Tuesday, February 27, 2007

And the Winner Was...

Since my return home to California 13 days ago, I've been out to theaters to see seven movies and I've watched six videos from the comfort of my couch. I've walked in the rain, been to mass three times (once as commentator on Ash Wednesday and again last Sunday as lector), eaten lunch from the buffet at Sitar, the new Indian restaurant at the end of my street, walked in the rain, attended two 70th birthday parties, read three books, drunk cappuccinos at my three favorite neighborhood watering holes, walked in the rain again, and missed the Academy Awards.

Shirlee and I did go to hear the pre-Academy Awards discussion at the Nick with local movie reviewers Lisa Jensen, Morton Marcus and Bruce Bratton. They attracted a big audience of mostly white haired movie buffs like ourselves, and talked about the awards they thought would be given and the ones they believed should be given. All agreed that "The Departed" was one of Martin Scorsese's least successful films, but predicted he would get the Oscar more for cumulative achievement than anything else. According to Marcus, Scorsese had lost control of his actors, led by Jack Nicholson's over the top excesses, and the film was a mess. No one thought it would win best film.

I only predicted two winners: Alan Arkin for his supporting role in "Little Miss Sunshine" (my pick, along with "Babel," for best film) and "An Inconvenient Truth," a no brainer as best documentary. I'd seen all the films mentioned, except for "Little Children," which the reviewers hated and which won nothing, and "Dreamgirls," so I couldn't judge Jennifer Hudson's winning performance. For me, Peter O'Toole's portrayal of a dying lover in "Venus" was far and away the best of the bunch, and Judi Dench's role as a misguided lover in "Notes on a Scandal," could not be topped. I believe there is a fine distinction between acting and impersonation, and winners Forest Whitaker and Helen Mirren were merely fine impersonators. "Pan's Labyrinth," which should have been in the running for best film, was passed over in favor of "The Lives of Others" for best foreign film; it opens next weekend at the Nick and so I will see perhaps why Guillermo del Toro's wonderful cinematic myth was denied its due. Besides the quirky "Miss Sunshine," I would like to have seen the innovative and emotionally powerful "Babel" take the prize, or even the un-nominated "Children of Men." But Scorsese can now join the greats in the Hollywood pantheon with his double Oscars.

I emailed a fellow pilgrim from the trip to India that since my return I've been rethinking all of my former activities and withdrawing like a turtle into my shell. She replied that she'd been feeling "a bit paralyzed" between her return from India and "all the pieces that seem to be unravelling a bit around the edges of life at Holy Cross." In our absence there was a very successful ecumenical New Year's Eve Vigil for Peace that drew perhaps 300 to the church parish hall, and the installation of the new bishop for the diocese of Monterey. Richard Garcia is one of a handful of Hispanics in that office and his appointment by the Vatican means a renewed focus on immigration as the place of social injustice in our community. Why aren't these two events signs of hope? Next week we meet to discuss the future of Pax Christi Santa Cruz County. The monthly meetings have been drawing a dwindling number of people. At our church the Outreach Director resigned and was not replaced, and the various ministries seem staffed by the same few volunteers, many of whom are experiencing burnout. Most of the people in the pews sit on their hands and refuse to participate.

Last Sunday some of the pilgrims to India presented a show-and-tell at the bi-monthly meeting of Sangha Shantivanam. The photo albums and slide shows brought back the trip for us and showed the stay-at-homes what India and Shantivanam were like. The pilgrims presented me with a gift for leading the tour, a five-night all-expenses-paid visit to the Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur. Radha handed me the bag of stuff I gave her in Chennai to carry home and now the carved Ganesha ball from Mamallapuram sits on my desk, removing all obstacles from my path.

The wind and rain brought power failures over the weekend, and after the last my refrigerator refused to stay cold. It's only two years old, and I poked and prodded it, hoping to find the fault and fix it. After putting my perishables in Shirlee's fridge, I unplugged mine and gave it a time out in the corner. Then, 15 minutes later I plugged it back in and heard the motor start up. With an hour, it was cold again. But this morning, when I went to get cream for my coffee, I found the carton frozen. Now the whole refrigerator was a freezer. Ain't life a feast or famine? I turned the thermostat down in a quest for the golden mean, between everything frozen and only the freezer stuff stiff. Wish me luck.

I've been on the phone to Thailand several times but the gap between presence and communication seems unbridgeable. She says "Willie" and I say "Thim" and we get no further. I say my prepared phrases, and she says "Willie speak Thai" and I realize she has misunderstood my pronunciation. Because Thai is a tonal language, the same word can be said five different ways, with a different meaning each time. The opportunities for misunderstanding are quintupled. The 18-hour difference means that when it's day there it is night here, and vice versa. Even the sun divides us. Eventually we each say "bye bye," and the pipeline between a rice farm in Udon and my studio apartment in Santa Cruz closes. I've discovered, however, a wealth of tools on the internet for learning Thai, searchable dictionaries and grammar tips, as well as online forums where students and native speakers can get together. I'm studying the alphabet (44 consonants and over 20 vowel sounds) and trying to learn to recognize and write letters, separately and in whole words and phrases. It's slow going.

I've also been gathering information on long-term visas for Thailand, and the requirements for teaching English there. Did you know that there is a Craig's List for Bangkok? There are ads for rooms and apartments and personal listings by Thai women looking for older men to support them and their families. Expats in BKK and upcountry recount their experiences in forums and warn prospective visitors about pitfalls in the "Land of Smiles" (LOS for short).

The time spent surfing the net for information on Thailand and its language means less time looking at Common Dreams, Antiwar.com, truthout and Truthdig, the web sites I've marked for fresh perspectives on the political situation here and abroad. I started checking the news again when I reached London and what I saw and heard just made me weary. The Democrats are squabbling among themselves, the great liberal hope Nancy Pelosi wants to continue giving Israel a blank check to oppress the Palestinians, and the unseemly pandering for votes by candidates for president has already begun , two years before the election. We all know that America has the best democracy money can buy, and the prize positions go to those with the deepest pockets. After living for a month in a country under military rule, I've again begun to question the whole ideology of democracy and our so-called "freedom," that word that grates on my ear when I hear it coming out of Bush or Chaney's mouths. Despite the anti-war message from the voters last November, the fiasco in Iraq continues. Even while unwilling partners in the "Coalition of the Willing" are sending their troops home, Bush increases the size of our presence there with soldiers who are returning for their third and fourth tours of duty. I hear no one other than that great statesman (at least when he got over integregation) Robert Byrd speaking of accountability for so many deaths on all sides. The occupation of Iraq was a crime against humanity and Bush and his minions must be accountable, must pay for their complicity.

But then that's just one person's opinion.

And now for something completely different: My daughter Molly (under her stage name Molly Hartwell) performs tonight -- "lush, evocotive improvisations & vocal acrobatics" -- at the Cayuga Vault in Santa Cruz with her friend YanĂș, a guitarist and singer from Slovakia she met in Europe two years ago. I've heard them practice and their voices go beautifully together. It's nice to hear Molly with an accompanist after so many a capella performances. So if you live anywhere near Santa Cruz, get yourself down to the Vault, 1100 Soquel Avenue, by 8 PM tonight. Tickets are $12-15 at the door.

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