Saturday, May 22, 2004

And a heads up on two promising new blogs.

Nine Scorpions written by a recent law school graduate friend of mine who should have some interesting insights into the judiciary system among other things.

Also, The Journey Project, which has some interesting things to say about changes, transitions, and the Christian faith.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

I live in a very odd place (in case you haven't figured that out by now). I was reminded of this a few weeks ago by a rather strange encounter, strange, even by Santa Fe standards.

I have a friend who is nearly a black belt in Ja Shin Do, a little-known martial art focused primarily on self-defense. This friend kindly offered to teach me some basics of the art, an offer I happily accepted. We finally got together to practice a few Saturdays ago, and had barely started when a yellow VW bug drove up and a couple got out and approached us. The couple, a man and a woman, were probably in their sixties or so and the man came up to my friend and said that he had seen us practicing and wanted to introduce himself since he was some kind of marital arts master or teacher or something. Fair enough. My friend started to make a polite bow to this man, who stopped him saying, "Don't bow to me, I only bow to the heart of the Lord Jesus Christ." Okay, great, fine, I respect that. But then this guy starts talking. For those of you familiar with Dr. Bronner's soap products, you'll have a pretty good idea what this guy sounded like; rambling doesn't begin to do it justice. He talked for a good fifteen minutes at least, about subjects ranging from all the martial artists he knew who were in prison to how God and Adam did Tai Chi in Eden to his martial arts classes. He told us about some black belt he knew, who was "wearing orange pajamas" now for killing two guys. "Bu'cha don't hear any about that, do ya?" he said, "No, all you hear about is ommm, ommmm (chanting in a monotone), Home on the range (breaking into song)." He was quite fond of the phrase "rat bastards," which he applied to the North Koreans, who were teaching us martial arts but all the time pointing missiles at us and to the Mayans (yes, the Mayans, ancient Central American civilization) who made roads but couldn't invent the wheel because they were too busy. . . how shall we say . . . engaging in unnatural forms of birth control. Then he asked if we were Catholic, informed us that he and his wife were, but hadn't always been, and said we should come to his church sometime. That's when he started in about God and Adam doing Tai Chi in paradise. "It says in Genesis that God had fellowship with Adam," he explained, "So what do you think they were doing? Drinkin' beer and shootin' the sh*t? No, they were doing the forms and the animals," (apparently some form of martial arts). "But then," he went on," Adam says to God, 'God, I love you and I want to have fellowship with you and your son Jesus and all, but the serpente (serpente, he wouldn't say snake or serpent) here, he's telling me something different." As he talked about the serpente he made a serpentine movement with his arms. So it went on like this for awhile, as I tried to think of ways to get out of the situation while at the same time dumbstruck at the spectacle. I was considering pretending to go into convulsions but wasn't sure if even that would get him to shut up. So he finally comes to an end with the comment, "So Adam says to God, 'Yeah God, I want to have fellowship with you and all, but I'd really just rather stay here with the b*tch," gesticulating to his wife, who came over to join him with a smile on her face. Then they walked off arm in arm while I just about collapsed on the ground and my instructor stoically tried to pick up where we left off on punches. At that point, however, it was pretty much a lost cause. The scary part is that I've probably given much more coherence to the event than was actually there! Only in Santa Fe!

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Just watched Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood and am quite impressed. It's an adaptation, more or less (one commentary said "transposition," which is probably more accurate) of Shakespeare's Macbeth, one of my favorite Shakespearean plays, set in feudal Japan. Although Shakespeare's dialogue is not preserved at all, it is one of the best film presentations of Macbeth that I have seen.

Macbeth is about evil, and I'm not just talking about the witches. I mean the things one does against better judgment, addictions, temptations, things that make one less real, less oneself, less human. This kind of evil is inherently seductive but ultimately empty, petty and repulsive. Kurosawa captures this theme wonderfully and we watch as the main character, in this case the warrior Taketoki Washizu, seduced by ambition, otherworldly spirits, and his cunning wife, falls from being trusted, honorable warrior to a paranoid tyrant destroyed by madness and the evil he has heeded.

