Friday, February 27, 2009

12:01 a.m.

One of the most significant (and panned) byproducts of the internet is the 24 hour news cycle. Gone are the days of reading about the news in the morning papers, finding out more during the evening and late night news shows, and the then waiting for the next morning for an update. With the 24 hour news cycle, stories can pop up at any time and have a life and death within a few hours. While the cycle allows for frivolous stories to take on steam, such stories can easily disappear just as quickly as they arrived. This was never more evident than this past presidential election.

It’s not just “hard” news that works with the 24 hour cycle; entertainment and sports news does as well. The NFL’s free agency signing period started this morning at 12:01 a.m. Prior to the internet, football fans like myself would stay up late watching Sportscenter and go to sleep at about 1 a.m. waiting for any hard news which hardly came. Then we’d wait for the morning papers to see if there was anything new, but most likely it was simply a rehash of the news we saw last night. Who signed where and for how much? What did our team do? Sportscenter, however, only reported what deals were actually made. What fans couldn’t get at a moment’s notice was what we feed off: sports rumors. Who’s getting offered what? Who’s visiting where? Who’s in the know?

With the internet, even before 12:01, rumors were flying through cyberspace. I’m a Jets fan and one of the key sought after free agents is Bart Scott, linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. Rumors were that the Ravens were feverishly trying to re-sign him before midnight. So myself and thousands of other Jet fans were scouring,,,, the sports beat writers blogs, Jet and Raven fan message boards, etc. trying to find out what was going on. We refreshed every few minutes for every site (opened up in multiple web browser tabs) in hopes for an update. The countdown was on and there was a sense of relief when we refreshed our browsers at 12:02, then 12:05, and 12:07 and found, at first, no news that Scott signed with the Ravens and then later that he, in fact, did not.

So I and many other fans didn’t turn on Sportscenter to find out the news. We had fellow fans to do that and they reported on message boards what they had seen. Of course, this is not reliable information, but it’s a good starting point. Whenever a fan declares something such as X player is on his way to Y team, or Z player is about to sign with B team, other fans take it at face value but want confirmation. The request is made simply by asking: “link?”

The first significant free agency news was the Washington Redskins signing former Tennessee Titans Defensive Tackle Albert Haynesworth to an exorbitant contract. This news broke at around 5:30 a.m. NFL fan message boards were flooded with posts criticizing or praising the move all before 8 in the morning. The morning papers, of course, missed it since the news came after the papers went to print. But the fans were still able to get the news, pass it along, and comment on it all because of the internet.

And so it goes for NFL fans on the start of free agency. We stay up much later trying to find out as much as we can and are able to find out real-time news the moment we wake up. For us, at least, the 24 hour news cycle is a godsend.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

I went to the Cathedral of Saint Patrick in NYC this morning to get my ashes, as I’ve done for years past on Ash Wednesday. I’m a life long Catholic, with—admittedly—periods of agnosticism and atheism (a long story for another blog post). But I’ve been back to the home town religion for the last 23 years or so. I’ve been getting my ashes for so long, that I’ve lost track of the reason behind it. That’s a big no-no in Christianity. Jesus explicitly distinguished His followers from the pagans by noting that the pagans followed ritual without worship. In other words, they went through the motions without understanding why. For His followers, however, Jesus wanted them to know and understand by worshipping in their hearts and by their deeds. So, what did I do? I’ve researched Lent and Ash Wednesday!

Yes, I know that Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten season in the Christian calendar, the 40 day period of preparation for Good Friday and Easter, but I wanted to know more. According to the pamphlet handed out in St. Patrick’s, in explanation of Ash Wednesday:

“The ashes of Ash Wednesday not only describe our humanity, more emphatically, they are a proclamation of hope, reconciliation and peace. Ashes give symbolic expression to our trusting dependence in God’s merciful love.”

Okay. Now for the explanation for Lent in the pamphlet:

“Lent is the period of forty days during which we examine our lives in order to renew our faith. Through acts of love, we become more like Christ in our attitude toward God and one another. Let prepares us to take part fully in the celebration of the Easter Mysteries during the Triduum (3 days) of the Lord’s Supper, his Passion, Death and glorious resurrection on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, the holiest days of the Christian year.”

Being a history buff, I couldn’t stop there. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Lent and Ash Wednesday first arose at different times. The word Lent is Teutonic in origin and referred originally to the spring season. The significance of the number 40 invokes both Moses and the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus fasting for 40 days in the desert in preparation of His ministry, and Jesus lying 40 hours in the tomb.

