Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

The 82nd Academy Awards took place Sunday night. The critics have already given us their takes, variously repeating back to us how they think we felt about them, or else how we should have felt. How tag-team hosting by Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin fell flat, or how they did fairly well, depending who you hear. And of course, there’s the talk on it being a night of firsts, the biggest being the first ever female winning for “Best Director,” for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. It’s the kind of talk that’s meant to sell audiences.

But all punditry aside, I had a few observations of my own. First off, Kathryn Bigelow is hot!

While this wasn’t really discussed during the ceremonies, with the focus instead given to her artistic talent, former marriage and continuing collaboration with fellow contender James Cameron, and of course, the strong possibility of her making history… blah, blah, blah… I had to wonder, “Man, does anyone else think this woman is really attractive?” And at 58, pretty hot! (Or any age for that matter.) To confirm my hunch, I later punched in “Kathryn Bigelow is” on Google to see what would pre-fill. And sure enough, “Kathryn Bigelow is hot” showed up, with thousands of hits. A couple times during the show, they spoke with James Cameron about her. Not known for a subdued ego, “I’m the king of the world!” Cameron nevertheless offered fairly glowing praise for his ex, as well he should. Yet despite how positive their relationship may be today, all I could think was, “Man, you idiot!”

Then there was the notable true Cinderella story of Gabourey Sidibe, star of another indie favorite, Precious. Throughout the night, Gabourey glowed as she shared top billing with the world’s most famous and beautiful people, based on her freshman film effort. It was really cool to see how so many people responded to this new star with genuine warmth and praise, in a town often known for its obsession with outward beauty and status. Yet, I found one response to be telling, when speaking of Sidibe’s performance, someone asked with amazement Where did this come from? In other words, how did someone without a Hollywood pedigree command such attention?

While I have yet to see Precious (As with many, one of the things I like about the Oscars is getting the popular and critical buzz on films I’ve yet to see and might enjoy.), I was not surprised at all. Not everyone may have it within them to put forth an Oscar-winning performance, but I have this conviction that everyone has within them a glory to bring to the world. A glory that when truly seen, should cause people to go, “Whoa!” Of course, how often do we truly see another person’s glory? Or how often if ever have we been able to tap into this inner place and get seen? Which at least makes the surprise behind the question somewhat understandable.

While it did get slow at times, at certain points I was aware of some warm fuzzies coming over me. For example, there was the moving tribute to the late John Hughes, creative genius behind such classics as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Home Alone. But I think this is about more than nostalgia. For I don’t care who I talk to, but practically every person I’ve ever met has some sort of emotional attachment or response to certain stars and films. We need bright and shining stars of some sort to inspire us, whether in our actual lives, or at a cultural or artistic level, as with celebrities. While it can be taken to excess, I don’t think such attraction is lame. And nothing seems to span the chasm in our existential aloneness than our common intrigue with art—and story in particular. All the better, however, when such inspiration offers something authentic and personal or something transcending the status quo, as with Sidibe and Bigelow.

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Last week, Tiger Woods broke his long silence regarding the shocking revelations late last year of a secret life, personally giving a prepared statement in a press conference from the PGA Headquarters in Pontre Vedra Beach, Florida. Immediately afterward, the pundits were giving their takes on his appearance. Some felt it was very appropriate, and hit the right notes. Others thought he was insincere, merely seeking to recover in light of his damaged celebrity and corporate sponsor relationships.

I was struck, though, by Woods’ naming his sin of entitlement, citing it as a factor in his downfall. Prepared statement or not, it took guts to say this. More so, to make some semblance of owning it, as he had his mother sitting right there in front of him, neither of them cracking a smile through the 13 minute confession. That couldn’t have been fun.

I don’t know whether or not Tiger is making an earnest effort to overcome his problems. But I’m glad he said this. Entitlement is a huge problem today. While it probably always has been, I have a sense it’s probably never been more prevalent than now. Yet it often goes unacknowledged, is dismissed, or even openly embraced. Entitlement is one of those things that’s a lot easier to spot in others than ourselves. But it’s also one of those things that can be quite subtle, and fly under the radar for a long time, until like Woods, a lot of damage has been done.

If I’m really honest with myself, I feel very entitled myself. That I deserve certain treatment by others, as when I don’t receive from them what I’m expecting, or the general sense that life ought to be better for me than it is. In fact, I’d be rather embarrassed to give account for some of the things I’ve felt entitled to. Maybe that’s why a lot of us vent so much energy in outrage when we see it in another, because we know this about ourselves.

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Finally. This week my life can begin again.

I’m only joking. (Almost.)

