Friday, September 26, 2008

From my Pen

Because I'm not feeling it today, after a week during which technical difficulties prevented me from posting much, I'm going to post the first two scenes fo a play I wrote a few years back. Any and all feedback is, of course, welcome.

We open on a spare stage, with unfinished, earthy, sticky even pine the dominant feature. A raised dais, hexagonal in shape, sits center stage, constructed entirely of this naked pine. The dais is about two feet high in the center, with a square platform of about 6 feet on a side on top. Two steps lead up to the dais on all sides. A large cross, also naked pine, dominates the rear wall of the stage. The Christ upon it should ideally be carved directly from the wood, that is the crucifix and Christ would all be one contiguous piece of wood. The Christ should be somewhat abstract, but still clearly Christ. The scent of incense should be faint on the air. The lights should be of muted purples and reds, as if all the stage lighting had been strained through stained glass. The wood that dominates the set should have a well-oiled look to it, strong and sturdy pine; the dais and the Christ should be constructed from thick and solid pieces of wood with a weight to them. As the curtain rises or as the lights dim we hear music in the background. The music should straddle the romantic and modern eras, retaining clear tonality but with definite experimental aspects to it – perhaps some Schoenberg or Barber. The music will continue throughout the entirety of this opening scene, always faint and never dominant. Perhaps there is a slight haze in the air. The feeling should be of an unadorned and stolid holiness, a strong sacred and holy feeling – the set and atmosphere should, as much as possible, evoke not just a church, but a church of ancient and unmoving strength and sacredness. At the front of the dais are two wooden chairs set side by side and facing the audience. A simple wire frame, much like a rolling hanger rack, sits between the chairs, perpendicular to the audience. Hung on this rack is a thick, black cloth.

Seated on the SR chair is FATHER CASTANELLA, an elderly priest. FATHER CASTENELLA is gray-haired and well-fed, if a bit gaunt in the face nonetheless. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and is a short man, perhaps 5 foot 4 or 5. His hair is wispy and thinning but still ample for a man of his age. Seated on the SL chair is FATHER OSTRAUSKAS. FATHER OSTRAUSKAS is a younger priest, in his later twenties. He has dark hair and the hint of stubble on his cheek. Taller, perhaps 5 foot 10 or 11, and wiry. FATHER OSTRAUSKAS looks nervous, agitated, and he fidgets in his chair. He is dressed in black dress pants and a black t-shirt, but wears no priestly collar. While it should be clear to the audience that FATHER CASTANELLA is a priest, it should not be clear at the outset that FATHER OSTRAUSKAS is one.

Scene One

Bless me Father, for I have sinned.

How long has it been since your last confession?

Six days, Father.

And what is your confession?

Pause. Then, more to us than to FATHER CASTANELLA. I walked through the park yesterday. It’s been my custom to walk through the park ever since I came to this city, every Sunday, whenever I’m able. This was a nice one. Sunny and bright, a beautiful spring day. There were children playing, squealing and shouting like excited convicts afforded their first glimpse of freedom in years, and each step I took felt right, felt pre-ordained and perfect. The air was as sweet as I’ve ever smelled it here, not a hint of smog or smoke or garbage, just clean, fresh spring air. I could feel the grass, feel each blade bend and give, even underneath the rubber soles of my sneakers, and it had a spring to it, an almost palpable sense of life as it bent underneath my weight. I looked up at the sky so many times I could not count, there was one single, solitary cloud hovering in the corner of the sky, like a bad child made to sit in a corner. The rest of the sky was a pure and sinless blue, clean and fresh. The sun was warm at my neck, and I could feel the pleasant sensation of moisture as the sweat seeped up through my pores at its touch. At one point I was walking past a group of children playing soccer and the ball came out of bounds to my side. Immediately, all the children started yelling for me to “Kick it! Kick it!,” and I smiled at them. I used to play soccer, back home, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you that. Grinning, I kicked the ball towards the children over their outstretched arms and into the opposite goal. They cheered, erupted almost, and I raised my arms in victory before walking on. It was that kind of a day, Father, do you know the kind of day I speak of?

I do, Kostas. Indeed, I do.

It was a perfect day, and after a bit I took a rest by the lake, sitting near the bank and watching the small boats crisscross in sharp geometric patterns underneath that frightfully blue sky. And, as is always my custom on these walks, I turned my thoughts to Jesus and prayed to him, to thank him for the gift of such a day, the gift of such a beautiful place to call home. Pause I was scared, Father, as I began to do this, to engage in this small and meaningless prayer – not even a prayer, just a quick word of thanks to our savior - fear filled my heart, Father. I hesitate to call it terror for fear of making you laugh, and yet it was perhaps that just the same. Do you know why I felt this fear, this almost-terror, Father?

