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Guest Post by Ben Soule

What are we doing?  Our country is perfecting the response to mass shootings.  We have moments of silence.  We lower flags.  We send thoughts and prayers.  We give blood.  We have candlelight vigils.  We praise the bravery of the first responders, the medical teams, and the civilians who worked together to save lives.  We heap scorn upon the latest sick individual and damn their soul to hell with ever-increasing eloquence.  Our first responders develop ever better practices to respond more quickly to the next shooter.  We search for the shooter’s motives so that we can be sure that he is different from us.

mass-shooting-vegas-What are we not doing?  We are not figuring out how to separate the thousands of unstable individuals that exist within a nation of 325 million people from the sea of high-powered military weapons available in this nation.

So we have another largest mass shooting in our nation’s history, the most people killed by gunfire in one hour in the USA since 1865.  We wring our hands, we mouth platitudes, we shrug our shoulders and we stand like sheep waiting for the next slaughter.

What is wrong with us?

 

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My father-in-law, Dick Soule, was a colorful character.  He had many sayings – some of them made more sense than others – all interesting, some timely.  And maybe none were more timely than the one I’m using as title for this post.  Lots of people have talked about the President’s fondness for ‘alternate facts,’ a behavior embodied by his press secretary and top aides.  For those who rely on digital media for their news, and tend toward information coming in fast bursts that don’t involve reading (let alone reading print publications “Of Record,”), it’s becoming tricky to know whether to believe what you hear and see.

And so the messages continue to be cranked out – about Putin, about the ‘crooked media,’ about lack of coverage of terrorist threats – even the “Bowling Green Massacre,”  which – it turns out – is one of those ‘alternate’ pieces of information ginned up by a Trump aide.

Which brings me to another of my father-in-law’s sayings.  He – and my husband as well – loved to distract our kids by pointing in a direction over their shoulder (particularly if there was, for instance, a brownie sitting on a plate in front of a child) and saying, “Look!  A Linotype!”  Linotypes, of course, haven’t been used for years…and hardly any kid (and few adults) would know what they are!  But the idea of pointing in one direction to grab the cookie off your plate, or throw you off your game (just like the old Quarterback Sneak) – now that is alive and being used with verve right now.

Because, of course, it turns out that the Administration — the one that we are supposed to respect and admire — would far rather have the media get distracted on ‘proving’ that they really HAVE covered stories of terrorist threats – and covered them enough (what the heck is enough???) to exempt themselves from the criticism of the White House.  At what point will the reputable media – the ‘failing’ New York Times, for instance; the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the like – respond to this kind of criticism by not responding and being distracted?

PT Barnum, famous showman, was well known for staging stunts.  He talked proudly about hiring a child in a town where his circus was, to carefully place six bricks outside of the tent where his show was.  People would gather, watching the child and the bricks and then, curious, they’d go inside to be entertained by acrobats, dancers, Gen Tom Thumb, and others.  They’d leave, feeling that they had experienced a great show, and spread the word to their friends.  Evidently – even though Ringling Brothers has announced the close of their circus – we haven’t learned the lessons Barnum wanted to teach us, more than 100 years ago:  we can be duped.  Over and over again, just like (as my husband likes to say) “shooting fish in a barrel.”  It’s easy, and it’s working. And more than that:  we know what this game is, yet still, we play it, over and over again.  “Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump,” said WC Fields, who seemed to embody the spirit of Barnum years after the showman had passed.  Evidently we’re the chumps, not smart enough to know that our ears are wet – and no, it’s not the rain coming down on our heads.

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Now that it’s happened again, I remember how it felt the last time.  I remember feeling  like the nerves on my skin were burned, jangly, hyper-sensitive.  I remember how I startled easily.  I recall looking out the window more often, gazing up at the sky…although back then, I also remember the eery quiet that came from no planes flying overhead.  I remember hoping there would be answers soon, cranking out as much work to update the UUA website as I could manage before I collapsed in exhaustion for a few hours.  And I remember how calm it all felt here in my town, thirteen miles away from downtown Boston.

That was in the minutes in hours and days that stretched on, following the September 11, 2001, attacks on our country, some of which originated in Boston.  Now, of course, is the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing that occurred on Monday afternoon.  And while the circumstances are different, and the loss of life much less, it still feels like a punch to the gut of every person who calls Boston their home.

It was Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen who, interviewed the other day on the television news, said, “Bostonians care about only three things:  sports, politics, and revenge.” And, he continued, in this case, revenge is about carrying on our lives, and not letting whoever perpetrated these acts change what we do and who we are. In a demonstration of solidarity, we saw the reviled New York Yankees raising a banner that had both teams’ names on it, and playing our beloved baseball anthem, “Sweet Caroline,” after the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium.  Way to go, Evil Empire.  Maybe we’re not so far away from each other, after all.

