StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Thoughts on Faith and RELIGULOUS

Posted in Film, Religion, Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on October 21, 2008

We saw Religulous last night at BAM Rose Cinema. I can only raise my shoulders and say, “Eh…so-so.”

I appreciate how Bill Maher provided stark evidence for how the story of Jesus’ life is not an original story; in fact, many b.c. myths in the Mediterranean region told similar and often the exact same tales about a virgin birth, a water-walker, an execution, and a resurrection with three female witnesses.

I like how Maher took many of our elected officials (like John McCain) to task for claiming that the founding fathers were Christians when, in fact, they were Enlightenment Deists, many of whom openly abhorred Christianity.

I appreciate Bill Maher’s debunking of gay conversions.

He wasn’t afraid to expose the messages of violence, intolerance, and hatred in the Bible and the Koran.

He wasn’t afraid to abjure certain Muslims who proclaim Islam a religion of peace and love while, at the same time, advocating genocide and Jihad. (This is particularly ballsy when you consider the fates of Salman Rushdie, who narrowly escaped death for denouncing the Koran in The Satanic Verses, and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, whose throat was cut in Amsterdam, almost to the point of decapitation, for releasing a ten-minute movie called Submission, which depicted violence against women in Islamic communities.)

But most of the time, Bill Maher came off as a cocky bastard, cornering even well-meaning, average Joe members of various religious faiths with gotcha questions. In the past, I have enjoyed his comedy. I agree with many of his political views, though I’m far more on the Democratic than Libertarian side of the leftist spectrum. I have no problem with him being a staunch atheist/agnostic. But, in his iconoclasm, he’s just as dogmatic as many of the people he condemns.

Religious intrusions into government are despicable. Scam-artist preachers deserve full exposure and, in many cases, prison. Rabbis who side with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are meshuga turncoats. Gay conversions: well, let’s just say I busted out my pompoms the day that call-boy called out Ted Haggard for their crystal-meth booty calls and I’ll be the first one to upload videos on Youtube when we find Fred Phelps in a leather bar.

But why should Maher go out of his way to condemn ordinary people who have a deep, abiding sense of spirituality and who find solace in their religions? Why does he have to bully them? He even claims that they’re enabling the destruction of civilization simply for having found spiritual outlets.

Interestingly, he did not seem to come down so hard on the Catholics – the faith in which he was raised, though his mother is Jewish. He spoke to two priests. One was an astronomer who flatly refuted the doctrine of creationism and fundamentalist approaches to the Bible. This priest was Maher’s ally in this regard and they seemed quite chummy. But I sense that Maher would not have found it so easy to stump that learned clergyman with his trademark smirk and touche line of inquiry in the same way he did with the hayseeds, rubes and moron senator in the Deep South. Maybe that’s why he didn’t try. The other priest was a grizzled Good Time Charlie who chuckled with Maher over how loony Catholics can get, treating saints like polytheistic gods, and how an impecunious itinerant like Jesus wouldn’t have established the Vatican of all places.

If he wanted to bust out the Roman Catholic church, he could have found plenty of opportunities. The plethoric scandals surrounding pedophile priests, for example, were left untouched.

As a Buddhist, I wondered what my favorite Buddhist teachers would have to say about Maher’s peacocking bravado. It was then that I went back to the book Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by the wondrous Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg whom I saw lecture for the second time at The Interdependence Project last week. Here is her passage on skillful doubt:

In order to deepen our faith, we have to be able to try things out, to wonder, to doubt. In fact, faith is strengthened by doubt when doubt is a sincere, critical questioning combined with deep trust in our own right and ability to discern the truth. In Buddhism, this kind of questioning is known as skillful doubt. For doubt to be skillful we have to be close enough to an issue to care about it, yet open enough to let questioning come alive.

In the following paragraphs, she speaks directly to the kind of unskillful doubt that Bill Maher manifested in his treatment of the faithful in Religulous:

Unlike skillful doubt, which brings us closer to exploring the truth, unskillful doubt pulls us farther away…this kind of “walk away” doubt manifests as cynicism. Cynicism is actually a self-protective mechanism. A cynical stance allows us to feel smart and unthreatened without really being involved. We can look sophisticated, and we can remain safe, aloof, and at a distance. Maybe we are frightened and hold ourselves apart from life in order to comment on it, rather than grapple with difficult questions…We feel impervious and confident, knowing that we’re not gullible, we’re not going to be swayed…

The tendency to fixate on big, unanswerable questions – “Is there a God?” “How does karma work?” “Was there a beginning to the Universe? was characterized as “a desert, a jungle, a puppet show, the writhing entanglement of speculation” by the Buddha. Our obsessions with such questions would lead only to personal resentments and sorrow, not to wisdom or peace, he said. When feverish disputes on such issues rose up around him, instead of joining in and offering a theoretical answer, he urged everyone to find answers for themselves, in a way that would help them resolve the suffering in their lives. To arrive at that resolution of suffering is the point of skillful doubt.

I saw some informed perspectives in Religulous, but mostly rude, unskillful doubt.

And I don’t want his hectoring ass coming in my room, asking me why I’m on my meditation cushion. It’s none of his goddamn business.

(Note: documentaries that do far better jobs of revealing the disastrous effects of fundamentalism and orthodoxy: Trembling Before G-d, Jesus Camp, Hell House, and Jihad for Love.)

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Saturday Night’s Dinner Party: Guests and Conversations

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 21, 2008
Julius and Kyle @ Millennium Park, Chicago - June 2008

Julius and Kyle @ Millennium Park, Chicago - June 2008

I just noticed I haven’t posted a pic of Julius yet. So, there’s Julius (left, in t-shirt) and there’s me (right, in red long-sleeved shirt). We went to Chicago last month for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. We stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel on Delaware from Friday, June 6 to Sunday, June 8.

On Saturday, June 7, we met my friend Dubi Kaufmann for fajitas at a place called Zapitista at 1307 S. Wabash near his apartment in the South Loop. Then, he took us for our first-ever visit to Millennium Park, which was built about a year after I left Chicago. The world-famous Bean sculpture was pretty magnificent, if expensive. The gardens were ravishing – and I’m no gardener like Julius. He wanted Dubi to take our picture by the lilacs. It’s a good shot – and a lot of the buildings in the background weren’t there when I was still a Chicagoan.

Third Street, Brooklyn

Third Street, Brooklyn

But, fast forward to July 19, 2008 on Third Street in Brooklyn. Julius was recently in Madrid, where he met some Spanish TV personality, who is friends with his friend Jose Maria. Anyway, this Spanish celebrity had been appointed the Spanish Ambassador to the United Nations or something, and he was going to be in New York with his partner to accept the title. As a favor to Jose Maria, Julius planned a lavish dinner party for Saturday at our house in this guy’s honor – but, when Julius called the new Spanish ambassador on Thursday to give him our address, he casually mentioned to Julius that they couldn’t make the party! Guess they found something better to do or something.

Luckily, the remaining company more than made up for their absence. Julius’ friend Rolando Niella, a writer and new media specialist from Paraguay, was there. He brought two friends, Caesar and Teresa, both news journalists from Paraguay, and their 16-year-old son, Camillo, who drank Coke while all of us mature adults slurred our words over the five or six courses of wine that were served. This teenager is writing an historical novel about one of the chief personages in 19th Century Paraguayan politics! He told me the hardest thing about writing his novel is sticking to historical fact when he’d rather let his version of the story run its course. Did I mention this kid is 16? Hearing him lament his limitations as a writer, I thought, “I need a drink!”

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Across from him sat Alejandro Varderi, another writer I’d never met before, who is writing a historical novel about his homeland, Venezuela. Varderi is a Professor of Modern Languages at CUNY and the author of several books of literary, art and film criticism, including one on Almodovar called, Un Canibal en Madrid. His new book is a novel about a century of life in a Venezuelan family. Lest this sound too much like One Hundred Years of Solitude, bear in mind that Julius and lots of other Caribbeans and South Americans I’ve known read One Hundred Years of Solitude and said, “That’s my family!” Seems to me everyone in those parts has that same kind of story. Marquez just got to the international presses with it first.

Blurry pic of Marquez

Blurry pic of Marquez

(I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez so much, I even named my Tuxedo cat after him. Above is a blurry picture of Marquez, who was better behaved than he’s ever been during a dinner party, although he did start putting his paws on the table legs once he saw the caterers come in with plates of cod. (And, in this picture, which Mike Levine took while I was out of town, Marquez was standing on a table where he knew he shouldn’t have been standing. Still, I’d never give him up for the world.))

Naturally, my best friend Mike Levine was also there, along with a stunning woman named Nishanti, who has this bad-ass Dharma wheel tattooed on her right arm. Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.

Anna Maria Carasso, a friend and colleague of Julius’ at Citigroup, pulled no punches in handing out laughs at the table – though a lot of them were in Spanish and I can only hope she wasn’t busting on the Old Spice I decided to wear at the last minute.

Morgan Library

Morgan Library

My friend Nadine Slowik came with her husband Brian. She just got a new job as Director of Membership at the Morgan Library & Museum! They had this kick-ass Dylan show a couple years ago. She’ll be in a good place.

Manhattan Skyline

Manhattan Skyline

When dinner was over, we went out on to the deck to bask in the glow of the Manhattan skyline, drink cognac and smoke cigars in front of Camillo, the minor, who continued sipping Coke. It was there that grown men slow-danced together right before his very own impressionable eyes. Then, gay and straight alike, busted into some hardcore salsa and flamenco moves.

We played:

Buena Vista Social Club

Buena Vista Social Club

Music from the Buena Vista Social Club, which sent Camillo’s folks into raptures that I would have killed to have seen my folks in at his age.

I then crooned track after track from the glorious Nina Simone. I underscored for everyone how the lyrics to the last part of “Mississippi Goddamn” still apply today, especially in the midst the Iraq War. A moment of silence followed as I turned my air mic over to Nina, who howled out the words better than I ever could. (I won’t reiterate them here. They might scare away my blog audience. Look ’em up on your own!)

New York in the Seventies

New York in the Seventies

Earlier that day, Julius and I were listening to NPR and the radio announcer talked about New York in the Late Seventies. The city had just come out of bankruptcy. There were muggers on every corner and half block. Open sex in subway cars. People pushing drugs on card tables they set up in front of their homes. Bath houses were in full-swing (as was AIDS soon after). Since then, crime has dropped 400%. Almost all of the porn shops in Times Square – which was just about all Times Square had at the time – have been swept away. New York has lost its Seventies Edge. But, then again, it is safer and it’s still mind-boggling.

Nadine and Brian are both from Detroit, which, in its epic poverty and disinvestment, is a throwback to Manhattan’s disco days. Nadine talked about how, in the mid-to-late Seventies, she and her sister used to go to these gay discos in metro Detroit. There was this one chick there who used to be out on the floor wearing leg-warmers and doing all these ballet moves, the exact opposite of what everyone else was doing. Nadine used to look at her, shrug her shoulders and go back to doing the Hustle. Years later, Nadine read a Detroit Free Press article where this young woman was remembered. She was none other than Madonna Ciccone, only a few years before she’d show up on the streets of New York with no contacts, just $35 and the dream of being a famous dancer.

Madonna at Dunkin' Donuts (Upper Lefthand Corner)

Madonna at Dunkin' Donuts (Upper Lefthand Corner)

This led to a discussion about a recent L Magazine article on how Madonna worked at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Times Square, shortly before she joined the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Brian said, “She worked there for a day.” I wasn’t sure if that was true. He said that, by her own admission, she had a string of jobs that she’d get fired from after just one day of work, mostly for talking back to customers. Apropos of the Dunkin’ Donuts regime, Brian said, “I don’t think she could conform to the costume they made her wear.”

This led to a discussion of how easy it is to lose a job in New York, even when you’re not mouthing off to customers or bosses. Even when you’re not doing one damn thing wrong. We’ve both known (and been) wonderfully competent New Yorkers, who have an iron work ethic, show up early, work late and always do their best. But so many New York employers fire people almost for sport. It’s true. It’s not at all unusual to meet highly successful people in this city who have been fired from way more jobs than they care to admit. I don’t know of any other city where this happens so routinely.

It’s hard to keep your chin up through it all. You might even start viewing yourself as Henry Chinaski from Charles Bukowski’s Factotum, a writer who can never manage to hold down a job and succumbs to the bottle on skid row. But that’s yet another reason why it’s so important not to view oneself through the world’s eyes.

And Brian’s right. Madonna couldn’t conform to that Dunkin’ Donuts costume. And she was willing to starve and strive harder than anyone to banish all such uniforms from her closets for life. (She probably has other kinds of uniforms in those closets, but I’m sure she has a good time in them.)

Tao Te Ching

Tao Te Ching

See, but Madonna’s life history contradicts a lot of the ideas in Tao Te Ching, a book of wisdom that I adore but that I question as an American, raised in a nation of Darwinian success stories. For example, the Tao Te Ching states:

Therefore, the sage puts his own person last, and yet is found in the foremost place; he treats his person as if it were foreign to him, and yet that person is preserved.

and:

All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power.

That sounds great. But, after Julius and I heard that NPR broadcast about New York in the Seventies, we were in a cab and I was meditating on the power-mongers in New York when, all of a sudden, “Lucky Star” came on the cab radio. (I’ve never been a fan of Madonna’s music, but I’ve always admired her moxie.) I turned to Julius and said, “It seems to me that Madonna could never have gotten anywhere if she hadn’t been such a career egomaniac.”

He agreed, “The only way most people achieve at that level is to be extremely self-focused.” But ancient Asian traditions keep saying that such power has a tendency to evaporate just when one needs it most. Yet Madonna has sustained hers.

Still, according to Lao Tsu, those who practice a less egotistical way of life remain “preserved.” But have you seen Madonna lately? She’s 50 and she looks a lot more preserved than most 30-year-olds I know. Asian philosophy also extols the practice of wei wu wei, which means “do all without doing,” or, doing everything in a calm, natural, inspired manner in order to arrive at success. But wasn’t Madonna’s style to kick down all the doors until she hit the right ones?

I’m not one of those chic cynics who advocates selfishness. I’m just trying to see how ancient Asian edicts jibe with who I see sitting on top these days.

Sociopath Next Door

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

Then Brian and I discussed certain types of bosses that many people encounter again and again in New York. (Note: there are good bosses in New York too. Brian has one now. We weren’t talking about the nice ones that night, though.) I am the foremost advocate for life sentences for abusive bosses. How do these people manage to retain positions that nicer and more effective people lose? Why don’t they ever have their comeuppance? Is there any such thing as karma? Even as a Buddhist, I sometimes have my doubts. I have seen murderous professionals sit pretty all the way to retirement, laughing over the trail of career-corpses they’ve left in their wake. And now the American public is glorifying Anne Slowey from Elle magazine for her ruthlessness on the reality show Stylista.

In her terrifying study of everyday psychopathology, The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout gives several examples of bosses who deliberately set their employees up for failure just to secure their own perch and have some fun on a boring day. She says that one out of every 25 people in America is born without a conscience.

I’m still trying to square Stout’s convincing argument with my Buddhist practice. Does everyone have Buddha nature, as the Buddha pronounced? Do even sociopaths have Buddha nature? Wouldn’t that be the same as saying they have a conscience and inherent goodness?

Yet, even in the face of all this adversity, in New York or elsewhere, we must remember a little story about Winston Churchill. He was the keynote speaker at a commencement ceremony at a prestigious boys school in England. Everyone was expecting him to give one of his legendary speeches. Instead, he marched up to the podium and said, “Never give up. Never, never, never give up!” Then he sat back down. Thus concluded his speech.

And thus concluded the evening – at about 3:30 in the morning. Throw 12 or more people together on Third Street, you’ll always find something to write about. But this blog is a mere sketch. I’m sure I’ll be processing the bounty of that evening for years to come.

85A Log: Ellen Page, Fox News, SLC Punk!, Barack Obama

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 10, 2008

So, I told myself I wanted to keep a blog of my incremental progress on 85A. I have a feeling, though, that I’d just keep keying in, “It’s coming along.” Don’t know how much more I can say about the book without handing out plot-spoilers.

