Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Worst New Year's Eve Ever

I've never been a big fan of New Year's Eve for some reason. I always find it somewhat depressing, but I don't think any New Year's will ever be more depressing than 2000-01.

I was living in Zurich and pretty much depressed to begin with. My job was a real disappointment, my salary was well below the Swiss national poverty line and I was having a very hard time making friends, not least because I couldn't afford to do anything.

I was casually dating a local guy named Thom. Thom spoke absolutely no English, and my German was still pretty basic. I'm not sure we'd have had anything to talk about anyway.

Thom was about the biggest flake I've ever known. He was astonishingly insensitive, even more than your typical Schweizer. He really wasn't cruel, but he was just so clueless that he had no idea when he'd hurt my feelings -- which he did with regularity. The problem was I felt a near animal attraction to him. Everytime I saw him, I just wanted to rip his clothes off.

I was paid monthly in cash, and after I paid my phone bill, my rent and my monthly transit pass, I had about $13 a day I could spend on food and anything else I needed or wanted. Thom never quite understood the position I was in, and he certainly wasn't the type to offer to pay for dinner or buy me a drink. (Which in Switzerland is not at all unusual or rude.) Because of the holiday weekend, the cashier at the opera house was closed until January 3rd, so that month I had to stretch my money even more tightly. I couldn't use a credit card for anything because I had no way to pay the bill, since I couldn't afford to have a bank account.

So December 31st rolled around and I was down to my last few franks. I had called Thom several times to see what he was doing, but hadn't heard back from him. I decided just to save money and stay home, but then I said to myself, "Wait a minute, it's New Year's Eve, you're in Europe, screw this, screw Thom, go out and have a good time."

I got dressed and headed off to my favorite bar Cranberry, which incidentally is where I'd met Thom. Drinks of course were expensive and I didn't have money to spare, but I decided I had enough to budget for one glass of champagne at midnight. So I hung out at the bar, smiling like an idiot, not drinking, with no one to talk to. (The Swiss don't make polite conversation, and they don't really flirt. They figure if you were worth knowing, they'd know you already.)

We missed midnight. I don't know how it happened, but at one point someone said, "Hey, happy new year" and the bar sort of mumbled in celebration, and that was it. Here I'd been diligently practicing my "Feuf...Viär...Drüü...Zwei...Eis!", all for nothing. I slowly sipped my Veuve Clicquot and kicked myself mentally for having not stayed at home.

Around 12:30 I looked up and saw Thom coming toward me with a big smile on his face. "Hoi!" he called out. "I tried to call you!"

"When?" I said. "Around 11:30." Now, I didn't have a cellphone in Zurich -- that was WAY beyond my means. So I said, "You called me at 11:30 on New Year's Eve and thought I'd be home?" And he said, "Yeah." So I said, "Well, I'm done with my champagne, so I'm gonna head home now, nice to see you." And then he did what he always did: he made the most amazing puppy dog eyes and said, "Home? You can't go home, I just got here."

Of course it's TONS of fun to hang out at a bar when you can't afford to drink and no one is buying. Thom's friends always acted like I was invisible. They never acknowledged me, and Thom barely did either. But my self-esteem was in the toilet, so it was enough just to be around people who were having a conversation, even if I wasn't in it. That's how bad my life was there.

So a little after 1:00 Thom announces that they are going to this club up the hill to dance. "Hmm, sounds like fun," I said, "but I really can't afford it." Thom made the puppy-dog eyes. I sighed. "Well, how much is it?" "Fifteen franks," he said.

Okay. I had exactly 20 franks in my wallet -- around $13, and that had to last me three whole days. I had no reserves, no backup, no way to get any other money. That was all I had in the world. "I can't, I'm sorry," I said. "Please," whined Thom. Then leaning in close to me he said, "I promise you'll have a good time."

So then the little red devil on my shoulder said, "Oh for God's sake, Andy, just go live for once in your life, consequences be damned. Go have a good time, you can survive somehow on three dollars for three days. It's not like you're going to die." So I said okay.

Up the hill we went. There was a long line to get into the club, and it was raining, and I didn't have an umbrella. Thom's friends didn't share theirs. I stood at the back of the group behind Thom, and he ignored me as he always did. When we finally got to the head of the line after about ten minutes, there was a sign that read: "EINTRITT: CHF 35."

I tapped Thom on the shoulder. "I don't have that much money with me," I said, mortified.

"Oh, sorry. Okay, well, I'll call you." And then he turned and went into the club with his friends.

And then the people in line behind me laughed.

And then, because public transit had long stopped running for the evening, I walked two miles home in the rain and went to bed.

Friday, December 30, 2005

As Andy Saw It: 2005

JANUARY: Coming to terms with George Bush, subway fire threatens A train service for up to five years, Buster meets some lesbians, the SpongeBob crisis, Iraq's first election, and accidental fellatio.

FEBRUARY: Bush tries to save Social Security by getting rid of it, The Gates, City of New York appeals judge's ruling on same-sex marriage, and Republicans attack Social Security as part of the homosexual agenda.

MARCH: Andy gets an iPod, it's venti not ventay, America debates the sanctity of life, Andy turns down a job offer.

APRIL: The passing of John Paul II, Justice Sunday, a new pope, Andy gets a job.

MAY: Get the Drano, there's a Koran clogging the toilet, America debates stem-cell research, the battle over Intelligent Design begins and Star Wars ends.

JUNE: Howard Dean disappoints, the Michael Jackson trial, and the Commandments and the Constitution.

JULY: The Vatican explains evolution, the London bombings, Judy Miller goes to jail, and John Roberts is nominated to the Supreme Court.

