February 19, 2007

Me, Don't Fail Me Now

“It so happens that idealism enough for anyone is not made of perfumed pink clouds. It is the law! It is the U.S. Constitution.” – Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

For the first time in my brief post-undergraduate career, I have gotten a job – admittedly a non-paying position – without having to bullshit. I simply found the organization through some good people and just told the truth. By all forms of measurement, I have zero experience with the work I am about to begin – outside of high school phone-a-thons and few other ephemeral activities, I have no fundraising experience; I have never worked in or around an orphanage; and I have only one and with great regret changed the diaper (and that was for my niece whom I love, though a little less after the experience). And yet, I am stuck here for six months having promised the highly capable and extremely admirable “Mama” of the Ubuhle Babantwana Care Center in the township of Mfuleni, a formidable yet instantly endearing woman named Pumla Gigi, that I am here to be her support as we work together to establish a sustainable home for children.

With zero sentimentality and a mind flooded with anxiety for the possibility that I will prove entirely incompetent in this task, I know that my idealism will have to serve me loyally during these coming months. Hope I don’t screw it up.

I Arrive in Cape Town

I have now spent a full two days in Cape Town, South Africa. Upon arriving, after a long day’s journey into the South African sunset, my one checked bag deciding to take the scenic route and catch up with me later, I had managed (even though I had been bumped onto a later flight from Johannesburg) to catch the last embers of dusk fade behind Table Mountain. I have never been to Africa before and the sight was as portentous as any I could have hoped for. I was tired, vicariously smelly from the man I had sat next to on the 15 hour leg from Washington D.C., and I had no distinct idea what the next six months would entail. I still don’t, but the peripheries are beginning to show signs of focus.

I now am the first “Project Liaison” for the newly established non-profit organization, CHOSA (short for Children of South Africa). After one has worn the same clothes for 72 hours, one’s humility has surfaced and taken form – a sort of exoskeleton of open-minded and smelly shame. And after today, having spent 10 hours touring three of CHOSA’s orphanages and visiting four nearby townships (poor communities of blacks and coloreds (not of the outdated American vernacular, but those of dark skin and mixed heritage) created during the mid-twentieth Century when these races were exiled from the city), I would not have wanted to be dressed in any other exoskeleton.

I have witnessed poverty when traveling to Thailand, China, and the Ukraine. Most of it troubling, some disheartening, but few have awakened such a sense of pathos. This was mainly due to the children that welcomed me literally with open arms. At our first stop (I was led around magnanimously by one of the founders of CHOSA) I opened the door to our 1990 Toyota and no sooner was the can of juice in my hand snatched by a little boy and two of his companions climbed into the car on top of my lap. Of course, having been wearing the same underwear for three days who was I to rob the boy of his new drink? Within minutes my arms were filled with two little boys, no older than 6 or 7, each treating me like the best climbing tree they had just found. They pretty much had me at hello.

February 13, 2007

Random Ideas for Public Consumption: Part Two

As in the first post in this series, Random Ideas for Public Consumption: Part One, I offer to anyone who wants these ideas. Use them as you will. I don't mind.

1. General Life Rule: When someone says that they are addicted to chocolate, they are actually not addicted.

2. The Dyslexic Palm-Reader: A story, documentary, mockumentary, or whatever concerning the sometimes sad, yet often ribald consequences of those who habitually and unwittingly (optional) rely on the advice of The Dyslexic Palm-Reader.

3. Not My Best: A search engine that runs on alternative fuel. Think about it.

February 6, 2007

Mtv and Growing Old Before My Time

On my occasional returns to my home in Boston, I tend to fall back into old habits -- checking the fridge too often, eating the same subs from the same old pizza places all of which go by a first name in the possessive (Bill's, Danny's, Mark's, Peter's, etc.), and endless stints on the couch -- some of these activities are comforting reminders of my formative years and others are upsetting revelations at how much has remained the same while I have been away (growing, presumably).

The most upsetting moments occur in front of the television, which I haven't watched habitually since high school, specifically when my fingers unconsciously click through my old favorite channels: Mtv, Vh1, ESPN, NESN, E! and the rest. Each time I stop on Mtv -- perhaps pausing to see what mindless countdown show is airing (maybe if I keep watching, I'll find out who received the most Staralicious Makeover) or who has been the most recent victim of a Punking (who the hell gave this Kutcher guy a show?) -- my heart and ears long for those hours-long chunks of music videos that used to occupy the daily program schedule. I return with a Proustian rush to John Sencio and his "Rude Awakening"; to Kennedy and that killer Gen-X attitude; to Dr. Dre (the very chubby one) and Ed Lover on "Yo Mtv Raps", "The Headbanger's Ball" and the first beach house.

"Those were the days," I think to myself, when torn flannel shirts flowed like wine and the people on "The Real World" were actually real -- had jobs and lives of their own. I remember being in 5th grade and sitting for hours with paper and pen at the ready, writing down the songs and bands that I liked; Mtv was a fixture in my musical exploration. I even witnessed the first airing of the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit." True Story. At thoughts like these, however, as each memory takes on a nostalgic air, I begin to question the validity of this retrospection and of my perspective on the years between then and now.

In my mind, the popular music of the era was of distinct quality. Grunge was the new movement in Rock and Roll; Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains (my least favorite of the bunch) were all over the tube. Other types of bands were there as well: Guns N' Roses with their epic trilogy of "Don't Cry", "Estranged", and "November Rain"; a solo Tom Petty gave us "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and "Free Fallin'"; Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic, The Chronic and Get a Grip were nothing to scoff at either; even one or two hit wonders like Ugly Kid Joe, 4 Non Blonds, and The Spin Doctors provided quality filler. All this leads me to wonder, "Are these just misty, water-colored memories, stripped of the poorer examples of this era's music"? Did I just lose touch with whatever the kids started listening to when TRL got huge? Is this the inevitable disenchantment suffered by all Mtv viewers after the age of 15? Have I, at 24 years old, grown old before my time?

Without argument, Mtv has done away with its bread and butter, the music video -- a gradual trend away from large timeslots (which don't fair as well in share ratings and thus advertising dollars) and into neat, half-hour shows like "The Real World" and all its bastard offspring. While the channel has continued to produce and promote pop idols like Britney Spears, Boy Bands, et al., I have to contend that the overall quality of these products suffers within the new system. Even Jack Black, in a Rolling Stone interview before hosting last years VMA awards, questioned the basic need for such awards, because he couldn't remember the last time he even watched a video on Mtv.

There is a very real possibility that I could go on and on about this, but I won't. I would love to hear from my small readership on this issue and possibly gain a little slice of solace in our commiseration. Until then, I gotta get back to the tube and "True Life" is aaaaaaaaaaaawwesome.

February 4, 2007

On a More Personal Note...

I just have to admit that I cannot look at this picture without laughing. The giraffe just looks so knowing; it's eerie and yet completely hilarious.

January 30, 2007

Breakfast Club Says: "Don't You Forget About Me."

It seems that every year Hollywood provides for the American audience a jaunt into the world of teenage angst, sexuality, and alcohol abuse. The annual barrage of often formulaic and uninspired “teen flicks” routinely falls short of evoking actual emotions; they choose instead to settle for the bizarre and contrived, usually incorporating overly-used stereotypes (nerds, jocks/bullies, outcasts, and beauties) and throwing them together in the alcohol filled melee of a house party that closer resemble a Dionysian orgy than the actual, awkward and redundant weekend nights of high school students -- those who don’t have bands performing in their living room or participate in mass-choreographed dance sequences. These teen movies are no recent phenomenon; for more than twenty years America has depicted its suburban youth in this fashion, and before there were Can’t Hardly Wait or Ten Things I Hate About You, there was Clueless, and before that the 1980’s gave us Fast Times At Ridgemont High and the collection of teen films by John Hughes, most memorably Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and, the subject of this article, The Breakfast Club.

While Hughes’s movie about five students serving their detention together retains the common and clichéd elements shown in the rest of these movies, it also stands apart as the popular misfit of its group. We are presented with standard archetypal characters, but their presence is not purely for comic relief or satire. Placed together on a quite and all-too-sober Saturday morning detention, each character achieves a kind of redemption uncommonly found in its genre that comes not from some plot driven triumphal accomplishment – getting the prettiest or unattainable girl, losing one’s virginity, getting accepted to their first choice college,…etc. – but by the connections each character makes with the different representatives of the high school social hierarchy. Each character enters the film with a label, constantly aware of their own and each other’s, but over the course of their day, during those few hours which we observe, their redemptive accomplishments lie in the discovery of their shared troubles, the commonality of being young and naïve and without all or any of the answers.

To watch it now, The Breakfast Club appears somewhat dated; the characters are so very representative of the 1980’s fashion and popular culture (the film itself a defining icon of its decade), but in the flood of present day teen comedies these characters serve as a refreshing depiction of suburban teendom. However, I do not wish to place this film so far from other teenage movies, as it does incorporate strange and improbable scenes of dancing, and the obvious antagonist figure of the assistant principal, who sporadically proctors their detention, his inability to govern providing comic relief. What does set the movie apart is the respect it shows all of its characters -- balancing their moments of embarrassment or ridicule with pathos and understanding. Even the assistant principal does not succumb to one-dimensionalism, as the film provides us with scenes that illuminate his perspective on the plot, showing his moments of strict discipline -- the manner in which he proctors -- as symptomatic of his growing awareness of his own impotency as a disciplinarian; the movie does not simply vilify him, but justifies his overly compensatory strictness by sympathizing with his dilemma.

