Friday, January 29, 2010

4 More Days

The long wait is almost over.  While life has kept moving on and time marched onwards in its one way direction, at the same time, a missing element existed.  A gulf rent by a white screen that appeared in the final seconds of that fateful episode in May, has sat empty and barren, with only passing thoughts here and there to fill it.

But now, starting at 8pm (ok, really 9pm) this coming Tuesday, LOST returns to the small screen.

I feel like a little kid on Christmas morning, waiting with anticipation for Santa to come and run down the stairs to see the wonderment of gifts under the tree.  In an era characterized by instant gratification, this delay in finding out the answers (or probably in true Lost fashion, it'll probably be figuring out what the questions were that we should have been asking all along, without giving us answers) has been difficult to bear and only made possible by ignoring the endless questions that come from the mysteries that they have spun. 

I, for one, will be so happy once the mystery starts piecing itself together.  I am ready for the universe that the writers have kept expanding within each season (from the mystery of the Hatch, to the Hatch blowing up, to the Island being "found" and the introduction of flashforwards, to the Island "disappearing", to the White Screen of WHAT??!!) to be explained as well as it can be and for the mysteries to come to some sort of conclusion, whether I like it or not.  I sort of wish that the show was a book that I could race through to its end and find out how it all fits together!

4. More. Days.  Can't. Wait.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Where's Robin Hood When You Need Him?

I love PBS.  Public television may be a communist, socialist, pretentious, and pernicious organization (according to my father :)) - but you can't deny the quality programming and opportunities for learning things of real value that they consistently offer.  I've already watched one amazing program, called "This Emotional Life", which is a post for another day, but I want to talk about Frontline's investigation into the credit card industry that was on last night.

I am outraged.  The practices that have gone on, both encouraged by the industry itself and deregulation by the Congress that it pays billions of dollars to, have led to a business system that is so unbelievably unethical.  There is a way to make money honorably and then there is the way that the banking industry has decided to make a profit, which is upon the backs of poor people who can't afford the high interest rates that they get charged once they miss one payment.  They end up getting sucked into an endless, bottomless abyss cycle of debt that they have a slim chance of escaping on their own, unless they declare bankruptcy and thus effectively wipe away any chance of securing credit again!  My heart broke as I saw the journalist interview Citizen Joe after Citizen Joe and the sad stories of how they never missed a bill payment until one day, something happened (because life does happen).  This one guy for instance always paid his bills on time his entire life.  Then he got tonsil cancer.  He battled through the treatment successfully, but then was laid off from his job.  Now unemployed, he missed one payment...and then one more...and then another - each time with his interest rate climbing higher and penalty fee after penalty fee being added to the bill.  It is highway robbery.

The banking industry's defense is that they have to make money somehow.  How are they going to make a profit?  They claim that the fees and terms of the credit card contract are clearly spelled out.

But then you see the piece of paper that they send with their credit card "offers" and it's all in the tiniest print, with terms only a person with a finance degree can truly understand.  And the kicker is that it's purposefully designed that way.

The Frontline program then addressed the credit card reform that Congress passed in 2009.  But here is where politics comes into play - and by politics, I mean lobbyists (who prey upon both sides of the aisle, both Democrat and Republican).  The problem with getting a bill through the houses of Congress is that they can become derailed by money.  And the money is held by the lobbyists and industries that are affected by these bills - industries like the banking industry.  Through compromise and bipartisanship (or not) a bill gets through both houses of Congress - where it can than be derailed by the President, who may or may not sign it.  Sometimes the White House is influential in getting the bills passed - sometimes they are influential in stopping the legislation from even making it out of committee.  It really is a miracle that any law ever gets passed with these restrictions.

But significant bills can get passed - and that's when the constituency arises and makes their voice more powerful than the lobbyists of the industry that is against its reform.  The problem with the credit card reform bill that was passed in 2009 was that it was given 8 months before it went into effect.  What do you think the banks did during that 8 months?  If you guessed they figured out the loopholes of the bill, you would be correct.  The bill still allows them to raise their interest rates arbitrarily and without any forewarning.

And it's not just the regular individual citizen that is affected - Frontline detailed a story about a small homebuilder who relied on a flow of credit to pay his employees, purchase building materials, etc.  He now stands on the precipice of having to close down his business because of the hike in interest rates.  He can't pay his employees because his credit card bill is so high - how is a business supposed to forecast or build a business plan when it may have an ever-decreasing cash flow but they can't plan for how much it will decrease by?  It hurts entrepreneurs and other small businesses - the very people that a strong economy is built upon.