AUGUST: More debate over Intelligent Design, is John Roberts pro-gay?, and Justice Sunday II.

SEPTEMBER: Hurricane blows away Bush's approval rating, gays get blamed, rumors of a Vatican gay purge, and Bill Bennett argues that aborting blacks would lower the crime rate.

OCTOBER: The Harriet Miers Show, ID'ers keep trying, and a lesbian athlete (who knew?).

NOVEMBER: The Alito nomination, Andy gets cable, cut and run, best TV freakout ever, and the Vatican bans gay priests (for real).

DECEMBER: The War on Christmas, The Lion, the Witch and the Gay Cowboys, and a really stupid transit strike.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Auld Lang Whine

In the spirit of getting things off our chests and cleaning out our mental closets in preparation for the new year, I open up the comments section below for your rants, raves, confessions, smears, etc., all protected by beautiful anonymity.

Have a story to tell about a co-worker you hate but you'd NEVER put it on your blog? Mad at your spouse? Worst date ever but the date reads your blog? Spill it!

Anonymous comments only.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Well, it's as I feared. My company has decided that employees who were unable to get to work during the recent transit strike will have to use vacation time for those days.

So thank you, thank you very frickin' much, Transit Workers' Union, you selfish jerks. I have nothing to do with your silly negotiations, there was nothing I could do for you, no way I could help you, no influence I have over the MTA and people like me are the ones who end up paying for your idiocy. Thanks to you, I spent paid vacation time stranded in my apartment.

Mood: Pissy
Background Music: Verdi's Dies Irae


This morning there was a homeless woman asleep atop a pile of newspapers at the 181st Street A train station. A passenger came by, pulled the Metro section out from under her, and got on the train.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Filmgoers Praise Actor's Courage

Heterosexuals have been portraying homosexuals on the silver screen at least since 1946, when Henry Travers boldly embodied heaven's nelliest angel Clarence in the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life, but now, for possibly the first time in Hollywood history, a really, really, really, really gay man is playing a heterosexual.

Nathan Lane stars as Max Bialystock in the new movie The Producers, reviving the role he originated on Broadway. Bialystock is a scheming, underhanded, amoral producer of Broadway flops who, along with his accountant Leo Bloom (played by actual heterosexual Matthew Broderick), hits upon a plan to earn millions by intentionally fundraising for a short-lived flop. For Bialystock, the ends justify the means in his whatever-it-takes approach to showbusiness.

To raise two million dollars for his planned fiasco Springtime for Hitler, Bialystock romances wealthy old Manhattan dowagers, but also falls for his ingenue-cum-secretary, the Swedish bombshell Ulla.

"I don't really view Max as straight," said Lane in a recent interview. "His first love is producing for the theater, and I think his relationship with the old widows really strikes him as a completely normal business transaction, he doesn't really let his emotions get involved. And as far as Ulla goes, she's more of an archetype than a character. He finds himself attracted to her innate sensuality, her embodiment of a certain feminine ideal, in a Jungian sense, rather than lusting after her physicality."

"Also, the world of The Producers is a very lonely, isolated place," said Lane. "There aren't many appropriate partners for him. The widows might as well be sheep for all the emotional connectivity he has with them. In a way, he's stranded in a wilderness of theater types, and Ulla is really the only one outside that world for him."

"The more romantic moments were a bit daunting at first, I confess," chuckled Lane. "But Uma was great to work with, very supportive, and ultimately it's about acting. As our personal relationship deepened during the filming, the intimacy became easier."

Still, the performance is being hailed as a cinematic milestone. "This flings the closet door wide open," said Harold Wickenberg, president of StereoTypes, an activist organization that advocates for so-called "colorblind casting" and other nontraditional hiring methods in film and theater. "People are seeing that acting is not about the actor, it's about the character. This was the next logical step in a progression that began with Nicole Kidman's fake nose, and I think it won't be very long before we start seeing paraplegic superheroes and black Klan members."

"This is crucial for cultural awareness," said Shelley Thompson of the Heterosexual Rights Campaign. "It's important for people to understand that heterosexuality has a variety of expressions. Not every straight man is Sylvester Stallone or George W. Bush. Some of us are Tom Cruises or Matt Damons and, yes, even Max Bialystocks."

Still, not everyone is cheering. "This film is utterly deceitful," said Harvey Mann, spokesperson for Citizens United for Normal Traditions (CUNT). "It suggests that homosexuals can somehow "pass" for straight. It implies that there is a fluidity of gender roles and attractions that simply doesn't exist, and I think this could be dangerously confusing for young people."

"The Bible is very clear on this," said Heather Waterston of Families Against Gays (FAG). "Gay men should suppress their desires and marry women and have the kind of families that God ordained for us as natural, but you can always tell when a man is a homo. The idea that a gay man could ever be perceived as a heterosexual is part of this extreme leftist agenda that has been coming out of Hollywood for years."

Even some gays are upset. "The purity of Broadway's image is really tarnished by this reprehensible casting error," said Ivey Lowenstein of TKTS. "Broadway is gay, very gay, everyone knows that. To have a movie about a heterosexual involved with a Broadway production is pure fiction, and does not represent the way things really are here."

When asked about the controversy, Lane laughed. "People are so silly, really. If they want to see a movie with no heterosexual characters, they can go to Brokeback Mountain instead."

