Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Outsider by Albert Camus

(book review)

I was in a bookstore the other day looking for reading material for a trip, and noticed this book. And I thought to myself I had never read any Camus and was always curious to see if I could make any sense of him, so I decided to take the challenge and bought the book.

Like a lot of people, I have put off reading Camus because I get intimidated by words like "existentialist philosophy". But the good news is that the story in this book is very simple and easy to follow. I struggled through Joyce and Faulkner, but this simple story was a pleasure to read that took little intellectual effort to understand.

I'm talking about the narrative only you understand. I'm sure there were a lot of philosophical subtleties that went right over my head, and I'm going to look at the cliffnotes someday and think to myself, "I had no idea that was the point of the book. I'm so dense."

And yet I think I was able to catch some of the more obvious symbolism, and even follow the philosophical parts of the book that were spelled out for me (the anti-death penalty parts, and the parts about believing in God).

At any rate, it was a short little book (120 pages in my edition). I read the whole thing in two days and even enjoyed the story a little bit. I can't vouch for the rest of the Camus cannon, but if you've been avoiding this book because you think it will be a struggle there is no need to fear.

Link of the Day
How the Bush Administration's Iraqi Oil Grab Went Awry: Greenspan's Oil Claim in Context

Sunday, September 23, 2007

7th Grade Free Writing: Family stories

(retrospection)

My little sister Jessica has put up with a lot in these retrospection stories so far. And, with apologies, she is going to have to put up with a little bit more.

When I was in 4th and 5th grade, my little brother Kyle was 4 and 5 years old. Just about that age where he was starting to say and do a lot of funny things. And I was just at the right age where I thought his antics were hilarious. I used to collect "Kyle stories" and share them with my friends at school.

By the time of 6th and 7th grade, it was Jessica who was 4 and 5 years old, and most of the stories in my repertoire were about Jessica then. Good fodder for any creative writing or free writing assignments in English class.

As a lot of young children do, Jess went through a Klepto phase, and I was right there to document it in school assignments.

I actually wrote a much longer version of some of this story with all the details back in 6th grade, when we were assigned to write something introducing our family. (I remember my mother being appalled at the time that I was using the story for a writing assignment.) Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) that version got lost somewhere along the way, along with most of the other stuff I wrote during 6th grade. My 7th and 8th grade English teacher, however, gave us a folder to put all our writing assignments in, and so most of those have survived the years and now provide good fodder for these retrospection posts.

Because this was already the second time I had told this story, I didn't really have a lot of enthusiasm in rewriting it the second time, and you can probably tell my heart isn't in it. It just skims over the story, and doesn't take a lot of care with either details or style. Also it ends pretty abruptly as well (probably because the bell ran just about that time, and the free writing time was over).

Anyway, now that I've given an introduction that is longer than the actual piece, here it is below:

My little sister Jessica was in the habit of stealing people's things. Once when my other sister Kirstin went to camp, Jessica stole her money and hid it under her [Jessica's] bed. She would go around the house carrying some of the money with her and giving it to Kyle. I guessed that this money didn't belong to Jessica, but nobody would listen to me when I said something was funny. Until Kirstin got home from camp. I told Kirstin and she ran immediately upstairs to check her money, and came back down crying because her money wasn't there. A search of the house followed, and we found the money under Jessica's bed. She was given a spanking, but that didn't stop here from stealing.

That was the first time she had ever stolen something, but not the last. She stole more things from Kyle, me Kirstin and even Dad, although she never stole anything from mom and she never stole anything from someone who was not a member of the family. She did these things sometimes with Kyle's help and sometimes without Kyle. Kyle, who has the ability to coax out of Jessica anything he wants, usually ends up with most or all of the loot either way.

For example, once Jessica took ten dollars from dad. A few minutes later she was caught, but the money had already mysteriously ended up in Kyle's piggy bank by that time. When questioned, Jessica said she had given the money to Kyle, which really means he was able to coax it out of her once again. Of course it must have been obvious that it was stolen money, because Jessica, being in Kindergarten only got an allowance of one coin a week, usually a half dollar or silver dollar from my dad, which she [Jessica] usually immediately loses afterwards. Sometimes Kirstin gives Jessica some money because she is very fond of Jessica, and because Jessica will sometimes cry if Kirstin doesn't. Kirstin once gave Jessica as much as one dollar, but she would never give her ten dollars.

Link of the Day
An Endless Occupation? The Korea Model Rationale for Staying in Iraq

Friday, September 21, 2007

ゲド戦記/ Tales from Earthsea

(movie reviews)

As a result of living in Japan, and the delayed release dates over here, I'm usually a bit behind the tide in my movie reviews.

The exception is anime and Godzilla movies, in which I actually get to be a little ahead of you in the states. This film is not a new film in Japan (in my video store, it's already been moved off of the new release rack) but according to wikipedia because of copyright issues it won't be released in the USA until 2009.

This is the latest film from Ghibli Studios, the equivalent of the Walt Disney company of Japan, who are responsible for just about all of the anime movies that have made it big in the US. ("Spirited Away", "Howl's Moving Castle", "Princess Monoke", "Laputa: Castle in the Sky", et cetera).

