Thursday, October 29, 2009

In Defense of Halloween

That Halloween should be debatable is something few American children consider--unless they hear it from their parents.  As our neighborhood front yards become blanketed in giant cottony webs, hanging ghosts, tombstones, stuffed witches, and orange outdoor lights, it appears that even in the midst of economic uncertainty, our community is more enthusiastic about this holiday than ever.

A local charity held a kids' Halloween party a few days ago, offering families storytelling, costume-judging, pumpkin carving and oodles of sweet treats, in exchange for a donation.  It sounded wholesome and positive, yet I couldn't think of any in our circle who would let their children participate.  Being Jewish, many of them think Halloween sends a counter-religious message.

Not me. I'd defend Halloween as a secular American diversion--not a real "holiday" but a year marker, pleasantly unique in its lack of real meaning, hidden agenda or malevolent purpose. Every elementary public school classroom in the land boasts fat construction-paper pumpkins, arching black cats, prancing oversized spiders, and for the older grades, skeletons, warty witches and ghouls.  I've yet to meet kids who take the festivities as something serious--for them, it's a chance to indulge fantasy through costume, and, of course, collect a sack of chocolate. No child means "Trick or Treat" as a threat to the smiling neighbors who willingly open their doors bearing platters of sweets; instead, most think it's a single word sounding like "triggertreat," as in "these syllables trigger my getting a yummy treat!"

The way we celebrate is clearly American, even if you somehow make the precarious link to its supposed origins.  Those who condemn it point with disdain to the Celtic holiday of Samhain 2,000 years ago, when ancients, worried about winter, hoped the dead might give their priests a weather warning.  It morphed dramatically, though, when the Romans invaded and combined it with two of their goddess holidays.  When Catholics came along in 800 AD, they put their stamp on it, turning it into All Hallows Eve.

But there was no Halloween in Protestant colonial America--clear up to the mid-1800s, when the Irish potato famine brought Catholic immigrants, whose observance of the day was already pretty benign.

Americans immediately made sure the festival was stripped of any deathly associations, and observed mainly in community get-togethers. Trick-or-treating didn't start until about 1930, and didn't really catch on until the Boomers turned the nation kid-centric. Now the holiday is seen as a chance to carve jack-o-lanterns, take the joyful kids around the neighborhood, and sneak a few pieces of the stash you've bought to hand out at your own door.  College students consider it one of their thousand excuses to party.

Some people glean their smiles from ookey costumes of ghouls with fake blood, but even more choose to dress up as princesses, cats, pirates and cowboys. Vampires have made a resurgence due to the popularity of "Twilight" and its ilk.  In every case, the purpose is enjoyment.  The pickle-people who frown upon it are certainly free to keep their porch lights off. 

Aside from the fun re-connecting with neighbors, our economy gets a big boost from the holiday, with happy revelers choosing to spend an average of $56 this year, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation, down $10 from before the economy tanked. That's the second biggest spending occasion, behind Christmas.  You may want to return or recycle your yule gift, but nobody takes back his extra candy.

While I respect their views, I think parents who negate Halloween deprive their kids of a cultural celebration, a chance for families to notice the season, and take it in the direction they choose.  Some churches mark this time with "harvest parties" where costumed kids play games; many parents who let their kids trick-or-treat make sure they spin the outing so their children know it's a fun time, and not a scary or religious one.  Given that Halloween is ubiquitous, we might as well embrace it as an American tradition, though it's inconsequential and weightless as the blowing autumn leaves.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Amelia:" Far More Fascinating than the Flick

Political correctness has turned Amelia Earhart into a brave, flawless feminist symbol.  The reality is much more complex but missing from the new Hilary Swank-Richard Gere flick "Amelia."

What we get is a uni-dimensional picture of a young girl thrilled by aeronautics who fulfills her dream, becomes a media icon, gets married to an adoring spouse on whom she cheats and then retreats, and finally attempts a historic round-the-world flight with a tragic end. Nothing to tarnish or enrich the popular image.

I happened to see a screening of the film at Seattle's Museum of Flight after viewing a fascinating exhibit about Amelia's life. Watching the real Amelia in newsreels and commercials gave me a feel for her charm and the model-esque beauty that caused GP Putnam, still married to the mother of his two children, to select her to ride on the first trans-Atlantic flight, and pursue her romantically.  It didn't matter that she was engaged at the time; the two shed their bonds and formed a "partnership with dual control" in 1931 that included Amelia's demand for an open marriage.

