Sunday, January 24, 2010

To sleep, perchance...

(From my journal, 1/14/2010-1/18/2010)

The dream begins in a subway car, or maybe a bus--anyway one of those places where people are crowded close together but nobody looks anyone else in the eye. My eye is staring at an ad for the ballet, some rendition of Swan Lake with an intriguingly modern twist. I stare endlessly at the muscular legs of the male dancer, and as I stare he begins to throw the swan princess into a twirl.

I blink and suddenly I find myself in the dark theater, staring straight at the dancer-prince. His eyes peer into mine in what seems an unlikely and almost impossible stare. But as I slowly recognize the brilliant green of his irises, I can't quite shake the thought that he is signaling me, his eyes pointing to the back corner of the theater. I turn to my left, just in time to catch a darkly-dressed, rather ominous man jolting out of the rear entrance. Thankful I brought my silenced pistol, I move swiftly to the edge of the aisle and calmly, careful not to arouse the suspicion of the ushers, exit through rear door.

When I get outside it is blindingly bright, and just as I am about to turn my head to figure out where the ominous man had gone, a large metal object hits my forehead. I feel myself falling to the ground, floating, as if on a cloud, stars dangling in a dark-red abyss inside my eyelids.

Awaking I find myself in a bright room with walls painted red, the strong and intense red of a darting cardinal in an otherwise drab forest. A hand is dribbling water from a rag just above my forehead, its cold and sudden splashes jolting me awake. A series of uncontrollable jitters take hold of my body, making it rather difficult to make out the face hovering just over me, sitting on what seems to be the edge of a standard-issue hospital bed. But this is clearly not a hospital. I try to say something, but though I feel my mouth move and my vocal chords seem to be working, no sound escapes from my throat. I sit up at the urging of the arm of my water-carrying companion.

As I sit up his eyes slowly come into focus, and their warm gaze seems oddly familiar, though I can't yet place them exactly. As his face comes into view, I realize that he is my long-estranged cousin J. Tears begin flowing down my face, as I somehow realize that everything makes sense: since high school, J. has been a secret DEA spy, and his drug use was just a cover, while jail time was a ruse used to hid him from the series of drug cartels chasing him across the country after he was ousted as a mole his senior year of high school. As I gaze at the new man before me, I begin to question what, if anything, I know about him.

Our conversation--if that is what it can be called, although I register no speech actually occurring--is quick but strikingly different from our typical vague exchanges. Through a series of brief scenes and still images that play a bit like a movie montage, I learn that J. has been working on a plot involving hard drugs infiltrating the nation's top university campuses. It turns out he needs someone inside the top schools, which of course turns out to be me. Putting aside my questionable moral support of his campaign and an uncertain background, I agree, or at least it seems I do when I find myself on the campus of my alma matter, following another ominous man, this one in dark glasses.

The man, upon further inspection, seems to be the dancer-prince from the ballet, and I quickly realize (although where the information comes from escapes me) that he is the kingpin of the local cartel. I determine to use my powers of seduction, larger-than-life as they are in this dream, to get close to him and work my way in. I follow him into the library building, but as I walk through the door I find, to my dismay, that he is looking right at me, apparently aware of my presence.

"Are you following me?" He says, coyly, with a smirk on his face that bewilders me.

He responds before I have time to recover from my momentary mute state onset by a slight jolt of shock. "It's fine," he says, his eyes appearing suddenly calm. "I just wish you would let me know so I can show off my good side." He winks.

"Oh," I mumble, hearing my voice for the first time in what seems like days. "Well, in that case, yes, I am following you. I've been thinking I might be able to, maybe, get your number."

"You can get a lot more than that," he says, fiddling with the collar of his shirt.

Suddenly the scene cuts to the two of us, squeezed into an aisle of the library stacks, the sweat of our bodies and the pulse of our hearts too fast for us to realize that there is hardly any space to get out of our clothes. His hand reaches up my thigh as mine grabs at his surprisingly muscular back. I shiver slightly, however, as I hear a shake in the nearby aisle, quickly shushing him and pulling my fly back closed. As I rush to thrown on my t-shirt, a book from the top shelf begins to teeter over the edge. I look up just as it falls directly on my face.


I awake to find myself in my bed, a cold sweat dripping from my brow as my alarm beeps anxiously in my ear. I curse my alarm for always waking me at the best part!

