Monday, October 26, 2009

Vacation, all I ever wanted/Timeless Movies

In France, public schools get quite a few more vacations than in America, which means that teachers like myself have the same privilege. This weekend, with the help of the local missionaries, I was finally able to get to my branch in Agen. There were about 18 people at church, a good turnout for the week. After the lesson was the ward Halloween party, where the three children present dressed up as a witch, a vampire, and a devil and began doing a treasure hunt for candy. After, we lobotomized pumpkins. A good time was had by all. I also discovered that one of the members is driving to Paris on Tuesday, which just so happens to be the day I was planning on going up. So long 120 Euro train ticket, hello 7 road trip with an old man!

I realize that my past couple posts may seem like I am having a bad time out here, but I'm really not. I just write about the things that get me thinking, and usually that has to do with human nature.

This week I had a translation deadline that, because of my own procrastination combined with my partner's abandoning the project, I was not going to finish. However, my friend, upon hearing of my predicament, volunteered to help out as best she could. This was a tedious and mind numbing chore that took me 12 hours or so on Friday to complete, and for the last 3 or 4 hours, she was right there with me. I offered to pay her, but she turned it down. All in all, a remarkably kind move on her part and one that has my faith in the general goodness of people somewhat restored. So in the interests of happy thoughts, I thought we'd go for a lighter topic this week.

She and I had a conversation in Bordeaux about movies, and its a conversation I've been carrying on with my students as well. I wanted a list of the top 5 classic movies. Before you all start writing about Citizen Kane, let me clarify. For what I'm looking for, a better word than 'classic' would be 'timeless'. I want a movie that you may have watched with your parents as a child, love today, and could someday show it to your children and grandchildren and expect it to have aged well enough that they love it as much as you did. Here is my list, though I reserve the right to change it.

1: The Star Wars Trilogy (Original)(1977, 1980, 1983): Yes, I'm counting all three as one movie, because its one story. No, I'm not going to rant about how much the new trilogy sucked. I actually kind of liked them...Or at least, I liked the third one, tolerated the second, and Liam Neeson was in the first. They do not, however, hold a candle to the old classics. These movies draw on timeless myths and stories, but its their lessons that stuck with me into adulthood. Faith, temptation, diligence, friendship, loyalty, family...each of these themes is touched on. Fear as an element that leads good intentions into bad ends. Unlearning negative modes of thought and believing in what you are doing. The eventual triumph of good over evil. Even one of the most sympathetic love stories of cinema, where a selfish smuggler and a proud princess who can't stand each other eventually overcome their own character flaws enough to become a perfect match for each other. These movies will be loved and quoted for generations to come.

2. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001,2002,2003): Again, three movies in one here. Beautiful scenery, special effects that are likely to age well, and once again, a movie that teaches morals and values that will stick with me. Good vs evil, hope in despair, these themes are as timeless as the counsel Gandalf gives the hobbits in their darkest hour. Not to mention a sweeping, epic soundtrack and glorious panoramic shots of New Zealand/Middle Earth and the most sympathetic schizophrenic computer generated villain to ever grace the silver screen...This is a movie even people who aren't fans of fantasy can appreciate. I'll go so far as to say it surpasses the books (sorry Tom Bombadil fans and Tolkien purists. Tolkien was a great inventor, visionary and linguist and the world he created is timeless...but when it comes to being an author, his dry obsession with historical minutia and Old Testament-style chronicles often turns people off to what is in reality an excellent story. Its a great story lost in pedantic prose). LOTR gets props for taking the essence of this great story and presenting it in a format that will reach audiences who don't have the patience to dig it out of dry old text, without dumbing down the important themes and lessons Tolkien included.

3. Indiana Jones-Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): (The Last Crusade could take this spot as well, though the Temple of Doom and the newest disappointment of the franchise could not). Again, a Lucas project but with Spieldberg on board. Who does not love the idea of an archaeologist treasure hunting Nazi hating Harrison Ford with a whip and dashing hat? John Williams returns to blow us away with an incredible soundtrack. I know there's not much of substance here, but its a fun movie and one that can be enjoyed at all ages. It really opened the door for action blockbusters to come, but none have come close to this pulp fiction style classic.

4. It's a Wonderful Life (1946): Jimmy Stewart has on screen charisma and a charming period accent that never ceases to be endearing. More important, however, is the message this movie lays out. "No man is a failure who has friends" It is not always obvious how many lives we might touch or influence for the better, but when times are darkest and the chips are down, it is our friends who truly make us rich. As someone who values friendship over money and the comforts it can provide, the message resonates. This is a movie I've watched almost every Christmas with my dad, and if I ever find myself in a fatherly role I'll definitely continue the tradition with my kids.

5. Gladiator (2000): The spot for number 5 could be filled by many different movies, but I chose Gladiator as a representative for the type of movie I have in mind. Like most of the others on my list, it teaches a moral lesson (which, upon further reflection, is the whole point of a storytelling tradition). What you do in life echoes in eternity. This is a story of courage, loyalty to one's values, and...just basic manliness. What it truly means to be a man, not 'work out, get lots of muscles, drink lots of beer, sleep with lots of women', but the value of keeping one's word, of fighting for what you believe in, of sacrificing yourself for the chance of creating a better world. A sweeping soundtrack and stirring script give this movie an epic feel that makes it stand out on my list when it is so often overlooked by more 'serious' movie critics.

And that's my list. In short, I value inspiring soundtracks, the hero's journey, powerful messages of morality, and I seem to be a sucker for heroic sacrifice for a lost cause (The ending of the Last Samurai, for example). Most of the movies on my list came out before I was born, but new classics like LOTR and Gladiator definitely deserve to join their older brothers.

What about you? Do you agree or disagree with the movies on my list? What are your criteria for timeless movies? What is your list?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Trip to Bordeaux and External Happiness

This past weekend, my faithful travel companion and I went once more to Bordeaux, this time with the intention of staying overnight so that we can finally attend church service in the morning.

The trip, like the ferris wheel that we rode while we were there, was a steady cycle of ups and downs. Upon arriving we checked into the Hotel facing the train station, Le Regina. It turned out to be rather nice and only a little more expensive than both of us getting a room at the hostel.

Other high points: Took some neat pictures of the city, got to explore a bit on my own and I took a power nap on a bench in front of a the Cathedral of..Saint Andre I believe. The Ferris Wheel was fun as well, getting to see the city from a bird's eye view..or at least a carnie's eye view. Plus: Ice cream shoppe!

Also, we made it to church, as I said, and I got to meet some friendly faces among the members of the ward there.

On external happiness:

How possible is it, realistically, to keep external factors from influencing your own happiness? Is it simply a matter of distancing yourself from the negative influence? Sometimes just walking away from the irritant is enough to maintain your own good mood. But what if you cannot do that? Can you create a forcefield of 'good vibrations' that keep out negative influence simply from positive thinking? It sounds very 60's era flower child, but most so called experts insist that you are ultimately the one responsible for your mood, and no one (or nothing) else.

The kingdom of Butan recently created a statistic called Gross National Happiness that is said to measure the amount of happiness the average citizen feels, as well as the collective happiness of the country. The United States has a similar statistic which tracks monetary wealth. We still believe in the pursuit of happiness, but in the western mindset, material wealth, even living above the poverty line, is an important factor contributing to the happiness of a population. In the more Eastern philosophy of Bhuddist Butan, wealth does not seem to enter into the equation.

Every liberal arts major in America would probably want to side with Butan on this one, but I have to wonder if its realistic to discount external factors like hardship, poverty, difficult times as having a significant effect on a person's happiness. If happiness comes solely from within, that implies that a person can be happy anywhere, and in any situation, given enough mastery of self. If external factors do apply, suddenly mastery of self is not enough. You must be willing to change the unpleasant situation. You must find a solution, be it as simple as walking away from the offending situation or working to overcome it.

Mulling this over, I believe that happiness does come from within, but it must be protected from without. Externalities can damage your sense of well being as surely as acid rain corrodes a cathedral. While a positive attitude can be maintained for at least some time, if you insist on ignoring the problem, eventually it will falter and even a seemingly bottomless pool of patience will run dry. Like the shields on the Millenium Falcon, a good attitude is not meant as a long term solution, merely something to buy you time while you escape those pesky TIE fighters into hyperspace.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Weekend in Nerac, and Scorpions

I'm moving my travel blog/musings while travelling to this one. To read older posts, you can go to .

Well, my friend and I tried another week to get to church on Sunday in Agen, but it remains completely elusive. Phone calls went unanswered. Buses didn't work. Trains don't come to Nerac. Finally, we decided to resort to the last possible option and ride bikes there. Her bike broke down before we left the school....

So it was a frustrating weekend, made more so by starting it off with miscommunication. Why is it so hard to have open, direct communication? It sure would save on a lot of frustration later.

Most arguments seem to arise when both parties are assuming the worst intentions of the other. Because we can never really be inside the head of someone else, we tend to project our own insecurities into what the other is thinking. Its gotten me thinking, I'm sure once my thoughts are organized I'll have more to say on it later.

The poem I posted also had me thinking about the story of the Tortoise and the Scorpion. Is it possible for someone to actually change their nature? Or are we only fooling ourselves when we think that someone is different now? Thousands of battered women continue to return to abusive relationships because of this very illusion. Montaigne was very skeptical about the possibility of true change, which repentance would implicate. "Sure, he treated me like garbage before, but he's different now!" However, Christianity is built around the premise that fundamentally flawed people can be essentially transformed through the Atonement. Is it only through super-human means that a person can actually change what they are? And how easy is it to revert? Does this sort of change necessitate permanence to qualify as 'change'? Greed, selfishness, cowardice, rage, pride...When one's character is largely defined by any of these qualities, is it wrong to expect that it will ever be any different? I tend to be optimistic about human nature...Am I being naive to think that a tiger can change its stripes? I want to believe that a cowardly lion can find courage, that a tin man can grow a heart. My concern is not entirely academic. Like most people, I try to blind myself to my own flaws, but upon reflection I am aware of quite a few. If a self-centered person can become empathetic, can I, a proud man, achieve humility?

We tend to think of our strengths as indivisible aspects of our character, as much a part of what we are as our bodies and spirits. Wit, humor, kindness, courage...these aren't qualities that we merely possess, they define us. "I am brave", not "I have an abundance of courage". "I am kind" not "I have quite a lot of kindness". By the same token, then, are not our negative qualities intrinsic to what makes us 'us'? We view them as cancers on the body of our personality, parasites or flaws to be removed to make the organism healthy and whole. But aren't these traits part of the 'whole' as much as the positive qualities are? Do they govern us as much as our nobler virtues, and are they as difficult to ignore or amputate?

The tortoise blamed the scorpion for stinging him and drowning them both, but was it not the tortoise's fault in assuming the scorpion would stop being what its nature compelled it to be? Should he not have just accepted that, as many nice qualities that the scorpion may have, it is inevitably going to do what its nature compels it to do and sting? What are you thoughts?

These are the thoughts that occupied my mind this weekend, making me much less of an entertaining host than my friend deserved. But, even with me in my own world for most of the visit, we were able to see some interesting sites in Nerac. Henry IV's castle, a park created by Queen Margot, two impressive churches, and a riverside cafe with delicious ice cream helped to console our failed attempts to leave the city.

Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace
-David Rakoff

Nathan, at one of the outlying tables,

his feet tangled up in the disk jockey's cables,

surveyed the room as unseen as a ghost

while he mulled over what he might say for his toast.

That the couple had asked him for this benediction

seemed at odds with them parking him here by the kitchen.

That he turned up at all was still a surprise,

and not just to him, it was there in the eyes

of the guests who had seen the mirage and drew near

and then covered their shock with a "Nathan, you're here.."

and then, silence, they had nothing to say beyond that.

A few of the braver souls lingered to chat.

They all knew...

It was neither a secret nor mystery

that he and the couple had quite an odd history.

Their bonds were a tangle of friendship and sex.

Josh, his best pal once, and Patty, his ex.

For awhile he could barely go out in the city

without being a punchline or object of pity.

"Poor Nathan" had virtually become his new name.

And so he showed up, just to show he was game,

though, his invite was late, a forgotten addendum.

For Nate, there could be no more clear referendum

that he need but endure through this evening and then

He would likely not see Josh and Patty again.

Josh's sister was speaking, a princess in peach.

Nathan dug in his pocket to study his speech.

He'd pored over bartlets for couplets to filch,

he'd stayed up until three, still came up with zilch,

except for instructions he'd underscored twice,

just two words in length and those words were: "Be Nice"

Too often, he thought, our emotions and betray us

and reason departs once we're up on the dais.

He'd witnessed uncomfortable moments where others had lost their way quickly,

where sisters and brothers had gotten too prickly,

and peppered their babbling

with stories of benders,or lesbian dabbling,

or spot-on impressions of mothers-in-law,

which, True, Nathan thought, always garnered guffaws

but the price seemed too high, with the laughs seldom cloaking

hostility masquerading as joking.

No, he'd swallow his rage and he'd bank all his fire,

he knew that in his case, the bar was set higher.

Folks were just waiting for him to erupt.

They'd be hungry for blood even though they had supped.

They'd want tears or some other unsightly reaction

and Nathan would not give them that satisfaction.

Though Patty, a harlot, and Josh was a lout,

At least Nathan knew what he'd not talk about.

"I won't wish them divorce, that they wither and sicken

or tonight that they choke on their salmon or chicken.

I won't mention that time when the cottage lost power

in that storm on the cape and they left for an hour.

And they thought it was just the cleverest ruse

to pretend it took that long to reset the fuse.

Or that time Josh advised me with so much insistence

that I should grant Patty a little more distance.

That the worst I could do was to hamper and crowd her

that if Patty felt stifled, she'd just take a powder.

That a plant needs its space just as much as its water.

and that I shouldn't give Patty that ring that I bought her.

Which, in retrospect only elicits a 'Gosh,

I hardly deserved a friend like you, Josh'.

No, I won't spill those beans or make myself foolish

to satisfy appetites venal and ghoulish.

I will not be the blot on this hellish affair."

And with that, Nathan pushed out and rose from his chair.

and just by the tapping of knife against crystal,

all eyes turned his way, like he'd fired off a pistol.

"Mmmhmm, Joshua, Patricia, dear family and friends,

A few words, if you will, before everything ends.

You've promised to honor, to love and obey.

We've quaffed our champagne and been cleansed by sorbet,

all in endorsement of your ‘hers and his-dom’.

So now let me add my two cents worth of wisdom.

I was racking my brain sitting here at this table,

until I remembered this suitable fable

that gets at a truth, though it may well distort us,

so herewith the tale of the scorpion and tortoise:

The scorpion was hamstrung, his tail all aquiver;

just how would he manage to get across the river?

“The water’s so deep,” he observed with a sigh,

which pricked at the ears of the tortoise nearby.

“Well why don’t you swim?” asked the slow-moving fellow,

“unless you’re afraid. I mean, what are you, yellow?”

“It isn’t a matter of fear or of whim,”

said the scorpion,

“but that i don’t know how to swim.”

“Ah, forgive me. I didn’t mean to be glib when

i said that. I figured you were an amphibian.”

“No offense taken,” the scorpion replied,

“but how about you help me to reach the far side?

You swim like a dream, and you have what I lack.

Let’s say you take me across on your back?”

“I’m really not sure that’s the best thing to do,”

said the tortoise, “now that i see that it’s you.

You’ve a less than ideal reputation preceding:

there’s talk of your victims all poisoned and bleeding.

You’re the scorpion — and how can I say this — but, well,

I just don’t feel safe with you riding my shell.”

The scorpion replied, “What would killing you prove?

We’d both drown, so tell me: how would that behoove

me to basically die at my very own hand

when all I desire is to be on dry land?”

The tortoise considered the scorpion’s defense.

When he gave it some thought, it made perfect sense.

The niggling voice in his mind he ignored,

and he swam to the bank and called out: “Climb aboard!”

But just a few moments from when they set sail,

the scorpion lashed out with his venomous tail.

The tortoise too late understood that he’d blundered

when he felt his flesh stabbed and his carapace sundered.

As he fought for his life, he said, “tell me why

you have done this! For now we will surely both die!”

“I don’t know!” cried the scorpion. “You never should trust

a creature like me because poison I must!

I’d claim some remorse or at least some compunction,

but I just can’t help it; my form is my function.

You thought I’d behave like my cousin, the crab,

but unlike him, it is but my nature to stab.”

The tortoise expired with one final quiver.

And then both of them sank, swallowed up by the river.

The tortoise was wrong to ignore all his doubts —

because in the end, friends, our natures will out.

So: what can we learn from their watery ends?

Is there some lesson on how to be friends?

I think what it means is that central to living

a life that is good is a life that’s forgiving.

We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether

we kiss or we wound. Still, we must come together.

Though it may spell destruction, we still ask for more —

since it beats staying dry but so lonely on shore.

So we make ourselves open while knowing full well

it’s essentially saying, “please, come pierce my shell.”