The only thing that gives me hope against the power of the banking industry lobbyists is that the fact that this small reform bill was passed.  It is a first step.  Any reform movements that have gone on to have a significant impact on society always started off small and with small legislation.  The lobbyists can be overcome by an outraged public that continuously pushes for even stronger reform -and that is the stage where we find ourselves now.  Will the public push hard for more economic reform?  Or will Wall Street be allowed to continue on its merry way?

Closing thought - Timothy Geithner is a crook and should not be in charge of the Treasury Department of the United States.  The banking industry must have jumped for joy when his nomination passed through Congress. If Obama was really serious about reforming the economy and the banking industry that helped spiral us into the recession, he should have pushed through that rarest of commodities - a banker with integrity - a Robin Hood, if you will.

*And sorry for such a long post*

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chiming in with My Two Cents

Not that there isn't a dearth of political pundits discussing these two topics, but I wanted to throw in my two thoughts about the recent political events that have occurred - the election of Scott Brown as the new Massachusetts senator and the Supreme Court's decision to repeal the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation so that corporations may now contribute directly to candidates' election campaigns - mainly because I can't do so without having a contentious discussion with my father :). My blog is thus the perfect venue to vent my thoughts :).

First, I have to admit that I was kind of surprised that Massachusetts of all states elected a Republican to replace the "Lion of the Senate".  I don't know if I agree that it was an election referendum on Obama's presidency thus far, or if it was more of the way of the American people to elect parties to balance each other out in the Congress. The political institution was designed by the founding fathers to be thus so - no one party would ever gain a significant advantage over another for any significant amount of time.  And the voters throughout the centuries have born this out - with this election as the most recent example.  Whether or not this permanently derails the health care legislation currently being pushed through the Congress will remain to be seen.

As to the Supreme Court's repeal of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation, I do feel like this is a setback.  But according to a Yahoo! News story that I came across shortly after this broke, corporation CEOs want candidates to leave them alone and quit soliciting them for money.  I also believe that candidates will find that the constituents that they hope to reach with their inordinate amounts of money already will tire quickly of them and vote against them.  The danger lies in the possibility of good political candidates being snuffed out because they don't have money to get their message out.  Perhaps the proliferation of new media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and other Web 2.0 tools, will allow these candidates to be innovative and use these free tools to spread their message.  It will interesting to see how it affects the coming elections...that is if I'm even interested in the coming elections.  For I really do detest the inanity and bureaucracy of anything to do with government - a system that is designed to hinder ANYTHING of worth to be done.  Which is why I will stick with the private sector - the only place that moves and changes anything, in my opinion!

And on a completely different note, I am very excited for a Saints and Colts Super Bowl.  It will hopefully be a great one!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Book Review: CitizenGirl

Citizen Girl Citizen Girl by Emma McLaughlin

My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Why I am even bothering to review this crap of a book, I don't know. There is nothing more unsatisfying than spending time reading a bad story. Thankfully it was a quick read because there was no point to the plot, you could skip over paragraphs and be fine.

I'm hugely disappointed as well as unsatisfied because I expected more from the authors of the actually funny "Nanny Diaries". But man, did they fail to deliver with this story. It read more along the painful lines of "The Devil Wears Prada", echoing even the typical plot line of New York-heroine-who-takes-any-job-because-she-can't-find-another-yet-hates-working-at-said-company-because-it-compromises-all-of-her-values-and-constantly-complains-about-it-instead-of-quitting-and-has-sex-with-a-hot-guy-along-the-way-who-inevitably-is-involved-with-moving-the-heroine-from-a-crap-apartment-to-another-crap-apartment-and-which-somehow-turns-into-a-quasi-relationship-by-the-end-of-the-story-which-is-only-believable-in-a-fictional-world.

You're supposed to give some books a 100 pages to get interesting, which I did for this book. I should have stopped, but kept on reading because I spent money on the book and wanted to finish it. I did almost take it back to the bookstore this morning, 2 chapters in, but against my better judgment kept reading.

Hopefully the next time these authors put out a book they can come up with a plot that makes sense, connect it with some actual good writing (side note, repeating the words shit and f*ck every other sentence does not comprise good writing), and better-named heroine and characters, instead of quasi-ironic names like "Girl", "Guy", "Buster", "Grace", "Jack", and "Manley", and steer away from the typical New York girl who compromises her values for money because getting a good job is apparently impossible in New York. All of these novels really just affirm to me that I don't ever want to work in NYC - I will just keep to the romantic, touristy part of the appeal of the city.

