Thursday, December 11, 2014

Grieving in the aftermath of the CIA torture report

The report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee this week, the so-called "torture report," confirms a suspicion that many have had all along: the extent of the abuses perpetrated by CIA operatives was greater than previously known, and included techniques much more heinous than the (heinous enough) water-boarding.

I'm sick at heart, not only by the contents of the report, but also and more so by the reaction to it from many of my fellow citizens. Some random quotes from people with whom I've engaged on the topic:
  • "I feel no compassion for those animals."
  • "I will NEVER second guess or criticize those who put their lives on the line to keep all of us safe."
  • "When it comes to terrorists there are NO Christian values for them. We don't use Christian values on Muslim terrorists who want to kill all our people in the name of Ala [sic]." 
How easily cast aside, those little angels we've created to comfort ourselves! Matthew 5:39, the Geneva Convention, the Golden Rule --meaningless platitudes, one and all. People! Can't you see that torture debases not only the victims, but the perpetrators? It dehumanizes them. It makes them beasts.

Fear does ugly things to people. And people have been justifying atrocities in the name of God for thousands of years. There's nothing new in it. But to see it unfold before my own eyes... oh, America! I grieve!

Foolishly I'd hoped that at this point in life I might have endured most of my disillusionment. This report, and the reaction to it, exposes that sentiment as naive.

So I'll say this: for my part, I advocate prosecution of all perpetrators of torture, regardless of their nationality or faith and no matter the justifications they put forth. But the apologist voices (most of them, the very people who regularly complain that the United States has strayed from its "Christian values") ensure that that will never happen.

And I'll still allow myself one hope: the hope that I will never condone torture. To do otherwise would be to relinquish my humanity and I won't do it!

I pray I have the strength to live up to that conviction.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Post-Thanksgiving brooding

The Dade of today
In the days before Thanksgiving, Mom and I had a conversation. We wondered how it would be to try to explain the world as it is today to departed loved ones. She mentioned Grandma Metzger and I was thinking about Dad.

The Dade that Dad would remember
Dad --Ross Cariaga, Junior --passed away in the spring of the Year of Our Lord, 2001. I remember how the world was in that time. I remember the world Dad knew. Two and a half months after Dad's passing, on September 11th, 2001, that world passed away as well.

Historical events shape our collective human perception of the world. On some fundamental level, Dad would not understand the world today.

That is a sad and strange thing to think about. Dad, whom I always believed to have unclouded perceptions, to be savvy and worldly-wise, would be rendered naive in today's world by an event that occurred just a few weeks after he passed.
The Dade that Grandma would remember
"Well, think of me and my mother," said Mom. "I'd have to start by explaining to her that there was no more Soviet Union!"

Indeed.  Gertrude Metzger passed in 1987. A very different world.

Certainly, Dad and Grandma would have marveled at the wonders of today's world. How strange would it seem to them to have a face-to-face conversation with someone a thousand miles away while sitting in a coffee shop? How difficult would it be for them to believe that the entire catalog of human knowledge was at their fingertips? Accessible from anywhere at any time?

And, while they would likely recognize today's horrors --they are, after all, the same four horsemen that have always beset mankind --they might be startled by the strange, new vestments in which Plague, War, Famine and Death appear. I don't believe Grandma ever heard anything about global warming. And Dad might find the ever-increasing magnitude of hurricanes and typhoons in the days since his passing to be unsettling.

I guess that's just the way of it, though. I don't suppose the world I know will long outlive me. But the human chronicle will continue to unfold.

For a time.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Movie review: Interstellar

Having seen ("endured" is probably a better word) Christopher Nolan's new film, Interstellar, I'm befuddled by the favorable, even exuberant, reviews it has received.

Did I somehow wander into the wrong theater?

Interstellar is a film about near-future Earth, where environmental degradation is slowly rendering the planet uninhabitable. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is an honest farmer and former astronaut raising two children with the help of his father, Donald (John Lithgow). Cooper has been disrespected and unrecognized throughout his life: his wife died years earlier, the all-powerful school board has determined that his son cannot attend college, and the prospects for his daughter seem bleak. Cooper's future stretches before him like the dusty horizon. Nonetheless, he doesn't complain. Doggedly, heroically, he resigns himself to growing corn to feed the unseen masses that rely on his efforts. (He's holding up the world, don't you know?)

