Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Charm of Underdogs

I'm headed off for a week in west Africa tomorrow, so my 12 year old son Andrew and I spent the day together today.

We went to the gym and played some hoop and then spent about an hour or two at a place called "Fat City" where we rolled some bowling balls and did some lazer tag.

When we got home we watched a rented movie Andrew wanted me to see. He told me "Napoleon Dynamite" would make me laugh.

He had that right. Lots of you have probably seen it, so I won't go into detail. But it's got to be one of the oddest and most sophisticated and creative movies I've run across.

Napoleon is a very strange high school student who tries to make it through life in what appears to be a small town in Utah.

The whole thing is a very funny tribute to the courage and strength and creativity of people who most of us--at first impression--would probably not want to hang out with.

Since those kind of people make up a pretty big chunk of the world, this is a movie with some emotional resonance.

Napoleon helps his Mexican immigrant friend Pedro become class president by disco dancing to a weird 70's tune in front of a class assembly in the gym.

At another point near the end of the movie, he tries to impress the girl he hopes will be his girlfriend with the line "I caught you a delicious bass."

It's harsh and funny in the way that real life often is.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Too Little Oxygen?

The news in Colorado is a lot more interesting than anything I expected when we moved here a couple of years ago.

Last year we had the Kobe Bryant rape trial and the University of Colorado football team recruiting scandal and the mechanic up in Grandby who built himself a digital high-tech tank out of a tractor and leveled half of the town because he was angry with some of his neighbors.

In terms of the news it seems like we never left Southern California.

More recently the local news has been dominated by Ward Churchill and Sponge Bob Square Pants.

Churchill is the CU professor who claimed that US foreign policy has consequences and that when we kill lots of people overseas and manipulate political outcomes in other countries there are sometimes unfortunate costs to be paid.

The man is obviously a nut job.

He compared some of the workers in the World Trade Center who died on 9/11 to Eichman, the ultimate Nazi corporate yes man who made the trains to the concentration camps run on time.

Clearly not the best choice of analogies. Even people who are telling the truth can sometimes let their own egos and need for attention get in the way. And sometimes important contributions are done in by laziness and a lack of discipline.

But on the other hand, sometimes valuable contributions come from the least likely and respectable sources.

About 20 years ago many evangelical organizations left Southern California and relocated to Colorado Springs, a city about an hour south of Denver. They were looking for a place with cheaper real estate for their staffers and a more receptive culture. Or in more plain language, an overwhelmingly white and very conservative place.

Focus on the Family, one of those evangelical organizations, set up shop in Colorado Springs a while back.

James Dobson, who leads FOF, is sort of a cross between your local Christian counselor and Oprah. He's a perfect fit for a dumbed down and conservative Christian therapeutic culture.

Lately he's been busy threatening the Bush administration with the withdrawal of evangelical support if the Bushies don't end abortion and put a stop to gay marriage.

He's also on the warpath against Sponge Bob Square Pants because he thinks that dangerous cartoon character is encouraging the acceptance of gay parenting.

Jim is feeling it and I understand that from a human point of view. Everybody thinks they have God's blessing and everyone believes they're a genius when things go their way.

But personally, I think Jim needs a reality check.

Our current government has no serious intention of really challenging abortion or gay marriage. If those two issues were resolved in the way FOF would like the current conservative political movement would collapse. Those issues are the moral engine of the right. Our leaders are well aware of one of the fundamental sources of their electoral victories.

If the current government actually took those issues on aggressively they would not only cut the heart out of the conservative religious right, but they would also alienate enough of the rest of the voting population to put their power and privelege in jeopardy. No governing party which seeks to perpetuate itself would make such a move. The smart thing to do is to continue to deceive naive evangelicals.

But all political musings aside, maybe an important evangelical leader has more important things to do right now than hunting down a cartoon sponge who lives at the bottom of the sea.

There are enough cartoon characters running things right now in Washington to get the attention of even the most sheltered evangelical leaders.

What can I say? All of us here at altitude have less oxygen going to our brains than most people. But you have to admit that we're colorful....

Friday, February 18, 2005

My Mother's Maiden Name

Whenever a creditor wants to make sure you're actually the person you say you are, they ask you a series of questions based on the answers you punched in when you signed up.

They almost always ask for your account number. Normally they want to know your social security number, or at least the last four digits. They often want to know your zip code.
And more often than I would like, they want to know your mother's maiden name.

My mother's maiden name was Yianacopolous. Or was that Yianacopolos? Or Yanacapolous?

I've spent no small amount of time in my adult life being turned down in the endless questioning we all endure because I couldn't remember how to spell my mom's last name.

Yiannacopolous--which is the way you actually spell it when you've had some time to think after eating a healthy breakfast--means "son of John" in Greek. Or "Johnson" in the language of my father's ancestors who came from northern Europe.

I've used the name "Johnson" from time to time when I've filled in these digital forms. But I can never remember whether I went with the "J" name or the "Y" name with a particular organization or bank or lender. I always feel like a phony when I use the "J" name so I often use the "Y" name for forms, but I also sometimes go with the "J" name when I remember that I'll probably forget how to spell the "Y" option.

I was turned down again today when I tried to activate my new Frontier Airline credit card. I got the card so I could get free miles and qualify for a free trip to somewhere in the U.S where no one uses long and mysterious Greek last names.

After plowing through about ten minutes of intentionally misleading digital phone messages meant to frustrate me into abandoning any attempt to talk to a real person, I finally got hold of a customer service (sic) representative.

She was very accomodating. When I told her I couldn't get past the "mother's maiden name" question and that I sometimes use both the "Y" and the "J" options, she asked me to say the "Y" option. I guess I pronounced it well enough to convince someone who had never heard that name before, because she gave me the thumbs up and activated my new card. She told me her mother's maiden name was "Johannsen." I guess it's a small world.

The baptismal first name my parents gave me--my real first name--is Theophany. No, I'm not even going to go there :^) That's another credit application nightmare in the making....

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Nu Skool

I saw the results of a comprehensive study on the attitudes of current high school students released a couple of weeks ago.

30% thought the US Constitution went too far in guaranteeing the rights of free speech, assembly, freedom of religion, etc.

50% thought that newspapers should only be able to publish articles with government approval.

Our current fear-induced cultural worship of authority and uniformity has apparently gone even farther than I had thought.

The freedoms that many of our high school students don't seem to understand or appreciate were created by centuries of efforts by the best of our fathers and mothers who wanted to restrain centralized governments of all kinds.

The freedoms of assembly and speech and religion and the press were meant to check arrogant "visionary" oligarchies (our current American form of government) and kings and dictators and all the other talented-but-self absorbed types who all too often end up in charge of human communities.

The whole Bill of Rights thing came out of Christian thinking on the falleness of every person's soul and the experience of thousands of years of unchecked European governments who always seemed to do their best work while making war and taking away anybody's rights who wasn't a part of their class or party.

When young people--who have historically been one of the groups in our culture most likely to challenge authority--become choir members in the current Church of Cultural Fear it may be time to wake up.

All Americans profess allegiance to the Bill of Rights, but when particular currents in our cultural and political life help create a context in which many of our young people question those rights, maybe it's time to start re-thinking our national direction. Maybe it's time for Christians--whose ancestors did the most to create the Bill of Rights--to make a change in the way people do church in this country.