(All rights reserved)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Undemocratic Planning Process

Urban planning is an interesting field, one in which it is hard to see society but through the lens of the planner. This is a good and a bad thing; for example, it means that I am staunchly liberal because there is no means by which to shape good cities but by a liberal (i.e. socialist, not the weak stuff of the "Democratic Party" which is only liberal in that it is one degree separated from center) agenda. Likewise, I am forced to realize that the goals and aspirations of our cities--say, more sustainable development or better transit networks--are slow processes to come into being, processes which run into major funding hurdles, community opposition, and, of course, political heckling.

Now that I am just about done with my first semester in planning school, though, I thought it might be fun to take a (somewhat humorous) look back on the lessons I've learned this semester. So, without further ado...

5 Lessons I Have Learned in Planning School...

  1. Democracy is the enemy of the equitable city. Now, I know, experts will often tell you it is important as a planner to consider all voices when planning for a neighborhood, and citizen participation is probably one of the greatest innovations of the Jane Jacobs era. But, let's be honest, we've taken the principle a bit to far. There is a difference between hearing all sides and giving each side time for a three hour diatribe on why allowing dogs to run free in your local park will ruin the fabric of the neighborhood, or why the data (thoroughly researched and quadruple checked) on economic impact is actually wrong because you didn't consider Sally Smith's 75 year old Victorian awning. Point is, democratic principles can be obtained through other means. And most planners today have been trained to obsessively worry about every interest group, so maybe we should just leave the planning to the experts? Sure, physical space affects us all, but we're also not all qualified to understand the economic, ecological and equitable impacts of a proposed development. Sometimes a little dictatorship goes a long way (cases in point: Curitiba, Bogota).

  2. Money ruins everything. Once you realize how much it costs to pave new roads, plot new parks, or develop a new school, it becomes clear that cities should all be running into huge debt (and in fact, most of them are). But here's the problem: their ONLY source of revenue (in the US) is local taxes--i.e. sales taxes, utility taxes, and most importantly property taxes. That doesn't amount to very much money. Unfortunately, since the 80s (and, go figure, the predominantly Republican administrations and Congressional leadership along with the period) federal funding for local development has decreased markedly. Certainly I'll admit that this country was built on decentralized government, so there is reason for this--but at what cost? As cities face greater competition for business investment on the international stage, New York and LA need not only compete with their suburbs, but they also need to be competitive with Dubai, Hong Kong and London to stay ahead and attract the talent they count on.

  3. Planners are salesman, first and foremost. While having visionary ideas and innovative approaches to development is certainly laudable, ultimately it takes a great deal of political support and public backing (not to mention, money...see above) to get a plan implemented. So having the ability to make a great presentation, learning graphical conventions, and understanding the intricacies of the political process is an invaluable skill. Of course, it doesn't hurt to actually believe in your plan if you want to sell it well.

  4. Life is an endless cycle of ebbs and flows. Planning, especially, needs to be aware of this. For example, what one day may be the hottest thing may tomorrow result in very undesirable consequences (see: Urban Renewal, Public Housing). Likewise, economic markets shift endlessly, and plans that are proposed with 80-100 year build outs (like most district plans) have to face many downturns as well as frenzied activity in boom years. It's hard to predict what will happen, and a big question is how to incorporate flexibility and shifting tastes into plans aimed, say, at sustainability (a temporary, albeit very important, goal).

  5. The most important skill in life is an ability to fudge a little and improvise. Planners are expected to be proficient in too many fields to count (including geography, economics, ecology and biology, architecture, graphic design, sociology/anthropology, and the list goes on...), so of course there is not enough time to learn them all. As such, it becomes really handy to pick up a skill on the fly--say, to read and understand an econometric analysis of existing conditions in downtown Boston. Oh yeah, I'll get right on that. Not. It's a skill much mocked, but frankly it's probably the most important one there is, in any field. No one is an expert on everything, and admitting that will at least get rid of that personal expectation of perfection, and ultimately that is the key to success.
Alright, so what have we learned today class? Basically, planning, like any field, is not about picking up a specific skill set, but about learning to become a certain type of person. I guess in the end being a professional is always about learning to fit the profession (unless, of course, you are Willy Loman and were born to be a salesman). It's certainly fun to see the person I am becoming, but sometimes I wonder--what am I losing? It's all a part of specializing, something we all have to do at some point. Good thing I've chosen just about the least specific field there is!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

25 Things to do in SoCal

[EDIT: Updated 8/11/09...Almost done ;-)]

So I was driving today, as we are oft wont to do in this area, when a thought occurred to me: I'm leaving Southern California in four months! And when I leave, it is entirely possible that I will never be able to experience SoCal as a resident again, but only as its occasional guest. I do not mean to sound resentful of the area, mind you--SoCal, despite how hard I have tried to escape it, leaves quite a strong impression on me and will always have a special place as my one and only real "home." The fact of the matter is, though, that after I go away to grad school next fall, I will probably never move back, since jobs in my field are few and far between in this area and since, to be honest, I hate driving! But I digress; people like me are trying hard to change the car culture of this area.

