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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Sinbad, The Glittery Silver Jumpsuit and The Glittery Silver Service Car (Last Night’s Dream)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 31, 2008

Last night’s dream was even stranger than the one about the serial killer in the hanging-file folder.

In it, the comedian Sinbad’s wife had kicked him out of their house, so he took a room at the Y. At a press conference on this scandal, the melanin in Sinbad’s face faded out, making him look as white as Michael Jackson but with more meat on the bones. (Actually, at the press conference, Sinbad looked more like Bernie Mac, but I still knew him to be Sinbad.) I went to go visit him at the YMCA.

When I went to the check-in desk at his floor, I saw that the people working behind it were part of that breed of post-grads, who defer the “real” world by working in video stores and other low-impact jobs. They were playing Gameboys and had their feet up on the desk as they listened to Modest Mouse or whatever. They asked me to have a seat in the waiting room while they called Sinbad’s room.

The waiting-room area was a self-service Barnes & Noble. On the teak-wood coffee table, there was a stack of comic books. As I picked each one up, I scanned them in on a hand-held bar-code scanner. I had no intention of buying them, though. When the Asian-American chick behind the counter told me that Sinbad had asked her to send me in, she also presented me with a bill for the comic books. I told her that I’d left them on the table and didn’t want to buy them. With a let-down look, she said, “Oh, and I’ve been wanting to see those comic books too.” (Why she couldn’t just walk over to the table herself and see them, I don’t know. Then again, my dreams tend to not make any sense.) With that, I walked through the YMCA doors to go see Sinbad.

In the next segment of the dream, Julius and I were arguing over whether or not Bob Dylan is a genius. In waking life, I would find that contention indisputable, but, in the dream, I was on the other side of the debate. Julius said, “How could you not call it genius when someone writes…?” And he went on to recite two lines from a song that I’ve never heard and whose words I don’t remember.

As he recited those words, though, he held up a leaf from a morning-glory vine that was split down the middle and he let the leaf fly in the breeze to a field that looked like the ones near the Brideshead estate in Brideshead Revisited.

I then switched sides and started giving this oration on how Dylan’s John Wesley Harding was a masterpiece, how it changed the face of music. Then, I picked that CD out of my collection and walked out the door to bring it to my friend Mike’s house, so that he could tape it.

In the next segment, I was walking through the wintertime set in the penultimate scene of La Boheme, where Rodolfo finds Mimi just before she dies of consumption. As I trudged through the snow, I was wearing an overcoat and a saturnine face like a character in a Chekhov story or a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky novel.

All of a sudden, who is the only person coming my way on the road but Justin Timberlake. (I seem to be alone in loathing Justin Timberlake. I think he’s a spoiled, overpraised brat whose music sucks. But if I state my opinion of him to anyone, even people twice his age who otherwise have good music taste, they act like they want to send me to my room without supper.) He had a Richard Simmons’ afro and was wearing a pink tie-died sweatsuit. He was singing some pop song, but then busted into a rap that was an all-out jam. As Justin Timberlake passed me, for the first time ever, I looked at him with admiration. (Again, let me qualify, this was a dream, not real life.)

Then I found myself in a silver glittery jumpsuit, complete with a glittery silver headband. I looked like a Solid Gold Dancer (embarrassing factoid: when I was seven-years-old, I wanted to be a Solid Gold Dancer with all my heart; that phase only lasted a year, the statute of limitations has run out, so don’t mock me!). I saw myself in the mirror. I said, “I gotta get a new look,” so I changed back into my usual clothes.

Then I saw sunlight pouring in through some prison bars. The lyrics to that song by The Flaming Lips started up: “Do you realize – that everyone you know someday will die?”

7th Avenue and 9th Street, Brooklyn

7th Avenue and 9th Street, Brooklyn (site of Uncle Moe's)

Then I wound up at my parents’ house. Their garage was the same, but the kitchen table was on an upper landing like the tables at Uncle Moe’s (the gay symbolism is killing me) at 7th Avenue and 9th Street. Father Mahon was over for dinner. Now, Father Mahon is not long for this world, but, in the dream, he was looking a lot better than when I saw him at my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary.

(In real life, the moment I introduced Father Mahon to Julius at the Anniversary party, he asked us point-blank, “Are you living together?” I smiled and said, “Why, yes, we are, Father.” He nodded and said, “Well, I wish you both all the best.” I was going to ask if I could take that as an endorsement but stopped short.)

