Thursday, December 31, 2009

Resolutions that are easy to keep

At this time of year, many of you will be making New Year’s resolutions – most of then having to do with losing weight, quitting smoking, or spending less.

I wish you good luck with those, even though I won’t be joining you. I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions in years. I have figured that 1) if I need to make a good change, I can do it on any day of the year, and 2) I forget all about my resolutions come February. (A little mouse tells me I’m not the only one.)

However, here are some resolutions that you may find easier to keep than the big three:

1. Notice and appreciate the good things in life.
2. Don’t run towards suffering.
3. Be aware of the issues in your life, and take action to alleviate them (but always be gentle with yourself).
4. Read good books.
5. Learn something new.
6. Don’t take responsibility for problems that aren’t yours.
7. Don’t sweat the small stuff (tip of the hat to Richard Carlson). For example, if you don’t like football and the people around you do, it’s OK. Go and take a walk around the neighborhood while others watch football.

Sounds more enjoyable than losing weight or quitting smoking, doesn’t it?

This will be my last post of 2009. Even though the “official” first anniversary of Meandering mouse is January 20, 2010, I’m so glad that I posted more than once a week on average (63 posts total). If I can post at least twice a week in 2010, I’d be happy with that.

Today is also our first wedding anniversary. Two Dogs and I will share breakfast soon, and I look forward to being with him and our friends today. Maybe we’ll go to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream. I haven’t had my egg nog cone yet. Two Dogs is and will always be one of my “good things.” I love you, swee-dee-luv!

Readers, enjoy your New Year’s Eve, be safe, and enjoy a happy and prosperous 2010.

Monday, December 28, 2009

What’s with all the hate towards Kwanzaa?

Graphic courtesy of Microsoft Clip Art

It's a holiday mystery right up there with "What's wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys?", "How does Santa deliver toys to homes with no chimneys?", and "Would anyone even like the song 'Jingle Bells' if it wasn't associated with Christmas?" (FYI, "Jingle Bells" is a Thanksgiving song, people. It would be nice if I didn't hear it after the turkey has been digested.)

What is this unfathomable question I'm thinking of?

"Why do people hate on Kwanzaa?"

Turn on any AM talk station at this time of year, and sooner or later you’re going to hear somebody say, “Well, Kwanzaa’s not a real holiday.”

Real to whom? If even one person celebrates it, that makes the holiday real as far as I am concerned.

You might also hear this: “Oh, Kwanzaa is just a made-up holiday.”

All holidays are made-up, even those that are centuries old. We do not have an instinct to celebrate ritualized holidays. As proof, read this New York Times story about people who have stopped celebrating Christmas.

What is it about Kwanzaa that pisses people off?

First, let’s take a closer look at the holiday itself. According to Wikipedia, “Kwanzaa is a week-long holiday celebrated in the United States honoring African heritage and culture, marked by participants lighting a kinara (candle holder). It is observed from December 26 to January 1 each year, primarily in the United States. Kwanzaa consists of seven days of celebration, featuring activities such as candle-lighting and pouring of libations, and culminating in a feast and gift giving. It was created by Ron Karenga and was first celebrated from December 26, 1966, to January 1, 1967.”

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa represents a principle: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).

Now, what could possibly be wrong with those values? I thought about it, and here’s my take:

1. Some people don’t like Ujima and Ujamaa. Collective? Cooperative? Sounds a bit too much like (duh duh duhhhhh) socialism!

2. Some people think that Kwanzaa is in competition with good old-fashioned ‘Merican Christmas. Who knows, people might celebrate this mumbo-jumbo instead of turning to Christ, as they oughta! (FYI, according to the official Kwanzaa website, this is not so: "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday. And it is not an alternative to people's religion or faith but a common ground of African culture...Kwanzaa is not a reaction or substitute for anything.” Those who bitch about Kwanzaa are also more likely to bitch about the “War on Christmas.” Think about your last visit to a mall or big-box store. Does it look like Christmas is losing this “war”? (But’s that’s another post for another day, probably in 2010.)

3. Some people don’t like it when black folks do something for themselves without asking for white folks’ approval. Yes, that's right. Even in 2009.

