Monday, February 2, 2009

Busy Week, Busy Weekend

Just back in Los Angeles after an unusually busy week in Laguna and a busy weekend--which will explain my dereliction of duty on The Buddha Diaries. This morning, I hardly know where to start. I've been thinking, among other things, about Obama's book, which I finished in the course of the week, as well as two movies, a Masterpiece Theater episode, and the Super Bowl...

"Dreams From My Father" is simply a superb book. For anyone who wants to get to know the heart and soul of our new President, it offers a broader and more profound view of any President who ever was, surely, at the beginning of his presidency. I wrote last week about the struggles of his early years, until about halfway through the book. In the latter half, he writes extensively about his work in Chicago and his first visit to Kenya, to meet a vast extended family there. The Chicago years show a man prepared to work his heart out to achieve social reforms, a man dedicated to the betterment of the lot of the underprivileged and the underrepresented; a man who takes the trouble to listen to the needs of others and, where necessary, to change course.

The family visit in Africa is amazing. You keep pinching yourself, as you read, to remind yourself that this man is to become the President of the United States. He learns so much, not just about the rich mix of his origins--and this is significant, because what he learns has clearly come to inform the way he looks at the world beyond the United States; but about people, their differences and sameness, their common needs for shelter, food, family and community. His mind reaches easily back to the origins of man, embraces the remote villager and the dweller of the bustling, modern city--and constantly reflects, digests, comprehends the value of each new experience. He proves himself a poet, too, writing about the beauty of the African landscape and the thrill of encountering creatures in the wild. I am more impressed than ever with this man, upon whose shoulders the hopes of the world now rest.

I saw more than two movies (theater and Netflix,) but two of them stay with me. The first is Man on Wire, the story of the French wire-walker, Phillippe Petit's illicit stroll across the space that used to separate the north and south towers of the World Trade Center. The location itself, of course, guarantees a poignancy to the story. But more than that, the movie has the feel of one of those heist films, with all the details of the years-long planning and the breathtaking suspense of the eventual fulfillment of this man's extraordinary dream. It's a work of art. Ellie and I thought a good deal about Christo and Jeanne-Claude--they of the wrapped Reichstag in Berlin, the trans-Pacific blue and yellow "Umbrellas" and the orange "Gates" in New York--as the story unfolded. Although their work is always legal, it requires years of planning and risky execution. Acrophobics like myself may have a few moments of vicarious nausea, watching Petit as he dances and prances on his (extremely!) high wire, lies down to rest halfway between the buildings, a quarter mile above the street, and kneels for an ironic salute to the waiting cops, who arrive to arrest him before his performance ends.

The Super Bowl... I watch very little football these days. Perhaps twice a year, at most. But I was glad to have chosen this game, one of the most exciting I have ever seen. Plenty of theatrics, unbelievable pyrotechnics (on the field; the half-time show offered real ones,) and a result that, until the very last moment, could have gone either way. I have reservations, as I suspect many of my readers might, about the absurd commercialization of this annual spectacular. But I'll confess that I enjoyed myself immensely.

Okay, now the second movie and the Masterpiece Theater episode, which shared an interesting and complex theme. I'm speaking of The Duchess (Netflix) and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which we had recorded. The protagonist of each of these movies is an English woman, quite removed in social station and historical time, but both victims of a social mores that accepted the dominance of men and their right to use women essentially as chattels. Post women's liberation, of course, both stories emphasize the strength of character of their heroines in their struggle to make the best of impossible situations. The Duchess, having failed initially in her "duty" to provide a male heir to her Duke, is humiliated by his unquestioned right to sexual dalliances with others--including with her closest friend--and cruelly punished for indulging in her own. Having been ignominiously raped by a "gentleman" and borne his child, Tess confesses the secret to her beloved husband on their wedding night--as a consequence of his confession of his own youthful indiscretion--and is promptly abandoned by him to a life of virtual slavery.

Seen from a twenty-first century point of view, such double standards are shockingly cruel and unjust. Less emphasized by both of these productions, is fact that the menfolk, like their wives, are equally prisoner to the social strictures of their times. Their minds are simply incapable of working past attitudes and customs so deeply engrained, and they become victims to the tragic circumstances as much as do the suffering women from whom they expect purity, obedience, and subordination. I'm perhaps especially sensitive to this side of the issue at this time, as I prepare for the men's training weekend I am to staff later this month--preparations which, with two lunch meetings and a half-day plenary session with staff members on Saturday, significantly contributed to the busy-ness of which I was complaining earlier in this post. However, the training was an inestimable gift to me, more than fifteen years ago, when I experienced it, and I have served many times on staff for other men since then. It's a way of expressing my gratitude, a service--and also a way for me to experience further growth in my own life and work. Should anyone out there in the blogosphere be interested, I encourage them to contact me for further information and encouragement.