Friday, June 27, 2014

Sherlock Holmes Blushing: Writing Tics and Glimpses of Humanity

I've recently begun reading the collected novels and short stories of Sherlock Holmes as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. I'm a trend-hopper, I admit it. I geeked out over Sherlock and enjoyed the different angle on Elementary; I even like Robert Downey Jr.'s turn in two films that imagine Holmes and Watson as the original dynamic duo, the earliest ancestors of Batman and Robin, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Riggs and Murtaugh, and the Men in Black.

So, in between seasons, I thought it'd be fun to read the stories, set in their original context of late-nineteenth-century London. I was thrown by the horse-drawn cabs, the handwritten letters, even the "evening newspaper." But the thing that really threw me was the notorious absence of Holmes's catch phrase: "Elementary, my dear Watson."

I'm 900+ pages into volume 1 and not once has this phrase appeared. I recall one time Holmes described some conclusion as "elementary," but only in passing. I recall one time he referred to Watson as "dear," but in that case Watson was "my dear friend" - hardly a string of words for the ages. I'm led to surmise that catch phrases aren't a product of Victorian England; they belong, rather, to Hollywood.

Do you want to know what does, apparently, belong to Victorian England? Writing tics and lazy editing - in this case, in the form of the archaic word singular.

Google singular and you'll be directed to 26 million occurrences on the Internet. But at least for me, the first occurrence declares it a typo: according to, "a common misspelling of Singulair. Singular (montelukast) is used for the prevention and long-term treatment of asthma." That in itself is lazy editing, since clearly "Singulair" is a portmanteau created, probably by someone in Hollywood, for the pharmaceuticals industry. The word singular apparently dates back to the fourteenth century, derived from an old French word which itself was derived from Latin. Singular is defined by the Online Etymology Dictionary as ""alone, apart; being a unit; special, unsurpassed," which is basically how it's used in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, ad nauseum.

TWEET THIS: Do you want to know what does, apparently, belong to Victorian England? Writing tics and lazy editing.

Seriously. At least once in every story I've read so far. Usually at least twice. Sometimes twice in the same paragraph. The author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, describes cases, visages, personalities, weather patterns, meals, mornings and evenings as "singular."

I find that a bit ironic. That's the correct use of ironic, right?

I track the use of singular in Sherlock Holmes stories with the same glee and cynicism with which I tracked the use of "at this juncture" by my college political science professor. Such is the social dysfunction of an editor that other people's communication foibles simultaneously annoy and fascinate me; I'm more impressed with myself for having noticed this tic, and I elevate my own editorial competence by inwardly shaming the editor who let Sir Arthur Conan Doyle get away with it. It's one of the many ways that I dehumanize people: I make fun of how they write.

And honestly, it's pretty easy to dehumanize Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his editor. For one thing, they're dead; they can no longer dehumanize me back. For another thing, their humanity has been in some ways eclipsed by the enduring notoriety and cultural resonance of this character they curated over the course of many years and pages. It's Holmes we care about, and to a lesser extent, Watson; Doyle and editor X are beside the point.

Holmes himself is not quite human; he's an icon of rationalism, noticing and following the evidence systematically, cooly and objectively. Emotions are a distraction to him; relationships are an acceptable inefficiency. We accept this about Holmes, even celebrate him for it. But occasionally Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reminds us that Holmes is human too, as in this scene, from "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons":

Lestrade and I [Watson] sat silent for a moment, and then, with a spontaneous impulse, we both broke out clapping, as at the well-wrought crisis of a play. A flush of colour sprang to Holmes's pale cheeks, and he bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience. It was at such moments that for an instant he ceased to be a reasoning machine, and betrayed his human love for admiration and applause. The same singularly proud and reserved nature which turned away with disdain from popular notoriety was capable of being moved to its depths by spontaneous wonder and praise from a friend.
So there you have it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made Sherlock Holmes blush. He even stuck a singular in there, and the scene remained heartwarming anyway. It seems Holmes and Doyle are both human after all. And if Sherlock Holmes can blush, then I suppose there's hope for the rest of us.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Refugees Are People Too: Some Resources for World Refugee Day

Some problems are global problems, and when you scale out problems to the level of the globe, it's hard to keep the fine points of detail in view.

There are over 40 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world. These are people who have been forced to flee their home countries (or to flee within their home countries) to escape persecution (either direct and individual, or as part of a "persecuted social group") or the effects of war and other conflict. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that 80 percent of refugees and internally displaced people are women and children.

So often a day is all we have time for, but so often a day is all it takes to open our hearts.

For the past several years the U.S. State Department has admitted around 80,000 refugees annually into the United States. The home countries of these refugees are distributed throughout the world, and percentages per region are adapted according to need. A number of non-governmental agencies assist in placing these refugees throughout the United States, some for short periods until a safe return home is possible, and many for permanent relocation.

These are all big numbers. What's worth thinking about is that upwards of 80,000 times a year someone is moving into a neighborhood who has never been in the United States before. They're figuring out how stuff works. They're learning (often the hard way) which of their local customs will or will not be tolerated in their new community. They're learning new languages and new monetary systems, even new street signs and rules of the road. They've left something awful and landed in the midst of something bewildering. They need good neighbors.