A preliminary 40 day fast for Easter arose in the Fourth Century. This was not inclusive to the then separate custom of fasting during Holy Week. This preliminary fasting period became known as Lent. By the Fifth Century, Lent lasted for six weeks including Holy Week, but there was actually only three total weeks of fasting excluding the weekends. Soon there was a split, with some Christian communities insisting on 40 actual days of fasting and, thus, Lent would last eight weeks (40 days plus non-fasting weekends) with other communities sticking with the six week tradition. By the Seventh Century the six week tradition won out, but with six days a week fasting for a total of 36 fasting days. The tradition of beginning Lent with Ash Wednesday began in the Eighth Century. It arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. The ashes themselves are from the previously blessed palms from the prior year’s Palm Sunday. By the Middle Ages, Lent consisted of forty weekdays which were all fast days, and six Sundays with Ash Wednesday marking the start of Lent.

As to the fast itself, there has never been a hard tradition. Some Christian communities abstained from eating anything that was once alive, others abstained from all living creatures except fish, and others only ate birds and fish. There was a consensus, however, that for fasting days there was only one meal a day and it was taken in the evening. Over the years, the fasting requirements were relaxed and now in the United States no meat may be eaten on Ash Wednesday, Lenten Fridays including Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The origin of making a Lenten sacrifice is more obscure, but probably arose with the relaxation of the fasting requirement.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Slumming on a Dark Knight

It’s a good thing I didn’t have a blog when the Oscar nominations were announced because I would have had an expletive laden post. It’s outrageous that The Dark Knight was not nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and Christopher Nolan for Best Director. Before anyone accuses me of channeling my inner Fanboy, the film and Nolan were nominated in those categories by their respective guilds for the guild awards. In other words, the Director’s Guild nominated Nolan for its award, the Producer’s Guild nominated the film for best picture for its award, and so forth. The cast, however, was not nominated by the Screen Actors Guild for Best Ensemble, which indicates who’s responsible for this travesty.

Yes, the actors. These same actors who catapulted Crash to Best Picture over the exponentially better film, Brokeback Mountain. But I’m not here to bash the actors (really I’m not). It was an oversight which has happened many times in the past. Fantasy and Science Fiction films have long been overlooked by the Academy, so it’s easy to see a “comic book film” suffer the same fate. But The Dark Knight was much more than a “comic book film.” It could be viewed as a physiological thriller, or crime drama, two categories well represented in Best Picture nominations over the years. I’m partial to transcendent films, films that are remarkably well made which transcend the medium and change film forever. The Dark Knight did that, the Lord of the Rings trilogy did that, Brokeback Mountain did that, and other great films we all know of before them.

Luckily (for me at least), there is actually one transcendent film nominated for Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire. It has its fair share of critics, but it is both familiar and something we’ve never seen before. I absolutely loved the movie and felt better about The Dark Knight’s slight (just a little bit) after seeing it. It’s superior to the other entries and deserves the award. It is better than The Dark Knight, but the other four nominated films are not. They really are just recycled versions of previous movies while only The Dark Knight and Slumdog are new and fresh. In two decades from now these are the two films we’ll be talking about from this year. It’s unfortunate that one was overlooked by the Academy, but at least the Academy can right itself by rewarding the other.

So here are my major category picks (I’m not sure if it’s what “will” win or what “should” win, but here goes):

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire

Best Director: Danny Boyle for Slumdog

Best Actor: Mickey Rourke

Best Actress: Kate Winslet

Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger

Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis

Best Original Screenplay: Wall-E

Best Adapted Screenplay: Slumdog

Friday, February 20, 2009

Celebrity Violence

By now we’ve all seen the shocking photograph of Rihanna’s battered face on and various news outlets. When I first heard that Chris Brown was arrested for assaulting an unidentified woman I admittedly didn’t think much of it. I thought it was just another story of a celebrity getting in trouble in a club or party. I wasn’t dismissive of violence against women, of course, and am not a “blame the victim” type person. Unfortunately, I’m more of a “blame the celebrity” type person. Whenever I hear that a celebrity did something wrong, my first thought is, “Oh, he/she did it.”

Well, when I found out the victim was Rihanna it seriously bothered me. Although I’m not a fan of hers I do like her music. She is beautiful, but that wouldn’t impact my reaction. It was that by her being a celebrity I felt a connection to her. It’s as if I know her. But I wonder, why should that change how I felt? I consider myself a compassionate person, but was the limit of that so sharp? Had I become so desensitized to violence that anonymous victims are not given a second thought? Was it a coping mechanism because if we’re empathetic to every victim in this cruel and violent world we’d either lose our minds or fall into a bottomless pit of depression? I don’t know the answers, but it made me think twice about how I view the plight of strangers. It also reminded me of the passage in Matthew’s Gospel: “[T]o the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”

Something else bothered me about the matter. Although the investigation is still ongoing and charges may be filed, Chris Brown was originally arrested for making criminal threats because he “allegedly” (I’m using lawyer-speak here) said “I’m going to kill you!” before he “allegedly” assaulted Rihanna. I wondered why the police hadn’t also arrested him for felony domestic battery. I then learned that in California felony domestic battery is a lesser offense than making criminal threats. You have to wonder, how in the [bleep] is that possible? Is it more serious to threaten someone than to beat up your wife or girlfriend?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What an Excellent Day for an Excorcism

