Saturday, December 29, 2007

Resolutions of Faith

2007 was a great year of both highs and lows. Thankfully more of the former and less of the latter.

Looking ahead I am excited about the new year. I have lost nearly 80 pounds on Jenny Craig, and I look and feel great. My daughter is happy and thriving, my job is steady and rewarding. My wife's company is in a bit of trouble with the writers strike upon us, but I am confident that if her employment ends, she will have only a short time before she can bring her skills to bear at a new job of comparable pay and benefits.

I truly feel things are just getting better and better, despite the day to day challenges we face.

The airport soundproofing crew is coming to our house at 730am on January 15th. My father-in-law will be staying with us to oversee their work at installing all brand new windows, doors and central air/heat. Should be great, all at no cost to us. (That's our tax dollars at work people!) I am thrilled at the prospect of quieter evenings and added value to our home in a market that is a bit scary these days.

I am scheduled to go to China in March. God willing it will be as safe as it will be exciting; traveling with my work is always an adventure. I'm giddy at the prospect, yet also mindful of the realities of overseas travel, especially to a country that is for all intents and purposes - evil.

After my return, I plan to ask for a big raise (long story, I'm underpaid, but though very appreciated, the money is not quite enough - it's time to get more). Failing an increase in income, I plan to for the first time seriously seek out employment elsewhere. It may take a long time, I need a full time gig with benefits; but I am truly committed to bringing my pretty formidable skill set up to the level of pay and challenge it deserves. Of course, a lot of this will hinge on my wife's situation as well, but I've put it in God's hands to see us through what promises to be a year of very big changes.

A big part of what has allowed me to see this last challenging year as a true triumph, and to be optimistic about the new one, is a fairly recent surge in my faith. Over the past few years the subconscious trust I've had in a higher power has slowly but dramatically manifested itself in my heart.

It's very hard to put into words, but somehow, with all the abject horror that this world can bring - and all of the terror that seeps into my mind late at night (when I think about the many possible fates of my family and friends), I have a true belief that we are all in the Lord's hands. No matter the agony that the future brings, and it WILL bring agony, I can somehow weather the storm with God's guidance.

I don't go to church, and I don't hold organized religion in very high regard, but I have been an indirect witness to the teachings of Jesus through my work; on various Bible related projects, and all of that partial exposure to his teachings has given my spirit a courage that I've never known before.

It was sparked off when I saw the Pope at the Vatican. Even to this day I loathe the Catholic Church as an organization. Any group of people that shields child rapists isn't exactly number one in my book. But when John Paul II came into the large arena, I don't know if it was the energy of the crowd or truly the Holy Spirit, but my body was wracked with energy and I found myself quietly crying uncontrollably behind my cameras viewfinder. It was the "proof" that I've searched for all my life. Or was it? Doubts lingered.

Over the next couple of years, bit by bit, little by little I began to see clearly. A segment I cut for the American Bible Society show that we help produce featured a "Christian Tattoo Artist". It was a nice piece with a nice message, but it was a single sentence that cut me to my core. When asked how he got non-believers to be comfortable and open minded in his tattoo shop, the owner said "Someone once told me, preach the Gospel as much as you can; and when absolutely necessary, use words."

This really had an impact on me. I am convinced that the very best way, for people to take Christ (or simply the love of God) into their hearts is to see it plainly existing in the day to day lives of believers. Not from proselytizing, not from Bible thumping. But from THE ACTIONS, the simple love and kindness of those who have Him in their hearts. It seems to me very clear that if we are to love our enemies, and truly turn the other cheek - that our ONLY chance of spreading God's love -and honestly I think whether it's Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Ganesha or Buddha, it makes ultimately no difference - is to LIVE that love and NOT force it by judgment or reprimand.

My whole life, people have told me about God and his son, and it all sounded good to me. Looking back, I think on that day in the Vatican I was confronted with a force beyond my understanding. But who knows really. What's important is that the real revelation came to me just recently. I've slowly realized; that whether this event was real or imagined by me does not matter.

