Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Jane Austen Is from Venus

In case you're interested, I recently threw down the gauntlet in front of the Jane Austen Festival. You can read my rant at Behind the Books. Before you panic, however, understand that my rant is directed not at the author of Pride and Prejudice but at her idolatrous admirers.

"Don't hate the player; hate the game." I'm pretty sure Mr. Darcy said that . . .

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Vacation Bible Schools Your Child Should Skip

I've just come off a week serving as MC for our church's Vacation Bible School. It was fun, chaotic, tiring, draining, entertaining--all those sorts of things a nonparent like myself might reasonably expect to experience from prolonged exposure to a roomful of four- to twelve-year-olds.

Our theme for the week was related to cowboys, and while I don't want to name names, I noted with great private amusement that the producers of our chosen curriculum, looking for a word that rhymed with the theme, named the curriculum after a natural disaster. It got me and the other adults--particularly Tim, Afarin, Bert, Stewart and Ken--thinking about what would be the worst imaginable themes to subject small children to for Vacation Bible School. We came up with close to thirty options. Here's my top ten; I invite you to nominate your own.

10. Fun with C-Span
9. Let's Make Nikes!
8. Rocky Horror Bible School
7. Baywatch Junior
6. Death Before Dishonor!
5. The Herbs and Spices of the Bible
"Hi, my name's Herb! And these are my spices!"

4. The Plagues of Egypt
3. You'll Eat It and Like It!
2. No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition!
1. Apocalypto the Musical

Friday, July 20, 2007

Pseudo-Spam of the Day

A 4 year old girl and a 1.5 year old boy.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

You might think it's spam, but it's really an old friend from college, filling me in on his family life. I'm sure they're adorable kids, and more virtuous than virtual.

There's probably a market for BlackBerry Kids out there, however. I thought the Cabbage Patch Kids were ugly and pointless back in the day, but plenty of people disagreed with me. My sister had one, complete with adoption papers and a detachable pacifier. My brother and I would play War with it/her serving as a grenade; we'd "pull the pin" (AKA pacifier), count to three and throw the Cabbage Patch Kid from one end of the room to the other. That wouldn't fly with BlackBerry Kids; Mommy and Daddy paid six hundred bucks for that little bundle of joy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

My Heart, Christ's Laugh Track

A friend at church is looking for a Christian devotional, and seeing as I work for a Christian publisher, I figured I could take care of her. And then, seeing as I am hopelessly self-promotional and as I happen to have a handful of entries included in one of our devotional resources--My Heart, Christ's Home Through the Year--I figured I would reread what I wrote there. Here's me, trying to sound like John Ortberg:

It's entirely possible that many of us will see no serious spiritual breakthroughs in our lives until we learn to laugh at ourselves. And that's funny, in a sad sort of way.

It's mildly amusing that I'm being so self-promotional about Christian devotional resources at the same moment I'm trying to craft a manuscript about guarding against narcissism in our Christian devotion. But that's something of what humility is, really: as the brilliant Brian Mahan puts it, "a full embrace of the joy of ongoing repentance." And anyway, surely I'm not alone--what do you do that you suspect God finds funny?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Spam of the Day

It's been a bit heavy around here lately, so today I want to help you cleanse your loud-time palate with some nice, refreshing spam. Today's Spam of the Day comes from Pablo Hathaway, who is apparently (judging by his e-mail address) currently in detox somewhere in Ontario, Canada. Despite his substantial geographical distance from suburban Chicago, he seems to know my community pretty well, because Pablo is alerting me to . . .


The rest of the e-mail is in French, directed toward someone named Fabian. My French is and always has been sketchy ("un peu, s'il vous plait"), but from what I can gather Pablo wants Fabian to come visit him when he gets out on parole. It begs the question: If you were to entice a friend to come visit you, what features of your community would you highlight? Go ahead--brag on your community a bit. As for Lombard, Illinois (my hometown), I'd probably play up the Texan Barbecue, the "Amazing Graze" deli and the close proximity to Chicago. I probably wouldn't mention the harlots.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

It's a Hard Drive's a-Gonna Fall

Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away. I was happily typing away on my computer keyboard in my office at work, listening to music I'd stored on iTunes, when all of a sudden a grinding noise interrupted my enjoyment of Half-Handed Cloud or Andrew Bird or somesuch. My hard drive crashed, and all of my music crashed with it.

I'm smart, so they tell me: I store all my working documents on the network server, so a hard-drive crash is a professional inconvenience moreso than a total calamity. When asked whether I lost anything important, I quickly responded no. Then I thought about it, and realized that I lost all the music that I've downloaded or uploaded to my computer. That doesn't affect my work, but it sure did affect my mood.

I use iTunes, but I don't have an iPod. I didn't think I needed one, since I could play songs on my PDA, which incidentally exploded on me a few weeks ago. So while I've bought my share of music from iTunes, and downloaded my share of music from artist websites, and burned my share of CDs from my collection onto my hard-drive for convenience's sake, and organized my share of playlists for the listening convenience of my networked-in coworkers, today I find myself sitting in silence, with nothing but the memory of much of my music.

Now, then, comes the task of rebuilding, which involves revisiting the relative significance of what I've stored in the past. What attracted me to these songs in the first place? Do I repurchase songs like "Freeze-Frame" by J. Geils Band or "Common People" by William Shatner (with Ben Folds and Joe Jackson), or were they simply indulgences that I ought to now forgo? Do I track down Ben Kweller's website again so I can get his songs for free, or do I bite the bullet and pay the money to support the artist? Is the studio version of Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble" adequate, or should I go looking again for the live version? And do I really like Bright Eyes and Dashboard Confessional enough to pay for their music, or should I be grateful for the time I had with their free downloads and leave it at that?

The genius of iTunes is that 99 cents seems like a pittance, a song purchase the sort of impulse that's not worth resisting. Why should I not buy "The Connection" by Phish or "I Wanna Be Sedated" by the Ramones? They take up so little space and they bring me such pleasure! Not to mention what they do for my reputation: I am legitimately regarded as eclectic by virtue of the diversity of artists included in my playlists. But do I have to have them: there's the question. If I do, then my music--and all I've allowed it to say about me--has taken possession of my person, and I have become an idolator.

I'm reminded of the rebuilding of Jerusalem's temple, recorded in Ezra 3:
All the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

The new temple would be as nothing compared to the original, a fact that caused legitimate lament for Jerusalem's elders. But for those who were young, the wreckage of the old temple--not the temple itself--was all they had known, and so this new temple was a fresh start, bringing with it a new sense of possibility for each and everyone gathered. They cheered, and rightly so: the laying of the foundation of the second temple marked the beginning of a new era of the people of God, one into which eventually the Son of God would come.

What purpose, then, would the old temple now serve? It holds a legitimate place in the cultural memory of the Jewish people, and a significant place in the canon of Jewish and Christian scriptures. But the temple itself was dead, and the elders of Ezra's day--to have any future hope--needed to let it die.

There was a point, in fact, in Israel's history when the temple began to hinder the faith of the people of God. Jeremiah spoke bitterly on God's behalf:

Do not trust in deceptive words and say, "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!" If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. (Jeremiah 7:4-8)

Jesus challenged the cult of the temple as well in his own day: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days!" (John 3:19). He was speaking of his body rather than the building, but that was the point: God is bigger than a building, and when we think otherwise, we've allowed the building--or our reputation, or our possessions, or whatever--to take possession of us. We've made these things into gods, and so we've become idolators.

Maybe that's overstating the case. But while we're inclined to legitimately mourn the end of something, there's a way of understanding that same moment as the beginning of something new, and to dwell on the end is to subvert the new beginning. Our posture toward the world ought to be creative rather than reactive.

I still "don't like Mondays" (the Boomtown Rats--check it out), but for now at least I'll live without it. In the meantime I'll look forward to cobbling together new playlists and exploring music afresh. In the process, maybe I'll catch some hints about what new things God might be creating in me.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Brent Anderson for President

I've made some cool friends in the seven months or so. One of them is running for president.

In fairness to Brent Anderson, I think he's been conscripted into the role. It's possible that he was pressed into service because he has the most presidential name in all of Word Made Flesh, or because he has the least insane demeanor of the bunch. I'm just saying.

Anyway, I hate to break it to my friends, but I'm pretty sure Brent is not constitutionally eligible, seeing as he's under the age of thirty-five. That being said, the official platform of Brent Anderson for President, reproduced here from the Brent Anderson for President group page on Facebook, is chock-full of creative ideas that haven't crept their way into my suburban milieu. So with the permission of the folks at Brent Anderson for President I present in what follows their platform for the direction of the U.S. government over the next four years. What do you like? What gives you pause? What are you tempted to copy into an e-mail to your major-party candidate of choice?

No Covert Ops (Allows for Counter-Ops)
The US government creates a victim mindset for its citizens by covering up its military and political activities around the world, actions which make foreign citizens angry at the US. When retaliation comes, we have no context for why they have committed these acts of violence. The US considers itself morally superior when responding to these “unprovoked” attacks.
See documentary: “Why We Fight” 2006.

Put an end to the military industrial complex
Eisenhower, in his farewell Presidential address, warned against the military industrial complex. The US spends more in discretionary income on the military than all other discretionary spending in the US budget. It also spends more on its military than the next eight countries combined.

No Standing MilitaryAs a peace advocate, I would hope for eliminating the standing army of the US and instead responding to military threats through the use of militias that could rise to meet a particular threat and then be disbanded.