And in that spirit, last night the Boston Bruins held the first major sports game since the attacks (two other Celtics games were cancelled) and the entire Boston Garden joined in singing the National Anthem.

Bostonians — and I count myself as one now, having lived here for well over twenty years — are in general scrappy, intrepid, and prone to keeping on, no matter what.  In these days following the attacks on the Marathon, story after story has come to light, of strangers opening their homes to stranded runners and tourists, of people who ran toward the blast, not away, to help those whose legs had been torn off or who lay on the ground, bleeding, of people who are donating to relief funds set up by area banks to help those whose injuries are so severe they will require extensive long term care.

Today, the President of the United States will come together with interfaith leaders at a worship service to remember those who died, those who were injured, those who came to aid the fallen.  Meanwhile, the investigation into the crime goes on, painstakingly, relentlessly.  I have every confidence that the answers will be found, that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.  And that our city will recover.  Again.

Way to go, Boston.  In so many ways, by acts mundane and huge, our people show what they’re made of.  And each time the Red Sox win (and Saints preserve us, they seem to be on a roll again) and our other baseball anthem, “Dirty Water,” pumps out of the Fenway Park sound system, I’m proud this is the place I call home.

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It’s winter, a time when — at least if you aren’t into skiing or snowboarding or tobagganing — people like me  tend to hole up, make lots of soups and stews, try to stay warm, and — as Susan Cooper’s poem The Shortest Day says, “Light candles to drive the dark away.”  Sometimes it feels like there’s cold not only in the air but in my bones as well, and these days, the cold seems to extend to our hearts and minds, too.

Today, one month after the horror of Newtown, CT, where we had to watch the faces of beautiful first graders flash on television as commentators announced their massacre, the National Rifle Association has taken aim at the President of the United States’ daughters, doing their best to lodge an argument that Obama is a hypocrite for wanting gun control when his daughter go to school in a protected environment.

The same organization argues that, in order for us to be safe, we shouldn’t restrict the sale or use of assault weapons, but instead get armed guards into every school and show our teachers how to handle firearms.  Rambo goes to school is the image that floats in my head, and it’s not one I’d want to share with the children I know.

Paranoia has permeated the minds of the NRA and those Second Amendment defenders who have now decided that a proposal to conduct background checks and perhaps even restrict assault-style weapons will take away our hard-fought civil rights.  I truly believe they have lost their perspective on reality and become the Paranoia People…folks who are caught up in thinking that government is out to get us, and that the right to bear arms is so essential that it can not be modified with any restrictions or conditions.

Several years ago I recalled the era of McCarthyism, including its own brush with my family when I was a very young child.  And I decried the fact that it seemed as though the government was permeated with such gutless leaders as those who – like Rush Limbaugh and his cronies – want to denounce all who disagree with them, scare and intimidate everyone into agreeing with their beliefs.  Funny, but things just haven’t changed much since I wrote that piece.  If the NRA’s current ad is any indicator, it’s all slid further downhill into a pile of very bad smelling stuff.

I remember, as a child, visiting my grandparents and my aunt, uncle, and cousins in a rural part of New York State.  My uncle Fred — a really nice guy who farmed for a living, worked hard, and occasionally went hunting — went out and shot a deer.  My cousin, Linda, posed with it, and I suppose (although I do not recall) that our family ate it for dinner and for quite a while thereafter.  I don’t question my uncle wanting to hunt, and recognize that there are many people in this country who like to shoot rifles at targets, go skeet shooting, or kill game to put on the dinner table.  I also recognize that there are some people who feel that they want, or need, to keep a gun in their home for protection.  My own husband has had one at times, although it’s a musket that shoots black powder, used for his colonial MinuteMan activities.

But that is a far cry from the purchase and sale and possession of assault-style weapons by people like you and me.  I can think of absolutely NO reason why any private individual needs to own such a weapon…none.  And the argument that any restriction on gun licensing or change to the review that individuals might undergo in order to purchase a gun constitutes infringement of second amendment rights, is hogwash.

When people get caught up in the idea that the government is there to work against them, not for them; when individuals start arguing that this president, or any president, is going to take away their rights and so they have to stock an arsenal of weaponry to defend their homes, we’re into dangerous territory.  A month ago, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, there was a lot of talk going on about the need to be kind to one another…to embrace good will and the pure wonder and joy that those slaughtered first graders had, and bring it into our lives.  That didn’t last very long, at least if the NRA’s current media campaign is to be taken as an example.

Yes, there are a few little glimmers of hope.  Yesterday, parents of the Sandy Hook Elementary School children announced the creation of Sandy Hook Promise, which calls on people to “choose love, belief, and hope instead of anger” and to believe that “this time, things will be different.”  What would happen if the paranoia people let go of the fear that’s driving them and decided, instead, to sit down at the table and have an honest conversation with these heartbroken parents about violence and its impact on their lives and our society?  What a radical thought that seems to be.

