Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why I'm An Exodus Catholic, ctd.

Yet another reason. Certain things repulse me about the callous behavior of the Catholic Church and how it privileges the lives of the unborn over the lives of the already living. There is something fundamentally un-Christ-like, something unforgiving, something unwelcoming, about the attitude that leads to such decisions like the one emanating from Bishop Olmstead.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Palin Speaks On Haiti

Credit where credit is due. As a fierce and regular critic of Sarah Palin on this blog, I think it is especially incumbent upon me not to gloss over where Palin does something that I think is laudable.

Sarah Palin has visited Haiti and urged that we not forget this suffering and troubled country.

I agree with that message. And, as far as I'm concerned, you can't have too many people delivering this message. Sarah Palin's voice in this respect is more than welcome.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

From the Archives: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's Heat Miser/Cold Miser

Remember this from the Classic Rankin/Bass Production, The Year Without A Santa Claus? It was (and remains) one of my favorite Christmas cartoon experiences of all time. This particular YouTube clip nicely matches the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy version of the tune with the actual scene from the original film. Enjoy!

Top 10 Christmas Movies

I've run this in years past, and I'm running it again now. Nothing has surfaced since last Christmas to warrant a change in my rankings.

Here's The Huck Upchuck's Top 10 Christmas Movies of all time:

10. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey -- This may not be on par with some of the better full-length feature films that treat Christmas, but I have always adored this little 22 minute Bass/Rankin animated Christmas story. I guess it's thematically of a piece with the classic "Little Drummer Boy" Bass/Rankin animated short, but I like it better because it's not as well known and gives the animals of the Christmas story their moment. And who can forget: "Ears, Nestor!" :-) This is the only Bass/Rankin animated production that I'll include in my list, though there are certainly some more classics in this bunch of Christmas shorts that entertain the little ones every Christmas season. Honorable mentions in this category of "claymation" Christmas classics include The Year Without a Santa Claus, which features the Heat Miser, the Cold Miser, and Mother Nature, and Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

9. Barbie in the Nutcracker -- Given that I have two young daughters, it's hard not to find room for something like this in the Top 10 list. However, I have to say that this is actually quite a very impressive digital computer animated adaptation of the Nutcracker story. It's the first of these Barbie movies, and I remember thinking how graphically stunning it was at the time. The music and the dancing scenes in this version of the Tchaikovsky-scored Ballet are also quite good. None of the many subsequent Barbie animation movies compares in both production quality and plotline development as this original one. If you can overlook the whole Barbie culture and how it crafts an unrealistic and idealistic notion of female beauty, you can find a little gem of a Christmas movie here.

8. Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas -- This charming muppet musical Christmas story from Jim Hensen conjures nostalgic Christmas memories for me. It is filled with all the great Christmas themes of selflessness, love, family, and friendship. It's not as technically slick as some of our modern day animation and muppetry, but it was a masterpiece of its day. I just love the sweetness and wholesomeness of this lovely little story, and the tunes are catchy and fun. Heck, even the bad guys in this story, the Riverbottom Boys Gang, have their own redeeming charm. Another little interesting tidbit to note is that the actors who provide the voices for Emmet Otter and his jug band friends also provide the voices for the characters in the Riverbottom Boys gang. It's fun to try and identify the alter egos in these two groups. Yes, there are times when the puppetry is so noticeable that it distracts from the story, but I am always struck by how few these moments are. For families with kids 12-yrs-old and younger, this Jim Hensen masterpiece should be a Christmas standard.

7. The Nativity Story - While I found The Nativity Story to be a bit superficial and overly simplistic, it is perhaps the best effort that I've seen to portray the nativity story on film with somewhat of a realistic feel, even though I think its pretensions to realism cynically mask what is essentially a romanticized and imaginary representation of history. The script is perhaps the weakest element of this movie, and the plotline is thin and incomplete in parts; and, unfortunately, the scene where a laboring Mary and Joseph arrive at Nazareth and make their way to the manger for the climactic birth of Jesus is so surreal that it almost sinks the realist believability of the whole movie. Nevertheless, it gets my recommendation for effort and for its undeniably impressive cinematography, not to mention the subtle beauty of actress Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary and the wonderful performance of Ciaran Hinds as Herod.

