Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How To Be Good

I don't wish to be melodramatic: I know I have not lived a bad life. But nor do I think that this crime sheet amounts to nothing: believe me, it amounts to something. Look at it. Adultery. The casual exploitation of friends. Disrespect for parents who have done nothing apart from attempt to stay close to me. I mean, that's two of the ten commandments broken already, and given that – what, three, four? - of the ten are all about Sunday working hours and graven images, stuff that no longer applies in early-twenty-first-century Holloway, I'm looking at a thirty-three percent strike rate, and that, to me, is too high...When I look at my sins (and if I think they're sins, then they are sins), I can see the appeal of born-again Christianity. I suspect that it's not the Christianity that is so alluring; it's the rebirth. Because who wouldn't wish to start all over again?

Nick Hornby, How To Be Good, 226-227

I grew up as a Christian, and sometimes it is difficult for me to understand the mindset of people outside an upbringing in church. It's not for lack of trying – it's just that a non-Christ-centric worldview is outside of my experience, and it requires me to shift paradigms to be able to comprehend what that life is like. This is not meant to be elitist – it's an honest admission of a difficulty I face. But I am glad that I have authors and musicians and artists who can help me understand that perspective through their work. One of the recent examples I read was Nick Hornby's novel How To Be Good, which is written from the perspective of a woman, Katie Carr, who has a failing marriage and increasing dissatisfaction with life while her husband undergoes a spiritual – not Christian – awakening and attempts to drastically alter his lifestyle. Part of what I really appreciated about this novel is that Katie, after much frustration, does turn to the church as a possibility, and she does so in a way that I can imagine many non-churchgoers would – with some skepticism, some earnestness, and a lot of confusion. I think that people who are in the church – whether they have grown up with the culture or not, and whether they have deconstructed church in an emergent environment or whatever – often do not realize how distinctly foreign most of the church experience is to a majority of people. And I think a lot of people outside of the church, like Katie, actually want to like Christianity; they just don't know how. Just like I don't quite understand the mindset of people outside the church, they don't fully understand my mindset, and how even being “good” is not enough. I guess I'm just glad for authors like Hornby who can help give voice to one of these points of view, and that I can get at least some idea of what people think about how to be good.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The paradigms of Taipei museums

One of the more interesting parts of our visit to Taipei has been seeing the way in which history is handled here. Taipei (and all of Taiwan) have pride in their identity and their history, and many of the city's landmarks are historical in nature. We have visited four different museums, all of which emphasize different elements of Taiwan's history. The National Palace Museum is not Taiwanese, per se, as it houses artifacts from China's history that were brought over when the nationalists fled when the communists took over China after WWII. It's quite something to be in the presence of artifacts that are up to 7,000 years old and to see a nation's history like that. It is a matter of pride for the Taiwanese that they have many of the dearest treasures of Chinese culture, and the museum attracts many visitors from the mainland who want to see these parts of their history. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall commemorates the life of the father of the Republic of China, a political and diplomatic figure who travelled the world and helped directly contribute to the overturning of the dynastic system and the establishment of the republic in 1911 (meaning that many Taiwanese still write the year as 98, since it is 98 years since the republic was established). Dr. Sun's hall is very deliberately couched with intellectual language, and attempts to place him in an upper echelon of thinkers (ie French, German, American philosophers during times of revolution). Then, in what is perhaps the most telling juxtaposition of museums, there are the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and 2-28 Peace Park and Museum. CKS was the military leader of the nationalist party on the mainland, and was the leader of the nationalist party when Mao Tse-Tung and the communists took over Taiwan. He was recognized by many countries for his efforts in China in WWII, and in establishing Taiwan as the Republic of China afterward (Taiwan actually represented China in the UN until 1971). What is really interesting is the way in which language is (ab)used in his hall, and the images that are used. The words are very decisive and clearly indicate a belief in the inherent goodness of CKS' actions, and they are patriotic in a way that might embarrass even staunch Republicans. There are pictures of CKS with many world leaders - Gandhi, Eisenhower, LBJ, Truman - and he is presented in a very positive light. What is very interesting is that, in recent years, the public opinion of CKS has plummeted with the revelation of his disregard for many people and some of his actions, which were not respectful of human rights. So though the language still lionizes him, the public perception is not the same. That museum is geographically very close to the 2-28 Museum, which was built in 1987 to inform Taiwanese about a rebellion that occurred in 1947 against the nationalist party from the mainland. Over 20,000 Taiwanese were supposedly killed in the uprisings, which included many senseless killings from the nationalist forces - the party of CKS. This history was only recently acknowledged because Taiwan was under martial law for 40 years, and it was forbidden to speak of the events by the nationalist government (see why CKS has fallen out of favour?). It has been very interesting to see how each of these museums has brought their perspective forward, and how they are all used to uphold patriotism in Taiwan, despite four very different ideological paradigms. Now what will be really interesting is when I get to compare these museums to museums on the mainland someday...that will be an exercise in deconstructing propaganda and deciphering truth if ever there was one.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