Unfortunately this film is a disappointment.

Before I start into it a couple disclaimers:
1). I never read any of the Earthsea books on which this is based, or any other Ursula Le Guin books. When I was at Calvin I read on the internet that "The Dispossesed" was an anarchist response to Dostoevsky's "The Possessed", so I checked it out of Calvin's library, but didn't really take to it and soon gave up. I've always meant to go back and give Ursula Le Guin another try but never got around to it.

2). I'm not a huge anime fan. Sure I've watched a lot of it over the past few years, but mostly that's because it's sort of required viewing for people living in Japan. I don't hate it, but I'm not a huge fan.

Despite all that, I still had high hopes for this movie going in. An epic fantasy story from Ghibli studios and the Miyazaki team. How could you go wrong?

The big problem with this movie is its pacing. For a very long time nothing really happens. According to wikipedia Ursula Le Guin criticized this movie because the film was too focused on the violent scenes, but I felt just the opposite. This film could have used a lot more action in the second act to keep the audience from falling asleep.

This problem is further aggravated by the fact that the voice actors (in both the original Japanese and the English dub) sound like they're falling asleep. Apparently someone was going for a sedate feel for the voices, but it is a bit too lulling for me.

At first I was wondering if it was just me, but then I talked to some Japanese friends and they also agreed that this film moves at a snail's pace.

There are some interesting themes in this movie about death and coming to terms with your own mortality, but in my book a film only gets so many points for attempting a theme. For full points they also have to successfully pull it off. And this film doesn't. The talky parts about life and death don't always gel with the action, and sometimes feel a bit tacked on.

Plus this film bit off more than it can chew. We all know we are going to die, and it is something we push to the back of our heads and try not to think about as much as possible, but beyond that I've never seen a fictional story deal with the concept of mortality in a meaningful way. Even philosophy and religion have failed to fully reconcile us to our own mortality after thousands of years, so what hope does a 2 hour movie have? In the end it reverts to cliches about the life cycle, and it sounds like I'm watching "The Lion King" and the circle of life again.

Link of the Day
We Are the Troops! Bring Us Home!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Are We Bankrupt?

A while back I wrote a post about all the troubles that have befallen my company since I returned to Japan 6 months ago.

Well, the troubles continue.

A month or so ago a student said to me, "I read in the newspaper that your company couldn't even pay its staff. I was so shocked."

I spit out my coffee all over the desk. (Well not really. Actually I'm not allowed to drink coffee while teaching a lesson, but it was still that kind of moment.) "What? They can't pay us?"

"No, they can't pay the Japanese staff," the student said. (Meaning the 3 [now 4] Japanese girls who book the lessons and talk to the students. See previous post).

"But the foreign teachers are okay?"

"Yeah, only the Japanese staff isn't going to get paid."

"Oh, well that's all right then."
After all, Japanese people are taught from a very young age to put their own needs subservient to the needs of the company. The Japanese staff would understand this. But they would never be so foolish as to not pay their foreign staff on time though...that would be an uproar.

Well, guess what...
I went to the bank Friday to take out money so I could pay my overdue phone bill. (Once again my cell phone service had been shut off because I was late in paying the bill). And the ATM machine just kept spitting my card back at me without giving me any money. Perhaps it was time to get a new card.

I arrived at work to see a fax notice from the president posted on the bulletin board. "Regrettably it has not been possible to complete the payment on time. We will pay the money on the 19th instead."

Unbelievable. If there was some problem and they couldn't pay the money by that day I might understand, but the 19th was almost a week away (payday was supposed to be the 14th). And most of the teachers at our company live paycheck to paycheck. And they couldn't even give us a couple days notice to let us know this would be happening?

Fortunately I was able to borrow money from Shoko (or depending on which way you look at it, borrow some of my own money back from our joint account). But there are a lot of foreigners throughout Japan who are going to be strapped for cash over the next few days.

My company is the largest private English teaching company in Japan (and in Asia, teaching English is big business) so this effects a lot of people. If you look in the right places, this crisis is already thoroughly documented on internet and in the blogosphere. For example my co-worker Amy wrote this piece on her blog. Also this article here, and this article here.

If you look through some of these web pages, you can see the gloom and doom scenarios beginning already. The company is going to go belly up before the end of the year, they are not going to be able to pay their staff, and there are going to be thousands of foreign teachers stranded in Japan without a job and without money to buy a plane ticket home.

On the other hand the higher ups in the company are claiming that this month is going to be the last hard month while they are still selling off assets and consolidating branches. After this month everything will be reorganized and it will be smooth sailing from here on out.

Personally I tend to agree with a friend's opinion, who said, "the company is never just going to disappear. People have been saying they will go bust for years, but they provide a desired service to the community, and they have too many assests and employees. Someone will buy them out before they fold up completely."

We'll see what will happen in the coming months. At any rate, the part of me that enjoys watching a train wreck is thinking whatever happens it should be an interesting next 6 months.

