Monday, January 21, 2008

Dr. King on Loving Your Enemies

Every year when Martin Luther King, Jr., Day rolls around, I like to read one of Dr. King's speeches or sermons. And while it's always good to read the "I Have a Dream" speech, especially since the most famous line is often taken out of context and used as a weapon against affirmative action, I also like to read his other speeches. He was an amazing spiritual leader, and his words have not lost their relevance. The full texts of a few of his better-known speeches are available at numerous websites which can be found with a Google search or from the reference links at the bottom of the Wikipedia page. The one I chose for today was "Loving Your Enemies," which he delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on November 17, 1957.

One thing to remember as you read these speeches is that they are transcripts of spoken events--which means that there are occasional verbal slips. There is no editor to polish the words after the fact. And remember with the "Loving Your Enemies" speech, Dr. King was quite ill that day. His doctor nearly forbade him from going to church. But he wanted so badly to deliver this message that he went to the pulpit anyway. And it is an amazing, powerful speech, through and through. I encourage you to read it in its entirety (or if you have a broadband connection, I bet you could find the audio recording; but for modem users like me, text must suffice). The following paragraph moved me to tears:

"Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That's the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It's not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system."

Allow me to lift out the core concept for emphasis: Love "is the refusal to defeat any individual." Elsewhere in the speech, he talks about how loving your enemy does not necessarily mean liking them. Love is a conscious, often difficult choice to do the right thing even to someone who has done the wrong thing. He also talks about how hate can be as destructive and corroding for the hater as the hated. You love your enemies not just for their benefit, but also for your own.

Love like that--true, Christ-like love--could transform the whole world. But if that's too big to think about, imagine how it could transform just one life. And the vision is still staggering.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Gedo Senki: Tales from Earthsea

Well, I got to see the anime film Gedo Senki: Tales from Earthsea. It's not a bad movie, but it's not up to Studio Ghibli's usual quality. The pacing seemed off, and the script seemed awkward and incomplete in parts. Ideas were introduced, then left to wither and crumble with no followup. Parts of the story just seemed muddled and confusing. I couldn't help wondering, "Okay, now what the heck just happened?" at the end.

The animation quality--while still above average--seemed poor when compared to Ghibli masterworks like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. While most of the animals, like the llama-like creature and the bovine mounts, were beautifully done, there seemed to be something off about the dragons. I'm having a hard time putting my finger on it, but something about the way they moved didn't seem natural. On the other hand, they looked cool, and the hail of sparks falling from their mouths was magnificent.

Gedo Senki is Goro Miyazaki's first movie, so I suppose it would be harsh to measure it with his father's yardstick. But I can't help thinking that if Hayao Miyazaki would have been the one to make it, it would have been a much different--and much better--film. But that's neither here nor there.

Despite bearing the English subtitle of Tales from Earthsea, I have to admit that I didn't see much resemblance to Ursula K. Le Guin's story. (Neither did Le Guin. Visit her website to read her response to this film.) It's like they took elements from her books, most particularly The Farthest Shore and Tehanu, stripped them out of their context, and sprinkled them throughout an unrelated story.

This radical remixing of Earthsea struck me as very familiar in some ways. As I watched, certain scenes made me think, "I know this. I've seen this somewhere before." And I knew that I wasn't seeing echoes of Le Guin's Earthsea, because those elements that felt so familiar to me seemed so very foreign to Earthsea as I had envisioned it from reading the books.

During the end credits, right after "Based on the 'Earthsea' series by Ursula K. Le Guin," it said "Inspired by 'Shuna's Journey' by Hayao Miyazaki." And the lights went on. I was picking up on the elements from Shuna's Journey (Shuna no Tabi), a rare manga that Hayao Miyazaki published in 1983. I am lucky enough to own a copy of this small, beautiful book. It is one of my most cherished possessions.

Unlike most manga, which are black and white and printed on cheap paper, Shuna's Journey is full color, 147 pages of exquisite watercolor artwork on glossy paper. Despite being 25 years old, the binding is still strong and the pages are still brilliant. High quality stuff. Of course, it's in Japanese. The book was never officially translated into English, although I have seen fan translations floating around on the web. But even without understanding the text (which is substantial), the story fairly well tells itself through its pictures. If you can get a copy on the used market, I recommend it highly.

