Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Cleopatra, Sex and Women’s Rights (2nd Edit)


Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom, regained it, amassed an empire, and lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, she was an object of speculation and veneration, a living myth in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler, and for a brief moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She died – spectacularly and sensationally – at the age of thirty-nine, a generation before the birth of Christ. Shakespeare spoke of her infinite variety.

He had no idea.

And yet the enduring impression of Cleopatra two thousand years later is one of a sexy seductress; a bedeviling Egyptian siren that lured the two most powerful men of her age into her bed. (Julius Caesar, and later his protégé, Marc Antony) 

But who cares about an ancient Egyptian Queen. What difference does her life and our interpretation of it even matter? And why is Cleopatra still relevant, all these years later?

Considering the number of plays and poems and volumes that have been written about one her, it’s impossible to cover a fingernail’s worth of the complexity of her story. There are occasions, however, when even a quick overview like this can be helpful. Especially in a culture that prefers simple, binary snapshots of great historical figures.

Historically, women have been viewed in two ways. Madonna. (Virgin, the Mother) Or Whore. (Seductress, Siren)

These are, generally speaking, not only the historical definitions of women, but the way we still tend to categorize them. Interestingly, most people don’t realize that the gender division in Western culture was largely fostered by the Romans (especially during the Republic), who had very clear ideas about men and women and their roles in culture.

Julius Caesar was certainly one of those men. He’d just defeated his rival, the great general Pompei, when he arrived in Alexandria in 48 BCE, hoping to settle Egypt and collect the massive debt Cleopatra’s father had racked up in buying off the inevitable Roman advance. He did not expect to be captivated by an eighteen year old queen. Certainly not one who had been forced to sneak into her own house to avoid her murderous brother and his army. Cleopatra was not just another queen, however, even for the powerful and accomplished genius that was Caesar. This teenager was the direct descendant of Alexander the Great, a Macedonian Greek and the prodigy of generations of the Ptolemic Empire. She spoke nine languages, was well versed in military affairs, and even in a time when women rulers were no rarity, she stood out. She was a charismatic speaker and the first Ptolemy to learn the language of the people she ruled. And yet though little was said of her beauty (she was likely somewhat plain) she is remembered as a seductress.

Um, what?

Months after the Civil War had ended, Caesar remained in Alexandria, and there’s little doubt that he stayed because of Cleopatra and shared her bed.

That harlot.

At least, that’s how she was considered by Roman historians like Plutarch. You could make a case she was only protecting her kingdom, that Caesar was purely a political conquest and she needed a powerful ally if she was going to keep Egypt independent. You could also consider those who wished her dead (which in the tradition of the highly interbred Ptolemies meant family members regularly murdered on another) and suggest that she had no other choice.

Or, you could do the unthinkable and suggest that it was Caesar who seduced the young queen. As great as Cleopatra was to become, Caesar was perhaps the most brilliant and powerful ruler in Western history; a handsome and striking womanizer who we recognize as one of the few humans to change the course of the world. Unlike Caesar, who relied on brains and wit and courage to conquer much of the known world, according to the historians, Cleopatra used her father’s riches and sex to accomplish the same tasks. When we discuss Cleopatra, ultimately the discussion revolves around her looks, ironically the most opaque part of what is known about her. Amazingly, we still find it difficult to imagine a woman using something other than sex to conquer as a ruler.

When Cleopatra later coupled with Marc Antony, years after Caesar had been assassinated, Roman officers still couldn’t fathom a woman being involved in military matters. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of her ability, they would complain to Antony about her presence in the command tents.

The irony, sad as it is, is that Rome’s legacy (Western Culture), still divides its culture by gender two thousand years later.

More than two millennia removed from one of the greatest leaders in history and many are still wondering when women will learn their “place.” We still have leaders and people who doubt the ability of a woman to rule. Certainly most of the major religions have little time for women in leadership, with only some exceptions. Christians continued the Roman tradition of the Republic and later the Empire regarding its view of women. And Islam, an offshoot of Judaism and Christianity, followed the same tradition. What’s inexcusable is how little our so-called religious leaders know their history. A Christian “manual” for women published in 2011, for example, explains that girls are supposed to be soft and feminine and men are designed to be strong. It offers “proof” of this by noting how little girls preferred to twirl in front of the mirror, while little boys prefer to flex their muscles.

That such nonsense dominates our culture is all the more amazing when we realize that two thousand years ago, one of the most brilliant and accomplished people in history faced the same question many women face today, for the very same reason.

She did, however, leave us a legacy we should not soon forget; a continual reminder that dividing people by gender, in regards to power and ability and tendencies, is not only ignorant, but easily exposes the prejudice beneath it. That prejudice here in the West, a legacy of the Romans and their historians, is one we should address, and change accordingly.

-Steve

NOTE: Ancient Egypt had some of the most egalitarian laws in history. Women had nearly as many rights as men, and they were known for their advancement and culture and education. Following Cleopatra’s death, however, those rights slowly eroded, and when Islam eventually became the religion of the land those rights disappeared altogether. This was clearly in evidence in 2011 during the riots in Egypt, when Egyptian men were caught on video screaming at the protesting women to go back into the kitchen and mind the house, something an ancient Roman would have said.











Monday, April 23, 2012

The Disappeared

Wow. I just realized that it's been nearly two months since my last post. That seems like an extraordinary amount of time, considering my goals for this site earlier this year. Unfortunately, I've been swamped with new work on my book. After three years and a number of edits, I wasn't happy with the middle portion of my 180,000 word fantasy novel. (For which I've already written about 700,000 words) So I went back to the drawing board, outlined where I thought the book needed to go, and I've been working on the new scenes (and characters) ever since. Fresh work takes more out of me than editing, however, which means I simply haven't had the time or the juice to write here.

That said, I COULD have posted, there's certainly been enough going on in the news lately, but I've been hesitant to post something that isn't well written. It isn't like I'm spending hours editing here like I would with my regular work, but I do feel an obligation to provide you, the reader, with something approaching readability. (and perhaps some info-tainment) Maybe it's time though, to just relax the glutes a bit and post anyway.

So, then word of warning. If any of my future posts possess massive grammatical malfunctions that cause you to toss and turn and throw heavy objects through your flat screen, drop me a comment and I'll make the appropriate adjustment. Sound fair?

Okay, I have to get back to work finishing this scene, but I'll try to have something up for you later this week.

Cheers,

Steve

Thursday, March 01, 2012

A Brief Link Love

Sorry, everyone. Been under the weather the past few days, and I need to sleep. However, saving Oscar Link Love for next week didn't make much sense. Drew live-blogged the Oscars from a different dimension. Apparently, he didn't like the nominees... or having to blog about the Oscars.

The Academy Awards is one show I actually watch every year, and this year was... meh. Billy Crustal Crystal is old, but he had a few good zingers. Parts of his routine, like the whole "what are they thinking", made me roll my eyes wasn't that funny, but it was still better than James "where's the weed" Franco. Emma Stone was awesome, and if you haven't seen Easy A, you need to download rent it immediately. Meryl Streep won. A classy white lady. I'm certain that after nominating her for seventeen years and wondering if Viola Davis was really as good as she was she deserved it. Hey, nothing says art like The Iron Lady.

Jennifer Lopez apparently wore a dress with nipples, although my wife and I were pretty certain they were hers. And Angelina Jolie's Right Leg made an appearance. Too bad her arms didn't show up. Pretty sad to see Lara Croft without the ability to hold a gun anymore. And a terrible example for young girls fretting about being skinny. Look, I love Jolie, but she looked like a crack addict did NOT look attractive.

And if you didn't hear, the Iranian picture that won for the best foreign movie, according to a group of  Iranian jerkoffs the Iranian government, was a win over the Zionist Jews. I get that I'm Canadian, and that I'll never understand a 4000 year-old blood feud, but at some point you have to grow the f*ck up and realize that you're a bunch of racist assholes show some maturity. What a bunch of douchebags.

As for the GOP "leadership" race, Romney won in Michigan and Arizona, and Santorum thinks Obama is a "snob" for wanting kids to go to college. Whatever. There's nothing to say here. Santorum isn't a conservative, he's a fundamentalist. A total whack job. And not even worth talking about for those of us who read books without pictures. What's frightening is that the GOP race is all about men. Good grief, it's like they're channeling their inner Roman. (You do remember Rome, where women had the legal rights of chickens and infants. and no, that's not hyperbole.)

There were some good things that happened, but I'm wiped. I'll post more in the next few days. Thanks for your patience, everyone.

-Steve

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Link Love is Coming

Link Love will be up sometime today, folks. I wanted to catch the latest Celebrity Apprentice see the results of last night's GOP leadership race first. Apologies.

