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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Alone with a Bear and Primary Colors

I'm sitting in a cramped hospital waiting room right now and the big lug of a white man sitting across from me is telling another big lug of a white man a detailed account of his latest golf shot. He is using all those words: birdie, bogie, par, handicap. He's also talking dollars and cents. "You pay a hundred and eighty dollars to join the league … if you win, you pay less and less."

He's dealing with the fear and discomfort of sitting in a hospital waiting room by talking about something he loves.

Me, too.

I've got a lot of medical stuff going on and it's a drag. It's doubly a drag because I'm handling it all alone. That's made especially challenging by the fact that I'm on a special diet. It is restrictive and it is depleting me. It is meant to. I am exhausted. I have to drive far to get to my medical appointments and I actually feel like I'm betraying my fellow citizens by getting behind the wheel of a car.

I'm keeping myself alert by blasting the air conditioning and using the GPS even though I know how to get to the hospital. The nagging, strident GPS voice keeps me awake. The desire to smack that back-seat driving bitch silly is just too strong to surrender to slumber.

I'm soothing myself by doing things I love. This past weekend I went to see three films back to back, and reviewed them here.

Tuesday I forced myself out of the house and went birdwatching.

I wonder what people who aren't birdwatchers think birdwatching entails. I wonder if people who aren't birdwatchers think that we, the birdwatchers, see plump, fully-formed birds in bright, eye-catching colors.

We don't.

We don't because the color in bird's feathers is usually created by structure, not by pigments. This is what structural color means – if you take a rock and mash up a bird's feathers, the feather will look gray or black. You will have mashed all of the structure, and all of the color, out of the feather.

OTOH, if you mash up a rock that contains pigment, something like ocher, you can use that mashed up ocher to paint other things the same color as ocher, that is, red-orange.

So, if the light hits a bird's feathers just right, and their structure and the light cooperate to perform the magic of color, you see the color. If the light and the structure are at odds, you see murk.

Birds also often have iridescent colors. Here's how iridescent colors interact with light:

"Iridescent feathers get their color from interference, which is due to waves of light interacting with each other to produce either constructive reinforcement or destructive cancellation of particular wavelengths, or colors."

At times I have looked at a mallard's iridescent head and seen green, the color you see on a mallard's head in a field guide telling you what a mallard should look like. At other times, I have seen royal blue, true purple, and absolute black.

Too, birding is often performed by ear. So we birders know that we are in the same woods with veery or wood thrush without ever seeing them.

And most birds don't want us to see them, so they move very fast. Many birds we see are rapidly moving blobs flying away from us at top speed.

So, a lot of the time, birdwatching actually entails a lot less watching of plump, stationary, brightly colored birds than someone who isn't a birdwatcher might think. The birds we see, much of the time, look more like flying Rorschach tests, the color of shadows and glare, the shape of a hole in a puzzle of leaves, twigs, and spider webs.

There are many different kinds of birdwatchers. Some people are mostly into numbers. They want to see the most birds in a day, or a year. If a lapwing, a European bird, suddenly shows up at Cape May, they will rise at three, drive to Cape May, see the lapwing, get back in the car, and be at work in Jersey City by nine. I have never been one of those kinds of birdwatcher.

I love Skylands but it hasn't offered me the best birdwatching. Cape May, one of the world capitals of birdwatching, has. Birds perch on your nose at Cape May. I've birdwatched at Cape May only twice in my life.

I want to encounter the place where I birdwatch as if it were a friend. I love Skylands. I go so often I rarely see new birds there. I always see the phoebe who nests on the WPA bridge built in 1939. Well, it can't be the same phoebe; I've seen nesting phoebes on that bridge for thirty years. I always see one broad-winged hawk near Mount St Francis, and another broad-winged hawk near Mount Defiance. I always hear a blue-winged warbler in the willows, and a great-crested flycatcher on the rocky bald. I usually see a pileated woodpecker zooming through the trees.

I don't rack up a huge list of birds this way, because I visit the same spots year after year. I do feel deep down good in my soul.

Even so, I had to push myself out the door on Tuesday. It was hot, and overcast, and I was feeling doomed and sad. So I got behind myself, placed the palms of my hands against my back, and pushed myself out the door.

A mist fell as I hiked. My face was surrounded by swarms of gnats. And up ahead there was a Rottweiler in the trail.

And I thought all this very fast: that's a Rottweiler; I'm alone; what am I going to do; no, that's not a Rottweiler. That's a bear. And it's a sub-adult. And I don't see mom. Oh … crap.

And I immediately thought of my Facebook friend Dale Weeks. I am pro gun control. Whenever I say that on Facebook I have to take a lot of incoming. Dale said that he'd been in a difficult situation once, and he was glad he had a gun.

I've been through some difficult situations too – including, when I was a young and foolish hitchhiking world traveler, more than man pulling a gun on me – once, more than one man at once pulling a gun on me. I thought. How did I get out of those tight spots without a gun?

Thoughts of Dale accompanied me as I did the following.

I stood still.

So did the bear. He just stood there staring at me.

I scanned the leaves for any moment, and listened. I looked all around me. I had no idea where the mother bear was. I really didn't want to be between the mother and her cub.

After some minutes, the bear disappeared into the woods. I still didn't move. I just stood there, listening. After some time passed and I didn't hear mom, I walked forward. I've read that you are supposed to speak loudly enough for the bear to hear you, and in a calm tone. I decided to sing "This Old Man" and "God Bless America." And I survived to report it here.

Again, it was an overcast day, and mist fell almost the whole time, but the strangest thing happened. And it was wonderful.