This week begins the final season to ABC’s amazing six-year run of Lost, one of the most popular shows in recent memory. As with several million faithful fans around the world (shy a few million former regulars who gave up following from impatience with the show’s seemingly never-ending plot twists and drawn-out character studies), I’ve anxiously been awaiting this moment since last season’s cliffhanger finale in May, where we were finally introduced to the mysterious Jacob–only to see him apparently killed off by Ben Linus, at the behest of John Locke–who, as it turns out–isn’t really John Locke anymore.

Okay, sorry to barrage you with details. Lost is one of the shows you either love to follow or not at all. There’s really no in-between as it is a true serial, renowned for so many story lines and connecting links in a dense story structure that if you miss an episode or two, you’re pretty lost yourself. Even as a follower, there’s so much stuff going on that I forget half of it. I was trying to remember the other night, for instance, why did the cast get split up into two story lines taking place thirty years apart? In truth, a revisit of this series from start to finish may be in order when this season finally wraps, where as with any good whodunit mystery, so many of the things I thought I knew were taking place were not what I thought them to be at the time.

Anyway, my point isn’t to talk about this show. It’s more about the anticipation of waiting for something that you are eager to experience. While I admit the plot got a little tedious at points–particularly in season 4–Lost has nevertheless been a source of great enjoyment for me. Escapism at its best.

Also, it’s about finding refuge in something to help take your mind off the rest of your life.

Like with a lot of people, the last two years have been very challenging ones for me. There have been times that things were such that–well, let’s just say there were times that watching Lost became the highlight of my week, giving me something to look forward to in an otherwise dismal routine.

Maybe that sounds pathetic, but what about you? Can’t you relate? The point isn’t whether it’s right or wrong, but the fact that we do this. Maybe this isn’t something to truly celebrate, but there could be far worse things. I’m glad to know at least that I’m part of a tribe some 15 million strong or so. This is after all the one show that brought me back to watching prime-time drama.

So come Tuesday night, I gladly escape again back to the Island (or wherever our Oceanic Flight 815 friends happen to be now).

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Unless you’ve been off living in a cloister somewhere—or comatose—I’m sure that like me you’ve been hit with a barrage of images and sound bites the last few days of the tragic impact of the earthquake in Haiti.

Once in awhile an event happens that captures the pity, shock, sorrow, even anger, of a much larger group of people than those immediately impacted. Two events in 2004 did this—Hurricane Katrina and the Indonesian tsunami. (9/11 is no slouch, obviously. But I’m thinking at present about natural disasters and the seemingly inordinate disparity of tragedy experienced among the poor) It’s looking like Haiti is the newest universal touchstone of tragedy as we enter a new decade.

Well I was watching CNN today when a story was told of a young Haitian teen who was pulled out of the ruins alive. It was a rare story of celebration that has been popping up here and there amid such overwhelming sorrow. I was more struck by her response to the interviewer. It was clear to the assembled press that she was joyful. When asked about this, she basically said that God was with her, and glorified Him for her rescue.

Later there was a story about Florida woman, Mimi Dittmer, who was trapped in a Port-au-Prince supermarket, going down on her knees to shield herself when the quake struck, and locked into this excruciatingly painful position for the next five days. Similarly, when asked about her thoughts on being pulled out of the rubble against great odds, from her hospital bed she said “Jesus Christ saved me,” and spoke of reciting the Psalms to keep her spirits up in the midst of her ordeal.

I’m not overly sentimental, but these stories got me to thinking about how I (and we as a nation) might respond to such chaos like this. After all, Haiti was already known as being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere before this happened. But I was thinking, for instance, Would our God survive in a place like Haiti? An American belief in God, couched in comfort, blessing, protection.

I think of another story: an American nurse of Haitian ancestry who went down to volunteer and how she has to turn away often to cry as she’s trying to help dying children. I think that such joining of others in their suffering would help us in the West to erase the categories of division we usually live under, with our common humanity becoming more important. But therein lies a bind; for what separates us is more than the overall greater economic and social privilege we have here, but how these very things can insulate us to being vulnerable—the very thing that will be needed if we risk opening our hearts to the realities of disappointment and despair. It is difficult, yes. And yet, I can think of few things that facilitate such connection like this as shared grief. And grief will be needed in order to rightly see the light of hope.

Do Americans as a whole get points for this? Not to downplay some of the amazing outpouring of generosity that’s taking place as people open their homes and purses to help. But after the celebrity telethons have settled down, can we legitimately share in the claims of solidarity if we are not participants ourselves in the grief? And are we afraid to truly engage the response of this young girl? Vs. saying, “Heh, heh, that’s nice. Now, run along, dear.” If so, perhaps it’s because nothing unnerves us like looking at our own fear, disappointment, and anger if similarly challenged. Or more—than daring to name God in the face of these things, particularly in view of his apparent silence.

… Speaking of finding hope amid the ruins, I was very encouraged recently to learn about a group call Jobs Partnership of Florida (www.jobspartnershipfl.org). My friend, René Vazquez, a staff member at Summit Church, was telling me about it and invited me to come to an informational meeting the other night. Basically, Summit is working with JP to bring hope to the residents of Orlando’s Old Cheney neighborhood, many who are unemployed and locked in grinding cycles of poverty and dysfunction. Cheney was once a thriving community back in the day when the naval base was here, but has become something of a ghost town economically, with lots of empty businesses lining Colonial Drive, even worse now in light of the current economy. And while nearby Baldwin Park has sought to inject some new vitality to the area, many of the folks in adjacent Old Cheney have not directly benefited from it.

I was moreover struck by the sense of commitment to have a vision for impacting lives with more than short-term solutions, but lasting changes. Stories of reluctant businessmen who opened themselves to getting involved, and in the process, found themselves changing as they sought to help change the fortunes of others in need. And of other neighborhoods where participants went looking for a job, but in some cases, found a career and a sense of calling, dramatically boosting their sense of worth. NPR actually did a story on it awhile back (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5317076).

As local business leader, Eddy Moratin, gave the history of Jobs Partnership, he and René spoke about the systemic issues surrounding dying neighborhoods. Moreover, I was encouraged by both men’s daring to dream on behalf of an area that has been written off by many as dead or dying, and committed to seeing a generations-long process of restoration—as it does so by personally touching one life at a time, by meeting very real here-and-now needs. Sort of like the old saying, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and feed him for a lifetime.”

And I was challenged by an attitude to go beyond the typical models of community improvement that have flourished during boom-time economies and here in particular—that of infusing venture capital into new housing and business developments that quickly skyrocket in value while furthering the divide between the haves and have-nots. I’m all for “the invisible hand of economics” when it works like it should. It’s just nice to know that a kind and visible human face can be attached to it at times.

… I was more or less a blank slate while going to this informational meeting, though hopeful of what I would find. And I did find an appreciation for what it is on its own terms and am genuinely heartened. But looking at it sort of like with my questions around finding hope in Haiti, I realize we need programs like JP more than for the obvious good they do for others and for the system as a whole. We need them for ourselves, to make us believe there is still good and light in the world. I think these guys probably said it in better and less crass terms than I do here. But we need it to believe and to hope and to not lose heart—apart from the immediate and most important good it effects. Is that not a worthy value? Even if far from altruistic?

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Starbucks Etiquette

I’ve spent a lot of time in coffee shops, and Starbucks in particular (Yeah, I’m okay with that, for those of you snobbier than this coffee snob. What are you going to do about it?). From my time as both a patron and barista, I’ve come up with some of the unwritten rules of patronizing Starbucks:

  • Spill sugar on counters so that baristas have something to do when making periodic sweeps through store.
  • Pour extra coffee into the trash portal at the condiment station to make room for creamer. Patrons regularly doing this without a second thought may be surprised to know how many trash bag malfunctions out by the dumpsters have ended up saturating baristas’ clothing. For the love of G-d, stop the violence! (Okay, this may not be considered etiquette, but since it originates from behind the counter, it’s considered common practice.)
  • If good customers, will take empty creamer vessels back to the counter for a replacement from barista, and even assist further by putting it out on the condiment station themselves.
  • If bad to the core customers, will leave it empty for the next righteous (or otherwise peeved) customer to take care of.
  • Avoid cell phone conversations while ordering at the counter.
  • If taking a call on their cell, will keep it very short or otherwise incite scorn in other customers over their obnoxious and intrusive behavior (and likely loud—as though to say, “Hey everybody—Woowee! Look at me! I’m on a cell phone! You should think I’m as important as the person on the other end of this thinks.”).
  • If talking with each other at a similar volume in the store, are perfectly within their rights and won’t be given much mind by anyone else. Somehow, everyone knows that conversations with real persons present are less bothersome than those through a phone.
  • “The customer is always right”… to a point. Outstanding customer service is one of the pillars that helped to build Starbucks into the global phenomenon it is today. Still, that’s no reason to further beleaguer a barista with non-essential requests if they’re slammed with a line back to the door. You’ll not only gain points from a group of employees who often know their customers by name, but you’ll keep the respect of your fellow patrons.

No formal survey was used for this list. You could probably add a few observations of your own. If confession is good for the soul, then I’m guilty of violating some of these myself. I’ve learned over time, though, how to be a better patron.

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