Thursday, June 28, 2007

Oh the Places You'll Google

Earlier this evening I drove to the theater in my wife's car, since from the sound of it my car needs servicing, to see Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, which was infinitely better than the first Fantastic Four film and vastly better than I expected it to be. The theater was having a special sale on fine European chocolate bars--where else but a movie theater would you expect to find such an indulgence--so I indulged myself. Tomorrow I'll take my car in for service at the place I bought it. So tonight I'm googling Pugi while eating Toggi.

I'm sorry: that amuses me.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Road Trippin

This past weekend I hit the road, Jack, with my parents and my best friend from high school. That's an odd combination--depending on your perspective, it's either peanut butter and jelly or matter and anti-matter (where my Star Trek fans at?!?)

In our case, it was peanut butter-jelly time, all the way. I brought piles and piles of stuff to read, edit or write, and instead I talked and listend and laughed. Dan and I are going to trade posts for a little while, I think, to make sure we cover the whole ground of our trip from Iowa to Texas and back, but suffice to say, for now, that the Midwest is a weird, weird place. To prove my point, consider this: in Osceola, Iowa, there's a sixty-foot tall cartoon sherrif overlooking I-80. His name is Terrible Herb. Check him out here.

Friday, June 22, 2007

If It's Too Complicated, You're Too Old

I have a new cell phone. I bought it to replace my PDA, which I apparently stepped on and which now serves no discernible purpose. My new cell phone is fun; it has games that cost nothing and a Sufjan Stevens ring tone that I paid good money for. But I can't seem to figure out how to access my voice mail, which means that at least in one of its core functions, my new phone serves no discernible purpose.

Sure, I'll blame the phone. But deep down I know it's me. There's something patently obvious that I am patently oblivious to. In my most self-aware moments, I'll even admit it.

I've heard the stories over the years of how people struggle with new technologies, how they show their age by their lack of understanding. A comedian on Last Comic Standing told her audience that her mother still unplugs the microwave every night; "She's afraid that one of her cats will punch in a time sequence, climb into the microwave and pull the door closed behind her, and then another cat in some bizarre feline suicide pact will press the start key." That's the cultural clash of new technologies: for every one person who sees the new tech as a great leap forward, there's another person who sees a potential apocalypse.

I'm inclined to find a middle ground; new technologies are cultural artifacts in the sense that they follow as much as they lead. They don't descend from on high; they're created in a process that involves time, attention and trial and error. A sense of lack is the call; new tech is the response.

At the same time, new tech reflects a cultural reality: the myth of perpetual progress. Not that history doesn't progress, but at least part of the sense of lack is driven by the idea that things must change, that if we're not changing we're atrophying and might as well be dying. I chose my current cell phone from a pool of competing cell-novelties, and my purchase was made in the shadow cast by the imminent release of the iPhone, which will make my PDA phone look decidedly quaint.

But whether new tech is driven by our psychological fear of death or our pragmatic sense that something could be made easier, the net result is that new tech is a new reality, and new realities demand new ways of adapting. Some people can swing it, others can't. So what happens when these folks meet?

Depends on who's meeting, I suppose, and what they're meeting for. When the Minutemen met the Redcoats during the American Revolution, the Redcoats were marching in a straight line while the Minutemen snuck around free form. And now Americans drive on the right side of the road and spell neighbor without a u. U do the math.

But there's a better way, I think, and it's reflected in the nature of Christian community. The apostle Paul tells those who are strong to support those who are weak. Peter tells those who are powerful not to lord it over those who are not but to serve them by example. John commends the young for their strength and the old for their wisdom. And the lot of them suggest that whatever our individual assets or liabilities, we're meant to be there for one another.

I had that experience this morning. I and a coworker were fretting over how to get a task done. The work--reproducing a document in digital form--seemed daunting and distasteful, and we were about to (apologetically but mercilessly) dump it on our intern. She was surprisingly willing, and off-handedly remarked that she didn't have to retype it; she could simply scan it. My coworker and I--I in my thirties, she in her twenties--were dumbstruck; the only word we could come up with was "Brilliant!"