Monday, December 26, 2005

Have Yourself a Mary Little Christmas

I was hanging out with friends and fellow bloggers last night for a traditional Christmas dinner, including a scrumptious Oreo Creme Pie. While we ate, we listened to that heartwarming holiday tale of rejection and disillusionment, Eugene Onegin, on a TimeWarner music channel, enjoying such fascinating Artist Facts as "Mirella Freni is a soprano."

Afterward we retired to the living room to watch figure skating on Lifetime.

Ironically, one of the topics that popped up during dinner was, "Whatever happened to Nancy Kerrigan?" and, wouldn't you know, we saw a commercial for a reality show she's doing.

Maria Butyrskaya broke new ground with what we believe was the first televised striptease on ice. Oh, and she fell on her ass, hard, and slid a few feet, which was pretty entertaining, too. We disqualified her for matching her lipstick to her jacket.

Things improved dramatically for the pairs competition. The first couple impressed us the most when the guy picked up the girl by one ankle and swung her around in circles. After that we just weren't satisfied with anyone else. "Eh, the choreography's okay, but where's the blatant disregard for her safety?"

"Make the yuletide gay," the classic carol instructs. Well, I think we succeeded.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Why Christmas Belongs in December

In a strange way, we can be grateful for the recent uproar over the purported "war on Christmas," because it refocuses our attention on what the holiday's self-anointed defenders call The Reason for the Season.

We have no idea when Jesus was born. We aren't even sure of the year, let alone the season or the day. The early church established the feast of the nativity at the end of the year in order to diminish the influence of traditional pagan winter rituals. It only half-succeeded; only scholars remember what the pagans were celebrating, but the red and green trappings of evergreen boughs, holly, and mistletoe remain with us to this day.

Despite all of that, I can't help but think that there is no better time for the focused observance of Jesus' birth than the first week of winter. Life is so much safer in this modern world than it was in the days of our ancestors. Sure, we might worry about accidents in inclement weather or slipping on an icy sidewalk, but for our forefathers the onset of winter presented a dire threat.

Most of us live comfortably, confident in the knowledge that the grocery stores will be stocked through the coming months with all the things we need and desire, fresh meat of every variety and fruits and vegetables harvested from around the world daily. But only a few centuries past, people watched as the crops withered and died and disappeared under a blanket of snow. Careful planning and rationing was required if the food was to last until spring. If we're cold, most of us can simply adjust a thermostat. But the frigid weather brought with it the onset of diseases that today we regard as minor inconveniences, instead of the death sentence they might have been.

Even today, in this life of comparative ease and safety, the plunging temperatures and short dark days bring on widespread despair and depression. The traditional winter solstice celebration, seen in this context, can be viewed as an act of defiant rebellion, an insistence to bring lightness and cheer and merriment into a dying world.

Faith is a defiant act of rebellion; the firm determination to choose to be joyful, the willingness to believe in things unseen, and the reliance upon hope that better days are coming.

And so despite an utter lack of any evidence worthy of positioning "Christmas" in December, I say there's no better time for us to affirm the meanings of generosity, family, beauty and a light spirit in the midst of the darkest days.

I Take it Back

Oh, Santa...thank you! That was exactly what I needed.


Friday, December 23, 2005

Ho Yourself, Fatty

It would be a lot easier to get into the Christmas spirit if people weren't such fucking assholes.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Wall Street via Weehawken

In which our hero explores the wilds of New Jersey by bus.

Alternately titled, I Ain't No Holla-nd Tunnel Girl

So, I made it to work today. I realized I could take a New Jersey Transit bus from the Manhattan side of the George Washington Bridge to Hoboken, and then connect to the PATH train for the World Trade Center. It only cost $5.50 and took two hours.

I'm not sure how crowded the #181 bus heading into New Jersey is at 6:49 a.m. normally is, but it was jam-packed this morning; thankfully I had a seat. There were several other downtown-bound New Yorkers, some of whom were openly muttering about doing this three days in a row. These weren't suited-up executives, they were clearly people who needed every cent in their paycheck, and they have no alternative to leaving an hour earlier than normal, getting home an hour later, and paying $11 a day for the pleasure, presumably on top of what they earlier paid for a MetroCard they can't use right now.

Speaking of MetroCards, when I was researching my itinerary yesterday I was delighted to discover that MetroCards with dollar amounts (as opposed to unlimited ride cards) could be used for PATH train fares. As part of that idiotic "holiday fare" promotion, participants in the TransitChek program received "complimentary" MetroCards worth $10. When it first came in the mail, I thought, "What the hell is this? I have a pre-paid MetroCard that never expires, what am I going to do with this?" I had decided to use it as a Christmas present for a very special someone (*gasp* "A MetroCard, oh, Andy, you shouldn't have!!!") but couldn't find anyone special, so it was still sitting on my desk. "Aha!" I thought, "I can use it for the train today."

Well, it was a lovely idea, but it didn't work. I fed the card into the turnstile, and a big red light lit up, "INVALID CARD." Thank you, MTA. Of course because I couldn't go through I created a pile-up in the line of commuters behind me. They had two vending machines, one of which was broken, so I gave up and went through the cash line since I had change. The fare is $1.50, and naturally I had deposited $1.25, but the fucking thing wouldn't take my last quarter. I kept putting it in and it would fall through to the change bin. "Please deposit $.25," the display read. I even changed quarters. The leviathanesque queue behind me was lengthening and growling. Finally it went through. I turned back and saw it was doing it to the next person, too, so I felt vindicated.

Anyone want a $10 MetroCard?

I really don't want to do that again.

