Thursday, March 31, 2011

Please Follow This Link

Please follow this link. I don't have time to tell you the details, but something horrible is happening with stem cells, apparently, and we can do something about it.

...the hell with it: Cannibalism: UPDATED: "This needs to be spread far and wide (h/t to Aggie Catholics): Update II: As Subvet says in the comments, this wouldn't be cannibalism per..."

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Show Some Respect!

Night At the Museum would have stank without Robin Williams. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth seeing just for his portrayal of Teddy Roosevelt’s statue. He bursts with energy and charisma. It redeems the rest of the movie, just like the penguins in Madagascar.

Unfortunately, I’m not posting about Robin Williams. In fact, I’m posting about a quote from Night At the Museum that you probably don’t remember, if you’ve seen it. Remember the girl that Larry loves? The one working on her PhD in history? She’s talking about Sacagawea, and there’s a certain way she does that seizes my interest…

“Sacagawea was like the ultimate working mother.”

That might not the exact wording, but it’s the general idea. She brims with enthusiasm when she says it. There’s a smile on her face. Sacagawea is her passion and her hobby; you can tell watching her talk about her.

I find it relevant because it’s the way that many people discuss history. They get that light in their faces. They get that verve in their voices. I’ve seen it in public high school, private Catholic school, and private Catholic college. Whenever people discuss what they’ve learned in a course, they use that sort of expression. Correct me if I’m wrong. My experience is limited.

If that is indeed the norm for Americans at large, then what I am about to say is especially important. I am in a survey course of world history with the excellent Dr. John Romano. Earlier this semester, he lectured about the Hittites and the Assyrians, and their rise and fall in the Near East. I don’t remember if it hit me while I was sitting in my chair, hearing him talk about the cycle of conquest and what king it put in power, or afterwards, when I was walking away from the classroom.

Somewhere it hit me. These things actually happened. This may or may not seem like a huge revelation to you, but either way I want to explain. Before now, I never thought of history explicitly as a story or fairy-tale, but I might as well have. History was in a different world than mine. It was a beautiful heritage, and fascinating stuff, but it wasn’t serious in my life. When I heard the name Hammurabi, my mind never processed it as the name of someone who lived, breathed, ate, and had a soul. Hammurabi had never walked in the same world that I did.

After that lecture about the Assyrians, I realized that he had. History had actually happened. Any doubts that I would minor in History were blasted away. Everything else that Romano lectured became twice as fascinating… and thrice as important. He spoke of Rome, and the Punic Wars, and the fall of the Republic, and for the first time they had the sting of current events. Real people had ambition. Real people got hurt when Caesar was killed. Caesar himself was a real person, behind the glitter and fanfare that his name brings to me.

That’s as much as I can describe. There’s only so much I can say about it. If you haven’t made the step yourself, I urge you to. It is important. America has access to thousands of years of happenings: our story. We could survive without knowing what happened before… or could we? What if didn’t even know how America came to be? What if we hadn’t a clue about the mellenia of mistakes and advances that leave us with the countries and conflicts we have today? What if no one wrote a Gospel?

I venture that our world would be much darker and uncertain. Perhaps more innocent, but I doubt it highly.

Whatever would happen, it is this vital importance of history that makes that quote from Night At the Museum so interesting. Notice how I described the actress, and other people I have known. She was bubbly and gleeful at her knowledge. I said the word “hobby”. If people think of history as something serious- something they are passionate, but still serious about- would they be as gleeful and bright-eyed as the students I talk to?

No. History bleeds with sackings, torture, and betrayal. When I speak of history, I speak not of dark stories like Sweeney Todd or The Cask of Amontillado. History is no fairy-tale. The atrocities in history are reality, and have implications. Based on the conversations I have with my peers and my elders, I do not think there is enough respect for history in America.

I tend to be skeptical about many things. If I am being too harsh, I want to know why. Until I do, if I see that actress gush about Sacagawea in Night At The Museum, I have a half a mind to yell, “Show some respect!”

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

One Question

It’s a busy week, so I’ll leave you with one question.

If the American government collapsed tomorrow, leaving a power vacuum, what would you do? If someone told you this over the phone, and it had just happened, and anything could happen afterwards… how would you react?

I invite you to comment below. This could be a great conversation. It’s certainly an important one. Isn't it?

Monday, March 14, 2011

What A Braggart!

When it comes to bravery, Beowulf makes the Top 10 list for all time. Who’s read Beowulf? This guy takes on a terrifying monster with his bare hands. He dives into an evil lake full of monsters, just one sword in his hands. He even goes after a dragon, all by himself. John McClane is a tough cookie, but I don’t see him intentionally taking of his armor to face a bad guy.

Beowulf was proud of himself for all that. And he wasn’t afraid to share it. More than once he boasted about his exploits, and spared no flattery for himself. Just listen to the guy.

“Time and again, foul things attacked me, / lurking and stalking, but I lashed out, / gave as good as I got with my sword. / My flesh was not for feasting on, / there would be no monsters gnawing and gloating / over their banquet at the bottom of the sea. / Instead, in the morning, mangled and sleeping / the sleep of the sword, they slopped and floated / like the oceans leavings.”

“I had done him no wrong, yet the raging demon / wanted to cram me and many another / into this bag- but it was not to be / once I got to my feet in a blind fury. / It would take too long to tell how I repaid / the terror of the land for every life he took.”

“I marched ahead of him, always there / at the front of the line; and I shall always fight like that / for as long as I live, as long as this sword / shall last, which has stood me in good stead / late and soon, ever since I killed / Dayraven the Frank in front of the two armies.”