I have always been a goal-oriented person. When I was young, my goals were simple: finish a book, or beat a video game. But when I was 12, I started having more significant goals; when I entered Grade 9, I set a goal of winning the main award for participation in our school in Grade 12 - and I did. I set goals for academic and social achievement, and I met them. In fact, I have always had goals, and any times in my life when I have not succeeded have been a result of not having goals. I was teaching the students about goal-setting the other day, and so I started to count up my current goals. So here are some of the goals I have currently (including some of my "media projects"), and compiled the list. It's kind of intimidating how many goals I try to meet on a regular basis.

- Experience one new album a week (3-4 listens)
- Read 1/2 hour each day for an average of a book a week, or around 10,000 pages per year
- Of the books I read, I try to read one that informs and uplifts my faith, and one that is considered a classic that I really should have already read
- I have started to try to read one Shakespeare play each month (I'm nearly through King Lear
- I try to blog three times a week
- I like to talk to one person from home each day (about 1/2 hour)
- I am reading the Bible in one year (hopefully each year)
- I try to watch one movie a week, and about 1 out of every 3 movies from the AFI Top 100 List

I also have some bigger goals in life that are not everyday-type goals, such as:
- I want to have a book written and tendered for publication by the time I am 30
- I want to join Mensa
- I want to become fluent in French, brush up on my Greek, and learn Latin, Mandarin, and another language
- I want all but my large student loan debt paid off within five years

So I have a lot of goals - probably too many to actually achieve. But I think the process of setting goals and striving to meet them makes me a better person, and I am happier even when I don't meet a goal then when I don't set goals at all. Every so often, I need to evaluate my goals, but it's a healthy process to go through. That's real goal-tending.

Brain buddies

When I meet new people, I am reminded of the type of people who are attracted to me, and the type of person I am. Apparently, I am cerebral, and I appreciate the company of intelligent people. As I thought about most of my good friends, I realized how smart, on the whole, our community of friends is, and how much we value intelligent pursuits. Granted, I have spent most of my last decade in university and teaching, two places where smart people are easy to find, but some of my friendships with intelligent people go back to when I was ten years old and I earned the nickname "Professor" within ten minutes of my first time at camp from one of my more erudite and well-read colleagues. And I appreciate how intelligent - not just well-educated, which can be a different entity entirely - most of my good friends are, and how they can help me sharpen my mind. With this in mind (pun intended), I have been reminded of a goal I have had since I was ten years old: I have wanted to know my IQ and join Mensa, the High IQ society. I don't want to do it out of ego or a desire to look better on my resume, but I genuinely want to know where I would fit in that community. So I am making it a goal for this year to take the IQ test and see how I fit into that world. And maybe I'll make some new brain buddies along the way.

"Look upon me! I'll show you the life of the mind!" - Charlie Meadows, Barton Fink (1991)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Close to the chess

In the past two weeks, I have had the privilege (?) of teaching chess to Taiwanese students at the camp. It has been a long time since I learned how to play the game (close to twenty years), and I was surprised at how difficult of a game it is. There are six different pieces, all of which move uniquely, and approximately a dozen additional rules to know in order to play. But even teaching card games like Go Fish or Crazy Eights is surprisingly difficult - you have to teach the cards, and basic conventions of the cards, and then you can teach the rules of the game. Of course, there is a language barrier with these students as well, but even without that difficulty they are not as easy to learn without understanding a number of hidden terms and conventions. As a result of teaching these simpler games as realizing how complex they are, I have begun to think about how amazing it is that our brain can remember the rules to so many different games. We own over 100 board games, and I can pick most of them up and play them without a refresher of the rules, plus I could probably do that with many other popular games we do not own. I imagine that most people have at least twenty games that they could play and not have to relearn the rules. It is also pretty amazing how quickly we can learn rules of new games and apply existing contexts to new situations; once we have played one trump card game, it is easier to learn new trump card games, even with variations. I wonder whether there is a limit to how many games we can know how to play, but I suppose that varies with how much time is spent playing board games. Just an interesting thought for the day.

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

[Note: Possible spoiler alert!] Since this is the sixth film, the progression of the film should be familiar. There's trouble at Hogwarts yet again, and as usual, Harry and his pals are presented with some mysterious elements that they have to figure out by the end of the school year. There is a new professor, and Harry, Hermione, Ron, and company have to navigate the perils of puberty while they delve deeper into the untapped reality of dark wizardly and deal with the ever-growing threat of Lord Voldemort. In this case, the gang is entering their sixth year, Harry is captain of the Gryffindor quidditch team, and the Death Eaters are wreaking havoc throughout the wizard and muggle worlds. Voldemort had just revealed himself in the Ministry of Magic, and Dumbledore is embarking on strange unknown missions.
Director David Yates (Order of the Phoenix) returns for this film, and his familiarity with the material shows in the improvement over the previous installment. This film is sharper, more intentional, and uses cinematography and colour much more than its predecessor. He knows the style, and he does it well this time. It bodes well for the final films, as he is staying on board. He was also aided by a tighter script this time around. The scriptwriters did not have as much work as in Phoenix, as the plot of Half-Blood Prince is more direct and straightforward in setting everything up for the conclusion. Still, the film is paced well, and it drags very little in the exposition. As always, there could be a few disagreements with the vision of the film, but it is a much-improved effort.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the series has been the casting, and how the cast has stayed together for all of the films (save for the replacement of the original Dumbledore, Richard Harris, after he passed away). The casting of erstwhile professor Horace Slughorn is no different, with Jim Broadbent bringing the perfect mix of wistful weariness and brash bravado to the newest addition to staff. Most of the other professors receive very little screen time, save for Dumbledore and Snape, so Broadbent bears the brunt of time on screen, and he does it well. It is hardly surprising that he does so well, given the pedigree of the actors portraying professors at Hogwarts, but Broadbent's performance is more nuanced and less obvious. The main trio can almost act now, but there are some laughably poorly-acted moments even in this film on the part of Rupert Grint, Ron Weasley. At the same time, he steals the movie in at least two scenes, so he has learned something.
This is the second-best Harry Potter movie - the best still being Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban. It translates the book well, it sets up for the finale well, and it is a strong film, both visually and compositionally. But it's just about time to wrap it up - too bad the final finale is still two years away from theatrical release.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Point A to Point B via Point G-O-D

I love how often the Lord uses events in my life as metaphorical representations of deeper truths in my life. It seems like it happens so often that I'm bound to become a pastor at some point and use these as sermon illustrations someday, but for now I'll file them under "metaphor". Tonight's experience was illuminating. We went to a worship night at the church led by a family from International House of Prayer, and as always, my experience was a mixed blessing. While I did know the presence of God, and He did some work in my heart, I wasn't sure if I had the full experience - if I had missed out on something the Spirit was to do in my life because I was too scared or too worried or too self-conscious or too whatever. I was apprehensive about leaving, even though my wife was very tired, because I didn't want to miss that blessing, so we left too late to catch the bus back to our house (a 40-minute bus ride away). I prayed that we would catch the bus, and shortly thereafter, the bus drove by...but we were a block away from the stop. When we arrived at the stop, we discovered that the bus was long gone, and that it was supposed to have stopped almost half an hour earlier - it shouldn't have been there at all. After some grumbling - why did we miss that bus after we prayed, after all? - we took a taxi to the MRT (rapid transit), which would also take us home. And then, in the midst of my grumpiness, I realized something - although the deviations in our journey because we missed the bus cost us about 140 NT (5 Canadian dollars), we got home much quicker. In fact, we were home, showered, and in bed by the time we would have made it home on the bus. And I realized what God taught me through this experience - sometimes we think we know the best way to do things in our lives, and we pray that way. God knows better, and sometimes he even shows us what we missed to give us perspective, but He has a different and better plan for us. We might have ended up in the same place, but His way is a much better way of getting there, and if we listen to Him, He'll take us on the right path. We often do not understand in whole until the journey is finished, but we don't need to - we just need to have faith that He is leading us on the right journey. So that's how taking the MRT instead of the bus becomes a sermon illustration someday.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Breaking the language barrier