-Steve

Monday, February 27, 2012

D&D: Who Are You?

(Have you tried the Monday Challenge yet? You won't be disappointed. Give it a whirl!)

There’s a full length mirror in the hallway in our building that my wife and I both like. It stretches you out, so if you’re short, like my wife, it projects you as being a bit taller. And if you’re built like a brick shithouse, like me, it almost gives you the illusion of being lean. But even mirrors that reflect more accurate dimensions don’t tell us much about ourselves. Self-reflection doesn’t always work either. It can help, but there are really only a couple of things that can give us an accurate picture of who we are. The first is the way others see us. The role we fill in their eyes. (the caregiver, the comic, the perky happy girl, the intellectual, etc…) Who they believe we are matters, because we usually act to meet people’s expectations. (Which is why you always hear psychologists talk about setting high standards when you’re leading people, for example.) The second, but more important way to understand who we are is to figure out the self-narrative that drives our actions. If your life was a story (and it is), what would that story be? If there was a film about your life, what would the theme be?

Until we know we are, or at least understand the narrative that drives us, it’s impossible to think about pursuing our dreams. Over the years, I've worked with a number of young adults who had no idea what their dreams were, no idea what they wanted from life. Now part of that goes back to our environment as a child, how healthy or unhealthy it was, and subsequent issues as a result of it. And sometimes it’s clear to people what they want at an early age. I have friends who wanted to be writers when they were twelve, and have never wavered. But for the rest of us (I didn’t figure out the writing bug until I was twenty three) even the concept of dreaming isn’t part of our makeup. Or maybe we had a dream, but for whatever reason, the opportunity passed us by, and now we’re supposed to “move on”, but have no idea how to do that.

The easiest way to understand who you are, is to figure out what stories you find compelling. What kind of books do you like? What kind of movies do you watch? Why do you like certain types of music or certain bands? There’s a reason you like action films with strong female leads (as rare as that is). There’s a reason why you like that indie band that talks about life in the suburbs.

Humans connect to one another through story. That’s the link, and it’s the reason certain people connect more easily to some than others. Look at your friends. Why do you like them? What is it that you find so compelling about them? What’s their story?

There are other ways to figure out who you are, of course. Like taking a personality test. (I recommend the Myers-Briggs) But understanding the story you tell yourself is more important than even understanding the particular characteristics of your personality. We profoundly influence ourselves more than any person we’ll ever meet, and often that persuasion is negative. We tell ourselves that we’re just a mother, just another guy at the post office, just another ______.

This week, take a few minutes to think about the stories that you identify with, and ask yourself why they register. Why they mean so much to you. Once you begin to understand your story, you’re ready to change it. To create something new and profound. It won’t happen all at once, but if you're patient, you'll find the journey more rewarding than you ever imagined. 

Steve

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Site Changes


Just to let you know I've made a few changes (yes, again) to this site. I changed the background because i think this one is cleaner, but the only significant change, really, is the schedule. As in, there will be less of one going forward. It's amazing how we tend to forget our own tendencies, and I'd forgotten just how much I dislike a rigid schedule. As you can see, I'll feature the same things in different posts, but there won't be a day of the week attached to them. (Except for Tuesday Link Love) By scrolling down the side, however, you can find whatever feature you like as they'll be marked by their appropriate designations (D&D, From the Scrolls, Top Ten).

Thanks, everyone, for your patience. And if you have any ideas for other Features, let me know.

Steve

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

TLL: Rick Santorum, the Oscars, and Anthony Shadid

I normally try to get the Tuesday Link Love up early, but the work on the novel was going especially well today between clients, so here we are, a bit late. Around the horn from the week that was, as always, touching on things that made me want to throw my laptop through the window cultural and entertainment newsmakers, some fun happenings, as well as few items you might have missed.

I suppose a Presidential election isn't normally this embarassing considered entertainment news, but in following the GOP "leadership" leadership race, I am continually banging my head at the utter stupidity somewhat surprised by the statements uttered by the candidates and their sycophants supporters. For example, we have Rick Santorum, who somehow as emerged as a challenger to Mitt Romney and is the darling of the Christian Right. Sigh. This is a man who believes contraception is “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” He also believes that women shouldn't be allowed to serve in the front lines of the army because "they'll get all emotional." Did I mention that back in 2008 he gave a speech lionizing the past greatness of America while charging that mainline Protestant churches are a Satan-sponsored “shambles” that are “gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.” And so while normally I'd be ranting about this, Santorum's great white misogynist patriarchal views are so unintelligent and stupefying, there's really not a lot to say for anyone with an IQ over 40 and who thinks equality is a pretty damn good idea.

Over at Salon, they think that Santorum's candidacy is a good thing. Like many others, they're tired of Conservatives treating women like dirt seemingly male-oriented policies. One woman, a lifelong Republican had this to say:

I was raised in a conservative, Republican, military family. I support personal freedom and personal responsibility. I support the military. I support a balanced budget. I support individual rights and the constitution. I support small government. But I find myself increasingly separated from the Republican Party, and this is why:


I cannot align myself with a party that repeatedly acts to restrict the rights of women, to deny women protection from abuse and violence, and to trample the rights of women to make their own medical decisions. I cannot support a party where individual rights and freedoms are only protected for people with a penis (so long as they are not gay). (MORE)

And a final note on Santorum, who this week received support from Franklin Graham, son of the famous preacher Billy Graham. Apparently Franklin isn't sure if Obama's a Christian. Of Santorum, he has no doubt, "because of the way he lives his life." Newt Gingrich, one of the most miserable f***ing humans on the planet, a man who cheated on his wife repeatedly and then divorced her when she was diagnosed with MS, and fellow GOP contender, gets Franklin's support as well. The whole issue regarding a person's faith and that somehow it legitmizes them to run for president is insane questionable, but to have someone who identifies himself as a bad teacher of religion designate who is a Christian and who isn't, and then to do so based on race and politics, is pretty gross.

Oscar Week!

This is my favourite awards show, despite its bloated-ness. For whatever reason, the others don't do for me. Maybe because I can only get behind one bloated awards show a year. Over at Grantland, they provide helpful hints for starting a whisper campaign against other nominees. My favourite? A possible reason why Terrence Malick's Tree of Life shouldn't win Best Picture. "I kept saying, 'Where did the dinosaurs go?' That's the movie I want to see, where Brad Pitt raises a pack of velociraptors in his backyard. Make that movie, that's a Best Picture." Also at Grantland, they wonder if Michael Fassbender's, err, big year was "torpedoed" by excessive focus on his large member something other than his acting. Very funny.

Over at Indie Wire, they offer their predictions. There are some more predictions at About. Who do you think will win? Which ones did you like? I can't comment because I haven't seen enough of the nominees. Not yet, at least. I'm usually about 18 months behind on these, unless Lord of the Rings is up for something, in which case I predict that Lord of the Rings will take home the gold. I do know one movie that won't be nominated next year. At least, not according to this scathing review. (The "worst Marvel movie ever made.")

More Jeremy Lin?

Tired of this story yet? I'm not. Not after watching a thoroughly entertaining Knicks-Mavericks game Sunday afternoon. Lin has appeared on back to back Sports Illustrated covers, and though his story has exposed some of the racism still alive and well in the world, it's still the best narrative going, and the best I've seen in a while. And hell, Tebow was a GREAT story.


And finally...


Normally, I don't include obituaries here on Link Love, but the world lost a giant this past week.
As some of you may or may not know, Anthony Shadid, the 2-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from the New York Times, passed away this week from an acute asthma attack at the age of 43. A fearless and courageous reporter (and a wonderful writer), he was briefly taken hostage in Eastern Libya in 2011, there to report the uprising against dictator Col. Muammar Ghaddafi. Shadid was lionized by the journalistic community, and for good reason. Here's part of a piece he wrote in August 2010, reporting from Iraq. (Click the link to read the whole article.)

BAGHDAD — In a pastel-colored room at the Baghdad morgue known simply as the Missing, where faces of the thousands of unidentified dead of this war are projected onto four screens, Hamid Jassem came on a Sunday searching for answers. In a blue plastic chair, he sat under harsh fluorescent lights and a clock that read 8:58 and 44 seconds, no longer keeping time. With deference and patience, he stared at the screen, each corpse bearing four digits and the word “majhoul,” or unknown:

No. 5060 passed, with a bullet to the right temple; 5061, with a bruised and bloated face; 5062 bore a tattoo that read, “Mother, where is happiness?” The eyes of 5071 were open, as if remembering what had happened to him.

“Go back,” Hamid asked the projectionist. No. 5061 returned to the screen. “That’s him,” he said, nodding grimly.

