Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Old Habits Die Hard

From Kindergarten up through 6th grade, I went to Catholic school.  I went to a Catholic church as well obviously during that time, up to the point when my family converted to Baptist.  During my Catholic days I always had to give up something for Lent every year, including stuff like chocolate or bubble gum.  I can't say for sure, but I'd say it's a safe bet that more often than not I did not hold up with my sacrifices every year.

Once my family converted to Baptist, I was somewhat relieved that I wasn't expected to give up something for Lent every year anymore.  I enjoyed chocolate, soda, and other unhealthy stuff way too much in order to go without it for 40 days.  Sure, that's completely lazy of me, and honestly it's anything but the right attitude to have.

I didn't set foot in a Catholic church from the time I was 13 up until my cousin's wedding when I was 26.  That huge gap led to me forgetting most of Catholicism's practices and motions during a service, though much of that came back to me when I finally did find myself in a Catholic church again.  Since then, however, I haven't been in any Catholic service or church at all.

Lately though I've been thinking it'd be good for me - both on a health factor and a spiritual one - to get back in the habit of giving something up for Lent again.  My girlfriend has been getting on me for a while about not drinking soda anymore since it's so high in sugar and other unhealthy stuff, so I decided that I'd give up soda for Lent.  In the past I tried gradually moving away from regular soda to stuff like Coke Zero, though it never took too heavily.  Maybe quitting cold turkey would be the best thing for me to do, and now I'm a week into going without it.

Before you think I'm talking about any of this to get a pat on the back or anything, I didn't give up caffeine completely.  I knew I'd likely end up killing someone from not having any caffeine anymore, so I still have my morning coffee every day.  On the other hand, I could end up like this woman.

So yeah, I'm hoping to get at least a little bit healthier by giving up soda.  Hopefully I can quit it all together, though I think even reducing the amount of soda consumed by a drastic amount would be beneficial long term.  I know my girlfriend is excited and proud of me so far for even making the decision in the first place, but this is only the first week.  She may end up begging me to drink a soda or two by the time we get closer to Easter.

Getting back to the point about simply giving something up for Lent, I've come to believe that it isn't just something for Catholics to do.  Any Christian could benefit from making a sacrifice for the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday as a symbol of his or her faith.  I have a few friends who said they were giving up Facebook for Lent, but that's something that doesn't quite sit well with me.  I always viewed Lent as a time for personal reflection and improvement, even though it's been 20 years since I've been a practicing Catholic.  In most cases, giving up Facebook doesn't necessarily translate to not being able to communicate with friends or family at all.  We've still got cell phones and email to keep in touch if we can't see each other in person, so what's the sacrifice?  How exactly does one benefit from giving up something like Facebook?

I'm sure I'm being overly critical of anyone who decides to shut down their Facebook account for Lent.  It could possibly mean a lot more to them than it does to me, so they could be giving up more than I give them credit for.  Hey, they could just as easily look at me with an odd expression for saying I'm giving up soda.

We'll see how long I can keep going without soda.  I once went a month without fast food and didn't think much about it until three weeks into it, so this strikes me as a very attainable goal.  I'd like to keep this old habit of mine going for Lent in future years as well, so I'll have to come up with something just as good for next year.

I just know I could never go without red meat.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: Side Effects

I have to hand it to Scott Burns and Steven Soderbergh.  They've crafted one of the most unique and creative thrillers in years.

I have a hard time labeling Side Effects as a thriller because for the first 40 minutes or so, it's a drama.  It doesn't turn into a thriller until the second half, but wow what a second half!

The film opens with Emily and Martin (Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum) as Martin is being released from prison for insider trading.  He's adjusting to a life of freedom once again, and concentrating on getting a new job through his old contacts.  Emily is fighting her depression from the time her husband was in prison, and eventually meets Dr. John Banks (Jude Law).

Banks prescribes her a new anti-depressant on the market to help her, only it has little help.  He eventually puts her on an experimental drug called Ablixa, one in which he is participating in a study program through a pharmaceutical rep.  Ablixa seems to be helping her, except now she's prone to sleepwalking.

Or is she?  Once the film reaches this point, the tone switches around completely into a mystery and a cat and mouse game.  There's Vanessa Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Emily's previous therapist and someone who Banks consults in trying to help her.  At first she feels like a fairly unnecessary character, but her relevance to the story becomes much more clear by the second half.