As the teenagers of the 1980’s have now become the parents of today, The Breakfast Club takes on a greater significance. For those who were young when the movie first appeared, it should be viewed as a reminder of their frustrations as children, who once commiserated with its characters who state, “When you get older, your heart just dies.” And, perhaps more importantly, for those high school students of today, the movie should be watched, because it portrays the life of a teenager with realism and respect; and its themes, in contrast to its characters’ fashion, still hold true today. Ideally, the teenager of today should find solace in this less glorified depiction of their world, proving that the sensationalized reality of other teenage movies do not offer expectations or examples for their own teenage years; that their lives are not as dull as they seem when compared to these newly glorified characters; and that the categories and labels of high school society are not permanent or even precise, but arbitrary and meant to be broken. The truth that comes to each of us when we graduate from high school comes as a soothing realization that it was not as important as we had thought it to be. The Breakfast Club reminds us of this, while still maintaining the respect for its characters and its young audience, by understanding that however pointless it may seem in one’s later memory, at the time, those years were awkward and arduous and very important.

January 25, 2007

January 22, 2007

Random Ideas for Public Consumption: Part 1

Here are some random thoughts that have popped into my head during the course of my daily life. Take them or leave them, but I don't have time at the moment to do anything with them, so do what you will.

1. Compulsive Liars Anonymous: First, print up a bunch of business cards that read simply:

Compulsive Liars Anonymous
Meeting at 8 PM, Tuesday
(Specify a Location of Your Choosing)
Now, distribute them anonymously around your hometown, neighborhood, dorm, campus, office, etc. Some may find them and, while they are not actually compulsive liars, find them so intriguing that they show up at the designated time and locale (incidentally they are lying if they show up, because they are not compulsive liars, but just regular liars). Others, who are in fact compulsive liars, may decide that they need help and support and show up as well. Now, here is the kicker: you show up and lie about being a compulsive liar, claiming that you found the card as well, just like the rest of the liars there. Now, no one will actually know what the meeting is about and who is in charge; the group then grows suspicious, for while all are anonymous, each of you has already admitted to being a liar, so any of you may be in charge.

2. A Comedy Sketch (either for a show or recording), "Phone Sex Ed": The skit is merely a phone conversation between two sexual education teachers. They have phone sex, but follow the guidelines and lingo of the classes that they teach. I shouldn't have to fill you in with the details, but they will probably not be very steamy, especially if they are teaching "abstinence plus."

3. General Life Rule: The words "No, I love him/her to death" are always followed by a behind the back insult about him/her.

4. General Life Rule #2: Do people who pontificate using rhetorical question that they quickly answer feel a overblown sense of self-importance? Yes.

All for now, more to come...

Framing the Debate

"You're either for stampeding the village or you're for the poachers."

January 21, 2007

My Doomsday Clock is Ticking Like This...

" In a purely symbolic but still unsettling move, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the minute hand on its Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. On the 60-year-old Doomsday Clock, midnight is nuclear destruction, the end of life as we know it..." - Read the rest of the article.

So we are now five minutes to midnight, and from what I learned at the Eric Clapton concert, we're soon gonna let it all hang out. After the last six years of code reds and a base level of public paranoia, this announcement (which is purely symbolic, yet should be taken seriously) seems to have fallen on deaf ears. I couldn't even find a decent article on it in the New York Times. But here is an interesting reaction to the announcement, which should be taken seriously. In it, Stephen Hawking states:

"As we stand at the brink of a second nuclear age and a period of unprecedented climate change, scientists have a special responsibility once again to inform the public and advise leaders about the perils that humanity faces." Read full article.

We are entering a new era, a second nuclear age, in which the problem that we face and their hopeful solutions stem from the technological advancements and science. The solutions lie entwined within the root of the problems, and to dismiss science as theory would be to disregard any hope for the answers. As JFK said in his inaugural address, "Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors."

Somehow, though I can barely remember the cold war outside of endless viewings of Rocky IV, the US and Russia still have over 26,000 nuclear weapons at the ready. The idea that these stockpiles were composed for the purpose of a deterrent comes off as fallacious. Nevertheless, the 18 nobel laureates who have moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock also cite the impending dangers of climate change as factors in this decision. With need to find alternative energy sources, nuclear options will grow widely available and allow for nations to use the technology to form nuclear stockpiles.

If you're not concerned about this, or at least titillated by the "24"esque scenario that we could be facing, then I doubt that you'd be the type of person to get this far into this blog. If your reaction includes nausea, sleeplessness, mood swings, or all of the above then you are either hungover or may want to look into ways to curb your energy intake, keep electing officials who take this threat seriously, and maybe pick up a copy of Dr. Strangelove. Whatever you do, I suggest that you get to it soon, because according to the clock, it's just a mater of time. And I feel fine...Six o'clock - TV hour. Don't get caught in foreign tower. Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn. Lock him in uniform da da da da da...