No, my son. Why?

Throughout the following, FATHER OSTRAUSKAS becomes more emotional, but never hysterically so. Because I knew not what I might find. I was scared that there would be no one there to answer my prayer, I was scared that Jesus would not be there to answer, that I would be greeted by nothing but silence, that the connection I’ve always felt with God, that I’ve always been able to call upon in prayer and reflection, would be gone. This scared me, no, terrified me, Father, because, for the first time in my life, I am not sure that he IS there. Do you understand, Father? I am not sure I even believe in him anymore, I am not sure if I believe in the resurrection, the passion, I am not even sure if I believe in God at all!

Was he there to answer your prayer?

Pause, then, almost terrified

FATHER OSTRAUSKAS stands up and, slowly, reaches into his back pocket , pulls out his collar and puts it on. These motions should have a very ritualistic sense about them, and coincide with the music either increasing in volume or climaxing, whichever makes the most sense. Blackout.

Scene Two

Lights up on FATHER OSTRAUSKAS standing at the center dais, in front of a podium with a microphone atop it. He is now dressed in full priestly robes. Seated to his right is FATHER CASTANELLA, also dressed in full gear. Opened on the podium is a Bible. As the lights come up, FATHER OSTRAUSKAS reads from the Bible:

Steadily, but not with great passion, either. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” The Word of God

A chorus of voices responds, “The Word of God.” FATHER OSTRAUSKAS closes the Bible, takes the microphone from the stand and walks in front of the podium. Addressing the audience.

I have a computer. Perhaps many of you do as well, own a computer. I’ve had it for some years now; I wrote the first draft of tonight’s homily, in fact, on this very same computer. Yes! Priests use computers. It’s true. One of our deep, dark secrets – promise you won’t tell. I’ll let you in on another. I even have a (exaggerated stage whisper) TV! (Loud) Yes! And I’ve WATCHED it! But – back to my computer, or, computers in general, actually. I’d like you, those of you who own a computer, anyway, to think back to when you first got that computer, when you first opened that box, when you first plugged it in and turned it on. I remember that day. My brother Phil was over, he helped me to set it up. Actually, it didn’t take much to set up. He plugged it in, connected the mouse and the keyboard and the monitor, flipped it on. There was some activity to be done with a password, I remember that, and then . . . we were in. It was on. Working. I asked my brother-in-law, and this I remember very specifically, I asked him, “Where are the programs?” I had really gotten the computer primarily for word processing, it was the main reason I had gotten it, and I asked him, “How de we load the word processing program? Where’s the disc?” He laughed and, with a few clicks, up came a word processing program. It’s already in there, he said, it’s been hardwired. (Pause) HARDWIRED. Now – THIS was a concept I understood, my brothers and sisters, and I think you all understand it as well. HARDWIRED. We didn’t need to teach the computer word processing by feeding it a program, no!, it had been HARDWIRED. Word processing was one of the many things it had been given at birth, been created with. I ask you, my brothers and sisters, as I asked myself that day, are we HARDWIRED with anything? We’re HARDWIRED to eat, are we not? To drink? To sleep, to suckle, to cry? These are things we have been HARDWIRED with, no one teaches us to do any of these, we just . . . KNOW them. They’ve been - say it with me, congregation - HARDWIRED! And today’s readings tell us that something else has been HARDWIRED into us, don’t they? “ . . .Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.” God in his infinite wisdom has seen fit to HARDWIRE into us knowledge of him. Now – I hear your thoughts already my brothers and sisters, “then WHY AM I HERE!!!???” Why do we come to church together, why do we put our young through the endless Sundays and drills and sermons, if knowledge of God is already HARDWIRED? Well, brothers and sisters, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the teachings of Christ are NOT HARDWIRED, the details of His story are not HARDWIRED, but the knowledge of God, the knowledge of his existence, of his goodness, of his love for us – THAT is HARDWIRED. And that is a glorious thing. We have knowledge of God at birth, from the moment we spark into existence like fireflies spontaneously generating into a cool summer night, we KNOW God. We may not yet know his name, or his story, or even precisely what he asks of us, but we know him and we hear him and we feel him. We are full of him.

FATHER OSTRAUSKAS pauses here. Almost as if hesitant about plunging forward. Soon enough, however, he does, almost nervously.

This is a glorious thing, is it not? A glorious thing. For imagine a world, imagine, my brothers and sisters, a world in which we were not HARDWIRED. Can you? What would that world be like? A world in which the identity of God was ours to discover, a world in which His presence was not ingrained into us, a world in which it was . . . open to question. Would we believe in a God in such a world?