It is easy to dismiss Kwanzaa-bashing as just more noise from the conservative whine machine. But it’s not so easy to dismiss the 1971 conviction of the creator of Kwanzaa, Ron Karenga, for beating and torturing two female members of United Slaves, a militant cultural organization which rivaled the Black Panthers. The women were ordered to strip, and then were whipped with an electrical cord and karate baton. One had a hot soldering iron placed in her mouth, the other had one of her big toes placed in a vise. Disgusting stuff. Karenga spent four years in prison for his participation in this crime. No matter how culturally righteous you may be, there’s no justification for this.

Still, Karenga’s crimes do not erase or negate the values of Kwanzaa. It’s just like knowing the difference between the words of the man known to most of the world as Jesus Christ and the horrific acts of those who acted in his name throughout the centuries.

If I had the choice to erase from the earth either Christmas or Kwanzaa, I would erase Christmas. It’s a holiday of a single religion, and one of those repressive paternalistic ones to boot. It’s a holiday that’s a servant of consumerism, and no pious TV special about the “true meaning” of Christmas will ever change that. Its “true meaning” becomes doubly false when we learn that we don’t really know the day that the man we call Jesus Christ was born.

Far better to ponder unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith than mythical red-suited gift-givers, reindeers with shiny red noses, and dreadful songs played over and over again.

So let the Kwanzaa corn stand alongside the Christmas cookies and the Hanukkah chocolate coins as holiday treats, and instead of wasting a kilowatt of energy in complaining, acknowledge that it's a big world, not a small one, after all, and it can contain multitudes of holidays.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sometimes I feel like the Misfit Doll on “Rudolph.” Don’t you?

I never know where my next thought is coming from. For the past few days, I have been pondering the Misfit Doll on the Island of Misfit Toys in the 1964 TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Remember her? Unlike the other Misfit Toys, she didn’t have any outer flaw. The question of why she was on the Island of Misfit Toys in the first place has puzzled viewers for decades. Finally Arthur Rankin, of Rankin-Bass (producers of Rudolph), explained that Misfit Doll’s problem was psychological in nature. In other words, she was depressed because she was unwanted.

How sad. It makes me cry just thinking about it. Really.

I want to pick Misfit Doll up and be the friend she needs. I know what it is like to be unwanted, to be lonely, to not have “any dreams left to dream.” As a writer and graphic artist searching for work, I feel the sting of doors closing. I don’t know what I would have done if Two Dogs wasn’t here.

I try to feel better by imagining a happy life for the Misfit Doll after Rudolph. After the elf dropped her from Santa’s sleigh with the umbrella, she found a good home with a little girl who took care of her so well that she was passed down to two generations (so far), and was able to be reunited with her Misfit friends for this 2009 commercial:

I felt the need to search for a doll who looked just as gentle and kind and ready to love and be loved. Unfortunately, such dolls are hard to find in big-box stores. Because it was too late to obtain a real Mistfit Doll before Christmas, I chose this pretty purple octopus from Toys R Us. I will deliver her to a toy drive soon.

In the meantime, I suggest that you love and protect the misfit side of yourself. Imagine a safe place for her, perhaps a little yellow cottage with a vegetable garden and noodle trees around it.

Enesco/CVS "beanie" version of Misfit Doll (1998)

Give her a porch to watch the sun rise and the sun set, lots of books to read, and a fluffy bed to sleep in. Above all, let her know that she is wanted unconditionally. Be kind to the vulnerable pieces of yourself – don’t deny, ignore, or try to make them more acceptable to society. That is a key to happiness.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The winter solstice

Photo courtesy of Microsoft Clip Art

The winter solstice – which in 2009 happens tomorrow, December 21st – is a day of celebration for societies around the world, from Sweden to Polynesia to Australia and Japan. In America, hardly anyone notices except for a handful of neopagans.

It’s hard to think about the solstice, or even realize that it exists, when the greater society relentlessly shoves Christmas in your face, as well as the mandate to make that holiday perfect for your family.

I say, don’t stress. You can celebrate the solstice without neglecting Christmas. The solstice is only one day – actually, only half a day if you start celebrating at sunset.

The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, so the moon will be up for longer. Why not have a dinner that’s as white as the moon? Serve it on white plates against a white tablecloth.

I suggest these dishes:

1. White fish such as halibut, cod, and scallops.
2. White vegetables and side dishes such as parsnips, cauliflower, potatoes, and rice.
3. White drinks such as water (with seasonal navel orange slices for flavor), milk, white chocolate, egg nog, and sparkling white wine.

Nighttime puts me in a mood to watch movies. Perhaps this longest night of the year is a great night to watch a lengthy classic such as Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, or Doctor Zhivago. (If you dare, you can even attempt the four-hour-plus Cleopatra, where you can see Elizabeth Taylor being a movie star.)

Nighttime is also a good time to slow down – and to think about slowing down. What are the stresses that are weighing you down? How many of them are really self-inflicted? Do we worry too much about problems instead of thinking about solutions? Do we realize that we are not as helpless as we think? How can we slow down the way nature slows down in winter? It is possible – even a few days before Christmas.

It’s true that all holidays are man-made. Pausing to celebrate the winter solstice, though, doesn’t feel quite so artificial – because it’s the day of a natural phenomenon that happens every year. And think of this good news – after the 21st, the days will start to get longer again.

Happy solstice, everyone.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The night of moral disgust

My brother Jim is staying with Two Dogs and me until he can find an apartment of his own (or until we find a new place for us to stay together – homesharing is not out of the question for us).

Not too long ago, Two Dogs showed the DVD of Reservoir Dogs (the 15th anniversary edition in the mock gas-can packaging) to Jim. It gave me a chance to re-watch the movie, too. This time, I didn’t enjoy it as much.

I bought the movie during the Steve Buscemi phase of my life, shortly before I met Two Dogs. Of course, Mr. Buscemi is still great as Mr. Pink, and so are the other actors – Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, and the late Chris Penn and Lawrence Tierney. The director/writer Quentin Tarantino’s inimitable style still zings and crackles, and who couldn’t love K-Billy’s Sounds of the 70s?

What’s wrong with this movie now? When the final credits came on, I was permeated with moral disgust.

I use those words, “moral disgust”, very carefully. It’s hard not to associate that terminology with people who have the FCC on speed-dial just in case they hear a fart (the word and/or the sound) on television. Believe me, I do not want Reservoir Dogs, or any other movie, taken off store shelves and TV screens. I have no problem with strong language, explicit sex, bathroom humor, and non-traditional lifestyles.

So, what was it in Reservoir Dogs that I found morally disgusting? It wasn’t the blood. It wasn’t even the realistic depiction of what really happens when you shoot a guy in the belly (Hint: First he screams. Loud.). It was the casual attitude towards violence.

With two exceptions, the characters of Reservoir Dogs are at best amoral criminals who think it’s just fine and dandy to shoot people who get in their way, and at worst cheerful psychopaths who torture victims while dancing to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel. This may have been cool back in 1992, but today it just makes me sick.

Story is the number-one factor when I decide what movies I want to see. When I say story, I mean human beings deciding how best to live life. In his 1973 book, The World of Star Trek, David Gerrold lamented that the original series (which was all the Star Trek there was on TV back in 1973), contained too many “Kirk in danger” stories and not enough “Kirk has a decision to make” stories. Too many moviemakers think that conflict = danger = guns, explosives, killers, monsters, ad nauseam.

I’d rather see real stories about real people who will live to use the insights they gained through the action of the movie. I’d rather see movies that tell us that life is weird, funny, sad, bad, and ridiculous – but we can get through it without giving up our selves (or for that matter, our guts). In other words, the kind of movies that mainstream Hollywood is afraid to make anymore.

So be it. Leave the toy movies to the boys of all ages. I will go to the art houses and the Netflix in search of meaningful cinematic experience. As for Quentin Tarantino, if I could ask anything of him, I would ask him to write a movie with no blood and no violence and no killing. (But the strong language can stay in.)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The blog entry I hesitated to post

I hesitated to post this entry, because it’s about a controversial person and a controversial book. I worried that if I wrote what I felt, some people would think that I supported terrorism. The attitude of Elizabeth Taylor (see last post) is poking me in the back of my head, telling me to damn the torpedoes of criticism. So, here goes.