Asaji, the Lady Macbeth character, is truly terrifying. Her highly stylized makeup and costume, her lack of any visible emotion and her exaggerated demure femininity make her poisonous words all the more chilling. While we can at least enjoy the drama of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth ("Come you spirits,/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,/And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full/ of direst cruelty. . ."), Asaji is shockingly pragmatic. When Washizu objects to murdering his lord on the grounds that it is high treason, she calmly responds Washizu's lord secured his own position by murdering his predecessor. The delicate rustle and swish-swish of Asaji's robes becomes absurdly disturbing as she rushes with swift, birdlike steps, blood-stained spear in hand, to frame the guards whom she has drugged.

Without soliloquies, Kurosawa eloquently shows the seduction and destruction of Washizu and the doubts, struggles, rage and despair of a man who betrays and destroys himself for nothing. I definitely want to re-read Macbeth and I'm looking forward to seeing Kurosawa's Ran, an adaptation of King Lear, which is also supposed to be excellent.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

A wonderfully lazy Sunday evening. I have a few posts simmering, but I emphasize the word lazy in that last sentence and you draw your own conclusions. It's been a long and somewhat insane week. Although I like restaurant work well enough, it's hard, really hard at times, and last week was no exception. Physically, you're on your feet for up to ten hours a day, if not more; carrying heavy trays and bus tubs, trying not to strain your back and trying to dodge the other servers, customers trying to find the bathroom (yes, around the corner ma'am, well, if it won't open it probably means there's someone in there) and the dishwashers dancing and trying to smack each other with wet towels as you try to get through. Mentally, you're keeping a list of what all needs to be done and in what order (need to run table 60's food, take 63's order, get 55 butter, and, oh look, there's people on 61, wonder how long they've been sitting there). Emotionally you have to keep an appearance of calmness, friendliness and sanity while you deal with some pretty strange characters and tables that want to know your life history while you're trying to remember their order, along with the ever-increasing above mental list. A few nights ago I had cleared off a table and was standing there with my arms full of heavy plates and the customers ask if I know how to get to Canyon Road, a street with a ton of galleries and even more tourists. So I tell them how to get there. They then go on to ask how long I've lived in Santa Fe, where I'm from originally and if I like the town. All the while the plates are getting heavier and heavier and I feel the silverware start shifting ominously. But I smile and answer their questions as quickly as possible. Then they say something like, "So are you married, are you with anyone, are you single?" "Uh . . . I'll go get your check now." Yeah, people are weird and you certainly see that in the restaurant business. So all in all it's pretty draining. And then it doesn't help that you get done in the middle of the night, high on adrenaline. So we go next door to the bar to have a drink (as in one) and compare horror stories from the night. But the next thing you know the bar staff, who knows us, repeatedly shows up with free shots of whatever the bartender has concocted and then it's some ungodly hour of the night and you have to work a double tomorrow and hmmm. . . can anybody drive home? But all that being said, the money is very good (usually), I like my co-workers, can't complain about my manager and I do have a perverse liking for the insanity and chaos. It's certainly a lot more fun than any office job.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

And finally, an amusing tidbit courtesy of the Great Bob:

I hate looking for apartments. It's just like buying a car, making small talk with the leasing agent while they try to sell you an apartment with dead cockroaches in the bathroom. Seriously, I looked at two places on Saturday and both of them had dead cockroaches in the bathroom. I realize bugs happen, but if you have a model apartment you're showing to prospective tenants, it should be free of all deceased (and living for that matter) bugs. It just does not bode well for me.
So, as promised, a post on Utility. Part of the reason I've been procrastinating on this post is that as I've been thinking about the topic I realize I'm using the label of Utility to tie together several modern cans of worms (I'll leave that metaphor for you to sort out!). But nonetheless I think there is a common thread, even if a better label could be used.