6. The Polar Express -- This slick, cgi animated telling of the classic train-to-the-north-pole story merits a place in my top ten because it is visually stunning cgi animation. The storyline is 100% pure Christmas spirit -- of giving, friendship, and faith. I originally thought that the movie would be too saccharine for me and would wear off after the initial viewing and captivating animation "honeymoon" period. However, I found this not to be the case. Every time I'm in a room and this show is on the TV screen, I find myself drawn to it, less so for the visuals and moreso for the storyline. Most of the kids are slight caricatures, and it really is an unabashed feel-good movie, but it all tends to work in the end. I think this movie will become part of the classic Christmas movie lineup.

5. A Christmas Carol -- Of the numerous versions of this Dickens classic Christmas tale that exist, and that I have seen, the one that I find to be the most moving, best directed, and most skillfully acted is the 1984 version produced for TV starring George C. Scott. What I love about this particular version is that George C. Scott's Ebeneezer Scrooge is so understated. Unlike the Scrooge one sees in almost all other productions, Scott's Scrooge is not the caricatured heartless and unreflective miser that experiences an over-dramatic conversion. Scott's Scrooge is a troubled and conflicted soul, wracked by regrets, who hardens his heart principally as a mechanism of avoiding pain and disappointment. His greed and vindictiveness are not really central to his character. They exist, but they are sidebars to the real roots of his anti-social behavior. And his conversion does not come from fear, but rather from an awareness and eventual acceptance of his brokenness as a human, and that this brokenness is not unique and can be repaired. What I also like about Scott's Scrooge is that his "converted" character is softer, but still retains some of his gruff and troubled edges. In other words, when Christmas day dawns, he's not a completely different and unrecognizable Scrooge, as is so often portrayed, just a more vulnerable and human Scrooge, willing to open up, share, and smile.

4. Miracle on 34th Street -- I prefer the classic 1947 movie starring Natalie Wood as the little girl and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle. There is something about the 1940s that makes the telling of this tale of belief in Santa resonate much more powerfully than the more recent 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough. The simplicity of the Christmas message, the lack of pretense in the characters, the absence of a post-modern angst about the meaning of Christmas all make the 1947 movie such a joy to watch. What is interesting, I think, is that this particular movie takes on much, much better the alienation that has come with the creeping materialism of the holiday season than any other modern efforts. It's a refreshing, clean, wholesome and inspiring film. And its relevance to the contemporary Christmas environment is still very much real.

3. A Christmas Story -- One's top 10 Christmas movies list would never be complete without this classic included somewhere in the list. For me, this story ranks up there with the best of them. Maybe it's because I'm a guy and this film is really about little boys at Christmas. Ralphie's daydreams are hilarious, especially his "A+++++++++++" essay daydream. And who can forget the irony of the "You'll shoot your eye out!" admonition that actually almost happens. As a parent, I can't say that I'm thrilled about the fact that Ralphie creates the whopper lie that "the Icicle did it" when his Red Rider BB Gun almost puts his eye out, and then gets away with it! But, hey, what little boy hasn't gone down this path? I do, however, feel obliged to issue a warning to parents, though. This movie is marketed as suitable for Children, but beware that there are some really rough, uncensored moments of strong profanity here. It's a movie that is very much politically incorrect, so some might find some of the humor a bit much. But, if taken in the right spirit, it can make for an enjoyable film experience.

