Akascribe A personal blog covering all manner of subjects

February 13, 2012

Rail is not a Four-Letter Word

Filed under: General,Politics — akascribe @ 10:21 pm

There is a debate playing out politically in California about high-speed rail.  After a voter initiative passed in 2008 calling for the construction of a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, opponents are now trying to (please forgive me) derail the plan.  Their beef?  It would cost too much and be too difficult.

Last summer, I rode the Eurostar train from Paris to London during a family vacation.  It took two and one-quarter hours to get from one central rail station to the other, leaving any consideration of flying the same route unimaginable.  Once you factor in the transfer times to and from an urban airport, the extra time involved in clearing security, and the inherent delays with air travel, making the journey by rail is the hands-down winner, even at double the cost, although with advanced ticket purchase our rail fares were no more than the going commercial airfare.

I lived in England during the 1970s and I remember the hue and cry attendant with boring the Channel Tunnel and obtaining the rights of way for high-speed rail.  The French had no such qualms – they built their portion of high-speed track way before the Brits did – but despite cost overruns and delays the system has been a runaway success.  I’m sure Europeans could not envision going back to a time when the Continent was not connected to Britain by high-speed rail.  Or the major cities on the Continent itself.

So why are we Californians dragging our feet?  Eurostar was completed almost two decades ago (in 1994) and involved one of the largest engineering feats in history, digging three separate tunnels under the English Channel (the third tunnel is a smaller, central one needed for service purposes).  Connecting Northern and Southern California requires so such heavy lifting and, lest we forget, the transcontinental railroad that did involve some major engineering (to climb over the Sierra Nevada) was built  a century and a half ago.  Interest rates are at a historic low and unemployment is still relatively high, strategically an ideal time to build a large infrastructure project.

Nevertheless, opponents of the project have turned rail into a dirty word, trotting out arguments that focus on funding complexities or a concern over potential users.  But these critics are being disingenuous.  Their real objection is borne of ignorance.  They just don’t understand what it means to live in a rail-oriented culture.

The Japanese get it, as do the Europeans.  Who wants to drive a car 350 miles or fly a busy air corridor when you can travel safely and serenely at 200+ mph while having a leisurely meal, reading a book, or doing some work.  And not have to burn fossil fuels in the process.

As the current presidential election cycle has shown, in certain American circles (mostly conservative ones, as far as I can tell) it has become fashionable to denigrate European culture.  Anything European automatically smacks of socialism and appeasement.  Well, to those who wish to criticize, I can only say:  have you actually visited there and tried it?  I defy anyone, even the most rock-ribbed Republican, to travel from the Gare du Nord to St. Pancras Station, yes even while sipping a nice Chardonnay and nibbling on some quiche, and tell me with a straight face that he’d rather shuttle to SFO, endure the vicissitudes of commercial airline travel and then rent a car at LAX (where public transit is still a joke).  Let me tell you, I’ll have that GOP good ol’ boy singing the Marseillaise and drinking lukewarm English beer faster than you can say “Return your seat backs and tray tables to their upright and locked position.”

So my modest proposal is this:  anyone in the California legislature who intends to vote against high-speed rail must first travel to Europe, courtesy of the taxpayer, and experience it first-hand.  Trust me, it will be cheaper and easier in the long run to foot that bill.

January 31, 2012

I Love Roger Federer

Filed under: Sports — akascribe @ 2:34 pm

I love Roger Federer.  There, I’ve said it.  I’m out of the closet and proudly so.  No, I don’t mean that kind of closet but my love of Roger does go much farther than a garden-variety man-crush.  And judging by the behavior of other tennis fans, I’m not alone.

What is it about this guy?  The tennis part is obvious, although certainly worth detailing:  the brilliant shot-making; the elegant, seemingly effortless, footwork; the consistency; the respect and passion for the game; the records.  Those records are almost too numerous to consider, but for tennis cognoscenti one stands out: 31 consecutive Slam quarterfinals appearances (and counting).  It’s a mind-boggling statistic, certainly never to be matched, and when finally tallied will occupy the same lofty stratum as Joe DiMaggio hitting safely in 56 straight games.

But it’s so much more than the tennis that earns Roger my heart.  His style can only be described as panache – a refined elegance just bordering on mannered (recall the embroidered white and gold jacket he wore onto Centre Court one year).  He isn’t the most handsome or hunky tennis pro (Rafael Nadal causes the girls to swoon with his bulging biceps and flared nostrils), but he carries himself in a way that brings to mind George Clooney or Cary Grant.  A bemused self-confidence, telling us that he knows what we’re thinking and he’s genuinely flattered to receive our attention.  And win or lose, he won’t dishonor that by acting aloof or otherwise behaving boorishly.

That said, Roger is human enough to show his emotions.  A small fist pump or “Come on!” reminds us that he really wants to win.  And the shedding of tears after a big match (in tough wins as well as losses) betrays how much effort he gives and how much it means to him.  I believe those are all to the good, but I especially love him for his (minor) shortcomings – the barely discernable arrogance (when he psyches out an opponent in a pre-match interview, it’s with polite praise just bordering on the faint), the rare glimpses of poor sportsmanship (once citing a nagging injury after tough loss at Wimbledon rather than merely congratulating his opponent).  He is not perfect and I would have him no other way.  But he is virtuous enough to deserve my love.

How do I know if he is truly virtuous?  Maybe his happy family life is a façade and he is out chasing skirts on the side, as his erstwhile friend, Tiger Woods, was discovered to be doing.  But I highly doubt it.  He would never have married Mirka if he were like that.  Say what?  Let me explain.

The press seemed to enjoy Roger’s budding friendship with Tiger in the pre-scandal days, two handsome sports superstars with everything they could seemingly want:  attractive wives, cute young children, trophy cases spilling over with hardware, and multi-million dollar Nike endorsement deals.  But in Tiger’s case, it turned out, he wanted something else, or at least was compelled by his demons to seek it.

Could anyone have predicted which of these men was the more likely to fall?  I venture yes.  As attractive as Roger’s wife is, she seems a genuine match for him, not the beautiful, blonde trophy wife than Elin Nordegren was for Tiger.  I don’t know these people personally but my conjecture is that Roger wasn’t attracted to Mirka Vavrinec for her looks alone (she is quite full-figured, nothing like the svelte fashion models who populate the spectator boxes of most male tennis pros), rather for her similar background as a Swiss tennis player.  Mirka didn’t make much of a dent in the rankings when she played on the woman’s pro tour, but it must be a tremendous asset to their relationship that she understands what it’s like to prepare for a match … and to lose.  Not that Roger does very much of the latter, but it’s a part of sports and a singularly defining aspect of most tennis tournaments:  one loss and you’re out.  Flying from tournament to tournament and living out a suitcase (albeit in a luxury hotel suite) must be a lonely business, and the smile on Roger’s face speaks to not just happiness with his game but with his personal life.  A man who has that doesn’t need to prowl bars looking for extra female companionship.