I continue to hold to the belief that our country can do better, be better, than it is now.  Evidently the parents who began Sandy Hook Promise believe the same…that we have an opportunity to turn tragedy “into transformation.”  But first, the paranoia has to be set aside.  Even for just a few moments…long enough, perhaps, to bring us all to the table to look into one anothers’ eyes and search for the compassion that we all hold, somewhere deep in the too-cold heart that waits to thaw with the promise of love, trust, and healing.

 

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Much has been written over the last few days about the “Harry Potter generation”: those children — now teens or young adults — who grew up with J.K. Rowling’s fantasy novels as part of their lives, and who now face the wrench of discovering what life will be like without the continuing adventures of Harry, Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid, and the rest of the Hogwarts gang.

My daughter, Abigail, is 17 and she is one of these children.  Tonight she will go to the 12:01 AM screening of the last part of the Harry Potter saga, dressed as Hermione Granger, just as she did many years ago, for Halloween.  Then, Abby’s Hermione appeared as a young witch, complete with Hogwarts patch on her robe, custom-made broom and wand in hand.  Today, our Hermione will wear the dark skirt, Oxford shirt, grey cable-knit sweater, knee socks, and Hogwarts scarf that we have seen the teen Hogwarts pupils wear in the movie.  She’ll be accompanied by one friend dressed as Dolores Umbridge (a vision in pink, no doubt) and another portraying Harry Potter.  Snape may also make an appearance, I’m told.

What Ben and I are painfully aware of is that this is the beginning of the end of days.  Days of having a teenager living in the house, a child in public school, a dependent who we are charged with watching over.  A week ago, we marked the official beginning of ‘the year of lasts,’ as Ben calls it:  Abby’s last summer on Star Island as a member of a children’s program group.  She’ll be back to Star, gods willing, but it will be as a young adult, an employee, a woman with her own family – a child no more.

It’s the last summer before college, the last summer of free-and-easy, and, yes, the last opening of a Harry Potter movie. Abby decided to re-read the entire Rowling series before she saw this last film;  she is home as I write, finishing the final chapter of the final book.  It has been marked by laughter and many tears, as beloved characters meet their fate. These characters are her friends, her muses, and she will not say goodbye to them easily.

Years ago, Ben and I started reading Abby these books as bed time stories.  At first, she didn’t want to hear them.  She had somehow decided that they were math textbooks, and refused each time we tried to lure her into the books.  But we were eventually able to convince her that these were uncommon stories… about a magical wizard and his friends, about minotaurs and house-elves… and she, and we, succumbed to the magic.  We took summer trips to Canada listening to Jim Dale tell the stories; we queued up in line at bookstores or pre-ordered new books online so that they would arrive on the legal publication release date. Ben created a wand-making business, Preston and Wickes Wands of Distinction, which sold beautifully made, hand-crafted exotic wood wands to wizards and muggles alike.  We went to sleep dreaming of visiting Diagon Alley, we yearned to try chocolate frogs.

Now, Abby has mourned the end of the book and the series.  And, we all know, it’s not just because the story’s over.  It’s a piece of her life, and ours, too.  These kids may be known by demographers as “The Harry Potter Generation,” and they should be, for this amazing set of stories has shaped their years and their viewpoints, made them dream and believe and wonder in wondrous ways.

Abby as Hermione - Halloween, 2002

Ben and I can’t bring ourselves to run to the movie theatre right away to see the last film.  We want to string it out a little.   Probably, because we want to string out our younger daughter’s childhood a bit, too.

Oh, I will miss these books.  And I will miss that little girl I’ve loved for so long,  too.

Abby as Hermione, July 14, 2011

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We’ve been subjected to the big news stories lately that focus not on how the US economy is doing in its painful recovery, or whether peace in the Middle East is finally being achieved, but instead, on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s scuzzy affair with a member of his domestic staff, and on the International Monetary Fund head’s attack on a hotel maid.

While these might make for just another week of “ho-hum” headlines in People Magazine and other celebrity and gossip publications, the revelations seem to have also resulted in more college students coming forward to say that, when they were raped or taken advantage of on college campuses, their concerns were met with disdain or just plain ignored. This is hardly a new situation.

When I was a college student at a women’s school in the early 1970’s, I found myself seduced by an attractive college professor.  I was invited to go look at church pews with him in Bennington, Vermont, that he said he wanted for his house or for the college’s black box theater.  Thrilled to be asked, I said yes.  We went back to his house afterward, and — his wife away on business — he mixed me a drink that was full of frozen fruit and a lot of alcohol.  Before I knew it, he was all over me, and I succumbed.  I was young, inexperienced, eager, unsophisticated, and a lot more.  I didn’t report the encounter, because I felt that I had been complicit in allowing it to happen and that nothing would be done.