Sand in the Gears of Global Capital Movement
In classical economics, land, labor, and capital are considered factors of production. The economies of the world grow because of the use and benefit of these factors. The ability for capital to move so freely around the world is good on a number of levels; however, it also encourages financial speculation, financial coercion, and promotes a race to invest in countries with poor wages but also poor environment and labor laws. The use of capital for investing in a people, industry, etc. must be encouraged by throwing sand in the gears of capital movement and creating incentives for capital to remain in one place for investment purposes. Labor should be much more mobile, to compensate for capital movements, before capital restrictions are lifted.

No Government Flood Insurance for New Home Construction on US coastline
With scientists predicting global warming and sea levels to rise, the US government puts itself in a precarious financial position by agreeing to cover these unknown risks. It also creates a moral hazard by rewarding the foolish behavior of constructing homes in these areas.

The Nation-State as a Necessary Evil
. . . The nation-state is outdated and its use of force to compel obedience is anachronistic. However, with the rise of the power of the corporation, the nation-state may need to survive as a counter-weight to power of the corporation.

Limited Government
Most of the problems that US citizens want the US government to solve were created by the US government. Limited government is the ideal. Civic organizations are the solution for many societal issues. When Baby Boomers face retirement from government positions, I would not re-hire most of those positions, instead replacing most of the personnel with technological improvements that make the government more efficient. In some ways politicians and bureaucrats should be technocrats. Efficiently managing those tasks given to them by the citizenry (the trains run on time).

Restore a Limited Line Item Veto
The Supreme Court ruled against the line-item veto for Presidents. The line-item veto, in the short-time it was used, eliminated pork projects from otherwise necessary spending bills. Now, President Bush uses signing statements, which are extra-legal notes put into the margins of bills that specify how the President interprets the bills and how they will be enforced. These extra-legal notes circumvent the power of the Congress. A limited line item veto should be restored both as a compromise and as helpful tool to limit wasteful spending.

Fiscal Responsibility
There is currently a provision that specifies that pork projects, when inserted into a bill, must show what member of Congress inserted the project, for transparency. This provision, which seems only partially in effect, would be mandated.

Lawmakers must wait 4 years before becoming a lobbyist
A provision of the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Bill, passed in 2005, increased the time a member of Congress must wait before becoming a lobbyist, from one to two years. I would encourage a waiting period of four years, to discourage the revolving door between lobbying and Congress.

Parties of Congress sit together; not split down the aisles.

Foreign Policy
No pre-emptive military strikes against other countries.
The US has recently violated international law, and its own rules in foreign policy by invading Iraq; the US should only react defensively, to protect its interests. The sovereignty of other nations must be respected. In addition, Americans are not worth more than persons of any other country

Ending Bretton Woods created institutions
The IMF and the World Bank are institutions that while they might do some good, also enslave countries into debt. (read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man). This debt makes them beholden to the US and other economically powerful nations.

Follow-through with Jubilee concept in forgiving debt of Majority world countries.

Reforming the UN (Security Council gives too much power to colonial powers)
There are plenty of calls for reforming the UN because of waste. These calls should be heeded. The UN, in its present form, does not give enough power to the nations which are not part of the Security Council. The Security Council is a vestige of the post WWII era and should be reformed.

Adhere to Kyoto Protocol
The US should adopt the Kyoto mandate to reduce greenhouse gases.

Free Public Transportation
Due to Eisenhower’s construction of the interstate highway system and car companies paying off city councils to kill trolleys and other forms of transportation, our country has been unduly dependent on the auto industry. A renewed look at trains and trolleys should be undertaken. A freeze of federal highway spending should also be undertaken.

Free Trade
A media misperception is that the US adheres to free trade, but we don’t. We claim that other countries which don’t adhere to free trade are poor because of their protectionism. Free trade is good in economics, because of comparative advantage. I would continue to press for free trade….but true free trade which eliminates a lot of the protectionism of the US. Dumping would continue to be prosecuted.

Natural Resources
Food v. Fuel
US citizens have been marketed to embrace ethanol. Ethanol is the oil-companies and agribusiness’ preference because they can corner the market and rely on present infrastructure to deliver the ethanol. Even though ethanol could be produced from switchgrass or other plants, ethanol is currently produced mostly from corn, and not the byproducts of corn. While research could help ethanol to be produced from other plants, our current situation pits corn the food v. corn the fuel. Because demand for corn has risen so dramatically, it has been priced out of the diets of many households. Many Mexican families can no longer make traditional corn tortillas for their household because of the demand for corn for ethanol in the states. I would hope Congress would pass legislation so that any plant currently used for food consumption would be outlawed from being used for fuel, unless only the plant’s byproducts would be used for the fuel.

