Friday, November 20, 2015

Dear Breakfast Club,

I read your letter to Mr. Vernon, and I gotta say…you’re totally right. He, your parents, and most adults only see you as they want to see you, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.

But, we’re not the only ones that do that. You, too, only see him, your parents, and most adults in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see them as authoritative figures who don’t know you, don’t understand you, and don’t care about you. And while that may be true some of the time, and it’s not true all of the time. As a matter of fact, they, too, have, at different points in their lives, been the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, and, yes, even the criminal.

You see, the dirty little secret is that all that angst you feel now can and often does follow you long after you grow up. The pressure to succeed that Brian “The Brain” and Andrew “The Athlete” feel just morph into other pressures like bills, debt, or just keeping up with the Joneses.  And, just like Andrew, that pressure may tempt you to embarrass or ridicule others in order to feel better about yourself. Or, just like Brian, that pressure may make you suicidal, or even homicidal.

But it’s not just about the pressure to succeed. It’s also the burden of judgment that Claire “The Princess” and Bender “The Criminal” face. Long after Claire survives the gossip and mean girls of high school, she will continue dealing with the vindictive and vicious expectation to stay young, beautiful, and popular that many, many women endure well into adulthood. So don’t be surprised if she, or you, continue dealing with that judgment by dishing it right back out to others in lies, insults, and other forms of verbal torture.

And don’t forget that the high expectations that burden the smart, athletic, or popular kids are just as bad as the low expectations that weigh down on “criminals” like Bender.
Just like him, you may find that other people will continue underestimating you and thinking the worst of you years or even decades after you graduate from high school. That may, in fact, turn you into an actual criminal. And believe me, many, many grown ups do that; it’s just not all of them get caught.

Given all these pressures, is it any wonder that not more of us become “basket cases” like Allison, who cheat and lie and steal in a vain attempt to fill the void that fills many of our souls?

But, alas, I digress. Let me get to the point.

If it’s anything you should learn from today’s Saturday detention, it’s this:

Now that you know that each one of you is, in some way or another, a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal, please be less judgmental and much more accepting, understanding, and forgiving of each other and yourselves. That, I believe, is how you can avoid what Allison worried about when she said, “When you grow up, your heart dies.”

So, on behalf of your future selves,
take it from someone aching for his former self:

Stay cool, stay true, and stay you.

Sincerely yours,

Carl “The Janitor”

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Galvinizing Review--Arin Greenwood's "Tropical Depression"

The odd thing about writing a book review—or a review of any work for that matter—is that the review, or re-view, is as much a re-flection of the reviewer as it is a reflection of the work itself. So as I read Arin Greenwood’s “Tropical Depression”, a not-so-fictitious (only a few of the names are changed to protect the guilty), somewhat hyperbolic, more-than-semi autobiographical tale of my home islands, I couldn’t help but read it through my lens—what the anthropologist Paul Rabinow called the “insider’s outsider”, a native who never feels quite at home in his native town, but isn’t exactly an outsider either, hence the label, insider’s outsider.

As an insider’s outsider, I found myself feeling many of the contradictory, paradoxical emotions that the novel’s speaker feels—defensive, apologetic, embarrassed, disturbed, forgiving, amused, uplifted, and sublime all at the same time—about how horribly and beautifully insane, or how insanely horrible and beautiful, our islands are. The speaker, Nina, puts it best upon returning to New York City after a year in “Miramar”, when Nina’s friends (don’t quite) want to know more about the island, to which Nina tells herself, “They do not want to hear confusing stories about parasailing accidents and the CIA’s deep involvement with Russian refugees. I can’t tell them about George and Brad, Robin and the judges and the secretaries and the CIA, Erika and Rory, unpaved roads, strip clubs, cockfights, karaoke with the mafia, parasailing ropes snapping, fecal lagoons, missing Max [her ex-lover] and bitter haoles and the cows at the court and how delicious mangoes are when you get them from the right store.”

Indeed, “mercenaries, missionaries, and misfits” (Arin’s labels for the three kinds of American expatriates who find themselves in Miramar) come to the islands with many misperceptions and dysperceptions about the islands, only to be disillusioned by the stark contrast and contentious conflict between their own self-righteousness and the islands’ own self-wrongness. Arin’s novel is thus not a postcard but, rather, a kaleidoscopic memoir of one such expat’s attempt to capture the psychological and cultural dissonance that can result.

