I had never heard of Karen Armstrong until I read her interview with Steven Paulson on Salon today. Her new book is The Great Transformation, examining the period in history in which the founding sages of the world's major religions lived. What really turned my head about this interview was her fierce intellect and the fact that she's pretty much lived the struggle to find God as deeply as one can. She joined a convent when she was 17, started a degree in English literature as Oxford as part of her training, and received a dispensation of her vows (ending the process of becoming a nun) seven years after joining. She finished the degree and made several stabs at various secular careers before returning to religious study, this time as an eyes wide open scholar and, as she terms it, freelance monotheist. Her attitude is basically that we should all cut the crap about laying out our beliefs and fencing ourselves off into groups of the likeminded and start reflecting about how we are going to put faith into our lives through ethical living and reflection. Somehow I find it encouraging that someone who has pretty much done it all when it comes to religion will straight up tell you that it's a struggle that never ends, and that you can and should bring all your questions with you as you seek.

A couple of thoughts that are going to stick with me:

"Sometimes a poem can live in your head for a long time until its meaning is finally revealed. And if you try and grasp that meaning prematurely, you can distort the poem for yourself."

"Religion is hard work. It's an art form. It's a way of finding meaning, like art, like painting, like poetry, in a world that is violent and cruel and often seems meaningless. And art is hard work. You don't just dash off a painting. It takes years of study. I think we expect religious knowledge to be instant. But religious knowledge comes incrementally and slowly. And religion is like any other activity. It's like cooking or sex or science. You have good art, sex and science, and bad art, sex and science. It's not easy to do it well."

I know Armstrong is not speaking for anyone but herself, but this really resonates with me. Perhaps because I also have a literary bent, I understand that idea of texts as fixed points that you change around, the words never moving but the meaning endlessly evolving as deeper parts of your self are revealed through them. I checked out one of her autobiographical books today after reading this interview, The Spiral Staircase, and she begins it with the first section of a wonderful T. S. Eliot poem that I had never read before but that seems custom made for times when whatever is going on just won't yield to cheery thoughts and regular exercise. Enjoy.

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I was all set to write a cute blog post about the Netflix movie we didn't watch tonight. I had the title all set to go in my head and everything. I was going to call the post "How the West Was Filthy" and write about the first 20 minutes of Deadman, the random Western directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Johnny Depp that the hubby put on the queue. We gave up, but not before we saw the scene where Depp walks down main street of the frontier town he lands in just in time to see dead buffalo bodies shrinking in the sun, a horse peeing, and a guy getting serviced in the alleyway. Talk about out Deadwood-ing Deadwood.

But that would be a very editorialized view of my evening, which has not been a bad evening in any way but turned a little more complicated than a witticism about a weird movie. One of my goals for this blog is honesty, and only this morning I was thinking about how I didn't want to use easy eloquence as a shield for substance or emotion. I've done plenty of writing in that vein in the past and it's always been missing something. Not that I want to totally spill my guts online, but what admire most in blogs and other personal writing is the courage to make it totally obvious that you are a lovely, messy, confused as all hell human being.

My sister and I spent the better part of an hour debating via IM whether or not we should splurge and spend a night in the Keys during her upcoming visit. We could super-budget and probably pull it off for 80 bucks a person. That used to be small change, but now that I'm a grad student it ain't. Still, we could probably squeeze it in. What to do? Splurge or save the money? Splurge or save the money?

The whole thing should have been fun to decide, but I felt my brain slipping into one of its terminal toggles, yes no yes no yes no yes… ending up completely dissatisfied with both choices when either would have been fine if I had just decided and stuck with it.
This in itself started making me sad, as in the past couple of weeks I've been in what passes for a pretty good mood these days. I've been starting projects and exercising and choosing not to freak out about bird flu. I've been doing instead of retreating into victimized passenger mode. It has felt really good.

I guess it felt good enough to get me started thinking I wanted to feel all the way good again. So instead of succumbing to this vicious indecision, I unlocked the gate to a few of the things that are really bugging me, things that I have been dealing with by not thinking about. Out of the box came the health issues–the Faux Dermatologist and the Series of Unfortunate Events, the 8 months of chest pain and shortness of breath, the anger and anxiety that I have to admit has affected just about every segment of my life at this point–work, home, friends, hobbies. None of these things are so terrible, none of them are beyond the range of everyday human life, and although I've had some pretty crappy days I haven't lost my job or even flunked a paper. As my mom would say, this is called growing up. Then again it definitely has sucked, and I'm ready to feel better. And right about when I got to that part of the thought, I broke down. Who would I go to? My family and friends have done everything imaginable. Chest pain, panic attacks, various and sundry unbiopsied moles–at this point I think I need a doctor to give me a once over and say looks like nothing or looks like something. Sounds simple enough. But after the medical uselessness that I've put up with since senior year of college, that sounds impossible. I know the drill. I'll go see a doctor, and they'll say, well, what do you think is the problem. And I'll say I don't know that's why I came to see you, but I was thinking maybe this or this or maybe nothing. And they'll say well, do you want this test and that test or do you want to wait? And if the tests turn up nothing I get the bill and still don't feel better. Human bodies are complicated things, I know. No one has all the answers and if you are dead set on finding one you have to put up with expense and uncertainty. It's just been so long since I saw a medical professional that gave a damn that I really don't think they exist anymore.