I was standing next to a grassy field I've stood next to hundreds of times. And I *saw* birds. Three dimensional, stationary, brightly colored birds. And not just that. I saw a bluebird, a goldfinch, and a scarlet tanager, all at once. All together. That's just never happened to me before: yellow, blue, and red. The primary colors. All right there in front of me. Posing. Not flying away. The goldfinch and the bluebird were on different branches of the same tree. The scarlet tanager was right behind them in another tree.

The icing on the cake – during the whole hike I was being serenaded by wood thrush and veery, the two most beautiful singers among North American birds.

There were also very visible hooded warbler, yellowthroat, indigo bunting, and, of course, cardinals: more yellow, blue and red.

Look – these aren't rare birds. You might see any of them on any hike at Skylands. But to see them all so distinctly on a rainy day before a scary medical appointment was such a blessing.

Yes, I'm doing all this alone, I always have, and I do feel pretty low.

But I walk out my door, and there it all is. And it is brightly colored, plump, and posing generously so I can get a good long look. At least it was on this day, and that felt like the miracle I needed to go on.

You can hear a wood thrush here:

You can read more about structure, color, and birds' feathers here:


Fear of Medical Settings and Medical Professionals

I've got a lot of medical appointments lately. Three this week. This week's are rather anxiety-producing. I'm going through all this alone and I hate the "alone" part. But I am alone in the universe so I have to pick up my cross and walk. "Cross" is a metaphor and a hyperbolic one in this case. If you rated medical procedures between, say, one being a conventional filling for a cavity at a very good dentist, and ten being trying to hold someone with advanced Ebola back from the door of a grisly death, the medical procedures I'm going through this summer are really only at level four: relatively low risk, predictable outcome, and to treat chronic stuff, not immediately life-threatening stuff.

I still hate it. Since I'm dealing with all this alone, I'm blogging about it. It's a way to talk about what matters to me, even if only to myself.

I am afraid of medical procedures, medical settings and medical people.

I really wish I could hug someone before each one, and I really wish I could high five someone and get a pat on the back after I survive each one.

Someone. Not really "someone." I really wish I could hug someone I love and who at least tolerates me (love too much to hope for) before each one, and I really wish I could get a pat on the back from someone I love and who at least tolerates me after each one.

I have been afraid of needles. I've had to have so many injections and so much blood drawn lately that I have to change arms because the most recent bruise hasn't healed before the next extraction / injection.

I want someone to pat me on the back after I, bravely and without complaint, fill the latest test tube.

I can't really say I'm afraid of needles any more. That's a new one. "Fatiguing the response." I think that's a BF Skinner term. 

Someone is afraid of spiders. You dump a jarful of spiders on her lap. She jumps up and yells and screams. Lather, rinse, repeat. Eventually screaming gets old and she is no longer afraid of spiders.

I've had to host so many needles lately I no longer have any time to be afraid of needles.

The best blood drawer was a Muslim guy from Paterson. Big, burly guy. Very much what you'd think a Muslim would look like. He was *superb.* He was charming, in a kind of scary, very masculine way. Like any minute he'd stop smiling and teasing you and asking about your uncle and telling you about his cousin and he'd kidnap you for ransom. I felt *nothing* when he drew my blood.

But. He got into a drag race with some Paterson cops early one morning and it ended up in the papers, and his bosses felt it necessary to terminate his employment. I would never fire a man who could draw blood like that.


I wasn't always afraid of medical people and settings.

In 1994 I went to Bloomington, Indiana for a PhD. My first semester there, the professor for whom I worked harassed me for taking off four work days to attend my father's funeral in NJ. I wanted to leave Indiana after these ugly events, but two IU administrators begged me to stay to testify against the professor who had harassed me. They said she was a "sociopath" who had "ruined many" and "almost killed someone." People were afraid to testify against her because she was female and black and they didn't want to be accused of being racist or sexist. I was tapped to testify against her because "You have nothing to lose."

So I spent the spring semester, in addition to taking a full load of graduate courses, testifying to complete strangers, all higher-ups at IU.

In the midst of that, perhaps because of the stress, and unbeknownst to me, my inner ear burst.

I spent the next six years very ill. At times I was functionally paralyzed. I vomited uncontrollably. My vision was compromised.

On the positive side. I lost so much weight so quickly people really wanted to know what diet I was on.

"I can't stop vomiting," I replied.

"Great! I'll have to give that a try!"

Inner ear disorders are really hard to treat. I had no money and no insurance.

Six years. Traveling to three states. Being seen by world class experts.

I received three experimental, pro-bono surgeries from two different doctors.

Each time I was operated on, I was a guinea pig. I was receiving free health care, so I had to be grateful and not make demands. One of the doctors was rather imperious and did threaten to cut off care if I was not fully compliant.

Here's what I had to comply with.

They wanted to discover exactly what was wrong with me. The inner ear is packed up tight inside the skull. I've been told it's inside the body's hardest bone, the temporal bone. So they had to perform tests.

Here was one test.

I was seated in a chair inside a booth the size of a phone booth. I was strapped into the chair so I could not move. I think I remember having electrodes placed on my body but I'm not sure if that's right.

The door of the booth was shut tight. Once the door was shut, the booth was completely black inside. No light of any kind. I was told I could not close my eyes. There was a pinprick of red light. I was told to look at that pinprick of red light. Then, the chair was rotated – sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. They did not warn me in advance of when the rotations would start, which direction they would go in, how fast or how slow. A voice through a speaker in the booth reminded me to keep my eyes open.

"Please let me out of here," I begged.

"Not much longer," the voice said, through the speaker in the booth.

"Please let me out. I can't take this."

"Not much longer."

That's what "compliant" meant.

After that test, I was strapped into a harness that gripped me between my legs and around my chest. The harness was connected leashes that were connected to walls. I was told to look at a painted backdrop of scenery – blue skies, horizon, green trees and grass. Then the floor gave way beneath me. The floor gave way from the right, from the left, from the back, from the front. Each time experimenters noted which way I fell and how my body attempted to correct itself.

In another test, I was told to lie on a metal table. Freezing cold water was blasted into my broken ear. I immediately spun out of control – overwhelming vertigo and vomiting. Not sure if that test was successful or not. But I was complaint.

In another test, I was told to lie on yet another metal table. All I can tell you about this test is that it was administered by a doctor whose last name was Polish, and the English translation of his last name is the word "swingletree," a word I had never heard before.

If I dared ask what any given test was for, it was always, "You might have MS, a brain tumor, or advanced syphilis."

They always said these things as if they were talking to a lab rat. There was no attempt to couch the words. They could have at least thrown something vanilla in there. Like, you may have MS, a brain tumor, advanced syphilis, or it could just be the common cold and you'll be better in no time with some bedrest and plenty of fluids."

Never. They just ran down their list of life-destroying illnesses.

When it came to the MRI, I was *not* compliant.

"Get me out of here."

"We need this test. We're trying to discover if you have a brain tumor."

They knew damn well that I had an inner ear problem. They knew it wasn't a brain tumor. They just liked sticking pins into their lab animal.

"Miss Gorskek, if you will not submit to this MRI, we will not be able to treat you. It is medically necessary."

"I don't care. Get me out of here."

And they did. They got me out.

"Miss Goshrap, please go sit in this little room we have for pussies like you, and give it some thought. If you won't allow us to perform this MRI, you will not receive any further medical care from us. And take this. It's called Valium."

While I was sitting in that little room, I felt as if Jesus walked up to me and said, "I will do it for you." I don't think Valium can do that. I do think it was Jesus. I went back and did their damn MRI – or Jesus did it for me – and eventually got more, experimental, medical care.

I'm deaf in one ear. The illness didn't do that. The free medical care did. Being deaf makes me sad. I do wish they hadn't done that to me.

So, yes, I am now afraid of medical people and medical settings.


In the past four years, I broke my arm, was diagnosed with cancer, and was also diagnosed with a chronic illness. My sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was in four different medical facilities.

Medical people hurt my sister's daughter in unnecessary and even sadistic ways.

There was one doctor who struck me as very cool. He was an older Jewish guy. Fifties or sixties. He was old school.

My sister's diagnosis was misery and death from day one. There is no hope for those with what she had. Of course after I received word I googled the name of the illness. I immediately found web pages calling her tumor "the terminator." It was medical professionals, on dot gov, dot edu and dot org websites calling it that.

That's why, from the beginning, I prayed for a miracle for her. And every time I prayed that prayer, several times a day, I heard a little voice say, "No."

This one good doctor had stepped out of a 1940s movie. He wore suits and ties in sober colors. He knew that Antoinette was "Toni" to all who knew her. I alone consistently called her "Antoinette." She was someone special to me and she deserved her own special name – a long, French name, pronounced correctly. Not Ann Tin Et but Ann Twa Net.

But to everyone else she was Toni, and this doctor called her Toni.

He knew she had no hope. He knew she was dying. He said those things, but never in those words. He chose old, dusty words like "grave condition" and "appropriate caution" and "limited outcomes." He said tough stuff that needed to be said, right to Antoinette's family's faces, and he said it *the way it needed to be said.*

And he did this all day, every day. He specialized in this disease, "the terminator." He had said goodbye to many patients, and not the kind of goodbye a doctor wants to say. "Great! You're healed! I'll never need to see you again! Go out there and have fun at life!" No. He said the other kind of goodbye. I could see it in his eyes. I don't know how he took it.

That doctor, I could respect.

I've had to deal with my own stuff without health insurance – I'm an adjunct professor – and with the onset of Obamacare, which was a Kafkaesque nightmare I have not fully described to anyone, although I've told bits and pieces of the story, so people know that "Obamacare" does not mean "Utopia." Really. Not.

In the past four years, not a single month has gone by that I haven't been in a medical facility of some kind.

Before every visit, either for myself or for my sister, I experience anxiety – tight chest, shallow breathing, worms wriggling around in stomach. During every visit, all I want to do is spring for the exits. After the visits, I so want that pat on the back. I give it to myself by buying some expensive treat, like Trader Joe's truffle-infused Marcona almonds. Seventeen dollars a pound!!!!

I'm on a temporary, very restrictive diet right now and so I can't buy myself something special to eat, so I treated myself by watching three movies, back to back, this weekend: "Free State of Jones," "The Conjuring 2," and "Me Before You," all of which I reviewed on this blog. Watching movies in a theater, writing about them, and talking about them with other movie fans is one of the great joys of my life. It's my bubble bath.

I try to tell doctors and nurses that I am afraid of medical settings and people in the hopes that they will use this information to exercise some caution, some respect, some tenderness. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Geez, I thought I was going to write this blog post about my bear encounter yesterday. But it's getting to be time I need to get ready for today's medical appointment. The bear narrative will have to wait.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Abortion, Guns, and Catholicism's Seamless Garment

Christy Sheats, Taylor Sheats, Madison Sheats

Both abortion and gun-love were in the news recently.

The Supreme Court struck down prohibitive and unnecessary regulation of abortion in Texas.

Also in Texas, a woman named Christy Sheats shot her two daughters to death in front of their father and her husband. Sheats was in turn shot to death by police.

Christy Sheats had previously posted on Facebook about how she needed a gun to "protect her family." "It would be horribly tragic if my ability to protect myself or my family were to be taken away, but that's exactly what Democrats are determined to do by banning semi-automatic handguns."

Two days ago a six-year-old shot a four-year-old to death in East Orange, NJ.

If guns are handy and people who otherwise would not commit gun crimes have access to guns when they are having a psychotic break, feeling suicidal, or merely clumsy, people will use those handy guns to kill each other.