That dissonance is fertile ground for humor, which Arin sprinkles throughout the novel with the clever but forgiving wit of a curious, observant, and only sometimes judgmental travel writer. (That should come as no surprise given Arin’s experience in travel writing.) Finding cows grazing in front of the islands’ Supreme Court house and chickens milling about on the airport runway; unwittingly drinking undrinkable tap water; trying to be a vegetarian on an island obsessed with meat, especially SPAM; frequenting poker clubs-slash-strip clubs-slash-karaoke joints; and reluctantly swimming in a beautiful lagoon contaminated by fecal matter are just some of the bizarrities (Yes, I made that word up. Isn’t it a cool and useful word?) that had me laughing throughout my read.

But the real bizzarities are the characters of the novel, who come to Technicolor life because they are based on real people living surreal lives. (Marquez’s magic realism pales in contrast to the novel’s surrealism.) The novel vividly presents a motley crew of missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits who are immensely diverse and distinct, yet share the common experience of being strange people in a strange land. (And boy do they drink and party and drink, which is a very verifiable reflection of the veritas of expats on the islands.) The novel also delves somewhat into the stories behind the foreign workers of Miramar, but linguistic and cultural barriers prevent the novel from providing any deep character studies of these equally diverse and distinct strangers in a strange land.

If the novel’s characterization of foreigners is shallow, the novel’s portrayal of the indigenous people was deeply depressing, only because it was so spot-on. While there are many redeeming characteristics in the local characters, the novel astutely observes that local politicians are crass and corrupt, local kids are raised by foreign nannies, and local cultures are fading away. (In that sense, Miramar is not so different from New York City.)

While locals might take offense to an outsider pointing these things out, Arin’s non-judgmental travel-writing tone spares the novel from the usual self-righteous indignation that characterizes much of what haoles say and write about the islands. In fact, I found her treatment of local characters, much like her treatment of expat characters, to be incredibly humane. Although the novel is sometimes a bit too neurotically myopic, it does take us past caricatures of its characters and into the depths of who these people really are, with all their warts and ticks and struggles and joys. Just as the expats struggle to find themselves in this Island of the Lost, the locals struggle to find themselves in their lost island.

(There is one exception to this depth and that is the one character I could not stand, Brad. He is too cool and hip and unbelievably Indiana Jones/James Bond-ish to be real or have any real depth. Brad is, in my book, a classic douche bag.)

At its heart, and what I found most endearing, “Tropical Depression” is a simple and timeless tale of unrequited love. Having lost her love in New York City, Nina loses herself in the tropics, looking for (what she thinks is) love in others, even if what she’s really looking for is still in New York, 6,000 miles away from Miramar. And, like many tales of unrequited love, in the end, she struggles not to find love, but to let go of the love that has been lost, and in the process, find not love, but herself.

Reading Arin’s story of a haole in the tropics reminded me of my days as an islander in the Pacific Northwest. I used to get depressed yet happy in Tacoma—wet, cold, yet content to wrap myself up cozily in the dense greenery, misty weather, and fog-filled mornings. Likewise (or in complete contrast), Arin’s heroine finds herself depressed yet happy in Miramar—humid, hot, yet content to wrap herself up cozily in the dense jungle, stormy/sunny weather, and hung-over mornings. She finds herself tropically depressed in the tropics. But, after losing herself in its metaphorical and literal jungles, she finds her way out of the tropics, out of her depression, and into herself.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Galvinizing Review--Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

As if the 8-bit version of the Universal opening theme song wasn’t awesome enough to make you love this movie, the rest of the movie just kicks ass. Suffice to say that although I’ve never seen any other movies by Edgar Wright (I know, it’s a crime that I have yet to watch “Hot Fuzz” or “Shaun of the Dead” and I suppose I could watch either movie when it shows up on TV, but I hate commercials. So, Netflix queue, here they come!), after watching “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” for, like, ten times, I can say, by the authority vested in me as someone who loves kick-ass movies, that Edgar Wright is officially the most awesome director…at least of the past six months.