In the dream, Father Mahon asked me if I enjoy being a sodomite. I lit up, “Yeah, it’s great!”

As if to draw me back into the Catholic fold, he proclaimed that the Buddhist Sutras were inspired by the Bible. I responded, “That’s bullshit! Buddha delivered the Sutras about 500 years before Jesus was born. As for the Old Testament, well, that was still in the hands of a small tribe of Israelites and there’s no way it could have made its way over to India. Besides, the Buddhist and Christian holy books are completely different in philosophy and precepts. Sorry, Father, Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on Buddhism.” Oddly, Mom nodded her approval at my denunciation (again, this was a dream) and Father Mahon went back to eating his sweet potato.

In the final segment of last night’s dream, I was waiting on the Northbound platform of the Red Line L at Fullerton in Chicago. I was thinking about how Chicago isn’t as cosmopolitan as New York. Right behind me, though, these Arab guys were speaking French. They were all discussing which parts of the city they live in. I thought, “Well, they’re Arab and they’re speaking French. Isn’t that pretty cosmopolitan too?”

Then, an Arab girl wedged her way into the conversation. She was wearing white face-paint and black makeup like I had to wear when I played Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland in my sophomore year of high school. She had pockmarks all up and down her face like this one goth guy whom I used to see at this one cafe on Belmont in Chicago. (Come to think of it, he also wore white face-paint and black makeup.) The Arab girl was talking about how her rabbi (?) told her that she should move to another part of the city.

Then, a glittery silver service car, which looked like the old edition Rolls Royce that was in Brideshead Revisited (except glittery and silver like the jumpsuit I broke out of in an earlier segment), pulled up on the tracks to take me for a ride. I didn’t know where we were headed but I got in.

Weird, huh? What do you think that dream means? (Besides that I’m a big Uncle Moe who sins bad?)

Shanghai Sally and the En-Chanting Nuns: Sentient City’s New Mastheads

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 17, 2008

Just got back from Sentient City‘s illustrious designer Laura Varacchi’s office near Union Square. May I just say that Laura couldn’t have been more of a godsend to our humble publication if a litter of angels had hauled her in on a sedan.

I mean, before her, we were using this uniform masthead image for all genres (poetry, fiction, visual arts, music, etc.):

Sentient City Vol. 1 Masthead

Sentient City Vol. 1 Masthead

Then Laura showed up out of thin air and we get this for a Home Page Masthead:

Sentient City Vol. 2 Home Page Masthead

Sentient City Vol. 2 Home Page Masthead

This for a Fiction masthead (pix she took herself, no less):

Sentient City Vol. 2 Fiction

Sentient City Vol. 2 Fiction

This for an Essays Masthead (again, photography hers):

Sentient City Vol. 2 Essays Masthead

Sentient City Vol. 2 Essays Masthead

This for an Interviews Masthead (again, her photography):

Sentient City Vol. 2 Interviews Masthead

Sentient City Vol. 2 Interviews Masthead

Then, for Visual Arts, we made a Triptych out of my brilliant painter friend Jennifer Harris’ submissions:

Sentient City Vol. 2 Visual Arts Masthead - A Jennifer Harris Triptych

Sentient City Vol. 2 Visual Arts Masthead - A Jennifer Harris Triptych

Then, she got some gorgeous street-scene shots and fused them together to create a Music Masthead:

Sentient City Vol. 2 Music Masthead

Sentient City Vol. 2 Music Masthead

So, the words “vast improvement” are a gross understatement as you can see. And this isn’t even the half of it! So, Laura Varacchi is a design goddess and I could not recommend her more (lvaracchi@yahoo.com).

Anyhow, today, we were working on mastheads for Volume 3. I want to leave some surprises, so I won’t announce the whole schema. But I will tell you that, even without my nepotistic leanings, my partner Julius’ photos of South East Asia ended up comprising a good portion of the new masthead designs.

For instance:

Julius found this man smoking opium in a hut in Laos. I tell you he gets around. You should hear the stories he tells. It’s like I’m sleeping with J. Peterman.

And, after visiting this sinner, Julius took a junket over to Angkor Wat and stumbled upon these Buddhist nuns. So, his travels certainly run the gamut, don’t they?

Then, as part of a triptych on the Home Page, we’re using one of Julius’ photos of our living room:

At least, I wish that were our living room.

In any event, a long-awaited third edition of Sentient City: The Art of Urban Dharma will be due out in August/September. I know I’m excited and so should you be!

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.