Saturday, April 28, 2007

Dumbstruck in Starbucks

In my screenwriting class last fall, our professor urged us to become aware of the life going on all around us. He insisted that if we only opened our eyes, life would give us more than enough ideas for our burgeoning scripts. I was reminded of that advice this morning as I sat in my local Starbucks, pouring over reading material in advance of writing my last of three final papers.

* * *

I first noticed her at the condiment table across the room. Young and very attractive, she was also rail thin, wearing skin-tight leotards that accentuated her waif’s profile. But it wasn’t her weight, or lack thereof that captured my attention. As she stood at the table, surveying the decanters of cream and reservoirs of sugar, stir sticks and napkins, she removed the lid of her venti drink, picked up a shaker of chocolate powder and began methodically tapping the bottom, sending a blizzard of brown over her frothed milk.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Done, she picked up another shaker, this one containing vanilla powder and with her index finger, continued the percussion.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Then the chocolate again, same number of taps as before.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Then the vanilla.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

It was a ritual that lasted nearly ten minutes. Back and forth. Again and again. Other patrons tried to work around her as she slowly and resolutely prepared her drink, apparently oblivious.

It was a good thing she was oblivious, because I couldn’t take my eyes off her. What was she doing? Wasn’t a couple of taps enough? Perhaps there was something wrong with the shakers? Clogged maybe. No, everything was too rehearsed, too deliberate; this was how she always did it.

Finally satisfied, she reattached the lid, grasped a notebook and pen with two fingers, and holding them as if they were a dead animal, went in search of a table. The only open one was across from me and she unhurriedly moved towards it. The table was one of those that double as a game board, segmented into grids of alternating colors for chess or checkers. She placed her drink down, seeming to take great care to position is exactly over a specific square. Then she looked down. Like the tabletop, the floor was a pattern of square linoleum panels. Unsatisfied with the orientation of the table, she circled it several times, and with as few fingers as possible, pulled it this way and that until it rested with exquisite geometry between a quadrant of squares. She did the same to her chair, taking several minutes to get it just right before easing into it with all the speed and effortlessness of an arthritic geriatric. Ever aware of the lines on the floor, she bent over to look at her feet, and brought them together with military stiffness. If she ever found herself even slightly misaligned, one foot would suddenly float free of the floor, hover for a few moments and when properly adjusted, come to rest again, the perfect mirror image of its twin.

Content, she took up one of her napkins and folded it in half. No, not folded, doubled it over as if she were preparing an origami crane out of Egyptian papyrus, making sure to squeeze the fold sharp. Everything she did was protracted and deliberate, as if underwater or in slow motion. She laid the napkin in her lap and repeated the action with another that she used to meticulously dab away any liquid that may have sloshed onto the lid while she walked. Throughout her stay, she would use the same napkin to wipe away the condensation that had collected on a glass of ice water, holding the napkin with two hands and running it down the cylinder from top to bottom with strokes that reminded me of house painting. A third, identically creased napkin was then placed on the tabletop and the coffee lowered onto it with the utmost exactitude, as if locating its exact geographic center.

Picking up a straw, she gently pressed it through the paper sheath and, crimping one end with her fingernails, pushed it into the tiny cavity in the lid of her hot coffee. Holding it like an explosive plunger, she gradually sunk it into the cup, reminding me of a James Bond movie in which our hero has to extract a plutonium rod or some such thing from a nuclear bomb without grazing the side for fear of detonating it. The straw cover was flattened and folded until tiny. When she finally took a sip, she lowered her head and grasped the extreme-most tip of the green straw with her lips, touching it as little as possible. Sucking, she watched, entranced, as the shadow of the liquid spiraled up the tube. After releasing it, she watched from directly above as gravity pulled it back down into the glass. She did it this way every. single. time.