Several months later, another professor, who periodically invited his students to dinner at his home, invited me to such a meal.  I was thrilled and dressed up, thinking it was one of those dinner parties.  He picked me up at my dorm, and I was surprised — and concerned — to find that no one else was at the house… a house far away from campus, out in the woods.  Nervous, I chattered away, and we had dinner — a Mongolian Hot Pot, as I recall.

As he showed me around his house, I was somewhat relieved when we got to the bedroom and I saw the bed turned down, with a book on the bed.  “Phew,” I thought to myself.  “Your concerns were taking over.  This guy is planning to go to bed, alone, and read.  No problem.”  Wrong.  Before I knew it, as I turned around to leave the room, I was pushed down on the bed, and raped.

I didn’t report it.  I felt as though I should have known better, should have realized what was going on, should have asked more questions, should have…. Stupid, stupid, stupid.  It was a different time, and I was naive, and very young.

But still, I ask myself as I read about the situations college students continue to encounter, and the unsatisfactory response colleges make to their claims of harassment or rape:  why has nothing much changed?  Why do students still find that they are demeaned or ostracized if inappropriate behavior is encountered?  And why do jokes about ‘rape’ get thrown around, even — in some social situations — by children in their early teens?  What is it that makes a man — a man as powerful and well known as Dominique Strauss-Kahn — think that it’s OK to walk out of the shower, chase the hotel maid around, and force himself on her?

All of these situations — whether they involved a movie star and a housekeeper, a financial magnate and a hotel maid, or a college professor and his student — were, at some level, also about the use of power in situations where both players were not on a level field.  People of influence and authority engaged with, and used their authority and power over, people in subordinate positions.

I was never a big part of the so-called ‘women’s liberation’ movement as it grew in this country.  Nor was I a ‘stand by your man, no matter what’ kind of woman.  I have always believed that individuals deserve to be treated with respect, whether they are hotel maids, housekeepers, college students, or kids on a playground.  Why is that so hard to embrace?  And why does it seem that we are doomed to continue to read headlines that show us, over and over again, that ‘respect and dignity’ is something we must wish for, rather than embrace as truth, in our lives?

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I went into my chiropractor’s office last week.  I like my chiropractor – he’s a nice guy, we usually chat about his children, the weather, or how my back is feeling.  On this particular morning, I walked in and he said to me, “What do you think about Donald Trump running for President?”  “Donald Trump for President!,” I exclaimed.  “Now there’s a stupid idea.  How dumb does he really think we are?  This birther stuff is ridiculous,” I blathered on, referring to Trump’s stated obsession with the idea that the State of Hawaii’s “Certificate of Live Birth” for Obama is not good enough.  “Who the heck believes this stuff?”, I exploded.  One look at his face told me the answer:  he did.

Deciding to dig myself in completely, I continued, “And Michele Bachmann’s just as bad:  giving a speech in Concord, New Hampshire about the ‘shot heard round the world’ that started the American Revolution…in Lexington and the other Concord (Massachusetts).  Please,” I continued, “Can someone ask these people to just get their information straight before they sound off?”  Not content with the amount of damage I’d done myself, I suggested that it would be nice if these supposed candidates for President showed that they had a clue about matters of foreign policy and government relations before they decided they should make a run for the nation’s highest office.

The exchange, among other things, proves that one really shouldn’t have discussions about politics with those whose views we don’t know in advance (yes, the chiropractor started it, but I shouldn’t have taken the bait).

On the other hand, Trump and the birther devotees have reminded me, on this day when we are noting the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, that such down and dirty arguments connect back to the racist history of the United States — and so, I suppose, we really shouldn’t be that surprised that the birther argument — and similar arguments about Obama’s heritage, religion, what-have-you, have taken hold.

The ‘inconvenient truth’ is that the seeds of this behavior were sown long ago, when the country’s Declaration of Independence was being written. New England communities were built off the proceeds of the Triangle Trade to Africa.   Thomas Jefferson, statesman and slave owner, included references to slavery in early drafts of the Declaration, James Madison supported the repatriation of slaves to Liberia and the Caribbean, and the Civil War ripped the country apart as battles raged over slavery, as Katrina Browne and James DeWolf Perry discuss.

So even while many rejoiced at Obama’s election as President, many others focused on all the reasons why this man of mixed race and heritage could not, should not, be President of the United States.  Which brings us to Candidate Trump.  I find Trump’s bombastic blathering outrageous and obnoxious, and I can’t take him seriously.  Unfortunately, my chiropractor, and thousands of others, do.  Trump is, I believe, just one more face that shows us the racist history of our country — a man who will swear that his pursuit of the ‘truth’ about Obama’s heritage has nothing to do with racism, but with the laws of the United States.  And those laws can not, surely, allow a black man to be president.

Back in September, I wrote a piece focusing on the fight Al Sharpton and Glenn Beck were having around Beck’s so-called “Restoring Honor” rally, which compelled Sharpton to stage a “Reclaiming the Dream” event. The two threw mud at each other, and it was not a pretty scene.  At its core, the fight occurred about race and class, I believe.