Amelia was far more than a daring aviator.  From the movie we never learn that in her early life, sympathy for World War I soldiers had led her to Red Cross training and a stint as a nurse in Toronto; she continued nursing into the 1918 epidemic of the Spanish Flu, which she caught, hospitalizing her, requiring surgery with a year's convalescence, and leaving her with a sinus drainage tube in her cheek.

It's true that Amelia's determination to fly drove her, but the film skipped how she became America's 16th woman pilot: through savings from jobs such as truck driver and stenographer. It also cruised right past her accomplishments in fashion design, and her hands-on creation of several fashion lines sold in a single upscale outlet in each major city.  Or her career as a writer, including an editing job for Cosmopolitan Magazine.  She authored two books and wrote regular columns and essays; the only hint of that in the film is a salvaged love poem GP uses to renew her affection.

Her affair with Gene Vidal, father of Gore, also began while Vidal was married, though that's never broached; he's supposedly an aviator, but their connection never gets off the ground.

It's a bad sign when you check your watch often during a film. The lack of any chemistry between Gere and Swank, and droning aerial views of water or African giraffes grow tiresome.  I knew from the exhibit that Amelia's globe circumnavigation failed about 3,000 miles short of completion. Scenes interspersed in the story showing her in flight at increasing mileage points led me to think, "just 10,000 more miles 'til this is over..."  The movie takes 111 minutes to run out of fuel, but the richness of her life had plenty more to offer.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The urgency of the changing leaves

Autumn reminds of life cycles, which is perhaps why Jewish holidays fall at this time.  As the leaves magically shift from serene greens to brazen reds and oranges we receive their strong cues that time should not be wasted.

Today our Jewish community received word of the passing from cancer of a young boy, who just celebrated his bar mitzvah this weekend in his hospital bed. His parents are beloved in our community, and his mom blogged her personal journey through these several months of treatment, hope, sadness.  My son's school, where the boy's dad is a dean, disbursed; when my son phoned asking to be picked up, I heard that heavy just-crying voice.  I think that the pain, being communal, could be even worse for some than a private grief.

We musn't waste a day.  I'm going out in our neighborhood with my camera to document the changing leaves, wishing I could capture time, and knowing I must rush before the next storm strips the branches bare.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Autumn Shock and Awe

How can people waste their lives looking downward to little metal squares, texting and emailing and phoning...when it's autumn and there's a spectacular show going on?

I'm amazed that God makes so much matter--zillions of leaves--every spring, created in such a way that in a few short months they turn explosive colors, shouting "look at me!" before dropping off and crumbling away into brown nothingness.  I'm also mind-boggled by the world's tilted axis, creating seasons with constant change and diversity in our environments.  Why should the earth tilt?

I'm no scientist, obviously, but I intently observe it all, marveling at the shockingly vibrant colors here in the Northwest.  Yesterday I went to our local Japanese Garden, where kimono'd hosts welcomed us to the annual "Maple Viewing" event.  Japanese music performed live lilted over the koi-marbled pond; tents for dabbling in Japanese arts attracted families, and squeals of joy from visitors punctuated their strolls as they discovered new vistas of astounding brilliance.

We must not let the colors go unappreciated. Gasps of awe and gratitude are appropriate. (photos by me, copyright 2009)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue:" Soap-Opera or Inspiration, it's a Bookseller's Dream

Sarah Palin remains an enigma.  Given a piece in today's Wall Street Journal, perhaps the way she helps our country best right now is by selling her memoir, which writers Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg and Michael M. Phillips claim  is "a shot in the arm for the book business."  She's her own stimulus package, speed-writing the book in just four months, thanks I'm sure to collaborator Lynn Vincent, but, according to Time, because she had an agenda: defining "who we are, what we stand for, and what Alaska is all about."

Now the first printing of 1.5 million copies, not even available until November 17, is in such demand that pre-orders on Amazon kicked it to number 5, and Wal-Mart is furiously serving the bargain market with $10 pre-orders.

We should all be happy. Conservative views will be spread far and wide, and booksellers can stop being glum over third-quarter profits.  So why do I find myself so...uncomfortable?

Perhaps because by violating my conservative values, she's getting what she wants.  Which appears to be loot, suggests Ron Bonjean, Republican pundits' spokesman.  "She obviously has designs on 2012, but her immediate concern seems to be making lots of money quickly off of the support she has out there."