What a surprise, then, when Cooper is recruited by NASA to pilot a space craft through a recently-discovered wormhole to locate an alternate home for humanity. It's a risk that Cooper is reluctant to take. It would mean leaving his family. But the brains at NASA, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his biologist daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), prevail upon Cooper's inner martyr, convincing him that the risks he must take are worth it. It's for the sake of all of humanity, after all!

There were so many things wrong with this film that I don't really know where to start. But I guess I'll start with the acting. It was exceedingly poor. The child actors and the entire supporting cast were embarrassingly bad. Anne Hathaway was adequate. Acting heavyweights, Michael Caine and John Lithgow delivered mailed-in performances that really disappointed. (Mr. Caine, if this is all we can expect from you henceforth, just go ahead and retire already!)

But the biggest tragedy of this movie is the damage done to Matthew McConaughey's credibility as an actor. His performance seemed like a half-hearted encore of his role as Detective Rust Cohle from the HBO series, True Detective. His delivery was mumbled and terse, perhaps meant to sound profound, but coming across as lackluster.

All that said, I can understand if the actors didn't put their hearts into their performances. Lithgow and Caine certainly have enough savvy to recognize a shitty script when they read one. And boy did they get one in this film! Director Nolan and his brother, Jonathon, co-wrote the script, which is probably the biggest failing of this flick.

The dialog is appalling: stock, stale, uninspired. It's full of "gems" like these:
Cooper: You're ruling out college for my son now? He's fifteen.
Principal: Tom's score simply isn't high enough.
Cooper: What's your waist line? What 32, 33 inseam?
Principal: I'm not sure I see what you're getting at.
Cooper: You're telling me it takes two numbers to measure your own ass but only one to measure my son's future? 
(Har, har, har!)
Cooper: Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.
(Real head-scratcher, that one!)
Brand: Love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that transcends time and space.
(This one defies further commentary.)  
The characters lack any kind of complexity. There's an R2D2-like robot that lacked even enough depth to be annoying. There are a couple extraneous crewmen that are more robot-like than the robot. The most developed relationship in the flick is the creepy relationship between Cooper and his 10-year-old daughter Murph. In one particularly unsettling scene, Cooper clings to his daughter as she lays in bed, her back to him. Tears stream down his face as begs the young girl for forgiveness. Uncomfortable!

Although this is billed as a science fiction film, the science of it is inane. Much of it is explained in wooden, expository dialog that kills whatever momentum the film might hope to develop. (This seems to be a habit with Nolan. Remember Inception?) The script uses all the right keywords ("event horizon," "quantum entanglement," and so on) but none of it makes any real sense.

And then, in the ultimate failure, the script relies on a cheap deux et machina enigma to close the loop. I read a review that compared this film's unexplained ending to that of Stanley Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's an offensive comparison and an insult to a master like Kubrik.

Hans Zimmer's score was overbearing and cheap and at times it overpowered the dialog. Worst of all, Nolan used it to cue viewers. "You see? This music is suspenseful! This is a scary part!" God knows, without the score, the audience would often have had no clue how they should feel.

Ten minutes into the flick, I was ready to walk out. It was apparent to me that the film was specifically-targeted to middle-aged men with low self-esteem who feel they've been cheated by life. "You see?" Nolan says, "Even though your daughter hates you and your boss thinks you're an idiot, you're really a hero."

I spent most of the interminable 3 hours and 9 minutes of this film cringing and slapping my forehead. I felt like I should have been wearing a bag over my head when I left. 

Mr. Nolan, two strikes is all you get. Never again, by God!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The sins of Bill Cosby: I'd rather stay ignorant

By now, we've all heard of the allegations against Bill Cosby. Although it's not a new story (apparently, the first accusations came to light back in 2006), public attention has only lately become focused. The charges are that Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted multiple women throughout his career.

In response, NBC has cancelled a planned sitcom featuring the 77-year-old comedian, and Netflix has put on hold a comedy special, originally planned to air on Thanksgiving Day. Cosby hasn't helped himself at all. He's refused any comment and just yesterday, tried to intimidate a reporter into scuttling any mention of the issue in an interview.

The whole thing sickens me. If the allegations are true (and, given the number of women coming forward, and the consistency of their stories, it seems likely) Bill Cosby would not be the first hero to fall. But unlike Joe Paterno, a football coach (I know a thing or two about football coaches), or Michael Jackson, who was out-of-touch crazy, Bill Cosby, or rather the myth of Bill Cosby, was so beloved and unstained and such an integral part of my childhood that these allegations wound me to my core.