2. Love, Actually -- I just love, love, love this modern British movie. It's not really about Christmas, but it takes place around the Christmas season, and its theme is about the mundane beauty of love. The different vignettes are wonderfully done, and the cast is star-studded and stellar. What I particularly like about it is that not all of the stories have a happy ending, but all of them are about love in the Christmas season. Bill Nighy's irreverent performance is absolutely fantastic, and the proposal scene between Colin Firth's character and his Portuguese beauty is so classically romantic that I can watch it over and over and over again, and never get tired of it. And the fact that I know a bit of Portuguese helps me better appreciate the moment. Oh ... I get all wound up just thinking about all the dramas in this movie. I could go on and on about it. And, though I could have done without the sappy kiddie-crush subplot, even this, with some screening of the some fo the more adult scenes, makes it something even the tweens could enjoy. I should say, though, that there are some adult moments, and not all of the film is appropriate for young people, even tweens. For instance, one of the story lines features two characters who are stand-in doubles for what is apparently a porn film, and their scenes often involve nudity and sexually explicit actions, though the relationship itself is ironically sweet and innocent, which makes the contrast with the porn thing all the more stark. Overall, though, I think this film is just fantastic, and the message of love, in all its complex messiness and varied context, can't be beat. Highly recommended, but with appropriate caution when youngsters are involved.

1. It's a Wonderful Life -- I don't care how cheesy, overplayed, and overdramatized some think this movie is, it's still the best Christmas story out there. And I still get all choked up every time I see that last scene when everyone shows up and showers George Bailey with more money than he could ever need to resolve his dilemma. As an actor and person, Jimmy Stewart is one of the best. And Lionel Barrymore's portrayal of the villain, Henry F. Potter, is more classic Scrooge than Scrooge himself!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Gross Unfairness of the Senate

The U.S. Senate, with its abused filibuster mechanism, is the place where legislation goes to die. I detest both the filibuster and the way the Senate is constituted. It is inherently unfair by any stretch of the imagination when it comes to any just understanding of democracy. Take, for example, resident population of the U.S. in 2009 broken down by state:

Reliably "Blue" states:
California - 37 million citizens - 2 Senators
New York - 19.5 million citizens - 2 Senators
TOTALS - 56.5 million citizens - 4 Senators

Reliably "Red" States:
Alaska - .7 million citizens - 2 Senators
Idaho - 1.6 million citizens - 2 Senators
Kansas - 2.8 million citizens - 2 Senators
Kentucky - 4.3 million citizens - 2 Senators
Mississippi - 3 million citizens - 2 Senators
Montana - 1 million citizens - 2 Senators
Nebraska - 1.8 million citizens - 2 Senators
North Dakota - .7 million citizens - 2 Senators
Oklahoma - 3.7 million citizens - 2 Senators
South Carolina - 4.5 million citizens - 2 Senators
South Dakota - .8 million citizens - 2 Senators
Texas - 24.8 million citizens - 2 Senators
Utah - 2.8 million citizens - 2 Senators
Wyoming - .6 million citizens - 2 Senators
TOTALS - 54.1 million citizens - 28 Senators

This includes the highest-ranked reliably conservative population state of Texas. And even if you put some of the small population liberal states in the mix, you'll never be able to match the gross disparity in representation here by always including the highest-ranked reliably liberal population state, California, in the mix. No matter what combination any conservative may try to put together that includes California and New York on the liberal side and Texas and Georgia on the conservative side, the balance will always penalize states that consistently lean liberal.

Lets look at it another way:

Top 15 population states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Arizona, Massachusetts
Bottom 15 population states: Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Idaho, Nebraska, West Virginia, New Mexico

Even here, the imbalance is quite obvious. In the end, Liberals Democrats are always at a disadvantage in the Senate.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Jesuit DREAMers

On the other hand, this letter to the editor of the Times-Picayune made me proud of being a product of the Jesuits. It's also one of the reasons why, even though I consider myself an Exodus Catholic, I don't break completely with my Church and my faith:

Every year approximately 65,000 young people graduate from high school in the United States but are unable to go to college, work or join the military because their parents brought them to the country as children without legal documents. Their lack of legal status prevents them from pursuing their dreams and their full human potential and from making vital contributions to the well-being of our nation.

The DREAM Act is commonsense legislation that would remedy this. To move from being undocumented to being a U.S. citizen, eligible young people would be required to pass rigorous background checks, be of good moral character, graduate from high school, then go on to attend college or serve in the military for at least two years. Approximately 800,000 young people would be able to meet the requirements of the DREAM Act, including about 800 Louisianans.

No matter what one's views on fixing our country's broken immigration system, why would we want to punish children for the actions of their parents? Many of these young people know no other home than the United States.

As the president of a university committed to providing young people the education and formation experiences that allow them to realize their God-given potential, I find it very unfortunate to deny opportunity to talented, intelligent and dedicated students who only know the United States as their home.

Finally, I would like to thank Congressman Joseph Cao for taking a leadership position on this bill by becoming a co-sponsor of this legislation.

In preparation for an upcoming vote on this legislation, I urge your readers to contact members of the Louisiana delegation to support this vital piece of legislation that could bring hope and dignity to so many deserving young people.

Kevin Wm. Wildes, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola University
New Orleans
I will say, too, that if Cao really does shepherd the DREAM Act through Congress during its lame duck session, and if he really does exercise leadership on this matter in any event, that in and of itself will go quite a long way to redeeming him in my eyes.

Tulane, Athletics, and Priorities

For the past two days, the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper has run two letters to the editor from supposed fans and alumni of Tulane University regarding the University's decision to extend the contract of head football coach Bob Toledo, in spite of four seasons of a losing record. I'm gonna get to the content of each of these letters in a bit, but I want to preface my "fisking" of these letter with a few introductory comments. First, full disclosure: Although I have zero connection today to the Tulane Department of Athletics, I am employed by Tulane University as a professor/administrator. Second, I am a Tulane Alum. I attended Tulane as an undergraduate for my Freshman year as a Dean's Honor Scholarship recipient. (Note: I transferred to Georgetown University after my Freshman year simply because I wanted to attend college away from home.) But I then returned to Tulane for graduate school, where I earned both my MA and Ph.D. degrees. Third, and perhaps most importantly for this discussion, I am a varsity letterman and athletic scholarship recipient in Track and Field at Tulane (back in the day when Tulane had a Men's Track & Field program. (Yes, yes, I gave up both the academic scholarship and the athletic scholarship to transfer to Georgetown. Although my dad nearly choked when I made this decision, there is no doubt in my mind today that it was the right decision. And my dad has come to see it this way, too.) So, I think I can safely say that I'm pretty invested in Tulane in more ways than one and I've earned the right to fire back at these letter writers. Now that I've tipped my hand, let's get right down to it...

Yes, I take a dim view of what these letter writers had to say. Here's the first of the two in its entirety:

Why is Tulane extending the contract of a football coach who, after four years, is only averaging about three wins per season? This is ridiculous.

If the Tulane administration does not care about athletics any longer, then just man up and say it publicly!

The administration should not insult the intelligence of the Tulane alumni. Their ability to lead Tulane University is now in serious question among the Tulane alumni.

Do not respond to me with more excuses, and please do not fall back on the Katrina situation as an excuse. It's been five years, and it is time to move on from that.

For the first time in my life, I am ashamed of being a Tulane alum. I am sure that my father (a 1950 graduate and World War II veteran), would feel the same if he were alive today.

Antoine "Pete" Madere
Baton Rouge
What can I say to this? There's so much to unpack here. First off, given how difficult it is to recruit and field a competitive division one football team at Tulane, four years is barely enough time to build a program. Give the guy four more years and then see what happens. For this letter writer to think that anyone can come in and turn around a program like Tulane's in four short years is succumbing to the absurd attitude that drives opinion about elite football programs like LSU. When it comes to football culture (and the corresponding fan culture), Tulane is not like LSU. And I say "Thank God!" for that. In fact, I'd wager that what Tulane needs in order to develop a solid football program is some longer-term stability. Firing a coach every 3-4 years is probably the worst thing that a place like Tulane can do to build up its football program.

