18 August 2017

Mystified

I'd like to write a few things about what has happened in Virginia and elsewhere. I'll start with a simple expression of wonder at the energy being expended to equate statuary with history. A monument is intended to commemorate a historical figure or event. Removing the statue or monument does not change history, but it does say something about how we view that history.

There is a right way to do this. Follow the rules, uphold the law if there is one related to the object in question, and move when appropriate. Otherwise you end up doing something stupid like this:

The Atlanta monument damaged by protesters Sunday night was erected in 1911 to urge reconciliation after the Civil War, not to venerate the Confederacy.

25 April 2017

The Truth in Fiction

I went to the movies twice last week and my experiences were pretty distinct. 

The first movie I went to was The Fate of the Furious. I was definitely entertained by the movie, as I have been since the first one came out when I was in college. I remember driving back to the house with my roommates (Tom & Justin) and definitely doing so in a manner "inspired" by what we'd watched.

I think the film franchise peaked with the 5th movie. The 6th and 7th were entertaining, trying to top the extremes reached in the climactic vault race through the streets. The 8th certainly exceeds the scope in some ways but it is not a better movie.

The longevity of the franchise is impressive, but I think it has caused a little too much praise for what these movies really are. I understand and often enjoy movies that require a high amount of disbelief suspension, but I feel like I had to try too hard this time. Maybe it began with the initial street race through Havana, imagining the kind of vibrant and romantic street racing scene that seems ludicrous in light of decades of communist repression. 

The bigger issue behind my Furious-fatigue is what I think is a lack of truth in the films. This is particularly evident as they've bent over backwards to explain the motivations of previous bad guys (like Jason Statham). Earlier movies, especially the first, have some realistic and relatable motivations behind the characters' behavior, beyond lazy storytelling.

This leads to my second trip to the theater, to watch The Lost City of Z. This is a good time to explain that when I say Fate of the Furious lacked truth, it doesn't mean that I am looking for documentary filmmaking. By the director's own admission, The Lost City of Z is not meant to be 100 factual. Time is condensed, characters combined to composites, and conversations are imagined. This is a requirement of condensing a story to a 2.5 hour runtime.

But even if a movie is not "true," it can contain truth, and I felt that truth in much of The Lost City. Even a scene which we know to be fabricated by the writer can convey truthful and relatable emotions. This is what makes a movie (or any story) special and enduring.

I don't know that The Lost City of Z will be considered a classic, but the themes it conveys are timeless, and I'm glad I could see it.

06 March 2017

In which I no longer resemble Kevin James (or the lies we tell ourselves)

I bet most of you have heard of the idea that we all have a doppelganger. For some people, mine was Kevin James:


My reaction to this comparison usually followed a pattern:
1. It's because he's funny, right? Because I'm funny?!?
2. We kind of have similar hair?

Eventually I would accept the real reason- We were both kind of fat. But it was the friendly kind of fat, the jovial sort, well-distributed and just part of the package.

Just before Isaac was born, in March 2010, I went to the gym and decided to check my weight on the scale. I was waiting behind a former Gator quarterback, a pretty lean guy who, at 6'3", tipped the scales at 217 or so. I stood on the scale and saw 267 lbs.

I had become very relaxed in my exercise (I wasn't) and eating (I was), and it showed. Call it sympathy weight during the pregnancy, or laziness, but I was not taking good care of myself. I hadn't really admitted this yet, because I had become very good at lying to myself. My shirt is too small? Must have shrunk in the laundry. My knees hurt when I run? Old age comes to us all. This is a small sample of the kind of things that I would tell myself, rather than make difficult and necessary choices about my health. The photo below is from February 2010:


I was ready to make some changes, and started by running a few times each week, usually short distances. I didn't change my diet very much, but by August I implemented a program of eating and exercise (explained here in a February 2011 post). I had made a lot of progress over that year, and at that time was hoping to get below 200 lbs. By June of 2011 I had gotten there, and set a new goal of 195 and then 190. It took me quite a while to hit it "officially," but I did so in May 2015.

So I set a new goal, 185, and I'm still working on it. I can now say that I've lost 80 lbs since the day in March 2010 when I saw 267 on that scale. My goal is more than a weight number, even though those numbers still have a lot of power for me. I'm trying to get faster, stronger, and leaner.

I weigh myself every day, twice a day, though I only record my weight on Mondays and Fridays. I enter all of my meals in MyFitnessPal. I workout at least 5 times a week and love to track my activity on my Garmin watch. I'm more relaxed about my diet than I was 5 years ago, but I'm also trying to make better choices with my diet, not just focusing on the calorie number (though focus I do).

The lesson for me has been to protect myself from self-deception. The scale provides an objective measurement. By measuring and recording, the self-comforting (false) narrative that can be so tempting and easy to form dies in its infancy. More than anything, this has been the key to my ability to maintain and improve my health.

In addition to this (healthy) obsession, other things have changed for me:
  • I don't instantly start perspiring when I walk to my car in July- this is a big deal for this proud Floridian.
  • I have more energy- One of the things that inspired these changes was my desire to be a more energetic father to my kids. I also want to model a healthy lifestyle that might help them make better choices.
  • I'm a runner- It took me years to accept that the term applied to me. I have run a mile in less than 7 minutes twice, including this morning. Considering my 5th grade soccer coach called me "Slow Joe," I take real pride in this.
  • I feel good about how I look. It would be nice if it didn't matter, but it does (to me). 
I still see room to improve, and I don't think this desire goes away. In his wonderful little book on improvement, Dan Sullivan explains that we often focus on the Gap between where we are and where we want to be. By recording my progress and reflecting on it periodically I can see the progress I've made and focus on that, instead of just focusing on where I wish I was.

This might be the last thing I want to share this evening. Making improvements in my physical self has had an effect on my professional, emotional, and spiritual selves. It started by realizing that I wasn't happy where I was, and by stepping on a scale, giving myself the objective truth about why. 

Then I started moving.

26 February 2017

Movie Groovy

Many of my friends know this, but I once harbored ambitions of becoming a film director. For a number of reasons I took a different path. The bottom line is that I realized I was someone who just really liked movies.

I used to follow the Oscar race very closely, but it has less personal significance than it used to. The ceremony itself is pretty bloated, and I don't find the self-congratulatory aspects very compelling. But I do have some opinions this year.

Of the 9 best picture nominees, I've seen Arrival, Hidden Figures, and La-La Land.

I thought Arrival was a great movie. Very thought-provoking, beautifully shot. It stayed with me and was very emotionally resonant. Original and unexpected, and I would be happy if it won.

Hidden Figures is a truly wonderful story. Great performances and solid execution. It doesn't feel like a special movie in the sense that it is very conventional in its storytelling and style. It deserves the level of commercial sucess it has attained. It is unlikely to win, but the importance of the story, and the timing, would justify a win.

I loved La-La Land. It's not a perfect movie but it deeply affected me. Before we left to go home I had added the soundtrack on Apple Music so Lacy and I could listen on the way home. Occasionally I play the long epilogue track and the feeling that came with those scenes returns.

I shouldn't have enjoyed it as much as I did. I enjoy musicals, but it's not my favorite genre. It has a bittersweet ending, with characters making choices I would not have made. But it felt real, while very much a modern kind of fantasy. It even made me more fond of Los Angeles, which is an accomplishment,

It has been criticized lately, which often happens when popular entertainment doesn't achieve the level of importance that the cognizenti would prefer.

It is likely to win. There may be better films among the other nominees. Not having seen them, I'll root for the fools who dream.

30 January 2017

Huddled Masses

I haven't written about politics here since Fidel Castro died, and haven't touched domestic politics since just after the election. Partly I was tired of it and given the strong feelings on left and right, I didn't want to alienate anyone. At heart, I'm a diplomat. I'm not afraid of conflict, but I find it counterproductive. It's a lot harder to find compromise, and I like a challenge.

I want to look at Trump's immigration order in a few ways. My feelings on the subject can be mirrored by an excellent column by Walter Russell Mead and Nicholas Gallagher. A small excerpt:

Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt has an American President done anything so cruel and bigoted. And only Barack Obama has exhibited this degree of callous indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people. President Trump signed an executive order on Friday suspending the admission of refugees from Syria indefinitely, suspending the U.S. refugee program for 120 days, and restricting immigration from parts of the Muslim world. Implementation failures—chaos and screw-ups at various airports as low-level officials wrestled with what the new order meant—compounded the callousness.  
The timing was far from auspicious. Friday was Holocaust Memorial Day, and the symbolism was too great to ignore. On Twitter, the account @Stl_Manifest, which tweeted one at a time the stories of the European Jewish refugees whose ship was turned away from the United States in 1939, and most of whose passengers later perished in the Holocaust, gained over 40,000 followers in a day and sparked commentary in outlets from Vox to USA Today. This history—that at the time of greatest need America’s “golden door” was slammed firmly shut—must haunt anyone who cares about basic human decency. Unfortunately, at a time when urgent problems around the world demand serious and searching thought, many people seem more interested in hang-wringing and virtue-signaling than in taking the time to think through refugee and migration policy. 
The real story of immigration and restriction, as opposed to the dumbed-down and sentimentalized hazy myths that pass for history in our impoverished national discourse, could not be more relevant to our times.
Mead and Gallagher's entire article is worth your time. It deconstructs a complex problem, and the sentence I highlighted is critical: "The dumbed-down and sentimentalized hazy myths that pass for history..."

Already, the focus on Trump's order has overshadowed what Mead and Gallagher call "Obama's feckless foreign policy." Obama often lamented the bad economy that he inherited from George W. Bush. Trump inherited a messy and ineffectual Syria policy that was well-explained in this piece by Rany Jazayerli. An excerpt:
One talking point we’re hearing a lot during Obama’s final days as president is that he avoided a scandal throughout his eight years in office, something no two-term president has been able to say going back to Eisenhower. I respectfully disagree. Nearly six years ago, unarmed, peaceful civilian protesters took to the streets in towns throughout Syria, as they had in Tunisia, and Libya, and Egypt, and Bahrain, as a generation of young Arabs exposed to democratic ideas through satellite television and the internet stood up to demand their inalienable rights from the tyrants who had oppressed them for generations. Within weeks of each other, peaceful protesters had overthrown dictators in Tunisia — a nation that stands today as arguably the most democratic the modern Arab world has seen — and Egypt, where in 2012 free and fair elections produced the first democratically appointed ruler in the country’s 5,000-year history before the nation backslid into autocracy again two years later. 
But in the other countries, protesters asking for ballots were met with bullets, and nowhere more so than in Syria by the Assad regime. Unarmed civilians were gunned down, or arrested and tortured before being killed, which led to more protests and more anger, which led to more killing, which led to civilians trying to defend themselves by any means necessary, which led to a full-on armed rebellion. Rebels of diverse religious and ideological backgrounds were united in opposing a tyrannical dictatorship that compensated for its lack of popular support with military firepower. Hundreds of killings become thousands, thousands became tens of thousands, the vast majority perpetrated by the Assad regime. 
And in the face of these killings, and despite considerable support from both sides of the aisle to do something to alleviate the slow-burning slaughter, President Obama chose to basically stand pat. (There have been diplomatic efforts; a trickle of weapons was sent by the CIA to moderate rebels after long delays and with many preconditions; in 2015, a plan to train up to around 5,000 rebels was scrapped after training about five — yes, five.) And no change in the facts on the ground would change his mind. Not the use of chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 civilians, including many children. Not a death toll that reached almost half a million nearly a year ago. Not the wholesale destruction of cities that now resemble Dresden in 1945. Not the fact that 11 million Syrians — out of a total prewar population of 23 million — have been forced out of their homes. Not the fact that the Syrian apocalypse now ranks as the greatest humanitarian disaster the world has seen since World War II.
This is what Trump inherited. I disagree with his policy on this matter, but I can't deny that there is a problem. Mead and Gallagher address this in their piece:
This country needs a serious and humane immigration and refugee policy that is both enlightened and sustainable. We didn’t have it under Obama; we are unlikely to have it under Trump. Despite deporting hundreds of thousands of illegals, Obama never embraced the cause of defending America’s borders or regulating immigration in ways that clearly reassured marginalized American communities that the U.S. government was first and foremost committed to their welfare and to the defense of their way of life. And he never took responsibility for the ways in which his own repeated errors of judgment about the Middle East contributed to the mass refugee flows that he then tried to guilt-trip Americans into accommodating. Dumb cosmopolitanism leads to dumb nationalist reaction. The Obama years led to the Trump win—even as W’s years led to Obama. 
Bad foreign policy, not bad immigration policy, was the primary American contribution to the global disasters of the 1940s, the Holocaust very much included. This is also true today, and the need for an enlightened but grounded nationalism, as opposed to unicorn-hunting cosmopolitanism and braggadocious jingoism, is as strong and as urgent as it has ever been—but appears as much out of reach as it was in the 1930s. 
And so here we are: steering erratically into stormy waters, haunted by the cries of the refugees and the dispossessed, squabbling among ourselves as the clouds grow darker overhead. Not since the 1930s has the world, or American foreign policy, been in this much trouble. We are growing more angry and more bitter even as the need for clear thought and wise action grows.
There is a middle ground, and as Mead and Gallagher point out, it is not where we are going.Even if you think Trump's plan was a good move, the implementation was amateur-hour, and employed the same poor tactic (issuance of executive orders) that Obama was criticized for using. Human feeling aside, for someone with such limited political capital, Trump seems to be using it very poorly.

Finally, some thoughts from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. Adams has done a fantastic job of explaining why Trump was so effective at persuading people to support his candidacy. His take on Trump's approach to governance is worth your time.

 A final thought, from a leader of my church: