Sunday, June 29, 2008

"Wall-E": Depressingly loaded with People-Bashing

It's not very often that I go to movies, as my criteria are so narrow (no violence, suspense or slapstick)--but attending an advance screening of "Wall-E" with my son and daughter seemed to offer a pleasant evening out with Rated G entertainment.

I'd loved Pixar's "Toy Story," "Cars," "Bug's Life," and "Finding Nemo" (though there was some uncomfortable suspense in that one), so I expected not just great effects but some upbeat music and a sweet ending. I don't think
it's a spoiler to say that while most would consider the finale of Wall-E puckeringly sweet, I found it manipulative and unsatisfying. In fact, I found the whole film disappointing. I may be the only reviewer in the United States with that opinion.

I just finished reading the almost poetic praise of the film in the New York Times: "The technical resourcefulness that allows 'Wall-E' to leap effortlessly from the derelict Earth to the pristine atmosphere of the space station is matched by the rigorous integrity the film-makers bring to the characters and the themes." Gag me with a...tower of garbage? Toxic dust-storm? Rusty artifact?

How do you say "We are slothful despoilers of the universe, overcome with our selfish greed and laziness?" Here's how: Take a ruined, gray planet piled high, thanks to an eeeevil corporation, with mountains of rusty tin cans and garbage; plant a cute but lonely (thanks to an old "Hello Dolly" video) ET-guy to clean it up; bring in an advanced ovum-shaped alien searching for life, and in the midst of some irrelevant, bovine, devolved humanoids, have them save the day and at the same time fall in love.

OK, THAT might have had a spoiler or two.

The New York Times, in its barf-able fawning, says the cartoon people (not even slightly as detailed and artistically rendered as the shrouded planet or robots) are US. Grown so fat and lazy our skeletons have shrunk even as we sip supersized milkshakes with extra-long straws handed to us by deferent servants.

If space-station residents in the year 2700 are us, then Andrew Stanton (writer and director), sees the destruction of our humanity: the google-brained people lack all creativity, competition, craving for the transcendent, or connection to family.
We are reduced not to mirrors of a movie audience (sunken into our comfy chairs equipped with soda holders) but creatures whose lack of initiative, complacency and carpe diem mentality are clearly inferior to the mechanical beings who wistfully yearn for love and collect souvenirs of a once thriving culture (complete with Rubik's cube).

And let's not forget that it was a corporation--named "Buy 'n Large" of course, in a stab at WalMart and perhaps even Costco--that herded humanity toward its willing demise.

The movie is riddled with logical lapses.
Buy n' Large, after corralling the almost-all-racially white population of the entire world onto its space station, leaves only a few machines, clearly produced waaaaay before the capability to MAKE a space station, to box up all the detritus of an entire planet. With obviously uncharacteristic ingenuity, Wall-E is able to thwart his obsolescence to keep chugging along for 700 years.

Now, the corporation supposedly was not going to make good on its original pledge to return humanity to Earth after the place was habitable....and yet, inexplicably, a wildly futuristic probe containing the gendered EVE-A (subtle reference--get it?) arrives to look for growing life, prerequisite to man's re-population. Somehow, with her eerie magenta search-flashes, EVE manages to miss Wall-E's cockroach sidekick--HE doesn't count as life, but a withered seedling that somehow had germinated in darkness, DOES. The seedling manages to remain green t
hroughout lots of mishandling and a supersonic voyage; the cockroach, Wall-E's only friend, remains unacknowledged.

Enough. The film's a disappointment. Great effects, but to a depressing message. Yes, Eva and Wall-E fall in love, but for non-reproducing, un-marriageable robots, that's hardly a happy ending--when the rest of us remain such shlubs.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Target Assumes Customers are Liberal with McCain-bashing Greeting Cards

Last night I happened to drop in to my local Target store with my 19-year-old daughter, to buy a few toiletries. On the way to the checkstand, we passed the greeting cards, and a large section caught my eye, because it was separated and framed by a bright, oversized red-white-and-blue starred border shouting "Election 2008 cards!"

The first one I noticed, prominently displayed, showed the torso of a buxom young woman wearing a t-shirt (with wind blowing it enough to show her middle).
Across the buxom part was written "Obama" in a trail of stars and stripes.

Next I noticed a card with a caricature of John McCain, wrinkled and prune-y. The word balloon over his head said "I'm for CHANGE!" "Hmm," I thought, wondering why they'd scream Obama's entire platform on a McCain card. When I opened it I knew--this was a big dis: "Change my bifocals to trifocals! Change from blood pressure medication to Viagra! Change from a cane to a walker!"

So, I perused the fronts of the remaining two dozen cards, and opened most of them, growing more and more irate--ALL of them were pro-Obama and anti-McCain! Just about every card about McCain had some insult about his age, or called him "McSame." Every card about Obama, on the other hand, implied his physical strength and vigor. As I stood expressing my shock and outrage to my daughter, another
shopper, a man I'd guess was around 40, overheard and, eyeing the selection, agreed with me, saying to my daughter, "Listen to your mom! Your mom's right! Listen to your mom!"

If we weren't in a rush, I would have sought out the manager and lodged a complaint. As it was, we headed to the cash registers to pay. After placing our few items on the counter, the young, clearly bored checker asked, "Did you find everything OK?"

I'm sure he regretted the question, as I shot back, "I found a lot MORE than I wanted to! I was highly offended by the political greeting cards that insulted John McCain and praised Obama!" The checker shrugged and said, "Well, I don't have anything to do with that."

And of course he doesn't. I did tell the president of our local conservative w
omen's group, who put out an email alert to the 500 members on the list, and I plan to return to Target (tomorrow, I hope) and talk to the manager. I'll also try to write down the content of a few more of the cards, so you can share my angst at the one-sidedly mean-spirited attitude Target has embraced. I'm not going to lamely declare a boycott (I love their dollar bins too much) but I do think that even a handful of disgruntled comments will let the management see that even in liberal Seattle, McCain bashing just won't fly.
(Cards displayed here are from a site called Zazzle, not from Target.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Very Kosher Dinner

Tonight my husband, daughter and I were invited to dine at the home of a non-Jewish friend who had shared Shabbat meals here with us numerous times. Raised in South Carolina, she was taught to reciprocate when friends have you over, and had tried numerous times, with carefully handmade invitations (inserting photos, fancy fonts, etc) to cajole us to allow her that courtesy.

Trouble is, we keep kosher.

"Oh, no problem!" she chirped, insisting. Her elegant invitations of carefully constructed handiwork kept coming--offering many, many dates from which to choose.

Finally unable to keep inviting her to Shabbat meals without accepting her pleas, we chose a date. "But we don't want you to go to the trouble," we warned.

"I've already spoken to the Va'ad several times, and believe me, I've got it all covered," she responded. The Va'ad of Seattle is the Jewish regulating body that, among other duties, oversees kosher production and restaurants in our area. If anyone has a kashrut question, he just calls the Va'ad. Which our friend did. Over and over.

With some trepidation, we left tonight for our dinner. We'd had a previous experience with Jewish friends who assured us of their knowledge but, oops, made a big mistake that led to intense embarrassment. Would such a cringe-inducer happen again?

Turns out that tonight's host had gone to huge inconvenience to make sure that every jot and tittle was observed. Paper plates and plasticware. Food ordered from a certified kosher restaurant to be delivered and quickly served hot. An array of accoutrements (salad, fruit) all prepared by a certified outlet. Kosher, wrapped cookies. And as we sat down, she methodically showed us the heckshires (kosher marks) on every item put on the table. All with a pleased smile.

What a privilege to have such devoted friends. What a pleasure to spend time in the company of people who like you enough to make sure you're comfortable. "I figured it's a matter of trust," she exclaimed, "and I was not going to let you down." Wow. I was moved. Well, after such a lavish meal, I can BARELY move. But in this case, the complexities of keeping kosher didn't separate people of different backgrounds--they brought us together.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Fascinating, Stimulating Blogosphere

So last night, with my husband safely tucked into his red-eye flight to Dallas, and the kids zonked out in their various bedrooms, I had some private time to troll the blogosphere. I checked out my usual J-blogs and then it occurred to me to click on someone who'd left a comment or two recently on mine. This is significant, because most people who DO read this little stealth expression fail to respond (hint, hint).

