Mar 30 2010

Marriage vs. Unions

Marriage is an ancient institution whereby two or more people (generally one man and one woman) are officially pair-bonded in the eyes of the church and/or state (see also polygyny and polyandry). People that are married typically inherit legal, cultural, economical, moral, and spiritual rights and privileges withheld from non-married couples. Sometimes these benefits are intangible (i.e., social pressures), at other times they are very real (e.g., tax benefits, insurance premiums, health plan coverage, legal considerations). Most religions (that I’m familiar with) promote marriage as a foundation for stable and productive communities that are presumably more suitable for raising families (and future followers). Whether this is true or not is irrelevant due to the laundry list of benefits a couple can gain by Tying-the-Knot. Marriage has therefore become an entrenched institution within our society, despite ending in divorce 40% of the time (as of 2008).

Somewhere along the line, a politician got the idea that money could be made on licensing marriages. These laws may have initially been introduced as a way of prosecuting adultery (evident among 50% of males and 26% of females, according to Kinsey). They may have also been instituted to facilitate the probating of Wills. Later they were used to prevent miscegenation (as late as 2009). Whatever the reason, today in the United States, people wishing to marry are required to register with the county/state and then after a short wait period (often longer than is required to buy a handgun, and perhaps sensibly) either go before a Justice of the Peace or an official of whatever religious flavor they prefer. This final ritual is what makes the marriage official. This is ridiculous.

I am in no way against marriage. In this society, marriage has its benefits. At it’s heart, marriage is a legal contract. We can’t erase 1000s of years of historical precedence with one shuffle of the eraser, nor is that necessary or desirable. What we should do however, is sever the connection between church and state (as famously referenced by Thomas Jefferson in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists). Counties and states should retain the ability to issue Civil Union licenses to whomever seeks them. Restrictions based on age, kinship, and current marital status should probably be retained. After a reasonable waiting period, the interested parties should reappear before a state authority to be officially recognized. If the bride and groom wish to be married by a religious figure, there should be no problem with that, but no religious ceremony should be granted binding powers by the state. In order to make the change seamlessly however, all prior marriage ceremonies (religious ones included) should be given Civil Union status.

Why bother? Because the term “marriage” carries with it several millennia of unwieldy baggage. Many Christians for instance, insist that marriage should never join two people of the same gender. Since many religionists believe that morals stem from a supernatural source, the use of their terms are forever encumbered by the tenets of their faith. People that are not of that faith should not be similarly encumbered, especially by the laws of an allegedly secular nation. Before same-sex marriages were legalized in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington D.C. (and counting) many claimed that their legalization would destroy the institution of marriage and unravel the fabric of our society. It hasn’t happened yet. If it happens, same-sex marriage won’t be the cause. While the current trend of legalization is encouraging, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. The state should get out of the marriage business and concentrate on Civil Unions as the basis for determining a couple’s  legal standing. Leave marriage to the churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples.

“There’s no reason that the government should prevent homosexuals from entering civil marriages because some religions object to the concept, any more than the government should ban atheism because some religions object to it.” – Lisa Pampuch

Mar 30 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

Last night, a friend and I went to see Steve Pink’s sci-kitsch comedy, “Hot Tub Time Machine“. I’m not exactly sure why I wanted to see this movie; my expectations weren’t exactly high. I’ve liked time-travel comedies in the past (e.g., “Back to the Future” (1985), “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989), “Blast from the Past“), so maybe I was looking for more of the same? Maybe I just liked the name, reminds me of “Snakes on a Plane” (2006). I also like a number of the actors: John Cusack, Rob Corddry (of “The Daily Show” fame), Crispin Glover, and of course Chevy Chase. The preceding list are just the actors I was familiar with going into the movie, Clark Duke (soon to appear in “Kick-Ass” (2010)) and Craig Robinson (from the American version of “The Office”) more than held their own.

The movie follows a group of middle-aged friends whose lives haven’t turned-out quite the way they expected. When one of their number tries to commit suicide they are drawn together and decide to spend a weekend catching-up at an old ski resort that they frequented when they were younger. An accident with a Russian energy-drink short-circuits the hot tub and they are catapulted back to 1986 (makes perfect sense!) to relive a pivotal night of their young lives. Thankfully, the movie does not try to explain how or why this happens. The closest we get to an explanation is via random appearances of Chevy Chase as a hot tub repairman who may or may not know what’s going-on. During the movie, I thought the older men (Clark Duke’s character wasn’t alive in 1986) had been astrally-projected into their younger bodies, but the ending pretty much destroyed that theory. Again, the mechanics don’t matter because  time-travel (short of time-dilation) is probably not possible anyway.