The rest of the letter that talks about insulting the intelligence of Tulane alumni or about measuring the value of Tulane's leadership to run a first-rate University (and last I checked a University's primary mission is an ACADEMIC one!) says more about the letter writer than it does about Tulane. And the very last thought the letter writer leaves us tells us everything we need to know about this letter writer. Really, think about it: this guy is ashamed of being a Tulane alum because of the administration's decision not to fire a football coach. If the measure of this guy's pride in Tulane is wrapped up in a friggin' football thing, then he would have been better off going to LSU. What does Mr. Madere have to say about, you know, the EDUCATION he received from Tulane? What about Tulane's impressive graduation rate for its current athletes? Is there no pride in that? Furthermore, what about the many superlative aspects of the University that have nothing to do with athletics? Can't this dude find something redeeming about his Alma Mater in something other than a sport? I'll tell you, as someone educated by Tulane and as a former Tulane Athlete, what makes me ashamed is that there are alumni like Mr. Madere who calculate the measure of Tulane's excellence by the record of its football team.

Turning to the other letter...
Re: "Toledo stays on as Wave coach," Sports, Dec. 1.

I used to be a mainstay at Tulane baseball games. I don't even go anymore. I used to drive out all the way from Kenner midweek with my daughter on a school night to watch bad basketball at Fogelman Arena, never missing a game. I don't even bother anymore.

I haven't missed a football home game since 1996. That streak ends.

Tulane athletics is a non-event in our own hometown. Identifying yourself as a Tulane supporter by wearing gear in public will actually draw laughs. I challenge Scott Cowen and Rick Dickson to get out of their cocoons and try it some time. That deplorable situation sits squarely in their laps.

Tulane football used to be a vibrant part of our city. It is now a laughingstock. The leadership has done nothing but encourage further decline with decisions like the coaching decision made and announced late Wednesday.

Jason T. Liuzza
Tulane Class of 1993
Now while Mr. Liuzza at least keeps his criticisms of Tulane focused on what he sees as the decline of Tulane athletics, and doesn't generalize this as a commentary on the University as a whole, his emphasis on athletics still conveys the notion that what he values about Tulane (and, by extension, what he thinks the rest of us in New Orleans value about Tulane) is its athletics. I can tell Mr. Liuzza that when most people from the community see someone wearing Tulane "gear" in public, they neither laugh nor ridicule. Instead, many of them (in fact, most of them, I'd say) think of Tulane students, faculty, and staff as critical resources for the community. Most people see in the Tulane brand things like ESL classes, after-school tutors for the city's urban youth, social entrepreneurship, coastal restoration work, community health clinics, etc. They see the sign of a civically-engaged, top-notch research and knowledge-generating institution.

As a Tulane alumnus and a former Tulane athlete myself, my advice to Mr. Madere and Mr. Liuzza is that they get their priorities straight and stop measuring the value of Tulane by its athletics.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Messianic Cult of Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin was in my neck of the woods recently. I am always struck by how many of the very same star-struck adorers of Palin are also the ones who most likely recoiled at the "celebrity" power of Barack Obama in the last election. But the adoration has reached messianic proportions among some of the folks who basked in the divine glow of St. Sarah at the temple of Barnes and Noble:

Metairie resident Betty Purcell also had been waiting all day to meet Palin, who she praised for being a Christian and a leader. "It's really neat to be able to touch someone who's doing what she's doing," Purcell said.
Now what, exactly, is Sarah Palin doing beyond a book tour and a reality show? Maybe that one "touch" has cured all of Betty Purcell's ailments connected to Obama Derangement Syndrome. Who knows? And if there ever was any doubt that the ideological wars are being played out in Reality TV shows, I give you this from a St. Sarah devotee:
"You may have shaken hands with the future president," Brenda Fernandez told the boys after they stepped from the table. "This is something they'll never forget."

Brenda Fernandez told Palin that she voted for her daughter, Bristol, 10 times during the younger Palin's recent stint on "Dancing With the Stars."

"Thank you for keeping her in there," a smiling Palin told Fernandez. "She had a blast."
See the conflation of politics with pop culture? The same woman who is ga-ga over having possibly met a future President, sees fit to affirm her loyalty to such a future Commander-In-Chief and leader of the free world not by stating that she admired and voted for her in the 2008 election, but by declaring the multiple times she voted for Bristol Palin on "Dancing with the Stars"! Yes, Eric, we've already lost the battle. Do you see that now?