Archive for August, 2012

Nominated to the Under-Appreciated Hall of Fame


Nicolas Cage and Don Cheadle Copyright 2000 Universal Studios

If there is a hall of fame for under-appreciated or misunderstood movies, then “The Family Man” belongs in it.

For the record, I have studied screenwriting at UCLA, have written three screenplays, and watch at least two to three movies a week.  I mention this only to point out that my opinion is not entirely uninformed (off the wall—maybe—uninformed—no.)

Despite this informed opinion, “The Family Man,” starring Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni, met with lukewarm reviews by critics and movie fans when it came out in 2000.

The story opens with a day in the life of Jack Campbell, a thirty-something, wealthy investment banker who captains a boutique investment firm on Wall Street.  Jack is intelligent, ambition consumed, bold, self-centered, and charming. Even though his life revolves around the pursuit of money and the pleasures of the flesh, he is hard not to like.  His appreciation of classical music and opera displayed in the opening scenes hints at the presence of a soul.

When this movie was made, Nick Cage was still at the height of his acting career.  I believe Jack Campbell is one of his more memorable roles.  All of the characters in the movie, for that matter, are finely drawn and acted.

After becoming acquainted with Jack Campbell and the world he inhabits, the screenwriters (David Diamond and David Weissman) waste no time in spinning the tale. Jack drops into a fast-food mart after work on Christmas Eve to buy eggnog and stumbles into an armed altercation between a disgruntled customer and the store owner.  Jack intervenes to prevent a violent incident by offering to buy a lottery ticket the owner claims is a fake.

In the aftermath, outside of the store, Jack speaks with the disgruntled customer, played by Don Cheadle. Cheadle happens to be an angel on a routine mission designed to teach the Chinese convenience store owner a lesson in racial tolerance.  The owner doesn’t learn his lesson, which puts the angel in a foul mood.  Unwittingly, Jack contributes to the angel’s frustration with the human condition by making a condescending remark indicative of his superior attitude.  The angel decides to teach Jack a lesson by sending him into an alternate reality that “might have been” if he had not deserted his college sweetheart to launch his career as an intern at an investment firm in England. The angel gives Jack a chance to get a “glimpse” into a life based on a completely different set of values than the values he now holds dear.

Tea Leoni and Nicolas Cage Copyright 2000 Universal Studios

A big dog slurping Jack’s face wakes him up in bed next to the woman he left cold “in real life.”  He is shocked and horrified when two young children pile on top him.  The kids are under the ridiculous impression that Jack, a lone wolf of Wall Street, is their father.

In “The Family Man” Jack’s disdain for middle class values slowly turns into respect, caring, and finally a deep concern for the people who surround him.  This synopsis really doesn’t do the movie justice.  I found almost every scene in the movie poignant.  Many of the scenes are multi-layered with subtle observations about human nature and social issues.  The dialogue and situations are clever and insightful without a hint of cliché.

The movie moved me to the point of tears in three or four scenes. One example involves Jack’s relationship with the little girl who would have been his daughter in his alternate life.  The little girl, Annie, senses Jack is not her “real father.” She concludes Jack is an alien and asks him where the mother ship is so she can get her father back.

In a scene towards the end of the movie, Jack and Annie frolic in the snow on Christmas morning.  By now, Jack has formed a bond with the child.  Jack falls down and Annie crawls onto his chest.  With a precious smile, she says, “I knew you’d come back.”

I lost it right there.

Many critics commented that the movie over-sentimentalized middle class life.  I disagree.  I feel the movie artfully portrayed the bumps and warts of middle-class existence, as well as the pitfalls and emptiness of Jack’s investment-banker life.  Neither of the two Jacks had it all.  Regardless, I found the lifestyle issue secondary.  The element of the movie that spoke to me the loudest was Jack’s transformation.

Makenzie Vega and Nicolas Cage Copyright 2000 Universal Studios

“The Family Man” isn’t the only movie I liked that critics and movie fans, in disturbing numbers, deemed “overly sentimental.” Either my sensibilities are inverted, or I’m incredibly sane. Whatever the case, I’m sticking to my guns.  I just want to point out that as the world grows more cynical and hardened, it appears good movies are becoming an endangered species.  I believe there is a direct connection here.  Think about it.

Fictional movies reflect our world while creating their own realities.  They are, by definition, abstractions.  However, good movies have the power to inspire us to rise above fears and other roadblocks in the way of a better life and a better world.  They teach us, often, to listen to our hearts.  This isn’t always easy.  One has to develop a relationship with one’s heart to hear it.

Feeling, I find, is a first step in cultivating a relationship with the heart.  I believe that cultivating a relationship with the heart is essential to leading a full life.  There is no one way to do it, but I feel strongly that the human heart needs to be cultivated, just like abs, biceps, WordPress blogs, and Facebook pages.

I liked the “The Family Man” because it made me feel.  I practice meditation every day to cultivate a relationship with my heart.  You might say the practice helps to “tenderize” my heart center. This movie reminded me that I have one.

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The Journal of Good News


Is good news boring?  Is there a severe shortage of hopeful, inspirational stories outside of the sports section? Would it violate journalistic standards if the media served up more stories that motivated us to be better people and brightened our days a little?

The answer is you can find stories of hope and inspiration if you look hard enough for them. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be a small part of some pretty amazing stories from around the world as editor of the TPRF blog for the past two years.  I’d like to pass my good fortune along to anyone in the mood for something out of the ordinary.

The TPRF blog began with a mandate to cover the developing story of the third Food for People facility planned for construction in the small village of Otinibi, outside of the metropolitan city of Accra in Ghana, West Africa.  Food for People  is a proprietary hunger relief program initiated by TPRF.  These facilities feed a nutritious daily meal to children and village elders in areas of extreme poverty.

Enjoying a Nutritious Lunch at FFP Ghana

Our first posts covered the Ghana Food for People project in detail beginning when the facility was an undeveloped piece of land awaiting governmental approval of the documents transferring title of ownership to the local charity set up to manage and run the FFP.  We literally watched the facility rise up out of the ground, culminating in a triumphant opening one year later.  The FFP in Otinibi has materialized thanks to the dedication of mostly local volunteers, an expert construction team, funding from TPRF, and donations from individuals following the story on the Internet.

Five hundred children and adults will eat every day in Otinibi. The same thing occurs at two other Food for People centers in Bantoli, India and Tsarapu, Nepal, opened in 2006 and 2009 respectively.

The logistics and effort required to establish and keep the FFP facilities operating boggles the mind. Food and hygiene standards must be established and maintained. A chef has to plan the menus. The meals have to be balanced nutritionally and tailored to the tastes of the people in the area.  Managers have to train and supervise staff and volunteers. The list goes on. Yet it is happening.

FFP Staff Prepare a Meal

Thanks to these Food for People centers, children go to school instead of doing manual labor (like crushing rocks to support their families.)  The nutritious daily meals allow the children to grow and develop normally. Plus, they learn proper sanitation habits and enjoy watching educational television programs while eating.

With healthy bodies and the opportunity to learn in school, these children have a vastly improved chance to realize their dreams later in life.  And something more.  I have seen through these stories that Food for People is an oasis for these children, a place where they can flourish and enjoy their precious childhood.

Six months after the first TPRF blog post, we decided to open up the scope of the blog to other feature stories while still reporting on the progress of the project in Ghana. We regularly cover stories about  TPRF’s Peace Education Program in prisons, independent fundraising efforts, disaster relief, clean drinking water initiatives, and other humanitarian efforts undertaken by TPRF’s partner organizations.

Here’s a thought.  Maybe you are what you “tune into” as much as you are what you eat.

Food for People photos by Francis Ahore.  Ethiopia photo courtesy of International Relief and Development Organization (IRD)

Drought Relief in Ethiopia

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Natural Foods Facts


I started eating natural foods at the age of 21.  Considering that was 42 years ago, I am somewhat of a pioneer or at the very least an early adopter.

The increasing popularity of natural foods is proof positive that human consciousness is continuing to expand.  However, I am at a loss to explain how the average natural food enthusiast can afford the cost of gas and natural foods.

Wait a minute.  Maybe if you eat one-and-a-half meals a day instead of three you can afford both.

Hold on.  I think I’ve finallyfigured it out.  Yes, this has to be the answer:

People who buy their groceries at natural food stores and continue to drive their cars no longer go to the movies.

This means that the decline in movie box office sales is NOT due to the quality of the movies coming out of Hollywood nowadays.  It is due to a redistribution of disposable income into the natural food sector.

Let’s move on to a few important facts of interest that will affect your life, whether you eat natural foods or not, and whether you like it or not (the facts, I mean.)

Tofu is the natural food equivalent of Hamburger Helper.

People who eat natural foods are 37% less likely to be involved in road rage incidents when compared to a statistically relevant sample of processed food consumers.

Children brought up on natural food are 26% more likely to realize GOD at some point beyond the age of 40.

In ten years, there will be 2,719 WHOLE FOODS stores in China.

