Sunday, February 28, 2010

Religion in Education

I was dismayed by this article by Lisa Miller in a recent issue of Newsweek. While reviewing and revising Harvard's core curriculum, a faculty advisory panel proposed that students be required to take a course in "Reason and Faith."  They scrapped this proposal after the vocal protestations of a celebrity professor campaigning against what he perceives to be the irrationality of faith.

I highly doubt that the advisory panel was suggesting that students be indoctrinated with faith or even that they leave the course believing that reason and faith are equal paradigms for understanding the world. I suspect, rather, that the panel sought to spark discussions about the role of religion in society, science, history and politics. Whether you are a believer or not, no informed person could discount the role religion has played and continues to play in almost every aspect of human life.

That the advisory panel backed down in the face of opposition from a self-promoting professor makes me question Harvard's relevance. Accusations of ivory tower elitism are nothing new for this institution or any of the hundreds of other excellent colleges and universities in this country that strive to produce thoughtful, engaged, analytical young adults. I would never suggest that all learning must be applicable to experiences in everyday life; liberal-arts schools do not offer vocational training. But until a student has been armed with factual knowledge and critical-thinking tools, how can he possibly hope to play a role in a society where every interaction will require an understanding of religious differences?

Religion is an important part of human society. Students who have not grappled with faith's many intricacies are poorly equipped for a reasoned life.

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for Newsweek

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A question of etiquette.

At the theater tonight, the woman sitting behind me gnawed her gum loudly throughout the entire play. This was not a rollicking, toe-tapping musical; this was an extremely serious, dramatic study of a family dissolving into abuse and alcoholism. And she was smacking away, open-mouthed, like a cow chewing her cud. It was disgusting as well as distracting.

What's the proper etiquette? Should I have turned around to her early in the first act and asked her to chew more quietly? Should I have complained during the intermission to the house-manager (who would most likely have shrugged and said there was nothing he could do)? Should I have done my best to ignore her?

I ended up not saying anything. Initially I had hoped she would finish quickly and after I realized she wouldn't, it felt too late to say anything. So, I suffered in silence and seethed.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Art Institute of Chicago Modern Wing

The Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago houses the museum's collection of 20th and 21st century art. I finally visited yesterday and have torrent of things to say about the building in general and specific pieces within it. For today, we'll stick to the Wing itself.

First and most importantly: the building serves as a canvas on which to display the museum's surprisingly vast modern collection. To that end, the building is largely successful. The galleries are wide and bright and they make the art look gorgeous. In a few unfortunate cases, sun shades on the windows in the north-facing rooms distort the quality of the light and negatively impact the pieces on display. The sun shades also obscure the view of Millennium Park (and the Pritzker Garden to the south) which begs the question: why have windows at all? These are minor irritants, however. As a showcase for the art on display, the Modern Wing performs beautifully.

My surprising disappointment came from the showiness of the design of Griffin Hall. Renzo Piano draws too much attention to his design by overworking certain elements. There are too many light fixtures, too many support braces, too many handrail joints, even. There is something almost fussy about the architecture. Piano wants you to notice his work. It's an unappealing display of arrogance.

Finally, there is a lightness to the space which worries me a little. The illusion of “zero gravity” is used throughout. The “reveal” makes everything – benches, the stairs, even the walls – appear to hover an inch off the ground. The effect is immediate and profound; it gives the impression that at any moment the building is going to lift off the ground and fly away. It's lovely but how it relates to the solid permanence of the original Beaux-Arts section of the Museum remains to be seen. For now, I hope the Modern Wing can settle into itself and become as established a landmark.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Love Actually

I had the good fortune to pick someone up from the international terminal of the airport the other day. Standing around waiting for her, I watched the people around me and thought about Love Actually. It's easily one of my favorite movies and it's been getting a lot of mentions lately thanks to its superiority to that cynical, wannabe, knock-off Valentine's Day.

At the airport I saw a vastly pregnant woman hug her mother, obviously come to help with the birth. I saw a family greet a very frail young woman in a wheelchair, perhaps come for medical treatment. I saw a middle-aged man wordlessly collect a timid woman – a mail-order bride? I saw college friends squealing with the delight of reunion. I saw parents applaud the arrival of a group of students, triumphantly returning from some quest.

It was overwhelming. Love actually is all around.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Winter Olympics Drinking Game

I'm more or less indifferent to the Winter Olympics.  I'll watch some of it but, mostly...meh.

So, a friend and I compiled this list to liven things up a bit. 

  • Every time they make an oh-so-clever comment about the East Coast having more snow than Vancouver, drink.
  • Every time someone cries on the podium, drink.
  • Every time someone falls in the figure skating competitions, sip a girly drink.  
  • Every time they mention that Apolo Anton Ohno won Dancing with the Stars, twirl and drink.
  • Every time someone flies off the ski jump, hide your eyes behind your Slanket.
  • Every time Shaun White does a never-before-seen, why-does-anyone-else-even-bother-showing-up trick, drink.
  • For every Red Bull sticker or endorsement, do a jager bomb.
  • Every time they show a Native American, drink.  
  • Every time they use a child to symbolize hope for the future, drink.
  • Every time they talk about an athlete from a warm-weather climate who has zero chance of even surviving their event, drink.
  • When Celine Dion starts singing, finish your drink, pour another one and finish that too.
  • Curling.  Train like the "athletes" and chug your beer.
  • Every time Lindsey Vonn complains about not winning due to a bruise, do a double shot.

Wish my liver luck!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tears for a Sailor

Let's be honest.  They call it Deadliest Catch for a reason.  We tune in to episode after episode out of a disturbing human instinct to witness danger.  Like the impulse to gawk at a car accident on the side of the road, I cannot force myself to turn off Deadliest Catch.