If the guns are not handy, chances are these people would not kill themselves or others. People calm down, they get help for their mental problems. The child plays with a toy that isn't a gun and doesn't kill anyone.

Many have remarked that it is strange that gun-lovers are often anti-choice.

My position on abortion can be reduced to this: Abortion ends a human life. There is a moral cost. I think abortion should be legal. I think those of us who value human life should work to make it less common. Outlawing abortion does not make abortion less common; outlawing abortion merely makes abortion more dangerous. I could say more but this isn't the place or time for more on abortion.

This is the place and time to mention Catholicism's "seamless garment" or consistent life ethic. To love guns past the point of rational concern for human life and to oppose abortion is inconsistent. If you obey God's command to value human life, you must do so in a consistent manner. Do not love guns more than you value human life. 

Thank You, Daddy, for Being So Handsome

Father's Day and Mother's Day are always tricky days for those of us from less-than-perfect families.

Usually I work very hard to ignore it all.

Some years, on Mother's Day, on Facebook, I post one of my favorite images of Mary, the Vierge Bleu from Chartres Cathedral's stained glass. This is my way of saying that I do have a loving mother.

This year I looked at a gloriously handsome photo of my dad, Tony Goska.

I decided to accentuate the positive. Just do a stream of consciousness, "Thank you for…" post. What I wrote is below.


Thank you for being so handsome.

Thank you for that gorgeous black hair. Even in your casket you were never completely gray, or bald.

Thank you for never getting fat. A working man with a tight waist right to the end. "Working men have shoulders bigger than their bellies" and you sure did.

Thank you for beating the Japs and saving the world. You saw heavy combat in the Pacific. You rode in the same Jeep with Mac


*You risked your life* for the freedoms we enjoy. When people say "Oh, I can't do this or that I risk too much," I think of you.

Thank you for teaching me, in true Polak fashion, to always, always, always, see both sides, and never take the popular side, but to always tell the truth and go with what seems right.

But never invest too much in worldly things because, as Poland's history shows, you can be invaded from the right, from Nazi Germany, and from the left, from Communist Russia, at the same time.

Thank you for being a true Pole and believing in what is right above what is popular.

Thank you for telling me that we came to America "because the Czars burned our books." That's just so freaking beautiful. You loved to read. You were a thinker. You told me Grandma never learned to read. I don't know if that's true.

Thank you for telling me about Grandma attending subversive meetings in a Catholic Church basement in Poland.

Thank you for telling me that you had a wonderful life, in spite of all the incredible pain you endured, which I know ... I know, Daddy. I know how hurt you were. I know. But you said, "I've had a wonderful life. "

The only thing you'd change, you said, was "Phil and Mike." Your sons, whom you buried. If you had been here for Antoinette, it would have killed you. She insisted that she was your favorite.

Thank you for telling me about coming up from the coal mines, "Face as black as them shoes."

Thank you for telling me about the mine bosses, "Get me a hunky. I need a donkey."

Thank you for singing to me, "Without you, Little Diane, I'd die."

Thank you for the passion with which you drove. Everytime I get behind the wheel of a car, and feel ready for the Indy 500, and so disappointed by the puny routes I actually do take, I think of you.

Thank you for your features that I see everytime I look in the mirror.

We had a family that was ... not perfect.

But I always loved you, Daddy. How could I not.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Free State of Jones" 2016 Moving, Authentic, Important

"Free State of Jones" is a moving, authentic, important film. Matthew McConaughey gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Newton Knight, an historic figure. I forgot I was watching Matthew McConaughey and felt that I was watching Newton Knight. I've really never seen a performance quite like McConaughey's here. His Newt Knight is the most manly man in any room – or swamp – and yet he is also as tender as a mother.

In the early Civil War battle scenes, he plays a nurse. Knight is not shown mowing down the enemy with impressive, explosive gunfire. Rather, he is shown risking enemy fire in order to save men's lives, or to retrieve and bury the corpse of a boy shot in battle on his first day. My tears flowed freely during these scenes. Later, Knight himself cries after one of his men is hanged. But Knight gets his revenge, an eye-for-an-eye revenge scene that I won't soon forget.

Newton Knight was a white Mississippi farmer. He was the grandson of a slaveholder, but Knight owned no slaves himself. He served in the Confederate army, but deserted in 1862, after serving for almost a year. He was outraged by the Twenty Negro Law, that allowed families who owned twenty slaves to exempt one family member from service for every twenty slaves they owned.

Knight and other deserters formed The Free State of Jones, declaring their loyalty to the Union, and flying the stars and stripes rather than the stars and bars. After the war, Knight worked for Reconstruction and married Rachel, a freed slave woman. His children also married cross-racially. He died in 1922. As might be expected, he is a controversial figure in Mississippi. Fans of the Confederacy denounce him as a traitor. Others celebrate him as one white Southerner who had a conscience and resisted white supremacy.

Newt Knight was clearly someone with a bucketload of charisma. His power inspired men to fight to the death against their own nation. McConaughey radiates charisma in this role. He is masterful and yet intimate. I'd follow this Newt Knight into battle and feel proud to do so.

"Free State of Jones" is receiving negative reviews. It's easy to see why. There is something in this film to anger multiple grievance mongers.

First, race hustlers will hate this movie. Race hustlers want the official story to be that all whites are supremacists and all blacks are heroic. A film that depicts a white man who worked for black rights is taboo. Race hustlers anathematized "Mississippi Burning" and "The Help" for the same reason. Such a shame that the race hustlers' ideological blindfolds make it impossible for them to appreciate great art.

Liberals might hate this film for a couple of other reasons. I don't know if I've seen a movie where almost every scene hinges on how guns are used. Almost everyone is armed, and uses those weapons to keep breathing and to settle disputes. Even little girls have guns and use them heroically. Second amendment fans may love this film. It depicts what they dream of: oppressed citizenry taking up arms to defeat their own government.

