April 3, 2010

What I Believe

Recently, I've been having trouble sleeping. Stressed out about this or that I've lost touch with what's really important. Part of it is my own doing. Distracted by things that don't really matter it's easy to get a little lost.

Fast forward a couple of days spent in relaxing Lanesboro, a small town in southeastern Minnesota where my wife is rehearsing for a play. She's lucky enough to stay in a B & B as the sole occupant. There's a river gurgling a stone's throw from the back yard and light spilling in through the windows. Spring flowers emerge from the ground like hope rekindled. I'm rested. Relaxed. I have a growing peace of mind knowing what matters to me. Really matters. My beautiful wife of whom I am so proud, my sister, good friends, nieces and nephews. The list of loved ones goes on and on. We are connected.

My job is a good one, surrounded by people who are kind are supportive. It is good, rewarding work.

And I have my creative life. By this summer I will have the second draft of my novel done.

All in all it is a good life. I am lucky. Days aren't always easy, and it is sometimes hard to avoid pitfalls, to say no to weakness and bad habits, but I am learning. Perfection is an illusion. Joy has no expectations, and makes no demands. There is a space in each of us, I believe, a quiet center where our lives can breathe deeply in unhurried rhythms.

I am listening.

January 25, 2010

Vikings Update

Five turnovers and one costly penalty made sure that the Vikings didn't advance to their first Super Bowl in over 30 years. Still, no one ran the wrong way after an interception or punted on third down (both real events at Viking Super Bowls from the 1970s). Favre got us close, but in the end he became just another victim of his own mistakes and fellow teammates. The Vikings curse remains. About the only way to lift it is to let Zygi Wilf sell the team to Los Angeles. Hell, they already have the Los Angeles Kings.

Painful as it is let's face facts. The Vikings are never going to win a Super Bowl. The team name itself is based on a illiterate Swedish farmer who forged a runestone and convinced the gullible that Viking explorers were in West Central Minnesota. It's time to wake up and choose reality over illusion. Maybe we can eventually get an NFL expansion team. My vote would be for either the Minnesota Blizzard or Minnesota Skitters. At least we'd be honest with ourselves.

January 24, 2010

Gilliam's Unlikely Masterpiece

I'm a Terry Gilliam fan. My favorite movie is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The director's new movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has much in common with it, including the same writers. Both are visually imaginative and feature an old man, a forgotten weaver of stories, as the main character. Doctor Parnassus takes it a step further, though. Unlike the Baron the good Doctor (played by Christopher Plummer) doesn't have adventures. Instead, other people have them by stepping into his vast imagination by way of a magic mirror.

The plot, that which there is in any Gilliam flick, involves the Devil (played by Tom Waits) come to collect on a bargain he made with Parnassus years ago. In exchange for immortality Doctor Parnassus agreed to give Mr. Nick his daughter Valentina (played by Lily Cole) when she turns 16. That day is fast approaching now. Always one to wager, the Devil agrees to a new bet; the first one to five souls wins. Helping Parnassus is a mysterious stranger named Tony (played by Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) as well as his small traveling troupe.

Shot around London the movie boasts some familiar sites such as Blackfriars bridge, but it really takes flight each time we enter the Imaginarium. Once inside, each individual must make a choice, good or evil, dreaming or simply settling. Although sometimes short on logic or explanation, the scenes on the other side of the mirror are a spectacle, and a glorious return to form for Gilliam. One can quibble over this and that, but the fact that the movie exists at all is a small miracle. After losing its star Heath Ledger to a prescription drug overdose only halfway through filming, Gilliam and Co. scrambled and produced not only a fitting tribute to Heath, but a beautiful film as well. I've only seen it once, and it will take repeated viewings to fully appreciate what the former Monty Python animator has created. Here's hoping Gilliam's imagination continues to soar for years to come.


Health of Our Country

I have a new New Year's resolution: I will no longer vote for democrats or republicans. Given a good choice I plan on casting my ballot for third party candidates. Why? You might reasonably ask. I don't enjoy throwing my vote away. Yet that it exactly the result with our current two-party system of intransigence and political maneuvering. It's all about control. Who has it? Whose going to get it back. Long gone is a spirit of compromise to get the job done. Any job. Ted Kennedy, despite his fiery rhetoric, worked across the aisle. That kind of perspective died with him as did his dream of health care reform. The victory of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts was a set-back not only for Obama's legislative goals, and much-needed health care reform, but is an indication of how dysfunctional we are as a nation.

Someone please tell me how affordable health care, one where the insurance companies don't run the show, is a bad thing. Do Republicans like the idea of an individual being denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition? Even with limits on abortion access and the dropping of a public option Republicans still wouldn't vote for it? It certainly wasn't a perfect bill, but governance isn't about perfection. It's about fixing problems and making life better for citizens. The Republicans aren't interested in health care reform just like the Democrats aren't interested in giving tax breaks to the wealthiest of Americans. They would rather prey on people's fears and cater to special interests.

Still, the Democrats are no saints, and are just as guilty of stubbornness and unreasonableness. Despite their speeches and promises every politician just wants to get reelected and so the endless cycle of campaigning, elections and money and 24-hour news analysis continues. The party out of power has become the equivalent of a spoiler, existing only to criticize and bide its time until it can return to prominence. My guy won. Your gal lost. Has it really become that childish? So that's why I'll be voting for a third-party candidate. Someone who isn't beholden to politics as usual. And most importantly, someone who the other two major parties will have to negotiate with to pass legislation. It's time we start demanding our politicians actually do something beyond simply getting reelected. Let's set some term limits. That way if they don't do anything while in office they won't have the luxury of doing nothing forever. Fresh blood and fresh thinking.

Vikes

As I type this my beloved Minnesota Vikings are playing the New Orleans Saints in the AFC Championship game. They are currently behind by a touchdown with a little under 8 minutes to play. It is a good thing I am not watching the game on television. Instead, due to a Sunday work shift at the reference desk I am forced to check online for score updates. This helps by blood pressure immensely.

When I was a boy of 11 I watched the Vikings lose a Super Bowl for the fourth time. They have not been back since although fans will remember how close we came in 1998. Through the intervening years I have followed the team (and football in general) with less and less interest. Surely a string of losing seasons had something to do with it, but I've also enjoyed my Sundays more, freed from the roller coaster ride that is professional sports.

All that changed when Brett Favre came to Minnesota this past August, with a 39-year-old arm and a Super Bowl dream that wouldn't quite die. That would also be a good way to describe my own feelings as a long-suffering Minnesota Vikings fan. I still have a boyhood dream of that one elusive victory. I see a mass of purple celebrating as over 40 years of heartbeat disappear in a single moment. Will it happen this year? The next? Never? I wish I could say with certainty that I believe it will happen in 2010. I can almost say that, but not quite. I am a Vikings fan after all.

June 8, 2009

Best Bias

With Roger Federer's French Open win his grand slam total have reached 14, tying him with Pete Sampras and swirling conversation if he's the best ever. There's certainly an argument to be made. The Swiss great has won every major Grand Slam and has managed to insert himself into ten straight Grand Slam finals until being upset by Novak Djokovik in the Australian Open in 2008. Until Nadal dethroned him in an epic Wimbledon final last year taking away his #1 ranking Federer had been the best in the world for 237 weeks. Other candidates have been bandied about as the best tennis player ever including Don Budge, Fred Perry, Roy Emerson and Rod Laver. Of the four, however, only Laver did a significant of competing in the Open era (1968-Current) achieving a year Grand Slam twice, once as an amateur and once as a professional. Laver was ranked #1 from 1964-1970.

The one name that will never be mentioned in this eternal debate and male-dominated list is Steffi Graf, wife of Andre Agassi. From 1987-1999 she accumulated 22 Grand Slam titles (yes, that's right, 22). Only Margaret Court has more singles titles, but over half came before the start of the Open Era. Graf was ranked #1 for 377 whopping weeks, more than any player, man or woman. Oh yes, and she has a Golden Slam, meaning she won the Australian, French, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and a Olympics gold medal all in the same year, a feat not duplicated by anyone else. In 2009 Billie Jean King called her the greatest female athlete of the 20th century. After reviewing her accomplishments it might be time to expand the definition to include greatest tennis player ever. Her husband Andre, beloved the world over for his impact on the sport if not Grand Slam achievements (he has eight titles including a gold medal of his own) signed a lucrative publishing deal for his autobiography. As excited as I am to read his life's story, I would be happy for one page of publicity spotlighting Steffi's accomplishments.

May 25, 2009

Star Retread

I went to see Star Trek opening night a few weeks ago at a multiplex an hour away. From the opening scene to the closing credits I was enthralled. The Enterprise has never looked better. The special effects have never been more spectacular. All the actors chosen to play the famous original crew are perfectly cast, young doppelgangers through and through. Pacing is swift with just the right amount of dialogue. Humor is fresh and lively. And did I mention Leonard Nimoy making a final curtain call as Spock? Simply poignant. So you can imaging my surprise driving home when I was overcome with a feeling of disappointment, a let-down that only became more pronounced as I made my way down the dark highway.