Ready to work, she took her pen and wedged it into her hand like a surgical scalpel, taking care to arrange it just so between her finger and thumb. Opening a notebook, which was arranged to align perfectly with the outline on the table, she began writing — slowly, liturgically. I made an excuse to get up and walk past her just so I could look at what she was writing. I wasn’t interested in the content, just the artistry, which, as expected, was perfect and precise.

I was transfixed. Using my reading material as a shield to hide my gaze, I wrote furiously, recording her behavior in a manner that was part exploitative and part anthropological. I should have been glued to my homework, but instead, I was glued to her. That she is paralyzed by some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder is obvious. Thinking it may perhaps be a phobia of germs, I was proved wrong when not one but two nearby patrons asked to borrow her pen, which she gladly relinquished and retrieved again without so much as a second thought. She was thoroughly gracious when doing this, her face breaking into a radiant smile that remained long after the brief conversations had ended, like the explosion of a flashbulb on the retina on a dark night. Other than her maddening rituals, she was perfectly “normal.” When her phone rang and friends invited her to hang out with them in Central Park, she cheerfully agreed. But not before taking one of the bisected napkins and slowly…methodically…systematically… wiping down every exposed surface on her cell phone.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Free at Last

Free from his wheelchair for the first time in four decades, eminent astrophysicist Stephen Hawking fulfilled a dream today when he achieved weightlessness. Hawking, who suffers from ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, currently occupies Isaac Newton's chair at Cambridge and is revered for his work on black holes and the origins of the universe.

The jet, run by Zero Gravity Corp. climbed to approximately 32,000 feet and made eight parabolic dives back to 24,000 feet, allowing the 65-year-old Hawking and other passengers to experience about half a minute of weightlessness. Several doctors and other assistants were on hand to ensure the paralyzed scientist would not injure himself.

Hawking, who has said humanity is on the verge of destroying itself, claims the move into outer space is now more important than ever.

Hawking didn't need the aid of his linguistic computer to express his delight. It was written all over his face.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Feeling the Heat

“The Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” -- Psalm 24:1

Today was Earth Day and I have felt the need to write the following for almost a year now…

Let’s agree that no one knows the whole truth and that a lot of what we’re talking about when discussing “global warming” is, ultimately, educated supposition. Let us also agree that many environmentalists have presented their case with more than a little overblown alarmism. That said, let us finally agree that the overwhelming majority of scientists now believe the earth is warming and human beings are at fault.

The reports come so quick and fast these days that one can hardly keep track. Nearly all agree there is a massive problem looming. While there are dissenters, the vast majority of climatologists who have devoted their lives and reputations to their data believe the time for argument is long past.

Why then do so many on the Right and especially those within Christendom refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem? Why are so many in environmental denial? Many Christians are openly skeptical of the reality of the environmental crisis, viewing environmentalism as either a liberal issue or New Age propaganda. Worse, many Christians don’t see the point in saving something that the Bible says will eventually be destroyed anyway. Evangelicalism’s forefathers rejected science (and in many ways, still do) and Christians’ reluctance may well be a residual ripple effect of that divide. Or it could just be a further indication of how deeply in bed evangelical Christianity is with the Republican Party.

Thankfully, these mindsets are beginning to give way, and the voices of Christian environmentalists, muffled for so many decades, are now starting to be heard.

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which oversees 45,000 congregations and represents 30 million church members nationwide has spearheaded much of Evangelicalism’s current green spirituality. While environmentalists lost an ally in disgraced pastor and former NAE president, Ted Haggard, vice president Richard Cizik has been shown to be the real powerhouse behind the NAE’s initiatives. The NAE has announced that evangelical leaders are committed to spreading the word that protecting the environment is a profound religious responsibility and that environmental issues, including global warming and climate change, will be at the forefront of the organization’s agenda.

The NAE isn’t the only one. From smaller evangelical organizations to the Holy See, Christians are finally taking a stand. Evangelical organizations have been writing position papers declaring this a consensus issue, and hundreds of pastors and Christian university presidents have pledged action against global warming.

