Saturday, October 16, 2010

Save sea turtles, stop using plastic

When it comes to environmental issues, I have always considered myself concerned and aware — but I also find it easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems.

Put more bluntly, when you think the Earth is on course to an ugly Soylent-Green style end, it's hard to believe that individual choices you make really matter that much one way or the other.

Take plastic bags. I always knew they were kind of bad, but I still accepted groceries in plastic bags, and I thought it was morally acceptable because I reused the bags. (Mainly I reused them to pick up my dog's poop — city ordinance and all. And sometimes when packing for trips I wrapped up my shampoo bottles and such in plastic bags.)

Recently, however, I came across some details that made me think twice. I'm going to St. Lucia for vacation in a few months, so I read almost every post published on TripAdvisor's St. Lucia travel forum. A few weeks ago, another member posted an item urging tourists not to bring plastic bags and bottles to St. Lucia, among other recommendations.

"Turtles eat plastic bags as they think they're jellyfish, and feed them to their young," her post reads in part. "This kills them."

I don't litter, but even the remote possibility that a bag I had used could hurt a turtle made me swear off plastic bags forever, even here at home. (Yes, we do have sea turtles in Massachusetts, as well as many other animals that could mistakenly ingest plastic waste.) Even if you think that you're being careful and properly disposing of your plastic bags, you still might be part of the problem, as plastic bags blow out of trash cans and other waste-collection areas very easily because they are so aerodynamic, as I read recently in an illuminating article on

For my groceries, I now carry reusable bags from Whole Foods and Shaw's. (Whole Foods even gives you a 5 cent discount each time you bring a bag back in to refill.) For my dog's poop, I now use biodegradable, flushable bags that I order from With this method, the dog's poop ends up going through the same wastewater treatment process as human poop. Because of that, this method is better than some of the other biodegradable poop bags you see on the market. Another reason the flushable bags are better than non-flushable biodegradable bags is that the latter most likely will not biodegrade in landfills, because the waste is packed too tightly there.

For my travel needs, from now on I'll just make sure I have plenty of travel pouches intended for just that purpose. I tried to do this in the past, but I sometimes resorted to plastic when I was too disorganized to have enough "real," reusable bags on hand — but that stops now!

These are small steps, but I'm so glad I came across that TripAdvisor post. When you actually learn how your actions can have identifiable positive consequences, it makes it easier to be responsible and perhaps stay one step ahead of that barren, cannibal-wafer future which is probably looming.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

With pro-God episode, 'Glee' jumps the shark

I'm sure I will probably watch "Glee" again, but tonight's pro-"spirituality" episode offended me so completely, I may need a lengthy break.

If you've never watched "Glee," it's a program about a public high school's show choir. The series started out as a musical comedy and, in my view, it was at its best then. More recently, "Glee" has been mining weightier topics and trying to serve up meaningful lessons. Occasionally, these newer episodes will include a dramatic scene that works well, but in general I find these more-serious shows to be trite, with bottom lines that are glib and often a bit eye-roll-inducing. Still, I've stuck with the show until now because I enjoy the music and the occasionally still-effective satire.

Enter tonight's episode. In this entry, the father of a character named Kurt has a heart attack and teeters on the border of life and death. Surprisingly (and illegally), the glee club's faculty adviser allows several students to lecture Kurt on why he should consider abandoning his atheistic beliefs so he can feel better.

Why do I say "illegal"? Although the series has never made clear whether the glee club is an elective course or an after-school extracurricular club, the group gets its funding from the school, it meets on school grounds, and it has a faculty member, the Spanish teacher, as its director. The director even gives glee-club assignments and sends kids straight from club practice to the principal's office. All this suggests the club should meet the constitutional requirement of church-state separation.

Anyway, back to the plot: Kurt repeatedly professes his atheism only to be looked at with pitying eyes by Christians, Jews, and well-meaning, pushy people of perhaps other faiths. Even after making his beliefs clear, several of Kurt's classmates insist upon crowding his father's hospital room so the poor comatose man can be comforted by candles, prayers, and the lyrics of "Papa, Can You Hear Me." After seeing that they have upset Kurt, the "friends" say they were only trying to help. But help who? If I had been in Kurt's situation, forced to watch my friends and acquaintances express such blatant disregard for my beliefs, I would have felt violated, yet in this episode, the offensive characters are rewarded: After much anger, Kurt softens and agrees to go to church, where he does not convert, but has a Meaningful Moment.

At church, Kurt's friend Mercedes assumes the pulpit and tells him (in front of hundreds of strangers) that it's OK not to believe in God, as long as he believes in "something," because life is just too hard to get through otherwise. If you think about it, that's a little bit like saying, "You have to believe in Santa Claus, because otherwise Christmas is depressing," but rationality clearly is not something that the "Glee" writers are into. If you interpret her comments to mean something less ridiculous — maybe she just means "find a purpose to your life" — then it's even more offensive because it suggests Mercedes thinks her atheist friend doesn't have any sustaining beliefs or values. All because he doesn't pray to a magic man in the sky.

Kurt's "something" turns out to not be a supreme being who hangs out in the clouds — rather, Kurt tells his unconscious dad that he believes in their relationship; family seems to be his newfound "center." But this revelation comes across as a bone thrown to the non-religious, sandwiched as it is between images of Kurt learning to relax and be introspective at church (how else would you figure out that your dad is important to you?) and a scene of the only other clearly identified atheist, Sue, seeming to question her long-held beliefs.

