Tuesday, January 31, 2012

America's Funniest Sinus Congestion

One of the funniest goddamn scenes in all of moviedom.


Let go? Hell, no!


This piece from Open Salon was sent to me by my buddy Matt Paust, the Hemingway of the Henhouse and third runner-up in the Burl Ives lookalike contest. But its message is no joke.

It's about horses, and it's about acceptance and letting go. I am lousy at that last one. All I know how to do is hang on. I persevere, and persevere, and persevere until everyone else has gone home. Maybe twice in my life, it has paid off.

I don't know if I was damaged into it, or what. Looking at my childhood, well, if that ain't a recipe for insanity then I don't know what is. The twists and turns of truths, half-truths and whole lies was Byzantine. Subterfuge was key, as was gritting hard and . . . holding on.

If you didn't, you did not survive.

If a horse is running away with you, you hold on, right? Sometimes that's all you can do. If you let go at that point, your brains will soon decorate the nearest rock.

If you love someone, you hold on, don't you? I do.

I thought that's what was meant by "I do".

Then I wonder why we are so often exhorted to "let go", to do so gracefully and with a Buddhists' blank-faced, supreme indifference.

I wonder sometimes if God is indifferent. If there is such a thing. Probably not, probably just some rogue energy that somehow got started, and then couldn't get itself to stop.

I love horses, I really do, but I don't have them in my life any more. Steadily, one by one, like falling leaves, the things I care about have all left me and blown away. There are only a few survivors left.

And I do not like it and I will not, EVER, willingly, let go.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Taxi Driver directed by Woody Allen

There are a couple of things I always get watching whenever they come on TV, and it's mostly against my will. They exert a vacuum-pull so powerful that I soon disappear into a sort of vortex like in that Time Tunnel show of the 1960s (or that Star Trek where they jumped through that, you know, that thing).

Whenever Taxi Driver comes on, which is about seventeen times a week in my neighborhood, no matter where in the story it is, I do the Time Tunnel bit and jump in. Or get sucked in. I'd say the movie sucked, but that's not exactly what I mean.

I can't help it. Its awfulness is irresistible. The movie has a sort of queasy, uneasy feeling to it, the sense that something absolutely horrific is about to happen, and it does. But not until the last five minutes. Scorsese somehow manages to hold it back until then. Meanwhile we have the shocking spectre of Robert deNiro looking like his baby sister or something, just peach-faced and innocent, yet ticking almost audibly with undetonated rage. 

This is a real morality tale, and in spite of what some critics have said, there's no gratuitous violence in it, just violence-violence. Illustrative violence, maybe. The ending is a full-scale splattering gorefest, but it's meant to make a point about "heroism" (with all sorts of murky undercurrents about the true nature of military glory) and how it can arise from the worst possible motives.

Most chilling moment: when Travis Bickle, his seething, swarming violence just about to erupt, appears at the political rally, so armed he's a walking weapon, and the camera pans from his feet up to his head. Mohawks weren't that common then, and his is sharp enough to cut your wrists on, absolutely bloody terrifying.

Well, having said all that, the OTHER thing that sucks me right down into the quagmire of cinematic glory are Woody Allen movies. I tell myself, no, I am not going to watch this. Not this time; I will resist. Since Soon Yi and that whole deal, since marrying what amounted to his daughter, I have sworn him off. It's true he is becoming increasingly creepy with age and, like Oliver Sacks, still uses an Olivetti manual typewriter (and where does he get the ribbons? They must be handmade by his ribbon associate or something). Nevertheless, when Manhattan comes on with that Gershwin music and he's sleeping with Mariel Hemingway who's all of fourteen years old and in junior high, or when Annie Hall comes on and she's all la-di-da and they chase the lobsters all over the kitchen, I just get. . .sucked in.

I do like the way Woody Allen talks. All his vowel sounds are sort of dragged-out and swoopy. It's unbelievable, except that's really the way he 
twwooa-ahhh-ks. Rick Moranis did a fatal impression of him on SCTV, but unlike most impressions, it was the opposite of exaggerated, almost toned-down so it would be quasi-believable. Nobody knows where this manner of speaking came from. It's sort of Brooklyn-ish or even Bronx-y, kind of nasal and almost sing-songy, and certainly not upper-class.

There IS a certain kind of educated or snobberific New York/Manhattan-ish accent, but it's more like Jacqueline Kennedy's. The swoops are there, but a little more musical and contained. And yet, and yet, Allen has always given the impression of being educated, or at least incredibly well-read. Who knows, maybe he never got past the Classic Comics stage, but he still gets it across. Maybe it's his salesmanship, which from the very start of his career was quirkily brilliant: he turned a skinny, shy, balding, nasal-speaking little Jewish nothing into a sympathetic and appealing romantic lead over and over again. Kind of puts Harold Lloyd to shame.