What a braggart. Seriously. I can pull up a couple other parts from Beowulf where he milks his adventures for all they’re worth. He boasts in front of envious rivals, foreign kings, and his own people. He holds nothing back when telling his stories. Modesty doesn’t seem to have been a big priority in the Geats’ kindergarten.

Can you imagine what would happen if someone bragged like that today? We’ve come a long way since the time of the Geats. Or at least the ideal of them in Beowulf.

I’m thinking of that captain who crash-landed his plane safely in the Hudson River. I bet he wouldn’t be half the hero he is today if he told the media, “The plane tossed and turned like a drunken bird, but I had a keen mind and firm hands, and I had no trouble keeping my people safe, as I made my perfect landing. Yeah, I’m just that awesome.”

He might have gotten the same rep that Charlie Sheen has right now, but he would have no respect in the long run. Correct me if I’m wrong, please.

I find that curious, now that I think about it. How bad would it be, in the long run, to tell stories like that about ourselves? I hope you, the reader, can name at least one proud thing in your life. Not just any proud thing, mind you. I speak of the big ones. The ones that bring tears to your eyes. The ones that hurt, where you bled for something that was worth bleeding for, and you endured pain for something that was worth the pain, and you kept on moving for something that kept you going, even though you didn’t want to take another step.

And when you got whatever it was you were striving for, you felt it. You felt a surge of pride. I’ve felt it before. I made it through a 13-hour dance marathon. When it finally ended, my heart was on fire. I wanted to share my victory with everyone. I wound up feeling awkward about it later. Would Beowulf have felt awkward? I doubt that. I seriously wonder if bragging isn’t such a bad thing, in moderation.

Ponder me that. If you had just torn the arm off of a huge, man-eating fiend, and a crowd gathered around, waiting for you to say something… what would you say? What if you had the guts to yell, “I did it!” What if you threw out your chest, flexed your muscles, and told everyone how that foul Grendel never stood a chance against you?

St. Paul said to boast only that you serve the Lord; I know that. I could see this kind of bragging falling under that rule. If you did something difficult and noble for God, and you glow with triumph, couldn’t you vent it a little? What kind of a human always smiles quietly and lets someone else take the cake?  

* = The translation I quoted is by Seamus Heaney. My English professor tells me it's not that great.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

An American Daydream

When I say “America”, what do you think of? What definition do you give me? I’m not vain enough yet to think I can guess your answers. Therefore I will give my own, and extrapolate that yours are similar to mine.

I think of the American flag. I think of patriotic songs, sung by enthusiastic children from sea to shining sea. I think of Toby Keith belting out “Courtesy of the Red, White, Blue”. I think of blue skies, and happy people. I think of picnics with sizzling brats and freezing Coke cans. I think of strong, proud looking soldiers in uniform. I think of a lot of beautiful words like “freedom”, “liberty”, and “unity”.

I’ve been wondering for some time what the people of the 1600s thought of America. History and literature has given me a fair idea, but I want to use my imagination for this post.

I see a poet, living in a dismal house in London, trying to get enough pounds for rent and bread to stay alive. This one’s a thinker. He knows about all the horrid wars that have gone on in the past, and all the Crusades and Inquisitions, and all the turmoil of the Anglican church, and everything else, and he doesn’t like it at all. His own life feels just as miserable.

Imagine what went through his mind when he heard about the new settlements in America. Can you see his eyes light up? He must have gone to his bed and laid back, and let the sounds of the streets outside dissolve. From curses and horse hooves, his mind shifts to paradise. He smiles. Like an infant. He can see it!

“Mountains… great mountains, rivers that are blue and never been touched with garbage, green forests that never met a logger- just rich, and wild, beautiful, and who knows how much of it there is? And there’s no civilization! It’s a virgin! It’s untouched! This is our chance! The whole human race! For centuries since Rome fell, Europe has been rife with war and oppression. Somewhere along the line, we fell off track, and these hundreds of years we haven’t been able to get back on. We can start again there. We know what we did wrong. We can make things perfect out there.”

Such a beautiful idea. It sweeps through his being, the way a wind blows through a forest and shakes all the trees. He trembles with excitement. He feels the pendulums of history moving, faster than ever, and pushing him along into something grand, and momentous. Whatever is going to happen on that continent, it must be huge.

The poet leaps from his bed, ablaze and more joyful than he’s been in years. He wants to throw open his door and cry out to the stinking, congested street, “Come with me! To America! Let us create paradise! Let us live the way we never did, the way we always wanted to!”

Can you feel the passion in his voice? I can, and I hope he made it to America, whoever he was. He’s not based on any real person, by the way. But think about that longing for utopia. That’s what drove the Puritans there, at least in part. If you’re skeptical about the sincerity of John Winthrop’s “city on a hill”, take a look at the strict Puritan society he helped create. It lasted long enough to tell us they were chasing something, and they were committed to it deeply.

The ideas of the Enlightenment must have gotten people on this track, too. My poet’s in the 1600s, about when the Enlightenment started taking off. Surely when people started asking questions, the last mellenia of history must have started looking sad. Voltaire had reasons for bashing the Catholic Church, didn’t he?

I for myself would have been ticked off after those Crusades. And the Avignon Papacy. And all the other human mistakes. I would have been disillusioned. America would have looked like the Elysium Fields to me. A chance to wipe clean the slate of human frailty and make a New World like the one that poet was dreaming about.

It hasn’t happened yet. America cut down its trees, threw garbage in its rivers, had a civil war, and is now killing its own children. My poet might fling himself off the Hudson Dam if he saw what America was like today. I’m not saying everything is horrible, but it certainly didn’t turn out the way he hoped for.

F. Scott Fitzgerald has some similar sentiments at the end of The Great Gatsby. He’s part of the reason I wrote this post. I’ll leave you with something he said right at the end.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”