Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pecha Kucha: Inspire Japan April 16

Pecha Kucha Chicago will participate in the special Saturday worldwide edition of Pecha Kucha's 20x20 event in support of Japan. Sounds like it will be an afternoon all-ages get-together bringing in the usual suspects in our favorite place, Martyr's. Can't wait!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Our commitment to a place, a people, or a person is tested when something we cherish (our own well-being, for example) is endangered. At these times choice is not a freedom but a burden. Too often this burden is dispensed with, swiftly and efficiently, because the choice for self-preservation (physical, emotional or financial) can be justified, easily explained as being in others' interest, not just our own. The burden: honestly evaluating the alternatives, succumbing neither to mindless self-sacrifice or rationalized retreat. It's a tough test, most recently felt by some in Tokyo and the Kanto region of Japan. None of us should presume to judge others in this regard.
Few films explore this realm with honesty, and it is difficult for directors, writers and actors to avoid sentimentality and melodrama in telling such a story. That is why "Of Gods and Men" must be seen. In a narrative based on a true story, eight Cistercian monks struggle, individually and as a community, with this choice when their north African monastery is caught between a government they believe corrupt, and a mounting tide of murderous religious fundamentalism. One can easily postulate reasons for leaving this situation, but one must see the film to understand the case for remaining.
Christian religious men, their lives are fully integrated with the Muslim community they serve and that has come to depend on them. At one point, when the burden weighs heavily on them, and they are not ready to accept the possible consequences of remaining (their own kidnapping or death not the least), one of the monks tells the village elder that they, the monks, are nothing more than "birds on a branch." The elder's wife, standing in the doorway listening to this conversation, corrects him: "You are the branch and we are the birds."
Understandable fear, along with sincere reflection on the reality of religious vocation, and concern for the villagers all move the monks emotionally as the violence moves closer. We are given a model of leadership in the character of Christian, and we are allowed to observe the dignity of middle-aged and elderly men grappling with the everyday vicissitudes of aging in the midst of larger turmoil. The film is perfectly paced, allowing us time to process the dilemmas faced by these men. Near the film's conclusion, we are allowed a wonderful sequence of closeups as they share a glass of wine and listen to a tape of Swan Lake. Hope you see this movie, there is a reason it won the Cannes Grand Prix. It's at the Landmark Century in Chicago this week.

Hersey and Haruki

Coverage of the events in Japan have made much of the unique Japanese character in response to a crisis. Resilience, orderliness, extraordinary cooperation and stoicism in the face of an unprecedented disaster barely begin to describe it. More than 10,000 confirmed dead, a quarter million living in temporary evacuation centers, the havoc of tsunami inundation, scores of unnerving "aftershocks", and the uncertainty of radiation leaks: it can only be compared to the devastation of war, and yet we see the Japanese bear it with equanimity.

This is but a single facet of the complex humanity of the Japanese; it is well worth the effort to try to gain a better understanding. So for those who like to read, here are a couple of modest suggestions.

In 1946 the New Yorker devoted an entire issue to John Hersey's 30,000 word essay "Hiroshima"; afterward it was published as a book and amended in 1985 with followups on the people whose experiences were narrated. This is the only time I have finished a book and said, simply, "everyone should read this book."
"Hiroshima" matter-of-factly tells the stories of six people's lives immediately following the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945. Without citing statistics or moralizing, Hersey conveys the suffering experienced by these people, and their humanity in coping with it. Discussions of the book don't often address the culture or character of these survivors (not all of them are Japanese), but the tone, the "voice" of their recollections weaves a context for understanding their outlook.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
A half-century later Haruki Murakami followed, as did Hersey, the lives of ordinary people; in this case the victims of the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo terrorist release of deadly sarin gas in the Tokyo subway. Unlike current media coverage of this month's events, "Underground" does not over-interpret or attempt to draw overt conclusions. Rather, Murakami the novelist and short-story teller, is in this non-fiction book within the best tradition of modern Japanese writers like Natsume Soseki and Jun'ichiro Tanizaki: he allows the characters' words and actions to speak for themselves. In interviews he asked the affected commuters and office workers to tell a bit of their background before getting to the details of March 20, 1995, thus establishing individual personalities that resist generalization. Through the telling of story after story (some of the victims' paths crossed that day), a picture emerges of Japanese people and their response to crisis. It is a more nuanced picture, well worth the time to understand. Murakami also wanted to balance the media's sensational coverage of the terrorist cult, by bringing narrative weight back to the victims. Those who lament today's media focus on radiation issues at the expense of the humanitarian crisis may hear a familiar theme.
Readers of Underground will be reminded of the evolution of technology. Immediate treatment was necessary to minimize nervous system failure. Before smartphones, before internet, email or twitter connectivity the key to effective treatment of the over 5,000 victims of the mysterious symptoms that day was Dr. Nobuo Yanagisawa. One of the few who understood the poison's effect on the nervous system, Dr. Yanagisawa happened to see the unfolding crisis on television and recognized the earmarks of sarin. He then led a team who transmitted the key data for diagnosis and treatment to dozens of Tokyo hospitals via the communication device known as the fax machine

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Red Cross on White Day

Japan traditionally celebrates a cool holiday March 14th, White Day. A month after receiving gifts of chocolate from women on Valentine's Day, men return the favor with white chocolate, lingerie, etc. Dark chocolate is okay now, too. It all started with a marshmallow manufacturer drumming up business, then it was endorsed by the National Confectionery Industry Association about 30 years ago. Sort of a Hallmark Holiday, but what the hell, why not give it some real meaning: If you don't have someone to give chocolate this White Day (or even if you do), why not donate a little something Monday to help the people in Japan? One easy way to give $10 to help the recovery effort: text the keyword REDCROSS to 90999. Read the details on the Red Cross page.

Geshe Dorjee, Tibetan Monk, Razorback

This week the Dalai Lama confirmed that he was relinquishing his political role as leader of the Tibetan people. Analysts, according to the New York Times, said that "by formally giving up political power, the Dalai Lama, 75, was trying to deepen the authority of the movement’s democratic government, which is based in Dharamsala. This month, Tibetan exiles are expected to elect a new prime minister." On May 11 the Dalai Lama will be the guest of another Lama, Geshe Dorjee, at the University of Arkansas. Geshe Thupten Dorjee was in Chicago last week, speaking at Wright College and Northwestern University. I was fortunate last week to attend his lecture at Northwestern and to join a small group dining with him the following evening. Geshe Dorjee was ordained by the Dalai Lama in 1986 and currently teaches at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Teaching, as a Lama in the United States especially, means addressing all topics, spiritual to smartphones. How does one handle being treated as a sort of oracle, in large groups and small? It's a big responsibility. As someone who probably has much more to say than can ever be expressed in the time allotted, Geshe speaks very rapidly; sometimes adjacent words are conjoined as one, and occasionally syllable order is compromised ("baleebie", we figured out, meant Libya). But he was thrilling to listen to, start to finish. One simple message I took away from the lecture is that we are intended to be happy. Clearly Geshe is, living simply (all-purpose sleeveless crimson robe and sandals) and always "on" in every setting. While this takes a lot of energy, I am guessing it supplies him with an equal measure. The clarity of vision exemplified by Geshe Dorjee and the Dalai Lama, and its meaning for people worldwide, are a big part of the continuing idea of Tibet in the face of intense Chinese government pressure.