So here we have two of my best or worst movie obsessions, TOGETHER AT LAST!  This is a remarkably clever feat of dubbing, combining two elements that could not be less compatible: the whiny angst-ridden dialogue of a Woody Allen comedy superimposed on the half-insane machine-gun-fire conversation between a sociopathic stalker and an innocent blonde. And yet, and yet! As Woody talks about existential despair, meaninglessness and buying a gun, maybe he's closer to Travis Bickle than we realize.

It sucks. . . but in a good way.


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
    It took me years to write, will you take a look

The spray-painted horse

It's Sunday, I don't feel like doing much (and the drizzle outside has become relentless), so I began to dig through some of my favorite YouTubes: these 27-inch Regina music boxes were the HD TVs of their day, with a high-tech changer that made the most dreadful noises, like a garage door opener.  I like the fact that entire operas (such as Lohengrin) can be played in less than two minutes. The discs appear to be made of a quivery, slightly warped tin or other malleable metal. The tuning on these large discs is much more accurate than in the smaller turntable models, and the sound sweet and bell-like, lacking that awful jack-in-the-box plink I remember from the cheap music-boxes of my childhood.

Hearing the William Tell Overture in such an oddball medium  made me think of one of the hokiest shows I ever watched, The Lone Ranger. Funny how shows that would seem wildly homosexual today were considered just fine back then. Don't know why. Even Liberace had lots of female fans.

And what about male song-and-dance teams, Martin and Lewis, or those two guys on Ed Sullivan who sang two different songs and made them fit together? (Not to mention Topo Gigio and Senor Wences.) To my mind, even Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby were pretty suspicious in White Christmas. All that skipping around.

Doesn't this look like a gay horse? I'm just sayin'. Ultra-white, like it's been spray-painted or dusted down with some sort of powder. It looks to me as if Silver  would glow in the dark.

I'm not saying these two guys weren't manly. They were at least as manly as Batman and Robin. Tonto was pretty dignified for a man forced to repeat lines written in an insulting quasi-Indian patois. He made the character plausible, even charismatic, rising above the "only good Injun" mentality of '50s TV and movies.

There was a long wait until Little Big Man and, much later, Dances with Wolves. But Jay Silverheels beat hell out of them all. He WAS the change that needed to happen to overcome native stereotypes, and no one did it better.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Why I stopped going to church

God! I have wanted to write a post about this for a long time, but every time I approached the subject, something stopped me.

Some sort of massive rock of grief.

Some sort of conviction that "someone" from my former church community would see it, become angry, feel sorry for me, try to silence me, or otherwise write me off.

For you see, after fifteen years of involvement that was often draining and frustrating, I had to leave. The immediate cause was leadership and the wrongheaded direction I felt we were travelling in; this had been going on for years and years and could not be pinned on a single individual. But as the Man used to say: if a blind person tries to lead another blind person, they're both going to stumble into a ditch.

Where do I begin? I want to start with the sense of scarcity that has become epidemic among "liberal" (i.e. not fundamentalist) churches in the past couple of decades. These churches, many of them meeting in dowdy old buildings that are outrageously expensive to maintain, are bleeding members at an alarming rate, and not replacing them. The reasons for this are either very complex, or very simple.

For a lot of people,  religion, the churchy kind of religion many of us were brought up in, now seems as dusty and antiquated as wheezy old pipe organs and hard, varnishy pews.  Most churches appear to be more interested in maintaining a pleasant space and keeping their own little private programs going than in even attempting to address the howling need among their fellow suffering humans.

So the trickle of exodus has gradually became a flood. As people peel off, not always consciously but because somehow they just don't get there on Sunday morning any more, the church's debt (which always seems to be overwhelming: isn't there a church anywhere that makes their mortgage payments?) just snowballs because there aren't enough members left to throw enough dollars into the collection plate.

What happens then is a feverish drive to make up the deficit, usually through inward-turning events like garage and bake sales mostly frequented by members. That's what passed for "outreach" in my former church. Most of the emphasis was placed on desperately trying to stay afloat. If you didn't do your part, guilt was laid on with a trowel. A few years back, you'd get a home visit from someone on the finance committee to talk over your contribution: in other words, how much you were giving, and how much you were helping the church via committees and other churchy agencies. If you weren't giving "enough" in the eyes of the church, the pressure was ever so gently applied until one day you discovered you couldn't breathe.

This attitude of scarcity just breeds more scarcity, not to mention a "help, help, we're drowning" mentality that is probably not the best thing for attracting new members. Asking people to get on-board the Titanic isn't very effective. The minute someone new comes in the door, the hands are out, and the lasso is thrown: come, teach Sunday school,  join this or that committee, join the choir! Get involved (but in our way, not yours: fit yourself into a pre-existing slot.)  And whatever you do, for God's sake, don't leave.

I wonder when my feeling of spiritual awe died. It happened gradually, and at first it took the form of feeling extremely alone. I was not able to voice any of my grief to anyone, or I would be ostracized, patronized or pitied, as in, "well, you know, she can't help it, dear." If I felt transported by a service, it was almost by accident, as everyone was scurrying around making the service happen, busy-busy-busy, and even busier afterwards at coffee time when the talk ran along the most trivial lines.


I didn't stay fifteen years for nothing, however, and I am sure there was a time when it all meant something to me, but I'll tell you this - I was never able to truly be myself. I had to be a carefully-edited version of myself, and weigh carefully everything I was going to say before I said it. This was so I wouldn't upset the applecart and be ever so slowly, ever so subtly, ever so ruthlessly edged out.

If I got carried away and cried during a service, I couldn't help it because I was evidently "suffering from depression" (poor soul!). The thing to do was remain in the middle of the middle, a kind of blandness marked by hoary old hymns from the 19th century and sermons that were generally very conventional and uninspired.  Don't upset the applecart, remember. Don't lose control.

Several years ago we had a meltdown over leadership, a very bad one (and forgive me if you've read this here before: apparently I still need to write about it),  but NOT ONE PERSON acknowledged at any time that we had created the experience ourselves by choosing that person out of all the other available candidates. He did not fall from the sky, but you would not know it from the victim mentality that prevailed in our church over the next several years, the sense we'd been "wronged" (by, in the words of the Council Chair, "a nasty, evil little man").

If you blow on a church and it falls over, doesn't that mean the structure is just a little rotten? Like is attracted to like, and (as the psychologists say) we tend to recreate the experiences that are most familiar to us. Such as dysfunction, poor communication and the oppression and abuse of the weakest members. But if anyone had suggested that these things were going on BEFORE our meltdown, the congregation would have been aghast.

And, needless to say, the messenger would have been shot.

The problem was "solved" when the nasty, evil little man was ousted by the larger church. Then came the long period of "healing", in which we replayed the awful scenarios over and over and over again, after which we told ourselves it was all over and stuck big glossy smiles on our faces.

For me, it was all gone, just all of it, whatever I had absorbed of the gospel message, of holiness, of compassion at the deepest level. I began to see things I could and would not see before. While a few other churches in our district were making a brave attempt at programs for the homeless (and by the way, they first had to overcome the common perception that no homeless people existed in our community), our church steered needy people to a social agency whose office was so far away you'd have to bus for half an hour to get there, probably to be treated patronizingly. I think we provided them with a bus ticket.

So much for "I was hungry, and you fed me; naked, and you clothed me. . . " But what does church have to do with any of that?

And how's this for muddying the waters? While that "nasty, evil little man" was in charge, he was horrified that we turned away people in need and insisted we keep some non-perishable food in the church to be given to people who were hungry. Everyone thought he was crazy: that's just not the way we do things!

I still long for a sense of community and spiritual belonging, but I see that when I had it, or thought I had it, the personal cost was astronomical. Financially, I gave more than I could really afford (because I couldn't live with the guilt if I didn't), and saw my contribution thrown into a giant abyss where it promptly disappeared, leading to cries for "more, more, more". Every annual meeting was the same. How I hated and dreaded them: it was a dirge of "not enough, not enough," and desperate ploys to make up a hopeless deficit. We seemed to sink a little bit lower every year.

But a hopeless deficit does not fall from the sky either. WE create it out of an entrenched mentality of chronic scarcity. If people stop coming, that situation doesn't land on us from the moon. They stop coming because they're bored, feel that the service is irrelevant, and need the time to catch up on sleep after an exhausting week of working long hours and looking after the kids.

Most conventional churches had their heyday during the Betty Crocker era, when men worked and women stayed home with the children and everyone dressed up in their finest on Sunday morning. It doesn't exactly work that way any more: not if your husband is a violent alcoholic or has just walked out on you, or you've just been laid off from your factory job and have nowhere to turn. It also doesn't work if all you can get is a Sunday morning shift. (I can't count the number of times I picked up subtle disapproval of people who worked on Sundays.) But most churches I know of "don't have the resources" for a service at any other time of the week.

This tells me everything about their priorities, not to mention their inflexibility and (perhaps unconscious) need to keep things the way they are.
For after all, "we've always done it this way" (and we've done just fine, thank you very much).

I sometimes go on church web sites, if they have them, and see a confused mess, with most of the links not even working. One had no email address. One had been "under construction" for three or four years. It was common to see the most recent events listed under 2008 or 2009.

It screams "out of touch". It screams "irrelevant". It screams "we don't know how to change, in fact we don't want to, so let's just hold tight and see if they come back".