Of course it beat my boss's trip in yesterday. He walked up to Riverdale in The Bronx, took a MetroNorth train to Grand Central Station, walked 10 blocks to the PATH train station, then left Manhattan and went to Hoboken and came back on the WTC train. This shit's B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

I've already come up with a variation for the trip home. The accountant lives in Hoboken, so we're going to take the ferry right outside the office and then have a drink or two to fortify me for the long, slow bus ride back to Manhattan.

What kind of messed up commute from one end of an island to another involves two buses, a train and a boat via a detour to another state?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Forcing a Broken System to Work

Roger Toussaint, the leader of the local chapter of the transit workers union, claims we should support the striking workers because they are taking a stand against the trend of forcing workers to pay higher and higher shares of the cost of healthcare coverage and other benefits.

It's true that America has a healthcare crisis. Over 40 million Americans are uninsured; many of them are children. But insurance itself is frequently insufficient. In 2003, Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in record numbers.

More than half of those bankruptcies were due to medical debt. Worse, seventy-five percent of the people drowning in medical debt had insurance.

There are a number of reasons why the costs of healthcare are rising and lots of blame to spread around. But these conversations are secondary to the trillion-dollar gorilla waiting in the emergency room: the system is broken.

The practice of tying insurance to employment simply has to end. Covering the cost of insurance for employees is proving prohibitively expensive even for enormous corporations who can buy bulk coverage; for smaller companies, the challenge is even worse. The burden is increasingly shifted to employees, in the forms of payroll deductions, higher deductibles and more exempted services. (This also profoundly impacts the quality of care, as what insurance companies will pay for tends to determine course of treatment, rather than the doctor's recommendation.)

Most Americans are actually quite healthy; it's a tiny minority of chronically ill people who make up the vast portion of medical expense. Therein lies one potential solution that deserves closer scrutiny.

Conservatives decry universal healthcare, preferring to rely on market forces and competition to keep quality high and costs low. But we see clearly this isn't working well. Government-run universal coverage smacks of socialism to them; and even saner people worry about trusting our healthcare to government incompetence and exposing it to rank politicization.

One answer would be to create a government agency that pays for catastrophic and long-term chronic care. If insurance companies didn't have to come up with money for risky surgeries, trauma, expensive drug therapy, and long-term care, it would dramatically reduce the cost of private insurance, to the point that employer-sponsored care would once again become reasonably affordable. Then we could expand the pool of insured people, meaning that more people could get to the doctor regularly, which would make us healthier and decrease the pool of people needing that more expensive care.

We should all oppose the trend of forcing Americans to pay more and more for their own healthcare. But the only effective way to achieve change is to recognize the system is hopelessly broken and get a different one.

Roger Toussaint has taken the City of New York hostage to force the MTA to pay even more money into a broken, expensive, inefficient system, thereby exacerbating the problem. By doing this, he's not only not standing up for the quality of care for all Americans, he's punishing the poorest New Yorkers, many of whom don't even have insurance, by preventing them from getting to work, losing desperately needed income and perhaps even their jobs.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

It Wasn't All Bad

I could get used to this "working at home" thing.

Okay, the problem is, I'm not sure I can convince my bosses that enough of my job can actually be done from home. I'm not sure because I'm not sure I believe it myself. Still, I gave it the old college try today. I have been checking my voicemail and returning phone calls, responding to emails, and I redesigned our company's travel expense report form.

I also did two loads of laundry and enjoyed a whiskey soda after my lunch break. (Hey, creating spreadsheet templates is hard work!)

The best part was sleeping in until 9 a.m. and still being ontime for work.

The worst part was running into Joan in the laundry room. Her grasp of reality is increasingly tenuous, I'm afraid. While we both agreed the union has no business striking (trust me, I didn't bring it up!), she went on to defend the MTA...which is indefensible. She called union leader Roger Toussaint "that goddamned frenchman," and referred to the workers as "greedy pigs who should either be grateful to live in a country where they have a job or they should go back to where they came from." Always a pleasure talking with you, Joan.

Well, I think I've been exceptionally productive under the circumstances. I think I'm going to allow myself to cut out early today.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Cyberverse

Yesterday afternoon...

BigTool4U: Hey stud, what u lookin 4

SweetInnocentMe: Someone to go to dinner with.

BigTool4U: at 2:30 in the afternoon?

BigTool4U: thats wierd

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Narnia Inside

A couple of years ago while I was struggling with acid reflux and watching the life and career I'd worked so hard to build for myself disappear before I knew it was gone, my desperation to heal led me to some wacked-out alternative medicine types.

I visited one woman who worked out of her apartment in the East Village. She works with energies, and such. I lay on a table and she moved her hands over my body for quite a long time, trying to determine if I had a blockage or something somewhere that was causing my physical distress.

After about an hour she said, "Well, I really can't find anything wrong with you, except," and here she held her hands directly over my heart, "right here, there just seems to be a big, cold hole."

I know.

Overheard in New York

The lobby of the Ziegfeld Theater, following The Producers.

Queer #1: So, where are we going?

Queer #2: Someplace where it's okay that I'm wearing corduroy pants.

Queer #3: The 70s?

Queer #2: The Eagle it is.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Strike the Strike

That I am a liberal has, I hope, been clearly established. I am, for the record, pro-union (at least I support the concept that workers have a right to organize to protest unfair treatment), and in the interest of full disclosure, I am a former union member.

But the present dispute between the Transit Workers' Union and the MTA in New York City is utter nonsense.

In New York State, it is against the law for public employees to strike, and for good reason. New York is unique among American cities, in that its residents rely on public transportation to an extent that approaches exclusivity. For millions of New Yorkers, there is no alternate mode of getting around.