Sexual assault is a heinous crime. Perpetrators deserve reprobation, at the very least; criminal prosecution, ideally. If the allegations against Bill Cosby are true, he must pay with his reputation, his career, and whatever justice our legal system can mete out.

But I don't want to know the details. I know too much already. Let it play out as it must. I don't want to know any more about it.

Mine is not a courageous stand. In fact, it's cowardly and hypocritical. I admit it.

But I just can't bring myself to take part in the destruction of the beloved myth. The myth of Bill Cosby.

I'd rather stay ignorant.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Movie review: Whiplash

Yesterday, I took advantage of the bright, crisp weather (a rarity in November, Portland's rainiest month) to walk the ~four miles from condo to Fox Tower Cinema, there to view a matinee showing of Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. The film received much praise from critics and the preview intrigued.

The film stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, a first year student at the prestigious Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York. Andrew comes from humble beginnings, being the son of a failed writer, Jim (Paul Reiser), and is determined to achieve greatness. Specifically, he hopes to become a great jazz drummer in the mold of Buddy Rich. His playing catches the eye of a virtuoso jazz instructor, Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), who brings him into Shaffer's elite jazz ensemble. Fletcher is a demanding instructor. His tools include emotional manipulation, intimidation, physical and verbal abuse, and sabotage. Andrew, suffering under the demands placed on him by Fletcher, finds some comfort in the company of Nicole (Melissa Benoist), whom he sees working the concession counter at a movie theater. As the story progresses, Andrew discovers the price demanded by greatness, and must decide if he is willing to pay it.

This is a very good flick.

The writing is good. There are some great exchanges, in particular the dinner scene in which Andrew explains his aspirations to his bewildered family. But the writing is secondary. What really makes this film work is the acting.

The two headliners, Teller and Simmons, are especially good. I've liked JK Simmons since his days on Law & Order, and his role as Fletcher seems like a breakthrough performance. Miles Teller used to play drums for a church youth group and that real life experience seems requisite for his role in this movie. 

The music, by the way, is infectious. I was tapping my foot throughout the 107 minute run time. On the bus ride home, I added Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker to my Pandora play list.

I came away from the flick with a new appreciation of jazz, certainly. But more than that, Whiplash (and Birdman, which I saw a while back) provided fresh insight into the toll that creation exacts on the artist. 

Everything comes at a price. And you get what you pay for.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Anxiety is a thief

I got robbed the other day.

Maty and I were sitting on the couch together in the front room of our brand new condo in the early evening. We had the fireplace going. I was playing with my iPad and Maty was watching YouTube videos on the television. A rare moment. Most evenings, one or the other or both of us are off doing something. But this evening we were there together, relaxing. 

Maty was delighted when a Senegalese music video came on the screen. The percussive, happy music reminded her of her home. She popped up off the couch and danced an Mbalax dance while the music played. The joy on her face lit up the room.

I recognized the moment for what it was: a thing to remember, a Good Time to hold in my memory and savor.

And yet, in that moment I was robbed. Although I did experience joy and happiness watching my wife dancing and smiling, I was also sad and afraid and angry at myself. Sad, because I knew the moment would be fleeting. Afraid, because I live in dread of some unforeseen cataclysm that will dispel all the joy I felt in that moment. And angry at myself, because I knew my worry was irrational and stupid, and it was robbing me of a precious moment of happiness.

That's the way anxiety disorders work, I'm afraid. I take meds to keep it under control, but nonetheless, at odd times and for no particular reason, anxiety breaks through all my safeguards and grabs at my soul.

And I f*cking hate it.

Still, life is good. And I will always remember that moment when Maty was dancing in front of the fire, with her face turned to the ceiling, beaming joy out to the cosmos.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Election 2014: Oregon provides the silver lining

Democrats nationwide are in the doldrums today. And for good reason. The GOP increased its majority in the US House, won some big gubernatorial races, and, biggest of all, won the majority in the US Senate! Now we can all look forward to evenings with  Mitch McConnell's palid, corpse-like visage on the telly, spewing forth more bile and deception.

But in Oregon, things aren't nearly so bad. Just like in 2010, the Beaver state shattered the Big Red Wave.