And now, the only word I can come up with is "Duh!"

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Chewing the Fat at In the Fray

Somewhere along the way I got connected to the online magazine In the Fray. They published two articles of mine when my first book came out: one on female action heroes and the other on Batman as social construct. The magazine is admittedly an odd fit for me, and I for them, but they've been very kind. Up now is "Cutting Down to Size," a confessional article about my sense of self-importance. Read it here if you'd like to see me put myself in my place.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Miraculous Palindrome

The saddest thing I've ever witnessed is the funeral of a boy named Sam. The firstborn of his parents, he died the day after he was born. I walked into that sanctuary the day of his funeral with nothing to say, no words of encouragement or consolation to offer his parents. His father was pastor of the church, and a little part of me considered that this funeral might mark the end of his faith, and perhaps the end of that little church.

A few months passed and we went to Sam's parents' house for dinner. They showed us a sonogram photo, which we assumed to be their son, and we were sad until they told us that this was their new baby, due to be born in a matter of months.

Several months later a little girl was born and named Hannah--"my favorite palindrome," I liked to say. She was followed by two sisters and carried the weight of miracle: a symbol to her parents and their friends and family that every once in a while God turns mourning into dancing.

Some five years later, last Friday morning I came to my office to find an e-mail from my wife and a frantic message from a coworker that Hannah and her grandfather had gone missing Wednesday night in a boating accident. By this time the rescue teams had switched to searching by sonar--underwater technology that foreshadowed a death announcement. My mind went back to the funeral of Hannah's brother, and a little part of me thought that this might mark the end of her parents' faith, and perhaps mine as well.

Some four hours later, the body of Hannah's grandfather was found. Shortly after that, Hannah wandered out of the woods bordering the river, stumbling onto the search party that had been looking for her for two days. She was a revelation--an unmitigated marvel for national news outlets and local friends and neighbors to wonder over. I saw some other friends later and we looked in awe at their own five year old, trying in vain to imagine her living in the woods for two days with nothing but a swimsuit and water wings to protect her. Hannah's father, meanwhile, told reporters that Hannah took the experience in stride. "She was eating her banana looking at us. We were jumping around like maniacs."

Two miracles in one lifetime is something, and to be blissfully unaware of your own miraculousness is something even more. Hannah didn't know when she was born that she was in a small way redeeming the ache her parents had felt at the death of her brother. She didn't know that the pain still lingered, either; Sam's name is tattooed on the skin of his mother as a testament to the role he has played in the life of their family. Hannah was blissfully unaware of all of it; she began her life as anyone else would, accepting the reality she was presented with, and seeking to make her way meaningfully through it.

Hannah didn't know that her grandfather had died, either--probably saving her life, as it turns out. She wandered through the woods thinking that grandpa had gone swimming, and that she ought to get herself back to his cottage. Meanwhile her family and friends panicked, unable to imagine the miraculous because miracles are by definition unimaginable.

Hannah's miraculous birth and miraculous deliverance from death are both tethered to tragedies that no one has forgotten: even as we celebrate Hannah's life, we mourn her grandfather and remember her brother. But we remember as well that Hannah's story is unfinished, and as such we're reminded that our story is unfinished as well. And from now on when I look at Hannah I'll be reminded that amidst all the tragedy that marks every story there's a God working quietly, sometimes unimaginably, to redeem our aches and to turn our mourning into dancing.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Truth, Justice and the American Express Card

If you're interested in creative approaches to social justice, check out Nancy Chan's blog for information about two entries in a grant competition. From the sound of it, American Express is running this grant program like a reality television program: the proposal that captures the imagination of the most American Express card users gets $1-5 million to change the world. Nancy and her friend Edith have come up with two very intriguing proposals; either one would be a good investment, I suspect.