How lucky is Roger that he chose the vocation he wanted in life and he turned out to be the best in history at it?  Very lucky.  And we are equally lucky to be witnesses to his exploits and his virtue.  Sometimes, when I watch a match on TV with my son, who is very passionate about sports (both playing and watching), I remind him how fortunate he and I both are to have been alive in the Federer era.  Future generations will have to watch recordings of Roger’s matches but Collin and I get to witness the Swiss Maestro in real time.  We even saw him in person at Indian Wells, both on the practice courts and in competition.  I have rarely observed Collin awestruck, as my son is an extremely confident10-year old, but he was humble in the presence of such greatness.

Speaking of humility, Warren Buffett aka the “Sage of Omaha” famously deflects credit for his financial success and instead cites his having hit the genetic lottery:  being born in (white) middle-class America in 1930. Roger similarly often says how lucky he feels, to the point where it’s clear he means it.  I don’t think I’ve heard many superstars stay that with sincerity.  Sure, it requires a lot of hard work to achieve Roger’s level of performance (further evidence of his worthiness of my love!) but without the lucky circumstances it wouldn’t be possible.  He truly gets that.

Roger’s courage also earns a large measure of the love I feel for him.  It is no easy thing to go onto a tennis court in front of all those people and engage in a form of hand-to-hand combat with a skilled opponent.  His rivalry with the great Nadal is a perfect example.  Critics of Federer like to point out that Nadal leads in the head-to-head total, making the Spaniard putatively the greater player.  Whether or not he is (I believe my own opinion on this matter should be obvious), Roger neither shirks from the battle nor seeks to diminish his rival; rather, they seem to relish the competition and have forged a genuine friendship off the court, based on mutual respect and camaraderie.  Roger has even enlisted Rafa to donate time and money towards his personal foundation, focused on education in Africa.  Roger’s extensive charitable giving – way beyond the pro forma stuff we’ve come to expect from sports professionals – is further testament to his character.

Roger does not suffer fools gladly (a virtue in my book, I must confess) or passively accept his own mistakes, but he has too much perspective to get derailed.  If you watch closely in a match, a flicker of disapproval will sometimes pass over Roger’s face, as if he is witnessing something unpleasant, then he will quickly return his focus to the matter at hand.  I admire John McEnroe his tennis skills – he was a magician with a racquet, especially at net – and his intelligence and passion for the game as well as life are evident from his television commentary, but his fatal flaw as a player was taking it all so seriously that he regularly lost his head.  Of course everyone gets a bad call or two, or misses some shots they know they should make, but the stakes aren’t worth making an ass out of yourself.  Sure, Roger has gotten upset – it’s hard to believe but he’s even tossed a racquet – but I don’t think we’ll ever see him become unhinged and scream at an umpire the way Johnny Mac did.  At least I hope so.

But what if Roger did?  I might be disappointed, but I’d stand by him.  That’s what true love is.

December 27, 2011

My Meeting with President Obama

Filed under: Politics — akascribe @ 10:55 am

Okay, a meeting might be overstating it.  But I did meet and have a one-on-one discussion with Barack Obama in Washington.  It was exhilarating, fascinating and empowering.  I left DC on such a high that I barely needed an airplane to fly back to San Francisco.  So here, in a nutshell, is what happened.

After volunteering for the Kerry campaign in 2004 and the Obama campaign in 2008, mostly in my capacity as a lawyer (e.g. I spent Election Day on November 4, 2008, at various precincts in northern Nevada doing voter protection), I was contacted last month by a local Obama campaign volunteer about renewing my efforts.  Would I like to volunteer again?  I said absolutely, but suggested I might also do some fundraising, given my contacts.  So she put me in touch with a local high-level fundraising “bundler” and we arranged to meet for coffee at Emporio Rulli in Larkspur.

The bundler and I immediately hit it off.  She and her husband are former Wall Street investment bankers, with more than enough disposable income to max out on their annual campaign contributions, but she also felt a duty and had the time to do more.  Her European education and international background gave us a common reference point, she liked my fundraising ideas and she seemed impressed by some of my contacts.  So much so that, at the conclusion of our meeting, she invited me to join her at the next Obama Campaign Finance Committee meeting in Washington, scheduled to take place in early December.  Technically, only major donors could attend but she made it clear that her bundling status entitled her to invite me as a guest and, as an added sweetener, the President might drop by.

That was all the motivation I needed.  The idea of spending a couple of days in a hotel ballroom in DC wasn’t particularly appealing, despite the campaign insider briefings we would no doubt receive, but I have long admired Barack Obama.  In addition to his historic presidency and all that it portends for this country, his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” impressed me deeply.  The chance to shake his hand was too good to pass up.

Luckily, the round-trip airfare was affordable and I could spend the first night staying with friends, one of whom is a former Washington Post editor and the other is an international human rights lawyer.  They seemed amused by the purpose of my visit but genuinely appreciative that I was working to help re-elect the President.

Fast-forward to the second day of the conference (the first day I attended Lawyers for Obama meetings and a mover-and-shaker campaign cocktail party in the evening).  As soon as I arrived at the hotel’s ballroom level in the morning, it was clear we’d be getting a visit from the President.  Security was tight, with metal detectors and x-ray machines just like TSA provides at airports, and plenty of Secret Service agents with their telltale earpieces and wrist sleeve mikes.  Then it was confirmed – a staffer handed me a piece of paper and said the President would be talking questions, so I should write one down and submit it before 10 am.

Okay, but what to ask?

I’d been doing a lot of reading and thinking of late about Europe and the sovereign debt crisis.  Part was out of personal interest – I hold an EU passport and that summer I’d travelled in Greece, Italy and France, discussing first-hand with locals their views on the problems with the Euro.  And part was of out of genuine concern, realizing that if Greece and/or any other over-leveraged Euro-currency countries defaulted, the economic panic could rival that of the sub-prime debacle in 2008, putting the whole U.S. economy in jeopardy along with the rest of the world.

So much of the discussion in Washington the previous 36 hours had been about domestic issues.  And of course a lot of “inside baseball” analysis of the GOP race, which at that point looked like Mitt Romney as the safe bet and Newt Gingrich as the current front-runner but ultimate long shot.  I figured everyone would be asking about domestic stuff, so I crafted a three-part question about the Euro crisis and handed it to a campaign staffer during a break in the breakfast meeting, an interesting presentation by Obama’s chief pollster about regional election demographics.