New Yorkers have no love for the MTA. Increased fares resulting in decreased service, the decrepit condition of many subway stations (especially in less-affluent neighborhoods) and the ease with which even a minor fire can throw the entire system into chaos for hours, not to mention the budgets shrouded in secrecy, are all issues that keep us grumbling. We especially loved how the MTA decided to "deal" with its billion dollar surplus this year, after pleading "Pending deficit crisis!" for as long as we can remember, by introducing special half-price "holiday fares" on weekends between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Most New Yorkers pay for their rides in advance using monthly MetroCards, so cut fares on weekends benefit only tourists and the B&T crowd who come in to shop, not the system's regular riders.

But just because the MTA is monstrous doesn't mean we have sympathy for the employees, either. NYC Transit employees are often surly, unintelligible and altogether unhelpful. Customer service is absolutely appalling. Sure, they have a right to press for higher pay and better benefits. This is America, after all. Yay, capitalism! I mean that. But the transit workers really don't have it that bad. The average worker's salary is almost twice mine, and the MTA is now asking them to contribute a paltry 1% (down from the initial 2%) toward the cost of health insurance, which is still a far better deal than most Americans get. The main sticking point seems to be whether employees can retire with full pension at 55, as the union demands, or whether new workers can be asked to work until the age of 62.

It's a fair question, and worthy of debate. But is it worth grabbing the innocent citizens of New York by the balls and holding them hostage?

When a private company's employees strike, it results in a financial impact for the employer, because it stops productivity. It creates a negative image in the public eye, which drives consumers both out of necessity and concern to competitors.

But the MTA has no competitors. "Thank you for riding with the MTA," train conductors often say at the conclusion of a service announcement. As if we have a choice! Furthermore, the MTA already has my money. Through my job, I participate in the TransitChek program, which means the money for my subway fares is automatically deducted from my paycheck. I can halt the deduction, sure, but it takes weeks to process and weeks to re-instate. So if the trains and buses aren't running, I'm paying for a system I can't use. A transit worker strike has a negative financial impact on the innocent customers, and not on the Authority.

I work in the human resources department of my organization. Let me tell you, planning for this potential strike has eaten up hours of our time, trying to determine which employees could reasonably be expected to make it to work on foot or by other means, and how we would function in a limited capacity. My job has nothing to do with public transit or these union negotations, but the mere threat of a strike has mandated that we drop all the other things we're doing and prepare.

The strike in 1980 lasted eleven days. No one is anticipating that this time around, but, as watching the Bush administration has taught us repeatedly, one should hope for the best while planning for the worst. Without divulging confidential conversations, I can say that the question has been raised whether our company has to pay employees who can't come to work. After all, the strike would not be the company's fault. So yes, my paycheck deductions for transit would continue, while I get docked for being unable to get here. (I live 13.5 miles from my office.)

MTA employees have every right to try to get the best deal for themselves, but they have no right to punish me while they do it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Trouble with Allegories

"To enjoy reading about fairies -- much more about giants and dragons -- it is not necessary to believe in them," wrote C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia. "Belief is at best irrelevant; it may be a positive disadvantage."

Lewis is one of the 20th century's best-known Christian apologists, and his seven-book series about the land of Narnia is suffused with Christian symbols and references. But does that mean that the Narnia books are "Christian" works? And does it matter?

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which opened this past weekend in movie form, the character of the lion Aslan, innocent of any crime, agrees to be put to death in the place of a child who has betrayed his own siblings. He is executed, but comes back to life, and leads the residents of Narnia in a successful revolt against the evil witch who has held them all captive in a century-long winter. It's a clear reference to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Or is it?

The British writer Philip Pullman calls the books "propaganda in the cause of the religion [Lewis] believed in." Yet in almost all of the articles appearing concurrently with the new film's opening, one adult writer after the next confesses that when they first read the books as a child, the religious references completely escaped them. As Meghan O'Rourke wrote in Slate, "Millions of kids have read The Chronicles of Narnia for 50 years without detecting their religious underpinnings largely because the moral lessons of the Narnia books are extricable from their spiritual ones."

And yet, Jessica Seigel writes in The New York Times, "My mother recently remarked that if she'd known the stories were Christian, she wouldn't have given me the books -- which are among my dearest childhood memories." Why?

O'Rourke explains, "Judging the Narnia books solely by their Christianity is an impoverished way of reading them. It is a reflection more of our polarized moment -- in which a perceived cultural divide has alienated Christians from secular culture and secular readers from anything that smacks of religious leanings -- than of the relative aesthetic merits and weaknesses of Lewis' books."

The books suffer from having an allegorical reputation. An allegory is "a literary device in which each literal character, object and event represents symbols illustrating an idea or moral or religious principle." Animal Farm is an allegory; Narnia, despite the allegorical nature of Aslan and certain plot elements, is not. "Indeed," argues Lauren Winner in Beliefnet, "Lewis never liked to call the Chronicles "allegory," with the term's implication that every last animal, tree and chair was simply a cipher, standing in for some specific thing in the Bible."

This approach is similar to that of Lewis' close friend and Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien -- incidentally the man principally responsible for Lewis' conversion from atheism -- who wrote in the foreward to The Fellowship of the Ring, "I think that many confuse "applicability" with "allegory"; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author."

Therein lies much of the problem: the freedom of the reader also allows him to claim to detect intentions of the author that might not be there. Kris Rasmussen, also in Beliefnet, confesses, "I am all in favor of pointing people to what is good, pure and true; pointing them -- not beating them over the head with it. My biggest fear is that in an overzealous attempt to use "Narnia" as some kind of special marketing tool, churches will deny others, who may not agree with a Christian interpretation of the story, their chance to discover for themselves the depth of meaning(s) in the tale."