I generally like this kind of enterprise; it reminds me that justice isn't inherently at odds with capitalism. The mystique surrounding social justice movements is that they favor socialist or communist economic and political models, but I once heard social activist Rudy Carrasco say that he actually loves capitalism: make as much money as you can, he argued, then give it to me so I can do some good with it. It's not "Das Kapital," it's "Mas Capital."

Check out Nancy's blog and give these entrepreneurs some love and support.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Fan-tastic 4 Me

Apparently people are finding my first book in budget racks all over the world. I've seen a recent upsurge in interest around Comic Book Character in recent days:

* A minister from Pretoria, South Africa, wants to use the online discussion guide with students there.

* He's joined by my youth minister friend on the north side of Chicago, who wants to use the same study guide with his junior high students.

* Lest the book be dismissed as juvenile, which I freely aver is in keeping with my own level of maturity, it was recently given props at the hoity-toity Books & Culture Online by a student of philosophy at Calvin College. (Thanks to Ted Olsen for letting me know, and thanks to Edirin Ibru for his merciful representation of my discussion of the Punisher.

* And to top it off, the editorial intern at my place of work thinks the flip animation in the margin is "super-cool."

What's with the recent upsurge? I'm sure it has a lot to do with the recent release of Spider-Man 3, which had a decidedly morally complex plotline. That study of human sinfulness is followed up this week by the second installment in the Fantastic 4 franchise, which takes a decidedly apocalyptic turn with the rise of the Silver Surfer and the impending destruction of our planet. I wrote a background piece on the Fantastic Four for Christianity Today in time for the release of the first film; it's one of my favorite writing exercises in recent memory (probably because of the prominent props given to G. K. Chesterton at the end), so I'll shamelessly promote myself one more time and provide you with the link. Get up to speed for the release this weekend by going here.

Friday, June 08, 2007

(WWJWMTTHTL) Where Would Jesus Want Me to Take Him to Lunch?

I have a new phone which is also my new day-planner, because hey, I'm no Luddite. But I am a bit slow on the uptake. In my first week with the new phone I very nearly broke my Bluetooth (the yellow ones are just fine, thanks) and apparently did break the Internet. Sorry about that.

I'm all up and running now, but I'm still getting used to one of the phone's features: when you type something (anything, really), it offers to complete the word for you. Microsoft Word has a similar function, but we who work in the publishing industry usually disable such options because we so regularly spell such arcane and high-falutin' words. I've chosen to keep the feature on my PDA phone. but like I say, I'm still getting used to it.

Anyway, today I made an appointment to have lunch with my friend and coworker Jeff. I started keying my appointment into my PDA phone, somewhat disinterstedly I will freely admit, and then realized that my lunch with Jeff had become "lunch with Jesus." Well that can't be right.

I mean, no disrespect, Jeff, but I think it would be a different lunch entirely. I don't know where I would take him; the default restaurant of choice at my office is a barbecue pork joint (Uncle Bub's--no trip to Westmont, Illinois, is complete without a visit), but Jesus was Jewish, so pork seems inappropriate.

And then I remembered an ad campaign from a few years back when Christian environmentalists asked the question "What would Jesus Drive?" They were cashing in (a little late, I'm afraid) on the cultural renaissance of the nineteenth-century pious question "What would Jesus do?" made famous in the novel In His Steps and soon surely to make an appearance on VH1's undoubtedly planned "I Love the 90s." But it's a legitimate question: what would Jesus drive? And if it's not a Hyundai Elantra GT tracking an admittedly unsatisfactory number of miles per gallon, how could I comfortably buckle Jesus into the passenger seat to get us to lunch?

Of course there are restaurants within walking distance of my office, but most of them are national chains, and I get the impression from some of my friends who are concerned with economic justice that taking Jesus to a chain restaurant would be tantamount to cooking him up a pork sandwich on the grill of a Hummer H3. And then of course we'd have to walk right past the homeless guy with the bicycle camped out in the parking lot of the grocery store, and I can just picture Jesus talking about Samaritans and kids feeding five thousand people with a little bread and a few fish.

So I erased Jesus and keyed in the word "Jeff." And we're going to the pork place. Pray for me.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Typo of the Day

I couldn't let this one pass without sharing it:

All of us in theorgy have at least one week of vacation time.

It should be "theory," of course, rather than "the orgy." But I must confess the temptation to leave it in the book for at least one more round of corrections. Read my colleague Dan Reid's intriguing history of bogus dictionary entries here for more misadventures of impish editors.

If you're the author, don't worry: I'll correct the error. If you googled "orgy" and came here by mistake, shame on you.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Sound of Selling Out?

I must confess I get just a wee bit giddy when I hear Christian music on secular radio--particularly if the Christian music I'm hearing on secular radio is not the kind that sucks. I remember a DJ on a Chicago station shouting to his audience something along the lines of "This is Jars of Clay. They're a Christian band and they rock!" I remember hearing Tommy Lee (of Motley Crue and more recently Rock Star: Supernova) saying "Oh yeah, I love Switchfoot." I remember looking up when the aptly named online Radio Paradise started playing the latest track from Sara Groves. I remember thinking in each instance that these folks had earned their place in the mainstream, that they were practicing their faith without sacrificing their art, that they were practicing their art without sacrificing their faith.

My unbridled enthusiasm hit a bumpy patch recently, however, when I heard Sara Groves on TV. Normally that would be great; when Relient K played on the Tonight Show and when POD played on the Late Show I celebrated the open-mindedness of the booking agents and the validation of the performers' craft. But I didn't hear Sara Groves on the late night talk shows; I heard her on a commercial. For furniture.

"All Right Here" is a thoroughly human, relational song--Sara Groves at her best. It's a guitar-driven pop song that affirms the complexity of the human soul and the sacredness of soul-to-soul relationships. In the Chicago market at least, the song has been adapted by a furniture dealer to declare "Find it all right here!" References to "every loss and every love, . . . what I know and what I'm guessing, half truths and full confessions" are redirected to ottomans and armoirs, futons and fitted sheets. To quote the unfurnished Sara Groves, "It makes me wince."

I count Sara Groves among the top ten Christian recording artists ever--which may not sound like much of an accomplishment if you're as skeptical about the quality of music coming out of the gospel music association, but she ranks so highly because her lyrics and music fit comfortably alongside some of the great songwriters of her era. She's consistently clever and constantly evolving as a songwriter. And now she's joined some of her fellow songwriters in another exclusive club: she's sold out.

Groves is not at all the first great songwriter to allow her songs to be sublicensed for commercial purposes. The Beatles (via the interloping rights-owner Michael Jackson) did it famously with "Revolution" for Nike. Sting did it for Jaguar, and fellow chanteuse Shawn Colvin did it many times over. I'm fans of all of them, and I swallowed hard each time I heard of each betrayal.

But I'm still a fan, so I have to give them the benefit of the doubt. Shawn Colvin was explicit in her own discomfort about sublicensing songs, but pointed to the reality of the shrinking music industry. It's a hard industry to maintain a career in, with even Grammy winners like Sting and Colvin regularly overlooked by broadcast outlets as the most recent flavors of mediocrity on the music scene are mass-marketed like some Phil Spector-esque wall of sound and fury.

So Sara Groves sold out. Her music is being used to great effect to hawk end tables and recliners in the Chicago area. As long as it keeps her recording and touring, I guess I'm OK with it. I repent of my pettiness and affirm Sara Groves by quoting another great songwriter, Tom Petty: "You're all right, for now."

Friday, June 01, 2007

Road Trip

Happy Friday, Happy June. Later this month I'm going to be driving crosscountry with my mother, my father, and my best friend from high school, Web. I'm reminded of a Jim Gaffigan comedy routine, where two sets of friends are about to meet at a social gathering. Jim talks about the delicacy of mixing our social networks: "They don't know I drink. . . . Oh, and don't be freaked out if I speak with a British accent."

I'm wracking my brain trying to figure out if there's anything Web knows that my parents don't, and vice versa. But it should be a lot of fun. Any advice?

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...