The water crisis in the States and the larger crisis of water facing the world is one of the most endemic problems facing our world today. A severe measure needs to be taken to stave off drought in the future.
-Home lawns could no longer be watered; drought-resistant and grasses that need less water, like buffalo grass, should be planted.

-No private swimming pools

-Farming would have preference over new construction projects and new neighbors.

-Farmers would not be able to irrigate their lands unless efficient drip-irrigation methods were used. Farms that consistently need water that depletes the local water table over an average of five years, would not be able to irrigate their land. Inefficiencies, where proverbial deserts have become arable land through constant irrigation, would lose their legal right to use the water.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Class of 88, Part One

Perhaps it's the hour or so I spent flipping through my high school yearbook when I spent the night in my repatriating parents' home in Iowa last week, or the twenty-four or so hours I spent talking to Web, my high-school best friend, or perhaps the nine days or so that I'm counting down to the domestic release of the reunion album of the great Crowded House, or maybe the nerve damage I've done to my fingers emulating Stewart Copeland's drum licks on my steering wheel while listening to the Best of the Police CD I got for my birthday, or the now-only-months I'm counting down to my high-school reunion--but I'm feeling nostalgic.

I suspect I'll be nostalgic quite a bit over the next year or so, so I might as well make some use of the nostalgia and blog about my high-school experience along the way. There were both highlights and lowlights to be sure, and I'm sure I'll get to them. But today I'd rather remember one small moment that for whatever reason has stuck with me for the better part of two decades.

I took calculus in high school, not because I had any business taking calculus but because if you fancied yourself smart (which I did) you finagled a spot in calculus class (which I did). Advanced math was taught by Mr. Storm, whose name lent itself nicely to what would become a calculus class tradition: "I Survived the Storm" t-shirts. I have no memory whatsoever of any aspect of calculus, but I remember some of the things I would do instead of calculus while I was sitting in calculus class.

My clearest calculus memory is when my friend Jenny, who sat in front of me, turned around and scribbled on my looseleaf paper in my Trapper Keeper (or something like that):

I guess you'd call it suicide
But I'm too full to swallow my pride.

By this point in my life I had known people who struggled with anorexia, bulimia, early-onset alcoholism and undiagnosed hyperactivity disorder. But I hadn't encountered what the experts might call suicidal ideation--at least in the form of a cry for help. I didn't know what to do; I was worried for my friend, but I didn't want her to get in trouble, but I didn't want her to die, and she seemed so happy really, and what would possess her to write such a dour message in such a sprighty, giddy script? She practically dotted her i's with flowers, for pete's sake.

Class was dismissed and I chased Jenny down to ask her about what she had written.

"Come on, Dave! It's from the Police!"

Turns out it's a lyric from "I Can't Stand Losing You," which I'm sure I proceeded to interpret as my friend Jenny coming on to me. I was a wimp, so I didn't follow that line of investigation. I did, however, become a much more serious student of song lyrics after that.

Now I'm older, and I've known people who have killed themselves, and I've known people who have lost loved ones to suicide, and I've watched my flippant comments inadvertently cause them pain, and I've tried to convince suicidal friends to seek help. With the passage of time I find that I have little tolerance left for song lyrics that deal cavalierly with life and death.

Lyrics offer articulation to people who can't otherwise articulate their feelings. Go to a myspace page and you'll be introduced to the song that most effectively evokes the blogger's current state of mind. Borrow someone's i-Pod and you'll see how they arrange their music to attend to their mood changes. Ask them what song is in their head and you'll get some small insight into what else is in their head.

But when a songwriter, even one so gifted as Sting, commandeers language of desperation to communicate an otherwise mundane point, he betrays his audience. Sting likes irony, and he finds it funny when people dance to his stalker song "Every Breath You Take" (1983) at their wedding. But he's not great with hyperbole: I hope he would weep if a teenager quoted "I Can't Stand Losing You" in a suicide note--weep for the person who had overestimated the intensity of young love; weep for the naivete that allowed a person to assign such power to his words; weep for the victim, weep for himself, and weep for what the world has become.

The apostle James speaks in more controlled hyperbole in his New Testament letter:

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7-8)

I'm in the business of words these days, and so I can't abide by flippancy or carelessness--even in my own use of language. My authors count on me (whether they realize it or not) to tame their tongue; I likewise count on my coworkers, my friends, and the readers of my blogs to rein me in when it's needed. The tongue is too dangerous without some checks in place.

That's not to say that every lyric must be shiny and happy, of course. Irony has a powerful voice, and when used properly it communicates--even ministers--better than straightforwardness. If Jenny had instead written these classic lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, set to a melancholy tune and ripe with subtle meaning, I like to think I would have kept worrying, and I would not have accepted her dismissive response:

Smile though your heart is aching;
Smile even though it's breaking. . . .
That's the time you must keep on trying,
Smile, what's the use of crying?
You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile.