Some Smoothies are More Equal than Others

Last night I had a hankering for a fruit smoothie, and I decided to swing by Equal=GroundsMySpace link (750 South Ave., formerly Hunt's Hardware). I got a mixed berry with mint — ordinarily I'd go with blackberry with mint, but "mixed" is really black+rasp, so it was a pretty acceptable substitution. It was perfect: so full of flavor that any more would have been too sweet, and blended so smooth it all fit through the straw.

Contrast that to tonight when I stopped by Starry Nites Café (696 University Ave., formerly Moonbeans) for a light dinner before the movie. Although the peach smoothie was acceptably flavored, the chunks of ice were too big to fit through the straw, leading to the unpleasantness of ice jams.

I tolerated the ice jams worse than average because Ali had called that Lucy (the dog) was getting stitches after having been bit by a Rottweiler. The other dog had a sketchy past and had broke its collar; its owner was horrified and shaken. Lucy will probably be fine: she got bit pretty good in her front leg, but they managed to pull off the Rottweiler before it did any mortal damage.

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Something Like Therapy

I can't stop thinking about my personal ramifications from watching the movie Bully last week. I mentioned one sentence in my essay about it last week, but it just opened up a big can of worms.

Perhaps most recently, I was working on writing a proposal to speak about the solar system I had installed last year, but I quickly grew disinterested as I worked through my estimates of return-on-investment. But what was really stopping me was my painful "to hell with them" attitude. I've never been much of a salesman — and notoriously anti-good at marketing (owing to my desire to permit people to make an informed decision). I feel like I'm constantly fighting the status quo on big-picture issues: I talk with enough people who wring their hands over increasing energy costs and blame "the man" for ripping them off, but then fail to see they can just walk away from "the man", get a solar system, and do away with a big chunk of variability. The debate, see, gets quickly personal for me when I have a solution and they won't listen — as if they're actually calling me stupid.

Or like a few years ago when I abandoned my "mileage maximizer" project for, essentially the same kinds of reasons: "screw them." I still think that idea would work, and possibly be a significant step toward winning a 100 mpg X-prize. But there's really two outcomes: either it works, and then either I fail to market it correctly, or someone else takes it away from me and turns it into a "Bad Thing" — or it doesn't work and I'm ridiculed for being so foolish. In no way does it work out that I gain any satisfaction from it because I can't help but hear the critical voices. And the last thing I want is to give something useful to my critics.

Another thing that comes up often enough is my hair-trigger on people taking advantage of me. I probably missed out on a pretty fair number of dates in my past: if a woman was sweet to me, I always assumed she wanted something. I'd hook up her stereo, or drive her somewhere, or fix her car, or help with her assignments — all with a begrudging pleasure at the certainty that this was my lot in life. In retrospect, I can deduce that each of them probably just kinda liked me and wanted to get to know me, but even now, I can't fully internalize that was even possible. And I still can't believe it — I'm still skeptical when I meet someone who (to anyone else) clearly likes me, and the stronger the attraction, the stronger the skepticism.

And then, I take an excruciatingly long time to trust someone. And that trust can dissipate instantly if I even start to believe the relationship has any ulterior value. It's a constant struggle to balance on that razor edge: a combination of denial and suppressing evidence, and a desire to really feel trust — trust where I don't even consider that I'm being played. That's how my closest relationships work: my best approximation to what real trust must be like.

In high school (and most of college) I found my niche skating by with minimal effort. I graduated 4th in my class, and I was very pleased at that because it absolved me from the responsibilities of being valedictorian or salutatorian, particularly giving speeches. My whole point was to try to be invisible; to get attention from nobody, good or bad.

Farther back, things get more hazy, and all lumped together. Was it first grade or fifth grade that I sat in back of the bus solely to endure (unsuccessfully) the psychology cruelty of the "bad kids" who sat there? Did some kid wreck my diorama on the way to school or was that Lisa Simpson? Why do I remember so few good times on the bus? Why didn't anybody do anything about the misery I was going through?

I went into the world with an open heart. I have learned to ferociously guard that kid in me who believes people are good and they want to help others. But then I met my peers and they were sometimes cruel. And the adults in the world would say, "well that's the way the world works, Jay." They sided with the evil. And it is evil. And wrong. Being good and nice is natural to all of us, and it's the way we should all be all the time — it should be exceptional to ignore someone who is hurting. Yet it's always the story of someone who takes five minutes to help that is treated as exceptional. Well God damn it: you're all wrong.

And to me, that's the take-away from Bully: these kids who are bullied, they are the best people in the world. To coddle the bullies is tantamount to child abuse — it's teaching that cruelty is okay, that rudeness is okay, that abuse is okay, that stealing is okay, that rape is okay: they're all part of the same family, grown from the same kernel. We get the chance to build a new society every day, but we keep supporting the ugliest parts and wondering why it doesn't get better.

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Watching Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and Bully at the Little

I headed out to The Little (240 East Ave.) to check out a couple movies. On Mondays, they have been running a $5/movie promotion, and since the George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) is closed, there is no film at the Dryden. Too often I let the Little's schedule slip through my fingers and I miss out on things I wanted to see.

I was tempted to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi as I heard good things about it (and I missed it at the Dryden last month.) But, since I was running a little late, I opted instead to see Jeff, Who Lives at Home and then Bully.

I remembered that Dayna Papaleo gave "Jeff" a lukewarm-positive review in the City Paper so I gave it a shot with relatively low expectations. I found it a bit rough around the edges. As I told a friend later, it tends to really shove hard on suspension of disbelief which did not quite break me out of the movie: my advice is to stick with it and let it flow because there's a multi-layered story going on that's worth examining. I'll also warn that I found Ed Helms acting to be a bit too broad … at least at first: I often suspect that shooting schedules for movies tend to be set up by location, but also loosely in script-order, so his earlier scenes in the film seem like a caricature portrait, but he does improve as the film goes on.

At the surface, the film is about an easily-dismissed stoner, Jeff (Jason Segel) who believes that the underlying nature of the universe is revealed through subtle messages that he believes he is tuning himself to see. Meanwhile, his brother Pat (Ed Helms) leads a much more conventional life, suppressing any belief in a purposeful world by focusing on the minutia of day-to-day life. Jeff lives in their mother Sharon's (Susan Sarandon) basement — who is struggling to find meaning in her own life as a widow, unsatisfied with her sons. Oh, and it's designed as a comedy with a lot of really quite funny moments.

But take away the mechanicals of the plot ("a stoner goes on a wacky adventure struggling to complete a simple task") and what's left is a painting of the way family is inexorably connected; how they are similar in deep, subtle ways that transcend their outwardly tremendous differences. Without giving away too much, I found it unexpectedly tender when Jeff is sitting the basement watching TV listlessly eating an uncooked PopTart.

With just a short break, I stuck around to see Bully. In case you didn't know, it's a documentary about bullying in primary schools in the United States … sort-of. Its candid portrayal of day-to-day school life resonated with me, and made me wonder if I'm repressing some memories of being bullied — I vividly remember moments that echoed Alex's dialog with his mother and with school administrators. I suspect that some part will resonate with everyone.

By my interpretation, in American society, it is considered normal for kids to establish their individuality by saying cruel things to one another. Most form a callous that protects and strengthens from each cruel remark. But some do not, and the cruelty strikes their heart each time. And because it hurts so very much, it's not something they wish to inflict on others, so they never become adept at cruelty. And then their unwillingness to be cruel becomes itself another difference that is attacked, and the pain just builds and builds.

The movie paints the picture of this seemingly unavoidable torture and then finds hope in things that parents and children are doing to turn the tide. But in my gut, I knew the speeches, the discussions, and the rallies would handily be derided by any half-clever fourth-grader — and much to the amusement of jeir peers, continuing to feed the cycle.

In one scene, Alex is talking with his assistant principal, he doesn't believe her actions will help. He cites a previous case where he was bullied by getting stuffed into the seat cushions of the bus and her actions failed to stop the bullying. She has the audacity to bully him to reinforce her belief in the petty authority she holds: she begs the question by asking if that specific circumstance ever happened again, knowing that she'll be able to steamroll poor Alex who doesn't have the skills to call her on her bullshit.

That, and the principal of the same school's reprehensible reaction to Alex's poor parents led me to think of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. A common criticism of the film is that Ferris is an anti-hero because he fails to respect the authority of Principal Ed Rooney who is played to be a petty dictator — and an incompetent one at that. But watching Bully, I can't help but believe Rooney's portrayal may be less of an exaggeration than it seems. As an adult, thinking of the advice given by my own guidance counselors, teachers, principals, and any other "school authority" seems, at best, to be the good-and-bad mix of advice you can get from anybody over the age of 21, and downright buffoonish at worst.

But when I said the film is about bullying "sort of", I meant that there's an undercurrent of hope from people doing things they never thought possible. And in a way, the bullying and attempts to stop bullying seem trite compared to the profound personal changes in the lives of people confronting adversity.

I was talking with a friend the other week and we were commenting on how the lilacs seem more fragrant this year, probably because of the stresses of the weather. She commented that stress makes things beautiful. I thought it wasn't quite right — I've seen people who are stressed and they're not pretty — so I said it's adapting to stress that is beautiful.

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Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song Too Hot for the Dryden

I headed out to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. I had been joking that I was going to see a blaxploitation film with a bunch of white people under the guise of watching for "educational purposes". In at least one way I was incorrect: Sweetback is not a "blaxploitation film" unto itself. It's more of a pressure release on a tense period of strong, established racism on all levels: individual, institutional, and systemic. It follows a black male prostitute running from a racist police force out to get him.

The film has its own cinematic style that draws from counterculture examples of the late 1960's and early 1970's. Vanishing Point, released the same year, comes immediately to mind as well as Zabriskie Point, released the year prior. Sweetback isn't just some simple story to write off, but a pointed [despite lacking "point" in its name] and poignant condemnation of the flagrant racial stereotyping permeating the entirety of commercial cinema. It transcends its story and calls attention to the power that mass media holds, and how that power — when exploited in response to fear (e.g. fear of a powerful black man) — can fuel hatred and abuse.

But the amusing anecdote in the whole thing was, just as Sweetback himself was becoming a man, the fire alarm sounded in the theater and we had to be evacuated.

firetrucks visit the Eastman House

Too hot for the Dryden

Even 40 years later, the system still fears a black man.

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A Faster JayceLand

A month ago a friend of mine wrote a blog titled The real Killroys. In it she outlined how social media sites are, essentially, the nightmarish big brother we once read about. Basically, if you put a Facebook button on your site, whenever someone views your site, Facebook knows jee was there. In other words, Facebook has a dossier on every one of its users. And it doesn't matter if you log out of Facebook, you're still tracked. The same goes for Tumblr, Google, Digg, and all the others (but man, especially Google Analytics.) She noted that site owners either didn't know or didn't care that this was going on.

I also recall that Chris Guillebeau once wrote something about how when a website visitor sees ads on the site, jee naturally assumes that the site owner endorses (if not at least vets) the quality of the products advertised. I have been using Google Adsense which theoretically produced a few pennies of revenue, but I never got any control [well, technically, a little control] over what ads were placed.

And then there was the speed issue. I would often notice that although stuff from JayceLand.com would load quick, if the page stalled, it would be "Waiting for" digg.com, or google-analytics.com, or ecx.images-amazon.com, or pagead2.googlesyndication.com, or googleads.g.doubleclick.net — but almost never JayceLand.com.

So I stripped all that stuff off. I left the Weather Underground image. I know they also track, but at least it's something directly useful. So now it loads fast.

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Salt of the Earth at the Flying Squirrel

I was kind of suspicious of how the "general strike" from the Occupy Wall Street folks happened. While I support organized labor, this was something different — more of a protest than a strike, and certainly not something the 99% got to vote on first.

But speaking of strikes, I definitely wanted to see Salt of the Earth at The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St. Just recently, I read somewhere that it was banned in the U.S., fueling more curiosity. It's based on the real Empire Zinc Mine strike in New Mexico, and employs many people involved in the strike as actors. The reason it was banned is it was made during the time when Joseph McCarthy was performing what can only be described as witch-trials, and made by blacklisted people in Hollywood.

It's a powerful and moving account of the desperate need for unions. But the thing I found more intriguing was that it was realistic about what it takes to actually start a strike. Most fictionalized accounts focus on the outward conflict and its resolution. But this spent almost all its time with the people who, by striking, lost their livelihood and had to rely on handouts. To me, it's quite unfathomable: to decide that spending whatever savings I had, and then being at the mercy of the kindness of strangers is preferable to my working conditions is not a situation I've experienced. This is the decision Ramon must make when facing a wife and two children (with a third on the way) who rely on him as the sole breadwinner. They have nothing without him — literally, as the company also owns their home.

Their demand?: that Mexican-Americans be treated equally to Anglo-Americans.

1950. In America. And there are some who regard that decade as the most wonderful. Amazing.

Of course, it's not like today is necessarily any better: there are still millions of people who are working but either don't earn enough to survive, or their working conditions are dangerous or otherwise inhumane. Unions — and the legal protections for unions — are critical to the survival of the American people.

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