In addition to clinging to their guns, these rebels cling to their God and their Bibles. This is one of the most religious American films I've seen in a while. It's an historical fact that Newt Knight was a devoutly religious Primitive Baptist – he didn't drink, for example. The film drives home Knight's Christianity. He is shown in a long scene using a quill to record a birth in his Bible. In one heartbreaking scene, a slave who has been sexually molested survives psychologically by reciting verses from Genesis. "Free State of Jones" practices a muscular Christianity. One eye-for-an-eye scene takes place in a church.

Republicans will be torn about "Free State of Jones." On the one hand, Knight, like many populist leaders, preaches against economic inequality. "No man should be poor just so that someone else can be rich." I can hear theater seats squeak as Republicans head for the exits. Knight's words, though, reflect the facts. Poor white Southerners were sabotaged by the slave economy and they knew it. That's why they deserted.

But Republicans, if they sit through the entire film, will see how the Republican Party was the favored choice of freed slaves in the post-Civil-War era.

There is a narrative problem in the film. The viewer expects "Free State of Jones" to end after the Civil War. I actually began tying my sneakers, readying to leave the theater. But the film keeps going in what feels like an anti-climax. Gary Ross, the filmmaker, wants to make a point: the Civil War was *not* the happy ending. The KKK rose up, and Jim Crow became entrenched. Black men who tried to exercise their right to vote were lynched. This is an important point, but the film should have been better structured so its narrative flow didn't stop before the film itself did.

"Free State of Jones" was clearly made by sticklers for authenticity. Everyone looks dirty and tired. The clothes look like clothes people wore in the nineteenth century. A confederate officer's uniform looks baggy and tacky, not sparkling and admirable. Scenes are shot in lamplight. I loved this aspect of the film, as will Civil War re-enactors.

 I review "Conjuring 2" here and "Me Before You" here

"The Conjuring 2" 2016 Un-Scary Schlock, But Vera Farmiga is Great

I'm easily frightened by movies. I've never been able to get through Disney's "Pinocchio." "The Conjuring 2" is one of the least scary movies I've ever seen. I laughed out loud several times. I thought it was so ridiculous, heavy-handed, absurd, over-the-top.

I was actually scared during one scene. Patrick Wilson, as paranormal investigator and allegedly Catholic anti-demon commando Ed Warren, wades into standing water underneath a suburban home. Everyone knows anyone who wades into standing water in a domestic setting risks being electrocuted. Alas, the only menace Warren faces is the cardboard outline of a standard-issue specter who rolls up behind him. Boo!

The other scary factor: how old Franka Potente, who plays paranormal investigator Anita Gregory, has gotten. Back in 1998's "Run Lola Run" Potente was the embodiment of youth. Now … she's in her forties. Scary.

I honestly don't know what filmmaker James Wan was trying to achieve. Was he really trying to make a scary movie, or was he trying to make a meta-commentary on how schlocky scary movies can be? I hope the latter, because that is what he has achieved. The saving grace of the film is the presence of Vera Farmiga, an actress who deserves so much better than this, but who shines like sterling amidst the dross.

"The Conjuring 2," just like the original "The Conjuring," is based on an allegedly true story. In 1977, in Enfield, England, two sisters, 11 and 13, claimed to be experiencing demonic possession. They were the child of a single mother and lived in a council house, that is a government welfare house. There was video footage proving that one of the girls was faking.

Never fear. Ed and Lorraine Warren, an American couple who sold themselves as real live paranormal investigators and exorcists, showed up.

"The Conjuring 2" wallows in 1970s nostalgia. That there even is such a thing as "70s nostalgia" is evidence of the demonic. The men all wear wide lapels and wolfman sideburns. There is a lot of emphasis on retro tech, like bulky reel to reel tape recorders – the kind that actually could capture Satan's voice, whereas today's handheld digital devices just don't pack the same punch.

There is a loooong pointless scene where Patrick Wilson, as Ed Warren, treats the possessed children to an imitation of Elvis Presley singing "I Can't Help Falling In Love with You." Watching this endless scene, I really wondered what was going on with James Wan, the director. Is he tired of cheap, teen horror and does he want a career as an artiste and auteur?

"The Conjuring 2" is really hard to look at. The allegedly haunted Enfield council house is visually repugnant. There are threadbare, royal blue chairs on a threadbare, royal blue rug. If you have any taste at all, you know what horror I dare invoke with these words. Everything in the house is begrimed. It looks as if a toddler had been rolled in molasses and car exhaust and then set loose on every fixture. And of course the family is so poor that they can't afford a single one-hundred watt bulb. The house is kept at forty-watt level throughout the film.

The allegedly scary stuff: kids levitate and speak in deep voices. A scary nun appears. If you've ever gone to Catholic school you are laughing as hard as I was at this point. The nun looks so much like Marilyn Manson that I'm sure his lawyers are asking for their cut of the film's box office.

There are some cinematic classics in the horror genre. James Whale's Frankenstein is indelible. "The Haunting" from 1963 is one of the most profound and disturbing films ever made. These films are about so much more than James Wan's bag of tricks, which consists of sending an impaired person into a dark space – say, Patrick Wilson after he's been partially blinded by escaping steam from a broken radiator, having that person stumble about, holding the camera on one spot for a long time, and then having a scary nun pop suddenly into the frame. Horror classics have something truly menacing and challenging behind the costume.

There is something truly scary behind "The Conjuring 2" and behind the Amityville Horror, another Warren cause celebre. In both cases, we are talking about broken families. We are talking about kids who have troubled relationships with their parents, or absent parents. Shenanigans like the Warren's obscure the real facts that really need to be addressed. At least two of the children who grew up in the Amityville home say that they were abused by their stepfather. We were so busy looking for demons in that house we couldn't see the kids being hurt.