By Utility I mean the widespread assumption that any pursuit or activity is justified by its usefulness: usefulness being defined by the thing's ability to make money. A corollary (I think) to this assumption is that everything is (or, at least, should be) marketable and one has a duty to market anything one can. This focus, although rarely put in such simple and crude terms, leaves little room for the pursuit of something for an intangible, unmarketable gain or end. I have repeatedly run into this assumption, especially in the years since I've graduated from college and everyone, from family and friends to total strangers, wants to know what I'm going to "do" with my rather expensive education.

For those of you who might not know, I went to a small, liberal arts college whose curriculum is based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. We start with Homer and the Greek philosophers and playwrights and, in the course of four years, take a whirlwind tour of the philosophy, literature, math, science and music that has shaped the Western World, ending with Einstein and quantum physics. I could go on for quite a while about the program, it's advantages and disadvantages, etc., but for the narrow purposed of this post, all you need to know is that the program is antithetical to this notion of Utility. Most of the students come to the college for immaterial gain: pursuing truth, finding the meaning of life, wrestling with the ideas that have intrigued mankind for many years, becoming more human. These goals are not means to a good (i.e well-paying) job but are ends in themselves. Given this mindset, it's not hard to understand the frustration when we hear, "Wow, that sounds really great, but what are you going to do with an education like that?" What do you mean, what am I going to do with it? Isn't it enough that I did it? Although I'm sure most people wouldn't put it in these words, the underlying question is, "How is that education going to justify itself, how is it going to 'pay off'"? The thing that that question misses is that education does not necessarily have anything to do with a vocation or how you pay the bills.

But education is not the only place I see Utility rearing it's sleek, efficient head. The same assumption has radically changed how we view what were once called leisure activities and the arts. Today many children participate all kinds of classes in music, dance, sports, and many other activities. But those activities, with the exception of sports, find little place in the adult world. Many people, as they get older and this utilitarian mentality creeps in, begin to think something like, "Well, I'm not going to ever be a professional singer, dancer, painter, violinist, so why should I bother if I'm not ever going to 'do' anything with it." As a practical example along these lines, one of my roommates teaches music at the above-mentioned college. She regularly sees students who have an incredible natural talent for singing, but who have little inclination to refine that talent, or whose parents won't support them in any training of that talent. I'm talking about $25 a week voice lessons, not something elaborate or expensive. And the reason for this is, you guessed it, that the student is not planning on "doing" anything with the talent, that is, not making money professionally with the talent.

As another example, a few months ago I was privileged to sing at my friends' wedding, not as a job or as a "professional" but because they're my friends. Just yesterday at work a fellow server asked if I had been the one singing at their wedding. When I said I was she said, "What are you doing here? You could be making a million dollars!" Although I appreciated the compliment the underlying assumption there again was if you had something that could be marketable you had a perverse duty to focus on that thing and market it. I speak of music because that is what I am most familiar with, but I would be surprised if the mentality wasn't the same in other arts: writing, theater, fine arts, etc.

When applied to the arts, this mentality makes art inaccessible to people and more of a sterile, elitist, boring snobbery. In a community where singing, playing music, or writing are a part of everyday life, an especially talented singer, instrumentalist or writer can be all the more admired, not as a god or an idol (American Idol nonsense) but as a truly talented artist. The appreciation would come not only from a pleasurable response to the art but also from a knowledge of how hard it is to play/sing/write well. Today we get our music and entertainment prepackaged and predigested from professionals because God forbid one of us commoners should aspire to tread on such sacred ground.

This might seem like a stretch, but I see this Utilitarian mentality creeping into how we view ourselves and each other. As with education and art, beauty and personality are becoming a commodities as we subscribe to the myth that we are, in actuality, masters of nature and can, through diet, exercise, drugs, dye, and plastic surgery control and normalize how we look, talk and act. Those lucky few that naturally have the body, face or personality that is deemed beautiful find themselves facing the same expectation of "doing" something with that commodity. Hence the comments,"She's so pretty, why doesn't she have a boyfriend? He's such a great person, why isn't he dating anyone?" or, "She has such a great figure, why does she always wear such baggy clothes?" Like I said this might be a bit of a stretch, because in this instance I think there might be more at work than just utilitarian mentality; here might also be an underlying desire for beauty to be seen (revealing a beautiful figure) or rewarded (having a boy/girlfriend). But with the utilitarian mentality pervading so much of today's thought, it's understandable why such talk would be suspicious.

In all of these manifestations I see a flattening of life. We've exalted the means and forgotten about the ends, those things that make the daily grind worthwile and bearable. I've heard that people today have more leisure time than ever before. Yeah, I find this hard to believe too, but imagine what would happen if all those hours spent mindlessly in front of inane sitcoms were spent doing beautiful, enjoyable things.

I'm tempted to end on that note, or worse yet, indulge in some Lennin-like rapsodie about how beautiful the world would be and perhaps someday you'll join us and it'll all be wonderful with rainbows and singing bunny rabbits, but I'll spare you. The problem with talking about this non-Utilitarian approach is that it rapily falls into sentimentalism and cheap cliches: money can't buy everything, there's more to life than a paycheck, etc. I think the sayings have become cliches precisely because we have forgotten what they mean. We've forgotten the real and manly power of beauty and other intangible, unmarketable things and so they're consigned to the same category as those hideous inspirational calendars, Oprah's self help guides and the Chicken Soup for the whatever-ridiculous-category-you-can-think-of Soul books.

As an example of someone who is not subscribing to this mentality, I pesent a friend of mine, Kirsten. Kirsten is a wonderful singer who has trained and sung professionally and, if she chose, could have a very successful career as a professional singer. But she lives here in Santa Fe, raises her daughter, keeps a luscious garden (a real accomplishment in Santa Fe) and gives voice lessons. In the eyes of Utility it's just hippie nonsense to think that living a simple, if beautiful life, can make up for not pursuing a successful career if one is able. But by making that choice Kirsten has given Santa Fe many small beautiful moments it would not have otherwise had. For example I've been working with her for a couple years now, fighting this Utilitarian mindset all the way. She worked with me for months on the songs I sang for my friends' wedding. If it hadn't been for her, that singing would not have been as good as it could have been and that wedding would have had a little less color and beauty than it had. Small, yes, I said small moments of beauty, but that doesn't make them less important. My friends could have played a CD of a professional singer singing the same songs, but even though the quality of singing would have been much better, it would have made for a less colorful, less memorable event. And that's only one example of who knows how many?
I’m reading G. K. Chesteron’s biography of Thomas Aquinas. I figure if anyone can make me more sympathetic to Aquinas, it’s Chesterton. It’s not that I particularly dislike Aquinas, but having not understood what Aristotle was trying to do, and having only the vaguest understanding of Christianity, I understandably couldn’t appreciate what Aquinas was doing with the two. I think we read Aquinas only briefly at St. John’s, and then it seems to have been either right before or right after a break, so I understood even less of what I might otherwise.

Chesterton’s biography so far is, as he admits, more of a sketch than a biography. I haven’t read any Chesteron for some time and find myself having to adjust to his particular writing style. Reading Chesterton is like taking a leisurely stroll with many jaunts off the path to explore some butterfly or flower that has caught his eye. Sometimes I wish he would be more explicit about some of his assumptions and definitions, but at the same time, I enjoy the stroll.
Well, the class wasn't as bad as it could be. The woman teaching it didn't take herself or the class too seriously, which was refreshing. And now I know not to serve alcohol to minors or to . . . to . . . ummm, I'll get it . . . to people in penguin suits! No, that's not quite right, is it? Hmmm . . I'll remember . . . maybe five hours wasn't long enough . . .