I immediately ran to my bookshelf and plucked off Shuna's Journey. Yes, yes, it was all there. The slave caravans. The oxen mounts. The beautiful, tender scenes of farm life. The cities and the sweeping landscapes in the film are very evocative of the backgrounds in Shuna's Journey. Arren in Tales from Earthsea is perhaps even more like Shuna than he is like Arren from The Farthest Shore. Therru likewise is more like the slave girl Shuna liberates than like Therru from Tehanu. Even the scuzzy drug-pusher in the movie, who tries to give Arren hazia, looks just like the old man Shuna encounters on his travels.

Of course, Arren in the film rides a cool llama and not an antelope. Oh, wait, Shuna's antelope was already used in a Ghibli film--Yakul, Ashitaka's steed in Princess Mononoke, is an exact copy of Shuna's mount. Princess Mononoke draws quite a lot from Shuna's Journey, too. Of course, both of those works were by Hayao Miyazaki, so it's excusable.

Okay, before this turns completely into a tribute to Shuna's Journey, I need to get back to Tales from Earthsea.

One of Le Guin's complaints, which I agree with, is that the characters are all light-skinned in the movie. In her books, Ged and the others of his country are all dark-skinned. Only Tenar, a foreigner, is light-skinned. But in the movie, all of the characters look white.

Now, I have read articles that talk about the way Japanese audiences perceive anime characters. When shown a generic smiley face, it "looks white" to white people, but "looks Japanese" to Japanese people. That is, a cartoon face, in the absence of distinctive racial markers, will be perceived to be the same race as the viewer. Since I've heard this over many years from multiple sources, from Japanese people to scholarly journals, I think it's probably true. So Ged, Arren, and Therru probably look Japanese to Japanese audiences. With her blond hair and blue eyes, Tenar surely looks white. So Japanese audiences probably do pick up on a racial difference there.

However, even so, this is somewhat contrary to Le Guin's point. That is, knowing the majority of her readers were white, she made her characters black on purpose. I can't see into her mind, of course, but I expect her intent may have been to make white readers view a world where blacks were the majority, where they were powerful in the same way whites are in the U.S., in other words, where black is the cultural default, and white is the "other." But in the movie, the main characters (except Tenar) were changed to the same race as the primary viewers (Japanese), which was the opposite of what Le Guin did. So I was sad to see the Tales of Earthsea populated entirely by light-skinned people.

Another thing that bugged me about the movie was the villain. The subtitles read Cob, but the characters were clearly saying Kumo. And since the character bore little or no resemblance to Cob from the books, I'm inclined to think Kumo is essentially an original character.

Unfortunately, Kumo is also a boring, one-dimensional villain. When you watch other Studio Ghibli films, you get complex characters. Princess Mononoke doesn't even have a clear villain. There are three sides opposed in a war, and there are merits and ills on all sides. In the Ghibli version of Howl's Moving Castle (which similarly bore only minimal resemblance to Diana Wynne Jones' book), the Witch of the Waste ended up as a companion of the heroes after she lost her power. Even in Spirited Away, Yubaba was not without merit.

Kumo, however, was just a monster. Nothing more, nothing less. Ho hum. No layers. No complexity. No interest.

By the way, Kumo really seemed womanly. Cob was male, and the subtitles consistently referred to Kumo as "he" (note that Japanese doesn't have pronouns differentiating male and female, so listening to the dialogue is no help here), but the body shape, face, voice, and attire were all very feminine.

If Kumo is a woman, that's fine. Hopefully the official translation (which will hit the U.S. no earlier than 2009) will clarify that. But if Kumo is a man, then I'm disturbed. Of course, I'm not bothered by feminine men, drag queens, or intersex people. What I'm objecting to is the only such character in the film being the main villain. That reinforces the stereotype that queerfolk are somehow inherently malignant. I mean, it's bad enough when we're used for comedy relief. Do we have to be represented as evil, too? (Mind you, I'm okay with queer villains so long as there are queer heroes, too. I'm only offended when the lone queer character is bad, as if the queerness is part and parcel with the badness.) But if Kumo is, in fact, a woman, it's fine because heroic women are present in Tenar and Therru, so there is balance.