Another disturbing aspect of this film. I'm really sick of James Wan's exploitation of Catholicism, a religion he evidences zero respect for but loves to exploit in order to plump up his box office. Wan is constantly tossing crucifixes, rosaries, and clerical garb onto his piles of junk. Ed Warren, in "Conjuring 2," references the Catholic Church so many times it is monotonous. Wan is from Malaysia, a Muslim majority country. He is himself Chinese. I do not see him denigrating Islam or Confucianism in his films. He wants to avoid any risk of true horror.

I review "Me Before You" here and "Free State of Jones" here.  

"Me Before You" 2016 Moving In Spite of Itself

"Me Before You" was made to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In spite of myself, though, I was moved by and I enjoyed this film.

"Me Before You" is a romance between a perky, poor, not spectacularly beautiful girl and a rich, suicidal, model-handsome quadriplegic. You may have begun gagging already. I understand, and believe me, everything that you fear may be wrong with such a film is wrong with this film. It talks down to its audience. Its play with dangerous ideas is a child playing with matches. And yet, I cried.

I think two things save "Me Before You" in spite of all that's wrong with it.

Sam Claflin plays the part of Will Traynor, the rich, handsome, suicidal quadriplegic. Claflin is young, ripped, and handsome enough to be in a toothpaste commercial. He is really good. I believed everything he did. I was right there with him. I felt his pain and desperation.

Janet McTeer, a multiple-award-winning actress, is the soul of the film. She plays Will's mother. She is given very little to do, but she pops in and out regularly. There is an infinite sadness and terror in her eyes. I'm a former nurse's aide and I'm very familiar with dealing with family members of afflicted people. Janet McTeer is superb. She shows the exact strength, vulnerability, and hoping-against-hope of the loved ones of the wounded and doomed.

"Me Before You"'s plot doesn't do anything you wouldn't expect it to. If you go to the movies to be surprised or intrigued, stop right now. But you already knew that when you saw the movie poster of the perky girl sitting on the lap of the very handsome man in a wheelchair, as they gaze lovingly into each other's eyes.

"Me Before You" takes place in the England that exists only in the imagination of fans of Masterpiece Theater, Jane Austen adaptations, and Merchant Ivory films. This is very much not the England of Sadiq Khan and Brexit or even of royal family scandals.

There are very rich people who also have good taste. There are poor people who are warm, simple-minded, and humble, not at all resentful or bitter about their place. Sort of like Hobbits. There is sweeping, green countryside defined by rambling stone walls and trout streams. There is a big, fat castle – yes, really – overlooking everything.

Weather? It's either blue skies, burgeoning lilacs and hydrangeas, or gently drifting snow outlining the castle battlements, or perfectly formed autumn leaves. Thomas Kinkade is the meteorologist.

Louisa "Lou" Clark is a cutie pie poor girl. Emilia Clarke, who plays Louisa, telegraphs how adorable Lou is in every scene. She is constantly dimpling her cheeks and wriggling her eyebrows as if they were migrating caterpillars looking for a leaf to pupate on. Look, if you wanted to smack Emilia Clarke during every scene of "Me Before You," could you please send me a Facebook friend request? Does the word "subtlety" appear in Emilia Clarke's dictionary? Or "teamwork"? In every scene she demands attention. Actors should never work with babies, animals, or Emilia Clarke.

Lou is supposed to be really poor. Lou never wears the same item of clothing twice. Her clothes are unique designer finds. Her shoes alone would go for a few hundred bucks. Oh, but she's this noble poor girl. Yeah, right.

The filmmakers here keyed their film to teenage girls who love clothes more than life itself and who have short attention spans. My utterly subjective estimate: no scene in the film lasts for more than ninety seconds. You think there's going to be a serious discussion, or even three consecutive lines of dialogue, about the issues at play here: can afflicted people live worthwhile lives? Is suicide ethical? Will this film encourage the handicapped to off themselves? But that never happens.

It's safe to guess that Will's quadriplegia is, to the filmmakers, merely a plot device. Tweener girls find guys attractive, but are anxious about real physical intimacy and all it entails. Also, tweener girls don't want to be obliterated by masculinity. They want to exist in a world where they are the center. And, tweener girls are anxious that they aren't pretty enough.

Thus, "Me Before You" gives tweener girls a very handsome, ripped hero who couldn't engage in physical intimacy even if he wanted to. And he is so needy and so isolated that the tweener girl's cuteness and spunkiness and fashion choices become the center of his world. And she doesn't have to be beautiful to be the center of the universe to this handsome guy who, if he were not a quadriplegic, would be the hottest date in town.

Yes, it is all pretty awful, right down to Lou's boyfriend, who is an endurance athlete obsessed with his physical performance, but insensitive to Lou's emotional needs  – he is meant to contrast with the lovable quadriplegic. One man can run but can't feel. One man can feel but can't walk. Oh good grief.

And yet I cried while watching this film. In spite of everything, Claflin's and McTeer's performances opened my heart.

 I also review "Free State of Jones" here 

and "The Conjuring 2" here

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

"Save Send Delete" is "Fun, Pervy, Christian Apologetics"

Prodigious Amazon reviewer Peter Sean Bradley, who reviews serious books about Catholicism, has posted a review of Save Send Delete. Please rush on over to Amazon and buy Save Send Delete today. It is relatively cheap lately. (Prices go up and down.) The Amazon page for Save Send Delete is here.

Peter's review is below. You can see it at Amazon here

This is an unusual book of apologetics.