And I was blog-agog. I knew there was a wider world of bloggers out there, but I'd never ventured into it. I started reading ( the blog of Ruth Anne Adams, and was was like reading a perceptive, articulate diary. And it hit me that 1) the world will never be the same as before high speed internet, and 2) it's actually GOOD that kids grow up with internet skills; just like other habits that can be deleterious if overdone, they just need to be taught how to manage them properly.

As the coauthor of a book that largely warns parents not to let kids watch TV, I've been in the habit of assuming that children should spend their time away from anything with a screen. While that's still true to a point--I still think TV is harmful, as the content is selected by the provider and not the consumer--I think there ought to be more considered comment not about how MUCH time kids spend on the computer, but exactly HOW they use it.

What this means is that anyone, including me, ought to think about WHY he or she is spending any given moment courting carpal tunnel syndrome. If I were honest, I'd admit that frequently, it's to avoid what I truly SHOULD be doing, like when I spent lots of (enjoyable) time checking out new digital cameras or editing my 28,000 photos. There's nothing wrong with relaxing, or with entertainment. And probably reading camera specs is better for my soul than watching some skanky t.v. offering. Still, it would be helpful to look at what I'm doing honestly, and allot a set amount of surfing time, rather than let it consume my evening and keep me from interacting with the real people in my home. All of whom are glued to their monitors.

Back to Ruth Anne's blog. Here is somebody whose insightful observations let me reflect on my own experiences. We share common interests, and yet our backgrounds are quite divergent. She's actively Catholic; I'm an observant Jew. She lives in a very different part of the country, amidst a different circle of friends...but by reading her blog, I am privileged to get to know them. I even met her mom, who wrote about meeting her recently-deceased world is expanded as if savoring a delicious novel, but this one is true.

I don't have THAT much time to surf blogs, or, frankly THAT much interest in most of them, but what a luscious little treat I can give myself to peek into some fascinating other worlds now and then. It's not the superficial "all about me" world of Facebook (yuk) but words written from the hearts and lives of people who are consistently fascinating and stimulating. I thank Bill Gates and Paul Allen...Al Gore? Well....

Thursday, June 19, 2008

"I remember when gasoline cost only..."

My gosh, I'm suddenly feeling prehistoric. Which is a propos, because I'm thinking about something that started before the earth cooled. Oil. More specifically, its derivative, gasoline, the kind that now comes out of the pump to shocked groans.

My last fill-up cost $75.

And the reason I'm feeling quite ancient is because I vividly recall, hold on to your yarmulkes--paying $3. Not per gallon, but to fill up the tank. OK, I was a kid with no car of my own, but my older boyfriend had a cheapo stick-shift, and I recall comparing prices in Los Angeles, stopping on Vermont Avenue where gas was 18.9 cents a gallon rather than 21 or 22 cents in West LA.

I played this game with my daughters, ages 19 and 21. One of them said, "I remember when gas was $1.50 a gallon!" The other one said, "I remember when it was $1.76!" They also remember the days before cell phones. They, too, are already dinosaurs.

And now, people just live with increases within a single week of 25 cents; between my last fill-up and this one, I spent an additional twelve dollars for the same amount of gas for my Honda Odyssey minivan. No, it's not a guzzler--it even has a nifty feature where it uses only three cylinders when there's no need for more; when that happens a little green light shows on the dash, with the reassuring message: "eco" for either "economical" or "ecological," either of which makes owners feel virtuous.

We've become resigned to this new inflation. I used to get spaghetti for about a buck for a pound; now it's fifty percent more (and still a great deal). When we recently spent, um, $5 in gas to go out to dinner, the menu was dotted with pen markings escalating prices by a dollar or two or three. I'm seriously worried about our local Dollar Store--one I used to frequent, called "Mighty Dollar" now has nothing for that sum, each being raised to $1.29 or $2.00. And from where I sit, it's all related to the price of gasoline to ship everything to our back doors.

Truth is, we've been spoiled. Inflation was so minimal for so very long that we began to believe prices should just stay that way. Gasoline isn't something controlled by some evil conspiracy; its price is determined by world-wide supply and demand. The problem is that salaries aren't climbing as fast as the prices at the pumps and at the grocery stores and the restaurants and all the other ripples high gas prices affect.

Am I complaining? Well, yes and no. I don't like that I have to figure whether visiting a particular friend is worth the gasoline cost to drive the hour each way to see her. I hesitate before volunteering to take my other friend to the airport, because now the ten dollars in gas I spend to do it figures in. I feel inconvenienced when the airline wants to charge $15 to check a bag, especially since a college daughter has to shlep a lot of her stuff cross-country for the summer and visits home.

Oh yes, remember those good old days when airlines used to provide hot meals? Pillows? Leg-room? Then again, I also remember, in the vast reaches of my childhood, when flying at all was considered a beyond-affordable luxury. When I had to type out my term papers on a manual typewriter and use erasers with brushes to correct errors (if I wanted a copy, there was carbon paper). Come to think of it, as technology has burgeoned, life's gotten amazingly easier, and better. I can snap photos unlimitedly on my digital camera and see them immediaely. I can store thousands of songs--well, my son can--on an iPod the size of a credit card. I can compare prices for anything--lawn furniture, batteries, kosher wine--and buy it from anywhere in the world while sitting right here in my pajamas. And I can research any topic--and even read original antique books-- on my wide-screen LCD monitor. For free. No less miraculous is that I can tell you this, all over the world, within a split-second of my thinking, in something as strange and wonderful as a blog.

When you balance the increases in the price of oil with the astounding advances that allow us not to need it, I think the weight falls to the side of our enormous benefit. Those who angrily blame profit-hungry oil companies, selfish politicians or evil car-makers pushing petroleum for victimizing them probably won't be happy even if the price at the pump did slump back to those of hazy halcyon days gone by.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Smudging the meaning of Marriage, Gender--and Life

Today's the first day that California has authorized an oxymoron: gay marriage.

The story on the front page of the Seattle Times (credited to the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle) included a quarter-page photo of the couple put forth as "poster children" for the gays of the Golden State: 87-year-old Del Martin and 84-year-old Phyllis Lyon, dressed in their leisure suits.

Given that the word "marriage" has always been the permanent uniting of a man and woman, putting the word "gay" in front--the binding of two of the same gender--creates a conundrum. Can you imagine: A caller to a radio talk
show today was trying to argue that the California ruling didn't re-define marriage, it just enlarged it?

"Enlarging" the definition this way radically changes it--by loosening the meaning from something specific to something so generalized as to take away its usefulness. As I mentioned in my blog after the CA judges ruled, civilly joined gays in that state already had all the rights and obligations of traditionally married people, and the ONLY thing they got from those judges was the prize they treasured most, the word, "marriage." And why? Because they want two-of-a-kind to be exactly the same as two opposites. The impossible has occurred.

The effort to erase differences between the sexes started with randy baby-boomers forty years ago, and despite only limited success, chugs along today. My fave Sunday read, the Styles section of the New York Times, is rife with approving stories on gender blur (in the midst of touting hyper-feminine fashions). Hmm, here on this week's page three, we have "No His or Hers, Just Theirs," about unisex clothes that sound just too chic: "shrunken jackets and drainpipe trousers." The decision of the paper to post gay marriage announcements always provides a few amusing moments, and this Sunday, the good-looking duo of William DeWitt and Ethan Philbrick, tousled and smiling, fits the bill.

And today I debated on syndicated radio another person who accepts smudging marital tradition. John Curtis, a family counselor with a doctorate from Barry University, was defending his light-on-content workbook, "Happily Unmarried: Living together and Loving It," and suggested that despite lots of studies showing the deleterious effects of cohabitation, folks who shack up should get respect--and means to basically make their live-in hook-ups into mock-marriages.