A third Beliefnet columnist, Richard Mouw, states, "C.S. Lewis warned us not to read too much Christian theology into the stories of Narnia....But I do hope it will serve as an invitation for many people to reflect on the nature of the world in which we live. [It] is a good thing to be encouraged to go beyond the superficial, exploring not only the Deeper Magic, but also the other below-the-surface forces that drive our lives, even when we do not acknowledge their existence: our Deeper Hopes and our Deeper Fears -- those Deeper Yearnings that we ignore only at the expense of our humanness."

Monday, December 12, 2005

I'm It

Well, I got tagged by Jess.

Five Simple Pleasures:
  1. This past Saturday, a bright, gleaming, frigidly clear winter day, I found myself with nothing to do so I took my iPod to Central Park and walked all the way around the drive, which takes me about 2.5 hours, or 36 songs. My iPod, with 4006 songs, reflects my exceptionally eclectic taste in music, but nothing suited Central Park in the snow better than Miles Davis' "Sweet Pea."
  2. Aquariums, any aquarium. I've visited the ones in Seattle, Newport, OR, San Francisco, Monterey, Denver, Chicago, Brooklyn, Mystic, London, Brighton, Paris and Honolulu.
  3. A scalding hot bath with a Ravi Shankar raga playing in the light of a single candle.
  4. A hug, from anyone.
  5. When a dog smiles at you.

Hmm, to continue this, I tag Jean, Little-Cicero, Jeff, Courtney and Tony.

One Weekend, Two Movies

In 2004, the media, especially Frank Rich of The New York Times, made a big deal out of the way America's cultural and political divisions were represented by the audience demographics of two major films, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. I wonder if they will make the same comparisons about two films that opened this past weekend, Brokeback Mountain and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Both movies had a lot of advance press, but I think in the case of the former it did the film a disservice. It is a very, very fine effort, but I'm not sure it quite lives up to the advance reputation that was built up for it. Beautifully filmed, Brokeback Mountain the movie is as much a love affair with the landscapes and lifestyles of the American West as it is about one particular human love affair. It is a quiet, spacious film that speaks loudest when no one is talking.

A supreme challenge for any actor is to portray a character who is fundamentally unable to express himself, and Heath Ledger is astounding as the quiet, restrained Ennis del Mar, a rather volcanic man who forces his burning, conflicted and angry emotions deep down but finds himself occasionally subject to brief, uncontrollable outbursts of passion. Jake Gyllenhaal is charming as the goofier, more laid-back, more emotionally in touch character. There was a comfortable ease between the actors, but I wasn't really convinced of a deep connection. "Love is a force of nature" is the film's tagline, but it lacked the uncontrollable bound-by-fate attraction of the Tristan and Isolde legend on which this story so clearly is modeled.

In supporting roles, Michelle Williams as Ennis' long-suffering wife took up her martyrdom heroically, chewing scenery in the grand tradition. Jack's disinterested wife Lureen was handled affably by Anne Hathaway, who unfortunately appeared to look younger with each successive change of hairstyle over the decades.

I think the gay community was so delighted by the prospect of seeing gay characters on screen doing something other than comic relief that we built up an expectation of cultural watershed status for this movie, but I don't see that in the cards. The hullaballoo had me waiting expectantly for a big emotional release that just doesn't come. That's not a criticism; Brokeback is the cinematic equivalent of blue-balls, but intentionally so. It's a very good movie, and several times I couldn't help thinking that if it weren't for the man-on-man assfucking, it's the kind of thing my dad would really like.

I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe last month, in preparation for the movie version. I'd owned the books as a child, but never touched them, for whatever reason. Recently I've been reading the theological works of C.S. Lewis, including The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, so I was curious to see how his Christian ideas played out in a story aimed at children. I was also worried that the film would take simple allegorical literary devices and turn them into propagandistic cudgels.

I have much to say on the subject of the story itself, but for now I wanted to just report that I was completely delighted with the movie. As Meghan O'Rourke pointed out in her wonderful defense in Slate, Lewis wasn't concerned so much with plot as with mood, which is captured perfectly. The movie is only heavy-handed in places where Lewis himself let his imagination be hogtied by a desire to dogmatize, or, as O'Rourke put it, "where he let his didactic, expository, Anglican self get the better of the spell-caster within."

But make no mistake, a spell is cast through much of the movie. The four child actors portraying the Pevensie siblings are all superior, most especially the adorably sweet Georgie Henley as Lucy. Tilda Swinton is fabulously malevolent as Jadis, the White Witch, the kind of villain you love to hate. The biggest conceptual error was playing the professor as a kooky old man. When the children tell him about Lucy's tale of a kingdom within the wardrobe, you chalk up his defense of Lucy to his eccentricity. In the novel, however, the effect is much more jarring to have a rational man accept the possibility.

Though aimed at children, the messages resonate clearly for adults who are open to hearing them. The film does not flinch from depicting the violence of the book, though it does spare us unnecessary gore. For kicks, I checked out the review over at the American Family Association, which warns viewers that the movie "includes brief scenes of the Witch's cleavage and of the Professor smoking a pipe as well as what sounded like one use of the Lord's name in vain."

Where Brokeback examines the complex issues of sexual attraction and adult relationships and responsibilities, Chronicles of Narnia sticks to simpler, universal truths, but is perhaps the more powerful for it.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Words of Wisdom

I first discovered The Beatles in the late 1980s. We sublet a house in Berkeley, California for a summer while my stepfather participated in an advanced program for professional chemists at the University. It was a happy time for us; my stepfather was having a great time, and my mother, who had grown up in San Rafael, was happy to be back in the beautiful bay area. She had worked at the University for a time in the 60s, when she was first married to my dad, who was a student there.