One of the most pleasant surprises I have had in the past few weeks in Taipei is how much of the language I have already begun to incorporate and learn in my speech. My wife worked hard in the weeks previous to our departure in teaching me the basic tones, phrases, and numbers in Mandarin, but it often surprises me (and others) how quickly I have been picking up vocabulary and phrases. I suppose it shouldn't surprise me - I have spent time studying French, Greek, and linguistics at a second-year undergrad level with continual success, and I have a high capacity for language. Sure, I'm not fluent in those other languages, but that's due more to lack of practice than ability (I think). Still, I was worried, since Mandarin is an entirely different style of language, and I have done well for a foreigner. Ari and I are strongly considering studying Mandarin (spoken and perhaps simplified written) starting in the fall to be able to have a higher level of fluency when we return, and I am excited about getting back into studying language. I would love to finish up my French and Greek, and I also want to take Latin and Hebrew someday, in addition to more linguistics courses. In fact, I think that if I ever take another undergrad degree, it would be in linguistics and languages, and I would love it. So I've broken through something on this trip - I now have a resurgent need to learn more languages, and I know that I can. C'est tres bon.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Seeing movies from the other side of the world

Whenever I enter a movie rental store, I am amazed by the sheer number of releases each year. So many movies do not make it to wide theatrical release and go straight to video or relative anonymity until they are spotted on a discount shelf. Even movies that a few years ago would have received wide media attention are relegated to second-tier status due to the competitiveness of the movie market. Consider that for every wide theatrical release (around 150 per year), there are 4 or 5 movies that feature in either limited theatrical release or straight-to-video to attempt to find life on the small screen. Most find some level of success in home release, as that is where most of the money is made for movies (estimates usually range between twice and three times theatrical gross), along with merchandising. It also means that there are a lot of bad and mediocre movies out there - like Cadillac Records, a biopic about the heyday of Chess Records we watched last night. It had a limited wide release after a $12 million budget, recouped $8 million in theatres, and another $7 million on DVD, meaning that it didn't lose money. Mediocre in almost every way (including acting). But what is really interesting is seeing movies from the other side of the world, and seeing the movies that are receiving release here. Heard of Management with Jennifer Aniston, or The Great Buck Howard with John Malkovich, or Grace Is Gone with John Cusack? All are from past years and are releasing in theatres this month. And it is interesting to go into rental places here, since movie covers are often different and emphasize far different elements of the movie, usually incorporating some scene from the movie, rather than just a famous actor. It can entirely change the way in which a movie is judged - who says you can't judge something by its cover, after all? It is also interesting to see which films receive ubiquitous attention - Transformers 2, Ice Age 3, and Harry Potter 6 all have the same release dates and advertising here as in Canada. Lest you become destitute at the focus on movies with mass appeal and few brains, it at least is comforting to see that most films do get a chance here, even if the release date is late: Synecdoche, New York will hit theatres here at the end of the month. I guess there is some accounting for taste after all, even on the other side of the world.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The speed of normalcy

It always surprises me how quickly I can adjust to new circumstances, and how quickly my environment becomes "normal". Whenever I have moved to a new place, or to camp, or whatever, I have become acclimated to my surroundings with surprising speed. Even in this trip to Taiwan, which is still a culture shock, things have become fairly normative in only two weeks here. Granted, it has been easier because I have been traveling with my wife, who has lived here before, but it still surprises me how easily this transition has come. I already have some favourite places to eat and to shop, and there is a feeling of "home" even after this short time. I suppose that shows me that I can easily make changes, and that I will be able to handle living overseas sometime. It's comforting to know that I can do this well, and with relative rapidity. And now we're off to one of our new favourite watering holes for "pi gio" - you can guess how normal that will be over the next few weeks.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Albums July to September 2009

Yesterday (the sick day; I'm feeling much better now after the rest) was a refreshing day. For the first time in a couple of weeks, I was able to spend some time on the internet, and I had some fun realizing which albums are being released in the next three months (Quarter 3). Here are some of the albums I'll be listening to in the near future. There are quite a few albums that are following up on recent weaker efforts, so this could be a very exciting or disappointing quarter. And oddly enough, the list includes several bands I listened to a decade ago...weird.

Project 86 - Picket Fence Cartel (July 14) - the OC post-hardcore trio rocks on, and the new stuff sounds great!
Our Lady Peace - Burn Burn (July 21) - Sure, they may have peaked a decade ago, but I will always have a soft spot for OLP, even if they're mostly pop now. It's bound to have at least one solid single.
Neon Horse - Haunted Horse: Songs Of Love And Defiance (July 28) - The much-musically traveled trio known as Neon Horse brought forth one of the more energetic and enigmatic albums of 2007, and I'm interested to hear if they can duplicate their effort once more. Knowing the members of the band (Mark Salomon, Jason Martin, and members of P86), they will.
Mute Math – Armistice (Aug 18) - The spotlight is on and the wait is over. I can't wait.
Needtobreathe – The Outsiders (Aug. 25) - Their previous album, 2007's The Heat, was a slow burner (pun intended), and though the rockers are occasionally given to more mainstream-style modern rock, there is a lot of lyrical and musical depth to their work. And I'm curious to see if they connect this third album to the S.E. Hinton novel.
Skillet – Awake (Aug. 25) - Collide was a strong album, but Comatose was a sleeper. I hope Awake can bring Skillet back its mojo. I'm close to not being a Panhead anymore if this album should have hit the snooze button.
Collective Soul – Rabbit (Aug. 25) - They're back on a major label (Roadrunner), and although Afterwords was underwhelming, I just can't give up on the Soul. The first single sounds great, and I've got to hear the rest of the album.
Chevelle – Sci-Fi Crimes (Sept. 8) - Another group whose last effort lacked staying power. This album might make or break my attention to the trio.
Muse – The Resistance (Sept. 14) - The follow-up to Black Holes and Revelations seems even more eclectic, with a three-part space-rock opera and acknowledged influenced of Orwell's 1984. Bring it on.
David Crowder Band – Church Music (Sept. 22) - Whether this album is ironically titled or not remains to be seen, but I certainly hope that DCB continues to show more creativity than most of their CCM brethren, and that the title does not limit the contents.

There are a few more albums that I am planning to listen to, including the new Moneen, Pearl Jam, and Creed (if it releases, and more for nostalgia than for actual expecation of musical artistry), along with the new Derek Webb album Stockholm Syndrome (of the profanity controversy). And then the list of albums in the final quarter looks promising: confirmed releases (no dates yet) from Switchfoot – Hello Hurricane, Coldplay, Thrice – Beggars, Relient K – Forget and Not Slow Down, Mae – (m)orning), (a)fternoon), (e)vening EPs, Johnny Cash – American VI, and rumoured releases from John Reuben, Neverending White Lights, Blindside, The National, Rush, the White Stripes, the Rocket Summer, Radiohead, and the follow-up to No Line on the Horizon, U2's Songs of Ascent (which, judging from their touring schedule, may wait until next fall). Sounds like fun!

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Sick day

I woke up with a headache, stuffy nose, scratchy throat, and very little voice this morning. I did not sleep well, and I did not feel very rested. Despite my destitute condition, I still found myself second-guessing my reasoning when I called in to take a sick day from camp. I I am certain that by the end of the day, I will be glad to have stayed at the apartment and rested, and that I would be far worse off if I tried to fight through it, but I still had to convince myself that it was okay for me to not go to the school for the day. I rarely take sick days, and when I do, I often feel guilty about it. I did not take any this last year, and save for a week of mystery illness in my first semester of teaching in C'port, none there either. It's convenient that I rarely am ill enough to warrant staying home, especially because I have almost as much work as a teacher to prepare for a sub as it is to teach the class myself. But the funny thing is that I have never liked taking sick days, and I have very rarely had to, even as a child or teenager. I took one sick day in Grade 10-12, and that was because my parents made me stay home; I played Donkey Kong 64 all day and went back the next day. I guess the challenge for me is to actually rest when I am not working and to make the most of the sick day. Today, I'm doing some internet and some reading and some putzing around the apartment, and I need to remember not to feel guilty about resting. That way, I can go back tomorrow and be ready for work, and I won't have to wrestle with whether to take another sick day.

Disposable culture?

After one week in Taiwan, I have been continually amazed by the nature of everyday existence, as so much of it seems disposable. We are continually eating food from booths on the street and discarding the wrappers and remnants with little thought. It seems like so many things have little value here (the average meal price of street food is around 60 NT, which is $2.50 Canadian), and that when things don't have monetary value that they lack meaning. But some of the strangest things stand out here and live on, including mascots long forgotten in the 1990s in North America - Fido Dido and the moon dude from McDonald's, for example. But despite this disposable nature, there is no trash on the streets, and no garbage in the gutters. Perhaps this is the paradox of Asia - a mix of a philosophy of lack of care for greater environment combined with a focus on immediate environment. And perhaps I will notice how much worse North American culture is when I return; I'm just noticing this trend in Taiwan because it is different.


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