search
about

A Houston video producer takes on film, television, culture, the church, and his own hubris without even the help of a fact-checker.

current fortune

I got two fortunes in a row that said "You have a bright career in medical research!" So, I've got that going for me.

citações

Life is one long process of getting tired.

~Samuel Butler

Twitter
Tuesday
Aug052014

Rwanda Part Three: Mythical Creatures

This is not a lone antelope.

The reason that it’s not a lone antelope – in addition to the reality of it being an entirely separate animal - is because a lone antelope is not a real thing. It is, in fact, not a thing that is at all. The number of lone antelopes that exist is a null set, a void, a nothingness. And that is a bitterly disappointing fact. Because I was very excited to see one.

Our safari had been going well, up until this point. Our driver was a friendly, chatty individual, and we’d had the foresight of placing Greg up front with him. Greg’s defining personality character is that he can talk to anyone, and will, whether they feel inclined to or not. I first discovered this when, during a 30-minute layover in Instanbul, he’d turned several fellow passengers waiting with us at the terminal into fast friends, despite the fact that few of them were traveling to the same place we were, and none of them spoke any English.

As we left the hotel not long after sunrise in an oversized forest-green Jeep, Greg and the driver fell quickly into a lively conversation about the city, its government, and the nature of the Rwandan people. This allowed the rest of us to immediately fall back asleep.

width=

I awoke in the way you do when you fall asleep in a strange car, startling upright, sticky with sweat and disoriented, at the edge of Akagera National Park. The park is a long, winding chunk of country in Rwanda’s northwest border that houses much of Rwanda’s wildlife. It costs only $30 for a safari, but the park is almost entirely deserted, as most of the visitors who make up Rwanda’s sparse tourist industry choose to travel to the far north for an overnight experience living among the gorillas. In fact, we’re receiving a tour from a company that specializes in gorilla visits, and large gorilla decals decorate all the doors of our vehicle.

The gorilla experience is apparently quite something, though I am not sad that I missed it. Visitors hike deep into the forest, until they suddenly discover they are surrounded by gorillas on all sides. This is not, scientifically speaking, considered the safest position to be in. Careful steps need to be taken to ensure the tourists’ safety. If a juvenile gorilla comes up, grabs you, and pulls you away from the group (an event that is apparently a real possibility), you are supposed to obediently go with him, and the guide will “take care of it.” I can’t think of any piece of advice I’m less likely to keep in mind in the moment when I’m being grabbed by an aggressive gorilla than “peacefully allow the animal to abduct you.” The likelihood that I’d be dragged off into the underbrush with just a smile and an offhand “I’ll see you all before lunch, I’m sure,” was already astronomically low before I even found out what it means when a guide “takes care of it. 

“The guide makes himself look big, and tries to scare the gorilla.”
“He tries to scare the gorilla? It’s a gorilla.
“Apparently that’s what they do.”
“Does that even work?”
“…I don’t know.”

So, should you travel to Rwanda and attempt this trip, please size up your guides based on their ability to look big and terrify gorillas. I personally do not plan on venturing into the jungle without anyone less qualified at this than, say, Lou Ferrigno.

width=

Fortunately, I don’t have any such worries today, as our only animal guests are skittish creatures like impalas and warthogs (or, “McDonalds” and “Antennas” as they are known to guides here – the former by the impala’s distinctive “M”-shaped marking over their tails, and the latter by the way the animals race away from visitors, only their stiff, upright tails visible over the tall grass. Whether this is from long familiarity or a lack of ethology is never made entirely clear).

We do see hippos, which I am surprised to learn are some of the most vicious creatures on earth, a fact I feel someone should have warned me about much earlier. Hippos are some of Nature’s most brutal hunters, a fact they might have skated over in the Madagascar movies. They tend to play with their food, so they’ll drag the animals (or people! What fun!) they catch down to the bottom of the river, release them so that they can swim to the surface and catch their breath, then grab them and pull them down again. Eventually, they casually chomp their prey in two with a snap of their outrageously powerful jaws. I can now almost certainly never watch someone play “Hungry Hungry Hippos” again without breaking into hives.

But then we get to the lone antelope. Or, what our guide tells us is the lone antelope.

“You are very lucky,” he says. “This animal is very rare. It exists only in Rwanda, and it almost never appears so near a road.”

He sounds excited, breathless even, and I immediately catch his fervor. A lone antelope! What a find! I snap as many pictures as I can before the beast moves off nervously into the woods. That night, all of my emails back home talked about the rare lone antelope I saw that day.

Except, as both you and I now know, there’s no such thing as a lone antelope. A quick Wikipedia search a few days later came up empty, revealing only an oddly named property management company in California.

Our guide had been such a fount of information, with facts and figures rattling off the top of his head, that I hadn’t thought to doubt a word of it. But now, upsettingly, everything seemed in flux - especially the piece of information on the trip I’d found most interesting of all.

width=In the center of the city was a traffic circle, with a towering statue of a woman holding a small child’s hand in the center. When I asked what the statue represented, our guide had a surprisingly detailed answer ready.

In the wake of the genocide, the new Rwandan government decided that massive changes needed to be made to ensure a lasting peace.  Some of the changes were small (the fourth Saturday of every month is now dedicated to community service – every Rwandan citizen gathers to improve the town by helping build houses, improve the roads, and the like) and others impossibly massive (discussing your tribe in public is no longer considered socially acceptable, though what sort of punishment would be leveled at offenders is somewhat unclear). And, most interestingly, they drastically increased the role of women in government.

“Women,” the driver tells us, “love peace more than men.” Men go off to war, and in their wake, women raise the children, mind the businesses, run the country, and eventually, mourn their lost sons and husbands. So in the wake of the genocide (and the subsequent flight of survivors to surrounding countries), women and girls made up about 70% of the remaining population. The Rwandan people, in a sudden and welcome break with all of human history, decided that these women deserved more of a voice, an added an electoral stipulation that 30% of Parliament must be women.

So they held an election, and once all the polls were in, it turned out that women won 46% of elected spots. Four years later, after the next election, they controlled 54% of the seats available (keep in mind, he's listing all these figures off the top of his head). They now led the world in female democratic representation, and became the first country in the world to have a Parliament with a majority of women holding spots – and have erected a statue in the very center of their capital to honor the contributions of women in the rebuilding of their country.

If I had asked you before you read these paragraphs what the first country to have a majority of women in their Parliament, how many guesses would you have taken before you got to Rwanda? Would it have even been in your first hundred? In fact, would you have guessed any African countries at all? I’m not sure I would have.

The reason for women’s success, our driver continues, is that they are corrupted much less often than men – less likely to be seduced, less able to be bought. What’s more, they value their country’s peace more than their men do. Our driver is certain that they would be at war with Congo right now if it wasn’t for the women in power.

It sounds nice and modern, a society jumping straight from brutal genocide to progressive feminism. But after my confusion with the lone antelope, I was wary. I retreated to the internet again.

And shockingly, this one turned out to be true. In fact, it’s more true now than it was then: women have seized more seats with each passing election and now control an impressive 64% of the seats in Parliament, and remains the only country ever to exceed that 50% figure. By point of comparison, its neighbor to the west, the Democratic Republic of Congo, sits 122nd in the world with 10.6% (the U.S., by the way, is 85th in the world with 18.3%).

What surprised me more was the way the driver spoke of his country’s groundbreaking feminism. A man who drives people to see gorillas every day is not the sort of person you’d expect to be bragging about the way his country is at the forefront of women’s issues, but the pride in his voice was unmistakable. It made me forgive him for the way he fooled me about that lone antelope.

Especially once I pored over a website listing antelope species a few days after I got back (I told you, I was upset), and discovered that the animal we saw was the roan antelope, a beast indigenous to most of the savannah that covers central Africa.

 So perhaps the sight of it wasn’t as impressive or rare as I was led to believe. But I can’t be mad at the man. After all, he kept Greg occupied the whole trip home, so I could get back to sleep. 

Friday
Jul112014

Rwanda Part Two: A Lingering Dread

It’s late when we get back. The normally crowded streets wrapping about the hotel are now nearly empty. Crosswalk signals blink furiously at no one at all. Most of the team blearily awakens, blinking, as the vehicle lurches over the sidewalk and up the incline into the hotel’s parking lot.

I’m stationed in my usual spot in the jump seat up front, a position I’ll occupy for most of the trip until another team member’s carsickness graduates from “aggravation” to “vomit-spewing,” at which point I gladly surrender the spot. For now, though, I can use the seat to take a million blurry, poorly-framed shots as we bounce along the dirt roads of the Rwandan countryside, in hopes of getting lucky once in a while. It is not a high-percentage strategy, and it leads to hours of glumly poking through photos, trying to talk myself into the idea that my accidentally canted-angle landscapes are “artsy.”

Our headlights illuminate the hotel’s stern-faced guard as he waves us through the gate, the movement revealing the butt of a rifle glinting below his shoulder. I involuntarily shudder, as if I’ve never seen an armed guard before. But it's this country, and the tremors of its recent, violent history. It makes me uneasy. A well-armed guard protecting this tiny hotel is just one more sign of the divide between the haves and the have-nots here. Down the road is a grocery store that has a door flanked by angry stone lions, with two metal detectors at the entrance and three armed guards always on duty. Rwanda might be in a state of peace, but the people who have money are deeply cautious in a way that makes one wonder how firm their footing really is.

We are returning from the Hotel del Milles Colenes, which you might know better as the Hotel Rwanda, the spot where 1300 refugees hid during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I had expected a solemn memorial, but the hotel shows no signs of being anything other than a four-star hotel in the wealthier end of Kigali. There are no brass plaques or reflective chapels, just sleek modern wallpaper and a large tiki bar overlooking an azure pool. Hotel employees will acknowledge the building’s history, but only when asked. It is the exact opposite of the Western way of thinking, which would extort the tragedy for every cent it could muster. Here, no one mentions it. It’s not polite.

My unsettled feeling has disappeared by morning, as the bright sunshine seems to reveal a different Rwanda than the one I went to sleep to. The dour guard who waved us in the night before is all smiles as I make my way to breakfast, and greets me warmly as I pass by his post.

“Mar-ah MOO-tay!” I say, stopping to shake his hand. Everyone here is trying to teach me the language, which is such an effort in futility that Sisyphus would wag his head sadly at the sight. While English was recently named the national language, residents of Rwanda still speak Kinyarwanda, a Bantu language somewhat similar to Swahili that will not stick in my brain. This is not surprising. When it comes to other languages, my head is no so much a sieve as an actual water hose. I lived in Romania for a summer, working at an orphanage, and when I returned I could still only count to ten and say, “don’t hit,” though frankly, when it comes to orphanage work, that’s really all you need.

“Mwaaramutse,” he says warmly, correcting me without correcting me. “Good morning.” He is friendly to such a degree that I feel guilty for shuddering the night before at the sight of him and his gun. He speaks almost no English, but he is friendly and kind, and he addresses me as if we are old friends, so that I immediately feel like one. His name, it turns out, is Vincent, and by the end of the week we’ll take a picture together with his cell phone so he can remember me.

I wish I was better with the language so that I could talk to him more, but I’ve narrowed my vocabulary down to half-a-dozen phrases in hopes that they’ll finally stick. They don’t, so I give up and start writing them phonetically on my arm. I feel ridiculous, but my futility has unexpected benefits. While taking pictures, I attempt to warm each subject up with a few kind words, but I stumble over each expression so badly that the child usually breaks down laughing. Then I take their picture. It works out nicely for everyone.

“Mwore-a-coze-eh CHAH-nay,” I say to Vincent as I walk on.

“Muracoze cyane,” he replies. “Thank you very much.” He seems to mean it, more than I do. He is honestly grateful for the way I stopped and spoke to him, and for my sad attempts at speaking his language, and I don’t really know why.

I don’t know anything about this country. I don’t know anything at all.

[This post has been edited to note that Kinyarwanda is similar to Swahili, not French.]

Friday
Jul112014

Rwanda Part One: An Introduction

I thought sleeping under a mosquito net would feel different than this.

There’s something… survivalist about a mosquito net. A thin bit of webbing that keeps you from disease and death. In countries like Rwanda, they can be made from anything, from chicken wire to wedding veils, but the one I’m under is a standard-issue bit of gauzy white fabric. It drapes around me on the bed like a poorly assembled canopy, and I feel less like David Livingston and more like I’m sleeping in the bed of a nine-year old girl.

John has taken to calling it my “princess bed.” He cavalierly leaves his net knotted on the ceiling above him and smirks at me from his bunk as we get ready for bed.

I tell John, not for the first time, that I hope he gets malaria.

Perhaps it’s the surroundings. Instead of dirt floors and open windows, we’ve been put up in a gated bungalow with an impeccably manicured lawn. The ceilings are covered with patterns of polished wood that give off a ruddy glow in the dim lamplight. Only the blank white walls hint that we’re not in our home country – an American establishment would never allow a rented establishment to not be decorated with some unmemorable piece of art.

We are at a hotel in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital and the only piece of the country that can really be called a city. I will only later learn how impressive our lodgings are, though the fact that we’re two blocks away from the President’s residence is a decent indicator that we might be near the upper end of the spectrum. 

I have never been to Africa. As a child, growing up in a progression of Baptist schools, traveling to Africa to do mission work was held in almost comical reverence, mostly because it was basically guaranteed you would be killed by tribesmen while you were there. Middle-school-me would have estimated the rate of African missionaries who died the past year in spear-related incidents to be somewhere between 80 and 85 percent.

It would be easier to laugh off my earlier ignorance if it was followed by a point in which the trait disappeared, but that version of me would only be slightly less prepared than the one who is in Rwanda now. My preparation for this trip had consisted of getting immunizations and locating Rwanda on a map, the latter ending up a proposition that took several seconds longer than is really acceptable.

This is driven home by the discovery that my too-quick perusal of the documents Zoe Ministries sent me meant that I missed their packing recommendations, which included the stipulation that team members wear long pants for the duration of the trip. I am confronted by the reality that I will be wearing the jeans I arrived here in for the next eleven days, a matter that creates real concern with the rest of the team, since they’ll be spending almost all of that time crammed into a bus with both me and these pants. By the end of the week, the jeans will covered in so much dirt and mud that they'll more resemble a science experiment on the origin of life on earth than an article of clothing.

But I don’t know that yet. For the moment, after 24 hours of travel, I am only aware that it is three in the morning and I am seven time zones away from home. I collapse into the bed and drape the gossamer fabric all around me for protection. John shuts off the light, and we lay there in the darkness, with only the distant sound of the motorcycle taxis that pepper the city puttering by. 

I listen hopefully for the sound of a mosquito in the silence, but there is nothing. It looks like John’s safe for one night, at least.

Tuesday
Feb262013

A Few More Oscar Night Thoughts


A few random thoughts from today I wanted to add to the Oscar post from below:

1. Most of the articles I've seen (or podcasts/interviews I've heard) about Seth MacFarlane's performance at the Oscars have led with professions of open-mindedness - something along the lines of "I'm not too familiar with MacFarlane's work, so I was fully willing to be impressed." Then they transition into shock and horror at what came next.

I think that if you open any piece defending your open-mindedness with a "it wasn't me - I was willing to give him a fair shake, you know," there's a very good chance that you didn't start from a very open-minded position at all. Alex Pappademas gave offhanded reference today that Seth MacFarlane "hates women," as if this was an inarguable fact, based on hundreds of firsthand accounts, and not based on a dislike for the no-holds-barred style of his television show.

When you expect someone to come out and be racist and misogynist - and he gives winking reference to the fact that this was what you expected of him - it's awfully easily to have reality play into your preconceptions.

2. MacFarlane tweeted today "The Oscars is basically the Kobayashi Maru test" - a reference to the Star Trek challenge involving a no-win situation, where the only thing being rated is how you hold up under pressure, or redefine the situation. It's an apt metaphor, but I think a better one is War Games - "the only way to win, is not to play."

3. There's a real tone to these MacFarlane commentaries that have been bothering me, and I finally put my finger on today.

It's the fact that "Family Guy" is watched by "the wrong sort of people." You know, bros. Unintellectual types. Poor people. Not our tribe. And that makes MacFarlane an outsider - and the wrong sort of outsider. Not an outsider like Letterman or Jon Stewart, who showed up to skewer the puffed-up celebrities. The sort of outsider who'll track mud through the ballroom. That type.

It's classist.

4. I've defended MacFarlane's performance on the Oscars, which might have given the impression that I thought the Oscars were well produced. They were not.

The producers this year, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, decided to do a tribute to movie musicals. Which is... fine, I guess. There was one musical that came out this year, Les Misérables, so there's some connection. The big discussion leading up to the awards was actually "truth and history," but that's kind of a bummer, so... musicals! You've even got a host who loves musicals, so it works out.

But we didn't do a tribute to movie musicals. There was nary a mention of The Music Man, Greast, A Star is Born, Singin' In The Rain, Meet Me In St. Louis, Cabaret, West Side Story, or The Wizard of Oz. The closest they came was MacFarlane doing a gag about The Sound Of Music, where he announced the Von Trapp family but they failed to appear. We did a tribute to movie musicals from the last 10 years - Les Mis, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, and Chicago. In fact, we did Chicago a number of times - Catherine Zeta-Jones sang a song, the cast reappeared to announce a winner, MacFarlane talked about it being the ten-year anniversary of its Best Picture win... why this emphasis on Chicago? Because the producers of Chicago were Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.

So, so classy, guys.

5. And finally, I'd just like to remind everyone again that last year, Bill Crystal did blackface during the Oscars. Unironic blackface. Completely out of context blackface As in, he just had a blackface Sammy Davis, Jr. bit he wanted to shoehorn in, and he did.

I just thought we've all forgotten about that too quickly.

Never forget.

Monday
Feb252013

Oscar Wrap-Up: Not My Usual Thing


I was going to do a bigger piece on the reaction to last night’s Oscars, but the more I worked at it the less I wanted to do it. I read a lot of commentary this morning, and much of it seemed illogical. Most of it is anti-MacFarlane, and while everyone's entitled to their two cents, some of it seems entirely out of left field. The notion that actresses feel the need to starve themselves for weeks and get all dressed up in sequins on the night is MacFarlane's fault seems... spurious at best.*

*Multiple articles I read made this very case. I think there may be some confusion at the amount of power an Oscar host has.

There has been a lot of commentary about the jokes MacFarlane made during the show, none of it good. What struck me is that all the articles seem to contain the line “the joke is that…” followed by an explanation that shows a real misunderstanding of the joke. Whether you liked MacFarlane’s Quvenzhané Wallis joke or not (“at age 9, Quvenzhané Wallis is the youngest Best Actress nominee ever. To give you an idea of just how young she is, it’ll be 16 years before she’s too old for Clooney.”), the joke’s at George Clooney’s expense, not Wallis’. The idea that “the joke is that black women aren’t good for anything other than being sexual objects” is a deliberate misreading, and a damaging one. We train ourselves to view everything as an attack, and then we can’t tell the difference between real prejudice and the echoes of our own voices.

If you feel that it’s wrong to include Wallis in any such joke that speaks about her eventually being a woman who can date people because she’s too young, I think that’s fine. But that’s not what’s being argued.

The Onion’s joke is more problematic, but again suffers from a lot of people misunderstanding what the joke is – or rather, what it isn’t. It isn’t a personal attack on Wallis. It isn’t an “indefensible expression of racism” or an “abhorrent verbal attack on a child.” (it’s not even verbal!) If you’ll indulge me as I do the very thing I was complaining about earlier: it’s a joke about how everyone loves Wallis and it’s impossible to find her anything but charming, and so to call her a bad word is patently ridiculous.

You don’t have to like the joke. You can find the joke horrendously offensive. But you shouldn’t make it into something it isn’t for the sake of being offended more.

Since I meant to start this as a defense of MacFarlane, let me loop back around: I thought he did a good job. It was designed to be a little something-for-everyone, and the backdoor way of landing edgier jokes through the guise of James Kirk-from-the-future showing him clips of his critically-panned show was a good idea. The criticism against his show being “utterly free of laughs” seems more a result of people wanting him to be terrible more than it actually being bad  - the Hollywood Reporter had a good piece this morning about this being a no-win situation for MacFarlane, but that he ended up winning anyway.

I was most enthused that he went out of his way to actually host the show – appearing before each presenter to make a crack as they walked out, introducing guests and performances, etc. Most hosts do a big comedy bit in the beginning, then appear only sporadically throughout, and the show suffers from it. Even Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, as great as they were at the Globes, were absent throughout much of the telecast. MacFarlane made sure that the show never felt like it was going off the rails, despite a number of truly abysmal musical performances. 

Anyway, let’s check in on the results and… not bad. I ended up having a pretty good showing: I missed only 7 out of the 24 categories. I actually thought I did better than that, because during the show, I seemed to never be wrong*. But it also became apparent early in the night that the Academy liked all of the films nominated (except Zero Dark Thirty), and wanted to honor as many as possible. Therefore, my gamble on Amour not winning Best Foreign Film proved a bad one, but you’ve got to take a few risks if you’re hoping to stand out. Everyone remembers the time you correctly picked the 16-seed to upset Duke, y’know? That metaphor may not apply here, since no one will ever remember any of these picks I made, including me.

*Though that’s also how I normally feel, so I guess I can’t trust my gut on that one.

Of the ones I missed, I was surprised to see Lincoln get little love: the Oscars gave Best Supporting Actor to Christoph Walz instead of Tommy Lee Jones (a decision I heartily endorse, by the way), and gave Best Screenplay to Argo (a decision I mildly disagree with, but fine). Not to mention that Spielberg was expected to land Best Director, but it went to Ang Lee instead, which I’m ecstatic about.

Okay, fine, not ecstatic. I’m smiling, though. Good for the Academy. It was the best-directed film of the lot, and I know a lot of voters were put off by the film’s religious content. So, to see the movie land the award while espousing a deep belief in God? A nice sight to see.