This troubles me because fundamental conservative values include honoring  commitments, never quitting, and focusing on the long-term.  This lady, physically attractive and congenial as she is, was elected by Alaska citizens to serve as governor.  Without that office, John McCain would never have selected her as his VP candidate.  In her campaign, it was her experience in Juneau that she drew upon to show her national and international qualifications--even though at the time, she'd served for just a year and a half.  And after her loss, she looked around and saw that even if the tundra was cold, the iron was hot. She left office, disappointing those of us who felt that any future career required a brilliant performance as governor to bolster her tissue-thin resume of PTA mom, City Councilman (in a victory of 512 to 310 votes) and until 1992, Mayor of Wasilla (population 5,469 in the 2000 census).

If her new book zeroes in on her values and what Alaskans are all about, great, but the same message by one less colorful would flop cold.  Just a couple days after her gracious acceptance to Sen. McCain's VP selection, she announced her 18-year-old unmarried daughter Bristol's pregnancy, flummoxing supporters.  Throughout the campaign, Bristol and fiance Levi Johnston were shown publicly holding hands; they broke up before marrying and he now provides amusement to detractors by disparaging the Palins and posing for magazines like GQ and Playgirl.

Given all the stories about Palin hunting moose, approving a plan to cull wolves by aerial gunshot, switching colleges four times, winning third-runner-up in the Miss Alaska pageant, sportscasting on local TV...there's bound to be plenty in the book to criticize and with which to sympathize.  Despite its stated goal, what Gov. Palin won't do in her memoirs is convince anyone that conservative values are the most direct path to a satisfying and productive life.

Though I have sympathy for the lady, and admiration for her spunk and independence, on the international stage, she's not only an unsophisticated neophyte, but target of snickers and chuckles.  She reminds me of Chauncey the gardener in Jerzy Kozinsky's Being There, thrust into prominence with no basis, because the suit makes the man, much like Sarah Palin's glasses and upswept hair make the intellectual-looking woman.

Still, I wish her well, and hope her book bolsters booksellers so they consider conservative titles all the more worthy of touting and celebrating. And Going Rogue might even be a Horatio Alger story of sorts, reminding us that in this great nation, you don't need a Harvard education to command the national spotlight.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"New York, I Love You" ...but not for what's in this movie

New York is a complicated place, and "New York, I Love You" offers only half the story.

It's rare that I can accompany my husband to a screening of a new film, given my criteria of no violence, no suspense and no slapstick.  I was lured to this one by the promise of romantic vignettes set in a city I greatly enjoy.  The second in a series of "Cities of Love" by "Paris, Je T'aime" producer Emmanuel Benbihy, this flick doesn't, however, spare any love for New York.

Instead, it offers ten mini-stories by ten different directors, linked only by contrivance, collectively portraying NY as depressing and tense.  Of them, only two even bring a smile: a verbose pick-up outside a bar with Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q, and a pressured "take my daughter (Olivia Thirlby) to the prom" that the young escort (Anton Yelchin) finds especially memorable. Overall, there's little joy in The City.

In fact, a heartland viewer might think the Apple offers mainly bars, street chaos and desperation, that smoking is de rigeur, and nobody has a regular-hours job.  The only religious people portrayed in the film--Hasidic Jews--are even weirder than their fur-cylinder hats: In that segment, diamond-buyer Natalie Portman confides intimately in her east Indian Jain supplier (Irfan Kahn), while perpetrating the ridiculous myths that kosher food is blessed, and that ultra-orthodox married women shave their heads.

Though I've never lived in New York, I've been there countless times, walking the length of Broadway from Columbia University down to Battery Park.  Family members live there; I've gone regularly over the years to meet with magazine and book editors, hawking my proposals or working on projects.  It's a great place to visit, and even to live, I'd think, for a limited time, because the New York I've seen is nothing like the dark, dispiriting quest for connection the characters in this film depict.

That's why I left this movie feeling down.  Perhaps half the NY story is  pickpockets, struggling artists, smoking, an urgent play for sex and love, and those ubiquitous bars.  Yes, lots of ugly things happen in a metropolis.

But equally available, and not even grazed in the film, are the energized achievers drawn toward an intellectually vibrant magnet; the clever designers, inspired artists, engaged thinkers who make NY the most stimulating place on the planet.  Nowhere in this movie was there a family; only one child even had a role, in a single, confusing segment.  Religion got its brief, bizarre appearance in that solitary Jewish piece, in which we glimpse the Hasidic woman's strange, slow-mo wedding reception, and learn the gem salesman's wife left to become a street-begging nun.