It's part of the melding of important institutions and traditions that, separately, brought life into sharper focus and allowed for the kinds of appreciation and analysis that the "not judgmental" faction eschews. When you don't carve precise distinctions between meanings, events and, in the case of "marriage," words, what you ultimately endure is the mushing of them all into a gooshy stew of mediocrity. And then, like so many of my psychology clients, you complain there's no excitement to life, no joi de vivre.

I don't think Californians will support same-sex marriage in November, but if somehow they do, it will be because they've boiled from the slowly-escalating heat of desensitization. And if we blithely dismiss the "enlarging" of terms and the amoeba-crawl of distinctions, we, as a society, deprive ourselves of useful tools to evaluate and enjoy our world.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Graduation tonight--A Parent's View

The holiday of Shavuos has passed, and though it feels like Monday, it is Wednesday...symbolic. Though I feel like I'm in college, I'm far past that, and, as I cannot grasp that it's already mid-week, I cannot accept that it's also midlife. And the babes who I told not to grow have once again disobeyed. It's graduation time.

Four years ago, my oldest graduated high school. This is an intellectual statement. Emotionally, four years ago, she was a toddler. Now she is taking a fifth year in college; her friends, ones I don't even know, are getting married. One in her small high school class already has a year-old baby. My second daughter is so loving her college sorority life that she regrets it's half over. My baby--now six feet tall--can't wait to get his driver's license in seven weeks so he'll be independent.

I was looking through his high school yearbook at the children whose graduation ceremony I'll attend tonight. Like my son, they have no business completing puberty. And while they will make their folks--
my peers and friends--proud tonight, the parents will feel a loss. Been there, done that: It may be a couple of months before their babes actually depart for college, but nonetheless, graduation is no fun.

So, as I leafed through the yearbook, I couldn't help but get emotional. "This is why we raise them!" said the mom of the classmate who already has a baby to me the other day. "We want them to go out into the world and make their mark!" Well, yes, in theory. But inwardly, we don't, because when they leave us, they take a focus we've built since they were born. Though we're busy professionals; though we have deadlines and projects and classes and duties, there's nothing quite like having your child right there at home, safe and fed and cared-for.

To all the graduates, mazel tov! To all the parents...bring kleenex.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Tent City is Coming--but won't help the Homeless

It's almost Shavuos, the Jewish holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Certainly one of the commandments we received (subsumed in the Big Ten and expressed in the 613) was to be charitable, to care for our fellow man, right? Lots of Reform Jews think the idea of "tikun olam," perfecting the world, means generosity toward the homeless, no matter whether they sleep in business' doorways or beg at freeway off-ramps. They're clearly down and out, and so, we must come forward as the altruistic and compassionate folk we are.

Well, no. And I don't say that just because a homeless Tent City is about to move to my
suburban community, but because our misplaced caring doesn't help these parasites one bit.

About a year ago, an article appeared in our community newspaper signed by a coalition of pastors of local churches explaining why it is our duty to host the Tent City in the parking lot of one of their institutions. Tent City is a bundle of about 100 homeless people who pitch their portable homes like nomads, moving from church to church every three months. In this way, they have permanent "support." Supposedly the residents must abide by rules that include no alcohol. Other churches who have hosted them have reported minimal trouble.

As far as I'm concerned, whether or not the Tenters cause major problems is not the issue.
The question for me is--how does providing such a living arrangement help these people? There are lots of shelters with available beds. Heck, Seattle is famous for even building apartment-style housing for alcoholic homeless, nicknamed the "drunk dorms" because residents there are allowed to drink in their rooms. The kindly citizens of the Emerald City also imported expensive European automatic toilets and put them in public places for the homeless to use at any hour--which were recently removed because they were more often used for dealing drugs.

When the Tent City fait accompli was first announced, I wrote a letter to our local paper in response to the pastors' cheery endorsement. I proposed that if neighbors really wanted to help these chronic homeless, that they take one of them into their homes, allowing him/her to live there and learn from the homeowner, as a student with a mentor, how to live a responsible life. How to get a job and show up on time. How to find a room-mate or other inexpensive living arrangement, and maintain a home. There's no reason why these people, if fit enough to live in our midst in tents, can't learn the skills to live in our midst in apartments, rented rooms or homes.