Sue, the school's cheerleading coach, is presented in a way that is especially insulting. Sue — who also happens to be the series' most petty and antagonistic character, one who's been bent on destroying the glee club — is shown angrily telling another character that she stopped believing in God because she once prayed for her sister's mental disability to be cured, and it wasn't. (In other words: Atheists are bitter people who haven't gotten what they want out of life.) Then, in what is perhaps the most saccharine scene of tonight's episode (and that's saying something), Sue's disabled sister proclaims that "God doesn't make mistakes," sparking a somber moment for Sue. The coach then seems to backpaddle on earlier church-state objections she had raised about the "spirituality" assignment given to members of the glee club by their teacher. At least, that is how I read the scene where she stumbles into the school auditorium during the glee club's painfully serious rendition of Joan Osborne's "One of Us" and softly assures the defensive club director that she doesn't have a problem with it. She then sits back to listen and contemplate.

The message I got from all this is that if you are an atheist, you might be an inflexible jerk. You should at least listen to and consider other people's Godspeak — in fact, if you do this, new vistas of serenity may open up to you. Religious people should always be allowed to market their wares, and don't worry about the Constitution. It's just an annoyance.

To me, one of the most troubling parts of the show is the way that atheism is presented not as a valid system of beliefs that should inherently be respected by other people, but as a void — an empty plate. Since the plate is empty, it's OK for someone to try put something there. It's quite telling that the show did not choose to depict Kurt as a person of faith being courted by people of another faith. But that wouldn't happen, would it? If he had been a Jew or a Muslim or a Moonie, his Christian friend wouldn't have been quite so hot to get him to her Protestant service. Of course not. We all know we're supposed to respect other people's religions. But according to "Glee," atheists and agnostics are fair game, ready and waiting to be courted, or perhaps pushed.

It's possible that the writers think their story had some depth because of a side plot in which one character — Finn, a glee-clubber and football player — tries and fails to make deals with God. (Finn thinks he sees an image of Jesus in his grilled cheese sandwich and then asks said sandwich to get him to second base with his girlfriend, among other shallow requests.) At the end of the episode, Finn learns in a sobering talk with the school counselor that God has not actually been answering his prayers, despite a few coincidences that made him think so. But can you really call this sophisticated, or even intelligent storytelling? Don't most people, of all faiths, learn at a fairly early age that you can't actually barter with God, even when he appears to you on toast? This B-side strikes me as an inadequate effort to balance an essentially pro-spirituality statement, one that says evangelists shouldn't have to temper their preaching, even in public domains, and that spirituality should be given repeated chances, even among those who believe (correctly, in my estimation) that religion is not only misguided but potentially damaging. In fact, spiritual people might be better off if they spent more time trying to learn about atheism and less time trying to eradicate it, but don't look for anything like that to happen among the characters on "Glee."

If you found this show as distasteful as I did and want to cleanse your palate with a better tale about God and atheism, I suggest renting "The Invention of Lying," in which Ricky Gervais pretty much establishes himself as William Shakespeare to the "Glee" writers' Mother Goose.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Overheard: 'I breathe fire'

Occasionally when walking through the city, I like to eavesdrop on strangers. I'm really not that nosy, I just like to get a feel for the flavor of different neighborhoods and different people. For a while now, I've wanted to do sketches inspired by these comments — and finally I've gotten started.

Here's how my inaugural "overheard" sketch was inspired: Last Wednesday night, I was walking to Brownstone to meet co-workers for drinks. I was running a little late, but I still paused when I heard a guy on the phone saying, "God knows, I have days like that, where I just breathe fire all over everybody in every direction."

I loved this guy's imagery, so I scribbled down the comment on a receipt, and later I penned my interpretation.

I considered adding some color to this one, but I couldn't decide, so I just decided to post it as is. At some point, I may take another pass at it with my Prismacolors.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A little culture for $25

Earlier today I was complaining to a friend that lately I watch too much TV and never do anything interesting.

As fate would then have it, while walking home a few hours later I noticed a bit of a commotion at the Boston Ballet building. I walk past this building twice a day and often wish I had the chance to go inside. This is where the ballet rehearses, not performs, but occasionally they host events there.

Today was one such occasion. While walking home from the grocery store, I saw balloons and well-dressed people milling about. As I paused to read the program on the door, a woman who looked like Snow White politely asked me if I'd like to see the show. "When does it start?" I asked. "8 o'clock," she said with a smile.

Time was of the essence. I hustled home, stealing a glance at my freshly obtained Shaw's receipt to see that it was about 10 past 7. What to wear? I cursed myself for not being one of those people who has clothes freshly pressed and ready to slip on. I found a silver skirt that I'd forgotten about, a white Banana Republic T, and a black cashmere shawl. I hurried back around the corner, handed over $25, and I was in.

It was exciting just to be in the building. I love ballet, and I'm a bit starstruck by anything that has to do with professional ballet. The building was grubbier than I expected, but I liked the sweeping staircase that led about four stories up to the top of the building. Along the way were plenty of posters advertising past performances, some as old as 20 years. They included numbers to call for more information — a pleasant reminder of the days of seven-digit phone numbers. The prices listed were also a bit nostalgic.

When I finally reached the performance hall, I was a little surprised at the casual arrangement. There were just three long rows of folding chairs, and when I sat down, the woman to my right asked me whom I'd come to support. Not a great sign. Looking around, I guessed that most of these people were probably friends and family of dancers, a feel later reinforced when many bailed at intermission.

The event was the first ever "Massachusetts Dance Festival," which seemed to be celebrating small local dance companies. The event had also included workshops during the day for adults and children. I guessed that most of the performance was going to be modern and contemporary styles — not my favorite, but when they're good I enjoy them almost as much as ballet.

The show opened with a piece from the Lorraine Chapman Dance Company called "Pulp Tango," which saw women — some clad in red dresses, some in black — trying to beguile and yet ultimately, it seemed, get crushed by the only man in the group. It was OK, but I wasn't wowed. Except for one petite, heavily tattooed blonde, none of the dancers really impressed me. I found the piece, which at times featured the dancers pounding the ground and chanting, a little inaccessible, and the male dancer seemed to be having a wardrobe malfunction with his cumberbun.