Anyway, I was thinking, there are a number of things that I can do in SoCal that I can't do anywhere else during the summer, and as such I am working on a "List of 25 Things to Do Before Leaving Southern California." Now, while 25 is the number given, I claim the right to, at my discretion, increase or decrease the number of tasks as I see fit. Without further ado:

1. Go camping! It's been forever since I have done this in general, and SoCal has some of the best campsites in the nation. What better time than now? And it's cheap! [done! See photos: Thanks to Mr. NEO for posting.]
2. Go to as many happy hours as I possibly can. My favorite happy hour so far: JT Schmid's in Tustin (also in Anaheim), who sells pitchers (approx 4 beers) of their proprietary brews for $6, not to mention super cheap appetizers that are really good! For ideas: [done: JT Schmid's, TGI Fridays, Dave & Busters, Lazy Dog Cafe, Alcatraz Brewing Co., Memphis Cafe]
3. Use my remaining gift cards for Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, which only has locations in SoCal. Right now I have about $32 to spend. What is that, like, two coffees or a latte a week? [UGH...still at $17.30]
4. Go on a cruise. This is a hope of mine. But, they're only like $200 and there are some good last-minute deals that Carnival sends me. And when else will I ever get to go on a Booze Cruise with hundreds of college co-eds? Again, that is. [yeah...not gonna happen THIS summer. Maybe soon?]
5. Road trip to NorCal. Does this count? I think it does! [tragedy]
6. Hotel party. Need I say more? This has been planned for many many years, and has yet to actually happen. I believe it's time. [going away party idea?]
7. Use my Disneyland AP as much as humanly possible, aside from going every single day. Devote trips just to riding one or two rides or seeing a show, especially as summer crowds begin.
8. Go to Disney's Food and Wine Festival at California Adventure. Enjoy free wine-tastings and amazing food.
9. Go to Disneyland, ride Winnie the Pooh and Alice with the aid of a beverage or two. Experience the maximum of trippiness.
10. After having been to Disneyland 800 times, avoid Disneyland for a year. Ok, it's not a real task, but I'm pretty sure I will have had my fill. Although, my birthday may be worth coming back for... [Yeah, pretty much...]
11. Watch the California Supreme Court overturn Prop 8. One can hope, no? [edit: guess not :-/. retry in 2010?]
12. Go to the Improv. One of them. At least. [does comedy night at Memphis Cafe count?]
13. Spend a few hours at each of the major shopping centers: South Coast Plaza (inc. Metro Pointe), Irvine Spectrum, Brea Mall, The Block, Downtown Disney, The Marketplace (Tustin/Irvine) [edit: I'm actually working right next door now, on Wednesdays], Fashion Island. After waiting an hour to find parking, buy nothing. Remark on the overwhelming number of people there who are much younger than I am. Feel extremely old.
14. See Terminator: ROTM, Up!, Star Trek, and one to two other summer blockbusters. Granted, this is not an exclusively SoCal activity. But I'm pretty sure there are few other places you can pay so much to do it. New York, here I come! [Side note: DISTRICT 9!!! Kthx]
15. Beach Bonfire. It's tradition!
16. While I'm on the subject: go running along the beach.
17. Get a gourmet cupcake with a gourmet cup of coffee at a drive thru cupcake place. Park and eat it in the car. Any suggestions on such a place (perhaps this is only the stuff of dreams). [K, well it wasn't drive-thru, but it was picked up at Sprinkles and brought to my office for my co-worker's b-day, so I think this counts]
18. Go to In-n-out. Like 4 times. You remember the commercials with the guy who goes to college in Boston? Yeah, think about that. [Easier than it seems]
19. Bring a picnic to a summer concert.
20. Have a picnic in general. Especially those that involve bread and cheese and beer and Jason. The last ingredient is critical. [Happening today!]
21. Run at Mile Square, again. Wonder why my ankles are destroyed when I'm 50.
22. Eat Ebisu, about 5 or more times. This is more essential than In-N-Out. [edit: current count, 3]
23. Eat Pho, probably at the place on the corner. Or the one across the street. Or the one down the street. Or the 50 in Little Saigon. Or...
24. Eat Red Mango, followed by Pinkberry. Preferably somewhere where they are across the street from each other. Compare. Eat Golden Spoon and remember why the flavored stuff is always best.
25. Going away party? There's a lot I will miss here, but I think there is one thing I will miss most: friends. I know, corny, but despite all of the above, my friends (& family, of course) are probably the only reason I'll keep coming back. Unless they all move to Boston...(nudge nudge).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Speak No Evil

Those teenage hopes who have tears in their eyes
Too scared to own up to one little lie. (Feist)

(In light of the recent upsurge in arguments over same-sex marriage due to Iowa and Vermont's decisions, I thought it apt to give a little insight into my own views. Take what you will, you have been warned.)