The unknown has always scared me. That’s why as a kid I was more frightened of Alien and The Amityville Horror than Halloween and Friday the 13th. I can deal with the natural crazies, but when it comes to the supernatural—uh oh. One of the scariest movies of my childhood was, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. It was actually a made-for-TV movie (they don’t make em’ like that anymore). It was first broadcast in 1973 and went into syndication thereafter (that was how I first saw it). It was about a young housewife named Sally (Kim Darby) being terrorized in her new home by Smurf sized demons hiding in the house’s ventilation system. These little buggers had orange, cone heads. My family and I called them pumpkin heads. There’s talk about a remake coming out in the theaters, but I hope they put the original on DVD. There’s actually a black market for the VHS copy because of an underground following for the 1973 classic.

Speaking of 1973, the definitive scary movie of my childhood came out that same year: The Exorcist. Heck, that movie still scares me now. My wife and son were out on Sunday, so I decided to watch it on my widescreen TV in HD all by my lonesome. Still disturbing. The book by William Peter Blatty is one of my favorites as is the movie. The book was remarkably well written. I say remarkably because for a book so frightening, it was incredibly descriptive of the subtle things, mundane things of everyday life. Blatty painted with words.

Because the movie is so terrifying we tend to overlook how good a film it is. Seeing it again makes me appreciate the craft in how it was made. This is the Oscar season and it was nominated for Best Picture back in 1974, a well deserved nomination. The acting is superb, especially by Ellen Burstyn. You believe she is falling apart as her daughter slowly slips away from her. The movie could have worked as a mother-daughter drama if you removed the possession aspect. It could have also worked as a movie about a man losing his faith. Jason Miller as Father Karras was also superb, dealing with the guilt over his mother. The movie has four dramatic story arcs all done realistically (Father Merrin in his waning years, Chris & Regan, Father Karras, and Detective Kinderman’s investigation). The movie is so well acted the audience can believe possession is real. That’s perhaps why it is so frightening. The events are presented as reality. There is no need for suspension of disbelief because Director William Friedkin, screenwriter Blatty, and all the actors make you believe that the ordinary can easily become the extraordinary.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Black History Month

I’m a lay minister in an African-American Roman Catholic parish in St. Albans, Queens. My wife and I have been members of the congregation since we’ve moved here from the Bronx in February, 2006. With the choir, liturgical dancers, and overall camaraderie of the parishioners, it’s the most enjoyable church experience I’ve had as a life-long Catholic. It reminds me of the Spanish masses I used to go to as a child. As part of Black History month each Sunday, the ushers pass out a questionnaire containing 5 or so questions on Black history. The questionnaires are collected at the end of mass, and those with the most correct answers get a prize. The following Sunday the answers are announced. It’s an excellent method of testing your knowledge.

The questionnaires made me think of the most personally influential book I’ve ever read (besides the Bible): The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I read it back in 1991 when I joined the U.S. Army. It had a profound impact on me, and Malcolm X remains one of my idols. I collected documentaries on him, and videos and audio tapes of his speeches. I even had a poster up of him in my barracks room (which confused many of my platoon mates—White, Black, and fellow Latinos alike). He’s a misunderstood figure to many, regardless of race or ethnicity. For instance, he is known for the saying: “By any means necessary.” It’s viewed positively and negatively depending on your POV. It’s ironic that his famous—or infamous—saying is taken out of context. He said it to mean that Blacks should defend themselves by any means necessary.

Many of his views were harsh, but he was willing to reassess them as he gained more knowledge. As he wrote, “My whole life had been a chronology of—changes .… Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”

There’s a subtle, but important event in the book. A white female college student had been so moved by Malcolm’s speech at her New England school early in his ministry that she flew down to New York to see him. She found him at the Nation of Islam’s restaurant in Harlem and asked him what she could do to help the plight of African Americans in this country. Malcolm bluntly said, “Nothing.” She burst out crying and ran out the restaurant. Later on in the book after Malcolm had embraced the idea of the kinship of all peoples and the races working together to end racism, Malcolm reflects that he regretted telling her that, thought about her often whenever the topic arose, and wished he knew her name to write or telephone her. It troubled me that in Spike Lee’s movie he put the rejection scene in without the context of Malcolm’s later regret in how he dealt with the situation.

A month before his murder in February 1965, Malcolm said during an interview on Canadian television: “I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being—neither white, black, brown, or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there’s no question of integration or intermarriage. It’s just one human being marrying another human being or one human being living around and with another human being.”

This was at a time when intermarriage was not only taboo in the U.S., but still illegal in some states. It was actually counter to his previous views on interracial marriage during his early times with the Nation of Islam. This was a man who evolved in his ministry and world view and recognized this evolution. It is this evolved Malcolm—El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz—who is one of the forefathers of how we view race today, and can celebrate Black History Month—America’s History Month—with an African-American in the White House.