The faith inside me IS real, it's growing and it sustains me through moments of anguish and doubt. Some day I may go to Church, it sounds like it might be nice to worship among like minded people; but right now it seems kind of unnecessary. God is with me, I feel him/her/it every day. I see the face of God's love in my little girl.

Don't misunderstand. I know in my heart that there are no easy answers, and that part of God's greatest gift to us is free will; we live at our own peril on a day to day basis. I understand this. Yet something tugs at my soul and tells me to be a good person, to have faith, and all will be done as He wills it. And without having the words to truly express it, the best I can say is that everything will be okay - even if it's not.

I wish everyone the safest and happiest New Year.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Africa 1997

Recently unearthed in my friends e-mail group archives. In 2001, my buddy Paul asked about my 1997 trip to Africa.

My response.

South Africa, beautiful, dangerous. Could there be a place with more guns per square mile than the US? Try twice as many. In loverly South Africa.

I don't think I've ever been as scared as I was in Johannesburg; I didn't really see anything dangerous, but everyone I met and talked at any great length with had a story of someone they knew staring down the wrong end of an assault rifle from their car.

A girl named Sonja I met in Botswana, who was born in South Africa, said she would never go back. She lost her brother in
a South African car jacking (kind of like the American version of a car jacking, except it concludes with a bullet through the brain about 98% of the time.) Another man I met in Cape Town lost his wife to a gang of thugs who mercilessly raped her and then killed her with machetes (he didn't go into this detail, he just said he lost her, I found out from our driver afterwards
the gruesome details, BTW, S.Africa also has one of the highest rape rates in the world), and they took her purse which contained eleven dollars.

Every half decent house in Joberg, (every white owned house) is surrounded buy massive walls and barbed wire. Joberg also has about 125 homicides every month, one of the highest rates in the world (second only to Bogota, Columbia). Cops are routinely part of those statistics, they get about as much respect as teachers do in the US. (Sorry Jay!)

But would I go again? Absolutely. You have to go to Kruger National Park, the oldest and one of the largest game reserves in Africa. It's truly awesome. The adjoining game lodges are cool but can be very expensive, and a bit like a big fancy zoo (they stock their properties with animals people want to see, Leopards, Rhino, etc.; it was good for our filming purposes, but
it didn't really give that rush of being in a truly wild place.)

I would also plead with you to go to Botswana's Okavango Delta; it's a truly wild Africa out there (plus an added benefit of Botswana being one of the only actual democracies in Africa, 50 years of peaceful sovereignty is a rare thing in that part of the world.) Here the private reserves are the way to go, you won't see other vehicles or people, besides the few people in your
group. It was a place that really changed my whole view of the world.

As I said, South Africa is absolutely beautiful. But it is also dark and frightening. It's a third world country with a gun loving white infrastructure where the chickens really are coming home to roost. Black on black crime has always been high, especially since the end of apartheid. But now, with the inept ruling government in place, the tide has really started
to turn against whites as well. This is what happens if you get a large group of people together who have never run a government. The maximum penalty for murder has changed from a mandatory death sentence to a maximum of 9 years in prison. The sentence is the same if the person you kill is a cop.

Just as when you travel anywhere, be really aware of your surroundings. I was sitting at a sidewalk cafe with my boss and two of our guides. One of the guides had her purse stolen literally from under her seat without any of us noticing; it has lots of cash and a cell phone in it. It was pretty surprising, considering she had wrapped the strap around the chair leg when
she sat down. Also, the driving is really dangerous; we saw 3 fatal accidents on our trip (one involved a bunch of kids that had been in the back of a pickup, their bodies were strewn all over the road.)

If you want to read a really cool book about deadly locales, I would highly recommend the travel book by Robert Young Pelton called "The World's Most Dangerous Places" it details all the juicy nasty bits about all the countries
you may or may not want to avoid. Most of these places are in Africa.