Link of the Day
via This modern world
This is from a British polling company working in Iraq:

In the week in which General Patraeus reports back to US Congress on the impact the recent ‘surge’ is having in Iraq, a new poll reveals that more than 1,000,000 Iraqi citizens have been murdered since the invasion took place in 2003.

Previous estimates, most noticeably the one published in the Lancet in October 2006, suggested almost half this number (654,965 deaths).

These findings come from a poll released today by O.R.B., the British polling agency that have been tracking public opinion in Iraq since 2005. In conjunction with their Iraqi fieldwork agency a representative sample of 1,461 adults aged 18+ answered the following question:-

Q How many members of your household, if any, have died as a result of the conflict in Iraq since 2003 (ie as a result of violence rather than a natural death such as old age)? Please note that I mean those who were actually living under your roof.

None 78%
One 16%
Two 5%
Three 1%
Four or more 0.002%

Given that from the 2005 census there are a total of 4,050,597 households this data suggests a total of 1,220,580 deaths since the invasion in 2003.
The Los Angeles Times writes about it here. Note the results are in line with Just Foreign Policy’s attempt to extrapolate from the second Lancet study.

And from the same website
Two points to add to Jon’s post, directly below this one, on the possible Iraqi death toll:
One: when random Americans were polled a few months ago by the Associated Press, the median guess for the death toll was under ten thousand. So there’s a fair chance that however bad you may think Iraq is, you might want to multiply it by one hundred. We are talking about a possible literal megadeath. On our watch.

Two: predictably, the new estimate has already been dismissed out of hand by the Pentagon, as was last year’s Lancet study. But the Lancet study’s methodology is actually widely accepted; even John Zogby said it was “as good as it gets.” And the new poll, conducted by a respected firm whose clients include the Conservative Party, the Bank of Scotland, and Morgan Stanley — not exactly a bunch of raving lefties — is (as Jon notes) simply consistent with the Lancet study.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Welcome Party

subtitle: my new nickname

I've mentioned before we've been having a lot of high turn over here, and it's still going on. Just last week we got yet another new teacher. (Actually an old teacher who has come back to the area again.) And this past Friday we got a new Japanese staff.

In addition to us foreigners who teach the lessons, there is a small group of Japanese staff who answer the phones, book the lessons, talk to the customers, and are in charge of sales. They are almost always woman and they are almost always in their early 20s. (Apparently it's not a great place to make a career out of.)

Up until now we've only had 3 Japanese staff. The last time we got an additional Japanese staff member, a week later someone else got transferred to another branch. I'm a bit worried because I'm rather fond of all 3 girls we have now and don't want to see anyone get transferred away. I asked if this would happen, and was assured it won't, but in a Japanese company no one has any control over their future. People are always being transferred from on city to the other at the whims of the head office.

In fact of the 4 Japanese staff we have now, none of them are native to Nakatsu. This is simply were they were assigned to go, without any choice in the matter.

I always feel sorry for the Japanese staff in this situation. Sure, us foreigners also arrive in Nakatsu without knowing a soul, but we immediately bond with the other foreigners in the area. Everyone knows everyone else is in the same boat, so we become friends very quickly. Plus it is very easy to make friends with Japanese people who want to practice their English or hang out with foreigners. Plus we look at the whole living abroad thing as a kind of adventure.

But for the average Japanese person transferred into Nakatsu, it is a small boring town with nothing in it, and it's hard for them to make friends. I've heard several stories of misery from transplanted Japanese not only in Nakatsu but also in Ajimu and Gifu.

And so I try and invite the Japanese staff out with us as much as possible. Whenever us foreigners are gathering together, I try and make sure I extend an invitation. But it doesn't always work out because
1): most of our plans tend to come together at the last minute
2): the Japanese staff often has to work late and get up early, making it hard for them to have an active social life, and
3): often when we do get together, the conversation reverts into rapid English, and the poor Japanese staff are left just drinking their tea and staring blankly, and
4): sometimes I get the impression they don't really want to come, and so I'm always cautious of pushing an invitation too hard.

Last Saturday, Amy and I were in the staffroom when I met the new Japanese staff for the first time. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, I learned she was another transplant who didn't know a soul in this area. "Well, we'll have to have a welcome party for you," I said. "How about tonight after work."

"I can't tonight."

"Tomorrow night then?"

"Tomorrow's my day off."

"Great, it will be perfect. We all finish early on Sunday evenings anyway."

My initial idea was to go to that old standby of foreigners in Nakatsu, my favorite Mexican bar in Japan: Tropicoco. But a few of the new gang aren't really huge fans of the place. (I think the major complaint is that it is dark and dingy, which is more or less true, especially since they moved from Usa into a new building in Nakatsu. I never really minded this because I figured it made up for this with it's open atmosphere and the ease with which you can wander around and socialize with anyone, just like in an American bar back home. (Most Japanese bars you tend to go sit at a table and close yourself off with the people you came with)).

But the more I thought about it, a party at someone's apartment would be much better anyway. It would allow everyone to get to know the new people without the loud background noise of the bar, and the confusion of other people coming and going. Now all I had to do was find someone willing to host it.