So, did I like it? Yes, I did. As an aside, hot tubs inevitably remind me of the slow-motion opening of “Change of Seasons” (1980) with Bo Derek (horrible movie BTW, but that section of the VHS tape had tracking problems by the time we returned it… just saying) . Back to HTTM. Sure, the movie dragged here and there. Sure, I never knew whether to laugh or cringe at Chevy Chase’s deadpan performance. Sure, John Cusack played the same character he ALWAYS plays (though curiously, his sister was no where to be seen). Sure, the sole purpose of the script may have been to put doughy middle-aged men together with beautiful young ski-bunnies…. but it was still funny. Maybe that had to do with my pre-movie ritual margarita preparations (which are a requirement before seeing any comedy) but I kind of doubt it since they were pretty weak! The movie is packed with 80s pop and music references. Warning: if you don’t remember the 80s, you won’t get half of the jokes. The catheter scene had me laughing like I haven’t laughed (in a movie) in years. Low-brow, sure. Funny, yes! Glover’s bellboy character was awesome. But more than anything else, this will be Corddry’s ticket to bigger movies, much like “The 40 Year Old Virgin” was for Steve Carell. I only hope that enough people see it (it ranked #3 in it’s opening weekend) to make that happen. So… If bodily fluids can still make you snicker, if foul language doesn’t make you all uppity, if you can laugh at uncomfortable sexual humor, and you won’t be running off afterward to see if “A Brief History of Time” has any mention of Chernobyl soft-drinks… you have a good chance of liking this movie too.

“It looks like Gary Coleman’s forearm.”

4 out of 5

Mar 23 2010

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Last night, I finished Katherine Howe’s 2009 novel, “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane“. According to the book jacket, the author is a doctoral student of American and New England Studies at Boston University, much like the book’s protagonist Connie Goodwin. It’s hard to write anything about this book without exposing a great deal of its unfolding contents. If you don’t want spoilers, you might want to stop reading this review now. You’ve been warned.

The story begins moving when Connie gets a phone call from her New Age hippie-dippy mother, asking her to visit the long abandoned home of Connie’s grandmother. Connie is asked to clean the old place and prepare it for sale to pay off back taxes on the property. Connie agrees to this, despite her adviser’s wishes that she devote the summer to finding a unique primary source for her upcoming dissertation. She soon discovers that her grandmother’s home is a 17th century house that has belonged to her family for generations. The mystery begins when she finds a small piece of rolled paper tucked into the end of a key, bearing the name “Deliverance Dane”. Thus commences the best part of the book. Connie uses the paper scrap to uncover a lost story omitted from the history of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. I enjoyed how the story followed her research from source to source, even when some of those sources and breakthroughs fell into her lap. I hoped that Howe would be able to tie up the story neatly without delving into magic, but that didn’t end up being the case…

Despite my wishes, the book soon involved alchemy and vernacular magic, meaning magic that is real rather than just rituals performed by cunning folk or the fears and superstitions of pre-Enlightenment society. I guess I shouldn’t hold it against the author for writing a fantasy book rather than a historical mystery, but still I was disappointed. To its credit, the book does give a great deal of insight into the history of the witch trials. While Connie is trying to unravel the Deliverance mystery, the reader is treated to modern theories on elements that may have contributed to the panic in the first place. These included things I’d never thought of (not that I’ve ever given the Salem Witch Trials much thought) like: tensions between religious communities, witness hallucinations due to moldy bread  (I’d heard that one before), an attempt to reassert slipping Calvinist influences, and changing roles and power of women in society. The historical underpinnings of this book redeem it in many ways. I want to both pummel the author for taking the easy way out and congratulate her for exposing me to an interesting (and frightening) time in our history. In the end, the story’s history lessons won out.

I watched today as Giles Corey was presst to death between the stones. He had lain so for two dayes mute. With each stone they tolde him he must plead, lest more rocks be added. But he only whisperd, More weight. Standing in the crowde I found Goodwyfe Dane, who, as the last stone lower’d, went white, grippt my hand, and wept.” – Letter fragment dated “Salem Towne, September 16, 1692” Division of Rare Manuscripts, Boston Athenaeum

3.5 out of 5

Mar 17 2010

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Today I finished another book, Mark Twain’s 1885 classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn“. I’m pretty sure I’ve read an abridged version of the book before because some sections were very familiar, while others were completely new to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was handed an edited version in school as the 125 year old book continues to be controversial. A sequel to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876), Finn’s book humorously details the events of Huckleberry Finn and Jim’s rafting adventure down the Mississippi River. Twain’s original intent was to tell Huckleberry’s story through adulthood but he later abandoned the idea. Instead, the story ends with Huckleberry making plans to head west for “howling adventures amongst the Injuns”.