Been there. Done that. For all the great casting and special effects the undeniable truth remains; there's nothing new under the sun or in the galaxy to be found in Star Trek. There's time travel. Unlikely as always. Check. Please see Voyage Home and First Contact. There's a nasty villian bent on revenge. Check. See The Wrath of Khan and Nemesis. Nero goes around blowing up planets with an eerie looking drill. Near the film's climax he attempts to destroy the Earth. Evidently the planet has no defenses for it's just the Enterprise that intervenes made of a crew of recently graduated cadets. Plot hole. Check. See all other Star Trek movies.

What there isn't much of is a story. It's almost as if the narrative simply exists to give the young crew of the Enterprise something to do as they get to know eachother and we them. Trouble is, we already know them, and after Star Trek there won't be any remaining mystery to unravel.

There was an episode from The Next Generation featuring the Enterprise crew as children. It was a fun gimmick for one show, but I wouldn't try and build a series around it. Sadly, that is what the new movie does all too successfully. It regurgitates with exquisite detail the beloved characters from the 1960s and pumps them up with up with 21st Century CGI as well as overused plot devices. An argument could be made that each successive generation of Star Trek is simply a slightly new version of the original, incorporating all the basic elements in a new wrapper. Spock=Data=Odo=7of9. With the new movie, however, any notion of a new wrinkle or appearance is discarded in favor of blatant nostalgia. U2 had a song from the early 1990s titled Even Better Than the Real Thing. That's what Abrams' film is, and it is both its success and ultimate failure. In the absence of any new idea or Roddenberry philosophical dilemma we get slickness and action. Lots of it. The cast is good. Maybe a little too good. If you're like me you won't realize what you've missed until later, if at all.

Star Trek boldly goes, alright, but it goes we've already gone before. At the end of the picture as the lights came up and the credits rolled the audience members began to applaud spontaneously. I think I've only been in a theatre once or twice when that has happened. When I was a boy of twelve I went to see Star Wars. The audience, including my cousin and I, applauded with abandon, mesmerized by what we had just seen, even transformed. Never for a moment did I think of clapping for Star Trek. Now I know why.

With all that said will I see it again when it comes to my local theatre? You betcha. Will I buy the DVD when it comes out, hopefully with lots of extras? Without a doubt. Will I enjoy every minute of it despite my reservations? Damn right I will! Will I still pine for an original cinematic idea instead of sequel after sequel after sequel. Of course.


November 7, 2008

Joyful Tears

Continue reading "Joyful Tears" »

June 6, 2008

REM Xcel

Listening to REM in the 1980's and the early 1990's was a simple joy. The boys from Athens, Georgia could no wrong. They somehow combined jangly guitars, wonderful haunting harmonies and lead singer Michael Stipe's simple yet evocative lyrics into one musical masterpiece after another. If they didn't invent alternative rock then they certainly perfected it. For a decade or so they spoke for a generation and found themselves in the unlikely position of being rock superstars. Then the wheels started to fall off the track.

It began with 1994's overwrought Monster, and continued two years later with what was to be drummer's Bill Berry's swan song. Success was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to the band. Without a drummer the three remaining members soldiered on. The result was a string of albums that could at best be described as interesting and at their worst bland. They were a band in name only, however, and the fire was long gone.

Enter Accelerate the new CD from REM. It is perhaps the best thing they have done in 16 years. It's fast, and furious and doesn't have a drum machine or synthetic sounds (thank god). REM bring this new-found energy and tunes on their world tour. They made a stop in St. Paul on June 5th. Perhaps it was the fact that Stipe, an Obama supporter was playing in the same arena that only two days before saw the democratic nominee accept the party's assumed nomination, but the band was clearly energized. The first few songs were blistering and full of focus. Stipe was in fine form, striking playful poses and singing his heart out. And the crows loved it. We were all on our feet. I felt like I was witnessing the rebirth of REM. Somewhere in the middle of the set they took their eye off the ball just a bit (blame guitarist Peter Buck) who picks the songs for each night's concert. One too many slow songs in a row crept in and stole the momentum before the band finally put things right near the end and went out with a bang. With such a great back catalog do we really need to hear Auctioneer? Still, the band played cuts as far back as Murmur and a bunch from the new disc.