The five- to eight-minute scenarios, with no backstory or character development, conveyed the message that people in NY are flat, rude, hedonistic and socially inadroit.  Artsy close-ups of lips, nostrils and drags on cigarettes get tiresome. Even watching Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach as the obligatory long-married old couple is stressful with its nonstop monologue of nagging. Can't anyone be happy?

FYI, New York is alive with enthusiasm, dynamism, creativity, spiritual attainment, and satisfied, joyful citizens.  Too bad the film ends before we find any of them.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama's Nobel Prize: Uniting the Nation in Laughter

Jimmy Carter must be annoyed. Same for Al Gore.  Their Nobel Prizes are waaaay devalued now that Barack Obama got one.

In the span of a handful of years, Obama went from a Community Organizer, to state senate; then two years as a Senator before spending another two campaigning for office, and...voila, nine days after assuming the presidency, he's nominated for a Nobel Prize!  As the Detroit News editorialized, "He has advanced leaps and bounds based on his promise, and ahead of his actual achievements." 

Obama realizes this, but his opportunistic side couldn't turn the prize down.  As my fave talk host says, it's not his fault he got the award. "I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honored by this prize," the president understated. But,"I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.''

What else can he say?  After all, his actual accomplishments internationally are nil.  The Nobel Committee in Oslo laughably insists their unanimous choice is because of "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."  They continue, "The Committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons." Can he really mean that?

Get a guffaw from the Associated Press' compilation of responses to today's announcement.  I love that Al Gore, in a self-defensive move, says "the award is extremely well deserved," and incomparably reasons: "I think it will take some time before people put together all the different moves that linked his speech at the UN on the abolishing of nuclear weapons, his shift on the missile defense program in Eastern Europe and the movement of Russia to joining the international consensus that confronted Iran to abide by the nonproliferation treaty."  HA HA HA!!!

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty proved with his response why he will be an excellent Republican presidential candidate:  "Under any circumstance an appropriate response is to say congratulations."

That's because it's politically incorrect to say the truth, which is that this is all about--sorry to say--race. Do you think Obama would have won if he were white?  Do you think he would be president if he were white?  The Committee was trying to say, "Wow, it's great that American elected a black president!  Now the world has hope!"

I don't think there's any better hope that nations will stop making nuclear weapons or work out their problems diplomatically rather than by armed conflict, now that we've got a black president. Do you?

But, given our POTUS' ego, you know he now feels even more that it's all up to him to bring peace to the world.  His conscience is saying, "the world thinks I'm the great peacemaker, and now I must be."  Just like a year ago, that same little voice told him, "Now I'm the President. I will act presidential and make big decisions and grand sweeping changes because--I CAN."

Some in Israel agree, and are worried. The Wall St. Journal quotes Danny Danon, a Likud Party member, who called the choice "reckless" and "potentially dangerous for Israel.  'It's worrisome,' he said. 'Now Obama will have to justify the award and will try to force an agreement even though there is no real partner for peace among the Palestinians.'"

Isn't it great, though, that Obama is going to donate all of the $1.4 million prize money to charity?  He hasn't decided which ones, yet.  Let me make a suggestion: Why not donate it toward lowering the national debt?

What a wonderful distraction from the health care debate, a humorous interlude that both Democrats and Republicans can share. Thanks, Mr. President, for bringing us together.  Obama's Nobel Prize?  HA, HA HA!!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Letterman's Confession: I'd Rather Laugh at Dylan

Some things are just not funny.  And David Letterman's on-air confession of affairs with show staff and interns is one of them, despite his infusing the sordid news with one-liners. In order to avoid blackmail, he decided on total "transparency," the new buzz word that's supposed to imply honesty, but is regularly twisted and spun.

I don't watch Letterman, and in fact, we don't have a television in our home.  Given new statistics showing US households have a TV on more than 8 hours every single day (twice as much as runner-up Greece), I feel pretty good about gaining so much opportunity for other pursuits.  But even so, David Letterman's disgusting personal life has seeped into enough newspapers and radio shows to taint my consciousness.  It's increasingly difficult, it seems, to avoid bumping into his transparency.