There are other "correspondence-style" books that consist of the exchange of correspondence between believer and non-believer, or between varieties of non-believers. Such books used to consist of exchanges of letters, but e-mails have taken over. What these books have in common is that they are published with the agreement of both sides and the "form" of the exchange is only in the background.

This book is far different from the norm. In this book, the reader sees only one side of the exchange, that of the believer, the non-believer's side being omitted out of a respect for his privacy. This format makes the presentation "choppy" and sometimes requires the interpolation of information from subsequent emails to make sense of the topics referenced in prior emails. This "choppy" reading experience is common to anyone with experience reading another person's email chain (as a lawyer, I know this experience), and there are times when I really, really wished I could see what the non-believer had written.

The book is also unusual in being a kind of roman a clef. The author insists that this is a real email exchange with a real atheist doyen. She calls the atheist Lord Randolph Court-Wright, Marquis of Alnwick, "Rand" for short, and offers clues to his identity - English, tall, good-looking, on television - which are tempting clues. (She also provides interludes with her friend, an actress who - maybe - accepted the role of DA in Batman.).) Take the clues at face value..or not.

The book opens with the author sending a long email upbraiding "Rand" for things he said as part of a Bill Moyers' presentation. Moyers had introduced Rand as a "skeptic," but, as is typical of the modern variety of "skeptic, Goska observes " were as dogmatic in your atheism as a Monty Python parody of a pope." Goska challenges Rand with the fact that Western science has always been braided with religious Commitment. Goska also challenges Rand's manhood by arguing that his commitment to atheism may just have a lot to do with being a sexual and social loser in the high school hierarchy. (She also mentions Jung's "synchronicity" in her first email, which will come back in a later email.)

Goska, or the character in her book - I honestly could not tell if these emails were entirely bona fide or invented - is surprised – shocked! mortified! – when Rand responds.

One of the interesting features of the modern internet age is how the mythic/legendary figures that we never used to interact with suddenly pop up on the internet as real human beings with real feelings. As an Amazon reviewer, I know how it feels when the living person who bled and fought to put their thoughts and feeling into a text reaches out to critique my critique of their work.

The email conversation then takes off in the usual direction that emails conversations take – everywhere, i.e., the existence of God, the problem of evil, the meaning of life, etc.

Goska is not in any sense a trained Christian apologist, and I suspect that she has absolutely no desire to be a Christian apologist in any formal sense. She is, however, a thinking person and a Catholic and she has thought about the great questions from her life experience as reflected through the prism of lived Catholicism. This makes her presentation substantially different from the normal "debates" that these kinds of books take. Most of her arguments do not fall in the great patterns of apologetic arguments, which may be why Rand probably found countering her arguments baffling (and she is not afraid of simply telling Rand that his arguments are nonsense, which must have been a new experience for him.) For example, in what I thought was the best part of the book, after Rand raised the atheist's chestnut of the "problem of evil" – which they can milk for all its emotional worth – Goska appealed to her own experience of suffering – and that of people she knows – to turn the emotional appeal around on him:

"Atheists like you say that you can't believe in God because there is so much suffering in the world. That's imperialism. You presume to speak for others, others who do not want you to speak for them. You start with the Holocaust. Fair enough. Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who rescued Jews. Not only was she still a Christian after her imprisonment in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, she prayed for, and received, God's gift of forgiveness when one of the cruelest camp guards approached her after the war. Oswald Rufeisen, a Jewish survivor, became a monk. Elie Weisel, who survived Auschwitz, believes."

Atheists point to suffering from the outside, not the inside. We all do. We look at a person who has been crippled and we wonder how he could live that way because we can't imagine ourselves living that way, but people do get crippled and they find joy and love – and, yes, even value – in their life as it exists. Atheists are good at expressing the horror of suffering, but they may not understand suffering from their privileged outsider perspective.

As someone who lives in the inner city and teaches the disadvantaged, and because of her own health care issues, Goska appreciates the significance of analyzing suffering from the inside. That perspective allows one of the best paragraphs on the subject I have ever read:

"Ninety percent of the suffering people I know choose, not to work their way out of the Hell to which fate has condemned them, but to upholster it. My students, my friends, visibly, actively choose to exacerbate the most hated features of their lives. Dating an abusive man? Heck, why not up the ante and get pregnant by him. Working a dead-end job? Here's a great idea – start drinking. That will really improve things. Lost everything in a flood, fire, war, and brokenhearted over that? A suggestion – don't, whatever you do, move on; don't enjoy the present moment. Cling to your memories of what is gone, and your sense of yourself as a victim."

I know a lot of people who suffer because they are in the business of "upholstering" their own private Hell. (This is not a question of blaming individuals; it is a question of recognizing human nature.)

Goska also makes the common sense observation:

"It wasn't suffering per se that made me a better person. It was my response to it. I had two choices: to be sucked under, to become a monster from which my best self would recoil, or to strive to keep my head above water. As best as I was able, I chose the latter – I strove. I approached every feature of my suffering: loneliness, pain, paralysis, despair, terror, rage, waste, poverty, as an obstacle on a course I was running for my own spiritual growth in the eyes of God – and, nobody else. That choice is what made all the difference."

Atheists, of course, argue that God could have done it different – he could have made self-improvement a matter of scoring well on tests or something equally trite, which never answers the question of whether this would actually end suffering; perhaps, the new standard of suffering would be "failing a test."

Atheists don't answer the problem of suffering so much as make suffering meaningless. A Christian – specifically, a Catholic Christian – accepts that the reason God uses suffering is not known to us presently but accepts that God must have a good reason for it, particularly since He suffered in his humanity in the Passion and the Crucifixion. In my own time of suffering, I discovered Pope John II's Salvifici Dolores, in particular this passage:

"8. In itself human suffering constitutes as it were a specific "world" which exists together with man, which appears in him and passes, and sometimes does not pass, but which consolidates itself and becomes deeply rooted in him. This world of suffering, divided into many, very many subjects, exists as it were "in dispersion". Every individual, through personal suffering, constitutes not only a small part of that a world", but at the same time" that world" is present in him as a finite and unrepeatable entity. Parallel with this, however, is the interhuman and social dimension. The world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering. Thus, although the world of suffering exists "in dispersion", at the same time it contains within itself a. singular challenge to communion and solidarity."


"29. Following the parable of the Gospel, we could say that suffering, which is present under so many different forms in our human world, is also present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one's "I" on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions. The person who is a " neighbour" cannot indifferently pass by the suffering of another: this in the name of fundamental human solidarity, still more in the name of love of neighbour. He must "stop", "sympathize", just like the Samaritan of the Gospel parable. The parable in itself expresses a deeply Christian truth, but one that at the same time is very universally human."

An atheist might hand-waive about the evolutionary significance of "compassion," but confining it to a purely material world is a challenge.

And this is what happens to Rand when he is forced to explain to a suffering person why that suffering person should not end her suffering by suicide – he fails and lapses back into the numinous. Goska responds:

"ME: You can use all the big words you want, Rand. I've got a thesaurus, same as you. But if you boil it down and put it in plain English, there is NOTHING materialist about your argument. You are chickening out and adopting the stance of a believer in a transcendent reality. "Precious," "sacred," "the dignity of the human person" – did you think I would not notice that you lifted that phrase straight from the Vatican? "a whole which transcends" – you even use the word!!! – "the sum of its parts." "Spirit" !!! Oh, Mister Man, you are in a world of trouble. The Vocabulary Police levy WEIGHTY fines when an atheist uses the word "spirit.""

I have always felt that atheists should be fined when they use words like "progress" in the sense of achieving a "better" state closer to some "goal" since there can be no such thing in atheism.

This exchange rang true for me. Atheists – at least the modern "New" variety – are deconstructionists. Their game consists of shifting the burden and announcing how they don't find evidence persuasive, actually they refuse to consider evidence as "evidence." Their intellectual muscles have atrophied, but they don't know it because they can smuggle in Christian concepts into their arguments as if those concepts didn't have a Christian substructure. In fact, Goska gets an admission from Rand that would never happen in a formal setting:

"He caved in and confessed that, yes, he doesn't know how to craft a purely materialist defense of the value of human life – we had been talking about that – and then he changed, jumped, from one tone to another."

On which point, I found Goska's points about God to be eminently satisfying to my Catholic sensibilities (honed as they are by decades of reading Aquinas). Here is one:

"On the other hand, I don't believe in a God who, the moment you cast your lot in with him, or read that bestseller about the power of positive thoughts, makes you happy, pretty, and rich. I do believe that there is a supernatural entity who can make you feel 100 % better instantaneously, and his name is Satan. Feeling angry? Smash in someone's face. In pain? Inject heroin. Poor? Steal. All sins provide quite the rush. Nine out of ten hedonists and ten out of ten cowards recommend Satan as their deity of choice."

Everyone suffers; Christ suffered; deal with it.

Another one:

"The students in my folklore classes read myths from various cultures, and, especially if they're also reading authors like you, they dismiss all myths with a wave of the hand and a comment like, "It's all the same nonsense." It isn't all the same and it isn't all nonsense. These verses communicate the unique identity of the Judeo-Christian God. Our God is not Ba'al or Tiamat or Apollo or Allah. Our God is the Word – logos – truth and reason.

The village Hinduism I knew was typified by stories in which a not particularly good or even observant man accidentally engaged in an act that was similar to worship, and reaped rewards thereby. One example: the village drunk got lost in the forest and began to cry over his fate. His tears wet the exposed tip of a Shiva lingam, most of which was buried underground. The man didn't see it, had no intention of worshiping, and was not conscious of weeping on a lingam, but his tears were close enough to the libations a pious person would spill that Shiva rewarded the man anyway. A tale: a Brahmin leaves his wife for a prostitute, kills his parents, and eats taboo foods. One day he accidentally overhears a sermon about Shiva. When he dies, the god of death comes to carry him off to deserved punishment for all of his heinous crimes, but Shiva intervenes and takes the sinner to Mount Kailas, close to heaven. The moral is very blunt: all that matters to the gods is that they get what they want – worship – by hook or by crook."

The slogan "Our God is not Ba'al or Tiamat or Apollo or Allah. Our God is the Word – logos – truth and reason" is one that I want to memorize.

Obviously, I am doing extended quotations because there is so much of this book that I want to remember.

A frustrating part of the book was the weird prurient romanticism of the book. Anyone who has been involved in internet dating should have been able to recognize the signs from the first email. The flirtatiousness that turned into what seems to have been an obscene letter at the end. Goska clearly identified where Rand was coming from in her first letter – a frustrated wannabe Casanova who now has the notoriety and can live out his teenage fantasies….but so ineptly. The flirtation went both ways and even developed to the extent of the two planning to meet in Paris, when Rand suddenly discovers that he and his wife – previously a heartless, alienating bitch – "can work things out." As a person with not an insignificant amount of experience in internet dating – and having listened to women talk about their internet dating experiences – this is such a cliché that I don't understand how Goska could not have seen it coming from the second email.

I found this part of the book "weak," but – hey! – if it is real life, and this part seems like real life, then one of the doyens of atheism is a "macher" and a "perv," which shouldn't be surprising because notwithstanding the "Mr. Spock" air of logical detachment that they want to exude, we can see in the real life antics of Richard Carrier and Michael Shermer, that at heart, they are still the lonely teenage boys with acne who never got to date the prom queen.

This is an unusual book of apologetics. It is worth reading. It's also fun, apart from the pervy creep factor of the famous atheist engaging in what looks like "grooming behavior."