And here we are again.  It is the anniversary of the Civil War. Yet, 150 years later, we are still wrestling with pigs.  I fear we are doomed to keep engaging in such wrestling matches until we confront the realities of this country’s racist past, and the huge challenges of building a future of equality, together.

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At the risk of being condemned by my friends for being shallow — not to mention dismissed by those I wish to connect with professionally for being an airhead — my thoughts have recently turned to Charlie Sheen and Moammar Khaddafy.  Khaddafy, long known as a vicious dictator and at least an extremely quirky man (if not completely mad) now finds himself in a battle for control of his country as rebels and those who yearn for a different sort of government struggle for change and perhaps, freedom.  Khaddafy has been in power in Libya since a military coup in 1969.  Referred to as “The Leader,” Khaddafy is known for his acts of oppression, his disconnected speeches (or rants), his protection of known terrorists, and his threats against forces who suggest that Libya’s people be liberated.

The uprisings which resulted in the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and led to demonstrations and a revolution in Tunisia and other parts of the Arab world, also moved to Libya, and in late February, 2011, it appeared that Khaddafy’s grip on the country might be at an end.  But not so fast:  as of this writing, Khaddafy had managed to retain hold of Tripoli, the capital, and troops and ammunition had been dispatched to retake Zawiyah, 30 miles away from the capital.  Meanwhile hospitals are reported to be overwhelmed with the injured, reports of violence and intimidation against the Libyan people are widespread, and worldwide, oil prices are soaring.  Khaddafy is not giving up without a battle — perhaps to the death — and the outcome of the unrest is far from clear.

And what about Charlie Sheen?  Sheen, the actor who had so much potential and who was the highest-paid actor on television (over $2 million per episode — can anyone be worth that much?) has, after months of highly publicized rants and bizarre acts, been given the gate by CBS.  Fired from the television series “Two and a Half Men,” Sheen continues to spout about having “tiger blood”; about life with the “goddesses” who live in his mansion (oh dear, one of them left him a few days ago, just as Khaddafy’s Ukrainian nurse deserted him last week); about “winning” in this battle he’s engaged in with the network.  Last night footage was shown of Sheen on top of a building with his minions, waving a machete and reportedly drinking ‘tiger blood’ from a bottle.

Thanks to advances in communication technology, we can receive Sheen’s tweets on his new business plan (over 2 million people currently following).  We can see live reports from Libya, even though Colonel Khaddafy has pulled the plug on the power and internet service in many parts of the country.

In the case of Khaddafy, I can understand why we care:  we have had, and continue to have, the opportunity to see what a transition in government looks like, as we’ve observed the downfall of Mubarak and unrest in many parts of the Middle East and Africa.  On the other hand, why are we so fascinated with Sheen’s outbursts and bizarre behavior?  He is an actor.  He is a drug abuser and, clearly, mentally ill.  He behaves erratically.  He needs help.  He is like many people in the US and in other parts of the world:  an individual with an illness, in need of treatment.  This, Sheen shares with Khaddafy, long considered a madman.

In his poem, “The Second Coming,” written nearly 100 years ago, William Butler Yeats wrote:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The words from this remarkable Modernist poem, written by Yeats to describe the Apocalypse and reflect on Europe following the first World War, can also be seen, through our twenty-first century lens, as a mirror of the chaos wrought by these two men.  On the one hand, we observe Khaddafy’s insane grip on his people and his country’s resources, and — in a far smaller sphere — we are treated to daily reports of the wildly spinning madness that spouts from Charlie Sheen’s lips and BlackBerry.  No telling what the next news cycle will bring, but millions will surely be watching to see what new chaos has emerged as “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed” again.

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It’s nearly 8:30 PM EST on February 27, and the Academy Awards are about to begin.  Back in the day, I worked in the entertainment industry, and watching the Tony Awards was an annual fete that was not to be missed, as I gathered with other theatre professionals, watching to see who of our friends would win awards, what folks were wearing, and more.  It was wicked fun, and it was wonderful to see folks like Charles Dutton, James Earl Jones, Jane Kaczmarek, and others up there strutting their stuff, given our connections to them in shows.

Though my path in life has taken me in directions away from arts administration over the last two decades, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to humbly (maybe) offer commentary on the awards the film industry’s about to hand out.  So here goes.  Stay tuned as I live-blog this year’s Academy Awards!

8:35 PM:
We’re being treated to the special effects-driven intro to the awards show, as James Franco and Anne Hathaway show up in clips from all the films nominated for Best Picture.  This particular intro was a little more smoothly executed than some in terms of technical achievement, although the bits that Hathaway and Franco were clumsily scripted into (the “Brown Duck” moment meant to highlight “The Black Swan” was particularly clumsy) were pretty lame.

8:39 PM:
Hathaway’s gown is terrific — elegant, beautiful lines, very classy.  The opening bit, in which Hathaway’s mom and Franco’s grandma are introduced, is silly.  “It’s been a great year for lesbians,” Hathaway says.  “Dancing lesbians, Mom lesbians.”  Pleeze…not necessary.  Now the Kodak Theatre is bursting into mock-flames as “Gone With the Wind” is recalled.  Tom Hanks – a class act always – has arrived on stage to remark that very few films have won awards for art direction, cinematography, and best picture.  One of them was “Gone with the Wind” — ah, now we get the weak connection to the intro — and most recently, “Titanic.”

Art Direction:  nominated were Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, Inception, The King’s Speech, and True Grit;  Alice in Wonderland won the award.

Cinematography:  Black Swan, Inception, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, True Grit were nominated; Inception won the award.

8:52 PM
Kirk Douglas is on stage.  He’s suffered strokes, he’s very frail, and the producers are having him present Best Supporting Actress.  He is a legend, but I question whether he was the right choice to present this award (read on).  Nominees are:  Amy Adams (“The Fighter”), Helena Bonham Carter (“the King’s Speech”), Jackie Weaver (“The Animal Kingdom”), Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”), Haley Steinfeld (“True Grit”).  Melissa Leo won the award – a triumph for Beantown movie fans.  Douglas, on the other hand, almost gave all the nominated actresses a heart attack as he cracked non-funny jokes and reminded the audience at the Kodak Theatre that he had been nominated for Academy Awards three times, and had never won. It took a bit of time for Douglas to move out of camera range so that Leo could make her acceptance speech.

9:01
Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis have come to the stage.  Kunis is wearing a gorgeous lavender gown – Grecian in style – and they have arrived to present awards in animation.  “Day and Night,” “The Gruffalo,” “Let’s Pollute,” “The Lost Thing,” and “Madagascar” were nominated;  “The Lost Thing” won the award.

For Animated Feature Film, “How to Train Your Dragon,” “The Illusionist,” and “Toy Story 3” were nominated.  It was no surprise to hear “Toy Story 3” announced as the winner.

9:12
Hathaway introduced Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin, dressed like twin ice cream salesmen in white dinner jackets, to present the awards for Adapted Screenplay and Original Screenplay.  Writer Aaron Sorkin won the award for best Adapted Screenplay, for his work on “The Social Network.”  For best Original Screenplay, David Seidler won the award for “The King’s Speech.”  Seidler, calling himself “a late bloomer,” gave an eloquent acceptance speech, accepting the award “on behalf of all the stutterers in the world…we have a voice, we have been heard.”

9:23
Hathaway has changed into a tuxedo and is sitting on the edge of the stage.  She is presenting a parody of “On My Own,” for “Les Miserables,” about Australian actors and Hugh Jackman in particular.  The big surprise:  she has a really lovely singing voice – a pleasant treat.  Franco struts out to the stage in a hot pink silk dress and jewels with a Marilyn Monroe wig and makeup including a beauty spot.  Why?  Not sure.  Russell Brand and Helen Mirren – an odd couple of ever there was one – have come to the stage to crack wise.  Mirren, speaking in French, tells Brand he’s an idiot.

The patter gives way to the presentation of the award for best Foreign Language Film.  “Biutiful,” “Dogtooth,” “In a Better World,” “Incendies,” and “Outside the Law” were nominated.  “In a Better World,” from Denmark, won the Award.

Reese Witherspoon arrives in a lovely black and white dress, to present the award for best supporting actor.  The nominees were Christian Bale (“The Fighter”), John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”), Jeremy Renner (“The Town”), Mark Ruffalo (“The Kids Are All Right”), and Geoffrey Rush (“The King’s Speech”). Christian Bale won the award – another award for “The Fighter,” set in Lowell. Bale gave a shout-out to Mark Wahlberg, the Executive Producer of the film, as well as to Dicky Eklund (who Bale portrayed in the film) and Mickey Ward, who Wahlberg portrayed.

9:39
Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, two of Australia’s most notable film stars, are introduced by Hathaway (who has donned a black, jewel and lace dress, reminiscent of costumes for “Kiss of the Spiderwoman”) to present awards for best new original score.  The nominees were composers for the following films:  “How to Train Your Dragon” “The Social Network,” “127 Hours,” and “Inception.”  The winners were Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, for “The Social Network.”

Scarlett Johansson  – wearing a dark red lace sheath that was a yawn, with hair that looked like it had been styled by a toddler, arrived on stage along with Matthew McConnaghey arrived to present an award for excellence in sound.  Sounds designers for “Inception,” “The King’s Speech,” “Salt,” “The Social Network,” and “True Grit” were nominated, and the designers who worked on “Inception” were winnters (sorry, check the official listing of winners for details on the names).  Sound editing nominees were “Tron Legacy,” “Toy Story 3,” “True Grit,” and “Unstoppable” were nominated; Richard King won for his work on “Inception.”