To reveal any details regarding the shift in tone and how the film changes course would mean spoiling any number of twists along the way.  There are at least five really good shockers in the film, all of which I leave to you to see for yourself.  On one hand, I feel like my praise for the film isn't satisfactory because I'm not getting into specifics over why the film is so good in its second half, but on the other hand talking about the second half in detail means spoiling all those great surprises.  It's a catch-22.

I can't say that I've been a huge fan of Soderbergh's work to date as a director.  He's made truly excellent films like Traffic and Out of Sight, and thoroughly entertaining films like Ocean's Eleven.  And then he's made real garbage like Ocean's Twelve and Solaris.  I'll say his good films definitely outnumber his bad ones, so if this truly is his final film as he claims it will be, he'll end his career on a very high note.

February isn't a time of year when there are many decent films in theaters, so Side Effects is definitely a bright spot.  I will be looking to add this to be Blu Ray collection when it's released later this year.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Never Underestimate the Power of Arrogant Stupidity

Just when I wrote in my last post that kids seem to be tougher on one another than they were 20 years ago, along came this story.

I threw my hands up in the air after reading that story.  My first thought was, "There has to be more than this.  There has to be another angle or side that I'm missing.  No school administration is so bull-headed and stubborn that it would actually suspend a student because her hair looked purple and/or pink in light."

I scoured the internet trying to find any such counterpoint.  No such luck.

Now I don't know what's worse: social pressure from bullies in school, or school administrators who can't see past their absurdly over-the-top policies.  Rylee MacKay - the main student involved in the story - wasn't trying to push any boundaries.  She wasn't trying to skirt around any loophole.  She wasn't trying to stir up any trouble.  No, she just liked coloring her hair an auburn color.  In fact, you'll notice in the picture included with the link above her hair doesn't even look terribly artificially colored.

So what if the light reflecting off her hair makes a few strands look purple or pink?  For that matter, isn't such a perception subjective in nature?  The school district's written policy stated a student's hair "should be within the spectrum of color that grows naturally."  The administrators have the right to question any student's hair color becomes distracting.

That's an incredibly broad scope covered in such a policy.  And like I said, the decision-making process is entirely subjective.  One teacher's reaction could be entirely different from another.  Hell, what about teachers who might be color-blind?  How could they enforce such a policy?

Moreover, the punishment for this poor student is beyond absurd.  Nothing I've read has indicated she was any kind of repeat offender, so instead of a verbal warning or something similar, she was dragged into the office and isolated so no other students could see her for the remainder of the week.  Forgiving the policy's natural absurdity for a moment, what's wrong with a verbal warning for a first offense?  Why go directly to proverbial jail?  And what happens if the student does become a repeat offender?  What other courses of action are left at that point?

During my high school years there were a number of students who dressed more alternatively than others.  Some of them had some wacky hair colors and wore tattered clothes, but that was what they had liked at the time.  I have no idea if they still dress anything like what they used to in high school, but I never saw any harm in how they dressed.  The people who had originally came up with the policy probably assumed teenagers who had colored their hair in abnormal colors and/or dressed in tattered clothes were troublemakers, which is absurd to the point of being offensive.  Talk about judging a book by its cover.

What's worse - and even more offensive - is that the people who had put this dress code in place thought they could control kids' behaviors by subjecting them to it.  The principal himself even mentioned that what typically happens when students violate the code is a hair color job gone awry.  They had planned on coloring their hair a particular shade, but it accidentally turned out to be something darker or lighter.  Whatever behavior or actions the administration is attempting to curtail through this policy isn't happening.

I do understand the logic behind certain dress codes for public schools though.  Skirts can be too short, dresses can be too revealing, and outfits can be too tight (Am I the only one who finds it interesting that it's almost always teen girls who are targets of dress code violations in schools?  When was the last time you heard of a teenage boy who had worn something too revealing or inappropriate?).  There comes a point when logic and reason jump ship, and we end up with policies like what this school district in Utah has.