His mother followed him into the room, her weathered face framed in a black veil. “Show me my son!” she cried.

Behind her, Hamid pleaded silently. He waved his hands at the projectionist, begging him to spare her. In vain, he shook his head and mouthed the word “no.”

“Don’t tell me he’s dead,” she shouted at the room. “It’s not him! It’s not him!”

No. 5061 returned to the screen.

She lurched forward, shaking her head in denial. Her eyes stared hard. And in seconds, her son’s 33 years of life seemed to pass before her eyes.

“Yes, yes, yes,” she finally sobbed, falling back in her chair.

Reflexively, her hands slapped her face. They clawed, until her nails drew blood. “If I had only known from the first day!” she cried.

The horror of this war is its numbers, frozen in the portraits at the morgue: an infant’s eyes sealed shut and a woman’s hair combed in blood and ash. “Files tossed on the shelves,” a policeman called the dead, and that very anonymity lends itself to the war’s name here — al-ahdath, or the events.

On the charts that the American military provides, those numbers are seen as success, from nearly 4,000 dead in one month in 2006 to the few hundred today. The Interior Ministry offers its own toll of war — 72,124 since 2003, a number too precise to be true. At the morgue, more than 20,000 of the dead, which even sober estimates suggest total 100,000 or more, are still unidentified.

This number had a name, though. (MORE)


He will be missed.

-Steve

P.S. Don't be afraid to leave favourite links or comment if you're so inclined. You can also drop me a line. Cheers, everyone.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Male Brain… and Other Moronic Manuals

My wife and I were browsing through the bookstore this past weekend, when she showed me a book she’d found displayed near the front called The Male Brain by Louann Brizendine M.D. It’s a follow up to Brinzendine’s best seller The Female Brain (which I’d read in doing research for another article). The book claimed to be a “breakthrough of understanding how boys and men think.” In it, we “discover” that the male brain:

-is a lean, mean, problem-solving machine. Faced with a personal problem, a man will use his analytical brain structures, not his emotional ones, to find a solution.
-thrives under competition, instinctively plays rough and is obsessed with rank and hierarchy.
-has an area for sexual pursuit that is 2.5 times larger than the female brain, consuming him with sexual fantasies about female body parts.

Brinzedine uses her experience as a neuropsychiatrist and her male patients at various stages in their life cycle. At every stage; such as the mischievous young boy, the oversexed teenage boy, or the middle-aged man who falls for a younger woman (I obviously fall into this category since my wife is ten years younger than me. Yikes!), she theorizes her patient's behavioural brain patterns, which (she says) are aided considerably by hormones like testosterone ("Zeus") and vasopressin (the "White Knight").

Unfortunately, her “science” is nothing more than pseudo science, her “studies” are either ridiculous or have considerable difficulties (how to interpret fMRI results is an ongoing debate), and all of her patients conform to stereotypes. So then, uh, this is the “breakthrough”?

Shitty pseudo-science texts like this one are dangerous because they’re inherently used to get people to conform. If I were to take her dog-vomit literally, it would be obvious that I was born with a “female” brain. It’s like hearing a mother say “oh, boys will be boys.” Gag.

What it means is that boys will be excused for their behavior and girls will be held to a different standard. What it means is that we’re teaching young girls to accept boys who treat them like garbage because “it’s their nature.”

Bull shit.

This is no different than the release of pre-built pink Legos this past year for girls, because “girls aren’t interested in building. They just want to play!”

My stomach rots when I read this crap because people will think it’s not only true, but it’s inevitable. They’ll see a culture that has allowed men to be assholes and asked something very different of women, and assume it has to be that way because it’s science.

The same thing was being written in the 20th Century about African-Americans. So-called “science” books on their limited capacity. Yeah, so, guess they were wrong about that, eh?

As you work (painfully) through the book, it quickly becomes apparent that Brinzedine has never studied history. (And by study, I mean pick up a single damn book.) If she had, she’d notice that culture, the culture we create in how we segregate and divide people, is all that matters when it comes to gender. Our roles in society are not limited by the chemistry of our brain at birth. It’s such a moronic notion that even mentioning it seems redundant.

I know that this isn’t a typical Monday Encouragement post, but I don’t want you to be fooled by this kind of garbage. You can be whatever you want to be. You have the ability and capacity for it, regardless of gender. If you’re male and you like to dance and you like interior decorating, go for it. If you want to be a cop or a CEO or the president and you’re a woman, do it. Don’t fall for these so-called experts and their manuals that do nothing but exacerbate inequality and labeling.

Neurology has been called the last frontier for science, and while we know more than we did, much of it is still a mystery. We do know that our brain sorts and categorizes an endless sea of information. It’s normal to group ideas and people because that is how our brain works. And Brinzedine has made a career of this, opening up a clinic to explain the differences between the genders based on so-called “neuro-psychiatry”. Unfortunately, she doesn’t even seem to understand the neurological basics about decision making, about how emotion is used in ALL of our decisions, for example, and to suggest otherwise indicates her unwillingness to be honest in her research.

Are men and women different? Sure. But so are people born in different countries. Or from different financial situations. Or from different households. We’re all different. We’re all the same, too. The same struggles, the same heartaches, the same goals. Better to focus on that than using bad research to protect outdated and prejudiced stereotypes that do nothing but divide us even more.

Find what you want and do it, and don’t let someone tell you that you can’t because you’re a girl or a boy, or because you’re white or black or straight or gay. Tell them to stuff it, and if that doesn’t work, send them to me, and I’ll rip them a new one for you.

-Steve


Friday, February 17, 2012

From the Scrolls: Cleopatra, Sex and Women’s Rights

Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom, regained it, amassed an empire, and lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, she was an object of speculation and veneration, a myth in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler, and for a brief moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She died – spectacularly and sensationally – at the age of thirty-nine, a generation before the birth of Christ. Shakespeare spoke of her infinite variety.

He had no idea.

And yet the enduring image of Cleopatra conjures two thousand years later is one of a sexy seductress. A bedeviling Egyptian siren who lured the two most powerful men of her time into her bed. (Julius Ceasar, and later his protégé Marc Antony) It doesn’t help that the burning image of Cleopatra was last provided by one of the most beautiful women of the 20th Century, Elizabeth Taylor, in the 1965 film.

But so what? Who cares about an Egyptian Queen? And why is Cleopatra still relevant, all these years later?

Considering that plays and poems and volumes have been written about her, one of the most powerful and fascinating people in history, it’s impossible to cover a fingernail’s worth of the complexity of her story. There are occasions, however, when even a quick overview like this can be helpful.

***

Historically women have been viewed in two ways.

Madonna. (Virgin, the Mother) Or Whore. (Seductress, Siren)

These are, generally speaking, not only the historical definitions of women, but the way we still tend to categorize them. A woman is either a “slut” or “really nice” and “motherly”. Interestingly, most people don’t realize that the gender division in Western culture was largely fostered by the Romans (especially during the Republic), who had very clear ideas about men and women and their roles in culture.

Julius Ceasar was certainly one of those men. When he arrived in Alexandria in 48 BCE, he did not expect to be captivated by an eighteen year old queen who was forced to sneak into her own house to avoid her brother and his army. He’d just defeated his rival, the great general Pompei, and hoped to settle Egypt along with collecting the massive debt Cleopatra’s father had racked up in buying off the inevitable Roman advance. But Cleopatra wasn’t just another queen, even for the most powerful and accomplished genius that was Ceasar. No, this teenager was the direct descendant of Alexander the Great, a Macedonian Greek (she was not Egyptian) and product of generations of the Ptolemic Empire. She spoke nine languages. She was well versed in military affairs. Even in a time when women rulers were no rarity, she stood out. (Cleopatra was the only female to eventually rule alone and play a role in Western affairs.) She was a charismatic speaker and the first Ptolemy to learn the language of the people she ruled. And yet she is remembered as a seductress, though little is said of her beauty, little enough to presume that she would have been somewhat “plain”.

And yet, Ceasar was so fascinated, he not only stayed in Alexandria, he very nearly became trapped when the Alexandrians fought back, upset over the presence of a Roman General who seemed to believe that Egypt was subject to Rome. And yet, months after the Civil War had ended that year, Ceasar stayed. And there’s little doubt that he stayed because of Cleopatra and shared her bed.

That harlot.

At least, that’s how she was considered by Roman historians like Plutarch. I suppose that you could make a case she was only protecting her kingdom, that Ceasar was purely a political conquest and she needed a powerful ally if she was going to keep Egypt independent. You could also consider those who wished her dead (which in the tradition of the highly interbred Ptolemies, meant family members regularly murdered on another) and suggest that she had no other choice.