So far the award show is moving along, but it is a total snore in terms of entertainment value.  Give me the streaker who surprised David Niven, or almost anything Billy Crystal could dish up…this show is too tame!

9:53
Morissa Tomei sweeps onstage in a black dress with way too much tulle on the skirt and a borrriiinnnggg bodice.  Tomei summarizes scientific and technical awards presented prior to the awards show.  Cate Blanchett, wearing a pale pink dress with an odd pearled bodice, presents awards in makeup.  Nominated were “Barney’s Version,” “The Way Back,” and “The Wolfman,” with “The Wolfman” winning the award. The costume desig award went to Colleen Atwood for her work on “Alice in Wonderland.”

The first two of the songs nominated for Best Song were introduced by Kevin Spacey. “We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3” was performed by Randy Newman. Performing “I See the Light,” Mandy Moore (in what looked like a blue prom dress) and Zachary Levi appeared, offering up this year’s sentimental ballad among the nominated songs.

Is it my imagination, or is this year’s awards show one of the most lackluster in years? The Oscars program has been on for more than ninety minutes, and nothing about the program is exciting or thrilling.  Everything (except Kirk Douglas, who was embarrassing and a little sad, I thought) is very scripted, very safe.

10:11
Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhall come out — Adams in a classy dark blue sequined sheath that is the best dress of the evening, so far — to present awards for short subjects. “Strangers No More” won for best documentary short subject, about immigrant children seeking education, and opportunity, in the United States.  Live Action Short Film went to “God of Love,” with NYU film school graduate, filmmaker and lead actor Luke Matheney, rushing to the stage declaring, “I should have gotten a haircut.”

Hathaway, in another sparkling dress reminiscent of a 1920’s beaded sheath, joined Franco to introduce Oprah Winfrey, who presented the award for outstanding documentary.  “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Gasland,” “Inside Job,” “Restrepo,” and “Waste Land” were nominated, and “Inside Job,” about the financial meltdown and corruption on Wall Street, won the award.

10:26
My wish has been granted:  Billy Crystal just arrived on stage and the crowd’s on its feet, cheering.  I think they’re as desperate as I am, wishing that he were hosting the show.  He jokes that he’s going right to the Best Picture award, but alas, it’s not to be.  Crystal’s time on stage is brief:  he raises up the spectre of Bob Hope, who hosted the awards show for decades with a herd of writers who were the best in the business.  The visual tricks performed with Hope’s image were just the right introduction for Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, who offered up the statue for best visual effects.  Designers for “Alice in Wonderland,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I,” “Hereafter,” “Inception,” and “Iron Man 2,” were nominated, with “Inception” winning the award.  For achievement in film editing, those who worked on The Black Swan, The Fighter, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, and 127 Hours were nominated.  The Oscar went to the film editors of “The Social Network” (again, apologies for missing all those names, but check out the news reports for details).

Hathaway and Franco introduce Jennifer Hudson, looking fabulous in a tangerine ball gown, who introduced a song from “127 Hours,” “If I Rise.”  It’s a brief snippet, and an odd one.  That’s followed by Gwyneth Paltrow singing “Coming Home” from “Country Strong.”  None of the nominated songs are knockouts — nothing close to “My Heart Will Go On,” for instance.  Of the four nominated, Newman’s “We Belong Together,” from “Toy Story 3” was the clear favorite, and Newman took home his second Academy Award.

10:55
The “I See Dead People” section of the show arrives, with Celine Dion singing “Smile” as images of those departed from the film industry flash on the screen.  Halle Berry comes to the stage to recognize the remarkable contributions of Lena Horne, a pioneer in music, film, and theatre.

Hillary Swank arrives to introduce Katherine Bigelow, last year’s Best Director winner, to present this year’s award.  Nominated are Darren Aronofsky for “Black Swan,” David O. Russell, “The Fighter,” Tom Hooper, “The King’s Speech,” Joel and Ethan Coen, “True Grit,” and David Fincher, The Social Network.”  Winning was Tom Hopper for “The King’s Speech.”

11:05
Annette Bening, in a dreadful black and sequin dress, announced the Lifetime Achievement in Film Awards, given to Eli Wallach, Jean-Luc Godard, Kevin Brownlow, Francis Ford Coppola.  The evening bumps along…still a snore.

11:11
We’re getting down to it:  Jeff Bridges comes to the stage to present the award for outstanding performance by an actress in a leading role.  The nominees were Annette Bening (“The Kids Are All Right”), Nicole Kidman (“Rabbit Hole”), Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”), Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”), and Michelle Williams (“Blue Valentine”).  The winner, as expected, was Natalie Portman, in a gorgeous magenta gown.  “I am so in awe of you,” Portman said to the other actresses nominated for the award.  Portman thanked those she worked with on the film, but acknowledged, “most importantly, my family and friends.”

Sandra Bullock, looking fabulous in a red gown, introduced nominees for best performance by an actor in a leading role:  Javier Bardem (“Beautiful”), Jeff Bridges (“True Grit”), Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”), Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”), and James Franco (“127 Hours”) were nominated, and the superb performance by Colin Firth was honored with the award.  Firth, a class act, gave a charming, self-depricating speech.

11:32
The final act:  Hathaway, in another sparkling gown (her eighth?) introduced Steven Spielberg, who walks to center stage to present the award for Best Picture.  Spielberg highlights the fact that even the films that don’t win the award join a series of remarkable films.  Starting last year, ten films were nominated for best picture (instead of five).  This year’s nominees:  “The King’s Speech,” “True Grit,” “Black Swan,” “Winter’s Bone,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “127 Hours,” “The Social Network,” “Toy Story 3,” “Inception,” and “The Fighter.” Throughout the montage of film clips, which included bits from all the nominated movies, Colin Firth’s voice from “The King’s Speech” echoed in a preview of the final result: “The King’s Speech” won Best Picture for 2011.

11:38
Sweet Endings:  Franco and Hathaway (yes, another dress change) introduced the kids from PS 22 in Staten Island, who sang “Over the Rainbow,” with cute and well-rehearsed movements.  As the kids finished their song, they were joined by the flock of award winners, waving their trophies in the air.  Hathaway, standing center stage, whooped audibly, “We did it,” and high-fived a number of the kids in celebration – and relief.  It was a grinding, unremarkable awards show – without major glitches, but also lacking in the thrill and energy one has the right to hope for from Hollywood.

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For several weeks, I’ve been in this ‘dry patch’ : feeling like I really had nothing I wished to comment on in this space.  I was not interested in yet another heartwarming Christmas story, more about Christmas cookie-baking (although I did that, for sure), or a kvetch about the materialism of the season (which I managed to duck, for the most part, blessed be).  And although I have done a lot of observing of the life taking place in the cold of winter (the Flicker that showed up at our window box bird feeder for the first time, along with the red-breasted woodpecker and the gorgeous cardinals, the squirrels eating the corn we put out, the mice that get into the house in the winter) it just didn’t seem to capture my full attention.

And then, this past weekend, I was jarred.  Many commentators have offered their opinions about the acts of violence which struck Tucson last weekend, killing six and injuring many more, including US Representative Gabrielle Giffords.  The finger pointing has started now, with the media noting that Sarah Palin’s Tea Party website had a gun sight pointed at Giffords’ district prior to the November election, that the “lock and reload” rhetoric, in the mind of a mentally ill individual, can translate into violence.  And the conservative pundits have started to apply their fingers to the side of their nose, shouting “not it” with energy…Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh among them.  Meanwhile many of us, observing the Greek tragedy that has left a 9 year old child, a federal judge, and four others dead, and Giffords and others fighting for life, plays out, with President Obama set to attend a public memorial service in Tucson tomorrow.  The House of Representatives, for its part, has delayed debate on repeal of the federal health care bill for a week, while some attempt to see if there is a way to encourage cooler heads to prevail.

It is all deeply disturbing.

More than a decade ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association published a series of social justice curricula for multiple ages called “In Our Hands.”  Authored by Rev. Stephen Shick and others, the curriculum focuses on valuing oneself and others, forming friendships with people different from us, examining how we care and share our beliefs and values with others, and ways to faithfully work for a peaceful and fair world.  Children are encouraged to imagine what the world might be like if these values were the ones that prevailed.  These values are carried forward in Unitarian Universalist faith development for older ages, including in the Coming of Age program that many of our 9th and 10th grade youth participate in, as youth explore good and evil, faithful choices, the values that are important in their lives.

My younger child, a product of this religious education, has reacted with deep sadness and dismay over the hideous acts committed in Tucson last weekend.  The Coming of Age youth who I help lead have had similar responses to such violence.  On Sunday night we spent a fair amount of time discussing choices and decision-making, to act for good or for ill.  Most of the youth in the room were clear that choice was central to the process of deciding to act.

I choose to believe that the shooter in the Tucson tragedy, Jared Loughner, was mentally ill and fell through the cracks of our social system because no one managed to get him help before disaster erupted from the gun he carried.  That there were heroic acts — by doctors and nurses on the scene, from a 20-year-old legislative intern who had worked for Ms. Giffords for one week — is evident and to be celebrated.  But the questions remain:  why did no one step forward to successfully get Loughner into treatment before he acted?  And why do we devolve into finger-pointing, name-calling, and too often, violence when we could instead go forward, with intentionality and respect, to share and air our differences?  And what do the children and youth of America, who are watching, take away from our actions?

This-coming weekend, we celebrate the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who offered lessons of non-violent social witness to us all, even as we remember that his life was ended by senseless, violent behavior.  We must not forget:  we have a choice.  We need not be silent.  When we resort to violence we put our society at peril.  We have a choice.  All this is in our hands.

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