So that puts me back here, which is a better place than it was before this evening, because after I cried and made D listen through his soccer game I noticed that my chest was feeling an eensy bit less trapped in tightening barrel staves. Maybe these past few months have been getting better, slowly, and if I hang on all the slow better getting will add up to a person I recognize.

Questions of the day

May 29, 2006

There are a lot of deep questions one could ask oneself on Memorial Day, but none of these are those. On a day full of mutton snapper on the barbie and chilled beverages galore, this is as deep as I get.

1) Can someone please explain to me how to be as divine as Scarlett Johanssen?

Or perhaps a better version of that question is, what other actress could make me want to watch In Good Company every time I flip past it on HBO just to watch her clotheshorse her way through unrealistic relationship scenes with Topher Grace? Seriously, ever since Lost in Translation she has been the actress I would want to be if I could be an actress (elbowing out Claire Danes). Clearly, she has ample physical gifts which I could never hope to equal, but I think I'm more fascinated by the way she maximizes them with personal flair and the projected sense of self-possession. Is that something you get from growing up in NYC, and, if so, what is a girl from Battle Creek, MI to do? Then again maybe I am downplaying the ample physical gifts, and I should spend more time thinking about how I could become, say, Zadie Smith, although I hear she too has ample physical gifts. How about Curtis Sittenfeld? In any case, I think I would settle for really understanding how to put on my own makeup.

2) Who am I cheering for, the Pistons or the Heat?

Last year, everything was so simple. I was a Michigan transplant, and and while I was thrilled to have traded in winter for 365 beach days a year, there was no doubt that I was cheering for the Pistons. A year later, the issue is a little cloudier. This state has already cost me blood, sweat, and It's not like I was ever the world's greatest Pistons fan, or basketball fan, or even that big of a sports fan. An appreciation for reliable yearly entertainment cycle of sporting events is a recent addition to my life and not unconnected to moving to Florida in the first place, since my husband and his family are the ones who have sucked me in. I might just be more of a poseur if I don't get with the program and cheer for the Heat. They are also the underdogs, while the Pistons are the mechanically consistent East Coast Conference champs. On the other hand, it's not like Detroit has a whole lot going for it, it seems a little heartless to turn my back on their moments of glory. This question is far from reaching emotional resolution. Right now I just have the horrible lukewarm feeling that I will be happy whoever wins.

3) How did I ever live before blogs?

Case in point: when I checked in to Grin and Barret just now, I saw that Ms. Barret had revamped her sidebars, opening up a whole new world of witty, life-affirming blogs to my reading habits. I now plan to Fug Myself on a daily basis.

Other questions include:

Will I ever finish the quilt that I started for my mom?

Will I still want to live in Florida in five years? Ten?

Should I splurge and go to my favorite tiki bar in the Keys with my sister when she visits?

Will I get to watch the season finale of Big Love tonight?

So my Saturday was nearly derailed when I decided to turn on the TV while I crunched my morning bowl of bran flakes and found that I was just in time to get in on the ground floor of a Laguna Beach marathon. I don't think I've ever watched an entire episode of Laguna Beach before, but I knew it existed and I knew its tagline was "the real OC." Since there is a whole in my life where The OC used to be, I decided to give LB a shot.

Quickly, I realized why I had never watched an entire episode of LB before. It is a virtually impossible feat. In many ways, the show is indeed a facsimile of The OC, except the kids are fatter and dumber. All about the fatter (I am consistently distracted by the incredible shrinking actresses of The OC), but when you are forced to listen to endless elliptical sentences full of monosyllables the dumber loses its appeal quickly. And I am talking dumb. One episode had a Summer-esque LB'er named Morgan opening her decision letter from the only college she applied to (which was Brigham Young University, not quite Brown I think we'd all agree) to find out that she was rejected. A quick trip over to the BYU admissions website revealed that it has an 80% acceptance rate. It is like hard to get rejected there. Also, even though MTV helpfully pops up the characters names at the beginning of most scenes, it is really hard to tell these tanned, highlighted people apart, let alone begin to follow their soulless romantic dramas or their attempts at Spanish.

As I have expressed before on this blog, I am trying to integrate more television into my life, but succumbing to the meager charms of Laguna Beach would have been a sad way to do it. I managed to get myself off the couch and out the door to yoga and a sunny south Florida day. I better get VM on the Netflix asap.

I've had this movie on my Netflix queue since it was listed on Andrew O'Hehir's Beyond the Multiplex as one of his top ten picks for 2005. I was feeling like my cinematic horizons had shrunk and a top ten list of obscure foreign art films seemed like a pretty good one stop shopping cure. I felt extra legitimate when half of them came up as no release date set, but on the queue they went anyway. Over the past couple months they've started popping up.

So last week The World arrived in my mailbox. It's a Chinese film by Jia Zhangke. O'Hehir's review was a flat out rave so I had high hopes, but after I'd decoded the initial plot gimmick I spent about 45 minutes just wondering what was so great. I was just not connecting to these characters, and listening to all the Chinese being spoken was really freaking me out about my job prospects in the global economy. I don't think any of us are picking up that lingo any time soon.

The movie is about young employees at a Beijing theme park called The World, full of replicas of famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Manhattan skyline, the Pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc. Very po-mo. There's a few different story lines going on and I'm not sure I've got all the name straight, but generally it focuses on a girl named Tao and her boyfriend (Taisheng? Liang? not sure which one was which). The majority of the park employees have moved to Beijing from the sticks. They know that this job is their toehold in city life and if they have any hope of moving up they've got to stick out the small apartments and hard beds. Basically the characters walk around the park in costum having mundane, realistic couple conversation or meet each other in small apartments to have mundane, realistic couple conversation. And every so often, it goes animated for a second, very stylized, like a kid's cartoon, and shows one of the characters getting a text message or flying away or riding a horse or something.

I was getting a little bored and wondering if I should turn it off for the night. Then, with one scene, it all started to sink in. For about the fifth time while Tao and her boyfriend were talking a jumbo jet, obviously a commercial flight, flew over their heads. I forget what they were talking about, but at one point Tao's boyfriend asked her what it was like to travel or something like that and she answered, "Who knows. I don't know anyone who's been on a plane." The accumulation of images of stunted travel began making sense, and the whimsical animated escapes did too. For the tourists paying to enter the park, it's easy to be swept into the simulation and suspend disbelief enough to believe they've actually seen a little bit of the world. So what if the Eiffel Tower is only one third the real size, so what if the Manhattan skyline is only 100 feet tall (it's still got something the real one doesn't–the towers), so what if the park includes a plane complete with fake stewardesses that will never leave the ground. But for these kids from the provinces, it's obvious day after day that the monorail that takes them from "continent" to "continent" is a closed circuit. Even when they take the park's magic carpet ride, all they do is sit on a bench while a camera operator superimposes their image on a rollicking animation of a carpet ride. There's plenty of ways to get around but no way out. It's the bittersweet cruelty of opportunity. Getting this far has made them more aware than ever of where they will never get to. Their relatives back home might not know what the Eiffel Tower is, but they also don't know they'll never see it.

All I'll say about the ending is that I didn't see it coming, but it makes sense. The characters find the only outs that life offers them, some of them happier than others.

Huh. Now I kind of think I want to watch it again tomorrow.

Belated Valentine

May 25, 2006

If you don't watch this your life will be sad.

Your appreciation of this valentine will probably be in direct proportion to your awareness of the career of Bronson Pinchot. Bonus points if anyone can tell me where that Walter Benjamin quotation comes from. (You must keep watching until at least the Benjamin quotation.)

If Salon makes you watch an ad before watching Otto, the star of this video, it's worth it. But you can also get it on You Tube I think. Try this.

DVR Already

May 25, 2006

Yesterday I found out that for a mere $7.95 extra a month, I could have saved myself the agony of missing the season finale of The OC! The good news is that we figured this out in time for the World Cup, so no long-term damage done. I'll get to watch Marissa die at some point.
The other good news is this means I can now become a certified television addict like all of the other cool people. I realize that as far as the goal is concerned, the DVR is too little too late as most every show worth watching has wrapped for the season, but maybe I can catch some re-runs over the summer and netflix what I want to get up to speed on for the fall.

I've been practicing for my new role as television addict by becoming a regular reader of Salon's television column I Like To Watch (written by the cool and helpful Heather Havrilesky). So I know a lot about shows even though I don't watch them. Yet.

Veronica Mars, heavily recommended by the cool people, is first on my list of shows to start watching. Leave a comment if you think there's something else I just shouldn't be living without in my new television addicted life.