My apartment was out of the question. Not only would Shoko kill me if I invited everyone over from work on short notice, but I live one stop down on the train. It's only a five minute train ride, but it does mean everyone has to go to the station, buy a ticket, check the time tables, etc. Not a huge deal, but probably enough trouble to deter some people from coming.

Which meant I had to get someone else to volunteer. I don't normally consider myself a pushy person, but I'm learning quickly that with a big group if you get everyone in on the decision making process, there are ten different opinions and everything dies in committee. The best way to do something is to present a plan already formulated, and if people don't want to do it then you can do something different with them another night.

Once the other teachers showed up, I announced my plans."We're having a welcome party for the new Japanese staff," I said between lessons. "We can either host it at Tropicoco's, or someone can volunteer their apartment." I received mostly non-committal mumblings. "Stuart, can you host it at your place? It's going to be at Tropicoco's otherwise. Tomorrow night okay? So is that a yes or a no? Can I start telling people it's at your place?" (I apologized to Stuart later for ambushing him on this).

When I recounted the whole thing to Shoko, she was less than pleased. "You have to be careful when inviting Japanese people," she said. "We don't like saying no directly, so if you press too hard we feel forced into things we don't want to do. When the new girl said she was busy Saturday night, she was probably just saying that because she didn't want to go. But when you asked for the next day, she felt like you were pressing her into it. I would hate to do something work related on my day off."

"But it's only a party," I said.

"You always get lonely so easily, so you always want to go out at night, and you think everyone else functions the same way" Shoko said. "But not everyone is like that. Many people are perfectly happy spending a quiet evening at home."
And when I mentioned that the new girl had been put in housing outside of Nakatsu, and would have to take a 20 minute train ride just to get to her own welcome party on her day off, Shoko really thought I blew it.

As she tends to do when she's pointing out my flaws, Shoko repeatedly harped on this point until I became angrily defensive. "I was trying to do something nice," I said. "It's not my fault if she doesn't know how to deal with invitations from foreigners. If you work in a job dealing with foreigners, you have to consider it an occupational hazard."

Even now I'm still not sure if the new staff girl appreciated or resented her welcome party. But everyone appeared to be all smiles when they arrived at Stuart's apartment.
Stuart had agreed to host on the condition that he not be responsible for feeding everyone, so we all brought something to share. I was afraid that there wouldn't be enough food to go around, but everyone brought generously, and there was plenty of food. (Of which I must confess I ate more than my fair share).

The party soon split into several smaller conversations. At one point I heard my name being mentioned across the room, and realized the Japanese staff were talking about me and Shoko.

"When Joel invited everyone over to his apartment, we were kind of anxious. We had never been to a foreigner's apartment before and didn't know what to expect. We poked our head in tentatively through the door, but then his girlfriend greeted us in Japanese and it was just like coming into a Japanese apartment. And she had tons of food already prepared so we didn't need to bring anything. It was really delicious." The more senior staff members were telling this story to the new girl.

At that point they must have realized I was listening in. (Or I had probably started staring in their direction. I never did get the knack of subtle eve's dropping). "We're talking about Shoko," one of them explained to me.

"Shoko who can't speak Japanese?" I asked.

"No, that never even came up," she responded.

(Shoko had sent me a cell phone text message earlier in the day saying she wouldn't be able to make it to the party. She had made a mistake with her Japanese spelling, and I had gleefully showed it around to everyone and tried to milk it for laughs as much as I could. "Shoko's Japanese, and yet she makes mistakes writing. How am I as a foreigner ever supposed to learn Japanese when Japanese people can't even do it right. No wonder my Japanese is so bad, Shoko's always giving me a bad model.")

"What is he talking about?" asked the new girl.

"Oh, Shoko sent him a Japanese text message today and forgot to type one letter and he's been making a huge deal about it," another staff responded. "He's being way too strict with her."

"If I made a mistake typing Japanese," I said, "Shoko would say something to me."

"That's because she's trying to help you study. Everyone is just trying to help you learn Japanese by correcting you. I correct you too sometimes."

Truth be told, I do actually appreciate all the corrections. Many Japanese people will not correct grammar out of fear of offending, so I had a good thing going here with so many Japanese people willing to correct my grammar all the time. I decided I better reign this joke in less I ruin everything. "Yes, yes, actually I do need the help. It is good of you and Shoko to correct me all the time," I answered.

At this point some words were exchanged in rapid Japanese between the staff which I didn't catch, but could tell it was in reference to me. Then one of the staff indicated the new girl and explained. "She says you remind her of her father."

I wasn't sure what this meant. Was it because I was criticizing everyone else's grammar (an old man habit if ever there was one). Or could it be the way I was sitting with my legs crossed on the chair and holding a tea cup in an old man type pose?

"What do you mean I remind her of her father."

Again, a quick consultation in Japanese, and then, "the way you look, and your attitude, and the kindness in your face."

It was supposed to be a compliment, and yet I felt I was a little young to be told I looked like people's father. This new staff girl was only 6 years my junior. Granted when I was 23 I would have thought someone my age was ancient as well, but do I really appear as a father figure to the early 20s generation already?