I don't think marital cheating, especially with subordinates within a professional environment, should be dismissed with a joke.  Blackmail and extortion are crimes, and they aren't funny, either.  The whole topic seems to be thrust on the public like some funhouse mirror distortion of reality: let's make merry of grotesquery; let's cope with this awkward and loathesome situation with a nervous chuckle. That a comic known for ribbing politicians for their peccadilloes should now be making cracks about his own infidelities is an irony that should add to our queasiness rather than our humor.

Is CBS glad their late-night boy is bringing viewers and publicity to their doorstep?  Must be, since they haven't fired Letterman for his clearly unethical behavior.  Another reason to eschew network TV--values are secondary to profit. As a proud capitalist, I value profit; however, it's bad business to offer customers (viewers) a product in conflict with their best interests, or that makes them uncomfortable.  For every voyeur who tunes in the Letterman Show to hear the next confessional gag is a regular, wholesome American who's repulsed.  And then there are the millions of people like me who don't watch the show, but involuntarily hear this sickening story play out in the news anyway.

If you want some real laughs, go listen to Bob Dylan's new Christmas music album.  Now that will have you in the right kind of tears.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Building a Tabernacle in our Backyard

The stress and emotion of Yom Kippur quickly gave way to facing the building of our succa for the Feast of Tabernacles (the bizarre English translation for the holiday of Sukkot, shelters).  Living in the Northwest, that means it's time to finally trim all the firs and cedars blocking our view that we've let burgeon until just this moment.

We're fortunate to have a surrogate family member we call our "handyman" for lack of a better term (he's been with us for 22 years) to help with the dirty work, but  for the temporary outdoor room we're constructing to be proper, a Jewish person must lay the freshly-cut boughs atop the "roof's" wooden frame.

The way everyone's schedule worked out, that Jew was me.

With a rickety aluminum ladder quaking beneath me, and my trusty associate handing up the prickly branches, I struggled to place the 5- and 6-foot-long trimmings astride the beams ten feet in the air.  I needed to cover the enclosure to preclude gaping holes, ideally with enough "skach" (greenery) to at least briefly fend off likely drizzles and showers for the week-long festival.

The nighttime air was brisk, and a blue-edged circle formed an angelic corona around the gibous moon.  The spires of dahlias grown leggy in their patio pots were a strange audience for my death-taunting endeavor.  After each branch was laid, I clambered down the wobbly ladder to move it a few inches, making my way around the whole 20-by 10-foot perimeter, and down the center.  Each new placement of the ladder was fraught with peril, as it teetered on uneaven pebble-pocked hardscape.

The boughs, still damp, bent easily, but sharp splinter-thorns occasionally pierced my fingers, and gooey sap oozed onto my hands.  The flat, leathery cedar fronds felt oddly inorganic, but the Douglas Fir cuttings provided the needly reminder that our succa was a true Northwest product.

The walls of the succa can be nearly anything, and to preserve our lake view and any precious sunlight, I'd chosen thick sheets of clear plastic.  Now that the skach is up, I'll bring out my boxes of decorations--tinsly colored garlands, a tin-foil looped chain my children made years ago, strings of grape-shaped garden lights, and dried ears of speckled corn.  We'll unfurl the decades-old posters of the "uspezim," the forefathers who we welcome as "guests" each night in our succa, and the artsy drawings of the seven biblical food "species."  We've already polished the silver etrog case, and tomorrow night we'll pick up its fragrant fruit, part of the "arba minim," (myrtle, palm and willow branches, and the etrog) that are shaken together daily in perhaps the weirdest of Jewish rituals.

So there I was, in the dark, teetering on a jiggly ladder, hurling enormous fronds on a temporary frame on our patio.  Was this fun?

Ummm...actually, yes.

Sukkot is "the time of our rejoicing," and having my entire family together and home, and soon, sitting outside in our heavy coats sipping soup is something no modern wizard could have cooked up.  But its very oddness makes it memorable and special and worthwhile.  There's no autumn that slips by unnoticed--dining with the wind whipping through the branches, we not only remember our vulnerability--already in the forefront of our minds after fasting and praying all day on Yom Kippur--but we create shared memories that only such strange experiences can bring.  Just as camping outdoors is more eventful than staying in a hotel room, spending a week "dwelling" in our succa, with downpours and "disasters" (eg. the year our "skach" was found to be populated by zillions of little worms unable to defy gravity) provides highlights for our days and our relationships.

Chag Sameach--happy Sukkot--and may your rejoicing not include worms!