There is very little acknowledgement or even awareness of the profound social turmoil that has thrown the care of needy people back on the church's resources. For the most part, government funding is no longer there. But it appals me to see how many churches protest that they have to put themselves first, to keep their little operation going from all those desperately-begged-for donations before they think about those people "out there", those poor souls (whom they'd rather not have in the sanctuary because they're messy and unkempt and drop cigarette butts on the driveway).

There's nothing wrong with being a little old lady. I'm all for it, as that's the direction I am moving in with frightening speed. But increasingly, churches are dominated by very traditional older women from the Betty Crocker era as older men die out and fewer and fewer young people join. A few years ago I went to an ordination ceremony with a couple of dozen candidates, and all of them were women between the ages of 45 and 60.  No men, and no new blood either. Maybe a 60-year-old woman can be a spiritual firebrand, but why not a 25-year-old man? Where are they,  and why are none of them even faintly interested?

But lest I come across as age-ist, let me tell you a story.  One of our most dynamic members, a great-grandmother who gave tirelessly of her time and energy for years, was asked to leave. She and her husband were presented with a report, a long list of grievances neatly typed-up, which listed all their transgressions over the years. They strayed from the Sunday School curriculum, probably making it interesting for the kids for the first time ever. He (a retired minister) preached a sermon that was a little hard to follow, and it upset people. I don't know what else they did except restore the church library from nothing and build professional-level sets for every pageant we ever put on (and this on their own dime, because everyone else screamed that they had no money).

They were coloring outside the lines, obviously, and even though every progressive thinker we ever heard of was begging people to do just that before the church sank, they were asked to leave. The minister apparently didn't want to get his hands dirty with this task (though, to be sure, that report had to be his doing). He had one of his henchmen do it for him. These two were my favorite people in my church. They were told to toe the line or get out, and the choice was clear.

I'm sorry, but I can't be part of this. It's not going anywhere. It's just not. I am tired of being squeezed for money I can't afford to give. I'm tired of editing myself, of biting my tongue. Of being so careful all the time, never saying what I really think. 

I was never much of a joiner anyway, so all those years of participation were kind of surprising. I'm not going to go out and run after another disappointing experience of listening to those howls of scarcity. I wonder if anyone in these increasingly-empty places has ever heard the story about the loaves and fishes. In my former church, people would be running around screaming, "We're running out of loaves, and look at those fishes!  Quick, pass the collection plate again!"

What would Jesus say? I'd say it would make him sick.

(A post-script. Re-reading this, which is never a good idea, I realize it  resembles a post from quite a long time ago called Why I Left the United Church. I hope this piece gets into some other issues, things I may have left out. The fact that I still need to write about it is significant in itself. Roots that deep are not pulled up without pain.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Squid-jiggin': more classic Canadiana

Oh, this is the place where they're fishin' and gatherin'
Oil-skins and boots and the
Cape hands batten down
All sizes of figures with squid lines and jiggers
They congregate here on the squid jiggin' ground.

Some are workin' their jiggers, while others are yarnin'
There's some standin' up and there's more lyin' down
While all kinds of fun, jokes and drinks are begun
As they wait for the squid on the squid jiggin' ground.

There's men of all ages and boys in the bargain
There's old Billy Cave and there's young Raymond Brown
There's Rip, Red and Gory out here in the dory
A runnin' down squires on the squid jiggin' ground.

There's men from the harbor, there's men from the tickle
And all kinds of motor-boats, green, gray and brown
Right yonder is Bobby and with him is Nobby
He's chawin' hard tack on the squid jiggin' ground

God bless my soul, there's Skipper John, John Champy
He's the best hand at squid jiggin' here, I'll be bound
Hello, what's the row? Why he's jiggin' one now
The very first squid on the squid jiggin' ground.

The man with the whisker is old Jacob Steele
He's gettin' well on, but he's still pretty sound
While Uncle Bob Hockins wears six pairs of stockin's
Whenever he's out on the squid jiggin' ground.

Holy Smoke! What a scuffle! All hands are excited
It's a wonder to me that there's nobody drowned
There's a bustle, confusion, the wonderful hustle
They're all jiggin' squid on the squid jiggin' ground.

Says Bobby, "The squids are on top of the water,
I just got me riggers 'bout one fathom down"
But a squid in the boat scuddered right down his throat
And he swam like mad on the squid jiggin' ground.

There's poor Uncle Louie, his whiskers are spattered
With spots of the squid juice that's flyin' around
One poor little boy got it right in the eye
But they don't give a darn on the squid jiggin' ground.

Now, if you ever feel inclined to go squiddin'
Leave your white clothes behind in the town
And if you get cranky without your silk hanky
You'd better steer clear of the squid jiggin' ground.