Probably the most common question anyone ever asks a gay or lesbian person upon the disclosure of their sexuality is something to the effect of, "How long have you known?" It's a funny question that sounds more and more absurd the more and more you are asked it, something akin to being asked "How long have you known you were a man?" or "When did you first realize you could eat?" For me, being gay is something so tied into my consciousness that the best response I can give to a question is the approximate (and vague) time of my full acceptance of my homosexuality: sometime around age 15 (there is a reason I give this number; I'll get into it shortly). But to tell the truth, I have never known the world or viewed it through any other lens than as a gay man: since the start of puberty at least I have never been attracted to anyone of the female sex, and even before then I am pretty sure that my fascination lay exclusively with uncovering the male form and body (e.g.: my childhood collection of Ken dolls). So to give a frank answer of how long I have known I would truly have to say something to the effect of "always." After all, I doubt that a heterosexual person ever has a staunch realization that he or she is straight; rather, they simply develop a natural attraction to members of the opposite sex.

But I suppose being gay makes you a bit of an outsider, someone with a slightly divergent perspective on life but a pretty whole view of people and their idiosyncrasies. After all, the idiosyncrasy you yourself possess is one of the most talked about and hotly contested concepts today. And let me tell you, growing up gay is not an easy feat, even if you were raised in the most open-minded or impartial family (certainly not the case for me).

As a child I had a pretty ideal life. My mom raised me by herself since I was about four, when she and my father divorced as the result of what was a pretty shoddy marriage (can anyone say shotgun wedding?). To her I was a bit of a miracle child: she had been told pretty early on that she would never be able to bear children. As such, I was pretty spoiled: from McDonalds lunches with my Omi (grandma, for those of you who don't know German) to frequent trips to Disneyland to a private school education, I had it pretty good. I was raised in a Christian home, although my mom has always had a very open mind about religion and encouraged me to explore and discover on my own. But throughout childhood I attended summer camp and Sunday school at my local Methodist church, and it was there that I really came into being in many ways. As a child in that church, I developed a very strong attachment to Christianity and to Christian values, following wholeheartedly its message of love, its moral system and, most importantly, the belief in the golden rule. But at the time camp only ran through age twelve, which, coincidentally, was also the time I transitioned from one school to another. But most importantly, age twelve is when I went full swing into puberty, discovering all the joys and, well, heartaches that it would entail.

I developed my first crush shortly after that, although I'm a little vague on the details on when it really began. Sparing the specifics, suffice it to say that this crush was on a girl: a very likable and certainly an attractive girl. I also had developed sexual attraction, but I found something very odd--I was only aroused by men. At this early stage I passed it off. "Whatever," I found myself wont to think, "I still have a crush on a girl. It's probably just a phase, it'll go away when I grow up a little." So I kept my crush, believing that one day I would be able to find women not only emotionally but also physically attractive. And in the privacy of my bedroom, I believed myself to just have a quirky fetish, an interest that would change with time. It was hard to reconcile these two, not to mention my belief that my God, the one I had known so well, had

Time passed. Sooner or later I learned that the feelings I had were not reciprocated, and I came to realize that what I had thought to be simply feelings of tender friendship with a male friend actually were more. I decided it unwise to pursue those feelings, and as I became more and more aware of my strongly homosexual identity, and the unusual nature that entailed, I sunk deeper and deeper into hiding.Yes , being gay makes you an outsider. It also makes you an extremely talented liar, great at covering up your true identity. From age 15 to about 18 I became so used to feigning a disinterest in relationships that I almost began to believe it was true (to this day I am still dealing with this belief, but that's another story). My days became harder and harder, as each day I faced questions that were common to teenage boys, questions of who I was taking to Winter Formal or whether I had a crush and discussions of the latest hot actress or model or whoever. And I had friends who probably talked less about these things than most groups of male friends at that age. With each question I dug myself deeper and deeper into a hole, making it harder and harder to find the courage to tell someone--anyone--what I felt and what I knew to be the truth of my identity. To boot, my church and my God, I was told, and in many ways my culture too, were saying that my desires and my vision of what love meant was not only incorrect but immoral. I could not reconcile my childhood morality with how I felt, and so I turned inward and hid--I avoided church altogether telling my mom that I no longer felt engaged in the church.