A second piece, called "As I Remember," from Sokolow Now!, comprised three segments, each with a solo dancer. I liked the second, which featured dancer Courtney Peix, wearing a blue-flowered summer dress, moving to music which seemed cheerful but had dark undertones. At least, that's how it struck me. There was something a bit Lynchian about it, which I liked.

A piece called "Marionette" from BoSama Dance Company featured four female dancers in black-and-white costumes that borrowed a bit from the traditional tutu, the classic French-maid uniform, and something else — perhaps mime-wear. This piece was one of the stronger entries in the show. The costumes, to me, suggested that these individuals had been "done up" for someone else's pleasure, and their dance was comprised of smooth steps and spins occasionally interrupted by an odd droopiness, and by jerky, seemingly involuntary movements.

"Anti-ossification" seemed more performance art than dance. Credited to "Monkey House," this piece opened with one performer crouched on what seemed to be a small stool, but once the lights came up, was revealed to be another person. The topmost dancer, who wore leggings, a backward hoodie and pigtails, moved about the stage liberally but was unable, for the most part, to prod the other dancer from her withdrawn, tortoiselike pose on the floor. This piece, though it was difficult for me at times to see what was going on given the lack of riser seating, seemed to be performed with a great deal of wit and humor.

The evening included many other modern pieces which were, for the most part, not quite my cup of tea. I respect modern dance, but much of the program seemed (to me) difficult to interpret and performed by dancers who, while I'm sure are very talented, didn't quite alight my interest the way almost any ballet dancer usually does. I like ballet both for its aesthetics and also for the incredible athleticism and technical proficiency that even midrange ballet dancers seem to have. This seemed lacking in many of the modern dancers that I saw at tonight's event.

So I count myself very lucky that the evening did include one ballet — "Trauermusick," by the Boston Dance Company. This piece, according to the program, was a tribute to the choreographer's parents and their troubled marriage. It was performed by two dancers (Kristen Lung and Camden Ieradi) clad in simple white costumes. I'm not an expert, but I thought Lung especially was quite good — just about every position she took was beautiful. It made me wish that I went to the ballet more often, and that there were more of these sorts of intimate shows. I would easily pay $25 to watch a Boston Ballet rehearsal, or just part of one. Perhaps now that I have the image of Lung's perfect white toe shoes stepping through my memory of this recital, I will find a way to do it more often.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A waking island

Since I moved to the East Coast from the Midwest 15 years ago, I have never gone home for Thanksgiving — I feel it's just too far to travel for a relatively minor holiday. Instead, I have spent my Thanksgivings with friends and acquaintances. The results have been mixed.

For a few years, I went to a friend's brother's house, where I had a front-line view of the cold war between the brother and his slightly older wife.

Another holiday outing saw me trying to converse with a friend's egg-nog-saturated father who, for what seemed like hours, gave me a one-on-one analysis of his unpublished post-modern play.

And once, at a boyfriend's house, I watched as the eldest brother haltingly told his Jewish parents of his engagement to the gorgeous Pakistani woman at his side. The chillingly offered congratulations were perhaps the least-convincing I have ever heard. As I recall, no one had seconds.

I do appreciate the generosity of everyone who has ever hosted me for Thanksgiving. But I have decided that other people's family dysfunction is a dish best enjoyed sparingly. So this November, I will be flying to the tropics to sip spiced rum punch and swim with the sea turtles.

My destination is St. Lucia. I booked the trip, appropriately, on Independence Day — or, more accurately, the early hours of July 5. After coming home from watching the fireworks display over the Charles River, I began browsing flight-hotel packages. I had already done a bit of research and pricing, but I was surprised to find myself utterly gripped by the desire to book the trip.

I mixed a mango-vodka cocktail, pulled out a credit card, and the deed was done. Now I am busy reading about the beaches, the rainforests, and the literature of St. Lucia. From St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott's Nobel address:

There is a force of exultation, a celebration of luck, when a writer finds himself a witness to the early morning of a culture that is defining itself, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, in that self-defining dawn, which is why, especially at the edge of the sea, it is good to make a ritual of the sunrise. Then the noun, the "Antilles" ripples like brightening water, and the sounds of leaves, palm fronds, and birds are the sounds of a fresh dialect, the native tongue. The personal vocabulary, the individual melody whose metre is one's biography, joins in that sound, with any luck, and the body moves like a walking, a waking island.

Friday, July 2, 2010

'Life, Interrupted'

A few days before the Star Trek convention that I recently attended, I decided I should sketch something for Joel Gretsch to sign. A few weeks ago, I started watching "The 4400," so I sketched the scene at the end of an episode called "Life, Interrupted," which features a fateful encounter between Gretsch's and Karina Lombard's characters.

The drawing was only half-finished when I had Gretsch sign it, but he seemed to like where it was going. He also mentioned that this episode is his favorite of "The 4400."

At that time, I had sketched (in ink) only the torsos of the two characters. Later I decided that, for consistency with some other drawings that I will display alongside this one, the figures should extend all the way to the border of the paper. It was tricky trying to make that happen when the tops of the figures were already committed to ink, but I went ahead with it (that's the finished version above). When I was done, I was a little uncomfortable with the proportions on his character, and I sort of wished that I had stayed focused just on their torsos (like the cropped version below). I also think that in the cropped version, it's more clear that he is a few paces behind her. However, in the full finished version I do like the way the belt on her trenchcoat came out.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


I recently revisited the drawings I described in another recent post. I decided my first panel needed to be a bit darker, in order to match the second panel better. So I did some additional shading of the background.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Countdown to Tulsa

At the end of the month, I am meeting my brother and my nephews so that we can all go to a Star Trek convention in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I have been informed that it's a good idea to bring something for the stars to sign, so I have been working on a comic-book style representation of one of my favorite episodes of "Star Trek: Voyager."