The house was a wide, shallow multi-story cedar affair built into a steep slope way atop the Berkeley Hills, just one block below Grizzly Peak, a little to the south of Marin Avenue. I forget exactly what year it was, but I think I was about 12. At that age, I was pretty much a loner. When I wasn't out exploring the neighborhood, or surreptitiously taking the bus down to the BART station and sneaking into downtown San Francisco, I really didn't have anything to do.

The family that owned the house had a large record collection. I had heard of The Beatles, of course, but didn't know any of their music. (Despite having gone to Berkeley in the 60s, my dad was more of a Beethoven and Marty Robbins guy.) Who knows what possessed me, but I put on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Little Madonna fan that I was, my first thought was that the music was corny and dated, but I kept listening. By the time the needle got to "Lucy," I was hooked. I listened to their whole collection.

I never bought any Beatles recordings for myself until many years later, when I was living in Zurich. Horribly depressed and miserably broke, I splurged on the anthology 1, which cost me more than an entire day's budget. While the tunes were all familiar, I'd never really listened to, or perhaps, connected with, the words before.

There was so much on my mind that year. I was poor, bored, lonely and angry. I felt betrayed by my circumstances there, which were so far short of what I'd hoped for that some days I contemplated just going to the airport and never looking back. My moods swung between barely contained rage and moments of such sadness that tears would spontaneously appear in my eyes. Most of the time I was just sullen. When I'd pray, I'd ask God, "Why?" over and over and over.

And then I'd listen to "Let it Be." To this day, I can't help but tear up when I hear this song, and remember the incredible comfort I took from it in desperate hours. No question, this song saved my life.

There will be an answer. Let it be, let it be.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Some of my friends tell me that the reason I don't date more is that I need to lower my standards. (Personally, I don't think it's about "standards" so much as the "kind" of guys I like don't really exist in New York, outside of straight bars. Actually, wait...that's a bigger problem. Sigh.)

That said, there are still some qualities that count as non-negotiable dealbreakers:
  • Voting for George Bush
  • Liking the movie "The English Patient"
  • Small dick (well, it's true)

Those are pretty much my standards. However, I have, like many credit card companies, decided to inform you that I am adopting a policy change. To the above list, I am adding one additional dealbreaker:

I'm sorry, I can't relate to someone who enjoys a "song" that contains these lyrics:

I met a girl down at the disco.
She said hey, hey, hey yea let’s go
I could be your baby, you can be my honey
Lets spend time not money.
and mix your milk wit my cocoa puff,
Milky, milky cocoa,
Mix your milk with my cocoa puff, milky, milky riiiiiiight.

I'm never having cereal again.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Parable of the Foreign-Born Heretic

Having faith means having a conviction that your beliefs are correct. But does that necessarily mean that you must believe that other beliefs are false? Or can faith mean that you are open to finding truth and wisdom in traditions other than your own?

Everyone knows the story of the Good Samaritan. (If you don't, click here.) Unfortunately, many of us miss the real significance of the parable.

Most of us assume that the story is about the Christian virtue of helping strangers in need, which is definitely one important aspect. But the lesson is really about religious tolerance.

Most of us think of the Samaritan as a "foreigner," but the historical Samaria was not very far at all from Jerusalem, centered around modern-day Nablus. Samaritans spoke Aramaic, the same language as Christ. So why then, is it important that a Samaritan plays the central role in this parable?

Because the mainstream Jews of Jesus' day considered Samaritans to be heretics. Samaritans believed in the Torah, but thought that the Jerusalem-based religion centered around Solomon's Temple was wrong; a rough approximation might be the difference between Mormonism and Protestantism. There was tremendous hostility between the two groups, and the Gospel of John tells us "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans."

And so not only did Jesus define the lawyer's "neighbor" as a traditional enemy, He held him up as an example of righteous behavior. The illustration could not have been more shocking had Jesus come today and told the same story to a group of American fundamentalists using a Wahhabi cleric in place of a Samaritan.

But this isn't the only Samaritan to appear in the Gospel of Luke. In Chapter 17, Jesus cures ten lepers, nine of whom go on their merry way after being healed. One of them stays behind, praising God: the Samaritan. Jesus says, pointedly, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" And he said to him, "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well."

There are two important lessons for modern Christians to draw here. The first, I believe, is a warning from Jesus not to assume the faith of people from other traditions is invalid because it differs from yours, and not to assume that your faith defines you as "moral" and by default makes everyone else "immoral."

The second is a lesson of context. Too many Christians insist upon the "literal" truth of the Bible, based upon their understanding of a modern translation of an ancient document without complementary historical, anthropological and linguistic contexts. In Jesus' day, the word "Samaritan" carried with it implications that by and large are lost today.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Show That Photinia Who's Boss!

Today at lunch I saw a man arguing with a potted plant.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

When Best Laid Plans Go Felicitously Astray

So last night some friends and I had planned to go see Aeon Flux, since the Slate review said it "doesn't suck." It was exactly what I was in the mood for.

Unfortunately, JP and I arrived at the theater only to discover that it was sold out; worse, Mike and Derek ordered tickets in advance, so we were S.O.L. There was nothing else playing that we wanted to see. Fortunately, this being Times Square, there was another movie theater across the street. (There's a few more around the corner on Eighth Avenue, but JP and Jim and I didn't feel like seeing "Horny Teenage Sluts Take Palm Beach IV.") Because of time constraints and sold-out shows, we didn't have much choice. We settled on Walk the Line, the movie about Johnny Cash starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.