Plus my social awkwardness made me unsure how to react to this. What is the appropriate reaction when a 23 year old girl tells you that you remind her of her father. "Why, yes I'm sure I do. Thank you very much."

But the story did remind me of another time early this year when an 23 year old Australian had made a similar remark to me, so I changed the subject to that. "You know, Ben said he thought I acted like an old man as well," I said. "It was right after one of the kids classes finished, and the kids were running around screaming, and then we heard the shattering sound of broken glass in the bathroom. [Turned out they had broken the bathroom light]. And we were all in the staff room looking at each other and I just sighed and said, 'goddamn kids'. Ben laughed and said I had already turned into an old man."

The subject came up a couple more times later in the night. The new staff girl even proposed that my new nickname should be "daddy" at the Nova office. I wasn't sure if that was patronizing or if it sounded a little bit kinky, so I just mumbled something in response and let the subject go.

Link of the Day
The General Lies

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Suez Canal Crisis

Time out now for some random historical meanderings (because it's my blog and I can).

In addition to my long term interests, I also often indulge in various short lived "kicks" where I become incredibly interested in something for a couple days, read all I can about it, and then forget about. I know from conversation with some of you that your minds work the same way. (Mr. Guam and Mr. Bork, I'm primarily thinking of you two).

Of course the invention of the internet has made it a lot easier to sustain these obscure interests, which, especially in Japan, would otherwise have been just passing thoughts instead of one or two day obsessions. (I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Incredible time waster, isn't it? No wonder I've accomplished so little with my life).

Some of these short lived kicks sneak there way onto this blog in some form or another. Many more I never find an excuse to write about. As you already know from the title, today's topic is the Suez Canal crisis.

As a middle and high school student, I knew the Suez Canal crisis by name only. The first time I actually learned the details was at one of my history classes in Calvin, and I remember feeling a bit of pride for my country. I'm not famous for my patriotism, but I think the Suez crisis is one of the rare instances where the American government was the calm voice of reason, and our European allies were out of control.

(The Suez Crisis is one of those little events often not taught in high school history text books, but it should be. It demonstrates everything that calm headed US foreign policy should be, and the dangers of half cocked interventionism by other nations).

In the years since then when late night discussions turn to history and politics here in Japan, I often try and bring up the Suez Canal crisis whenever I think British friends are criticizing American foreign policy to aggressively. (Like many Americans who live abroad, I take the attitude that only I can criticize my own government).

The other night the discussion again turned to politics, I again brought up the Suez Canal crisis, and I found myself debating some of the finer points of the incident with a British friend. I should probably just have let it go, but unfortunately that's not the way my mind works. The other night when I had trouble sleeping I found myself on the internet searching google for videos and documentaries on the subject.

Which brings me to this post. I thought I'd share some of the more interesting links with you. (I know at least some of you are just as big of history geeks as I am).

First of all is this NPR broadcast last year marking the 50th anniversary of the Suez crisis. (You know, despite being in the US at the time, I must have missed all the stuff about the Suez crisis anniversary. I don't remember hearing anything about it at the time). It's a pretty short piece, so if you are going to be surfing the internet and checking e-mail for the next few minutes anyway, why not click on this and put it on in the background?

Also some kind soul uploaded this BBC documentary onto Youtube. To comply with youtube's size limit it is broken down into 9 parts, so you have to keep changing videos (which is slightly annoying). And it will probably be taken down in a couple days when youtube realizes the copyright violation. But until then if you have the time it is definitely worth watching. (Update: I learned a new trick. Just go to this play list page here, and click on play all videos for smoother watching).

Probably because it is the British documentary the American involvement in bringing about a cease-fire is down played a bit, but other than that it provides a fascinating look at the events that brought about the crisis, and its effect on British politics. Even though the parallels to today's war in Iraq would probably have been self evident by themselves, but the film makers do an excellent job of highlighting the comparisons and showing how history has repeated itself. This time around, however, America is unfortunately no longer the sober voice of reason. From a pacifist position, I wouldn't consider Eisenhower a saint, but I think he certainly was a pragmatist and did his best to avoid stupid wars. If only he was still alive today.

Link of the Day
Iraq Summer: Where do we go from here?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Journal 1/6/99

(Retrospection)

January 6--First day back into the Calvin Apartments after Christmas Break

I left my home at four for Calvin. Brett and Cecil had already came and left and were out sledding when I arrived.

As agreed I picked Rob Patton up from airport at 5:30. We got back to Calvin and hung out. I talked to Kyle Reidsema and Scott Witte for a while.

I had also agreed to pick up Dace and Ryan Dekruif from the airport. Janelle, when she heard I was returning to the airport, asked me to pick up Jeff Ryback for her. This was a last minute change of plans. I didn't know what Jeff Ryback looked like and he didn't know us. Plus he didn't know we were coming to pick him up [ed note: this being in the days before cell phones were widely in use and it was easy to change plans on a moments notice] and so he wouldn't even know to expect us. It was a disaster waiting to happen, but I agreed anyway.