Despite the thought-provoking presentations slated for the morning sessions, anticipation obviously was building towards the President’s arrival.  The early breakout sessions wrapped and everyone convened in the main ballroom to hear talks by Matthew Barzun, the head of the Chicago-based campaign office, and Jim Messina, the White House-based campaign head.  I found myself checking my watch more often – Obama was due at 11 am – but as the time approached 11.15, still nothing.

Then the tone shifted in the room, as the Secret Service guys assembled at the front and grew more alert.  The Commander in Chief was on the premises.

And then he walked in.  Everyone rose and gave him a standing ovation.  It was exciting to see him in person (he looks the same) but what impressed me once he was finally able to speak – this was a very enthusiastic audience! – was the calmness with which he carries himself.  He’s obviously a very intelligent man, and this comes across even more so in person, as he addressed a wide range of issues, speaking without notes or hesitation.  But he is also very comfortable with who he is, not in an arrogant way but in an assured, self-contained manner.  There is none of the sense one gets from an insecure celebrity (or, I am told, from former President Clinton) of an ego-based neediness, a desire to be loved.  Obama apparently gets enough of that from his own family and he reassured us that if we gave him the campaign tools to get reelected (i.e. the cash), he would get the job done.

After Obama spoke extemporaneously for twenty minutes or so, Matthew Barzun returned to the stage to read out some questions for him to answer.  Since there were over a hundred people in the room, I suppose they figured this would be the most efficient method.

As predicted, all of the initial questions were about domestic issues.  The economy.  Conflicts with the Congress about pending legislation.  Campaign-related strategizing.  This went on for perhaps twenty more minutes.  Because there were multiple questions for each topic, Matthew presented the questions to the President without attribution to any particular questioner.  Obama gave thoughtful, articulate answers to each question.  There was, I recall, one question about foreign policy, but it had to do with troop withdrawals and the war on terror, and this quickly morphed into another campaign-related digression.

And then Matthew said this:  “I have something a little different now, Mr. President.  This question is from Owen Prell from Mill Valley, California.”

I smiled – he was going to read my Euro question!  I’d met Matthew the day before, so maybe that had helped, especially since Matthew is the former Ambassador to Sweden.

As soon as Matthew started reading my Euro crisis question, damned if the President didn’t beam from ear to ear and look energized.  When the question ended, he launched right into his answer, prefacing it by saying, “I have probably spent more time thinking about this problem and talking to experts and leaders in Europe about it in the past several weeks than on any other subject.”

Bingo – I’d hit the jackpot.  As the President soon explained, this was indeed a pressing concern for the very reasons I had figured.  If the Europeans couldn’t adequately address the sovereign debt issue and the Euro Zone drifted into full-blown insolvency, the economic repercussions will have global significance.  President Obama said this was the one issue that threatened to derail the entire U.S. economic recovery and his very reelection.

He spent a considerable amount of time discussing the specifics of the problem and what he was doing to solve it (basically encouraging Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel to tackle the crisis proactively).  A few of my colleagues who I’d gotten to know in the previous day’s meeting gave me congratulatory nudges and glances.  The funny thing was, if you’d asked any one of them earlier whether the Euro was going to be Topic A on the President’s address that morning, you would have received blank stares.  Just goes to show that great minds think alike.  Or so one would like to imagine.

The President wrapped up his answer and moved on to another topic, and the Q&A session ended soon after.  Everyone stood up and applauded the President, then many of them moved quickly to a “rope line” at the front of the room.  My colleague to my left told me that I should do the same if I would like to shake his hand.  So I did what I was told.  That was the purpose of my trip to DC after all, wasn’t it?

The problem was, the positions along the rope line were now already staked out, and everyone seemed to know the President.  As he moved down the line, to shake hands with someone or kiss a woman on the cheek, he addressed them each by name and moved quickly on.  “Remember we met in St. Louis, Mr. President?”  “Absolutely, Frank – keep up the good work.”  It reminded me of a State of the Union address, when the president greets Congressional well-wishers as he slowly exits the chamber.

Well, I figured, at least I had a height advantage, so I sidled up to the rope line and stuck my hand out above a short African-American woman I’d gotten to know the day before.  A really charming, vivacious person, she lived in the DC area and had a large grass-roots following in her community for the Democratic party and the President.  She greeted Mr. Obama and he gave her a big grin and a hug before moving on.  But he couldn’t ignore my large outstretched meat hook, so he shook my hand.

I couldn’t think of anything earth-shattering to say – what do you say to the President as he gives you a quick handshake? – so I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head:  “Good luck with Europe.”

With that, he looked at my name tag.  Owen Prell from Mill Valley.  I could see him doing the math in his head.  Ah, the guy with the Euro question.  So instead of moving on, he stayed put and started discussing it with me.

At length.  Our perfunctory handshake had dissolved into two guys standing and talking about Europe.  We are both the same age (he is a month older) and height, with somewhat analogous backgrounds (foreign parent, connections to Hawaii, played basketball, attended Ivy League law schools where we were on the law review), so on some level it seemed perfectly natural.  I noticed that everyone around us sort of parted and allowed us to speak.  He was doing most of the talking, to be sure, but he listened as I made an observation or comment.  He clearly had Europe on the brain and I was the one guy in the room who’d asked him about it.  So he wanted to talk some more.

At one point, I recall getting a little self-conscious, thinking:  “Well, this is fucking weird.  I’m standing here speaking to the President of the United States!”  But that thought was only going to make me dissolve into a puddle of flop sweat, so I banished it from my brain and resumed having my nice civilized Euro chat, albeit in these rather unusual circumstances.

After what seemed like quite a while but was probably only a minute or so, he thanked me for my question and my efforts – as if! – and moved on.  Which was fine with me – I’d received everything I could have asked for, and then some.  I’d even gotten him to chuckle (when I commiserated with him on how hard it must be to get France and Germany moving in the same direction, observing that Sarkozy and Merkel don’t much like each other, he responded, “Tell me about it!”)

My bundler friend immediately approached me, with new respect and curiosity in her eyes.  Her exalted fundraising status had permitted her and a few other similar donors a private audience with the President before his address, but she wanted to know what he and I had been talking about.  I smiled and joked, “just guy stuff.”  She didn’t see the humor – this was serious business! – and pressed me for an answer.  Which I was only too happy to provide.

I was elated.  I half-expected one of the President’s staff to slip me a note asking me to come back to the White House for a special briefing session later that afternoon.  Maybe I would be appointed special envoy to Europe.  Alas, the rich fantasy life that my head started spinning stayed just that – a fantasy.  But my meeting with the President had been reality.  All that was left, after spending some time basking in the afterglow, was to get to work helping reelect him.