The book has been attacked by critics since its publication. Today, most criticisms of the book revolve around Twain’s treatment of Jim, the runaway slave. The language is harsh at times and the “black vernacular” sometimes made me cringe or shift uncomfortably. I guess that’s the desired result of years and years of Black History Month commercials and the cultural admonition that a certain N-word can only be used by blacks. That’s fine. More disturbing to me was the caricature of Jim as a simpleton. Although Jim’s compliance with every hare-brained scheme Finn (and others) submit him to, makes the story more manageable (for the author), it detracts from the character’s believability. In Chapter 15, it was child’s play for Huckleberry to convince Jim that he’d dreamed being lost in the fog just moments before (that’s just one of many examples). Coming out of the fog however, is the most symbolic and poignant part of the book (in my opinion… and that’s what blogs are all about, right?) because it is then that Huckleberry realizes that Jim is a person. This realization however, never seems to dislodge Huck’s notion that Jim is also property and that Huck himself is a bad person for facilitating Jim’s escape. More than once, Huck secretly laments helping Jim because, “What had poor Miss Watson [ever] done to him” to deserve this. It’s a conflict that follows Huck throughout the book and is never really resolved. I think that’s what I liked most about the book. Despite the fact that the ending is a bit over-the-top and wraps up rather neatly, the main conflict (Huck’s moral growth) is left incomplete. This is the most satisfying way for the story to end because although Huck, like the time that he “lived” may never change, they can forever remind us of what we’ve overcome.

“Well, I says to myself at last, I’m a-going to chance it; I’ll up and tell the truth this time, though it does seem most like setting down on a kag of powder and touching it off just to see where you’ll go to.”

5 out of 5

Mar 12 2010

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Today, I finished reading “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin“. My present classics crusade continues to open books that I never intended to read. This is a good thing. Franklin‘s unfinished “Memoirs” (as he referred to them) were published in several incomplete versions after his death in 1790. The reprinted edition I read, printed by John Bigelow in 1868, included a number of Franklin’s correspondences. These were included to help fill gaps but mostly distract from the narrative. Bigelow’s version also remedied changes made to the original manuscript by Franklin’s grandson William Temple Franklin in 1818. I have belatedly discovered that a more complete and accurate version was published in 1981 entitled “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: A Genetic Text”. I mention this for the benefit of others; I have no intention of re-reading the book at this time.

The book is divided into three main sections (plus addenda), each written by Franklin at a different time and place in his life. The detailed account ends abruptly in 1757, shortly following a visit to Stonehenge. This is unfortunate since Franklin’ s story had only begun to unfold when the narrative ends. It seems strange to include a list of things omitted (because of his death) while reviewing the book, except to give some idea of what his full autobiography could have included, e.g., opposition of the Stamp Act (1765); meetings with Thomas Paine (1774); delegation to the Second Continental Congress (1775); signer of the Declaration of Independence (1776), Treaty of Paris (1783), Treaty of Alliance (1778), and the Constitution (1787); Ambassador to France (1776-1785); President of Pennsylvania (1785); opinions on the State of Franklin (1784-1790); his essays calling for the abolition of slavery (1789), &c. While the details of these historical connections can be found in most American History books, Franklin’s autobiography is most worthwhile for his observations and insights.

I was most taken by two elements of the story. The first element that intrigued me, was Franklin’s enumeration of his life’s errata. I may have to explore this concept on my own at some point. Moving on… The second element was his list of Thirteen Virtues, which he famously strove to live by and credited with his life’s great successes. He took great care to define these in such a way that their meanings would not be misinterpreted. He even developed a method for monitoring how well he lived by this plan, developed when he was 20 years old. This endeavor was particularly interesting to me as I have long considered developing my own “commandments”, being dissatisfied (for obvious reasons) with the Mosaic laws. I realize there’s a wide difference between virtues and laws, but the idea germinating in my skull could go either way, or eventually incorporate both. I now have more to think about, which (to me) is the desired result of reading.

“Human felicity is produc’d not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.”

4 out of 5

Mar 6 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Last night, we went to see Tim Burton’s newest creation “Alice in Wonderland” in 3-D. There was a 2-D version available at the theater for the “No glasses for me, thanks!” crowd, otherwise known as the “$10 dollars a ticket is more than enough, thanks!” crowd. I have been a long-time fan of Tim Burton movies, “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) being one of my all-time favorites. Which is why I’m sad to report, that I have also watched the overall decline of his movies over the years (exceptions: “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)  and a number of films that he produced). I’m not entirely sure why that is. Burton still fills his movies with twisted and leafless Hallowe’en forests populated with strange and melancholy characters, all picking their ways through gloomy sets, and seasoned with generous dashes (gashes?) of dark humor… but somewhere between “Vincent” (1982) and today, all of these wonderfully imaginative dream-scapes became monotonous. That’s a really painful admission for me to make, because I love Burton’s artistic vision. He has a style that no one else in Hollywood can even come close to… (except perhaps Terry Gilliam) but maybe that’s because no one else needs to, because Burton has done it to death?