I left for the airport at 9:40. Rob Patton and Abby Puls came along for the ride and to keep me company.

The Dekruif boys came in at 10:34. This was my first time meeting Ryan, the younger Dekruif, although I had certainly heard a lot about him from Dace. I offered to help carry their luggage: "load me up boys," I said. "Swags, I missed you," Dace responded.

It was a long time before we found Jeff, but because it was the first day back to Calvin we saw all sorts of other Calvin people in the airport in the meantime, including:

*the infamous Josh Chun,
* Elizabeth Edwards (Wizzy)--talked to her for briefly. Her roommate Margaret Irwin’s Plane was delayed, so Margaret won't get in until the following day
*Also ran into Nick 217, Joel Hoort, Jori & Bekah who were all there to pick up Jason Bode. I Hung out with this group for a while.

Eventually we somehow managed to find Jeff and rounded everyone up for the drive home. It was a bit cramped in the old Ford Explorer because we had 6 people (Me, Rob, Abby, Jeff, and the Dekruif boys). Plus a fair amount of luggage. But we made it back all right.

Once I got back on campus I went back to the old Boer Bennick with Dace, and hung out there for a while. Talked to Josh VanHaitsema among others.

It turned out that whilst I was hanging in Boer Bennick, some of the Boer Bennick boys were hanging out at our apartment. When I went back to our Delta 1 apartment, Matt Bosch and Butterball were there hanging out with my boys. Bosch and Butterball stayed till around 1:30, and I went to bed shortly after at 1:45.

Link of the Day
The Haditha Massacre: Spinning a War Crime

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

(movie review)

Believe it or not, this is the first time to see this movie....I know, where have I been?

The first time I remember even hearing about this movie was in 9th grade. My 9th grade religion teacher was on his favorite topic: how awful pre-marital sex was. For one reason or another this is one of those speeches that stuck in my memory, and I think I remember him pretty much verbatim:

"Hollywood movies always portray sex as glamorous. It's not glamorous. The only movie I ever saw that portrayed sex accurately was 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High'. And I can't recommend it to you because it's rated R, and it's rated R for some very good reasons. But there's a scene in the movie where a high school girl is on a date, and the guy only has one thing on his mind. And they end up having sex in the baseball bleachers and he's on top of her and she just has this look of horror on her face like 'what have I gotten myself into'."

My second encounter with this movie was back in the early days of the internet. We had a prodigy subscription at our house (remember Prodigy?) and I use to waste a lot of time on their movie review archive reading about movies I hadn't seen yet. (Scary how we never grow out of some of these childhood bad habits, isn't it? I still waste a lot of time reading junk on-line).

The prodigy review compared this movie to all the other teen sex flicks in the late 70s early 80s which featured a group of boys (the reviewer claimed "usually Southern") who went on several amorous adventures and glorious conquests. By contrast "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" provided a much more realistic look by focusing on the unglamorous side of teen sexuality: the disappointing first sexual encounter, the sister's friend walking in on the brother masturbating, and the lady's man who suffers from premature ejaculation. Not to mention the pregnancy and the abortion.

Based on these descriptions I always thought "Fast Times" would be a gritty somber flick. But then I began to notice I would usually hear it referenced alongside all of the other feel-good teen comedies of the 80s.

Over the years I caught bits and pieces of it on TV, but never managed to catch the whole thing straight through. I even sat through a good chunk of a dubbed version on late night Japanese TV, but didn't understand most of it.

And so the other day, when I saw it in my video store, I thought I might as well rent it and watch the whole thing beginning to end to see what this film was all about anyway.

I suspect I was probably the last person on earth who hadn't seen this film, but just in case there is anyone more out of touch than me let me recount the premise.

Journalist and child prodigy Cameron Crowe (whose own autobiographical story is told in the movie "Almost Famous") went back to high school at 22. He pretended to be a high school student and wrote a book about the kids he saw around him. Hollywood bought the rights to the book, and made the movie.

The book apparently takes a few liberties with the truth (composite characters, a few things switched around) and the movie takes a few liberties with the book, so it is a few steps removed from the real thing, but it is usually marketed as an unflinching look at high school reality.

This is a hard movie to classify. Part of it wants to be a serious look at high school problems. Part of it wants to be just another teen comedy. It's a movie that flirts with greatness, but ultimately doesn't really rise to the next level.

The DVD extras and the directors commentary offer some interesting insight into the battle with studio executives that helps to explain this. The studio wanted a nice generic teen comedy, and the director and writer had to battle them on a lot of points. Also it was interesting to hear that the director hated most of the songs on the soundtrack as much as I did. The studio insisted all those cheesy soft rock ballads be used in the movie. (Although there are some cool songs snuck in there as well. Another interesting tidbit from the DVD commentary is that it is virtually impossible to get Led Zeppelin songs for sound tracks, but because of Cameron Crowe's relationship with Zeppelin as a rock journalist, they obliged and gave him "Kashmir").

The film follows several different characters, which helps to keep it interesting, although as a consequence of that none of the plotlines are developed as much as I would have liked. And the Hollywood ending seems a bit tacked on.

