Colorado Fires

Okay, it’s getting a little scary out there. Not for me; I’m in a place pretty safe from wildfires. But the fires near Boulder and Colorado Springs are scary. Thousands have been evacuated and the weather is doing us no favors.

It’s hot, it’s dry, and we’ve seen gusting winds up to 65mph in some areas. Hundreds of homes have been lost and it looks like the situation is going to get worse before the firefighters will manage to get the fires under control. As I write this, I’m hearing that the Air Force Academy is being evacuated and the TV is showing fire getting uncomfortably close to the academy football field.

There are going to be a lot of families needing the generosity of the rest of us. Here are some organizations that will be needing donations and support.

Salvation Army and Red Cross are both providing a tremendous amount of support.

The Larimer Humane Society is working to rescue animals and reunite them with their owners.

HelpColoradoNow.org has lists of things that are needed by a number of agencies and organizations. That is where I will be focusing my giving.

Brave: A Review

I’ve been a fan of Pixar since before they began making feature films. The shorts Luxo Jr. and Tin Toy, in particular, were groundbreaking. Though they both look dated now in terms of the technology, they both managed to completely change my expectations of what animated films should be. While Disney soldiered on with more traditional forms of animation (and made some wonderful films like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and the underappreciated Hunchback of Notre Dame), Pixar was busy inventing the future of the art.

The obvious bit was the animation. Toy Story brought their vision of 3D animation to the masses; it was beautiful. But the real beauty wasn’t just the animation, it was the writing, the story, and the heart that managed to capture adults as surely as it did children. They turned big profits, earned critical acclaim, and took home awards by the armful. All of it well-deserved, as far as I’m concerned.

There are few more stirring moments in film over the last decade than the opening of Up. Although the “Jessie’s Song” sequence from 1999’s Toy Story 2 would give it a run for its money.  The beauty of Wall-E wasn’t just in its spectacular opening sequence, but in its wonderfully rendered love story about a couple of robots. For that matter, Ellen Degeneres is hilarious as an absent-minded fish in the touching and utterly hilarious Finding Nemo.

The point is not to give a Pixar’s Top 10 Moments list. Nor is it to suggest that they haven’t had some misfires (for me, Monsters Inc. and Cars were largely uninvolving and Cars 2 was a complete wreck). The point is that Pixar has a habit of telling great stories told with an artistic flair and they absolutely changed the face of animated entertainment.

Does Brave live up to the Pixar reputation for excellence? Absolutely.

While Brave isn’t the absolute best of Pixar’s films, that is merely an issue of having set the bar so ridiculously high.

Brave’s story is perhaps more straighforward than most of their best movies. It won’t shock you with originality, then, but what is familiar is still told with a fresh vigor that is infectious. Princess Merida and Queen Elinor have the same kind of parent-child tug of war seen in Finding Nemo, grounded both in the growth and maturation of the young character and the parents’ final understanding of their childrens’ need for self-determination and growth. As I said, somewhat standard stuff, but it’s the twists, turns, and characters that carry us through the films.

In Brave, the filmmakers resisted the temptation to give us the entire plot and all the good bits in their trailers. The audience, then, actually gets to experience the movie without too much in the way of existing expectation. I would love it if other movies followed suit.

And don’t forget the animation. Pixar continues to put out the absolute highest quality animation in the industry and Brave manages to bump the bar up a few extra notches. The texture of fabrics looks more real than anything I’ve ever seen before and Princess Merida’s hair may look violently, unnaturally red, but each of the strands looks real and every bounce and shake moves as it would in the real world. The bark of trees, the toothy texture of the earth, the delicate blades of grass, and flowing water are all such amazing analogs to their real-world counterparts that it is easy to get lost in the rendered world.

Now, the Celtic world of Brave is entirely window dressing. Just the tiniest bit of flavor without the baggage of striving for authenticity. If that matters to you, you’ll find yourself disappointed; for the majority of people, it won’t even register. What will register is that the story is a fun and touching ride, the characters are people you hope will find their way, and the final act brings the kind of emotional swell that Pixar delivers better than anyone this side of Spielberg at his tear-jerking best.

I would suggest that Up is the more artistically fulfilling and that both Wall-E and Ratatouille are better realized, but Brave certainly earns a position with movies like the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. That’s pretty good company and worlds better than most of what is being shown in theaters this year.

Bottom line: if you’re a Pixar fan, you’re probably going to love this movie. If you find Pixar films either too simple or too emotionally manipulative, avoid at all costs. This isn’t the one that’s going to change your mind.