I will tell you that I want Seamus to be the anti-Juno. Now, he’s smart in his own right-brain sort of way. His vocabulary is a little more advanced than your average 15-year-old’s. He’s even perceptive and precocious. But he’s naive and bewildered by the world around him, unlike in-crowd teenybopper Juno, who talks and acts like she’s been around more blocks than most merchant marines.

Ellen Page - Hard Candy

Ellen Page - Hard Candy

(I’m still working out my grudge against Ellen Page in therapy. I first saw her when Hard Candy came out in theaters in 2005. Her Little Miss Smarty-Pants routine was so obnoxious, I walked out of the Angelika halfway through the movie. Then I decided that wasn’t very Buddhist of me, so I rented it on DVD, hoping I wouldn’t hate her so much on that go-round. Nope! Didn’t work that time either. Kept wanting her to get killed. Juno was even worse. If you ever want to torture me to death, tie me to a chair, just like she did with that guy in Hard Candy, and put a bunch of teenage girls in front of me who talk just like her. Suffice it to say, my beautiful Seamus will NOT talk like Ellen Page.)

Stevo - SLC Punk

Stevo - SLC Punk

But Seamus is a character whom Stevo in SLC Punk! would call a poseur and might even try beating up. See, Seamus isn’t into punk because he loves hard-core. He’s into it because he’s angry and dejected and it’s one of the closest things to English culture his green little anglophile mind can conceive. Stevo has no love for limies or any American who acts like them.

Set in January 1989, two days after the inauguration of George Herbert Walker Bush, Seamus rails against Reagan, Bush and America in ways that will keep me (his creator) out of the White House for life. Good! I don’t want the job. And I give Obama all the credit in the world for standing up under all this heat. There’s no inhumanity too base for Fox News and its proponents to commit. (After all the lies and deceits of the past 8 years, does anyone still regard them as a credible news source?) I was punching holes in my office walls after I saw the video (see above) that moveon.org sent around yesterday about how Fox is treating Michelle. Then I had to ask myself, “Are you surprised?”

Rather than ruining my own knuckles and health over the racist, fear-mongering trash Fox’s been talking since its inception, I now choose to instead put my hands together and bow to Obama like I do to my statue of the Buddha. He has been an aikido master throughout his whole campaign, letting his opponents’ every jab ram straight into the emptiness from whence it came. I wish I had that much cool. Some of my best moments each day are when I click on to RealClearPolitics and find that Barack is still ahead in the polls.

Last night over pizza at Two Boots, Julius told me, “I’d hate to say it, but, if Barack does become the next president, I don’t think it’ll be so much because he won the election but because McCain lost the election.” I knew what he meant. If the Bush administration hadn’t been such a dismal, sociopathic failure, would the country that reelected a war criminal in 2004 elect a black humanitarian in 2008? Methinks the answer would be, no. But, either way, the important thing is that he does become our next president. He will do so much to repair our international relations, race relations, our collapsing economy, and other domestic discords.

Is Obama perfect? No. I’m still pissed that he capitulated with the rest of the democrats on warrantless wiretapping. (That was the last capitulation I would stand from those side-with-and-then-blame-Bush wimps. I withdrew my Democrat status at that moment and became an independent.) Even though Barack is in favor of civil unions and gay rights, he maintains that, “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” (He declared that like it was law and did not elaborate.) To which I respond, “Not when it’s a gay marriage.” Why does he feel the need to defend these benighted and exclusionary definitions? All that aside, he’s an amazing man, an amazing writer, an amazing speaker, and I’m sure he’ll prove to be an amazing president. If we elect Barack, for the first time in his life, Seamus would be proud of his country. (I mean, if he weren’t a fictional character, that is.)

Another thing I fear about 85A is that readers might take Seamus’ statements about race the wrong way. He wants racial unity and racial harmony with all his soul, but he comes from a racist home and a racist neighborhood in a segregated city and, at 15, he has yet to unlearn a lot of his preconceptions about immigrants, gays and non-whites. However, his best friend Tressa – a black teen prodigy and theater artist – does a lot to help him dismantle that mentality and see more things than he’d ever see without her.

So, anyway, 85A is coming along and, I’m happy to report, so is Barack.