I'm privileged to be on the board of a group called Exodus World Service, which in Chicago recruits churches and other groups to welcome refugees to the community, with move-in packets of necessary resources, with visits and meals and playdates, and more generally with enough expressions of kindness and support
to make the refugee's resettlement a little less unsettling. The
logic of Exodus requires that people be willing to step out of their comfort zone and enter into the awkwardness of a new, cross-cultural friendship. Sometimes these new relationships click, and sometimes they don't. But the value is in the trying, in the welcoming.

Getting up the courage to initiate with someone from literally the other side of the world can be a bit of a challenge. So today, on World Refugee Day, may I recommend a couple of resources that will shore up your strength?

Immigration, by Dale Hanson Bourke. This brand new book starts with the assumption that Americans are perplexed by immigration. Dale does the hard work of sifting through the enormously complex immigration system in the United States, as well as the incredibly complicated world refugee situation, and filtering down to the most helpful basic information - enough to overcome the intimidation factor and allow you to see refugees and immigrants for what they are: human beings with often difficult life stories who don't need to be rendered as statistics but rather cared for as human beings made in the image of God - as neighbors, which is what they are. Full-color photographs and helpful charts and figures throughout. Order it direct from the publisher here.

Ah Mu Weaves a Story, by Sarah Gilliam. This beautifully illustrated book tells one family's story of their journey from Burma to the United States. Written for children, it inspires resilience and hope while gently introducing the challenges refugees face both at home and in their resettlement. Children will love it; adults may well weep over it. Order it direct from the publisher here.

June 20 is World Refugee Day. The name of the event is a nice juxtaposition: "World," because this is one of those global problems that so easily overwhelms us; "Refugee," because those 40+ million refugees and internally displaced people throughout the world, those 80,000 refugees recently resettled in the United States, each have their own stories to tell, their own grief to bear, their own needs which only a friend can attend to; "Day," because so often a day is all we have time for, but so often a day is all it takes to open our hearts to a whole new world. Whether you get hold of these resources or not, I hope today you'll join me in praying for refugees and internally displaced people throughout the world, and I hope you'll consider how your story and that of a refugee near you might intersect.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Platform for Postmoderns: Writing for Free & for Freedom

The following originally appeared on the High Calling blog. I'm a little short on ideas at the moment, so I repost it here as part of my series on platform for postmoderns. Read part one of that series here, or the whole series (in random order) here.

There was a time in my adult life where my wages were a result of my fundraising efforts. I was horrible at it. I lasted about two years, and only then by taking job after job of the oddest sorts. Finally I admitted defeat and secured a position at a not-for-profit publishing company that paid me a set hourly wage. Instead of cajoling or guilting my friends every month, now I only had to keep my bosses satisfied.

Around that time I was getting the itch to write—and by “write” I don’t mean keep a journal or send letters to loved ones that didn’t involve asking them for money. I mean writing for publication, so I set to work getting my name out there. I’m about as good a networker as I am a fundraiser, but I managed to make a couple of connections that led to some intermittent assignments and a corresponding byline. I was living the dream—if by dream you mean a steady paycheck and some cash on the side, with an occasionally indulged delusion of grandeur.

I still work in publishing, and so the collision of fame and fortune is almost part of my job description. Several times a year I put a book contract in the mail to someone who’s always dreamt of writing a book; when I get the contract back from them, I send them a check. Sometime later, I send them a printed book with their name on the front and the back and the spine, and typically another check. It’s generally a tossup whether they’ll be more excited about the book or the check.

I get it, when authors care more about the money than the book. For one thing, who wouldn’t want a little more brass in pocket? But more than that, these days anyone can write anything for easy and cheap public dissemination. Getting paid to write these days is more than just remuneration; it’s validation.

TWEET THIS: Getting paid to write these days is more than just remuneration; it’s validation.

I get it when the book wins out too, though: money is fleeting, but a Library of Congress entry is forever. Besides, for many people a book is a door-opener, making it possible to speak in front of large crowds and create new revenue streams for themselves. Sometimes the least profitable outcome of an author’s writing is the royalty check.

But step back from this fame-fortune matrix and you start to see a problem: everything, from your name to your innermost thoughts to your way of turning a phrase, is a commodity. You no longer create just for the sake of creating; you create to exploit, and everything is exploitable. You reach a point where you catch yourself mid-thought and think instead, Where can I pitch this?

Once, when I was regularly failing to hit my fundraising goals and desperately cutting costs to get by, my monthly letter took an introspective turn. “If something’s worth doing,” I remember writing, “it’s worth doing for free.” I remember leaning back from my computer and wondering if I actually believed it. And of course, it’s easily countered by no less than the apostle Paul reminding us that the worker is worth his wages. But I remember deciding that I did, in fact, actually believe it. And it’s changed how I write, and even how I think.

Writing for free, it turns out, is actually freeing. It turns out that exploitation doesn’t just affect the exploited; it also affects the exploiter. These days I write what interests me, and I don’t write what bores me. If people want to pay me, I welcome their money, but if something doesn’t strike me as worth the time and energy it’ll take me, these days no amount of money will sway me. (At least no amount I’ve been offered to date.)

TWEET THIS: Writing for free, it turns out, is actually freeing.

No less than Jesus the Christ once said that you can’t serve both God and mammon. That’s not a statement about mammon; it’s a statement about us. You can’t serve both God and food either, but that doesn’t mean you give up eating forever. You just choose who you’re going to serve, and you do what makes sense. Sometimes that means a little brass in pocket, but sometimes it means that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing for free.