If natural food consumption continues to grow at its present rate, financial analysts predict BURGER KING and McDONALDS corporations will merge within the next seven years and the new company will attempt to buy the WHOLE FOODS chain.

Editor’s Note: We hope this does not happen.

Antioxidant Foods
Source: http://www.dailyfitnessmagz.com

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Sunday Nights With Shep


Jean Shepherd in WOR studio

Jean Shepherd in WOR studio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his prime, Jean Shepherd hypnotized audiences for hours with stories about bumper stickers, TV commercials, Green Stamps, and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.  Like most great discoveries, I found Jean Shepherd purely by accident.  Sunday nights presented a precarious dilemma until Jean came along.  I didn’t want to close my eyes because the next thing you knew, the sun would be pinching my cheek.  It would be Monday morning, the beginning of another week of Junior High School.

My primary goal, therefore, centered upon pushing Monday morning as far into Sunday night as my sleep-deprived brain permitted.  My pre-Jean Shepherd solution to the Sunday night dilemma involved listening to Rock and Roll music on a radio underneath the covers.  One night, while switching from one Rock and Roll station to another, I found “Shep.”

The experts at the time might have called it “experimental radio.”  Whatever it was, I had never heard anything like the smooth jazz overlaid by that voice, the one that put an arm around my shoulder and whispered, “c’mon pal, I got some cool places to take you to.”

When I first tripped over the threshold of this new world, the silky voice in the night was talking about cigarette coupons.  It told a story about two friends who “made the same dough,” yet one of them had a new TV, and a boat, and a Ford Mustang, and a vacation home in the country—all purchased with cigarette coupons.  It soon became clear to the other sad sack that he was an idiot not to smoke “Wonkies,” the brand with the coupons, the kind his buddy smoked.  Of course the poor slob who smoked the Wonkies was dying of cancer, but it didn’t matter, because he had been smart enough to get the boat, and the car and the vacation home for free.  He had enjoyed a lifetime of smoking Wonkies, and now his family could use the boat and the other goodies after he died.

The music swelled a bit louder.  Now the voice talked about life on other planets.  Did the inhabitants have better bathrooms than ours?  Did the people have jobs, or could they just go to the bank and ask the teller for as much money as they needed to feed and clothe their families, with enough left over to go to an amusement park or take a quick vacation on another planet.  Everyone had to be on the honor system, or there wouldn’t be enough money to go around.  But these were aliens, after all, not human beings, so there would probably be no problem.

The voice kept talking.  It swept me away.  I lay there listening to my radio.  I felt like a five-year-old kid attending the circus for the first time with his Dad.  The world outside was crazy as hell, but I had it made in the shade, hypnotized by another one of Jean Shepherd’s stories.  Monday morning had disappeared over the horizon—miles, and miles, and miles down the road.

1950’s Radio. Image Source: http://www.radiomuseum.org

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The Fragile Self


Photo Credit: http://www.48days.com

Where does self-confidence come from?  Where does it go when we need it most?

How does an energetic child with a mountainous capacity for curiosity grow up to be a narrow-minded, emotionally constricted person full of hopelessness and suffering?

The answer is simple.  We lose the key to the door that opens to a satisfying existence; belief in ourselves and the faith that every day can be sculpted into a masterpiece of joy.

Self-confidence is an elusive commodity that fluctuates with life’s events including, but not limited to; our mood, brain chemistry, the weather, and acceptance or rejection by parents and peers.   It is a fragile, unpredictable elixir; here today, gone tomorrow.  Yet for a fortunate few, it is a constant, a second nature, a faithful servant and friend, an impenetrable fortress against the most vicious attacks the outside world can muster.

With self-confidence, we can create the next, great wonder of the world.  Without it, we are forced to walk bent over through life, a mere shadow on the wall, a faint reflection of our glorious and noble human potential.

When my self-confidence ebbs, I do something loving towards my Self.  I try to do something enjoyable.  I focus on what I want out of life.  I focus on an inner experience of joy and peace.  Thinking “peace, love, joy and contentment” actually helps to elevate my mood.  If I am standing in line with nothing to do, I’ll think, “I am happy.”

This advice might sound stupid or obvious, but if you find yourself being self-critical for anything more than a few minutes per day, then it’s ALWAYS better to shift to thoughts that are happy and self-enhancing.

My “thought practice,” in combination with the meditation I do daily, has contributed to higher levels of self-confidence and contentment.  What I’m doing is filling my mind with uplifting thoughts and my heart with an experience of peace and joy.  I’ve found that you need to nourish both the mind and the heart with the right food to live optimally.

Your goals may be (and probably will) be different than mine.  Whatever the goal, whatever you want most, thinking of your positive goal is always preferable to self-criticism.  Just make sure what you give to yourself is a gift worth having.

As far as finding a way to fill your heart with peace and joy, I leave that up to you.  It’s a personal quest.  I can tell you how I do it, if you want to know.  But as the Nike commercial says, “Just Do It.”  Life is short.  Live it to the fullest.

 Photo courtesy of http://www.howtobuildselfconfidences.com

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Living With No Downside


Image Source: http://www.grist.org

Open your mental windows.  Let your attitude bathe in the sunshine of optimism.  Don’t worry about the possibility of sunburn.

That’s a pretty corny metaphor.  Just imagine, however, what would happen if every chronic pessimist on the planet took this advice.

The cost of healthcare would plummet. There would be fewer traffic accidents. The unemployment rate would nose dive. The average human life span would increase by five or ten years.  These are just a few of the likely outcomes of a few billion upgraded attitudes.

My optimistic attitude is based on the belief that at the very center of the universe in which we live there dwells a loving kindness that cares about our happiness and well-being.

When I choose to believe and to feel this way, life becomes easier.

Through the eyes of optimism, I see the world as a place full of endless possibilities to express myself positively.

There is a voice in my head that tries to convince me otherwise.  I suspect I am not the only person who hears this derisive, discouraging voice.  The only difference between most of us in this regard, it seems to me, is how we deal with this voice.

I used to believe the discouraging voice in my head was a friendly voice.  I believed it was there to warn me not to try things I couldn’t or shouldn’t do.  It has taken a lot of growing through painful experience to learn the critical voice was not my friend most of the time.

On the surface, it would seem an easy task to learn the difference between healthy self-restraint and the paralyzing fear engendered by an over-abundance of self-criticism.  Perhaps the messages a person hears as a child from parents and teachers makes a difference in the way he or she responds to their inner critic.  A strong self-image provides a safe haven from the twin sirens of doubt and fear.

I have found it helps to express your fears to a friend or to a mental health professional to get an objective view of your thoughts as they relate to accomplishing goals.  Most fears, when expressed out in the open, prove to be phantoms made of irrational thinking.

The dream in your heart needs to be nurtured with positive, reinforcing thoughts in order for it to manifest into a concrete reality.  It takes a persistent, consistent effort to escape the prison of the jailing voice of discouragement.

Being optimistic is an act of loving yourself and your possibilities.  It is an act of flying above the clouds of doubt.

Personal fulfillment and the joy of helping others flow from the fountainhead of optimism.

An attitude of optimism leads to an active life of freedom.

Opportunities for growth and prosperity surround us constantly.  Smile. Open your heart and embrace these gifts as they come your way.  The loving force at the center of life beckons you to become your highest, happiest, and best self.

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Take My Right Knee


Nature persistently taps me on the back with subtle hints on how to live a happier, more fulfilled life.

As my sixty-fourth birthday approaches, the hints are becoming less subtle.

Take my right knee, for example. It’s falling apart. The cartilage in the joint has moved out. Arthritis has moved in. The good news is that I’ve found a skilled surgeon who can repair my knee with an artificial joint. Still, I must not allow this newfound hope to obscure the lesson available to me from this latest brush with nature.

As I watch my body deteriorate, I must constantly remind myself that no matter how much I exercise, eat right, think positively, love my wife and daughter, and take care of my 90 year-old mother, I am not getting any younger.

The time to be happy is right now.

The thing is, I don’t want to settle for just a little happiness. I want to be really happy. I want to, believe it or not, live in joy. It’s something I’ve put it off for long enough.

About twenty-five years ago, a friend introduced me to a teacher who helped me to find joy within myself.

To be perfectly honest, I haven’t taken full advantage of the opportunity. You might say I’ve been playing a game of hide and seek with my capacity to feel joy for most of my life.

In a sense, I’ve made of habit of putting my happiness on hold by making other things in my life more important—like my desire to write ten best-selling novels, or to sell my latest screenplay to Miramax Studios, or to make a quarter-of-a-million dollars in real estate commissions in a single year. It’s not that these pursuits are unworthy goals. The problem is, I made them the number one priority in my life, rather than making peace and joy the number one priority.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve experienced more than my share of joy, peace, and love in my life, thanks especially to the unique inner experience my teacher revealed to me. It just could have been more consistent. My teacher has taught me that happiness is an art. I want to become an accomplished artist in the field of happiness.

I only hope this moment of clarity lasts. From now on, I’m determined to harvest every last droplet of joy that comes my way…before my left knee gives out.

 

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