The film does show the unglamorous side of teen sexuality, but it does not take a puritanical view, and I imagine there is a lot in here my 9th grade religion teacher would disapprove of. The film makers themselves (again on the DVD commentary) say the only reason the film could get made in the first place is that they got in right before the conservative 80s backlash got up to full strength.

But well the film may ultimately end on an unsatisfying note, it is certainly an entertaining movie to watch. Like a lot of teen movies, it showcases a lot of young future stars before they became famous.

Link of the Day
Apparently this Salon article has been making the blogging rounds:
Bush knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction
Salon exclusive: Two former CIA officers say the president squelched top-secret intelligence, and a briefing by George Tenet, months before invading Iraq.


And, just because I'm such a fair minded guy, here is a critique of the same article off of this modern world.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

To Have and Have Not

(movie Review)

Another old Humphrey Bogart movie. And once again he stars opposite Lauren Bacall as in "The Big Sleep" and "Key Largo". But actually I'm watching these out of order. This was the first movie that paired Bogart and Bacall up against each other and started the trend.

Also like "The Big Sleep" the screenwriting credits to this film go to none other than William Faulkner himself. And since the original book on which this film was based was written by Ernest Hemingway, I read somewhere on the internet that this is the first and only time in film history where a Nobel prize winner adopted the work of another Nobel prize winner for the silver screen.

Humphrey Bogart is once again playing his usual shtick as the reluctant hero who doesn't want to get involved in any trouble but is eventually forced by circumstances to act. It is more or less the same character he played in "Key Largo" and "Casablanca". By the third time I'm finding this role is wearing a bit thin, but I suppose it is my own fault for watching all of these Bogart movies together. I should probably have spaced them out a bit more.

Also like "Casablanca" this film takes place in a French colony and revolves around the political vacuum left by the capitulation of Paris and the struggle between the Vichy regime and the Free French Forces. Finally add to that the fact that one of Bogart's co-stars, Marcel Dalio, is the same from both movies, and it is easy to see why this film is often compared to "Casablanca". Which is unfortunate because "To Have and Have Not" suffers by the comparison. It is a good movie, but it is not in the same league as "Casablanca".

A few random thoughts about this movie
1)Like most people my image of Faulkner's screenwriting years is based off the movie "Barton Fink" (which, while I'm throwing movie recommendations around, is another movie worth watching, but that's a different subject for a different post). And although I know I shouldn't use satire as my primary source of information, I do remember a line from that movie when the mistress said the studio usually insisted Faulkner's screenplays include someone for the hero to protect, either a child or a mentally impaired man. (Or something like that, it's been a few years since I saw the movie. Does anyone out there remember the exact quote?)

Whether that line is based on fact or not I don't know, but there is a character in this movie, Eddie, who fits the bill exactly. He is referred to as a "rummy" by the other characters, but portrayed more like someone with autism. For one reason or another, Bogart's character has taken Eddie under his wing, and is constantly having to get him out of trouble or protect him from others.

I have nothing against autistics, but I always cringe a bit when they're played for comic relief in movies. Not only is it embarrassing to watch, it's just plain not funny. The character of Eddie functions similarly to Jar Jar Binks. He's not quite as bad as Jar Jar, but it's the same principle. There will be a dramatic scene, and Eddie will come in and just take it over with his child-like ramblings.

2). According the DVD extras "Making of" segment, the original Hemingway book dealt not with the conflict between Vichy and Free France but with the Cuban rebels. President Roosevelt was horrified about the studios making a film about rebellion in our ally Cuba, and so the Studio was threatened with having its export license revoked until they changed the setting of the movie.

I don't think artistically the movie suffers at all from this change, but it is disturbing to see these examples of government censorship. One wonders how many movies never got made because of this kind of pressure on the studios. One also can't help wondering how much of this is going on today.

3). According to Wikipedia (and every other review of this movie on the Internet) this movie is the source of one of the most famous lines in film history:
"You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow."

...Hmmm, when I heard it I thought it sounded vaguely familiar, but I really can't think of any instance where I've encountered this line outside of the movie. Maybe I'm just a little out of it.

It was certainly nowhere as near familiar as "Badges? We don't need no stinkin' Badges!"

Link of the Day
Via this modern world
If you didn’t catch this in the NY Times over the weekend, author Robert Draper recently received unprecedented access to Bush, six full hours of private interviews
(Rest of blog posting and some excerpts here)

Also via Crooks and Liars is a clip of Keith Olbermann taking Bush to task for some of the things he said in the book. "Keith absolutely lays waste to President Bush’s lies and rhetoric about the surge"

Monday, September 03, 2007

Key Largo

(Movie Review)

Another old classic movie. I figure well I'm on a roll, I might as well keep working through the classic movie section at my local video store. So far I've really been enjoying myself.

This is another film with Humphrey Bogart. And, like "The Big Sleep", he's paired up with Lauren Bacall again. (I think the two of them were married by this point, so they appeared opposite each other in a lot of movies).