June 28, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Filed under: At the Movies,General — akascribe @ 9:14 am

After seeing Woody Allen’s latest movie, I think the guy should be canonized.  I know that might be tough for a Jew, but Woody deserves it.

Sure, he’s made better movies, probably funnier or deeper ones.  But the film is such a delight that one can only marvel how this man can crank out approximately a film a year well into his sixth decade of film-making and still maintain this level of quality.

The plot is both deceptively simple and intellectually rich:  a frustrated screenwriter (Owen Wilson) must travel back in time to Paris of the 1920s in order to appreciate what he might have in present day.  Sort of a Lost Generation version of Groundhog Day (which I believe was also a masterpiece of philosophical comedy), the cast of characters is virtually a Who’s Who of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, including Gertrude Stein, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and of course Papa himself.

Hemingway’s scenes allow Woody to really flex his comedic chops, but he doesn’t turn the famed author into a joke or a cliché, rather he treats him with fond respect while still making us laugh.  And Corey Stoll plays the role brilliantly, perfectly capturing the writer’s combination of outsized machismo, post-war ennui and literary ambition.

Owen Wilson is cast in the ubiquitous Woody Allen role, and at first glance this might seem an odd choice.  But Wilson nails it, his peculiar Texas-by-way-of-California angst a perfect stand in for Woody’s New York neurotic.  Who knew?  It’s as if Wilson has been waiting for this role his entire career (not to denigrate his other solid work), and when he falls hard for the lovely Adriana (Marion Cotillard), we are rooting for their love to succeed despite knowing it is doomed (for temporal reasons).  It will be hard for Woody Allen to cast another actor as his cinematic doppelganger in the future (I pray he steers clear of re-casting Kenneth Branagh, a miscue if ever there was).

Above all, the film is a massive love letter to Paris, as if that enchanting city needs one.  Nevertheless, I think the Paris Tourist Bureau owes Woody at least a week in a deluxe suite at the Crillon, meals and wine included.  What Allen used to do for New York City, he does for the City of Lights in spades.  All I can say is, for me, he’s preaching to the converted.  But it’s a sermon I’m happy to hear, and see.

One has to stretch to find any quibbles.  Rachel McAdams is perhaps a bit misused as Inez, the unsupportive fiancée of Wilson’s Gil.  And the real First Lady of France, Carla Bruni, is more than a touch wooden as a museum guide, but the frisson it creates to see her in this role makes it worthwhile.  (She must have relished acting in a Woody Allen picture, since he is venerated in France as a truly great cinematic artist.)

If the message of Groundhog Day was to approach every day with a positive attitude and an open heart, then the message of Midnight in Paris is:  live life in the moment and don’t pine for an earlier, more authentic time.  For all those Woody Allen fans who wish he’d return to his earlier form, whether that was represented by Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors or The Purple Rose of Cairo, I say:  get over it and just enjoy the movie he’s making now.  And while we’re at it, let’s get in touch with the Vatican.  It’s time to anoint him as Saint Woody.

May 18, 2010

Citizens of the World

Filed under: General,Politics — akascribe @ 3:53 pm

Does anyone recall the story “The Man Without a Country” by Edward Everett Hale?  I don’t think I’ve ever read it – it was a Civil War-era tract written to boost support for the Union cause – but I do remember seeing a gripping film adaptation when I was in elementary school.  The gist of the story is that the protagonist renounces his American citizenship and is forced to live the remainder of his life in nautical limbo, forever refused entry on land again.  As contrived as that sounds, it really made an impression on me as a chilling prospect; I can still see the melancholy in the eyes of the stateless man.  Maybe that’s why I leapt at the chance to gain a second citizenship when, much later in life, the opportunity presented itself.

I find that when the subject of dual citizenship comes up, some people adamantly argue (in ignorance) that this is not possible in the U.S.  But it’s a fact that, while not encouraging it, the State Department turns a blind eye to dual and multiple citizens, and there is absolutely no requirement that one renounce allegiance to another nation in order to be an American citizen.  Personally, I think we should actually encourage multiple citizenship.  It might go a ways towards mitigating the rampant nationalism that always seems to get in the way of understanding between peoples.

Even before I obtained my second passport, I always considered myself half-British.  My mother is English and she has always retained her U.K. passport, even after she was naturalized as a U.S. citizen when I was born.  She once told me that she never felt the need beforehand, but having given birth to an American, she wanted to be able to vote and help determine my destiny.  Growing up, my family spent a lot of time visiting England and, if truth be told, my father – a native Californian – is more of an Anglophile than any of us.  Alas, even when we actually moved to England during my high school years and obtained legal residency, he has never been eligible for citizenship.  Unbeknownst to me, I had the option of electing British citizenship at the age of eighteen, but it seemed a moot issue when we returned to the States and I entered UCLA and embarked on my adult life in the Colonies, as some Brits half-humorously still refer to us.

It was only much later, while working in San Francisco, that I fell hard for an English lass and briefly contemplated relocating to London.  My British residency status from high school days was still valid but I felt somehow cheated when I learned that only children of male British subjects were granted full citizenship automatically.

Fast-forward to a few years ago when I was travelling with my wife and son to London and handed over a new American passport to immigration at Heathrow, along with my old passport stamped with my U.K. residency status.  Behold the magic words, carefully nursed from passport to passport since the 70s:  “Given leave to enter the United Kingdom for an indefinite period.”  So British in its subtlety, but so powerful in its import.  So I was more than a little perturbed when the officer instead stamped a generic tourist visa in my passport (limited to six months duration) and explained that I hadn’t visited the U.K. recently enough for my residency to remain in good standing.  Maybe it might seem trivial – I had no real desire to live in England again – but I felt a part of me had been ripped out.  Seeing my distress, the immigration officer kindly asked me how I had come by my now-former residency status in the first place.  When I told her it was because of my mother, she suggested I check with the British embassy when I return to the States, since the naturalization laws had changed.

And indeed they had.  Tony Blair has been called “Bush’s poodle” for allowing Britain to follow America into Iraq.  Maybe so, but bless Blair’s heart — he finally rectified the gender-discrimination that long treated offspring of British women as second-class (non) citizens with a new Act of Parliament.  All I had to do was produce my mother’s birth certificate along with my own and I would be in.  Rule Britannia!

This was important to me on several levels.  As I say, I have always felt half-British and it seemed like I was finally getting legal validation of that fact.  But on a more practical level, having a British passport was actually to possess a European Union one, which confers the unfettered right to live and work (along with my family) in any country in the EU.  Spain, for example, or even Greece (at least until the rest of Europe gets around to kicking the Greeks out for decimating the Euro).  Actually, I’ve long harbored the dream of living in France.  I don’t know whether this is an itch that I’ll ever want to scratch, but the fact that I could is somehow very comforting.

There is something else, though – and this is what I was alluding to at the outset.  I have always considered myself an internationalist, putting my status as a member of the human race above that of U.S. citizen.  Don’t get me wrong:  I love my country of birth and in the right circumstance would have been willing to fight and die for it, I suppose.  But I have also always mistrusted nationalism of the flag-waving type.  Why is it that we have to play our national anthem at sports events, when other countries don’t do that?  Why is it standard American political rhetoric that makes us the “greatest nation on Earth”?  Did anyone consider Denmark – or Belize?  And why must my son recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school every day, as I did?  I mean, will this make him a more law-abiding citizen?

No, maybe what we need is to have more dual nationals in our midst, so we don’t miss the global forest for the domestic trees.  With a foot in more than one country, we won’t be as tempted to trample the cause of some other nation.

In fact, two of my good friends have recently augmented their passport collections:  one has added Italian citizenship thanks to a paternal grandfather born in the old country (the Italians, along with the Irish, are very generous when it comes to claiming their own), and the other boasts not one but two EU passports in addition to her American one (since her father was born in Austria and her mother was born in England).

Just think – if everyone started cross-naturalizing, we’d confuse the hell out of terrorists.  How can they target Americans when each of us could whip out multiple credentials, from every continent on the globe?

Now of course I can already hear the voices of dissent.  How will citizens really champion the needs of America with divided loyalties?  Won’t dual citizens, at the first hint of trouble, pull up stakes and high-tail it to Country B?  To which I respond:  True-blue Americans are always extolling the virtues of freedom.  So what better way to make sure people want a stake in this place than by giving them a choice?  As long as we don’t behave like jingoistic cowboys, invading sovereign nations and otherwise demonstrating our unsuitability to be a member of the civilized world, I’m more than happy to salute Uncle Sam.  Just don’t tell me I can’t bow to the Queen as well!

February 27, 2010

Club Med – The Last Best Hope for Civilization?

Filed under: Domestic Tranquility,General — akascribe @ 2:01 pm

Along with my lovely wife and son, I recently returned from a week at Club Med in Cancun – a long-planned vacation coinciding with my son’s Presidents’ Week school break, colloquially known as “Ski Week” in these parts.  A little counter-programming on our part.  Despite the less-than-stellar weather – since when is it chilly enough in the Caribbean to require pants and shirt sleeves most evenings? – and terrible flight delays, we had a terrific time.  So I got to wondering why.

Now on paper, I may not seem like the Club Med sort of guy.  I avoid group travel like the plague and generally prefer the independence of a vacation rental with its own kitchen.  But despite all that, there’s something about the Club Med formula that works for me.

One thing that is totally simpatico is the sports, which are various and all-inclusive.  Not just for me, but for my 8 year-old son, who never met a ball game that he didn’t want to play.  Ping pong?  He’s there – literally for hours in the Mexican-tiled courtyard just off the main dining area, taking on all challengers.  Basketball?  I booked a room in the building right next to the hoops court on purpose.  And don’t get him started on the tennis, as each afternoon I dragged my exhausted, middle-aged carcass off the courts against his protests.

Actually, we all played a LOT of tennis that week, starting every morning for me at 8.30 am in the advanced lesson that soon became a regular event among a handful of guys my age, meeting up for a quick breakfast (those French pastries are so tempting) then stretching out and working on a different aspect of our game.  What really make it all so enjoyable, though – and this is where I’m going with the Club Med experience – is the interaction with the staff as peers.  In our case, it was with Youssef, the head pro from Morocco, and José-Luis, the younger pro from Mexico.

In case you don’t know how it works, at Club Med the guests are called GMs (gentils membres in French) and the significant staff are called GOs (gentils organisateurs).  I say significant staff because the local staff who handle the more menial chores (cleaning the rooms, sweeping the grounds, serving the beverages) are not accorded the same status as the GOs.  GOs are typically recent college graduates, uniformly attractive, personable and multi-talented (as well as multi-lingual).  They are deemed the social peers of the GMs in a village and are encouraged to share meals and otherwise hang out when they aren’t performing their regular job or in the evening skit/musical review, kind of an amateur talent show that is an acquired taste.  It might seem like a dream job, getting paid, for example, to spend six days a week giving sailing lessons in the tropics while enjoying free room and board, but these kids work incredibly hard.  And they don’t have the luxury of much solitude, so it inevitably attracts a very socially-oriented group of people.

What this does, however, is help break down the barrier that typically exists on a vacation between the customer and the staff.  In our tennis group, for example, by the second day several of us die-hards had spent sufficient time in the lessons and tournaments with Youssef and J-L for them to realize we weren’t complete jerks, and they invited us to a “tennis” dinner where we commandeered a large table in the dining area and got to know each other better.  Instant friendships are sometimes to be mistrusted on foreign vacations when people are thrust together, perhaps especially within the GO-GM dynamic, but I’d like to think that not only did we fellow-GMs forge some real bonds with each other (as the subsequent e-mail exchanges have borne out), but some of the GOs and GMs established some genuine ties as well.  I really enjoyed getting to know Youssef in particular, an intelligent, curious and light-hearted man with some unique insights into American culture as an educated, cosmopolitan North African.  The fact that Youssef also bent the rules and allowed my son to participate in the adult tennis lessons and genuinely seemed to enjoy bantering with my precocious offspring certainly endeared him to me.

Another aspect that I like about Club Med is that the GMs are typically well-educated and active.  Even though Club Med is now all-inclusive, with “free” booze readily available, there was no drunkenness and really not all that much drinking.  Admittedly, we weren’t staying up that late to check out the bar scene, but this was a family-oriented Club Med village, as opposed to some “couples only” locales, so we were probably a self-selecting group of non-carousers.  You might think that this might limit the types of people you meet, and perhaps it does somewhat, but I was very pleased to get to know Bob, for instance, a fascinating older New Yorker traveling with his extended family and his “girlfriend” – a widow of the name partner of a very prestigious international law firm.  Now this woman can afford to vacation in any hotel in the world, yet here she was staying in the less-than-luxurious (but adequately comfortable) rooms of a Club Med, sharing cafeteria-style meals with total strangers and hitting tennis balls with folks who would not be eligible for membership in her Southhampton country club.  “This is America!” I thought, in all its meritocratic glory, except it was Mexico by way of France.  Well, come to think of it, why not?  The French know a thing or two about revolution.  And certainly about cuisine.

Yes, I may as well segue to food now, since this is really a make or break component to a vacation for me.  And I could only marvel how the food staff dished up such delicious meals with fresh ingredients in large numbers.  I’m convinced that without the French influence Club Med would fail.  Not in the types of food, although it certainly doesn’t hurt that every meal includes terrific fresh baked breads and pastries that could only come from Mother France.  But in the emphasis on good food and making meals an event, which of course is sadly still missing in mainstream American culture.

Anyone who has taken a cruise might find aspects of a Club Med vacation familiar, with the method of dining being one similarity, which is why I find it so interesting that I enjoyed the Club Med experience and detested the Norwegian Cruise Line trip to Alaska my extended family went on several years ago.  How to put this delicately?  The typical passenger on the cruise ship was extremely overweight, uninteresting (judging by the Danielle Steel novels) and the paucity of port time made me feel like I was in a floating prison with only treadmills and a postage stamp of a swimming pool for exercise.  In the Club Med village, however, you could truly escape to a secluded corner of the beach, play volleyball or a dozen other sports if you feel like it, and hang out with some vibrant, attractive people.

Speaking of attractive, the GOs really are a good-looking bunch, and our tennis pros smiled broadly when, after we were well into a bottle of Spanish rosé one night, I broached the issue of “fringe benefits” with working in such close quarters with so many pretty young women.  Sure, the GOs worked hard, but this might help explain why there was so much discussion about the lack of sleep.  During lunch one day, we struck gossip pay dirt when a stunningly gorgeous reception desk hostess from France revealed that she was secretly dating the tall, hunky American windsurfing instructor.  It may seem silly, but among all the married-with-kids GMs, there was a kind of vicarious thrill in seeing all these attractive, multi-national 20-somethings and wondering who was shacking up with whom.  I guess the “old” Club Med was about swinging GMs (with no doubt the participation of GOs as well) and maybe it’s still somewhat like that at the non-family villages, but fraternization seemed to be limited to the GO ranks at this place.

One thing that did take some getting used to was the Cruise Director-like enthusiasm of Olivier, the chef de village, and his entertainment staff colleagues.  Maybe you’ve heard of the “Crazy Signs”?  It’s a kind of group semiphore meant to whip everyone up into a frenzy, and seems to me to be uniquely French in its silliness.  If you recall that France uniquely claims Jerry Lewis as a comic genius then you’ll understand what I’m talking about; there’s something oddly infantile about the French, perhaps karmically necessary to go with their sophistication.  But really, it wasn’t too unpleasant.  In fact, I found it fascinating each evening to observe Olivier, a deeply tan and diminutive career GO, wield his microphone and deliver his patter in a seemingly impossible stream of foreign languages as his fellow GOs on stage began their skits.  Even my son rolled his eyes at me – he is old enough and jaded enough now to realize that there was something intrinsically corny about this display, but it was intended in such good fun that we all surrendered to it, even if we would never seek out anything remotely like it in the way of entertainment at home.  And once we got to know individual GOs, it was amusing to spot them performing costumed song and dance numbers.  “Hey, isn’t that Francesca from the Kids Club in the chicken outfit?”

Speaking of the Kids Cub, the one problem we encountered – which ultimately didn’t turn out to be a disaster – was that our son adamantly refused to participate.  The Kids Club is intended to be one of the principal benefits of a family club – built-in day care and camp activities (a sort of club within a club) segregated by age, in order to give the parents some much-needed alone time.  At first we insisted, since our son is renowned for his initial “No!” followed by enthusiastic “Yes!” once he realized the fun he’s been missing.  But in this case we could find no chink in the armor – there was no way in hell he was going to hang with his peers, a stance that was cemented when he spent a couple of hours doing kids tennis (I figured this was going to be a home run!) only to have him report that the other kids “sucked” and he was much happier getting his own pickup games.  Which is pretty much what he did.  And once we realized that he is now old enough to navigate the club on his own (security is excellent and it’s totally secluded from the rest of the hotels in Cancun), we resigned ourselves to a no-Kids Club vacation that involved perhaps a bit more parental supervision than we would have preferred but still afforded us some Husband & Wife time.

My feelings about Club Med crystallized after we departed.  My son had said goodbye for perhaps the seventh time to Spencer, a teenage boy who’d become his favorite table tennis opponent, and we’d each exchanged e-mail addresses with several new GO and GM friends before heading to the airport.  Then our flight was delayed because Felipe Calderon, the President of Mexico, was landing – he was in Cancun to host a Latin American summit, which made the headlines the next day when the heads of Venezuela and Colombia got in a shouting match (apparently it doesn’t take much to provoke Hugo Chavez).  What if, I thought, Calderon had hosted the summit for a week at Club Med along with everyone’s families?  Instead of posturing before reporters to see who has the most anti-Gringo bona fides, the leaders would have to take their aggressions out on the tennis courts and could get to know each other better over communal meals with attractive GOs instead of agenda-pushing policy wonks.  Think that might be more successful?

The advertising slogan of Club Med used to be:  The Antidote for Civilization.  Maybe it should be:  The Last Best Hope for Civilization.

January 30, 2010

Up in the Air

Filed under: At the Movies,General — akascribe @ 2:58 pm

The problem with seeing a film that has received a lot of very positive reviews is obvious.  It really has to be fantastic to live up to the hype.  I won’t say Jason Reitman’s new movie, Up in the Air, fails the test but I also didn’t leave the theater captivated, as I largely had been with Reitman’s previous effort, Juno.

There’s a lot to like about the film.  For starters, the cast is wonderful, pairing George Clooney with two different women, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, who each in their own way manage to play off Clooney very effectively.

Farmiga and Clooney, as fellow corporate road warriors, simply sizzle with sexuality, something we haven’t seen with Clooney since Steven Soderbergh cast him in Out of Sight (a remarkably underrated film) opposite Jennifer Lopez.  And a bank robber and a Fed (their characters in Soderbergh’s film) are a lot easier to make sexy than two frequent fliers comparing mileage programs.

Clooney is more of a business mentor figure to Kendrick’s character, but they each view their work and personal lives from such different perspectives that the opportunity for fireworks exists.  Kendrick is terrific as the newly minted corporate climber who realizes midway through that she has no stomach for the personal sacrifices and is too honest to pretend otherwise.

A lot of the credit goes to Clooney, whose classic good looks, debonair masculinity, and tongue in cheek self-deprecating humor haven’t been seen onscreen since Cary Grant.  I know some people don’t like him or feel that he’s always playing a version of himself, but take a look at Cary Grant’s body of work (e.g., The Philadelphia Story and North by Northwest) and tell me he wasn’t a great actor.

Clooney certainly seems to be playing a version of himself in Up in the Air, riffing off of his personal aversion to marriage, but he also makes believable his role as a professional termination specialist (his company is hired to fire employees) who lives out of a suitcase whether in some generic Ramada Inn or back “home” in Omaha.

Reitman is clearly a highly gifted writer and director.  The scenes are spare and poignant, the dialogue witty and believable.  So why doesn’t he hit a home run?

One thing that didn’t work for me was the use of actual footage of people being fired.  I’m not sure if this brainstorm came to Reitman as a way to add some verisimilitude or in an attempt to be sensitive during the current economic crisis, but it has the effect of taking us away from the dramatic story and either being preachy or distracting.  If Reitman wanted to send a message that American capitalism can hurt individuals emotionally as well as economically, I think he could have done a more subtle and effective job by focusing on the fallout to the central characters.  American Beauty, for example, portrayed the alienation of corporate life in suburbia to devastating effect by making Kevin Spacey’s character truly a tragic figure.  We get an inkling that Vera Farmiga’s character’s home life may be something like Spacey’s onscreen wife (played by Annette Benning), but this is never fleshed out in any detail in Up in the Air except to provide the plot twist that she isn’t quite the free agent Clooney’s character has hoped.  Without any moral resolution, Reitman let’s most of his characters off the hook.

Come to think of it, we got a similarly squishy ending in Juno, when the title character keeps her baby and reunites with the high school dad.  While it somewhat echoed The Graduate in providing a provocative “what now?” moment, somehow the ‘60s counterculture stakes of Elaine Robinson abandoning her pre-arranged ‘50s marriage to run off with Benjamin despite (because of?) his affair with her own mother seemed justified.  But the more I think about it, the more I wonder:  What exactly was Juno rebelling against by carrying her baby to term and keeping it?  Planned Parenthood?  Her wise-cracking father was way cool and would have loved her either way, so why mess up her life for the sake of doing the surprisingly retro-‘50s thing?

At this point I may be invoking a bit too much in terms of cinematic history, so let’s go back to Up in the Air.  For me, so much of a movie is about the script and I can’t help thinking that if Jason Reitman ever hooks up with a screenplay that is deeply worthy of his talents, something on the order of Alexander Payne’s Election, then he’s going to have a world-beater on his hands.  In the meantime, he’s making films that are still head and shoulders above the typical commercial dross to be found at the multiplex, and that isn’t anything to dismiss.

December 7, 2009

Forget H1N1 — We’ve got an outbreak of Pessimism

Filed under: General — akascribe @ 3:41 pm

My computer was brought down by a devastating “malware” virus last week.  After I’d calmed down (it’s a helpless, terrible feeling, like having your home burglarized), and my PC was slowly being disinfected by Sharad, a Dehli-based techie operating my mouse by remote internet control, I got to thinking.  We Americans have gotten so rich and complex in our 21st century lives that we outsource almost every aspect of our economy.  Which might not be so bad – I’ve got no intrinsic problem with globalism – except our treasury is bankrupt.  What do we Americans still do, other than buy things we can’t afford?

We have the world’s best-trained and equipped military, we are told, which we insist on redeploying in foreign conflicts.  The only problem is that these superb soldiers are not suited to fix the real underlying problems (e.g. Afghan corruption & an opium-based economy) and we cannot afford the staggering cost of protracted war (see above).

One shining hope, we are reminded, is our institutions of higher learning.  Still the envy of the world, they produce more Nobel-prize winning scientists than any other nation.  Well, I suppose that is some comfort, except that so many of the students seem to be either foreign citizens who will return to their own countries or children of the American bourgeoisie who are part of the shrinking “haves” as opposed to the growing “have nots.”  So the group of us who “make it” in the U.S. and manage to eek out a middle-class existence or even better will be hiring Latino labor to mow the lawns and babysit our kids, use Indian tech support to fix our software bugs or order our cable TV, and will continue to buy consumer goods almost exclusively manufactured in China.

Am I being overly pessimistic?  I hope so.  But in my conversations with friends and colleagues this past year – admittedly not one for the highlight reels – I keep hearing a similar negative refrain.  The sense that America’s best years are past and we’ve dug ourselves too deeply in debt and other domestic neglect to regain our footing.  Meanwhile, global warming continues on its merry way and we helplessly watch from the sidelines.

To our collective credit, we seemed to do the right thing a year ago by electing Barack Obama to the White House, but as even the most ardent Democrat must now ruefully acknowledge, the job is much bigger than one man.  Any one item on our President’s to-do list would be hard enough (health care reform, anyone?), but taken together the situation in beyond daunting.  He seems to be adopting the Anne Lamott Bird by Bird approach, which is probably wise, but politically the clock is ticking faster than the deficit counter & CO2 index combined.  Our founding fathers, we learned in school, cleverly set up the government with so many checks and balances that reform happens slowly.  But the current problems are now so monumental in scope and exponential in expansion that perhaps only benevolent dictatorship will save us.  (I know – I don’t really advocate that.  But you get the gist of what I’m saying.)

Yes, there is much to be thankful for in this post-Thanksgiving season.  The jobless rate appears to be diminishing and we apparently averted total financial meltdown.  But let’s face it – we’ve been raised to expect more than that.  Just north of utter disaster isn’t going to cut it:  we would like something that resembles true prosperity.  And it is slowly dawning on us that this seems very far off indeed.

November 30, 2009

Car Talk

Filed under: General — akascribe @ 1:10 pm

Lately I’ve been wondering (a) when a car manufacturer will produce an interesting and affordable plug-in electric sedan, and (b) if I really want to keep my high-performance Teutonic gas-guzzler until then. (Blatant rationalization – I drive very few miles, preferring to use my bicycle or the Sausalito Ferry whenever possible.)

Herewith, a not-so-brief history of how I came to this automotive fork in the road:

Fiat Spider

My Fiat Spider -- aka "Giovanni"

Once upon a time I owned a ‘79 Fiat Spider.  This was originally my mother’s car, red with a tan interior, but the novelty of driving a convertible had worn off for her, and I was only too happy to relieve her of it.  It was the perfect car to start one’s adult working life in San Francisco, except for the first year when I had to park it on the street (on Telegraph Hill, where parking spaces are as hard to find as bad espresso).  After some low-life knifed through the soft top to steal the stereo, I gritted my teeth (and barred my bank account) and bought a condo – with garage – in Pacific Heights, at what turned out to be the absolute bottom of the previous real estate cycle.  Thank you, knife-wielding low-life!

I owned the Fiat for over a decade and it was only moving to Mill Valley and again having to park it outside (albeit under a carport roof) that forced its sale – the carbureted engine balked at starting on cold mornings (no jokes please – my Italian mechanic was named Angelo, not Tony, and the Fiat only spent some of the time in his shop).

Alfa 164

My old Alfa 164L -- aka "Umberto"

Still a sucker for Italian cars (my father had owned two Alfas), I bought a used but clean ‘92 Alfa Romeo 164L sedan (manual, of course), again in red with an elegant black leather interior.  I loved that car – the perfect combination of sporty (how that 3 liter V-6 growled!) and sophisticated.  (My “so-called” buddy Arthur used to tease me by referring to it as a Fiat, but he drives an Acura or some such Japanese clone, so what can you say?)  Eventually the Alfa depreciated to the point where occasional major repairs seemed an exercise in futility.  And the lack of airbags (except for one – ostensibly – on the driver’s side) seemed imprudent with a family.  But what to replace it with?  I just couldn’t find anything that excited my passion like that Alfa.

Finally, reluctantly, I looked at the BMW 5 series.  I say reluctantly because I didn’t want to be driving around in yet another set of “Basic Marin Wheels.”  And German cars were always frowned upon in my family (my English mother resented being bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz).  But a test drive in a used 540i showed me what all the fuss was about.  Marco, a car buff buddy of mine, convinced me that, if I was looking at a 540, then I should go the whole hog and check out the M5.  That seemed way over the top, but curiosity got the better of me and I found a pristine, low mileage 2002 M5 for sale in San Rafael for less than what a new Camry cost, loaded.  The test drive (wow!) and the color – Imola red – sealed the deal.  It seemed an homage to my Fiat and Alfa, with the added bonus of German engineering and reliability.

M5 main

The M5 -- aka "the Beast"

The other reason I splurged on the M5 was that I’d been having a terrible year.  The American electorate had taken leave of it collective senses and reelected Bush 43 to the White House, despite my diligent efforts on behalf of the Kerry campaign.  Then my faithful Border collie, Scout, contracted cancer and died.  These and some other personal woes put me in need of a pick-me-up.  So I thumbed my nose at global warming (pace Al Gore) and purchased a six-speed, 400 horsepower luxury sedan capable of going 185 mph (don’t ask – the Nevada Highway Patrol tells no tales).

Now don’t get me wrong – driving the M5 has been, and still is, a blast.  But I feel like I’ve (mostly) gotten over my mid-life automotive crisis and am ready to drive something, well, more responsible.  But not too responsible.  I am, let’s face it, the son of a man who has owned an Aston Martin, two Morgans and a Lotus, so a Prius is probably not going to make the grade.  Now this Tesla Model S I keep reading about – that sounds interesting.  The only problem is the price, still an unknown (it’s due out in 2011) but probably north of $50K.  My penchant for nice cars, combined with my modest means, has meant that I let other people buy new cars, then wait for them to depreciate.  So in the meantime, if you see some asshole tooling around in a red Beemer that could eat a Detroit muscle car for lunch, don’t be too quick to judge.  It could be yours truly, waiting eagerly for that next step on the road to vehicular nirvana.

October 19, 2009

The Invention of Lying: An Atheist Wolf in a Rom-Com Sheep’s Clothing

Filed under: At the Movies,General — akascribe @ 5:12 pm

As luck would have it, I managed to convince my wife that we should expend our precious Saturday date night seeing the new Ricky Gervais film, The Invention of Lying.  I say luck, because in life timing is everything, and as I just posted, a public hoax is front and media center today.  And that ties in very nicely to the core message of the film.

A spoiler alert:  this review, by necessity, must discuss in detail the plot conceits of the movie.

I had an inkling from the SF Chronicle review that the film had a bigger agenda than just positing a world where no one knows how to lie – and Mark, the character played by Gervais, is the first person to figure out how.  This would have been amusing, sort of the inverse of the forgettable 1997 Jim Carrey flick, Liar Liar, where his character was the only one who must speak the truth.  But Gervais obviously has bigger fish to fry.  And not just on Friday during Lent.

For you see, the really big lie that Mark perpetrates is his invention of the whole Muslim-Judeo-Christian concept of the Afterlife.  Mark does this for the simple and forgivable reason that he can’t stand to see his elderly mother on her deathbed fearing the nothingness that is to come.  So Mark concocts a comforting story about a place she will go to after she dies, where she will be young and happy and be with the people she loves.  This does the trick and she dies content.  The only problem – some hospital workers have overheard and turn Mark into a kind of Messiah.  And then we’re really off to the races.  Before you can say “parting of the Red Sea,” Mark has assumed the role of a latter-day Moses, creating the notion of God (or as he calls Him, “The Man in the Sky”) and transcribing the eternal heavenly truths on two take-out pizza boxes (a particularly inspired comedic stroke on the part of Gervais).

Religious believers should be excused for not taking too much offense, because there is nothing malicious about Mark’s big lie.  All he wants is his old job back (as a screenwriter at the movie studio that churns out boring armchair recountings of history) and to get the girl, in this case Jennifer Garner.  But she’s hung up on his subpar genetic profile, more specifically that he’s fat and has a stubby nose.  What’s a poor gospel to do?

The movie is merely good – it’s no masterpiece of the genre, like Groundhog Day – but Gervais had a lot of courage to make the film he did, that both pays comedic dividends and gets his atheist point across.  What amazes me is that so little attention has been paid to the obvious message of the film, that religion is a total crock.  (Sorry, Gervais puts this much softer but that’s basically what he’s saying.)  I mean, why isn’t the Christian Right mobilizing to picket movie theatres and castigate Gervais as a godless sinner?  Is the message of the film really so subtly packaged that they’ve missed it entirely?  I guess so, but for me (a confirmed atheist since I was 6 years old) the movie was a revelation.  It’s not often you get to see a mainstream media offering poke fun at the absurdity of the Bible’s stories and get away with it.  Well, mostly.

You see, I generally admire the film reviews of Anthony Lane in the New Yorker so I was surprised, after seeing the film, to read his intensely negative review.  He seemed to take particular offense at the religious plot-line and even criticized Gervais for being off-base, since the real-life gospels “believed what they foretold, whereas Mark makes it up as he goes along.”  Now we will of course never know what John the Baptist et al really were thinking all those centuries ago, but if Lane is serious that those ancient dudes all literally believed the stories of the Old and New Testaments, including the fishes into loaves, Noah’s ark, etc., and didn’t just juice them a bit for allegorical purposes, then he is betraying his own religious naivety.  And all of this makes Lane miss the essential point, that The Invention of Lying works just fine as a piece of entertainment, even though it packs a much stronger punch.

I guess some people just can’t take a joke.

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