Because I love this movie so much, I’m not sure I can communicate anything coherently. So, in lieu of a brilliant, lucid, succinct review, and as a homage to Nick Hornby’s novel “High Fidelity”, I offer the following list: Ten Awesome Things about “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”
1. The soundtrack. The Pixies, low-fi bass rifts, Beck-inspired singles, and Beachwood Sparks and their cover of Sade’s “By Your Side” are just some of the reasons that this soundtrack rocks every second of the movie.
2. The Smashing Pumpkin t-shirts. Any movie that make any reference to the Smashing Pumpkins is cool in my book. (Sadly, though, not a single SP song is used in the film.)
3. It takes place in Canada. Canada’s cool.
4. It is framed as a classic video game of the classic Nintendo variety. (Who doesn’t remember playing Super Mario for all those coins?)
5. The trivia about Pac Man is erudite yet funny.
6. The soundtrack (Okay, it’s so awesome it deserves two slots on this Top Ten list.)
7. The script. It’s clever, witty, snappy, hella funny, and so true to-yet removed from real life with some of the greatest, most awesome-est lines ever. Here’s a taste and by no means is this an exhaustive list:
“Listen, I was thinking, we should break up…or whatever.”
“We gotta get some buzz goin’. We need ground swell. We need stalkers.”
“What? I’m not afraid to hit a girl. I’m a rock star.”
“You punched the highlights out of her hair!”
“I was just a little bi-curious./Well, honey, I’m a little bi-furious!”
“I’m in Lesbians with you.”
“Well if my cathedral of cutting edge taste holds no interest for your tragically Canadian sensibilities, then I shall be forced to grant you a swift exit from the premises…and a fast entrance into hell!”
“Dying’s gotta suck./You know what’s sucks? Getting killed by that guy.”
“Young Neil, you have learned well. From this point forward, you will be known as: Neil.”)
8. The movie is faithful to the story’s graphic novel origins. In fact, the complete 7-volume set is sitting in my wish list. (Hint, hint, nudge, nudge anyone for my birthday or just because!)
9. Bleeping out the profanity. It helped me allow my kids to watch it and love it with me. (Not that that’s ever stopped me before given that I agree with John Milton’s argument in “Areopagitica” that cloistered virtue is no virtue at all.)
10. Bass Battle. ‘Nuff said.

This movie is so awesome that a Top Ten list cannot do it justice. So, here are Ten More Awesome Things about “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” that didn’t quite make the list:
1. The character, Comeau, played by Nelson Franklin: a douche bag who knows everyone but knows nothing. (Greatest line, when listening to a live performance of a band, “You should see them live, they’re much better live.”)
2. Did I mention that the soundtrack rocks?
3. My wife and kids love it as much as I do. (Well, maybe not as much as I do.)
4. One of the shortest songs ever performed in a movie: “We hate you; please die.”
5. The pee-meter.
6. One of the coolest band names ever with the coolest intros. ( “We are Sex Bob-omb and we’re here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff.”)
7. Chris Evans (you know, The Human Torch from “Fantastic Four” and the next Captain America) as Lucas Lee, a caricature of the action hero with the commiserate caricature lines like “Kiss me, I’m dying,” or “The only thing keeping me and her apart are the two minutes it’s gonna take for me to kick your ass.”
8. Michael Cera doing choreographed martial arts proves that lanky geeks can fight!
9. Bill Hader’s over-the-top narration.
10. Vegan Police. (You’ll have to watch the movie to see what that’s all about.)

For these reasons, and so much more, I give “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” 10 out of 5 bass guitars.

Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Resolution

My New Year’s resolution is to be true to myself, listen to my heart, and follow my passions. Two of my passions are writing and movies. So, to merge the two, I’ll be posting reviews of movies on my blog and on FB. You can either read my notes or watch the video versions of the reviews—whatever floats your boat or stirs your oatmeal. I welcome your input, so long as it’s constructive. (Anonymous, spineless cyber-rats need not apply.) Enjoy!

Galvinizing Review--Yogi Bear (2010)

The good thing about reading bad reviews of a movie you’re about to watch is that it lowers your expectations enough to be pleasantly surprised by how NOT bad the movie was. That was the case with Yogi Bear, which I recently, albeit reluctantly, watched with my eight year old son. While it won’t win any Oscars, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Before going any further, though, some disclaimers are in order. First, I have been spoiled by Pixar, which, borrowing from its Google friends south of the Bay, can do no wrong. So, it would be unfair to compare Yogi Bear to any Pixar movie, one of which HAS been nominated for an Oscar. Second, I did not watch the movie in 3-D. (Although I’m not sure that would have made it any better. The 3-D images seemed superfluous. Then again, when a movie’s main character is a talking bear, what about that movie isn’t superfluous?) Third and last, as I mentioned earlier, I lowered my expectations going into the movie, so I am grading it on a very low curve here.

Now that I’ve dispensed with the disclaimers, I can talk about the movie itself.