The pastors didn't think much of my idea of making personal contact with the homeless. No one volunteered to allow such a disadvantaged person to live in his home; no one wanted to mentor someone in need. My compassionate neighbors would rather have these people pitch tents on a concrete parking lot and use Honey Bucket portable toilets.

Looks like we'll get to admire these newcomers close-up this August. I plan to take an afternoon or two and visit our new neighbors and find out some of their stories. I'd like to know how long they've vagabonded with Tent City, and what their future plans are, and why they find living in a tent on concrete preferable to the many options provided by religious institutions like the Salvation Army, Union Gospel Mission and many others who scour the streets offering them aid. Frankly, I find it insulting to these folk to relegate them to a Tent City if our goal is to teach them how to live self-sufficiently.

It's true, I don't want a hundred homeless folk added to the population of our small community. I am indeed prejudiced against them. Not because of characteristics they were born with--as individuals, every soul is made in God's image and in that way is inherently worthy of respect. But because of choices they have made. Perhaps long-ago choices dragged them down into a place difficult to escape, such as drug addiction. Perhaps they are victims of mental illness. But choices not to avail themselves of means to leave their dependent status bring my ire, my lack of sympathy, and my opposition to Tent City. Maybe when I go meet these folks, my opinion will change. I doubt it. But until August, I'm writing letters and campaigning to disband this artificial "community" in favor of real and permanent help for these down-and-outers.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

"Sex and the City," an Outsider's First Glimpse

I rarely go to movies, as my criteria for viewing are 1) no violence, 2) no suspense, and 3) no slapstick. I haven't watched TV since...okay, this sounds like a joke--1984. A condition of marriage to my husband was that our family never have a TV set. I thought it a bit extreme, a bit ridiculous, but since I loved this eccentric man and seldom watched my 10" diagonal set anyway, I said goodbye to cultural literacy and staples of social interaction such as The Cosby Show (not a single episode) and Frasier and a hundred other sources of chatter.

That included Sex and the City.

But last week, I got a glimpse, from afar, of the plugged-in life--I attended a screening of Sex and the City, the Movie. I'd been warned that this might be too risque for me, but hey, "no sex" is not one of my criteria. I'd been told it would be too superficial, what with the emphasis on designer clothes, botox and Manolo Blahniks. I was admonished that the romantic relationships the four friends experienced were selfish, and the plot setup contrived. But, I was also told that this was the story of four women loyal and supportive to each other, and that message is affirming and uplifting.

So, I saw the movie.
All the little in-jokes and references went whooshing over my head. There was lots of nudity, and assumptions that sex outside of marriage is pretty much okay--except for a major subplot suggesting that, to the contrary, sex outside of marriage is devastating. And Carrie Bradshaw starts off the film getting engaged, hardly an unconventional step. Samantha Jones, the most overtly sexual of the quartet, is in a monogamous relationship, and goes as far as eating her way to an extra 15 lbs to remain so. And for the entire film, two main characters, Charlotte York, a sweet beauty queen, and Miranda Hobbes, a lawyer and mom of a five-year-old, remain married. Sexually daring? Promiscuous and free? No.

There were some sexy moments, but most of the lovemaking was to designer clothes.

The film felt like a soap opera condensed into a couple hours, and having never switched on HBO, I was out of the loop, but somehow managed to grab a curlicue and circle in on the flow and h
appily-ever-after finale. This may sound catty, but as a newbie to the show, I couldn't get past, pardon me, Sarah Jessica Parker's homeliness, and the lack of chemistry with her fiance, Big. But any movie involving a wedding, and scenes in the New York Public Library, Malibu and Acapulco can't be all bad. And this one wasn't; the mix of frou-frou and real-life relationship issues kept it moving and fun. Even the issues of life and death, aging and fidelity offered lighter angles to create the kind of movie you think about--for about two hours, and that's it.

This film is supposed to be Indiana Jones for women, and it's bound to make a stack of money, and for once, I get to be part of the cultural herd. (movie publicity photos copyright New Line Cinema)