Travel safe!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Movies 2007

This post will be updated once more at the end of the year, as I anticipate my top ten to change. I don't see many movies (compared to how many I watched in my bachelor days) and I'd really like to catch at least a couple of these.

Rescue Dawn
No Country for Old Men
King of Kong (A Fistful of Quarters)
American Gangster
Sweeny Todd
I Am Legend
Bee Movie

My current top ten "movies" of 2007 are:

1.) 300
The most original and striking movie of the year. Unbelievable that in this day and age such a politically hawkish and righteous story could ever get a green light. Highly stylized visual effects are propelled by an overwhelmingly operatic story structure. This is a GREAT movie.

2.) Ratatouille
Once again, Pixar brings the story and emotions stronger than almost any other live action movie. I really hope my dad gets to see this one. It's a beautiful exploration of the food in our lives and the passions that go with it.

3.) Beowulf
A great companion piece to 300, I do loves me some sword and sandal epic stuff. This motion capture animated showcase is next step in film-making and must be seen in 3D to be believed. Plus it has a mighty and timeless emotional wallop to go along with the eye popping visuals.

4.) Hot Fuzz
Mind blowing tribute to big block-buster action movies, wrapped up in a European film sensibility. A follow up to the critically hailed "Shaun of the Dead", this one in my mind exceeds it's predecessor in every way. The tightly wound story structure and detailed homages are an absolute delight.

5.) Grindhouse
A delicious two fisted punch to the gut of movie lovers everywhere. If you LOVE the movies, then what could be better than watching two master movie makers do their thang paying tribute to the films that they love. "Planet Terror" is both uber-shlockerrific and vintage Robert Rodriguez. "Death Proof" is a very accurate send-up of the low budget revenge film, with a jaw-dropping ending that has to be seen to be believed.

6.) Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Simply put; I LOVE these movies. And currently this third installment is my favorite. If you in any way find the Pirates movies confusing (and I think most people do) then I can't help you. I love the dense story telling, I love the production design, and I absolutely LOVE how these films are very un-Hollywood in very unconventional ways.

7.) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Second only to "Prisoner of Azkaban", this movie is a great treat after the mildly disappointing "Goblet of Fire." As it is an adaption of my favorite Potter book, again I seem to be in the minority in this opinion as well, I could not be much happier with it.

8.) Transformers
As good as Michael Bay gets; and the visuals are simply awe inspiring. This would be higher on the list if only it didn't suffer from occasional Cuisinart editing syndrome and a lack of wide angle lenses. Still, it is MILES above Michael Bay's usual work. I can't stand "Armageddon" or "Pearl Harbor" they are two of the worst "movie's" I've ever seen. This one is a fun ride from start to finish; plus there's quite a bit of actual pathos to chew on. It's political subtext, like 300, is also appreciated by this viewer.

9.) The Simpsons Movie
I can't believe they pulled this one off. I love the show, even in it's current carnation; and I'm just delighted that this movie works from start to finish. It doesn't have the "loss of bodily function" laughs that the "South Park" and "Beevis & Butthead" movies do - but it is definitely more across the board funny than either of those two.

10.) The Bourne Ultimatum
I imagine this one will get bumped off of this list when I see "Sweeny Todd" or "No Country for Old Men", but it still deserves a mention. This is probably the strongest of the trilogy, and I love Greengrass' work here. The story is compelling and the pacing never lets up. The editing and shaky cam are not my favorite style by any means - but when they are done exceptionally well, then I'm happy to sign up for the ride.

The one movie that was the biggest single disappointment:

Spider Man 3
How the same creative team that brought us the amazing first two chapters could be behind this muddled mess is beyond me. Toby McGuire is weak. Too many villains. No emotional punch. Lame. If this were the first Spider-Man movie, I'd say it was pretty damn good; but we've seen so much better before this.

These are the movies that I'm in no rush to catch:

Rush Hour 3
The Golden Compass
Live Free or Die Hard (simply for it's PG-13 rating alone).
Sicko (anger....rising...)
Redacted (anger....still rising....)
Lions for Lambs (faading.....rising!)