Or, you could suggest that it was Ceasar who seduced the young queen. (Quick quiz: did you even consider that when you were reading the above paragrpah?) No ancient historian made that case, however, it was never even considered. I find that disturbing and ironic. As great as Cleopatra was to become, Ceasar was one of the most brilliant and powerful rulers in history. A handsome and striking womanizer who we recognize as one of the few humans to change the course of the world. Unlike Ceasar, who relied on brains and wit and courage to conquer much of the known world, Cleopatra apparently used her father’s riches and sex (or feminine “wiles”, whatever the hell that is) and has worn the mantle of seductress for over two thousand years. When we discuss Cleopatra, ultimately the discussion revolves around her looks, ironically the most opaque part of what is known about her. We can’t imagine a woman using something OTHER than sex to conquer as a ruler.

When Cleopatra later coupled with Marc Antony, years after Ceasar had been assassinated, Roman officers still couldn’t fathom the presence of a woman, even one as accomplished and powerful as Cleopatra, when it came to military matters. They would complain to Antony about her presence in the command tents. And this, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of her ability.

The irony, sad as it is, is that Rome’s legacy (Western Culture), still divides its culture by gender two thousand years later.

Here it is, 2012, millennia removed from one of the greatest leaders in history and we are still wondering when women will learn their place. We still have leaders and people who doubt the ability of a woman to rule. Most of the major religions have little time for women in leadership, with only some exceptions. Christians continued the Roman tradition of the Republic and later the Empire regarding its view of women. And Islam, an offshoot of Judaism and Christianity, continued the tradition as well. What’s inexcusable is how little our so-called religious leaders know their history.

This past week, I was flipping through a book in the religion section of the bookstore, a “Christian manual” for women published in 2011. The two male authours “explained” that girls were supposed to be soft and feminine, and men were designed to be strong. It offered “proof” of this by noting how little girls preferred to “twirl” in front of the mirror, while little boys flexed their muscles.

I wonder what Cleopatra did in front of the mirror as a child. Or perhaps, and I’m just spitballing here, IT DOESN’T F****** MATTER.

It amazes me that such nonsense still dominates our culture, that so many men still feel threatened by the idea of equality. That people dare still use words like “headship” based on gender without understanding that it’s a Roman tradition, not a religious one. Many Christians defend such terms as “biblical”, when in fact they aren’t biblical at all, they’re ideas from the Roman Republic centuries earlier. (Pater familias)

How sad and ironic that two thousand years ago one of the most brilliant and accomplished people in history faced the same question many women face today. She did, however, leave us a legacy we should not soon forget. A continual reminder that dividing people by gender, in regards to positions and ability and tendencies, is completely ignorant. The other legacy Cleopatra’s story reveals is that the prejudice we find today in religious “manuals” was found in the officers’ barracks two thousand years ago. Now that'd be one legacy we’d do well to change.

-Steve

NOTE: Grateful to Pulitzer Prize winning author Stacy Schiff for her book Cleopatra: A Life. (And some of her notes in her introduction, which I borrowed for the beginning two paragraphs of this post) A wonderfully well-written biography, and the best of the ones I’ve read regarding Cleopatra. )I highly recommend it.)

NOTE II: Ancient Egypt had some of the most egalitarian laws in history. Women had nearly as many rights as men, and they were known for their advancement and culture and education. Following Cleopatra’s death, however, those rights slowly eroded, and when Islam eventually became the religion of the land those rights disappeared altogether. This was clearly in evidence in 2011 during the riots in Egypt, when Egyptian men were caught on video screaming at the protesting women to go back into the kitchen and mind the house, something an ancient Roman would have said.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

TLL: The Grammy Awards, Jeremy Lin, Tim Thomas, and Women’s Rights


My buddy, Mark, has been helping me modulate the tone of my opinions for a while now. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. This week, however, I tried to take his advice. The crossed out words indicate what I really think writers refer to as "First Draft". At least this way you know that I'm having fun playing with the cross out tool being careful in understanding and taking responsibility for my opinions. Onto the Links…


THE GRAMMY'S

So I promised myself that this year I'd watch the Grammy's, my least favourite of the bloated awards shows that dominate the TV/ cultural landscape during this portion of the calendar. Apparently I lied. (To myself, which isn't so bad, right?) Instead, I found myself watching a nondescript Memphis – Utah NBA game featuring the ugliest uniforms I've ever seen. According to my twitter feed, Adele kicked everyone's ass, and Chris Brown, the jerk who beat up Rihanna when they were a couple, performed twice. Did I miss anything? Oh, and I did catch Taylor Swift, one of my favourites, who was very good. That's not a surprise. (And for people who insist that she can't sing. Um, neither can Bob Dylan, if you're going to judge voice that way. Fortunately, not all of us need some mythical tonal purity and a chance to cash in on someone else's success to appreciate good music (and storytelling) when we hear it. The whole vocal shitstorm with Taylor Swift strikes me as sexist, especially since she's noticeably better than she used to be. She doesn't have to be Mariah (or even Jennifer Hudson) to be great. Here's what MTV thought about the night's winners and losers. (Though I disagree on the Chris Brown "winner" label.)

TIM THOMAS

Elsewhere, Tim Thomas, Stanley Cup winning goaltender for the Boston Bruins, was in the news again for his latest Facebook post. Apparently, he wants everyone to know that he "stands with the Catholics in the fight for Religious Freedom." He's referring, of course, to the latest wedge issue for Republicans debate over Obama's healthcare program, in which all institutions providing health care were required to cover contraceptives. The Catholic Church (by which, I mean the papacy and bishops) don't believe in women's rights or rational thinking the use of birth control, so they officially objected, forcing Obama to compromise. There are a few issues here, but Thomas, who refused to go to the Whitehouse with his team a couple of weeks ago, and then claimed it wasn't political, is acting like a douchebag missing the point. Jim Braude thinks he's a coward, which is right on the money probably going too far. At least, that's what most people with an IQ above eighty Joe Haggerty thinks.

CATHOLICS AND CONTRACEPTIVES

As for the Catholics themselves, I truly don't get it. I was raised in a devout Catholic home, was an altar boy for five years, and still love the way that so many Catholic churches involve themselves in helping the poor and providing for those in need. Even my parents don't agree with the Catholic breeding program position on birth control. In a recent poll, 98% of Catholic women have used birth control at some point and 58% of Catholics disagree with their church's position. Some commentators feel that Obama handled this in a clumsy manner. I don't think so, and neither does John Ray, a professor of Political Science in Montana. I think he gets it right when he calls it a misinterpretation of the First Amendment and an important issue for women's rights.

For all the good the Catholic Church does in the world, and they do A LOT of good, as an institution they treat women like breeders have never considered women equal to men. (TEASER: Later this week in the Scrolls post, we'll look at why that is so, and the one woman in history who understood that Roman tendency better than any other. Her name? Cleopatra.) Not that they're the only institution that thinks the purpose of women involves breeding procreation. As Dr. David Jeremiah, popular evangelical teacher, he's certainly not smart enough to be a real doctor… idiot, notes in his new book, procreation is one of the important reasons people should marry. Love is part of the equation, but only part. God put us here to breed until we overpopulate the earth and kill every other living thing be fruitful and multiply. Which is also why we should not allow gays to marry, he says, because they can't procreate. Aside from the fact his argument is hateful and completely ignorant illogical nonsense, I can't understand why so many people seem attracted to this drivel. We're smarter than this, right folks? Like, we didn't stop reading when the calendar moved past 1958, right? Sigh.

JEREMY LIN

The best story of the week, for me, is the Jeremy Lin story. If you haven't heard about LInsanity yet, you will. Jeremy Lin is the point guard for the New York Knicks. Well, he's been the point guard for the past five games, during which time he's averaged 25 points a game and about 8 assists. Not a big deal normally, except that those are the first five starts in the NBA for Lin, he has a degree from Harvard (The US presidency has had more presidents from Harvard (5) then the NBA (4)), he's been sent to the D (evelopment) League four times, was released by three other NBA teams, and as of two weeks ago was sleeping on his brother's couch in New York about to be released. And did I mention the Knicks have won five games in a row in what seemed to be a lost season with their two best players sidelined. He also happens to be a devout Christian (which hasn't come into play yet, but it will) and of Taiwanese- Chinese descent, which happens to be the NBA's biggest market outside the US. Yes, the NBA headquarters have been quivering with delight for two weeks.