Johnny Cash is not a musician that has ever really captured my fancy, and I hadn't really intended on seeing this movie, but I am so glad we did. It was outstanding. I think Joaquin Phoenix is an underused, underrated actor, but on the other hand I'm glad he isn't over-exposed like so many.

He did a great job, but for me the real story was Witherspoon as June Carter. If that wasn't an Oscar-worthy performance, I don't know what is. She was astounding; phenomenal; charming; heartbreaking. It's one of those performances where the actor's emotions aren't merely contained within facial expressions and vocal inflections; somehow through the medium of film she leaps off the screen and grabs you and brings you along for the ride.

The Christian ethos of the film was quite striking. It would be too easy to have made June a cloying, dimwitted sap of a goody-two-shoes, contrasted against a background of wooden fundamentalist archetypes. In one scene, a perfect stranger confronts her in a store about her recent divorce and sternly lectures that "marriage is forever." Most people would probably respond by telling her off, saying it isn't any of her business and who is she to go around lecturing people when she doesn't know the first thing about them. Instead, June sadly responds, "I'm sorry I let you down." The nobility and humility of that moment was transcendant.

Later in the film, a record producer tries to discourage Cash from his plan to record an album live at Folsom Prison. "Your audience is Christian," he says. "They don't want to hear you singing songs to murderers and rapists trying to make them feel better." Cash retorts, "Then they ain't Christians."

In today's cultural climate, it was nice to see a movie that gets Christianity right. The overall theme was the recognition that humans aren't perfect, that temptation presents itself all too often and we succomb too easily, and yet no matter what we do or who we are, we never stand in a position to judge anyone else. It showed that to love someone takes work and sacrifice, and lots of forgiveness. It showed that Christianity is the embrace of the real, not a flight into denial.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Don Wildmon and the Great Christmas Penis

So, I'm on the American Family Association's email list.

Their latest email alert filled me with alarm: "Survey Proves Retailers Banning Christmas!"

Well, since I am a Christian, that is a cause for concern. I happen to like Christmas.

From the email they sent me:

Dear Andy,

I thought you would be interested in a survey we did. We gathered advertising inserts from 11 different companies placed in two papers on Nov. 27 (Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal and Memphis Commercial Appeal.)

Did they write this with a straight face? They looked at two minor newspapers published 100 miles apart from each other on one day and this is supposed to provide conclusive evidence of...anything? (Of course, this is the same organization that put a poll on its webpage and invited members to vote on whether they supported gay marriage or not; the page promised the results would be submitted to Congress. When the results didn't come out quite as they expected, they pulled it and declined to share the "findings" with the government.)

Okay, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt. Just because the research is, shall we say, scanty, doesn't mean it's inaccurate. If I see one raven and conclude all ravens are black, I might be lazy, but I'm still right. Maybe retailers really are banning Christmas!

Of the 11 companies, only one—McRae's/Belks—had a reference to "Christmas." They mentioned "Christmas" only two times. The other 10 companies did not mention "Christmas" a single time! While refusing to use "Christmas," they used the term "holiday" a total of 59 times in their 10 inserts.

So, I guess if you see an advertising insert decorated with twinkling stars, evergreen boughs, glass baubles, candles, stockings, candy canes, wreaths and other traditionally Christmasy trappings in a newspaper one month before Christmas but it doesn't say "Christmas" anywhere, you are looking at a concerted effort to ban Christmas. Got it. The fact that it says "holiday," even though Christmas is, in fact, a holiday, is a victory for Godlessness. And if you "only" mention Christmas twice, you just barely get a pass.

Ask these companies why they banned "Christmas" in their in-store promotions and retail advertising and they will tell you they didn't want to offend anyone. They mean, of course, anyone except Christians!

Ah, so by making the holiday season (d'oh, look, I just banned Christmas myself!) more inclusive, they're actually making it exclusive. The fact that Christmas is a "holiday" and they are wishing us "happy holidays" means that they hate us. Makes sense.

And of course even though James tells us, "Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God," it's time to get mad!

Here's why: "According to [Chairman Don] Wildmon, supporters of his organization...are offended when retailers choose to promote the Christmas season without acknowledging it as such, choosing instead to remain 'politically correct' by marketing such things as 'holiday trees'."

Unfortunately for Don "Wildman" Wildmon, calling them "holiday trees" is actually closer to historical accuracy than political correctness (assuming there's a difference). Even the most cursory research shows that the tradition of using fir trees as decoration for winter holidays originated with pre-Christian European pagans, who venerated the trees as phallic symbols. Adopting the practice as part of the commemoration of Christ's birth is a relatively recent phenomenon; most believe it started in Germany in the 1600's.

But according to ","the custom spread slowly. The Puritans banned Christmas in New England. Even as late as 1851, a Cleveland minister nearly lost his job because he allowed a tree in his church. Schools in Boston stayed open on Christmas Day through 1870, and sometimes expelled students who stayed home. The Christmas tree market was born in 1851 when Catskill farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and 20 years later, the custom was nearly universal." The History Channel confirms this account.

You know, if December came and went without any commercial "holiday" music, if stores didn't bring in special decorations, and generally stayed open on the holiday itself, I might worry about an effort to "ban" Christmas. Instead what I see happening is an organization trying to pressure retailers into promoting one religion to the exclusion of others, based upon historically and theologically inaccurate arguments. To that I say, "Bah humbug!"