But not everyone is getting on board. Last year, when Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” debuted, the Southern Baptist Convention publicly condemned it. In response to Cizik’s initiatives, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson called for his ousting and silencing. Their reason? Christians’ energies would be diverted from the truly important things—abortion and gay marriage.

In my opinion, Dobson, Falwell, Robinson and their ilk are the voice of a Christianity so deeply compromised that it needs to be treated as a threat to the cause of Christ, not simply a nuisance. That aside, it seems odd to me that anyone should condemn people concerned about the environment. Does anyone really believe Dobson, Falwell and Robinson are infallible? If these preachers feel the need to devote all their energies toward a single-issue theology, then, as much as I think they’re misguided, more power to them. But why on earth, would they feel the need to chastise others for their callings?

What these giants of Christianity (and yes, I write that with my tongue so firmly planted in my cheek I may sprain something) don’t realizes is that this is not a false choice—preaching the gospel or being socially compassionate—each are exquisitely intertwined. This is not a “one of the other” sort of argument. While the pattern used to be that mainline churches preached a primarily social gospel and evangelical churches preached a saving gospel, evangelicals seem to be waking up to social justice, realizing it is a fundamental, essential even, ingredient in saving souls. (Now if only the mainline churches can recognize this necessary duality).

The truth is, a “theology of ecology” is finally taking hold. Evangelical Christianity's environmental apathy seems to be disappearing. And why shouldn’t it? As I see it, we have a Biblical imperative to be environmentalists. After all, the Bible contains numerous examples of the care with which we are expected to treat the environment:

Leviticus 25:1-12 speaks of the care Israel was to have for the land. Deuteronomy 25:4 and 22:6 indicates the proper care for and respect of wildlife. Isaiah 5:8-10 records the Lord judging those who have misused the land. Job 38:25-28 and Psalm 104 speak of God's nurture and care for His creation and every living thing in it. Romans 8:17 calls us to rescue and restore creation from its fallen condition. Even Jesus spoke on several occasions (Matthew 6:26, 10:29) about how much the Father cared for even the smallest creature.

Genesis says that, “God saw all that He had made and behold, it was very good.” If it was good in God’s eyes, would He really look kindly on us destroying it? When Adam and Eve were placed in the garden, God gave them dominion over the earth. This did not mean they could rape the planet indiscriminatingly. In fact, God set them up not as rulers, but as stewards with a responsibility to care for the garden. God is the owner of every inch of the planet, not us. We do not exercise dominion over nature as though we are entitled to exploit it, but as caretakers of a special treasure placed in our trust.

To use the earth for our own interests alone is blasphemy. How much destruction has to take place for people to wake up and admit something is wrong? We want to save the earth, not because we feel creation is holy, but because the Creator IS and we should treat His magnificent handiwork with the utmost respect. By failing to fulfill our responsibilities to the earth, we are losing a great evangelistic opportunity, to say nothing of being disobedient to our Lord. Christians should and must be at the vanguard of the environmental movement. Saving the planet is no less than an act of worship.

Which side would you rather be on—those who say we should be mindful of our impact on the planet and clean up the earth or those who say that we bear little responsibility and all we are currently experiencing is some sort of natural cycle? Which has the greatest to lose and which has the greatest to gain? Frankly, I’d rather side with the doomsayers than the naysayers. That it is an oft ignored but no less legitimate Biblical command makes the decision all the easier.

Wake up Church. This isn’t about Mother Nature. It’s about the Father’s nature.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tragedy and Apathy

I in no way, whatsoever, mean to denigrate or cheapen the tragedy that befell Virginia Tech yesterday. What occurred there was, by anyone’s definition, a horrible tragedy. And yet I can’t shake from my mind a comment an insightful friend made while we walked to class, shaken by the news we’d just seen.