Bottom-line: Don't waste your time on this waste of ink and paper. Save it for your first or fourth reading of Pride and Prejudice. And don't ever believe a cover endorsement of a book from Marie Claire magazine. "Hilarious" is what they said. "Train-Wreck" would have been more appropriate.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

War & Life: Film Reviews of The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air

Tonight was the beginning of the Hollywood award season, and two of the movies that are up for a lot of nominations are The Hurt Locker and Up In The Air.  Both of these movies are united by the fact that they depict real life - the life of our generation that is shaped by wars and economic recession. And both movies don't shy away from showing the horrors of war and recession and the toll that these events take upon us mere humans.

The Hurt Locker takes place in Iraq, circa 2004.  It chronicles the lives of three soldiers who are part of an EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) team - a bomb disposal unit that is called in whenever the infantry encounters a situation in which there might be a possible IED (improvised explosive devices) nearby.  The film is both remarkable and horrific in how you actually feel as if you are in the midst of the situations that the EOD team encounters.  It is as terrible as Saving Private Ryan because as you are watching the movie, you also realize that this is real - this is an event that takes place every single day in the lives of the soldiers.  You watch these men put themselves in impossibly dangerous situations in which they are exposed in every possible way and in which every single person that they encounter could be a possible enemy - someone who wants to blow them up.

That is the scary, horrific part of the film - that the "enemy" is dressed in everyday plain clothes and hiding in buildings with doorways, using oil tankers and cellphones to detonate remote bombs to destroy both soldiers and civilians.  Even in the desert, hiding behind goats, rocks, hills.  Modern guerilla warfare is absolutely terrifying and impossible.  After watching the film it is unbelievable that any semblance of democracy and stability has actually occurred in Iraq.

What is even sadder is watching the scenes of the lead sergeant trying to fit back in at home.  After risking his life multiple times diffusing bombs, he stands in a grocery store cereal aisle dumbfounded and annoyed by all the choices available to him.  He can't fit back in to "life" - it holds no meaning to him anymore.  Even his family isn't enough to make him want to stay.  So he chooses to go back for another tour of duty.

The film is emotionally traumatizing and exposes you to the horrors and impossible difficulties that soldiers face daily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Friends are there one moment, gone the next.  Death is feared and yet unavoidable.  It breaks my heart to know that a whole generation of men and women are experiencing this reality every day.  It is no wonder that they come home with PTSD and find it impossible to live life in America - our mundane reality compared to the highly charged and literal explosive reality of war.

And yet that mundane reality is a difficult and hard road for many right now, as the movie Up in the Air illustrates.  The movie is about a man who's job is to go around to companies and fire people - the companies literally hire him to come and lay off their workers.  The main character, Ryan Bingham, travels all around the country, from city to city, airport to airport, priding himself on how well he does his job and extolling the virtue of his lack of relationships and the ease of his life because of it.  He goes around to hotel conference rooms giving "motivational" speeches talking about an empty backpack - a life free of the burden of relationships and obligations.

This was a hard movie for me to watch.  Having gone through multiple layoffs at my company, it brought back many hard and painful memories of people that I knew and loved being told they no longer had a job.  Even though many of my old coworkers have gone on and found better, more fulfilling jobs, there are still many that haven't.

The ending of the movie also depressed me.  Ryan achieves his main goal in life, and yet finds that it holds no meaning.  When he finally realize that he wants the burden and obligations of relationships, he is rejected and forced to realize that his life has had little meaning.  Standing all alone in an airport, he has no where to go and no one to go to.

In the end, I guess it serves as a reminder to hold on to the relationships that we have in our life, because they are the only things that matter and are real.  Everything else is just an illusion and living a detached life ends up in a meaningless goal, like the one that Ryan achieves.

Both movies are relevant to life in 2010 as they depict the realities that we live with today - one that is a distant reality to the majority of Americans, but for the few that are experiencing the horrors of war, a reality that the majority will never fully understand; and the other, a reality that at least 10% of the population is experiencing and living through, but hopefully are holding as hard and fast to the relationships that they do have to help them get through this time.  It's hard to really recommend either one of them and I don't if you like to escape reality when watching movies.  But if you want to experience a heavy dose of life in the first decade of the 2000s, then watch them.

Have you seen either one of these movies? What's your take? Agree, disagree? Would love to know! Please share your thoughts in the comments section!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti Disaster

The earthquake that ravaged Haiti has left thousands upon thousands of people devastated.  It is heartbreaking to hear the news and see the images that are coming out of this tiny impoverished country and how utterly hopeless the situation seems.  It helps to know that there are many non-profit organizations that are working diligently to provide aid and relief to the people and that the money we are blessed to have can be given to these organizations to help them alleviate the disaster.