Then senior year things got complicated. Through a complex interplay of emotions and a latent desire to still find acceptance, I ended up dating a close female friend of mine while in Paris--a story many of my friends remember well. When she asked whether this would continue when we returned home, I avoided the question with vague answers like "We'll see" or "let's play it by ear," never admitting to myself the confusion I felt. But as things became more involved, it became clear to me that I would have to face facts: either I could in fact date a woman and have it work out well, or I would have to admit that I needed to pursue relationships with men exclusively. Considering my feelings for my date one night, I realized that I was, in fact, exclusively gay. I had no problem with cuddling and holding hands with a woman, but when it came to actual intimacy--to a kiss or a hug--I felt it only felt possible to share these things with a man. Ask a straight man to kiss another man, and perhaps you might have a glimmer of what the thought of kissing a woman was to me. So we called it off, and I had my first coming out experience. A year later I finally built up the courage to come out to my friends from high school, and with time I have become more comfortable in the skin I have been given. But I still carry a lot of the scars from the hiding, the secrets, and the lies I held inside each and every day for at least three years.

So what is the point of all this, why do I take you through this story? Well, of late, a lot of debate has arisen over gay marriage and over the gay community--is homosexuality a sin, for example, and does the right to gay marriage desecrate the value of the institution of marriage? Now, I understand where those who seek to deny the right of marriage to homosexuals (or, alternatively, to preserve the sanctity of traditional marriage) come from. I understand the fear that such a change can inspire, the thoughts of how this change could break down the fundamental standing of our moral system. And I even understand--although I disagree--the argument about marriage as a fundamental guarantor of our society's interests in child-rearing. And I understand how it feels like the acceptance of gay marriage goes against God's law and against the Bible or any other number of religious texts. But here is the thing: is it worth it?

After all, my story is no where near unique, nor is it anywhere near the hardest anyone has ever faced as a gay or lesbian teen. Every year hundreds of young people consider suicide as a way to escape the pain of hiding the truth of who they are, with churches and their parents and their friends telling them that what they believe is wrong. But here's the thing: it's not wrong. What I came to realize myself is that this is just one aspect of who I am, a small piece of the puzzle. And if God or the church wanted to tell me it was wrong, then why did He create me this way--I had certainly tried my hardest to "outgrow" this part of myself. And I can't help but think that if our society was to fully accept homosexuals, young people like me would not face as much self-torture and self-loathing as they grew up. So while civil unions or domestic partnerships are nice, they still say to gay people: "Hey, your relationship is not as valid as ours." And until everyone has the same rights (and I'm fine with everyone having the civil right to a union, as long as it is the same for everyone), I don't see how our society can say it fully embraces all of its citizens and views them as true equals. Until then, stories like mine will continue to be commonplace at every high school and in every neighborhood. To the majority this may be a political issue, but to the gay man or lesbian woman it is a reminder of that friend who stopped calling after you came out, that pastor who called you a sinner and threw you out, or that parent that disowned you upon finding you kissing your "best friend."

We may have our moral convictions and our beliefs, but sometimes I think its more important to consider how what we say and what we espouse sounds to someone else. I don't mean to offend or to humiliate or to desecrate; I simply mean to give a little insight into how this whole debate sounds to the millions of individuals caught in the middle of this tug-o-war.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Nation

Everybody's talking about it, CNN is covering it non-stop, Colbert and Stewart are joking about it, some are celebrating it and others are bemoaning the end of an era, but it's true what they say: tomorrow everything changes. Barack Obama is soon to be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, and whatever he does or faces, whatever his administration decides, whatever new policies greet us in the new day, this much is clear: it is a momentous occasion. But as we consider the momentous nature of tomorrow's event and the sense of "hope" and oncoming "change" that drew millions of first-time voters to the polls in November, I think it's important to consider the thing that is on the tip of everyone's mind but hardly ever discussed: who are we?

Now, I don't mean to suggest a mass existential crisis or widespread searching for ancestry or genetic records; what I mean to ask is who are we as a nation? With the election of Barack Obama and his arrival as President of the Union, are we the same nation that we have been since 2001? Clearly, the answer is no. But this is a larger question than just which administration is in power; it is a question hinted at by the latest Pepsi commercials and the massive turn-out among young voters. The unique thing about the United States of America--a quality it alone can claim among the many nations of this planet--is that it is a nation of no majority ethnic or racial makeup. From Native Americans to the early Pilgrims, the descendants of slavery-era Blacks to the Quakers fleeing persecution by order of the Crown, and Irish, Italian, German, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and the hundreds of other immigrant groups, each and every one of us has a unique ancestry that rarely comes close to those around us. It is at once our blessing, the thing that makes us the nation of opportunity whether the economy is strong or not, and our curse, our great divider. And with the eve of this election, I think (and correct me if you think I'm wrong) that we as a people have moved one tiny step closer to accepting our sort of multiple identity disorder.

In what was probably my best class in college, loosely titled Race and Politics in the United States, one class section was devoted to this very question of who we are as a nation and, more importantly, as a culture. Having just returned from a six-month sejour in Paris when I took the class, I found the question particularly compelling as I and my compatriots [pun intended] faced questions of what it meant to be an American abroad--who were we, for example, to the waiter in the cafe, to the guy across from us on the metro, and to ourselves? I have to admit that in Paris was one of the first times I truly contemplated what it meant to be mixed race--as well as to be black--in the United States. In the US we cling to our ethnic and racial identity, trying to be a part of as many minorities (or majorities, as the case may be) as possible. I myself can claim at least 4 minority statuses (each of which has an associated lobbying group), statuses to do with my racial make-up, my sexual orientation, and my health issues (if I really searched I'm sure I could find many more). The question becomes, though, if we are so focused on what makes us different, what makes us unique, how are we ever going to find out what we have in common?

For example, is it more American to eat a hamburger and fries from McDonalds or to eat a prime New York steak with peppercorn gorgonzola glaze, long-grain rice and fresh picked vegetables? Is it more American to offer schooling and temporary work permits to immigrants, or to build a wall to keep them out? Is it more American to pursue a policy of active, pre-emptive invasion of purported enemy territory or to pursue multi-lateral negotiations mediated by UN representatives? Is it more American to embrace prayer in the classroom or to take the word God out of all public speeches, writings and displays?

These questions are just a few of the examples of the types of questions that we divide ourselves over these days, but, as we've learned recently, as a divided nation we stand to go nowhere. Critics and skeptics have decried the laziness of the younger generation, the inactivity of college students when it came to the Iraq war and Katrina (as opposed to the violence surrounding Vietnam), and our seeming disengagement with the real world in favor of the Internet. But what our elders oft fail to see is that the Internet and increased communication and access to information have brought about something that has taken nearly a decade to arrive but is now arriving with full force: the arrival of diversity as our defining principle. As we embrace our new President, I think it's time we throw out questions like what it means to be American and instead embrace one defining principle: to be American is to be whoever you are. Until we accept every American for who he or she is, we will never achieve what I believe to be the dream of our greatest historical figures from the founding fathers to Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., from Susan B. Anthony to Hillary Clinton, and from Vietnam to Iraq: a nation that does not judge and does not discriminate, but that gives the right to citizenship and to the rights of our Constitution to all who want them. After it all, do we, "The People of the United States of America," still hold those eternal truths to be self-evident.

Friday, November 21, 2008


I don't normally review movies because, well, I don't like my writing enough (nor am I particularly good at expressing opinions). But I couldn't pass up the opportunity, especially with the controversy surrounding this documentary...

Let me state this right out: I'm not much of a fan of Bill Maher's style of discourse. I never really found him to allow for real debate on "Politically Incorrect," and even in his latest documentary Religulous, I find his style to be overly biased and at times sarcastic. I have never believed that the point of a documentary was to promote one's personal views, but rather to objectively bring light to a problem or to raise an issue for your thought. Flat out, don't like it. Reminds me of Michael Moore, who I think we can all agree (if we are free thinkers) is not a real documentarian.

But the point of this documentary, its true value (as I find it) is not in its message, which comes through quite strongly, but at the dialogue it (seeks to) inspire. Now, I'm religious, a pretty committed Christian. But, like many religious individuals, I have had moments of extreme doubt and abandonment when it came to my religion, my God, my faith, and, most of all, the Bible. Bill Maher is basically, in Religulous, chronicaling his own decision to explore religion, to humbly examine its beliefs from the perspective of a non-believer trying to grasp at why people believe.

There is, however, a curse in this world, a dark storm brewing its behemoth might and threatening to tear humanity and the planet apart. It is called, organized religion. Yes, I said it, organized religion is the bane of human existence; if we ever collapse as a civilization it will be the doing solely of our attachment to the religious leaders that direct our will. Through a journey that takes him from the streets of LA to Salt Lake City, Orlando, the Bible Belt and ultimately to Amsterdam and Jerusalem, Maher explores a number of organized religions and their leaders, questioning their attachment to what he views to be almost insane beliefs. What he finds, however, is perhaps not that the messages are necessarily wrong, but that it is the ever-flawed human element behind them that threatens to destroy everything humanity has worked to create since the Enlightenment.

Beginning, as it were, with the story of his own experience with religion as the son of a devoutly Catholic father and a Jewish mother who attended Catholic school until age 13, Maher suggests that what many of us find in religion has to do with our insecurities and our fallibilities. In a particularly poignant--albeit hilarious--interview with his mother and sister, Maher tries to find out why it was one day that his father suddenly quit the Catholic church when he was 13, and why religion no longer became an important issue in their household (it seems the church's condemnation of birth control did the trick). He then explores Christian fundamentalism in America, and many of its leaders prove themselves simply unable to have a rational conversation. I mean, I still wonder how you can talk of a loving, charitable God yet plug your best-selling book and homophobia (and the occasional racism) at the same time. Neither does Maher. What ultimately develops is a picture of a religion, one based around its founder Jesus Christ, a religion that is totally at odds with the message and principles of that founder.

And then there was Mormonism. Now, don't get me wrong, nothing against Mormons--I've generally found them to be kind and very loving people (unless you tell them you're gay, then, well, shit). But, as Maher points out, the Mormon church has some pretty, well, mysticism-esque beliefs. For example, like Scientology (another religion that is often openly mocked), Mormonism believes that our creator lives on another planet. Of course, there is nothing to do with self-auditing, but there is posthumous baptism of such individuals as Adolf Hitler (really, Mormonism? REALLY?!?) and Joan of Arc (ok, pretty sure she spoke to God as well so she's covered I'd say). But dogma is dogma and your choice of belief is certainly yours to make.

Finally he discusses the other two of the big three: Judaism and Islam. Again, as before, the fundamentalists show themselves at odds with the reality of modern life, even as they answer text messages and claim their right to freedom of speech while bemoaning that right in others (even killing, in some cases, to take it away). But Maher is quick to avoid nitpicking on any single religion or sect, but instead to point out the greatest issue with much of fundamentalist religion: its focus, like early Catholicism, on a complete lack of thought. Fundamentalist leaders thrive off of their ability to tell their followers what to do: how to vote (a great clip comes to mind of a woman at a festival of some sort: "I vote for George Bush because, well...I don't really know much about his policies but I share his faith so that's all that matters."), where to invest their money, even what movies to see or what music to listen to. Frankly, I think any God who has watched humanity developed would be heartbroken to see it exploit and use in such a way, to completely abandon its God-given intellect to follow such leaders.

And therein lies the value in this film. It is not a exclusively a critique of (or worse, a tirade against) organized religion, but a sincere call for honest thought about the issue. I personally believe that everyone should follow whatever faith (or lack thereof) they find to be true, but I hesitate to accept the ability of those who follow fundamentalist sects to go on that ever-important search for that truth. Throughout my teen years I had an outright battle against my religion and my God, much like Maher who ultimately rejected his religion. But if you are going to be religious, as I have chosen to be, I think it is also vital to go through that questioning, to honestly and genuinely search for your truth and your values and your reasons to believe. If you can't find that, then why do you believe at all, and how can you say that you have true faith? Faith has never meant blindness to questioning; faith is, rather, an acceptance of doubt and an understanding that there will always be doubt, but the rational and informed decision to jump past that doubt and just accept something. We have faith in our friends even though we know they could easily hurt us, because through that faith we know that they never would. But it would be dumb to trust a total stranger with your bank account information, for example. In much the same way, it's completely dumb to trust someone who sounds great and who promises that all of your questions will be answered and all your problems taken care of, without ever questioning that person and his or her right to speak on behalf of your creator.

So I hope that Maher's film can pique more than one person's interest, and can start a real conversation. Unfortunately, those who most need to see it, to inject a little bit of doubt (and willingness to do so) into their lives and their beliefs, never will even give one ear. But I, well, I will gladly doubt and question the tenets of my religion everyday, especially those tenets written in the Bible, because that is the only way I know to arrive at a deeper understanding of what it means to be faith. I am not afraid to watch a documentary like this, to have my beliefs questioned and thrown into a trash compactor, because I have seen them hold up, and because I believe that is what I am supposed to do. But, hey, if you're afraid to question your beliefs, afraid to let them stand the test of threat from outside, then don't see this movie. Otherwise, go see it right now, and let's have a conversation about the place of religion in the modern world.

Case in point: is it right to condemn loving relationships and to create unnecessary legal hiccups just because the Bible (and only the Old Testament, mind you) allegedly condemns homosexual acts? Frankly, I don't want to worship a God who believes that love should be denied in any form. Do you? Therein lies the challenge of modern religion: whether to change to accomodate modern life, or to cling to a 2000-year old mysticism that would, were it claimed as fact today, seem to be utter insanity?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A Non-Issue: or why we shouldn't care about same-sex marriage

You know, generally I am somewhat apathetic when it comes to presidential races (or gubernatorial, senatorial or congressional races) because, frankly, I could care less about a candidate's record and his or her likely success as "leader of the free world" (I use that phrase with irony, in case that's not clear). Politics, to me, is quite generally an actor's game, built on creating an image and appearing to believe what you say you believe, whether or not those beliefs are true. It is a game of who can stay most consistent with a set of principles outlined in his or her platform nine months before the election (as if a person's mind cannot, under any circumstances, be changed in that time span). I encourage intelligent voting and informed decision-making, but there's a level at which information becomes too excessive, somewhere around the point when every single word a candidate says--in a speech, in a conversation at a cafe, or in his own bedroom--can be held against him.

But there is one thing, this election, that really gets me riled up and pissed off. Perhaps it is a bit stereotypical, ok, but California's Proposition 8 (on which I will be voting no, clearly) not only enrages me but also confounds and bewilders me. I am a child of the 1990s (although I am proud to say I was born in the 1980s), raised to believe that equality of opportunity is an inalienable truth and that any person born in this country or brought to its shores with the hope of partaking of its valor was entitled to that equality. Proposition 8, which attempts to repeal the state supreme court's finding that defining marriage as between a man and a woman fundamentally denies equality to same-sex couples, makes me question whether modern society actually has reached that point. Civil rights, it seems, is more a political tool--the workings of a Kennedy/Johnson administration interested in winning a growing political constituency--than a fundamental national value.

Now, I truly believe that any rational human being who believes in the right to equal opportunity for all individuals cannot support the denial of same-sex marriage rights. This belief is based on two lines of reasoning that I find to be logically sound and infallible. First, marriage, as bestowed by the state, is at its core NOT a religious issue but a civil issue; it is the right of two consenting adults to form a union recognized by civil society (a "civil union," if you will) and to obtain all of the rights and benefits of that union (i.e. joint taxes, shared healthcare, and the essential recognition by the state of this couple's status as members of one joint family). Considering this fact, to argue that the Bible or God's will has any bearing on the state's choice of how to decide marriage is a disrespect to the First Amendment's guarantee of the separation of church and state.

Based on that reasoning comes my second point, which is that, as a civil right, marriage cannot be denied to anyone who willingly seeks to have one bestowed. A part of the civil rights struggle of the sixties was, believe it or not, marriage equality; that is, the right of two individuals of two different races to marry without risk of harm or retribution. I am proud to say that I am a product of the recognition of that right, and although my parents are divorced, without the granting of marriage equality it's entirely possible that I would not exist. Now, I am a gay man, yes, but, frankly, I don't care about this issue because I want to be able to get married or because I necessarily intend to. Rather, I know, based on personal experience and the passionate feelings of those arguing against same-sex marriage that until same-sex marriage is recognized as legitimate, same-sex couples will never be able to feel welcome or accepted in American society. And, frankly, I don't want to live in a world that denies anyone--whether it is me or not--the right to live their life without unnecessary intervention from the state.

So perhaps you have religious beliefs that tell you that homosexuality is a sin or you believe based on Darwinian theories of biology that homosexuals should not exist because sexual attraction between members of the same sex is unnatural (we can have that discussion, you and I, another time if so), and I'll leave you to those beliefs. But, if you believe that the state should interpret its definition of what amounts to a civil right based on a religious, traditional or personal belief, just consider this: what would happen if the same decision were held true in the civil rights era? Was it not a religious, traditional or personal belief that Black Americans and White Americans cannot have equal access to education or to buses or to bathroom facilities? And as to the claim that people would be prosecuted for their personal beliefs with this decision, I'm sorry, but I believe that those people should be prosecuted when they seek to use those beliefs to deny rights to individuals based only on one quality of who that person is. Remember, this decision says nothing about whether or not churches have to grant these marriages, only that state institutions have to recognize them and bestow rights accordingly. I hope, with that in mind, that if you can vote in California that you will, and that you will vote a vehement NO on Prop 8. However else you vote is no concern of mine; but, in this case, this issue is about whether or not our society supports equal civil rights. Same-sex marriage is not a political issue; it is a right. I'm sorry, but politicians are using it--and have been using it for years--to divide the country along religious lines. It's time these needless issues give way to the real ones (like, say, economic policy or energy). And frankly, this country has made no progress if this measure passes, and I hope (yeah, I said it, I hope) that that's not true.