Thursday, March 30, 2006

Improv Under Where?

This week I've been back in contact with a couple of friends with a background in improvisational humor, and so I've been reminded of how desperately I covet a background in improvisational humor. A few years back I was hearing a lot about "flash mobs," which are nicely described at the following link:

That's right, I'm directing you to Satan's laundromat, which probably is not terribly dissimilar from every other laundromat.

Anyway, more recently I heard something similar described as "improv anywhere." So I figured, if improv can take place anywhere, why can't it take place where I work?

For a while at my office, then, several of us were meeting intermittently to take a comical/critical look at Christian publishing. We intended eventually to share our hilarious observations with our coworkers, but over time the chief offenders "left the company," and our essentially subversive cultural analysis left with them.

Somewhere along the way, though, we met up with some like-minded folks from yet another Christian publishing outlet, and now that I've recently heard back from nearly all the concerned parties, there's a chance we may be able to get something going again. Because we're also publishing nerds (I mean no disrespect), our get-togethers will likely devolve from practicing improvisational humor to reflecting theologically on improvisational humor. That would be fine with me, though; I approach it more as social experiment than as performance art anyway.

For example, I attempted my own "flash mob" some time ago, recruiting several friends to pretend to help me search for a lost contact. Some people helped look, others stepped lightly so they wouldn't crush the contact, others just thought we all looked a little weird. I had hoped to uncover (a) who's willing to play along with such games and why, and (b) how people respond to an unusual but arguably explainable phenomenon. We only did one flash-mob; I haven't been able to come up with any other ideas, and nobody else (to my knowledge) has volunteered anything, so the experiment seems to have failed. It was fun while it lasted though.

More recently I've conspired with a pair of coworkers to do something unusual right under the noses of our colleagues during our weekly departmental break. That's been more manageable and arguably more fun; it's a more controlled setting with an easier debrief process, and we've nearly been caught a couple of times. What I'm not sure about is where to go with it: am I serving some larger purpose by pursuing this life-improv, or am I just entertaining myself?

I'd say that I am learning something about myself on the way, and probably a bit about my coworkers and the group dynamics present in our department. There's another concern, however: I am generally, unconsciously tempted toward a sense of detachment in a lot of my relationships, so to do experiments like this may be reinforcing an otherwise subtle superiority complex. Maybe my co-conspirators mitigate that part, since I'm at least accountable to them, but who really knows the limits of the soul's capacity to cajole and delude itself?

This week we forgot to come up with something, which is a bit funny in itself--I feel irresponsible for having not played a trick on my friends. Maybe that's why I made all of you think "underwear" when you started reading this post.

Ha ha! Burned!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

downtrodden pumpkinseed employee

That's the title of my spam of the day for March 28, 2006. I suppose if I worked for a pumpkinseed, I might be a bit downtrodden myself.

Think you can top my spam of the day? Post a comment.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Myth Manners

I got to take part in a collective interview about the role of myth in shaping worldview, organized by Alex Ness, moderator of Pop Check it out here, then come back to comment at Loud Time. I'd be interested in hearing your own thoughts about myth and how you came to think such madness.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Are There Suburbs in the Blogosphere?

My friend Al Hsu has entered the fray! He's blogging at The Suburban Christian, which is coincidentally the name of his forthcoming book. Al's one of my favorites--a great friend and a great thinker--so check him out when you have the chance.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Much Ado About Jesus

Yesterday I read a post that suggests that, to protest the mistreatment of Jesus in the book and forthcoming film The Davinci Code, to send a message to Hollywood that people of faith want movies that show due deference to their faith traditions, we should not only not go to The Davinci Code its opening weekend, we should instead plan that weekend to go see something more faith- or family-friendly, such as the animated feature Over the Hedge. Box office results for the weekend would thus reflect not simply what Hollywood looks like without a Christian audience but what a Christian audience can do to Hollywood.

Sounds menacing, doesn't it? Setting aside for a moment the debatable question of whether Over the Hedge is morally or spiritually superior to The Davinci Code, I'm troubled by the trend to fight spiritual battles through the sacred act of consumption. It's not new this summer. The Davinci Code is the third major release in as many years to play explicitly to spiritual appetites: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe and The Passion of the Christ both actively solicited whole churches to turn moviegoing into evangelistic events. The Lord of the Rings trilogy missed the boat, from a marketing perspective, but a more organic, grass roots movement contributed to a similar outcome for those films. And as I've discussed over at Strangely Dim, there's no end to the published resources that plunder NetFlix and I-Tunes for sanctified profit. And as I confessed readily, as the author of a book about superheroes, I'm chief of sinners.

Marketplace jihad isn't limited to the film industry; in the months following the September 11 terror attacks, Americans were encouraged to fight evil by buying cars--and those not Batmobiles that we would subsequently drive from here to Baghdad, where we would liberate Iraq, but minivans with side-impact airbags and drop-down DVD monitors, where we would watch Dreamworks movies with built-in previews for family- and faith-friendly films such as Shrek and Over the Hedge.

I guess I'm disturbed that people are so quickly and summarily defining the power of people of faith within the constraints of economics and demographics. When challenged with the idea that people are unlikely to have their core commitments changed by seeing a film that they already know the plot to, such as The Davinci Code or for that matter The Passion of the Christ, one blogger waved her virtual hand and wrote, "The Davinci Code is evil."

But people aren't likely to have their core commitments changed just by such a simple transaction as the willful but ephemeral exposure to or isolation from a teeny weeny little movie or book. The change comes in the charged atmosphere surrounding those little transactions. All this talk of The Davinci Code, all the talk about The Passion of the Christ, forced to the surface people's unspoken and often unconsidered notions about who Jesus was and what he means for today.

Personally, I'm not interested in seeing The Davinci Code; it looks like the kind of thriller that fails to thrill. I'm much more interested this summer in X3, which will explore weighty themes of identity and transformation, and Superman Returns, which will in its own way prompt discussions of good and evil.

In the book Freakonomics, economist Steven D. Levitt shows how real change comes not through the belligerent distribution of funds but through the redistribution of knowledge. I like what he says because he gets an example from Superman.

It seems that the Ku Klux Klan was in a fresh ascendancy shortly after World War II ended. Stetson Kennedy was a white man who saw firsthand the brutality of the KKK exercised against his family's maid; he decided that the Klan was the country's greatest threat.

Kennedy decided to infiltrate the Klan and learn its secrets, planning eventually to make those secrets public. The problem was that the Klan was so firmly planted in the cultural establishment that turning over secrets to police departments, newspapers and other first responders was unlikely to bring the Klan to justice. Kennedy landed on a brilliant plan: he contacted the producers of the Superman radio show, who created a multi-story arc pitting Superman against the KKK.

Within months, millions of kids were playing Superman--the hero--versus the villainous Klan. A few kids would publicly display the secret handshakes and code language of the KKK, until another kid would swoop in, playing Superman, and dispense play-justice against the play-bigots. Suddenly, when adult members of the Klan's secret society would greet one another or make Klan-plans, they looked like they were playing Superman games. They looked stupid; the Klan as an organization looked stupid; bigotry ultimately looked stupid.

I read this story and recalled a quotation from G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which everyone and his mother should read. In this case--and I mean no disrespect--the lunatic represents the author of The Davinci Code:

The lunatic's theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain
them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was
growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments
as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler
outside the suffocation of a single argument.

If people of faith see The Davinci Code as a misrepresentation of Jesus, they may choose to boycott the book or the movie. They may choose to lambaste the author or the producer. They may choose to declare their financial allegiance to more animated features. But perhaps we should rather give the film some air, and shed some light on what's become shrouded in confusion. If we don't hold it in, and if we don't crowd it out, the truth will ultimately come out.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Vanishing Breed of the Attendant

I was referred to an interesting "My Story" in Newsweek. The author is an attendant at a full-service gas station. The economy is slowly forcing him and his brother out of business after decades of working together. It seems that people aren't willing to pay for someone to be attendant to them. True enough: I only go inside a gas station if I'm adding a slurpy to my gas purchase. But this fellow makes some interesting observations not just about what the consumer loses when attendancy goes the way of the dinosaur, but what we lose when we abandon our own opportunities to attend to one another.
Who wouldn't learn compassion from chatting with a total stranger who sheds tears when small talk turns to his wife's struggle with cancer? Who wouldn't ponder human nature upon reading that a customer who had filled up for the holiday at your service station spent Thanksgiving Day stabbing his wife 27 times?

I'll be interested to hear what you think of the article.

Ain't I a stinker?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Trojan Horse, of Course, of Course

I got an e-mail today with the audacious subject line:
We cure any disease!
Now, to my knowledge I don't currently have any diseases, but I thought this would be information worth keeping close at hand, so I opened the e-mail, where I saw advertised
  • Viagra (generic, soft)
  • Cialis (generic, soft)
  • Levitra (generic)
  • Viagra & Cialis

Now, I don't know much about medicine, but if Viagra cured any disease I think it would have a different rep than it currently has. Maybe Viagra and Cialis, taken together, is the panacea we've all been waiting for, but if that's the case, I think there's been a marketing blunder; Panacea is a great brand name for a pill that cures everything, and you don't have to worry about people making fun of you for taking it.

Very little bugs me as much as spam, but spam often redeems itself by giving me a good laugh. Nevertheless, false pretenses are incredibly frustrating. We don't know ourselves perfectly well, but we know ourselves well enough to know what we do and don't want to be exposed to, so people (and there are people behind these spam, just as surely as there are people leaving me voice mail messages about winning time-shares and trips to Las Vegas) mask their motives in order to get past our first defenses. The net result is that we set up more and more defenses--more and higher firewalls to keep others out and ultimately trap ourselves in.

Life together would be a more attractive proposition if we didn't have to wonder what we were getting ourselves into. But life alone bears its own false pretense: no man is an island, no matter how sweet the proposition sounds.