Knowing what I know about government laws and such, I also know the somewhat unfortunate truth about policies such as this one in Utah. The truth is, even if enough parents and students raised hell over this policy, I doubt the school district could take much action even if it wanted to. There are thousands of stupid laws in this country from state to state, and even if these laws are archaic and useless, they can't be repealed because of the expense involved. Committees would have to form, boards would investigate, and lawmakers would have to build campaigns large enough to gain voter support. The end goal wouldn't justify the expense involved, and I suspect the case would be similar to schools like this one in Utah.  I guess we're all at the whim of silly, outdated laws to some extent in our lives. Common sense and logic take a back seat.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Bully Pulpit

I make no secret that I'm more than a little socially naive.  I lived with my folks off and on throughout my 20s, and it wasn't until I was nearly 29 that I had moved out for good.  I had no idea until fairly recently - like within the last year - that kids are no longer taught cursive handwriting in school anymore.  Supposedly the methods used to teach math functions like multiplication and division are also radically different from what I remember of my days in grade school as well.  I almost wonder what will happen when I will likely help my girlfriend's kids with their homework as they get older, since I might have to re-learn everything I was originally taught all over again.

My point is that as shocked as I am over how education is handled these days, bullying has taken over schools now.  I read this horrifying story yesterday about a boy who was beaten up by several kids in his school, and now lies in a medically-induced coma.  This story was merely the latest example of kids fighting and bullying one another in school that I found.

At what point exactly did bullying become so prevalent in schools nowadays?  I feel kinda old saying this, but when I was 14 and a freshman in high school, I never got into a fight with any other kids at all.  Sure, I was super awkward entering a public school for the first time (I was in private school from kindergarten all the way up to 8th grade), and I didn't really build a network of good friends until probably late freshman year or early sophomore year.  I don't even remember any other kids I knew who were bullied around by other kids in school.

Don't misunderstand me; there were plenty of clicks across my high school.  There were the jocks, the bandies, the emo crowd, and the bookworms, among other mini-groups.  I somehow danced around between each click, never really delving fully into any one circle.  I don't recall of anyone really having a serious issue with me at any time, nor do I recall any kid or group of kids consistently picked on by others.  There certainly weren't any cases like one linked above where someone was taken to the hospital and induced into a coma.

Clearly bullying has spiraled into a major, major issue affecting kids today.  I follow Ray Rice on Facebook, and he posts links to stories like the awful one above, asking fans and parents to help resolve the problem.  He also promoted a documentary that was released last year called Bully, which examined the state of kids who faced being bullied in school over the course of a full school  year.  I haven't seen it yet, but it will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray next week.  It's supposed to be pretty rough with lots of foul language, though I don't see how the subject matter could be otherwise handled properly without it.

One thing I do wonder is how much of a role geography plays in bullying..  I grew up in a small town in eastern PA, not really close to any major metropolitan area.  Had I gone to a school near a city like Philly or New York, my experiences in school might have been much different.  Then again, the website for Bully has a few stories highlighting people featured in the film, and they all hail from small towns throughout the midwest.  I'm not saying any one area is truly safe from bullying, but I have a hard time picturing Sioux City, Iowa, as a place where kids break out into fights.  And yet, the stories on the website have proven me wrong.

Like I said at the start of this post, I've been very socially naive for most of my life.  I imagine if a parent were to read this post, he or she would have lots to say about my reactions to why bullying exists, how kids deal with it, what parents can do about it, and how much times have changed (or not) in the last 20 years.  My social awkwardness during my teenage years was mostly the result of being in private schools until my freshman year of high school.  That was uncomfortable enough for me to adjust to life in a public school.  I'm sure if a bully or group of bullies picked on me during those years, I would have begged one or both of my parents to move me out of my school.

As I'm learning more and more of what life is like for teenagers now, I have a better grasp of what my parents must have gone through when I was in high school.  My mom has told me stories of what she feared during those years of my life, at least some of which surprised me.  I didn't think I had given her much to worry about when I was a teenager, but a mother's instinct will override any comfort a kid can give her.  I'm sure she was afraid there would come a day when I would get in with the wrong crowd at some point, but I always dodged that proverbial bullet.  I made other mistakes and bad choices when I was a kid, but it never led to becoming a bully or being bullied by others.

I'm sure bullies in school are mostly a form of social acceptance so kids can feel more powerful than others.  I don't envy parents who have to find ways to protect their kids from bullies in school, especially in the case of the child who is now in a coma.  I'm not even sure what kinds of answers there are for parents or kids either, which is incredibly frustrating.  Maybe documentaries like Bully can inform kids that they aren't alone, which is probably what they need to know more than anything else.