The movie is based on the book of (nearly) the same name by Lewis Carroll in addition to his 1872 poem “The Jabberwocky” (originally appearing in “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There“). Thirteen years after her first adventure down the rabbit hole, Alice’s only memories of Wonderland are strange recurrent dreams that have persisted into adulthood. During her second visit, she finds a blighted landscape occupied by familiar but Burton-ized characters, all living under the tyrannical rule of Helena Bonham-Carter’s hydrocephalitic Red Queen (every time I saw her I started thinking of the old Steve Madden advertisements). It is soon revealed that on Frabjous Day, Alice is destined to confront the catching claws of the Red Queen’s champion, Jabberwocky. Helping Alice along the way are a number of computer generated characters  led by Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. I must admit that I walked past the poster for this movie for several months without realizing that the iridescent eyed Hatter was Depp. When you finally hear and see him on the screen however, you realize that even five pounds of make-up, mismatched contact lenses, and a fright wig cannot disguise him. I wonder where Depp’s career would be without Tim Burton?

So, is the movie any good? It’s okay… I would rather Tim Burton had made a movie based on “Lost Girls” (1995 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie) about the erotic adventures of Alice, Dorothy (of Wizard of Oz fame), and Wendy (of Peter Pan renown). Not sure what Burton porn would be like but at least it would be different. Extra credit: If Mia Wasikowska (the Alice from this movie) agreed to star, I’d be in line for the sneak preview… Well, maybe not. Not sure I’d want to sit in the skeevy kind of places that show those movies. You never know when you might be sitting next to a Paul Reubens wanna-be with bad aim.

“What a regrettably large head you have. I would very much like to hat it. I use to hat The White Queen, you know. Her head was so small.” “It’s tiny. It’s a pimple of a head.” – Mad Hatter to the Red Queen with rejoinder

3.5 out of 5

Mar 5 2010


Yesterday, I finished Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece, “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale“. I have been meaning to read (or finish) this book for several years. A month ago I decided to pick it up again, start from the beginning, and read it all the way through. The underlying story is a good one (duh, it’s considered by many to be the “great american novel“) but is interrupted throughout by long discourses of whales, whaling, the anatomy of whales, the history of whales, whales in art, whale legends, whale-men (loosely defined) , sailing ships, ship minutiae, &c. While some of these digressions were interesting (I spent a great deal of time researching all the names and places mentioned), for chapters at a time I was hoping that the next few pages would kindly deposit me back into the story itself. When the story did spout again, it was interesting, but it would soon veer off to describe some other tangentially-relevant details. It was like listening to a storyteller with Attention Deficit Disorder. In fact, Melville used the narrator, an educated sailor/teacher named Ishmael, to expound on all aspects of whaling, because he felt the subject was largely unknown to the public. He was determined to write a good story that was also educational. It’s also interesting to note that many of the story’s elements were based on real events.

The book follows the whaling ship Pequod around the world as the revenge-driven Captain Ahab searches the sea for the white whale Moby Dick. During the course of this ocean-spanning hunt, the reader is introduced to a number of characters including: Ishmael (narrator for most of the story), Queequeg (a south Pacific cannibal and harpooner), Ahab (ship’s captain who has forsaken all other earthly concerns for this one, soul-destroying pursuit), Pip (young black man who curiously loses his identity when abandoned to the waves), Starbuck (first mate who wrestles with thoughts of murdering Ahab so that he and ship may escape their doom), and many others. While the ending, of course, is one of the most memorable literary scenes in all American literature, the most touching scene (for me) was the abandonment of The Rachel in Chapter 128.

Much has been written about the allegory and symbolism of the story and its characters. I feel neither obligated nor capable of adding insight that hasn’t been already been elaborated upon ad infinitum. I would only suggest that having finished, readers should explore the book a little further, even if they only peruse the Wikipedia section on themes. There are a great many layers to the story and it would be a mistake not to examine those elements further.

So, what is left? I usually finish these reviews with a quote. I wanted to pick one from Queequeg, my favorite character, but there’s just too many others to choose from. I could use Ahab’s final “…to the last I grapple with thee…” but who doesn’t use that? Since I can’t make up my mind, I guess my only option is to end with a number of quotes.

“I try all things; I achieve what I can.”

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

“…there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”

4.5 out of 5