But before I do that, I should mention that the movie, stealing a page from Pixar, started off with a funny and nostalgic Road Runner/Wile E Coyote short. That was a nice treat. I took me back to my childhood days of watching poor old Wile E chasing Road Runner. (I still feel sorry for him and hate the Road Runner. And I have always wondered why he’s chasing the Road Runner anyway? What’s so special about the Road Runner? S/he is such an annoying tease, like girls I that wouldn’t give me the time of day in high school and college. But I digress.) The short was classic Loony Tunes that stayed true to the original formula with only a modern technology twist. Watching Yogi Bear was worth catching that short.

Okay, like for real now, time to talk about the movie itself.

Here’s my quick synopsis without a spoiler: Yogi (voiced by Dan Aykroyd) causes mayhem stealing picnic baskets in Jellystone National Park while his close friend, Boo-boo (voiced by Justin Timberlake), tries to help him and keep him out of trouble with the not-so-goofy goofy Head Ranger Smith (played by Tom Cavanagh). The plot of the movie kicks in when the mayor (played by Andrew Daly) attempts to sell off the park to loggers in order to dig his city out of a budget deficit, give voters money from the subsequent budget surplus, (Hmmmm…stimulus package reference, anyone?), and thus position himself to win his run for state governor. Along the way, Ranger Smith falls for the goofy Rachel (played by the awesome and really goofy Anna Faris), an extreme nature film-maker who shoots a documentary about Yogi and ends up helping Ranger Smith and Yogi save the park.

So the eco-friendly plot was cool, and very fitting for a story set in a national park. I appreciated my son getting that moral. (Or did he?) And although trite, the plot was believable enough, especially in this era of perennial fiscal crisis when every government is looking everywhere for revenue.

As for funny, I found myself laughing against my will, perhaps not as much as my son, who laughed at will. Aykroyd may not be funny as he used to be and Timberlake and Cavanagh were bland as cold tofu, but Faris was very, very funny because she is always, always funny.

(Remember her in all those “Scary Movie” movies?) The human side of the script was hella funny and clearly directed towards an adult sensibility, and Daly as the mayor was by far the funniest part of the movie. His blatant portrayal of a blatant politician was frighteningly accurate, akin to Robert Redford in “The Candidate” or Warren Beatty in “Bulworth”, and his Chief of Staff (played by Nate Corddry) filled the sycophant role all too well.

But, most important of all, my son thoroughly enjoyed himself. And that made it worth forking out my money, spending my time, and lowering my film standards.

I give it 3 out of 5 picnic baskets.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What We Need Is Humility

Recently, Rik Villegas, an Instructor in Northern Marianas College’s Business Department and regular columnist for the Saipan Tribune, solicited input on an article he is writing as a follow-up to his 1999 article, “The One Thing”. As he put it, “I’m writing to ask your input and share with me what you feel “the one thing” is that could be the catalyst to turn things around at the College and positively impact the community.”

In response, I wrote the following:

I believe the most important catalyst we need to turn things around at the College, "The One Thing", is humility.

No one is perfect. We all know that. We all make mistakes. Still, rarely does anyone have the humility to admit those mistakes, learn from them, and use those lessons to do better next time. That’s a recipe for disaster, especially when our mistakes affect others.

As I see it, dysfunctional relationships and habits have plagued NMC for so long that they have compromised our ability to fulfill its mission. However, just as with any dysfunctional relationship, one must get past denial and fess up to the mistakes one has made. Only then will that relationship change and flourish. If we all spend our time pointing out the splinters in each others' eyes, we grow blind to the planks in our own eyes.

I know that I, too, have suffered from this hubris. I have sometimes failed to exercise due diligence in making important decisions that affect others. I have sometimes focused so much on the big picture that I failed to notice those details that betray the beauty of that picture. I have sometimes trusted those I should have doubted, and doubted those I should have trusted. And I have sometimes fell into silent acquiescence when I should have stood in thunderous protest.

These are just some of the mistakes I have made. And I know that I will make many more. But I hope that I will always be humble enough to acknowledge my mistakes, learn from them, and commit to correcting them and improving who I am, what I do, and how I treat others. It is my hope that we will all do the same.

So, for me, "The One Thing" that can turn the College around and, perhaps, turn our entire community around, is humility.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Philosopher Children

This is a great article on how some teachers are using children's books to teach children philosophy. No child left behind? How about no thought left behind? Check it out and share you thoughts in the comments section.