Monday, May 10, 2004

Oh dear. I keep promising certain people a post about the particularly modern (arguably) curse of Utility. But I've been lazy and distracted so it hasn't materialized. I'd do it now, but I have to go to an alcohol servers' class. What this means is that I go to a five hour "class" and hear how not to serve alcohol to minors, and not to serve alcohol to drunk people. Hmmm . . . I know, it's so complicated that you need at least five hours to get it.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Has this ever happened to you? You go into a restaurant. It's not very crowded, in fact you're one of only a few tables in the place. "How nice," you think. But then you wait forever for your server, wait forever for your food and then the waitress is nowhere to be found when you want your check, or, she drops off your check and you wait fifteen minutes for her to run your credit card. "What's happening," you wonder, "They're not busy at all." Well, dear readers, I will enlighten you. The waitress, not being busy with any other tables, and not wanting to hover too near your table, frightening you, has probably found something else to occupy herself and every so often remembers, "Oh yeah, I have a table, don't I?" And the kitchen is probably trying to stave off boredom by telling incredibly dirty jokes in Spanish, and maybe doing some singing and dancing (our kitchen crew sings and dances). It's an odd fact of the restaurant business that it doesn't function very well below a certain threshold of business. If the waitress has several tables she's constantly out on the floor, keeping an eye on the tables and taking care of things. But if she's only got one table (you) then she only comes out when she thinks you might need something, which might or might not correspond to reality.

Such was the state of things yesterday. We did 14 people for lunch yesterday, so I spent most of my time looking through the dreaded Alaska guidebooks (I was much less grumpy by then), balancing my checkbook and making phone necessary calls. The first hour or so of dinner was pretty much the same so I spent the time writing, reading Kipling's Plain Tales From the Hills, which I'm liking very much, watching with amusement as the bartender struggled through Heidegger's Being and Time and talked about Being with said bartender. We did get busy later, but, just in case those first few tables were wondering where their waitress had gone, now they know.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

I had meant to post on several interesting things tonight, but that didn't happen. Maybe tomorrow . . .
Warning: This is a rather grumpy post, written at the end of a rather grumpy day (or at least, a grumpy evening). Read at your own risk.

I'm supposed to be planning a two week trip to Alaska for next month (yikes!). Now I suppose any normal person would think that was great fun. But 1) I intensely dislike and find it very stressful to plan anything (I don't even pack lunches) and 2) I have serious doubts about the whole concept of tourism. It's a lot of work, a lot of money and a lot hassle and I don't really see the point. It's different if you're visiting friends or family, or if you have some connection to the place you're going, but to just go somewhere for the sake of experience seems kind of pointless. Living in a tourist town and working in a tourist restaurant I constantly hear people talking as if they knew Santa Fe after spending an afternoon looking at the jewelry for sale on the Plaza. You get to know a place by living there, not by running around frantically doing all the things the guidebooks tell you. To me, guidebooks have a knack of making everything seem horribly boring and unattractive. I guess it's because they reduce the real living experience of a city to a checklist of things that has to be "done" in a certain amount of days. With that kind of attitude it's really hard to get excited about a trip, or to plan anything. I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Paris for a week a few years ago and I had the same problem then. It was a wonderful trip, but in the weeks leading up to it I was looking to it with dread, seeing only the hassle, the packing, the desparate attempt to refresh my French and the exhausting flights. Even then the guidebooks were totally uninspiring, making the Lourve, Versailles and Notre Dame seem like cheap tourist traps. The problem with tourism, ultimately is that you can't see or get any real sense of a place in such a brief time, so you end up rushing from one experience to another, ending up totally exhausted, with a nice set of pictures to show for it (if you're lucky) and the smug pleasure of being able to say, "I've been there."