I Choose to Feast on Life

I won’t fire a round in this chapter of the mommy wars. There is precious little ground to be gained and I don’t fancy myself a willing target of enraged women seeking their own, personal fulfillment.

But this article by Namoi Dector in Commentary Magazine is a mighty fun read for me.

Guess what, ladies! We still can’t have it all. Well, we could, if only the world of work adjusted itself to meet our requirements. As it currently stands, however, we just can’t have a really, really high-powered job and spend as much time taking care of our children as we’d like to — not even if we’re working for a feminist icon, in what is arguably the most aggressively woman-friendly presidential administration ever.

[…]

Who’s to blame? You guessed it: SOCIETY. Because men are still socialized to blah blah blah. Studies have shown that blah blah blah. Young women are agonizing over blah blah blah. Older women are agonizing over blah blah blah. And what’s to be done? Right again: CHANGE SOCIETY. Change the way we work; change the way we value different kinds of working (through email, phone and videoconferencing, and not thinking that #hours-spent-in-office=drive and dedication). Oh, and arrange school schedules so that our children can be kept at their own desks for as long as we are at ours. If we do this, we will finally, finally, figure out how to achieve, you guessed it again, WORK-LIFE BALANCE.

I must say this: no one gets to “have it all.” Even the wealthiest, longest lived, healthiest people don’t get to “have it all.” The insistence that anyone should “have it all” is infantile.

Grownups know that you have to make choices and every choice involves not only some gain but some cost. When faced with two wonderful options, I often have to choose one and lose the other; that is the cost of priorities. As good as my life is– and it is– I no more “have it all” than anyone else in this world.

My advice: own your choices. Embrace the path you take without mourning the one you didn’t. Love what that path brings you without obsessing over what other people chose. If you find that the costs in area are too great, then make changes to bring the balance that you want.

You don’t get to “have it all” but, if you make smart choices, you might get to have an awful lot of love and happiness in your life– a job that fulfills you, loyal friends, happy memories, celebrations, and wonderful experiences. Live is a banquet of wonders and beauty and I will feast on all that I can.

And even so, I know that will never, ever “have it all.”

Still Talking Gay Marriage

I’ve talked the subject to death and even said that I was largely done discussing it. I’ve staked out my position– rather openly– but I don’t know that I’ve ever moved someone else even marginally on the issue.

So, for me, it’s mostly done. For opponents: I know your position, you know mine, and for the sake of harmony, I choose to leave it to the side.

But I do want to share this. The founder for the Institute for American Values, a man who has been staunch in opposition to same sex marriage, who has made intelligent and deep arguments against extending marriage to same sex couples has changed his mind and done so in a fashion that I find admirable. Now, I say this while admitting that many of his thoughts are the thoughts that have gone through my own head on my journey from opposition to advocacy (not a short trek), but his explanation is more convincing than anything I ever wrote on the subject.

I had hoped that the gay marriage debate would be mostly about marriage’s relationship to parenthood. But it hasn’t been. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say that I and others have made that argument, and that we have largely failed to persuade. In the mind of today’s public, gay marriage is almost entirely about accepting lesbians and gay men as equal citizens. And to my deep regret, much of the opposition to gay marriage seems to stem, at least in part, from an underlying anti-gay animus. To me, a Southerner by birth whose formative moral experience was the civil rights movement, this fact is profoundly disturbing.

I had also hoped that debating gay marriage might help to lead heterosexual America to a broader and more positive recommitment to marriage as an institution. But it hasn’t happened. With each passing year, we see higher and higher levels of unwed childbearing, nonmarital cohabitation and family fragmentation among heterosexuals. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the reconceptualization of marriage as a private ordering that is so central to the idea of gay marriage. But either way, if fighting gay marriage was going to help marriage over all, I think we’d have seen some signs of it by now.

Please do read the rest regardless of your opinion on the subject. Even if you end up disagreeing with him on his new position, his thoughts remain lucid and compelling.

Obama Ties Himself to Fast and Furious Scandal

Much more to say about this later, but I have to say one thing right now: I’m shocked that President Obama would assert executive privilege over a set of documents pertaining to the Fast & Furious scandal right now (unless, of course, they implicate the White House in ways that haven’t been clear to this point).  Why shocked? Because his action pushes the scandal to the front pages and it ties his administration to something that they had heretofore managed to distance themselves from.

Obama does not want this to become an election year issue, yet his actions almost assure that it will be an issue. Sen. Grassley has it right:

“How can the president assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement? How can the president exert executive privilege over documents he’s supposedly never seen? Is something very big being hidden to go to this extreme? The contempt citation is an important procedural mechanism in our system of checks and balances,” he said.

“The questions from Congress go to determining what happened in a disastrous government program for accountability and so that it’s never repeated again,” he said.

This move signals that something is being covered up; if there is nothing to see in those papers, though, why would the President paint himself in such a light? It doesn’t help that Holder has made misleading statements in an attempt to shift some blame to the previous administration— a tactic that the administration continues to use in other situations to explain away their own failures.

In a second major retraction over its version of the the gun-walking scandal, the Justice Department has retracted Attorney General Eric Holder’s charge in a hearing last week that his Bush administration predecessor had been briefed on the affair.

In a memo just released by Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa senator reveals that Holder also didn’t apologize to former Attorney General Michael Mukasey for dragging him into the Fast & Furious scandal that is headed for a major legal clash and likely contempt of Congress charge against Holder.

According to Grassley’s memo, Justice said that Holder “inadvertently” made the charge against Mukasey in a hearing.

That sound you hear is Republicans thanking the President for handing over another powerful campaign issue– and you might also hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the left as they realize that this is turning ugly.

If I might echo Vice President Biden for one moment: the Fast & Furious scandal is a big fucking deal.

Happiness: Still Overrated

This article on The New Republic is mildly interesting to me, but it loses me when it starts talking about the religious view of focusing on things other than personal happiness. That is, focusing on something other than the fleeting, typically shallow response to fulfilling our small desires.

In Christianity, for most of its history, the treasure, not pleasure, was to be stored up in heaven, not down here where thieves break in. After all, as a pre-eighteenth-century theologian would put it—or as a modern and mathematical economist would, too—an infinite afterlife was infinitely to be preferred to any finite pleasure attainable in earthly life.

The un-happiness doctrine made it seem pointless to attempt to abolish poverty or slavery or wife-beating. A coin given to the beggar rewarded the giver with a leg-up to heaven, a mitzvah, a hasanaat; but the ancient praise for charity implied no plan to adopt welfare programs or to grant rights of personal liberty or to favor a larger national income. A life of sitting by the West Gate with a bowl to beg was, after all, an infinitesimally small share of one’s life to come. Get used to it: For now and for the rest of your life down here, it’s your place in the great chain of being. Take up your cross, and quit whining. What does it matter how miserable you are in this life if you’ll get pie in the sky when you die? Such fatalism in many religions—“God willing,” we say, “im yirtzeh hashem,” “insh’Allah,” “deo volente”—precluded idle talk of earthly happiness.

Not quite. At least, not entirely.

While I’ve personally heard preachers make some arguments with various fidelity to the message as portrayed here, it is rarely so simple as this. And my own personal crusade to find meaning in things other than personal happiness has nothing to do with denying myself earthly pleasure. Anyone who knows me knows that I like to drink, laugh, eat, live, love, and generally eat up all the experiences life can hand me. I truly enjoy life and there has been no shortage of happy moments in my life. What I believe, though, and what I’ve heard preached is that putting so much importance on those transient moments leads to an empty life.

Happiness is overrated not because it’s such a bad thing in and of itself, but because the pursuit of happiness leaves people painfully short of their real potential.Those things that I have done in life that bring me the most contentment– the overwhelming sense that my time here is not being wasted– are not necessarily those things that bring me the most happiness. They are the moments where I have served others, where I have accomplished the hardest tasks, or where I have maintained the struggle even when I wanted to give up. Those are the things that have brought me the most lasting value, the strongest sense of self-fulfillment.

Mere happiness simply doesn’t compete on the same emotional plane.

What I learned in church wasn’t fatalism or some un-happiness doctrine; what I learned was that focusing on such small bites of  emotional pleasure left damned little room for reaching heights far greater.

I don’t live a miserable life and people around me tend to laugh a lot, but I’ll be damned if I let these little pleasures keep me from finding greater meaning in my life. Your mileage may vary and I don’t expect everyone to follow the path that I’ve chosen. For me, though, it is obvious that our contemporary culture has placed so much emphasis on personal, selfish, worldly happiness that it can have the effect of drowning out those better angels of our nature. Or, to say it another way, “Happiness is most definitely overrated.”

I’ve strayed a bit, of course, and the referenced article still gives an interesting discussion on the subject of quantifying the value of happiness and the science of “hedonics.” It’s an article, in fact, that starts leaning a bit toward my own views on the subject (although I’m not entirely certain that McClosky would agree).

What I know, though, is that happiness and contentment are yours to define for yourself not because anyone else has found a way to measure your most personal emotions, but because our modern, wealthy, liberal (in a not-overly-political sense) society has allowed you the opportunity to find and cherish your own path. There aren’t too many societies in our history that could give its citizens that level of self-determination.

We are blessed.