“This nation reacts in horror to this sort of thing,” she said, “as it should. This tragedy has galvanized an entire nation’s attention and grief. And yet, for those people living in Iraq, this is a daily occurrence. 'Only' 33…this would be a good day!”

Heartbreak is heartbreak, no matter what the scale. And yet, I know she’s right. It was a jarring perspective shift, and a good reminder that we so often cavalierly ignore the calamity befalling others, only raising our apathetic eyes to notice tragedy when we ourselves fall prey to it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

To Ert Is Divine

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a taping of The Colbert Report. Colbert is one of the most genuine celebrities on TV — as delightful, personable and witty in person as he is on screen. As it was when I sat in on The Daily Show, it was fascinating to watch how one of my favorite shows is stitched together behind the scenes and cobbled into one of the most entertaining and important social satires in America today.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Mr. Deity!

A friend just introduced me to Mr. Deity and I have been laughing uncontrollably ever since. This is the funniest thing since Ask a Ninja.

Hilarious without being offensive, insightful while never straying into sacrilege, "Mr Deity" is like a hidden camera in Heaven. Watch as those high-jinx Trinitarian pranksters Mr. Deity, Jesus and Larry create the universe and wrestle with the birth of evil.

Be there as they come up with the Ten Commandments, or debate the copy-write of the Bible.

See Mr. Deity recruit Jesus to die for humankind's sins, demonstrate the power of prayer and answer the age old question, does God care who wins the Superbowl?

Oh, and let's not forget meeting Lucy-fer or a personal tour of Hell.

The above links all point to YouTube, though I recommend grabbing the fullscreen podcasts at iTunes.

You've got to check these out! The creators hope to soon turn it into a half-hour sitcom.

Mr. Deity, I'm your biggest fan! (Cue Misery theme song).

John McCain's April Fool's Joke

Last week on CNN, GOP Presidential candidate John McCain claimed irritably that Americans "weren't getting the full picture" when it came to Iraq, weren't being told how much the violence was decreasing, weren't being told how stable the capitol city had become.

"There are areas in Baghdad where you can walk around freely," McCain asserted, drawing an incredulous and flabbergasted retort from a CNN reporter living in the besieged city.

Sunday, when confronted about the claim at a press conference in the Green Zone, McCain reiterated his statement, saying he’d just come from such a trip through an open-air market.

What McCain failed to mention is that, in Baghdad, walking around freely means donning a flak jacket to stroll through the same market where a car bomber killed over 80 people just months ago, situated just three minutes from the security of the heavily guarded American sector, with a contingent of more than one-hundred, heavily armed U.S. Army soldiers, and three Blackhawk helicopters and two Apache gunships hovering overhead. Just a walk in the park.

An April Fool's joke? Or just a fool?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Possibility of Hope

I recently reviewed the DVD Children of Men for DVDFanatic. One of the bonus features on the disk was a 30-minute documentary by Alfonso Cuaron (who also directed the film) in which a battery of philosophers, historians, economists and ethicists discuss how the revolutionary themes of this futuristic film very much speak to our contemporary society. I have rarely indulged in a more thought-provoking half-hour, and certainly never expected something this meaty on the DVD for what I fully admit to be a magnificent and intellectually stimulating motion picture.

Children of Men, the documentary purports, represents a hyper-reality in which isolated individuals now possess as much power as entire countries, in which human mobility has transformed the face of the earth, in which our capacity for growth has nearly outgrown the surface of our planet, in which fear is humanity’s prime mover, in which our crumbling ecosystem is systematic of globalism’s collapse, in which national identity is as shifting as artificial lines on a map, in which urban space is quickly becoming weaponized, and in which extinction by our own hand is a very real possibility.

And yet, hope is possible only when despair reigns.

This one isn’t for those with short-attentions spans. But if you want to flex the muscle between your ears, this is intoxicating, heady stuff.

Don't have the DVD? No problem. Watch it in chunks at YouTube here.
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus