Saturday, December 29, 2007

When writers to movies...

Today I ventured out to watch the deeply disturbing film based on the book, The Kite Runner, in the absurd venue of "Century 20 Cinema" in the equally disturbing Daly City, the town captured in the classic folk song, "Ticky Tacky," by the late Malvina Reynolds.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All go to the university,
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
And there's doctors and there's lawyers
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf-course,
And drink their Martini dry,
And they all have pretty children,
And the children go to school.
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
And they all get put in boxes
And they all come out the same.

And the boys go into business,
And marry, and raise a family,
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

The Kite Runner, is, of course, a story spawned in Fremont, across the bay from Daly City, where so many Afghan immigrants have settled. And, as such, it raised for me so many memories from my own time in Afghanistan, which actually overlapped with the first year portrayed in this film, 1971, before the Russians, before the Taliban, a time when Afghans experienced a rare peaceful interlude between centuries of violence.


Back home, afterwards, I discovered that the even more disturbing documentary, Grizzly Man, was playing on TV's usually reliable "Animal Planet." I've seen this twice before, and the insanity it portrays of a fellow American still cuts me to my core.

Why are we, the most privileged people on earth, given to so many scary excesses and strange insanities? Could it be, perhaps, that no humans deserve to be so safely rich? Are we perhaps collectively in a state of denial as to just how unsustainable our American presence has become in this, a desperately poor, hungry, and vulnerable world?

I hope not. But, nothing in these two films helps to dismiss those concerns.


Friday, December 28, 2007

Clement Street

San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods, including places our many tourists rarely visit. Several years ago, a Chinese friend took me shopping to the markets along Clement Street in the Richmond District.

In those markets, we encountered exotic items like marinated duck eggs, pig balls, and liquors that can knock you senseless after a drink or two.

Tonight, we returned to the scene of these crimes. Our first destination was the great independent bookstore, Green Apple, that anchors Clement Street and defines the tone of the neighborhood. There, I found a used copy of one of my favorite books, the brilliant "We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families," by Philip Gourevitch.

Eventually, we found ourselves in one of the small food markets where the ingredients we were seeking for tonight's dinner (baby bok choi, buna shimaji, daikon, and ginger), were available. The price for all of the food pictured above?



Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Cold Wind Blows

A day of contradictions, as so many are. It starts with an early trip to the airport, driving my young children to their flight to visit their grandparents on one of my favorite places on earth -- Sanibel Island, Florida. I think the most recent time I have visited there was Christmas 2001.

On the way to the airport, the awful news that Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated after a political rally in Rawalpindi, a stronghold of the Pakistani Army and intelligence services that many suspect have been less than vigilant in guarding the opposition political leader since she returned to her home country earlier this fall.

Somehow, a gunman on a motorcycle with an AK-47 penetrated her security and shot her in the neck, then detonated a bomb that killed at least 22 other people. She was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. There is no information yet about whom the assassin was, or why Ms. Bhutto, the only woman ever freely elected to lead a Moslem country's government, was killed.

So many old painful feelings came up for me, and no doubt, many others -- John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Yitzhak Rabin, Anwar Sadat, and Salvador Allende. Progressives, each in his own way, much as the liberal Bhutto was in Pakistan. She was not close to the powerful Pakistani military, nor to the shadowy intelligence agencies that helped sponsor the rise of the (anti-woman) Taliban that helped ruin neighboring Afghanistan, while harboring Osama bin-laden as he planned his heinous assault on the U.S.

But Ms. Bhutto had many enemies, including the terrorists of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the vicious tribal chiefs in the Pashtun borderlands that neither the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, nor the ever-present U.S. security "advisors" have been able to subdue.

Any of these may be implicated.


Later today, in a morose mood, I packed up the Christmas tree ornaments and set the tree itself outside. As we packed our ornaments into the plastic container on wheels that fits under my daughter's bed, my friend asked what the message on the back of one cute ornament meant. I examined it and realized that it was from my mother to my son Aidan on her last Christmas on earth...2001. She died the following October, on what had been her own Scottish immigrant mother's birthday. So this was her last Christmas gift to her grandson.

Still later, the mailman delivered a DVD, courtesy of my dear friend, of Rollover, the only movie that I ever received any credit for in my years of screenwriting, consulting, and story pitching in Hollywood. I thought about the writers now on strike, trying to gain a fair share of DVD revenues, and recalled that in my day, videos were the new thing, and we had to strike then for the same reasons.

To the owners of the studios, new technology platforms offer an opportunity for profits unfettered by responsibility to those of us who created the story in the first place.

Please remember this, the next time you rent or buy a DVD, a video, or other version of a motion picture. There would be no films if not for writers. Yet writers are among the lowest compensated of all those who collaborate on filmmaking.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Walkabout

The City is quiet, relatively empty for the holiday. Residents who can afford to have escaped to the Sierra, hoping for snow; or to the tropics, to work on their tans.

Chinatown alone was hopping last night; its restaurants filled mainly by Jewish families and atheists, as is the tradition here. We went to one such place ourselves, ordering duck, calamari, shrimp, chicken, green beans, Chinese broccoli, hot and sour soup, and so on.

Walking through the Mission on Christmas Day, we found buildings and corners we've seldom seen before. Somehow, they tended to stand out more noticeably in the silence. At major intersections, no car could be seen coming or going.

I was struck by a different memory -- and an even more profound silence. The supreme quiet of walking home on a wintry evening in Ann Arbor, at 2 a.m. after putting the next day's paper to bed. Snow would be falling soundlessly; the entire world was coated in white, my breath was similarly white, my winter shoes moved silently through the streets where no autos were moving.

I loved these nights, these moments of absolute solitude. They were my Robert Frost nights, the times when his poems came alive for me.

Back to the present tense, I decided to leave the Christmas tree's lights on for one last night. Bereft of presents now, this small pine is destined for the sidewalk tomorrow, where it will be retrieved and recycled by the city garbage company, the euphemistically named Sunset Scavengers.

Only they never come after sunset; instead they come at sunrise, their noisy trucks waking us prematurely, and we curse them, here in the country that wastes more products than any other as we live out our roles as consumers of junk, less than one percent of which lasts longer than six months!.

By day, I am studying Africa and sustainability. By night I am dreaming of those winter nights, so long ago and far awaay, when I was still largely innocent of these inconveient facts.

Monday, December 24, 2007

This Christmas: 12 Groups That Need Our Support

Claywork by Julia

Please consider supporting some of these worthy grassroots efforts on the Mississippi Gulf Coast struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina two years and four months ago.

1. Mercy Housing and Human Development Utilizing integrated strategies to provide housing, community and economic development for low-income families of Mississippi.

2. North Gulfport Community Land Trust Dedicated to providing permanently affordable homeownership to residents in North Gulfport.

3. The Steps Coalition The mission of the Steps Coalition is to promote an equitable recovery and healthy, just, and sustainable communities in South Mississippi.

4. Back Bay Mission Founded in 1922, the mission has always kept the impoverished and marginalized at the center of its concern.

5. Mississippi Center for Justice An organization dedicated to advancing racial and economic justice.

6. NAACP Biloxi Branch

7. Living Independence for Everyone (LIFE) The Southeast's Regional disability resource center offers a wide range of resources, education, and advocacy to the community to help level the playing field for people with disabilities.

8. Moore Community House MCH works with the east Biloxi community assisting low-income neighbors with quality child care, family services & local economic development.

9. Sierra Club Mississippi My informant tells me: "All environmental orgs are really struggling down here, kind of hung out to dry. With oil and chemical companies making the people down here die of cancer, confused by intractable poverty/need for "job creation" and the good ol' boys' billfolds, local George Bush-style denial, it's a hard case to make.

10. St. Rose Outreach and Recovery Operates under the premise that no family can recover from Katrina until it has a safe and secure home in which to live.

11. Gulf Restoration Network Works on a variety of issues in keeping with its mission of protecting and restoring the natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico.

12. Visions of Hope This traveling exhibit is an interactive and educational display that travels around the country to provide visitors, including breast cancer survivors and their families, with the most up-to-date information on breast cancer, detection, and treatment options.

Love, and may peace be with you.



Sunday, December 23, 2007

Reading's End

*Less than half of all Americans have read a "work of creative literature" in the past year.

*Only 13% are "proficient" readers, capable of "comparing viewpoints in two editorials."

*Between 1992 and 2005, the percentage of 12th graders who reported they had talking about their reading with their friends at least once a week declined from 54% to 37%.

These and other statistics can be found in a piece by Caleb Crain in the current issue of The New Yorker. I've linked to the article in the headline to this post, i.e., if you click on the headline, you'll go directly to the article.

After establishing that reading books and newspapers is in a steep decline in the U.S. and Europe, the article explores the science of reading. As a human ability, reading developed much too recently for our genes to select for it; instead, we've adapted other neurobiological capabilities in order to train our brains to understand written language.

Until quite recent times, only the elite read books, and it appears we are returning to that type of society. Most people no longer read any serious works of literature or journalism. Instead, most people watch a lot of television. This habit requires an entirely different set of brain activity, and numerous studies have suggested that, unlike bookworms, those who get their information primarily via TV end up knowing far less about issues like the war, and comprehending even less.


The arrival of the Internet is often blamed as a contributing factor in the decline in reading, but the evidence here is less persuasive. While watching TV is passive, surfing the web is an interactive activity.

Email is a blessing because it gets people writing who might otherwise not write. It takes time and skill to compose an email message of any complexity, and therefore, email is perfectly good brain activity. Blogging is even better, and millions of people blog.

Finally, as text-messaging takes hold among the young, people are writing and reading messages, albeit in a code that (I predict) will supplant written English as the primary form of communication by the middle of this century. One can imagine a new Shakespeare emerging, a person with an ear for this new dialect, who can create plays and perhaps other literary forms (though probably not sonnets) that pushes texting to a new level of artistry.

Like most teachers, professors, librarians, and journalists, I am alarmed at the decline of reading serious books and periodicals. But, I'm not yet ready to dismiss the new forms of interactive communication and story-telling as lacking merit. To the contrary, I remain hopeful the democratization of information will in fact prevent our return to a society where only the elite have access to literature, art, and the facts that we all need to make responsible decisions going forward -- as citizens, parents, and as inhabitants of a planet in peril.