As he progresses through the following, FATHER OSTRAUSKAS becomes more agitated and theatrical in tone and gesture, until at the end, he is fairly screaming, or, more precisely, over emoting

Looking at the world around us, at the evidence in front of us, hearing on the news of the child who’s killed by his Mother, of the war and violence man commits against man, hell, of great tragedies caused by the earth itself, earthquakes trembling and spitting us out like rotten teeth, hurricanes and tornadoes and ice storms and lightning and lava and locusts and plagues and disease and cancer, AIDS, heart attacks, epidemics, freak occurrences of nature that take life on a whim the fragility and capriciousness of human existence the very wispiness of our lives with no control or discernible order rhyme reason logic fairness system structure – NOTHING!!! (Bitter) In all of this NOTHINGNESS would we still believe in an almighty God if he had not seen fit to burn it into our brains with no more thought given to the branding of cattle? Would we? HARDWIRED, my brothers and sisters. HARDWIRED.

He drops the microphone to the ground and walks off.

Until Whenever

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Hall

The nine nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year are: Run-D.M.C., Metallica, the Stooges, Jeff Beck, Wanda Jackson, Little Anthony and the Imperials, War, Bobby Womack, and Chic.

I know pretty much nothing about any of these bands. So I'm not going to argue their merits or lack thereof. But I do want to talk about what it should mean to get in the Hall.

The impetus for this post is a conversation I've been having with my brother-in-law today over whether or not Kiss should be in. He, a rabid Kiss fan, says yes. I, who loved Kiss as a four-year old, but really know nothing of their music, say no.

Let me start by saying that the Hall will soon, by my standards, fall apart. They can’t not induct people, or they’ll lose attention and revenue. So they are going to have to lower standards every year so as not to have very small, or empty, classes. I’m actually impressed that Bon Jovi didn’t make the cut this year – I thought they’d get in for sure.

So - to my brother-in-law's argument. Why isn't Kiss in? As he says, they were hugely popular, had huge tours, and were very influential to 80s metal bands. But: for any Hall of Fame to have merit, critical consensus must be accorded as much, at least, importance as popularity. If popularity is allowed to be a sole criteria, then, sure, Kiss gets in, but so do WHAM, the Captain and Tennille, Hootie and the Blowfish, Boston, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, The Backstreet Boys, Journey, Phil Collins, Def Leppard, Celine Dion, and on and on.

Look at it another way: According to the RIAA, Kiss has sold 19 million albums. Pop/rock artists (and with Madonna’s inclusion it’s clear the Hall is treating rock as a very broad category) not in the Hall who have sold more include AC/DC, Mariah Carey, Metallica, Van Halen (or are they in? I forget), Neil Diamond, Chicago, Foreigner, Backstreet Boys, Rod Stewart, 2 Pac, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Phil Collins, R. Kelly, Linda Ronstadt, John Denver, Britney Spears, The Dave Matthews Band, Boston, Michael Bolton, ‘N Sync, Barry Manilow, Eminem, Boyz II Men, Janet Jackson, Jay-Z, Rush, Luther Vandross, Creed, Motley Crue, Jimmy Buffett, TLC, Green Day, Lionel Ritchie, Doobie Brothers, R.E.O. Speedwagon, Heart, Genesis, Kid Rock, Meatloaf, Alanis Morissette, Nelly, Hootie and the Blowfish, Usher, and Toni Braxton.

Many of these artists have had longevity similar to Kiss’ – and while Kiss may have produced those 19 golds and platinums over “three decades,” the bulk came in a relatively brief span (most of the more recent golds and platinums were for live albums and best ofs). Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond had two of the highest-grossing tours last year.

Inclusion in the Hall should indicate a certain degree of artistic quality. When it comes down to it, I’m enough of an elitist to want some kind of critical consensus in play. If it’s purely a popularity contest, we don’t need a hall – we have album sales and the charts for that. (I also reject the notion that being popular means that an artist is "doing something right." Well, I take that back – a “band” like New Kids on the Block was doing something right, but that “something,” namely producing pop strictly designed to cater to teenage girls’ simplest demands, most of them not musical, isn’t worthy of the kind of approval the Hall is supposed to signify.)

That being said, I’m also enough of a populist to want there to be a check on critical adoration. So, yes, the Hall should be about fame as well – but not only about fame. It’s got to be both. Inclusion needs to take both factors into consideration – an artist needs to be popular and to have received some degree of critical acclaim. If it’s just one or the other, no dice.

Music is not sports. It’s far more subjective. Critical consensus may be a piss-poor rubric, and wildly inconsistent, but it’s all we have, and much better than nothing. I don’t always agree with the critics either, but if we toss critical opinion out the window, the Hall, to me, becomes worse than useless. Bands like Kiss have already been lauded by the RIAA for being popular – that’s exactly what those gold and platinum albums mean. If the Hall isn’t different, if it doesn’t recognize something more than mere popularity, it’s useless.

Until Whenever

So. 19 days later, I'm back. Why was I gone? The usual. When real-life gets too hectic, the blog is the first casualty. I don't feel good about it. But I don't feel too bad about it either. Does the fact that I can (and periodically do) let this site lie fallow mean I should just abandon it? Or does it simply mean I need to be content with the very small-size audience and operation I've got here? Well, it definitely means the latter. I hope it doesn't mean the former.

So, here are the things in each grand pop culture category that have been keeping me entertained for these past 19 days.

Book: Under the Banner of Heaven. Jon Krakauer. A wonderful, if a little too shaggy, history of the violence that has been perpetuated by Mormons since the religion's founding, wrapped in a look at how and why extreme religious belief often leads to horrific violence. A very hard book to read, as the sheer violence can get overwhelming - this is, after all, a book that is framed by a 1984 murder and near-beheading of a woman and her baby girl by fundamentalist Mormons. Rough stuff. But fascinating. The most compelling question Krakauer raises is why we make what seem like allowances for religion. He parallels the Elisabeth Smart case with another case of a Mormon girl trying to escape a fundamentalist, polygamous family where she was undergoing sexual abuse. The Smart case was a national big deal. The other case ended with the little girl being sent back to the family. Religion shouldn't get a pass.

Movie: Bridge on the River Kwai. What a glorious, exciting, and moving film. This is, to my shame, only the third Alec Guinness role I've seen. He is remarkable as the noble-to-a-fault British officer. And I, not knowing much about the film save the fact that a bridge is built and detonated, was surprised at the very finely wrought moral questions raised. I had expected a much more straightforward story. What I got was better. Also - David Lean makes gorgeous films. I know that's not new news, but it was a revelation for me, especially having finally seen Lawrence of Arabia relatively recently. The scene in the jungle when the British officer hunt down the one Japanese soldier was remarkable. The scene starts with the British exchanging fire with the Japanese scouts. The gunfire startles hundreds of massive bats, who take to the skies ahead. And for the rest of the scene, the landscape on the ground is constantly mottling and shifting as the shadows of the hundreds of bats criss and cross. Stunning.

TV: Fringe. I have only seen the pilot so far, and liked-but-did-not-love it. The whole sequence of the boyfriend's betrayal was a bit too murky for my tastes. What did he do? Who was he working for? I assume these aren't answers I'm supposed to yet know, and yet I still feel a little more clarity could have been afforded.

Music: Life, Death, Love, and Freedom. John Mellencamp. Mellencamp's best album since Big Daddy. And coming from me, that's high praise indeed. I am delighted that he still had an album like this in him. Take that, Hall of Fame naysayers!

Until Whenever

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Random Top Ten

Random Top Ten!!

Top Ten TV Premieres I Am Looking Forward to this Fall

10. ER
I'm very curious to see how they handle this season, given that they'll have an entire season knowing it's the last one - a luxury most shows don't get.

9. Big Bang Theory
This show grew on me last year, and I am curious to see where they take the main relationship in these days of letting core romantic tension resolve.

8. The Simpsons

7. True Blood
I like the idea of a vampire series on HBO - the sex, blood, and darkness won't need to be as coyly addressed as they were on Angel and Buffy.

6. My Name Is Earl
I don't get why so many have soured on this show - I find the writing to be as sweetly raunchy and cleverly funny as always.

5. House
Very curious to see if last season's notion of a more cohesive long-term arc is repeated. It worked well for a show that can be a bit repetitious.

4. Fringe
I'm very curious to see what this is, as the promos have left me not knowing many details.

3. 30 Rock
Did you read the New Yorker profile of Alec Baldwin? You should.

2. The Office
Did a superb job of taking the Jim-Pam thing forward without artificial drama or stagnancy. Can they keep it up?

1. Pushing Daisies
As sweetly whimsical and precious (in a good way) a show as I've ever seen. Dying to see where they take it in season two.

1. (So I miscounted - leave me alone) How I Met Your Mother
Will Sarah Chalke be the mother? I'm betting that we don't know for a while and that there's still a big twist in the offing. He marries her and they have kids is too easy for this show.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Department of Redundancy Department

There is a new daily micro paper being handed out by the PATH station every morning called The Epoch Times. And every damn time I see it, I can't help but get somewhat irritated that they've, in effect, named the paper The Times Times.

Until Whenever