My video store had this DVD in their "Hard Boiled" section, right alongside "The Big Sleep" and "The Maltese Falcon". Of course you always have to be careful about those labels, especially when you're in a foreign country and things don't always get translated well.

There's no denying this is a gangster movie, but I usually think of a hard boiled movie having a detective and maybe a mystery in it as well. From my perspective this is more of a "film noir". Although maybe not even that. (Aren't film noirs supposed to be dark and mysterious?) Maybe I'd just call this a gangster flick and leave it at that.

Okay, enough babbling about the genre. Onto the movie itself...
Humphrey Bogart plays an ex-soldier who goes down to the Florida Keys after the war to meet the father and wife of someone killed under his command. While he is visiting with them, it turns out that the mob boss Johnny Rocco (played by Edward G. Robinson) is using that hotel to stage his come back. Everyone in the hotel is taken hostage. And then the typhoon comes in.

Humphrey Bogart plays a character very similar to his character of Rick in "Casablanca": the reluctant hero who is disillusioned with ideals, and whose only ambition is to stay out of trouble. But, like Casablanca, events eventually force a crisis in which he is forced to act.

This film was made in 1948, and there is a lot of discussion about what kind of place the world is going to be after the big war is over, and whether mobsters and lowlife like Johnny Rocco are going to be able to flourish in the postwar world, are whether evil was wiped out with the fall of Hitler. The film bites off a little bit more than it can chew on some of this, and the philosophical questions are never really adequately dealt with or answered properly. But it still stands as an interesting time piece about the kind of things that were on people's minds immediately after the war.

All in all the film is watchable, but not outstanding. It certainly doesn't hold a candle to "The Big Sleep", "The Maltese Falcon" or "Casablanca", but it was a pleasant enough couple hours watching it. It moves at a slow pace, but once you get used to that I think these old films are really good at story telling, probably because they aren't reliant on special effects.

This film also stars Edward G. Robinson as the gangster boss. I had never heard of Edward G. Robinson before, but a little internet research reveals he was once a big star and at the time of this film more famous than Humphrey Bogart. He was primarily typecast for gangster roles, which isn't surprising based on his face. And, according to wikipedia, he is the basis for Chief Wiggum in "The Simpsons".

Since I consider myself a classic film buff, I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that I never heard of Edward G. Robinson. On the other hand, I imagine I'm probably pulling about average for my generation. (How many of you out there knew who Edward G. Robinson was?) People who grew up during the classic movie era obviously know all the stars. And even the baby boomers grew up with classic movies being re-run on TV and Saturday Matinees. But I think our generation, the post "Star Wars" generation, is the first generation to grow up largely ignorant of classic films. After Spielberg and Lucas came along, classic films just couldn't compete with all the punches being thrown by the new film makers, and we had too many other entertainment options available.

That's my theory anyway.

Link of the Day
Protesters pressure Ehlers on Iraq

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Treasure of Sierra Madre

(Movie Review)

Well, as you can see I've been on a bit of a roll lately with classic movies. And since I've really been enjoying everything I've been renting, I thought I'd keep going on this streak and see where it leads me.

Having had good luck lately with Humphrey Bogart movies, and seeing this in the video store looking like a good old fashioned adventure and bruised elbow movie, I thought I would check it out.

The movie starts out pretty interesting with Humphrey Bogart and his co-star playing down and out Gringos in post-revolutionary Mexico, mostly reduced to begging from other Americans and taking odd jobs (and getting taken advantage of in the process). Then they met an old prospector, and decide to go up in the mountains and look for gold.

It was at this point that I realized where this story was going, and realized I had heard this story a few times before. It's one of the oldest stories in the world: a few good men strike it rich, and then, in spite of themselves, their greed takes over and suddenly their at each other's throats. We've all heard variations of this story in many different movies, books, and fables. It is the kind of story that makes a good 15 minute Sunday School lesson for children, but stretched out over a 2 1/2 hour movie it gets old real fast.

And if it's not obvious enough to you what is going to happen, there's plenty of foreshadowing going on. The old prospector warns them ahead of time what gold does to men. Humphrey Bogart and his friend swear vehemently they will never let that happen to them which, to the viewer with any brains at all, is simply foreshadowing that they of course will become caught up in the gold craze.

From that point on the last two hours of the movie is a case of: "I know where this is going, now I just have to wait for it to get there" as the relationships among the three men slowly deteriorate after they strike it rich.

Fortunately there are a few complications thrown in along the way. For example a fourth man shows up and demands to take part in the gold digging expedition. And then all four men end up getting caught in the cross fire between the federales and the bandidos.

I didn't know it until I was watching it, but it turns out this movie is where the (slightly misquoted) famous line: "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!" comes from. I always used to wonder what the hell everyone was talking about when they referenced that line. Another one of life's mysteries solved.

(Wikipedia article here on movie line and its cultural relevance. Isn't wikipedia great?)

But then the story returns to the same old children's fable about 3 men fighting among themselves because of the treasure they found.

The acting and directing in this movie is all top notch. But the story was slightly too predictable for my taste.

Link of the Day
Will the Bush Dogs Roll Over and Play Dead Again?