Another thing that bugged me was Therru's scar. In the book, Therru was horribly disfigured by her burns, with emotional scars equal to her physical ones. But in the movie, she just has a faint red blotch on her face. Despite covering the area around her eye, it doesn't seem to have affected that eye at all. Don't tell me it's difficult to animate a disfiguring burn scar--look at Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender or Gouda from Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd GIG. Goro Miyazaki just wanted Therru to be pretty. But Therru isn't supposed to be pretty. She's supposed to be ugly, which is why she was so feared. She provided an example of how a person who was deeply damaged on every level could still be a hero.

Now despite this long litany of complaints, I did like the movie. I will certainly buy the DVD when it is released in the U.S. But Goro Miyazaki still has to grow quite a bit to fill his father's shoes.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Jones Soda Christmas Pack: Christmas Tree

All right, it's time. Christmas Tree flavor. My background music? "O Tannenbaum," of course.

The soda is green--a good, proper evergreen green. It's slightly murky, but not overly much so. If I hold it close to the computer monitor, I can read through it.

The picture on the bottle depicts two Dalmatians flanking a Bassett hound, all wrapped in shining red and green Christmas lights. One Dalmatian is yawning, the other peering intently off to the side, perhaps looking for an escape route. The Bassett hound is gazing at the person holding the camera, his soulful eyes pleading, "Why did you do this to us? Why?"

The message under the bottle cap reads, "Your good listening skills will open many doors to you." Shouldn't that be, "doors for you?"

It smells . . . not all that bad, actually. The scent is mild, with a hint of pine. Not overwhelming. I find it surprisingly pleasant.

The flavor can only be described as pine. It tastes stronger than it smells. Not that I've ever eaten a coniferous tree of any sort, but it really does taste like Christmas tree. A little sweet, but not too much. The sweet does not overwhelm the pine. It's actually quite good. I find myself rather liking it.

I'm surprised and delighted. I really expected it to be horrible, but for all it's weirdness--and believe me, the strangeness does not wear off with each successive sip--it's delicious. I can't imagine any other food or drink this could be served with. It's the kind of flavor that really must stand alone. But it is worthy indeed.

And this concludes this season's reviews of Jones Soda special holiday flavors. (I really, really wish I'd been able to sample the Chanukah Pack, as well, but my friend and I couldn't find it anywhere.) Hope you've enjoyed them. I know I have.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Jones Soda Dessert Pack: Blueberry Pie

I feel fantastic! Oh sure, I've still got a little pain, and two coworkers told me that I looked unwell and that my face was swollen, but compared to the way I've felt for the last two weeks, I feel so incredibly much better. In addition to feeling better physically, my spirits are up and I have more energy today. That toothache really had worn me down and wiped me out. I am so glad I got that root canal, and so grateful to my dentist for jostling the schedule to get me in yesterday. Life is good.

To celebrate, I let myself get Chinese food for dinner. Beijing Chicken. Very tasty.

And now it's time for the last bottle from the Jones Soda Dessert Pack: Blueberry Pie.

This soda is an absolutely beautiful shade of blue, edging into indigo, like the twilight sky after sunset but before the stars come out. The picture on the bottle depicts an uncut pie with four little people made of pie crust decorating it, laying with their heads together as if gazing at clouds. Thin lines of blue and red--food coloring or frosting--provide the faces and clothing. It's adorable.

The message under the cap reads, "Try yoga." Okay. I could use the exercise.

It smells wonderful. The blueberry aroma is strong and accurate.

Delicious. Possibly my favorite so far. While I'm not particularly getting a sense of the pie crust flavor, the overall taste is more like blueberry pie filling than fresh blueberries, so it really does evoke the impression of pie.

One oddity--it leaves a faint tingle on my tongue that reminds me a bit of Pop Rocks, which I haven't had since Kindergarten. Mind you, this tingle is not a bad thing. It's just a little strange.

Blueberry Pie soda is awesome. Jones should get this one out of the holiday packs and into full scale production. This deserves wide distribution. It's excellent.

Tomorrow will be the last Jones review for this season, the dreaded Christmas Tree flavor. I have purposely saved that one to be the grand finale. Tremble in fear!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Day I Got Root Canal

I just got home from a root canal. Not exactly the most fun way to spend a day off, but if it finally manages to bring an end to the unrelenting pain I've been enduring for two weeks, I'll be ecstatic. Of course, the anesthetic hasn't fully worn off, and I've been told that I can expect a couple days of (different) pain, so it's too soon to know if this will do the trick. Wish me luck!

I seem to be somewhat resistant to anesthetic. The dentist had to do a double dose before he could even get started. Then, seconds after he started drilling, I had to raise my twitching hands to get him to stop. After evaluating the situation, he told me, "This is going to sting. Hang on." He quickly drilled a narrow pipe straight down, which was excruciating, then stuck a needle down the root, which was even more excruciating, but only for a second, because as soon as the direct-down-the-middle-of-the-tooth dose of anesthetic hit, I was fine. I barely felt anything for the next hour as he worked.

As I was laying there in the chair, watching the steady parade of bizarre dental implements, the likes of which I've never seen before, I realized that the anesthetic was beginning to wear off in my lip and cheek. Then I noticed that my legs were shaking terribly. I thought, "It's not that cold in here. What's going on down there? Oh wait, that's trembling with fear! How fascinating!"

Anyway, I'm home now, and my cheek and jaw are starting to hurt from the trauma. I can tell I'm in for a fun evening.

Jones Soda Christmas Pack: Christmas Ham: An Afterthought

I think where Jones goes horribly, horribly wrong with flavors like Christmas Ham is that they make them sweet. Rather than caving into the consumer expectation that "soda" equals "sweet," I think they would do better to let savory flavors be savory. I like cold, sliced ham, and I think if they had made a beverage that actually did taste like ham, it wouldn't be so bad. It might not be good, either, but it would at least be drinkable. I remember their Turkey & Gravy soda from last year, and that was pretty decent. So it is possible to make a savory soda that isn't nauseating. I think it's the sweet--which has no place in ham flavor--that killed it.

Jones Soda Christmas Pack: Christmas Ham

Happy New Year! The Jones flavor for today is Christmas Ham. Yikes!

I'm listening to a randomized selection of Christmas music to put myself in the right mood for it. And yes, it is still Christmas. For those who don't know the old tradition, the Twelve Days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day and end on Epiphany. Thus, today is the ninth day of Christmas. Leaving aside the nine drummers drumming (or the nine ladies dancing, depending on which version of the song you prefer), let's get on to the soda.

The Christmas Ham soda is murky any muddy pink in hue. It is more or less the color of baked ham, but somehow it seems a bit off, rather like the (Caucasian) "flesh" colored markers and crayons that never quite look right. It is a profoundly unpleasant color for a liquid.

The picture on the bottle is a close up of a green ornament nestled in a white artificial tree, reflecting the spangled small white lights like stars.

The message under the bottle cap reads, "A distant romance will begin to look more promising." First of all, I have no romances, distant or otherwise at the moment. Second of all, I am so gun-shy about internet romances that I will not let myself get into that situation again. I'm not that desperate. So this fortune is a strike out, at least for me.

I haven't even brought the bottle near to my nose for a good whiff yet, and I can already tell the smell is nasty. I find myself leaning away from the bottle. But now I must force myself closer for a proper analysis of the scent . . .

Whatever it smells like, my brain is not registering "ham" on any level. It's sweet, cloying, and a bit chemically. The smell actually makes me want to throw up.

Okay . . . I can not convey how much I do not want to drink this, but I'm going to take a sip so I can describe it here for you. For you!

Oh God.

It is unspeakably vile. It's worse than 2005's Brussels Sprout flavor and 2006's Pea flavor. I get absolutely no sense of "ham" from the taste. The only taste I can compare it to is this one time back in college when I ate a sweet frozen fruit bar while I had the flu, then vomited it up a half hour or so later. And I assure you, the taste of sugar-laden barf is actually somehow worse than the taste of regular barf.

I'm going to pour the rest of it in the toilet now. I'm sure as heck NOT going to drink it.

And then I'm going to brush my teeth and gargle with Listerine as many times as it takes to scour this taste from my palate.