Earlier this year, I read the book Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers. (Interestingly enough, I bought it on September 11 at Small World Books in Venice, CA. Every time I go into Small World, I buy something. You should, too – it’s one of the best independent bookstores in Los Angeles County. And it’s near the beach!)

It’s the story about how a typical middle-class kid from Illinois became liberalized, and then radicalized, simply by paying attention to the world around him. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground, who reacted to the atrocity of the Vietnam War by attempting to “bring the war home” – giving America a taste of the agony it was inflicting on the Vietnamese. The WU claimed credit for about 25 bombings overall in the U.S., including one at the Pentagon in 1970 – though the only people ever killed with WU bombs were three members of the WU itself, while they were handling explosives at a Greenwich Village brownstone. Bill Ayers and his fellow WU members spent most of the 1970s as fugitives, but when he turned himself in, the charges against him didn’t stand because of illegal surveillance on the part of the FBI.

Fugitive Days forced me to ask myself questions – how far am I willing to go to fight injustice? What is the proper response when your government is the criminal? Does answering violence with violence work in the long run?

It’s hard not to cheer a group of ordinary people wanting an end to war, racism, sexism, and other steamrollers that crush the human spirit. It’s hard not to cheer when this group strikes back against a monolithic, heartless war machine.

On the other hand…

The WU and other radical groups could be just as dogmatic, rigid, and tunnel-visioned as their enemies – a fact that Ayers makes painfully clear.

And then, there’s the bombs.

What, empirically speaking, is the difference between the Weathermen who plant bombs in the Pentagon and the anti-abortion activists who plant bombs in Planned Parenthood offices? Had the WU had made good on its threat to “bring the war home,” people who didn’t cause, affect, or even approve of the Vietnamese conflict would have died.

Uncritical approval carries with it moral risk. Bombs, no matter who throws or plants them, tear people apart – figuratively as well as literally.

Bill Ayers and the other WU members who stayed on the right side of the law since 1980 have enjoyed peaceful and productive lives since then. I have no problem with that. When certain members of the right wing tried to smear then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama because Ayers hosted a campaign event for Obama back in 1995, I rolled my eyes. (Most other voters did, too.)

Fugitive Days is a harrowing story of people who tested the limits of their values. I recommend it no matter your place in the political spectrum. If it makes you think that planting bombs is a great idea, you didn't read it close enough.

How to be a movie star (or at least think like one)

I just read a book called How To Be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood by William J. Mann. This was not the first book I’ve read about this subject – for an escape-starved girl, Ms. Taylor’s saga of movies, marriages, and money was one of the greatest ever told. This new book, however, is not the conventional Hollywood bio.

It’s the story of how Ms. Taylor (and the entourage around her) grew, nurtured, and fought for that invisible but knockout-punch-powerful quality called stardom – fighting (and winning!) against the patriarchal studio system, vindictive gossip columnists, and the suffocating moral conservatism of Middle America.

I have new admiration for Ms. Taylor after reading Mr. Mann’s book. Of course, my fantasies have evolved over the years – I don’t want eight husbands, diamonds the size of golf balls, or cigarette holders that go with my dress and my tablecloth. (But I would be happy to take two candlelit baths a day.)

The greatest legacy of Ms. Taylor is her “fuck-you” attitude towards the obstacles of life. I, too, seek greater independence in my work life, being able to pick and choose worthy projects instead of being tied down to the rules and needs of just one company. I want to no longer care about pleasing people who wouldn’t extend the same toward me. I want to say, “This is what I’m going to do, and you’re just going to have to wait.” I want to be strong without degenerating into bitchiness. (I don’t care what anybody says – “bitch” is not a good thing to be.) I want to enjoy life without reservations.

Read the book, and learn more than you ever imagined.

(P.S. From this post on, I’m only going to capitalize the first word of a blog entry, unless there are given names involved. It got too tiresome to figure out which short words to capitalize or not. As much as I am a stickler for grammar, I’d rather concentrate on expressing my thoughts than worrying about capitalization minutae!)