Blogger released a widget today that links directly to the American Red Cross and I have posted it here on my blog.  Other organizations that are taking donations to help the relief effort are World Vision where you can either donate directly to the relief effort or sign up to sponsor one of the thousands of newly orphaned children.  Hope International, is a non-profit micro-finance organization that is also taking donations and prayers for the people that they work with in Haiti.  Catholic Relief Services is another organization that I have donated to before (after the tsunami that devastated Thailand, Indonesia, India and other islands in the South Pacific) that also is taking donations for the relief effort.  There is always the danger of scam organizations that pop up, but these are some reliable and trusted organizations that I feel safe giving to and so wanted to pass on the links.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

More MuteMath Love...

I love these guys...I know keep talking about them, but MuteMath really is such a cool band.  This just gives you a little taste of what their live show was like. If you ever have a chance to see them in concert, don't think twice, just go!

Adios 2009, Hello 2010

It is already 7 days into the new year! How did that happen?  It never ceases to amaze me how fast time passes by.  Maybe it is because everything else seems to move more slowly in work time and then when I lift my eyes up and look at a calendar I become shocked at how fast the days and weeks have melted by.  So before too much more time passes in '10, I wanted to take a moment and reflect back on 2009.

Quite a number of things happened in '09.  I went to the Kennedy Center many times and saw amazing musicians (Jean Yves-Thibaudet, Lang Lang) and Cate Blanchett in my new favorite play "A Streetcar Named Desire" by Tennessee Williams.  I also got to go to several amazing rock concerts, starting with Muse/U2 in Charlottesville and then MuteMath in DC.   I am so blessed that I got the opportunity to experience such wonderful art and performances by these musicians.

Though I didn't do much traveling last year, I did get to NYC for probably the highlight of my year, Red Bull BC One.  I love New York - I love visiting and being a part of the city. I can't wait till I go back again. Great things always seem to happen to me when I go to New York - or maybe it's because I go there for great things.  And as much as I love NYC, I love that I got to be a part of Red Bull BC One. I wish I could put into words how much I love this event and what it represents to me and how incredible it was to watch world premiere b-boys battle each other.  It also just shows to me how unexpected life can be - who knew that in March, when I first saw this event on MTV, I would just a few short months later be in the actual crowd?? That I actually got tickets when they sold out in half an hour? It's amazing that I got to go and something I will always treasure.

Lots of great books were read, lots of great music listened to, and lots of wonderful fun times full of family, friends, work, baseball, and Young Life.  I don't really want to get into too much depth about all that spiritually happened - if you're really interested, check out this previous post from a few weeks ago.

There are a lot of things that I want to do in 2010.  I want to have a new attitude about life.  I want to be very intentional about what I do and where I am going.  I want to travel, to go places - near and far.  I want to be present in my life, be intentional in the story that I am living.  I do confess to having fear about what that actually means, but that is part of what this year is going to be - overcoming those fears and moving forward in spite of them.

And I think 2010 wants me to be more intentional and fearless.  The few movies that I have seen recently as well as the books that I have read are all agreeing on this point, so I'm taking the hint.  Here's hoping that I can learn, listen, and grow.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Book Review: The Help

The Help The Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It has been a little over a week since I picked up this book and entered the world of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Recommended by my best friend and intrigued that the author herself is from Mississippi, I had high expectations for the book and it did not disappoint.

What this book really illuminated for me is the fact of how deeply rooted race relation issues are and how segregation was a REAL fact of life not that long ago. If you really think about, the 1960s was only 40 years ago - that is not a long time. Especially when you are trying to overcome such deeply-rooted cultural issues that are taught from generation to generation. For some reason, though I have been taught extensively about the Civil Rights era and "know" how terrible segregation was, I never knew how actually terrible it was, and for some reason this book was able to get me to see that truth.

The voices of the main characters (there are three) that Stockett created are so genuine and real and they leap up from the page and engulf you in their world, their thoughts, their emotions, and each of their unique struggles. Two of the characters are black maids for different white families and the other is a young college-educated white woman from Jackson who starts a "journey" and the two maids end up joining along with her. It is a journey through society, familial expectations, friendships, love, and race relations in 1960s Mississippi.

I love how the author treats Mississippi compassionately and yet candidly relates the reality of that time. Her writing reflects the deep love I have for the South, and particularly Mississippi since I have familial roots and ties there. But I am also not naive to the fact that there are still deep-seeded race issues that exist there.

I highly recommend this book - I do think it is a must read - but I also hope that the reader who picks up this book will have the same mix of compassion and outrage that the author conveys for her state and people and not just contempt for "ignorant" Mississippi people, because then I believe you will miss the entire point and beauty of the story - that the same prejudices and chains that bind these characters can only be broken when we realize we are all just the same - and that is a much more difficult journey than we realize.

**UPDATE** The more I let the memory of this book germinate, the more I determine how much I loved it, so I have to give it 5 stars. Especially in light of the last book I read, this book is above and beyond...

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