The next CD from the band may determine whether the three-some has found their footing again or whether it was a last gasp. My firm conviction is the former. Now if they can only perfect their already great live show with better song selection and sequence then fans will really have something to shout about. For the time being we'll have to content ourselves with the fact they they're singing a decidedly different tune.

March 20, 2006

March of the Penguin

I have a pair of Rocky boots. They are brown, comfortable and have gotten me through the long Minnesota winter to today's Vernal Equinox. I walk every day to work trudging through snow, ice and the occassional global warming rain. When I first put them on in November it's a sign that winter is here. and when I finally take them off in March it's an indication that spring has finally arrived. These boots are more than an important component of my winter defenses. Even more than my coat, hat and gloves this sturdy footwear is on the frontline of the toughest season of the year making contact with the frozen Earth and guarding against a frostbite invasion. They are with me through thick and thin. Yet I hate them.

It's all because of the laces. I tie them dutifully, walk out the door, and five minutes later they are untied again dragging across the ground. It doesn't really matter how tight I tie them. They refuse to stay knotted. It is not uncommon for me to have to tie then 2 or 3 times on my 5-minute walk to or from work. Part of the ordeal arises from the anticipation as I sense the laces coming undone. With each step I can see them unravel a bit more until the laces are finally slapping around like some over-boiled spaghetti noodle. It only adds insult to injury when I have to remove my gloves in the frigid temperatures to tie them, knowing they won't last more than another hundred yards or so.

Yet I keep doing it. Day after day. Month after month. Year after year. It makes no sense. Clearly, the laces have become brittle with age and so defy any kind of knot I try and impose upon them. I'm quite sure there are plenty of stores where I could buy a new pair of laces more cooperative and the cost would be negligent. Yet somehow, unbelievably, I never do. I feel like one of those poor flightless birds in March of the Penguins who trudges across the desolate Antarctic ice only to stand there freezing for months-on-end without eating vainly trying to protect a lone egg. Why do they do that? There has to be a better way. I think it is our routines that can become detrimental if we are not careful. How many of us have grooves long turned into ruts? Most of us, I would hazard to guess.

This March, along with the perennial spring cleaning where we weed out possessions that are no longer required and spruce up our homes, perhaps it would also be advisable if we gave a few of our more entrenched and ill-advised habits a second-look. There's one in particular that I would dearly love to give the boot.

March 2, 2006

A World of Difference

Winter is synonomous with Minnesota. As a young boy I played in knee-deep snow that fell by Thanksgiving, certainly by Christmas, and stayed resolutely until early March. To combat the accompanying cold of bitter proportions I wrapped myself in one downy layer after another looking like a cross between the Michelin Man and that kid from A Christmas Story. Oh, how things have changed.

Recently, I attended a presentation at the University of Minnesota Morris by noted polar explorer Will Steger as well as J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Minnesotans for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ME3). Steger was clearly the headlining speaker, and I was excited as the next person to hear him talk on matters of global warming. Who wouldn't be? Steger has been a trailblazer, literally, dog-sledding across the North Pole, traversing Greenland, and making the first dog-sled journey from one end of Antarctica to the other. Heck, he's even crossed the Arctic Ocean by dog. Not surprisingly, he's still the only person to have done it. Given the rate at which the Arctic ice is melting and retreating, his record may stand for quite a while. I watched, fascinated, as he brought up one slide after another detailing the effects of global warming both in the arctic and the antarctic. Here was a person who had stood in places previously unvisited, white vistas of beautiful desolation, bringing back urgent stories for their survival.

Yet the most captivating speaker for me was not Steger, but Drake Hamilton from ME3. In contrast to Steger's global vision she offered real solutions to the problem of global warming on a more manageable local scale. With each passing minute I felt myself relax and a new-found sense of hope emerge. Perhaps, all was not lost. There was something I could do. Currently, ME3 is advocating in the Minnesota state legislature for a 20 percent renewable electricity standard by 2020. Makes sense to me. Do we really need more coal plants? It's time to look ahead to cleaner forms of energy like wind, solar and biomass. Such a move has already been made by a dozen or more states across the political landscape. Sure, investing in renewable energy is a little bit more expensive in the short-term, but the long term benefits will mean cleaner air, a more stabilized climate, and jobs in Minnesota.

To find out more about ME3 go to http://www.me3.org/ . While you're at it go to http://www.m3.org/gwa/index.html and using the link provided ask Governor Pawlenty how he will protect Minnesota's economy and natural heritage. I may be a bit more blunt and simply ask why he has not yet supported the clear-sighted 20 by 2020 initiative. Such a small step could make a world of difference.