Yet now that the show has lost one of its stars, somehow the danger seems more real and the risk does not seem as entertaining.  On the rare and unfortunate occasions when the fleet has experienced tragedy, Discovery Channel has handled it with grace and discretion.  I hope they will find a way to do so now as well.  Rest in Peace, Captain Phil.


 Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star
   And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
   When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
   Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
   Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
   And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
   When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
   The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
   When I have crossed the bar.

- Alfred Lord Tennyson

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

And the Oscar for Worst Song goes to...

In a couple of recent online and print articles, Entertainment Weekly has been exploring how out-of-touch the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is when it comes to the Oscars for Best Song. At, Leah Greenblatt kicks off a reader debate by suggesting these are the "worst nominations ever."

"Ever" is a pretty long time and, of course, no one on the internet can be bothered to do the sort of research it would take to justify such a statement. Setting aside Greenblatt's hyperbole, there does appear to be a disconnect between the use of music in movies and what the Academy chooses to reward.

Part of the problem stems from the Academy's rules. The official rules say that a song must be "written specifically for the motion picture" and cannot have been previously recorded or performed.  This means that an eligible song must be the creation of a musician working in tandem with a director and can have never been workshopped or performed publicly.

The Academy broke its own rules in 2008 when it awarded Glen Hansard and Mark√©ta Irglov√° the Best Song Oscar for “Falling Slowly”from Once. The song had been performed live prior to its use in the movie – a clear violation of the Academy's eligibility requirements. The New York Times' Carpetbagger does a good job of summarizing the controversy and includes the Academy's justification for the song's inclusion. Essentially the Academy said the audiences for the live performances were small and inconsequential (even though their rules say nothing about what size or composition of audience is or is not acceptable). To me, it sounds like the Academy fudged their own rules to allow for an obviously brilliant piece of music that did not technically meet their eligibility requirements. “Falling Slowly” went on to win Best Song because, honestly, who would argue that the three songs from Enchanted and the song from August Rush were superior? Certainly not the audience in the Kodak Theater that night; check out their reaction.

If the Academy is willing to bend its rules for this kind of excellence, perhaps it's time to consider changing the rules to accommodate additional perfect pairings of music and film? Ever since Quentin Tarantino revolutionized movie soundtracks with his must-have compilations for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, I have been arguing that the Academy needs to change their Best Song rules. Instead of only recognizing brand new songs, I propose a Best Use of Song category or an award for Best Music Supervision. The Academy should celebrate the talent and skill of directors and music supervisors who underscore a film with compelling, moving, pitch-perfect music, regardless of when that music was composed or recorded. The right piece of music can utterly transform a critical scene in a movie and, likewise, a powerful scene can forever change the perception of an existing track. Directors and music supervisors deserve recognition for this achievement.

In the meantime, we are left with the original question: are these the worst Song nominations in Oscar history? It's hard to answer such a large and subjective question but definitely there are excellent movie music moments that are going unrecognized this year. Lykke Li's plaintive “Possibility” from New Moon, Mary J. Blige's soulful “I Can See in Color” from Precious, even Ed Helms' “Stu's Song” from The Hangover should all be receiving commendation. We don't have any hope of learning the thought-process behind the decision to exclude these songs, but I will continue to argue that changes should be made to prevent such mistakes in the future.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What it means to be a man

There were several commercials during last night's Super Bowl that referenced the emasculation of the American man. The Dodge commercial “Man's Last Stand” spelled it out most clearly:


But if men's efforts at domestication are leaving them feeling abused and under-appreciated, I suggest they gather a few women around and have them watch this clip of Drew Brees with his son.


World's fastest turn-on. Big, strong, burly man? Check. Successful and powerful leader? Check. Tender and emotional father? Check. There is absolutely nothing more a woman could ask for. He can drive whatever damn car he wants as long as he parks it in my driveway!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Car Envy

I saw my first Tesla last night as I was driving home from a night on the town. The pre-dawn roads were nearly deserted which explains why the owner was out for a joy-ride. If you had a car like that, you'd be zipping up and down the streets in the middle of the night too!

What caught my attention was how weirdly silent the car was. We were stopped side by side and, when the light turned green, the thing just took off like a ninja. The lack of macho, muscle-car rumbling was so disconcerting that at the next light I actually turned off my radio and cracked my window to listen. Again, nothing! The car just slipped away. The only time I've seen something similar was in the electromagnetic propulsion of some of the newer amusement park thrill rides. No doubt, driving a Tesla is just as thrilling.

I saw the Roadster Sport in Very Orange. Nothing subtle about that car! Then again, why be subtle in a $100,000 all-electric sports car that gets 200+ miles per charge and can go 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds? There are only around 1,000 of them on the streets worldwide and I feel very special that I happened to be out to see this one!

The name Tesla Motors is a clever touch. This brilliant car is a fusion of science fiction and reality that I think Nikola Tesla would have admired.

Friday, February 5, 2010

I think you have the wrong number.

A caller who had the wrong number tried to hit on me the other night.  He was trying to call his sister but upon finding me on the line instead, he asked if I "had a man."


Is this really how men's brains operate? If I had told him I did not "have a man," how exactly did he foresee the rest of the conversation going?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Let the Oscar race begin

Oscar nominations were announced this morning and I'm thrilled that District 9 is up for Best Picture.  

Don't get me wrong - I don't have any delusions that it stands a chance of winning.  But if a nomination will bring it to a wider audience, I'll be satisfied.

If you haven't seen District 9 yet, go rent it right now.  That's what a science fiction movie should look like.  It's futuristic but not unrecognizable.  It's thoughtful but not preachy.  It has super-cool special effects but still manages to be completely believable.  God, I love that movie.

Who's hungry for some cat food?