This is only one of several items I wanted to do in time for the convention. Sadly, not only is this the only one I have started, but I'm not even close to finishing it. I just have these two panels done. Red alert!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Vegan birthday party

I was invited to a birthday party for a co-worker who loves Apple products and who DJs in his spare time. So I made this card.

The inside has the bars that you would see on a sheet of music, with the treble clef on top and the bass clef below. I wrote the birthday greeting on the lines and put "Allegretto" as the instruction. I gave it to him at a vegan cafe where the gathering began.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A silver stream

The first time I heard of Idina Menzel was last week, when our company's receptionist sent out an e-mail saying employees could get 30 percent off tickets to Menzel's upcoming show with the Boston Pops.

Fast foward one week. Eight o'clock tonight found me and my co-worker Rowan in the first row of the first balcony, stage left, practically close enough to smell Keith Lockhart's hair product. But we weren't watching him. How could we? Right next to him was the busty, in-your-face Menzel, rocking the house in a clingy, mermaid-style gown.

Menzel, as I know now, is a star of the Broadway stage. Not a "star" like some of the middling ones that occasionally sing with the Pops, but a real star. I say that not because of her resume ("Rent," "Wicked") but because of her exuberant, warm presence, and because of her powerhouse voice, whose reverbations must have been felt in the fillings of patrons in the nosebleed seats and beyond.

Menzel opened with a fun number ("The Life of the Party"), and then moved to an inspired arrangement of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" with the Police classic "Roxanne."

Of course, she included hits from "Wicked" ("Defying Gravity"), plus "Rent" ("No Day But Today," and an a capella version of "For Good"). She also threw in a song she and her husband wrote for their 8-month-old son. With its charming lyrics ("Did you go somewhere special in your dream? Did you go sailing across a silver stream?"), the swingy tune was a huge crowd-pleaser.

Menzel was good at chit-chat too, telling entertaining stories, including a serious one (about the premature death of "Rent" composer Jonathan Larsen) and a funny one (about her days as a wedding singer, pumping out "Conga" and "Hot Hot Hot"). The latter anecdote led to a gorgeous rendition of "Embraceable You." Menzel's encore was an exquisite "Tomorrow."

Prior to the show, I'd watched one or two YouTubes of Menzel and, to be honest, hadn't been bowled over. Either I'd picked bad ones or just wasn't connecting with the songs. But this evening's show was a major "Wow." Thanks, Idina!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The girl in the ruffled shirt

Recently I became interested in learning more about Jonestown. Rather randomly, at the same time, I was trying to get better at drawing people. So in retrospect it seems only natural that I should have begun a series of portraits of Jonestown victims.

My first was of Deanna Wilkinson, a Peoples Temple member who sang for the rest of the group on the evening of Nov. 17, 1978, the eve of the mass murder-suicides. When I watched the NBC footage of that evening, her vibrant performance really stood out, and I knew right away that I wanted to draw her.

On a second watching of that same footage, I noticed a girl with a brilliant smile. She's shown clapping during Rep. Leo Ryan's remarks. She looks young and perhaps a bit lost — maybe not sure why she's there. She wears a ruffled shirt, and her hair is an enormous bun on the nape of her neck. As with the singer, I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to draw her.

After doing a bit of research, I think that I may have figured out who she was — I am pretty sure she is Judy Houston, a girl who was raised in the church, along with her sister Patricia.
Judy was the second daughter of Bob and Phyllis Houston, both members of Peoples Temple. After Judy's father died, the church sent Judy and Patricia to Jonestown. They entered the settlement in August 1977.

According to the web site Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, Judy lived in Cottage 17, while her sister lived in Cottage 20. Judy's mother stayed behind in California.

Meanwhile, Judy's grandparents and her stepmother, former church member Joyce Shaw Houston, became part of a coalition that raised questions about the church. According to the book "Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People," Judy's grandparents' concern caught the interest of Congressman Leo Ryan — and was one of the factors that prompted his visit to Guyana. Judy's grandmother, Nadyne, and her aunt, Carol Houston Boyd, traveled with the congressman's party to the region, though of the two only Carol was able to enter Jonestown and visit with Judy.

Judy was 14 when she died. According to "Raven," she wanted to be a veterinarian.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I love prawns

On Thursday night, I came home intending to start work on a birthday card for a friend, but I watched TV instead. On Friday, I had the same intentions, but went to my gym instead, then spent some time convincing myself there is nothing wrong with giving people store-bought cards.

My friend's birthday party was today, and I woke up this morning with the deep desire to go ahead and make the card. Given that I was also intent on squeezing in a workout, and given that I take forever to make cards, it felt like quite the rush job, but I think it probably came out OK.

The recipient of the card is someone who loves movies, and the party had a movie theme. One of his favorite movies last year (and mine) was "District 9." We actually saw it together. So it seemed a good subject for a card, which I ended up making in three 3.5-inch panels.

The first panel was a sketch of Christopher Johnson, the alien who is persecuted in the film. He was probably my favorite character from any movie I saw last year.

The second panel depicts Wikus, the bureaucrat who persecutes Christopher and other aliens — or prawns — before coming to his senses and fighting for them. Wikus has a lot of scenes where he looks bewildered and frantic, so I took a stab at one of those. I did this part last, when I was really running late, so I'm afraid Wikus got an especially hasty treatment.

On the third panel, I wrote a caption that wished my friend a better year than Wikus and Christoper Johnson. I connected the panels by making slim rectangular hole punches along the left edges and stringing them together with a light-green satin ribbon.

I guess the card came out well enough given the small amount of time I had. It's just a little frustrating because if I'd started a few days ago, I could have done a better job. It would have been nice to watch the movie again and get inspired, as well as to remind myself more of what the prawns look like. Sadly, this card is also not as elaborate and probably not as good as the card I gave this same friend last year. I hate having a precedent to live up to!

My friend hadn't yet opened the card when I left the party, but he did give away a few small door prizes, and mine was a keychain with a "District 9" prawn on it. I actually really love it! If he is half as happy with the card as I am with the keychain, then everything is good.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Before Six, there was Seven

The first few times I saw "Star Trek: Voyager," one of my impressions was that the beautiful Jeri Ryan was the weak link in the show. My complaints were that she seemed like the token "babe," she looks nothing like a Borg drone, and, while I am no expert on acting, I thought there was something overly stilted in her delivery. I also found it annoying that she pronounces the word "futile" in the American way, so that it rhymes more or less with "poodle" and doesn't sound very threatening.

I've now watched the series in its entirety, and my opinion has changed. I still don't like the way she says
"futile," but Seven is a really interesting character, and Ryan, while probably not the best actress on the show, does a fine and sometimes quite inspired job portraying the rescued drone. This is one of a few pleasant surprises I had while watching the last couple of seasons of "Voyager."

I began watching "Voyager" about two years ago — I never watched it when it was current — and in general it was a great surprise. I liked it almost as well as "The Next Generation," and perhaps would have even liked it better if the latter didn't score so many points for nostalgia. I enjoyed "Voyager" for its premise (of a ship lost in distant space, impossibly far away, trying to get home), for its darkness, and most of all for its characters. Of these, Seven is a standout.

The first time I wrote about "Voyager" on this blog, I had just reached the halfway point of the series, and Seven had just debuted, more or less replacing Kes, the "other" blonde female crew member. Kes (Jennifer Lien) was an Okampan — an alien — but personalitywise she was just as human as anyone else on the show. In fact, she served as a foil to several of the "less" human crew members, especially the Doctor, a hologram, and Tuvok, the Vulcan. Kes was sweet, she spoke in a soothing voice, and she shared a warm rapport with the maternal Captain Janeway.

By contrast, Seven is technically human but, because of her years in the Collective, unsure of what that means. She observes people with a fresh, logical eye, making observations that are sometimes biting and often hilarious. To some in the crew, Seven is an object of fascination and uneasiness. To others, she is a protégé, sometimes an unwilling one. She too has a close relationship with Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), but if Kes was the good daughter, Seven is the difficult, rebellious one, which, let's face it, makes for more interesting developments.

Some of my favorite Seven episodes are
"Someone to Watch Over Me," where the Doctor (Robert Picardo) tries to teach her to go out on a date, and "Child's Play," where she has to say goodbye to one of the children Voyager rescued from the Borg. In both shows, she is weirdly stiff, and yet you can relate to her quite a lot, which is the beauty of the character.

The show, which started out as an ensemble, actually comes to focus on Seven a bit. In some respects this is a downside — I would have liked to have seen more of other good characters, especially Tuvok (Tim Russ) and B'Elanna (Roxann Dawson). In the series' second half, B'Elanna's role is basically reduced to being one half of a rather annoying couple with Tom Paris (Robert Duncan MacNeill), though I did really like the episode where they got engaged ("Drive"), and I thought she was brilliant in the episode where she argues that her unborn baby's Klingon characteristics should be genetically modified before its birth ("Lineage").

The show scores wins other areas as well. For example, I was glad to see that in its second half, the series continues with its attention to visuals — space always looks beautiful from Voyager. On this show, a spatial anomaly isn't just an explanation for a plot twist, it's also something cool to look at. Perhaps this is because "Voyager" was produced in the age of the Hubble.

This respect for imagery carries over into the design of some of the alien worlds that Voyager visits. I especially liked the richly imagined city that was featured in the two-parter "Workforce." In this episode, Janeway, Seven, and others have their memories erased and are made to work in a vast factory, where the walkways look like wrenches.

Sadly, as often happens with long-running TV shows, some of the characters become inconsistent. This is especially true of Janeway. In most episodes, she's as perfect as Jean-Luc Picard, yet the latter half of the series has her occasionally veering off to Planet Inexplicable. In one episode, she recklessly endangers Voyager in order to pursue a rogue Starfleet captain ("Equinox"), and in another she ignores her duties as captain because of her own melancholy ("Night"). A season five episode has her cavalierly describe the Doctor, whose rights as an individual she previously had protected, to a system as insignificant as a replicator ("Latent Image"). In most of these cases, the seeds of Janeway's flaws are realistic, but the show's writers take them so far that they stop being believeable. In some ways, it's refreshing to see a Star Trek show feature a captain who is imperfect, but the approach should have been more measured. It's also slightly annoying that the franchise chose the first female captain to be the first with leadership flaws.

For me, the absolute worst episode in the series has nothing to do with character — it's just really bad. In "Threshold," Tom Paris evolves into a weird being that the Doctor pronounces a highly evolved form that humans will reach in the future (apparently he can either see the future or doesn't know that future evolution occurs based on yet-to-be-determined environmental factors). Janeway herself later evolves to this form, then both she and Tom roll back to a primative step on the evolutionary ladder, becoming lizardlike creatures who mate and have lizard babies before being restored to their properly evolved present-day selves, without the misplacement of a single hair in Janeway's auburn bob.

On the other end of the spectrum, one of my favorite episodes is "The Void," in which Voyager is sucked into a starless pocket of space, where there are no resources of any kind, and no exit — just other captive ships that troll about looking for people to prey upon. Like many of the best episodes, it's both creative and dark, and rather like another series I enjoyed — the reboot of "Battlestar Galactica." That program owes a bit to "Voyager," I think, both thematically and in some of its details, such as the use of hot pseudo-human characters with numbers for names. As I watched these last few "Voyager" installments, I found myself wondering more than once, could there really have been a Six without Seven?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Unfreeze the Charles

According to lore, the song "California Dreamin'" gained little attention in the all-important Los Angeles market when it was first released. But after it got air time in Boston, where people could truly appreciate lyrics such as "all the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray," it became a hit.

I thought of this story today, as I looked out my office window at the bleak city. My company's office space has a view of the Back Bay, the Charles River, and the southern border of Cambridge. We moved into the building in January, and ever since then, the Charles has been a cold hard strip of gray. Up until last week, anyway.

Last Wednesday we saw a large vessel pushing through what I had thought was still ice; my Belarussian co-worker joked that the craft was a Russian ice freighter. Monday was the first time I saw the water move, and then today, as snow drifted lazily down, one of my co-workers called out that there were sailboats on the Charles, braving the flakes.

Despite these signs of spring, some of us are still feeling the chill.

Earlier in the week I asked my overworked colleague Jon if he needed to pick up some lunch. He sighed in a way that told me he didn't have time and said, "Sasha, I need to go LA or San Diego today, too, and that's not gonna happen either."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Searching for the Promised Land

Their hope was fragile but compelling.

The mother and daughter weren't sure what lay ahead. As their plane prepared for its final descent, the daughter looked out the window and reflected on earlier journeys she had heard of. Decades before, her mother and grandmother had fled Nazi Germany, traveling separately and ultimately meeting two very different fates, one tragic. As the daughter pondered this, she hoped that this current journey, this quest for a new life, would be different. She hoped that their choice to travel together would bring good fortune.

But it didn't. Their move to Jonestown, Guyana, ended in fear, pain, and death.

This is part of Deborah Layton's narrative in "Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple." The book describes Layton's seven years as a member of Jim Jones's church.

I decided to read "Seductive Poison" after watching a documentary about Jonestown. The documentary was great, but afterward I still wanted to learn more. What made people join the group and stick with it? What kinds of lives did they live? Would I have joined?

Different survivors would undoubtedly answer such questions in different ways. Layton addresses them in a way I found quite satisfying — but the book deals with more than just Peoples Temple. For one thing, it's a mother-daughter story far more insightful than any I've come across in fiction. If that's not your thing, "Seductive Poison" is also a suspense tale that I imagine would hook any reader, regardless of whether they're particularly interested in Jonestown. A comment from Amy Tan on the back of my paperback copy indicates that she read it in one night. If I didn't have a job, I probably would have, too. Instead I read it in a couple of nights, staying up well past my bedtime each evening and paying the price next morning, when I groggily explained to co-workers that I was reading a book that was a bit too good.

The story begins with Deborah's privileged but troubled childhood, focusing in part on her mother, Lisa, a non-practicing Jew who initially kept their ethnicity secret from Deborah. Likewise, many years passed before Deborah learned of Lisa's mother's suicide in the wake of her escape from Nazi Germany.

Deborah met Jim Jones when she was 17 and joined his church the following year. I probably can't adequately summarize all the reasons she was drawn to it, but it seemed like a mix of things: she was feeling adrift in life, he made her feel special, and once she joined, participation in the group was something she succeeded at. The church became a place where she could accept responsibility and do good works.

Of course, the Temple community was tightly controlled by Jones and reflected his sometimes sadistic and paranoid tendencies. As time passed and Deborah witnessed events that troubled her, she pushed her doubts down. At one point she writes, "My inner voice screamed something at me, but I could not hear it."

Deborah eventually became a high-ranking member of Peoples Temple, and her interactions with Jones are fascinating to read about. She offers a detailed glimpse into the upper workings of the group.

After Lisa also joined the church and the two traveled to Jonestown, Deborah became disillusioned. Instead of finding the Promised Land she'd been told to expect, she found a totalitarian encampment, hidden deep in an inaccessible jungle, where she and her mother had no rights and no reasonable prospects for leaving. Upon their arrival, their passports were confiscated, as was Lisa's pain medication, a treatment for her cancer (it later turned up in Jones's personal stash). Deborah was forced to work long hours in fields, and their lives were so austere, reading about it made me extremely grateful for my ability to make coffee and take hot showers whenever I want. Moreover, like other residents of Jonestown, they were continuously warned that mercenary forces were coming to kill them, and threatened in ways both overt and subtle, all of them chilling.

The story of Deborah's escape is riveting. I won't say more about it except that it reads like a top-notch thriller, complete with one interlude so surreal, it's almost Lynchian, though this story is more disturbing than anything David Lynch has yet dreamt up.

I was really impresssed with Layton's writing, which is spare, eloquent, and effective. Given that the book is only 300 pages long, she clearly pared down her many years of memories into just those necessary to tell the best possible story. Everything she writes feels real and compelling.

Consider her brief reflections on U.S. values. For me, after living through eight years of George W. Bush, I'm not especially taken by patriotic overtures — in the Bush-Cheney era, so many statements of American patriotism seemed manipulative and false. But Deborah Layton's are the real thing:

"Mud splattered my arms and face while I gazed out at the scenery, my prison, and I thought about all the times I'd hoped for my escape. I thought about that evening when I had sat on this same truck. ... jerking and bouncing after a long day in the field, promising myself that if I ever got another chance, if I ever again looked at a sunset from the United States of America, I would always cherish the gift of freedom."

It's worth noting that not all residents of Jonestown share Layton's dismal memories of the place. Some people were happy there. (One example is Laura Johnston Kohl, whose moving account is published on the web site Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.) If you do additional reading about Jonestown, you'll find that some writers seek to reconcile these differences using a "who was right?" approach. But if you consider that 1,000 people lived there, at varying periods, in varying proximity to the force of Jim Jones's overwhelming presence, it seems believeable that different people had very different experiences, that both types of memories are true and right.

Layton's story is one of my favorites because she tells it so well, and because I can empathize with so much of what she must have felt. The fact that her initial accounts of Jonestown helped spur Congressman Leo Ryan's ill-fated visit to the encampment makes the story historically significant as well, and doubly sad.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The utopian laundromat

This morning as I was getting ready to go out, I noticed the beeping of the washing machine downstairs. The washer is shared by me and by the married couple who live below me. I shouldn't complain about having to share a washer with just one other apartment, but I still groaned to myself, because usually when I hear that sound it means the washer will be occupied for the rest of the day. And suddenly I remembered a dream I had last night. A dream inspired by a general desire for more convenient laundering for everyone.

I dreamed that I was over at MIT for some reason, at night, when I noticed a neon sign peeking out from behind another building. The sign said "Utopian Laundromat."

I went toward it, abandoning whatever chore had brought me to the school. I was curious. What is a utopian laundromat? It sounds like an oxymoron.

The laundromat was near the student union. It comprised a series of private rooms organized around a large central courtyard. Each room was quite spacious and included a desk, a well-stocked bookcase, a computer, an HDTV, a sofa, a bed, a private bath, and other amenities, including the defining appliances: a washer and dryer. Every room had a glass wall overlooking the courtyard, so I could see most of the occupants. They were studying, socializing, and doing other tasks while their clothes washed and tumbled dry.

I didn't really feel like talking to anyone, but I had to find out more. After I questioned him, a student passing by told me that any of these rooms could be reserved, by an individual or by a small group, for as long a period as was needed.

Later on, I visited one of the rooms and found out more. A student doing his laundry said there were only 10 rooms, but that usually you could get a reservation with no problem — you just had to set it up a couple of weeks in advance. He said that the longest he'd made a reservation for was eight hours. He wasn't sure if you could reserve for a period of days, but it sounded like it was possible.

I concluded that this truly was the most utopian style of laundry facility out there, if you can't do it at home.

I think I dreamt this because I've been reading a lot about Jonestown lately, and the word "utopia" comes up frequently in that context.

Also, a book I read recently mentioned the Jonestown laundry facility, referring to it as the "laundromat," which immediately jumped out at me as a mild copyediting error. The word "Laundromat" is trademarked, and — at least when I was a copy editor — using the term in the generic sense is considered a mistake, one that my dream apparently was guilty of as well.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The oatmeal of my dreams

In my dream, I was at the home of an acquaintance who was making oatmeal. He was combining all sorts of weird ingredients, but the stranger the combinations, the more delicious the concoction became, or so it seemed.

My acquaintance, John, stirred the oatmeal in a big bowl with a wooden spoon. The oatmeal looked light and smooth and creamy, more like a cool chocolate mousse than a hot cereal. John's house was a bit chaotic, with kids running around, the phone ringing, and guests coming and going, but he put the dish together with the grace and confidence of Kim Yu-Na channeling James Bond.

By the time John was finished, I knew I had to have his recipe and I said as much. As he rattled off ingredients and procedures, I tried to write everything down. But each time I went back to check my notes, I realized that I had missed not just a few but many important points, and no amount of checking and rewriting seemed to correct the errors. I began to have the sinking feeling that I was not going to be able to record the recipe, but I also refused to give up.

As my alarm intruded, I began realizing the recipe was just a dream. Yet for several minutes I still believed that, even though it wasn't real, and dubious as some of the ingredients were, the recipe should be tried — that it might be transcendent. As sleep slipped away, I struggled to remember the ingredients.

Today I can recall only two: barbecue sauce and Greek whipped cream. Or not quite enough to make the magic happen.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rest in peace, Temple members

Years ago I learned that an acquaintance of mine had been involved with burying the victims of the Jonestown tragedy. My acquaintance, whom I'll call Sam, told me that his family's funeral home had publicized a toll-free phone number for friends and relatives to call if they wanted to identify any of the bodies. I can still remember Sam telling me that no one had ever called, that many victims had ended up in a mass grave. Sam, who is black, seemed to think that society in general didn't care about these people because most of them were either black, poor, or both.

I took this story with a grain of salt, thinking that surely there were many people who grieved for the Jonestown victims. Still, the idea that no one ever called that number has always bothered me, as has the idea that the victims were simply dismissed by the world. It made me wonder who they were and what they went through. At the time, I tried reading a book on Jonestown, but the one I chose was too disturbing for me then, so I set the topic aside for a long time.

Recently, I was flipping channels and caught the last 20 minutes of a documentary on the Jonestown. Later I rented a different documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, and after watching it, I read Seductive Poison, a memoir by former Jonestown resident Deborah Layton. Both were excellent. I'm going to devote this post to the documentary, and a future post to the book.

Passionate idealism
If you've never heard of Jonestown, here are the basics: Jonestown was named for the Rev. Jim Jones, who was the leader of a church — or cult — called Peoples Temple. Espousing the causes of racial integration, social justice, and community, Jones led a congregation of 900 people from San Francisco to the wilds of Guyana, on the northern coast of South America, where they said they would build a utopian society, which came to be called Jonestown.

But before too long, questions arose about how people were treated in Jonestown and whether they were truly free to leave. In November 1978, a congressman from California went to visit, along with several journalists — and violence erupted. As Congressman Leo Ryan was trying to leave Guyana with several church members who had pled for his help, Temple gunmen launched an attack that killed Ryan and four others. Later that day, Jones, who had become increasingly paranoid, told his disciples they were in grave danger and ordered them to drink cyanide-laced punch. Those who resisted were forced to drink or injected with cyanide, while armed Temple members kept people from fleeing. A total of 913 people died.

That's a lot of ground to cover in 90 minutes, but that is what this film attempts to do. Actually, it attempts to do even more. The movie, which was directed by Stanley Nelson and released in 2006, begins with Jones's impoverished Indiana childhood, describes the creation of the Temple, its growth in California, and its end in Guyana. Forgoing the use of voiceovers and interviewer questions, the filmmaker relies soley on comments from well-chosen sources — including many former Temple members — and historical footage.