US Senator - Jeff Merkley

Senator Merkley won reelection handily, defeating Dr. Monica Webhy by a solid 19-point margin, 56%-37%. A look at the county-by-county returns shows that not only did the Senator get a big margin from blue-as-hydrangeas Multnomah County, but also won less blue counties like Deschutes, Jackson, and Coos. Times have changed in Oregon, that's for sure.

Dr. Webhy ran a terrible campaign: dodging the press, not showing up for interviews, and so on. It's not necessarily her fault. I'm afraid it's a reflection of the poor state of the Republican party in Oregon. I really wish they could do something to restore their credibility. Right now, they have none.

Senator Merkley has to feel pretty good about this win. He hardly had to break a sweat to win his second term. From my standpoint, he's an ideal representative: from a small lumber town in Oregon, with populist views (just like me). Here's to a long career, Senator Merkley.

US Representative, 3rd District - Earl Blumenauer

Earl won huge in the 3rd Congressional District, with 73% of the vote. As I mentioned in my pre-election post, I didn't vote for him, but that's because I knew he was a shoo-in. Anyway, the other 4 congressional incumbents won as well (Bonamici, DeFazio, Schrader, and Walden) which maintains the 4 to 1 advantage Democrats hold in the Oregon delegation. This is a very blue state.

Governor - John Kitzhaber

John Kitzhaber will serve a fourth term as governor of Oregon, an historic first. Despite late-breaking scandals (which, I suspect, will turn out to be insignificant), and a considerable degree of Kitz-fatigue, he managed to beat Dennis Richardson by a bigger margin (6 points) than the margin by which he defeated Chris Dudley in 2010.

To add to the good news for Kitzhaber, Democrats scored big in the state legislature, increasing their majorities in both the Senate and the House. In the Senate, Democrats hold 17 seats versus the Republican's 12. As of this writing, one Senate seat is still undecided. In the House, Democrats won 35 seats versus the Republican's 25.

Got that? Democrats control both state houses and the governor's mansion. If you're an Oregon Republican, that's got to sting. They just can't win for losing.

State Representative, 42nd District - Rob Nosse

As was generally acknowledged, the primary turned out to be Rob's biggest challenge. He won in the general by a huge margin. The Republicans didn't even bother to field a candidate to run against him.

State Measure 86: Post-secondary education fund - No
This measure was defeated. I'm disappointed but not surprised.

State Measure 87: Employ state judges by National Guard and state public universities - Yes
Passed. I never heard a good reason (in fact, I never heard any reason at all) to vote against it.

State Measure 88: Oregon resident driver card without proof of legal residence - No
This measure got clobbered. My county, Multnomah, was the only county where it carried. In my opinion, this measure's defeat is due almost entirely to stinginess and xenophobia. Undocumented immigrants are here; they're not going away. And they're going to continue to drive on our streets and highways. It only makes sense to get them into the system.

State Measure 89: Prohibits denial or abridgement of equal rights based on gender - Yes
Passed overwhelmingly. It's about time.

State Measure 90: Changes general election nomination processes; top two vote-getters in primary face-off in general election - No
This measure got crushed, which came as a complete (albeit pleasant) surprise to me. Oregonians saw through the slick ad campaign promoting this measure as voter empowerment. Take that, Koch Brothers!

State Measure 91: Allows possession, sale of marijuana to/by adults, subject to state licensing, regulation, taxation - Yes!
I never thought I'd see this day, but marijuana will soon be legal for recreational use in the state of Oregon. It's a realistic, practical solution, of course. But when have realism and practicality ever carried any weight in politics?

State Measure 92: Requires food manufacturers and retailers to label "genetically-engineered" foods -No
This measure was defeated by less than a single percentage point. Supporters can take some small amount of solace by considering that the campaign to defeat the measure spent $20 million, the most ever spent in an initiative campaign. At the very least, we bled Monsanto.

City of Portland Measure 26-159: Bonds to fix playgrounds, trails, parks - Yes
Passed overwhelmingly. Dollars for Mount Tabor!

Metro Measure 26-160: Retain prohibition on Metro-required single-family neighborhood density increases - Yes

Portland School District #1JT: Levy renewal - Yes
Try as I might, I haven't been able to find the results for this measure. But I think it passed. Which is good.

Well, there you have it. That's how it all shook out this time around. Although the national results leave a lot to be desired, I'm pretty happy with things here in Oregon. We win again, Oregon progressives!