in stock. It was, and I managed to fill out the remainder of my gift roster. I proceeded to the checkout holding pen. It's a large, roped-off area where people line up BEFORE you can be assigned to the line for your individual cashier. It reminds me a bit of the lines at Six Flags where you have to wait in line in order to wait in line.

Through a massive display of good fortune and fortuitous timing, the holding pen was empty. I was able to stride rite up to the gateway leading to the actual cashier area. There was a blue-shirted employee there whose job it was to direct traffic. After looking around at the impulse purchase items surrounding me (who buys candy at Best Buy, anyway?), I turn around only to notice that the holding area is rapidly filling up. As I get directed to lane 10, I notice that the line behind me now contains more than 15 people. Arrived at the nick of time!

Luckily, I had those wonderful pre-gift ideas, and didn't have to settle for "I hope they like this thing I just found". I've made some unfortunate gifts to friends and loved ones in my time, and I hate to have people needing to humor me because of inappropriate guesses in my gift selection.

Friday, December 21, 2007

This much pain had better be good for me.

It was time once again for a trip to the dentist. This morning, I drove over to the office and plunked myself into the chair. My hygenist is Sherri; she's nice, in a grandmotherly sort of way. She's always smiling and always asks about my schooling, expressing concern if things are worrisome, and pleasure towards anything that sounds happy.

But oh, how she brutalized me. I spent my checkup with my legs fully extended and clamped together at the ankles. My hands were firmly grasped around my belt and it wasn't the first time I'd been glad to be wearing a belt for an appointment. She poked and prodded my jaw and gums in all sorts of unpleasant ways.

"Pocket depths look good." I smile as best as one can with a metal hook in mouth. Pocket depths are something I've worked on previously, so this seems like good news. More poking. More pain. Turns out I have lots of plaque buildup and perhaps the very beginnings of some gum disease around my two false teeth.

As a result of that tooth-replacement, I'm no fan of dental work. All the poking doesn't endear me. But it just keeps being necessary, so I make with the grinning and bearing. After about forty-five minutes of feeling my head being abused, I was ready to divulge the location of the secret rebel base.

Sorry, Dantooine.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Blaming the Victim

There's been a major development in the latest gang-rape trial in Saudi Arabia. One of the people involved has reportedly been pardoned by the king himself! Monarchical privilege rears its ugly head! People in the streets are sure to be outraged at this miscarriage of justice; letting one of the convicted offenders get away without punishment! What is their country coming to?

I should mention now that the person pardoned was the rape victim. (SOURCE)

What seems to have occurred is that the 19-year old woman was attempting to retrieve a picture from a friend. (I say "seems to have occured" because of the unreliability of the woman's testimony, which I'll mention later.) While sitting in his car, other people got in and drove the car to a secluded location, where other men were waiting. Rapes and beatings then occurred. The rapists were all sentenced to between 2 and 9 years in prison. Because Saudi Arabia has a strict prohibition on unmarried women being in the company of any man other than a relative, she's being charged with being in the company of a "non-relative", meaning that guy she was in the car with before the actual crimes started.

The sentence for this crime is 90 lashings. Last month, the Supreme Judicial Council ordered the punishment increased to 200 lashings. In other words, she wasn't just GUILTY, she was REALLY guilty. Perhaps it was increased because, having been gang-raped, she was alone with more than one man. This curdles my stomach. A bit of further digging found that her sentence was increased because she attempted to "aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media".

What's even more strange is that this woman was with a male companion, who was also kidnapped, seemingly. This male companion will probably not be charged, because it's not illegal for a young man to be in the company of strange men alone, even if they're beating him up.

Her previous lawyer can no longer defend her, either. For his involvement, he was barred from the case, his legal license confiscated, and he himself ordered to appear before a disciplinary hearing.

All punishments are at the whim of the presiding judicial officials. Punishments for rapists can range anywhere from no time served to death. Isn't subjective legal roulette exciting?

So what important lesson do we take from this? If you're an unmarried woman in Saudi Arabia, be sure to stay with a male relative. Sure, the both of you will still be overpowered by 3-1 odds, and you'll mostly like still be gang-raped in a field while your relative is beaten by the guys standing on the sidelines. But when all the dust settles, you won't be charged with a crime.

At least, not the "company of relatives" crime. Women who are raped can still be stoned to death for amoral behavior, even if they commit no other crime.

Also, women can't defend themselves effectively, because the testimony of all women is considered hearsay. Only men's testimony can be considered objective, even in he-said, she-said crimes.

Female testimony in Islamic court is unreliable because:

1. Women are much more emotional than men and will, as a result of their emotions, distort their testimony.

2. Women do not participate in public life, so they will not be capable of understanding what they observe.

3. Women are dominated completely by men, who by the grace of God are deemed superior; therefore, women will give testimony according to what the last man told them.

4. Women are forgetful and their testimony cannot be considered reliable (SOURCE)

Wasn't the Saudi king showing mercy by pardoning the silly woman of talking with a non-relative? She should know better than to talk about it to the media, though. Next time, the judges might not be so nice.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Smell of Academia

I was moving at speed today, trying desparately to finish some last minute revisions to some comprehensive exams. Instead of requiring me to take the exams over in their entirety, the professor allowed me to redo the individual parts which were "not satisfactory". They were due, however, by 5:00 today. So I sent them off, and now am relaxing in the total muscle-loosening that occurs whenever a project is completed.

The sections needing to be repeated were academic knowledge that some students might consider unneccesary for memorization (as it was on the first exam). The watchwords of today's academics are "do you know where best to go to LOOK for information you don't know?" Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to apply to my history exams.

From the moment I stepped from my car after arriving on campus, I was following a man. Down the stairs, across the street, through the minor quadrangle, past the academic buildings... he was right in front of me. I wouldn't have paid him any attention under the normal course of things, except he was smoking a pipe.

That caught my attention, as few people walk around smoking pipes any more, what with the cigarette companies basically abandoning that long-lasting consumption habit for the more repeatedly costly cigarettes. It's also a more socially unacceptible habit in these days of "subtle" cigarettes with unflavored smoke.

My first thought was, "Oh, a pipe. How unappatizing." But as I followed him around in the trail of his own flavor, I was struck with some memories. Memories of academics turning pages on books, late into the night, and sitting around tables discussing incredibly esoteric matters.

"Is the upcoming merger of the neo-conservative left and the non-binding conservative Greens going to be anything other than a minor disturbance on the journey to full fiscal independence for the Indian Colonies?"

"I'd wager not, though the reiterative nonconformity appertaining to the escalating defenestration may hinder all future prospects until the circumnavigation of the celestial orbits."

Granted, it's still a filthy habit. But seeing a man with graying hair and thickrimmed glasses smoking on a pipe while possibly thinking thoughts that require effusive thinking got me into the academic spirit.

That smell is just something that suggests grandfatherly knowledge and dusty books. I hope we continue to make small quantities as a society so that future generations will know exactly how the flat at 221B Baker Street smells.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Power Outage! (Brief)

My power just went out, so it may be a long night of snapping tree limbs and downed power lines. There's not much ice to be had in my suburb (it's still 32 degrees), but apparently it gets worse as one heads north.

Yahoo weather has been very unhelpful (and illogical!).

Note the current temperature, high, and low.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

It's a beautiful day in my neighborhood

Here's the view this afternoon of my tree and the winter that lies beyond.

Is it pronounced "Closer" or "Closer"?

I just got finished watching the movie "Closer". I'm glad that this isn't an audio format, because then I'd have to pronounce the title, which can be alternatively "closer" to reflect approaching nearness, or "clozer" as a person who closes something. I can't recall any of the press regarding this film, so I can't recall what the producers thought. And the film has no commentary track, so I can't tell what the director or writers thought. I can see either pronunciation being correct, as there are elements of both words in the story.

The idea of the film is like the romantic comedy to end all romantic comedies. Serious star power, with a power quartet of leading actors (Jude Law, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, and Julia Roberts). A couple meets another couple, sparks fly, partners get exchanged. It's as old as Shakespeare and beyond.

But this isn't a film sculpted out of cotton candy. It's set in London, but not the London of romantic comedies where the Beatles always seems to be playing and all the main characters continually walk past British flags. This would be the cold and sterile London of reality, where it looks as if the sky were replaced by a thick gray blanket just out of the range where one might be able to see the threads.

It's tempting, I'm sure, to classify the characters in this movie as "not good people". They cheat, lie, betray each other, and are sometimes unrepentant. That's what happens if you compare this movie with a list of life sins and a clipboard. Yes, they are all of these things, yet the movie isn't really ABOUT any of them. Things that would be major plot points in other films (sleeping with a prostitute) are brushed aside in favor of the bared watch-workings of the characters dignity and psychology.

I think all of the characters strive for normalcy, but have no idea how to navigate the traps of life in order to get there. Each of them are empathetic and each has less-than-glamorous aspects of their personalities.

The movie creates a good "real-life" fable, because it doesn't think it's a movie. Probably because it started out as a play. Everyone keeps making decisions that will last a lifetime, but finding out the choices only last until the next turn.

It might exhausting for the watchers, though. I kept getting trapped by my own conventions. So many comedies seen. So much need for a happy ending. When the movie does drift back to romance, it's usually a setup for a confrontation. A diverting of expectations, something that might be called a deceptive cadence in music.

It's a good film, and an excellent one to watch on a cold December day with ice whipping around outside. It's not for kids, though, or those with weak tolerance for sexual conversation. It is an adult movie, not in the sense of having graphic nudity everywhere. The characters are adults and act like adults and don't care whom they hurt. In retrospect, it's a sad story full of people who get disappointed, which is often connected with being "an adult", anyhow.

How much "humor" is too much?

There's a strange vibe amongst my friends this year. I'm sure this particular vibe has arisen in other years in other places, but I've really noticed it this year; the fact that I've noticed means I've more sensitive than previous times... or that it's really bad this time.

The issue is a certain type of humor I'm going to call "disingenuous irony", because I like naming things to give myself a better grasp. It's sweeping its way through a segment of my friends and acquaintances and I find it distasteful. This humor involves the teller knowingly saying a ironical statement in a serious tone of voice and deriving pleasure from catching people off-guard with what would otherwise be offensive or hurtful proclamations.

Obviously, this borders very closely to actual irony (not to be confused with sarcasm). The important difference is that humorous ironical comparisons are acknowledged by the audience as being ... well ... ironic. If I tell people that I slept with a man two days ago, but everyone already knows we were both rooming in a hotel room during a band trip, that's an ironic statement. If I tell people I won't sit next to Jill because she sleeps around a lot and might be diseased, that's just mean, even if Jill does move from bed to couch during the night to ease her back and she's currently suffering from the flu.

This disingenuous irony often seems to be a passive-aggressive way to say the statements that our poor id is busily writing at his home on Pituitary Street: sentences that otherwise aren't acceptable in everyday conversation or even acceptable to say about friends. This brand of humor has its own red-headed stepchild: non-ironic reversals. This is the "your mother is so fat" version of irony, in which the teller says some sort of objectionable statement ("I can't help it that you're a bitch"), then when the hearer reacts, the teller quickly follows with "Just kidding!". Bonus points are awarded if the teller "apologizes" in a shocked or affronted manner (often with pitch of voice raised and hands raised to ward off something), as though the hearer is overreacting to a "joke".

I'm not a fan. I know this entry sounds like a cross between an article from Emily Post and a psychological journal, but it's an important matter to me. Well-executed humor is one of the greatest pleasures in my life, whether it's me delivering the joke or someone else. So it vexes me to have people apparently attempting to be "witty", and just plain doing it wrong. Worse, it reflects poorly on them. In light of some interactions over the past couple of months, my initial impressions of people have been altered, simply because they use deceptive humor too liberally.

That brings me to an important point: everybody has the opportunity to laugh however they see fit. However, because humor is a significantly public pursuit, I believe it reflects poorly on tellers to bring down the audience. I practice an much more self-deprecating version, which strives to bolster the audience's comfort at the expense of me looking like an idiot.

For example, if I were asked, "Have you ever heard of Tcherpnin?" (a composer whose name is pronounced CHARP-nin), I'd invariably say "Isn't that what you do with dull pencils?". The hearer would smile wanly as a barely-passable acknowledgment of my attempt at humor, possibly even rolling their eyes a bit. In that situation, the irony and humor comes from the understanding that, in spite of what I just said, I'm smart enough to know what I'm talking about. That's the hope, anyway.

Those previously-mentioned warped methods of humor really bother me. Enough that when I hear this in a conversation:

A: Sorry I took the last close parking spot.
B: I still think you're a dirty whore.
A: What did you just say!?
B: I was kidding! Geeze.

it's a negative mark on the Social Clipboard under Person B's name. And there's a serious disconnection here, because no doubt Person B thinks they're being social.