What I liked about the film was the very real face it puts on the group. Especially compelling are former members who describe the ideals that brought them into the fold, mainly Jones's causes of racial integration and equality.

"I was impressed by how it was such an interracial group, and people were really happy," says Bryan Kravitz in the film. He explains that he first saw Jones speak during a Temple visit to Philadelphia. "I heard Jim Jones talking about equality among the races. ... The good works that they were doing. Things that I wanted to get involved with but didn't even know where to make an entrée. And all of a sudden, the answer was there."

Some of those who went to Jonestown speak of the joy they felt in being able to live simply and self-
sufficiently, producing all their own food and essentially being shareholders in a community that they built themselves. As part of the Jonestown footage, the film shows photographs of people tending crops, kids playing basketball, and mothers holding children.

"It was just an exciting time," said former Temple member Laura Johnston Kohl. "Everything was new and unique and just fun, you know? We just had fun with it as it grew. I just loved that we created what we ate, that we did all these jobs."

But there was a dark side. Many people, members from varying stages in the Temple's 20+-year life, speak of discovering Jones's deceit, his sadistic tendencies, and his gestapo-style intimidation of those who might want to defect from the group. These troublesome facts about Jones seemed to become increasingly evident over the years, apparently reaching fever pitch in Guyana.

For many, however, the problems were secondary to the central mission of the group. Many in the film speak of how and why they came to accept the abuses. "It's like a child in a dysfunctional family," said former member Jordan Vilchez. "On a certain level, it's normal."

Added former member Hue Fortson Jr.: "We felt like we had gotten involved and gotten in so deep that there was actually no way out."

'She died in my arms'
The film captures — in chilling detail — the strange events of Nov. 17 and Nov. 18, 1978.

The sequence begins with video footage of Ryan and his party's first visit to Jonestown, where residents initially put Ryan's mind at ease. Many of the Jonestown residents seem to be in good spirits, and a singer entertains the multiracial group. As a member of Ryan's party says in the film, "It was a vibrant community. I would never have imagined that 24 hours later those people would be dead."

The first warning sign was when a frightened Temple member tried to pass a note to a member of Ryan's party asking for safe passage out of the community. That person was one of those who eventually reached safety, though Ryan, three journalists, and one defector were not as lucky. They were shot to death while trying to board a small plane out of the area. An NBC cameraman, who died in the gunfire, filmed some of the events before he was killed, and the footage is featured in the movie.

Perhaps even more disturbing is audio that the filmmakers secured, apparently from tapes recovered from the site, of Jones informing his congregation that Ryan was dead and that all of Peoples Temple would be blamed and punished — tortured even — unless they escaped in an act of "revolutionary suicide."

"It's nothing to death, it's just stepping into another plane. Don't be this way," Jones calmly intones. And later: "Quickly quickly quickly quickly quickly. Where is the vat? The vat, the vat, bring it here so the adults can begin."

It is one of the more haunting pieces of audio I've ever heard. I suggest not watching this right before you go to bed.

Of the entire film, some the most heartbreaking moments are the accounts of members who escaped from the scene of the murder-suicides. Two members watched their wives die; one also watched his baby die. You can almost feel the claustrophia of the jungle and the madness of Jones as they describe their loved ones' last moments.

"I saw my wife with our son in her arms and poison being injected into his mouth," former member Tim Carter says in the film. "My son was dead and he was frothing at the mouth. You know, cyanide makes people froth at the mouth. My wife died in my arms. And my dead baby son was in her arms. And I held her and said, 'I love you, I love you,' because that was all I could say. It was like — she died in my arms."

Later in the film he says, "They were just fucking slaughtered. ... It was just senseless waste and death."

Stanley Clayton relays how his wife saw her mother, grandmother, and siblings die. Then she followed Jones's directive willingly.

"She went up to that Kool-Aid, to that death barrel, and she just didn't hesitate," Clayton said. "She took it and drunk and told me to hold her. ... She died in my arms. Once I laid her down — she told me she wanted to lay with her grandmother — I at that point knew that I didn't have any reason to be here anymore." Clayton then cleverly tricked armed Temple guards and escaped into the jungle.

If I have a complaint about the film, it's that I think it glossed over certain details. Perhaps this is a necessity when boiling down a complex topic to a 90-minute presentation, but after doing a little reading on the topic, I think it would have been useful to identify the time frame that each member was in Jonestown, and whether any were "inside" members close to Jones, as opposed to being further way and perhaps insulated from his more frightening behavior.

I also thought that a letter found at Jonestown, and read at the end of the film, was edited in such a way as to make it seem more ambiguous than it really was. Perhaps this wasn't intentional, but from the presentation in the film, I thought the letter-writer was resistant to the suicide order. After finding the full transcript online, I no longer think so. Either way, the letter is incredibly moving and sad; I just don't think it was edited well for the film.

But these are mainly nitpicks. In general, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple offers a fascinating introduction to its topic.

After watching this film, my thoughts turned back to Sam and his recollections. I've since learned that a memorial wall is being erected at the site of a mass grave of several hundred Jonestown victims in California.

My own memorial is below. In my drawing, I chose to make all the headstones the same size to indicate that the people had something in common, but the individual inscriptions were inspired by remembrances I found on a web site called Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. This site, which is part of San Diego State University, includes a list of all those who died, with tools that let friends and relatives leave memorial comments about any of the victims.

If you're curious about this tragedy, I hope you'll either rent Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, which is available from Netflix, or go to the SDSU site and look at some of the testimonials about the victims. I think that the greatest honor we can do the Jonestown victims is to remember them, and recognize that each one represents a unique and incalculable loss.

Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.