Sam Amick looks at how Lin got to New York. But even before he became a pro, he was tearing it up at Harvard and causing all kinds of angst, at least for Jay Caspian King. On Friday, Lin dropped 38 points on the Lakers, proving he's no fluke, according to Chris Mannix. And then Jay Caspian King took another crack at the Lin saga this past week. This is a great story, and watching the kid play the last two games, I'd agree that he's no fluke. He has a Steve Nash quality to his game, but he's more Sam Cassell, more a scorer. That will be the thing to watch, by the way. How he shoots the ball. If he continues to hit his jumper, he'll be fine.

AMERICAN IDOL AND THE IMPORTANCE OF CRITICISM

Oh, and from the archives this week, I found this old article by Owen Gleibermen commenting specifically on American Idol's shitty fluff weak judging last year and how it affected the early cut of Pia Toscano on the show. Thematically, however, he tackles why criticism and critics are necessary, how good critics help us see things in a new light. And also, it makes me feel better about all the criticism I dish out every Tuesday. And yes, I watch American Idol. I wasn't sure what it'd be like after Simon left, and they had some problems last year, but my wife and I still enjoy it. There are so many commercials now, however, we probably wouldn't watch it without a PVR.

Feel free to post your own favourite links from the week, folks. Or let me have it if you think I'm out to lunch. Otherwise, enjoy.

Steve

Monday, February 13, 2012

From Depression Towards the Great Unknown

(Have you taken the Monday Challenge? If not, check it out. Every week presents a new challenge. Something different. Okay, onto this week’s Monday Encouragement.)


As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been jealous of people who always seemed to be on the move. People taking trips and taking chances to go after life. People with the nerve and audacity to be bold in their life choices. For as much as I’ve pursued the dream of writing, I’ve always been hesitant when it comes to things like exploring a new city or travelling somewhere new. As I’ve worked my way through my thirties, it’s become even tougher to break through that mindset. I don’t imagine it will ever be easy.

Part of that is my writer’s dream which has, for a long time, deposited me squarely in the category of starving artist. But a large part of it lies in my mental health struggles. I’ve battled depression since my early twenties, and there remain days when basic functioning is about all I can do, when stepping outside my routine or myself is a nearly insurmountable task. This past week, Canada celebrated Mental Illness Awareness Week. A number of people came forward to talk about their struggles, including perhaps Canada’s greatest athlete, Clara Hughes. (Medalist in both summer and winter Olympics) 

Her testimony, along with others, was well received by the public. For me, as one of the millions who struggle with mental health issues, it was a sign of our growing understanding as a society that some things (most things?) aren’t simple. That this notion we should just “pick ourselves up” or “stop focusing on the bad” simply isn’t the answer. Life is more complicated than that. And yet, we still hear, particularly from the idiots binary thinkers in many churches and mosques that mental health issues are merely the symptom of spiritual damage. It isn’t true, but it offers people a chance to fit everything into a simplistic worldview. These are not, generally speaking, horrible humans. They are often kind and sincere. The problem lies with the importance they place on the necessity of their worldview’s perfection.

Certain worldviews demand that they be correct in every way to function at all. We see this primarily in fundamentalist ideals, not just here in the West, but everywhere, be it Communist China or certain Islamic countries or portions of North America. We see these countries and populations go through great pains to control information, to provide all the answers to people about everything. People who suffer from mental health issues do not fit into these controlled people groups because there’s no place for them in this type of absolute worldview. In fact, most minority groups don’t fit into these power structures. Gays, women, minority races, people of differing faiths, the handicapped, none of them fit. However, having once shared this rigid worldview, I understand why they work so hard to control information and seem so closed. They are terrified that they will fall off the “belief cliff.” That cliff is steep, believe me, because once you leave behind a worldview that held every answer to every question, there is nothing to break your fall but the stones below. Sounds pretty terrifying, doesn’t it?

It is. I went through it, and in some ways, I’m not sure that I’ve ever fully recovered. Having everything explained simply, even when it was clearly wrong, made the world seem smaller and less frightening. I knew who God loved and why I was here and why we had pain in the world and why I was special and why certain cultures were evil. I understood all the spiritual intricacies, the “why’s” and “how’s”, as if I’d been given a secret guide map to the universe. In some ways, it was like being eight-years-old again. People were easy to define as good or evil. I didn’t have to worry about nuance. I didn’t have to deal with complexity. And most importantly, I didn’t have to deal with the Unknown.

And of all the things we’ll face in our life, perhaps the most terrifying, and the most human, is the Unknown. The understanding that we don’t know what we’ll be facing a year from now or what will happen when we die. We don’t know what our job situation will be like or what will happen with our kids or if we’ll ever have kids. We don’t know if we’ll be healthy or where our friends will be or if we’ll find ourselves in a loving relationship.

***

The desert is an overused metaphor, but it fits here. And it isn’t simply those who have fallen off the “Belief Cliff” who face the desert. At some point in our lives, each one of us will find ourselves looking towards the horizon and find nothing there but the shifting sand. We’ll be asked to walk across it anyway.

If you’re like me, and you’re facing the desert for the first time, you scurry back to your books and theories and turn on the hockey game. Nothing like the drone of announcers and the whir of skates and pucks to get your mind off such horrible things. Your next step is to wrap yourself in religion and religious indignation, spew great volumes of words on how easily we can “know God” and how our confusion can be easily addressed by following these few, simple principles. But somewhere in the back of your mind, that picture looms. You remember watching the sand shift in the breeze, the heat of the sun on your face, and the way the horizon shimmered as if you’d disturbed something sacred. Mostly you remember the vastness of it all, as if every bit of emptiness you’d ever felt had been poured out to create this space where the world had swallowed everyone else and left you alone. Out there, your theories and books and distractions didn’t work. Out there, you learned two things: the burning sand and the fallibility of your beliefs.

***

So much is available for us today to know. Encyclopedias of knowledge stored on pieces of metal the size of a thumbnail. We can ask seemingly any question and get an answer in seconds. So much knowledge, and yet, we still know so little. And it’s this gap, this understanding that we will never have all the answers, or worse, that our answers are all wrong, where find the essence of humanity. Where we stand on the edge of the desert and realize that though ages have passed, the desert itself remains untouched, and that we all must face it at one time or another.

We can avoid it, or attempt to, by distracting ourselves with busy work and family stuff and a noisy life. We can ignore the memory of the sand burning under our feet and the questions that keep us awake at night. That’s our choice too. We can claim that such business is “melodramatic” or “artsy nonsense” or “just more excuses” not to be happy with what we have. As always, the simple answer remains tempting. But then, there’s a reason why war and hatred permeate our species. Why people of certain races or religions or gender or sexuality are persecuted and killed.

Unfortunately, it’s our love for the simple answer that drives us further away from our humanity. From the character that we hope to develop and the person we dream of becoming. It’s the simple answer that drives wedges between dissimilar people groups. That sees the world as a pre-ordered hierarchy and not a living sanctuary. And it’s the simple answer that denies us the terrifying but sacred ordeal of witnessing something much greater than ourselves.

The desert brings more questions than answers, but the implications of humility are so immense that they inevitably lead us on a new journey. They take us on a path away from knowledge and surety and move us towards wisdom and empathy. As fearful as it sounds, there’s something wonderful in the change, something wonderful in the comfort of embracing our humanity, of accepting our struggles and questions and knowing that we are not supposed to have all the answers. That we’ll never have all the answers. That whatever our lives are to become, they will never be perfect, and that’s okay, too.

I still struggle with depression. I imagine that I always will. Some days will inevitably be more difficult than others, and on those days I’ll ask for grace from my family and friends and feel the weight of discouragement cover me like a lead jacket. This matters because too often I read religious books or self-help books that promise a secret that will take away all your questions and pain. We get caught up in these ideas, and then come crashing down again when they don’t work, and when the pain remains.

The struggle of being human will always be there, I think, because it is the very thing that defines us. The question, then, is what to do. What do we do when we face the Desert? What do we do when life weights us down? What do we do when our dreams seem to have passed us by?

So many questions, and yet the answer, I think, is found only when we embrace the questions. When we embrace the difficulty of our humanity and celebrate it anyway. When we accept the path of the Unknown and continue to walk, knowing that the path is built for faulty steps, built to handle our errors of judgment and times we get lost.

People are inevitably going to tell us what they think about our path. They’ll tell us that we’re wrong or right because that’s part of being human, too. Just so long as we keep walking, remembering that we all face time in the desert, that we all ask the same questions, and that no one has all the answers. If we remember that, we can push towards the life we want with no regrets. And if we’re lucky, with just a bit more grace and empathy than we had when we started.

Much love

Steve

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Top 10 Postponed

I normally have the weekly Top 10 done by, well, yesterday, but it's been one of those weeks, so my apologies. I'll have the list up this coming weekend. It was originally supposed to be just a *fun* and easy thing, but I'm too anal for that, apparently. The last one was 2600 words?!

I do have a few more rants links this time prepped up for Tuesday Link Love. So far we have stuff about Tim Thomas (again), Jeremy Lin, the Gay Marriage debate, and a few words on Whitney Houston, one of the greats. And I'll be back tomorrow for Monday Encouragement, of course.

Hope you had a good weekend everyone.

I'll leave you with this. And yeah, she was awesome.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

From the Scrolls: Why Luther Still Matters


When we look back over the past five hundred years in the West, it’s easy to wonder at the battles between Catholics and Protestants that dominated the landscape. From our perch of plurality, the idea of Christians killing other Christians seems absurd. (For many of us the idea of killing over ANY religion – my story of God is better than your story of God – is more than absurd, it’s insane.) For centuries, however, especially in places like England (The battles continue in Ireland to this day), Catholics and Protestants fought a vicious, bloody battle that see-sawed through a long line of Monarchial reigns and caused the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents.

The question then, is why it still matters. What importance does Martin Luther, the figure at the heart of the Catholic/Protestant split, hold in a time where a Lutheran church and a Catholic church can be found within two blocks of one another? And what does it matter for those of us who aren’t particularly religious, except to make the point that “fighting over religion is stupid.”

Protestants, of course, lionize Martin Luther, even when he is criticized. (His anti-Semitism, for example, is often brushed aside.) But they regard him for his religious ideas, for his theology that forms the bedrock of their faith. What we miss when we discuss Luther’s revolution, however, is not only did he crack the Catholic Empire with his theology of “every man a priest,” he did so much more. The issue regarding diversity of opinion was seriously challenged for the first time. New feelings of nationhood came into effect. Our attitudes regarding work, art, and human failings all changed. We saw the first effect of mass media. And two centuries later the Protestant revolution would twin with its secular cousin in the Enlightenment and form the basis for the concept of Western Democracy.

***

So who was Martin Luther? Well, he was a miner’s son from Saxony, a devout monk and professor of theology at Wittenburg. For seven years he had wrestled with his faith, agonizing about the state of his soul in his quest for purity. When the sale of indulgences, a kind of certified check drawn by the pope on the “treasury of merit accumulated by the saints”, became a regular fundraising practice of the church, Luther was abashed and angry. (A person could buy an indulgence to lessen the term of a person, either themselves or a friend, in Purgatory.) For Luther, the whole concept of forgiveness rested on grace. This was not a trivial issue for him, but the core of the Gospel. How could true penance be bought in the open market? He was thirty-four years old when he posted his 95 theses on the door of All Saints’ church at Wittenberg, though at the time it was hardly a rebellious act. (The equivalent today would be posting a provocative article in a scholarly journal.)

What happened, however, changed the course of history. Word of his ideas spread like wildfire through Germany and beyond through pamphlets. The printing process had advanced enough to allow thousands upon thousands of Luther’s arguments to be disseminated and absorbed by the masses. Politically, Germany had been looking to break free from the papacy, and so the German princes backed Luther. What happened next, of course, is a matter of history. Later, Luther himself would persecute the early Anabaptists, who had some radical ideas of their own.

The Protestant Reformation was as much about politics as it was about theology, but in the end, it was the power of an idea that made the difference. Luther changed the common narrative. For tens of thousands living under a hierarchical and oppressive rule, particularly for the peasants, Luther’s greatest accomplishment was giving them a different story. A story that said they mattered as individuals. That God loved them despite their low station. And that they did not need to follow the dictates of corrupt, power hungry officials to be accepted by God.

When we track history, we often track individuals. Great figures that somehow stand out in their time. But usually, it isn’t the person so much as it is the idea that brings change. Martin Luther still matters because he reminds us that our struggles are often shared. That the pain we experience (in this case, it was his desire to worship devoutly and sincerely) is usually felt by those around us. And that our choice of narrative is perhaps the greatest decision we will ever make.

Who are you? What story have you chosen to live by? Are you a pawn in the masses, a person with no voice and no importance? Is your value minimal, or can you accept a new narrative that sings with your importance? Martin Luther believed that you and I were important. That we were born free, free to pursue our passions and purposes. Free to worship and live without waiting for our “betters” to tell us what to think or intercede for us. (“Every Christian is a free lord, subject to none.”) Luther believed that and changed the world. Five hundred years later he remains an important figure, not only for his accomplishments, but for the questions he asked. Questions we’d do well to answer.

-Steve

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Tuesday Link Love: Super Bowl, MIA and Harrison Ford?


    So how was your first day of the Monday Challenge? If you're not sure what I'm talking about, you can find it here. Good luck and have fun with it.
    Over the past week or two, I've been working on a plan for this site, regular features that will appear on certain days. This makes it easier for you to figure out what days you might want to check in (all of them?), and easier for me as it provides at least a loose grid to center my ideas. I may post on other days, as well, but here's the schedule moving forward.
    Monday – Encouragement, Facing Challenges, etc… Your weekly post designed to encourage you and push you towards your dreams.
    Tuesday – Link Love: interesting articles from the previous week that you might find interesting with a minimum of commentary (there has to be some, right?)
    Wednesday (or Thursday) – From the Scrolls – As a fantasist, I read a lot of history, so this day will be a post on something I've read recently that I think you might find interesting. Hell, it might even be relevant. We tend to be a surficial culture, what with the plethora of information continually being thrown our way. These posts will be short but deep digs into the past, both recent and ancient.
    Friday (or Saturday) – Entertainment Blog Top Ten List – A weekly top ten list from the entertainment world. Movies, Books, TV shows, Sports, and Music are all in play here. Feel free to send me your ideas for future lists.
    All Other Posts – It will all depend on my schedule, need to vent, excitement level, etc… As always, send me an email if there's something you want me to write about.

Okay on with the Link Love…

     The Super Bowl set a record for ratings again this past week, peaking with Madonna's brilliant halftime show. Wow. Kind of put the Black Eyed Peas to shame, didn't she? Unfortunately, one of the "singers" she chose to perform with her, MIA, apparently gave the crowd the finger. I don't remember that part, but when you consider the source (MIA, not Madonna) it makes sense. If you're not familiar with MIA (her big hit was "Paper Planes"), or if like me, you thought she was just another 'indie' darling, read this NY Times piece and you'll realize that she's yet another artist doing more harm than good. Balancing this need for fame and attention with authenticity is usually a bad mix, especially when it comes to geo-politics. Sigh.
    And you may have heard that Gisele Bundchen, Tom Brady's wife, was getting ripped in the press after the game when some classy Boston reporters blamed the New England loss on Tom Brady. (A ridiculous sentiment, by the way, that he somehow damaged his legacy. Michal Rosenberg has it right.) Cornering her at an elevator, she wondered if her husband was supposed to "throw the ball and f****** catch it too." Frankly, I loved her response. I know reporters have a job to do, but sometimes you wonder if these "reporters" are just idiot fans in disguise. The journalists I know are professional and would never do that. It is Boston, however, and you have to wonder if there's something in the water. Cathal Kelly had good take on the whole thing. I say good for Gisele. Go get 'em.
    Oh, and for the Super Bowl commercials. Meh. Do we really need another GI JOE movie, even one with Bruce Willis? The one movie I am excited about is John Carter of Mars. I read the 12 book series a number of times as a kid and loved it. I wonder what ERB (Edgar Rice Burroughs, also the creator of Tarzan) would have thought to see his creation up on the big screen in all its glory. Here are the movie trailers that appeared on Super Bowl Sunday. Enjoy.
    ***
    Last week, my Eblog was the Top Ten Science Fiction/ Fantasy Movies of all time. Blade Runner was number 10 on the list. Apparently Harrison Ford is in talks to reprise his role for a sequel. Interesting? Well, it'd be interesting to see where they take it, and I'd probably see it. The difficulty is that the first Blade Runner was based on a Philip K. Dick short story. Who's writing the sequel? The best science fiction usually comes from novelists and short story writers. (Usually ** cough ** Star Wars ** cough **)
    That's all for today, folks. Feel free to post a link below in the comments if you saw something interesting this past week.
    -Steve
  

Monday, February 06, 2012

Change Your Life: Take the Monday Challenge

When I was a kid, I used to love reading stories about characters that changed their life. Either they were athletes who trained and practiced and after initial failure, eventually found success. Or, they were fantasy characters sent on an unexpected journey who discovered they were capable of more than they imagined. Those stories still touch a deep part of me. (I’ve spent the past three years writing a story like that.) I suspect they connect with many of us. And when you’re young, they seem more plausible, don’t they? Life hasn’t become a complicated routine yet and everything is in front of you. Change, a new life, doesn’t feel so impossible. Your dreams are there, just outside your reach, and with just a bit of work and luck, you know that it’s only a matter of time.


But the years pass and you never get any closer. You feel trapped in this life that has developed around you seemingly without your consent. University and high school are well into rear view mirror, and we find ourselves working at a job we don’t love. Some of us assume the responsibilities of marriage and parenting. We have no regrets, but we know something is missing, and somewhere inside the routine is slowly bleeding us to death. We find that we’re angry, even if we manage to keep it hidden so it’s not easily visible to everyone else. We want to change, we want excitement in our life, but we don’t know where to start. And when we do make an attempt to break out, to do something different, we soon get discouraged by the enormity of the task and end up flowing back into our old routines. And when we hear people talk about “changing our life”, we scoff at the notion. (It doesn’t help that companies use this powerful idea of changing our narrative by promoting shit like Viagra or vacations or a new household appliance.) The years go by and we become people who are shrinking instead of growing. Our fears crowd us into a corner, and we justify these feelings by assuring everyone that “it’s just the way things are.”

But the idea that we can’t change is pure bullshit. Of course we can! We just have to take off our skeptic’s goggles for a few minutes. Will you do that for me? I have something that might help. I call it the Monday Challenge.

The rules are very simple. Every Monday I want you to pick something in your life that you will do differently the upcoming week. You can pick anything, but I would suggest small things to start. What route do you take to work? Pick another. What TV shows do you normally watch? Skip them, and pick up a book at the library to read during the time you normally watch that show. Go for a nightly walk. Learn a new board game. Go to bed at a different time. The key is to pick ROUTINIZED items, and change them. Don’t go for the big things at first, necessarily, the idea is to readjust to variation in your life. (You’d be surprised how difficult that becomes.)

Make sure you write it down. Open a file in your phone or on your laptop, and mark the week and your Monday Challenge that week.

At the end of the week, reassess. If the change you picked is working for you, try to do it another week, but only to a maximum of four weeks. Now obviously, you can continue with the changes, but after 28 days you want to pick a new challenge as well.

Throughout this challenge, remember that attitude is very important. Whatever goals we set, make sure you hold them lightly. NO GUILT IS ALLOWED. Have fun with it. If the change doesn’t happen one day, or you forget another, don’t worry about it. Try again the next day. It’s only a week, and if it doesn’t work, choose something else the next week.

Changing our life often seems like a daunting task because we try to tackle everything at once. The voices in our head and in our life compete for our attention and we become exhausted just thinking about it. With the Monday Challenge, we’re not worried about the entirety of your life, we’re only thinking about the next seven days. Take one small thing, chart it somewhere, and see what happens.

At some point in our lives, most of us have been told that we shouldn’t dream, that we shouldn’t challenge ourselves, and that we just need to accept things the way they are. The implication is that we can’t be responsible and still live a life that pushes us forward. Why not? Why should we live in fear of change? Why should we accept a life without dreams, the same dreams that propelled us when we were kids?

Look, life will never be perfect. It will be filled with tragedy and heartache and sadness. Unfortunately, that’s the human condition. But there’s joy in humanity as well, especially when we challenge ourselves, contest our own ingrained status quo, and start stepping outside the box. Whatever you’ve been told; let me assure you that you can do it. There is so much out there for you, so much more than you realize, just waiting to be discovered. All you have to do is take the first step.

Steve

PS Fill me in on your challenges below if you like, or email me, and let me know how you’re doing. Good luck, my friends!

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Eblog: Top 10 Science Fiction/ Fantasy Movies

Fantasy and science fiction are different genres. Yes, they’re lumped together sometimes (as they are here) and there are similarities between the two, but they are different literary approaches used primarily to provide social commentary. Science fiction is generally predictive, and comments on current society by using a futuristic setting. Fantasy is generally reflective, and comments on current society by using a loosely historical past. There are novels that mash them together. And yes, I’m aware of the explosion of non-traditional-fantasy like urban or steam punk that really are a combination of the two. Hell, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files crosses mystery and fantasy. But generally speaking, the two genres are separate, and if this was a list for novels, hell would snap, crackle and pop and THEN freeze before I would lump them together.


However, fantasy never translated well to the big screen until the leaps in CGI about fifteen years ago. Science Fiction meanwhile has carved out a nice niche for itself. An, ahem, very nice “niche.” And so for the purposes of this list, I’ll swallow my fantasist’s pride and combine the two genres.

THE RULES: The rules of this Top 10 list are simple. Due to the dominance of trilogies and series, I was allowed to pick only ONE movie from each trilogy or series. So if a certain LOTR movie is not on the list, you understand why.

THE LIST: Perhaps more than any two genres (particularly fantasy), any attempt to translate a SFF story to the big screen requires a certain amount of graphic capability. That’s why you’ll notice a dearth of older movies here, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Movies are a visual medium, and if the movie now looks cheap or campy, regardless of how it was received back when it was first released, I left it off the list. In the best Science Fiction and Fantasy, setting is not merely decoration, it’s usually the core of the story. So if the movie looks like shit, it ruins the story. For these two genres especially, the ability of the viewer to engage the settings matters a great deal. And so some SFF films that might have been highly regarded twenty years ago are not nearly thought of in that manner because of the dynamic nature of the medium itself.

10. BLADE RUNNER (1982)


Remember when Harrison Ford wasn’t a grumpy old man? Back when he was cranking out great movies? Apparently he clashed on this film with director Ridley Scott quite a bit, so maybe he was always cranky. I'll be honest, I respect the power of Blade Runner, but I never loved it. The visuals could use a Lucas like upgrade as well. Still, I respect the depth of what they accomplished here.

9. STAR TREK (2009)

I can already here the muttering by the legions of Star Trek fans in my choice of JJ Abrams version over the likes of WRATH. I’m sorry, but the older films in the series look campy, and even when their budget increased, the storytelling doesn’t hold up to an origin story like this one. (Origin stories always have an advantage.) The actors are uniformly excellent here, no need to highlight one over another, although Zachary Quinto as Spock is particularly good. STAR TREK is science fiction royalty, and for good reason. It has spun off a number of excellent TV series and movies, and it deserves to be highly regarded. When it comes to a single film, however, there simply isn’t one that rises near the top. Still, I loved this movie and highly recommend it.

8. 1984 (1984)

If we were judging science fiction films based on their source material, 1984 would be closer to the top of the list. However, we’re judging movies based on their merit as films alone. Even still, 1984 the movie is a haunting cautionary tale about the power of an organization or government that desires to control its population. That idea still resonates today. Conservatives would argue (wrongly) that the idea of “political correctness” is a form of thought control. (When in actuality it simply means that we need to be more inclusive and be careful not to stereotype people based on race, gender, sexuality, etc…) And liberals would argue that means censorship, which we have seen again and again over the past century with books like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer banned. (Something Orwell witnessed backed when he was writing the novel) Closer to the mark, however, would be the tradition of communist Russia in the 20th Century, now carried forward by the ruling communist party in China. John Hurt is the perfect Winston Smith, and the washed out look of the film is a visual metaphor for what happens in a world where we no longer control our own destiny. Stunning.

7. AVATAR (2009)

“It’s such a simple story.” This is the most common complaint for AVATAR, and I heard it a thousand times even after it continued to smash records to become the biggest box office draw in history. It would be a reasonable argument if AVATAR wasn’t a work of art, but the visuals are so entrancing, the world so well drawn, that the argument doesn’t hold. As I mentioned above, setting matters greatly when it comes to fantasy or science fiction, and so to argue that the story is “simple” implies that the other, less visually compelling films on this list are deeply complex. I find it interesting that James Cameron referred to Edgar Rice Burroughs in his interviews regarding the story, and AVATAR certainly recalled that for me. I read most of ERB’s novels as a teenager, and there are definite allusions to John Carter of Mars and Burroughs’ four book series on Venus. So yes, the plot is not especially complex, but the message is a good one, and the film takes you to another world, which is exactly what the best SFF material attempts to do. It should probably be higher on the list.

6. ALIEN (1979)

I hesitated to include ALIEN because it’s a horror movie first and a science fiction movie second. Technically, however, it makes the cut, which means it has to be included. ALIEN is a riveting, scary-as-shit story with tremendous pacing and large swaths of silence through the film which serve to build the tension. I love the way this movie takes its time. Sigourney Weaver kicks ass in the lead role, her first, and the other (older) veteran actors provide gravitas to a fairly unsophisticated “alien in outer space” story. I should note here that the same people who accuse AVATAR of being “simple” never make that criticism of ALIEN. Why not? If you’re going to criticize certain SFF movies of simplicity, you probably have to start here.

5. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)

Okay, so being able to pick only one from the biggest money making fantasy series of all time was daunting. But the first two were for kids, and it isn’t until the third installment, with Alfonso Cuaron on board to direct, that we had a fantasy series for adults to dig into. Much darker than the first two (and the fourth, which sucked), this was the defining movie of the series. It promised what was to come, and visually it works on a much different scale that is later replicated in the later installments. I’m shocked when I see lists of all-time great fantasy movies and Harry Potter is left off the list. How is that possible? The themes in these books are as dark and complex as anything you’ll find in literature. This isn’t Twilight. (An idiotic and morally challenged series about whether a girl gets the boy and what she has to do to “keep” him) At this point, keeping Harry Potter out of a top ten list smacks of jealousy and vain pandering. I’m guilty of those things occasionally, but not this time.

4. CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)

Fantasy can be broken into many categories, and continues to splinter. Unlike LOTR, Conan is considered Sword & Sorcery, a very different subset than typical epic fantasy. I read the original Conan books as a kid, including the ones by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter and later Robert Jordan’s six Conan novels in the eighties. (This was before he became famous writing the Wheel of Time series.) If I have any problem with putting this movie on the list, it would undeniably be due to the themes reflected in the film, many of which are disturbing. The Nietzschean epigraph is easily evident here, as it is in the source material, with Schwarzenegger as Howard's Aryan ubermensch. Women are portrayed as little more than sexual companions, including Valeria, who is clearly submissive. (Look at her position in the posters) While some of this is reflected from the source material, the original Howard stories held Conan’s female companion (Belit or Valeria) as someone who could drink and fight and hold her own with him, and so the outsized misogyny is disappointing here. The themes of American individualism are also evident. (We need only to will ourselves to be greater, and that when we do, we will see victory.) As for the rest, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his film debut, is perfectly cast as Conan. The physicality of Conan is of great import to his character, akin to that of a superhero, and so perhaps only a seven time Mr. Olympia champion could capture that. The plot is scattered, and at times it moves slowly, but it helps that the movie is backed by perhaps the best cinema score in history thanks to the genius of Basil Poledouris. This film is an interesting and complex reflection on philosophy, theology and sociology in the guise of simple fantasy. Howard was brilliant, and this movie captures a good portion of that.

3. THE MATRIX (1999)

It’s easy to forget that THE MATRIX is science fiction. Sleekly visualized with cutting edge photography, it never feels “heavy” like so many dystopian settings typical of its genre. Not until, that is, we cut to the harrowing scenes of millions of humans being “milked” in rows and rows of machine cornfields like some nightmarish cemetery. The film is essentially a treatise on postmodernism, a mashed up set of ideas that references everyone from Baudrillard to Plato, though most people seem unaware of its origins. (You know that you’ve spiked a vein in narrative when widely varied groups claim a story as a defense of their beliefs. In this case, everyone from conservative fundamentalists to liberal anti-consumerists were happy to showcase THE MATRIX as “proof” of their claims.) Beyond that, it’s a smart, fast paced action movie that still holds up, and thirteen years later remains a visually stunning masterpiece. This is science fiction at its best, pure and simple.

2. STAR WARS EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

There’s still a great deal of debate whether STAR WARS is actually science fiction or just another space opera. I like to think of STAR WARS as fantasy in the guise of science fiction. The commentary here is not nearly as deep or rich as you find in the STAR TREK anthologies, (and certainly not what you find in THE MATRIX) but the world building is second to none, and what commentary you do find, while simple, is telling and important. The philosophy of Taoism is represented here (the force) and again, feels much closer to a work of fantasy. The visuals are stunning, and yes, they’ve been updated by Lucas through the years, but they still hold up (unlike the old Star Trek movies). And in terms of its impact on the movie industry, well, STAR WARS changed it forever. (Some would say it destroyed it. We now get Transformers 4 instead of smaller films built around great ideas.) For all its criticism, however, STAR WARS is a masterpiece of storytelling. I chose Empire because I could only pick one from the series, and as a stand alone film, I give it a slight edge over the first. (I liked Return of the Jedi, but I hated the ridiculous “Ewok” teddy bears, which undermined the seriousness of the whole story.)

1. LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)

The greatest work of fantasy (the first of its kind) converted into the greatest fantasy movie, and one of the greatest films of all time. Oh, I know, it’s only “fantasy”. It can’t be an “all-time great”, right? Bull shit. Next year, we’ll get another list of the 100 "greatest" movies of all time and it will have the same shitty ass films from the 1940’s that look and sound terrible with actors not actually acting (before Brando), and great, visually stunning pieces of art like LOTR will be relegated somewhere at the back of the line. Here’s the thing, film is a progressive art. That doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the films from fifty years ago or what they accomplished, but Gone With the Wind, for example, is a terrible f***ing movie. It’s unwatchable. Unlike literature or painting and sculpting, film generally ages poorly due to its technological base. And if we’re going to compare film properly, than that means LOTR is in the discussion as the greatest movie of all time. Like the book, the film is actually one movie broken into three parts. I chose the first, not only because it was such a stunning revelation, but because RETURN OF THE KING meanders a bit too long at the end and TWO TOWERS is the meal that isn’t finished yet. When it comes to top ten lists such as this one, LOTR is head and shoulders above the rest, and for my money, deserves a spot on any list that discusses the greatest movies of all-time.

Okay, so what did I miss?

-Steve

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Looking Like an Idiot... Is a Good Thing

“No, you want to twist the wire as you’re coiling it. One hand over, one hand under.”

I was standing in a dimly lit theatre hall holding a fifty foot roll of speaker wire as Ameen tried, yet again, to show me how to coil the wire. Instead of simply curling it around my wrist and elbow as I’d done my entire life, Ameen was showing me how to do it properly. I could feel my face getting red as he patiently corrected the position of my hands. I’d played sports my entire life, considered myself reasonably intelligent, and yet here I was unable to coil a damn wire.

Our church had an unusual setup. Every Sunday morning we unpacked a huge trailer of equipment to convert an entire theatre into a church, complete with Sunday school classrooms and live worship. I’d joined the setup team, happy to volunteer, and completely unaware of my burgeoning exposure as a technical moron. Assigned to the main theatre, I hadn’t realized the volume of wires and speakers and sound equipment necessary to run a service. Normally I liked fiddling around with our television at home, hooking up the sound system and setting things up. And yet, here I was, having that sense that youo’re in way over your head. I hadn’t felt like such an idiot in a long time. Abstract concepts and philosophy? No problem. Writing, counseling, artistic conception? Great. Working with my hands? Um, not so much.

I still couldn’t coil the wire, but someone else had finally come over to help. Hours later, I was still shaking my head, long after we’d packed things up again. A damn wire? Really? The whole morning had been a bit surreal for me. My inability to perform such a simple task lingered much longer than I’d expected, and I was frankly surprised at how much it had thrown me, how incompetent I’d felt. I wasn’t looking forward to the next week, when I’d be forced to do it all over again.

Upon reflection a few days later, however, I realized that I’d made the right call in joining the setup team. Not only was I learning a new skill, but I was stretching myself, something I didn’t do as often as I had in the past. It was incredibly humbling, but I had enough self-awareness to know that if I stopped putting myself in uncomfortable situations once in a while, I’d become an insufferable shit.

Our society forces us to specialize. There isn’t a whole lot of necessity these days for the pioneer in an agrarian society that has to be good at everything just to survive. And if we’re to advance in our fields, the sheer volume of people and industry means that most of us are pushed into a niche. Everything else is done for us. Everything from food preparation to fixing things around the house.

It gets progressively more difficult as to take risks as we get older. We become more specialized and take fewer risks. We experience a certain confidence in dealing with issues with which we’re familiar, and generally choose to ignore the things that have the potential to be embarrassing. We define ourselves by our fears, by our dislike for certain feelings, and instead of growing and learning, we plateau. Life isn’t a journey anymore, it’s a treadmill. And as soon as we reach that point, bitterness creeps into our lives.

Feeling like an idiot sucks. But if we’re not willing to be embarrassed, we’ll never learn anything new. We’ll never understand this whole empathy gig, this whole idea about walking in someone else’s shoes because the only shoes we wear are our own. That makes it harder to appreciate other skill sets, and can lead to elitism and arrogance. When we try new things, however, that begins to change. Instead of being a permanent expert, we become permanent beginners. And while that may sound like a load of frustration, what it means is that every day is new again, that our posture becomes one of humility and grace, and that our life suddenly needs to be lived again.

If you have the opportunity, sign up for something that will make you look like an idiot. It won’t feel great at first, but if you push through, you’ll find your reward when it’s over. Even if it just means learning how to coil a damn wire.

-Steve