Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Green Room Serenade

E. Peevie friended me on Facebook today and in the process let me know that she had reviewed Deliver Us from Me-Ville on her blog, The Green Room. You'll have to let me know if this is true about me: "Occasionally, Zimmerman enjoys his own sense of humor a tiny bit too much." I have a sneaking suspicion that E. Peevie is my wife.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Ask Not for Whom to Credit Tolls

Illinois has a new governor. The former governor has been impeached, removed from office, and barred from seeking public office in Illinois ever again. Now all we have to do is take his name off of everything.

I was listening to former Governor Rod R. Blagojevich reflect on his removal from office as I jetted through the I-Pass lane on I-355, the north-south tollway in the Western Suburbs of Chicago. Emblazoned across the radar station was a blue sign trumpeting the relatively new, boothless, no-delay convenience lanes; Blagojevich's name was prominently featured, complete with his recently stripped title.

Blagojevich didn't build this tollway, although on his watch it was extended further south. He did oversee the conversion from booth to open-road tolling, which has eased commuter traffic significantly. Technically, I suppose, he wasn't taking credit for the easy ride, but he did, I guess, think it important to remind the state as it made its way from points a to points b that it does have a governor and that governor is--or was, I guess--him.

It's perfectly natural for a person to want to leave his or her mark, a legacy that will extend his or her memory and influence. I suspect though that Blagojevich more likely was taking advantage of the interstate traffic that uses the Illinois toll system. I suspect he was seeding the clouds for his eventual presidential campaign, getting his name in the heads of future voters from Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and all other points north, east, south and west.

But for now, until new Governor Pat Quinn can muster up the money out of the state's drained coffers to pay painters to update those signs, I guess we'll continue to think of Rod Blagojevich every time the toll authority magically takes money out of our bank accounts without our even noticing it. In other words, we'll think of our former governor every time our pocket is picked.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

War on Anxiety

I'm no economist, as anyone who's ever depended on me for money will tell you. Nor am I a psychologist or a political scientist. But I am an American, which means at least a couple of things: (1) I'm generally suspicious of authority and (2) I like to feel good.

In the spirit of these two character traits, I find myself disappointed with the opening days of 2009. I'm generally suspicious of the decisions of our government, and I don't feel particularly good.

The one has something to do with the other. I have been sold the economic stimulus package with a marketing strategy of fear and despair. It's horrible now, it's only going to get worse, but unless we throw nearly a trillion dollars at our economy RIGHT NOW we're all going to die. That doesn't sound like a plan, to be perfectly frank, much less like a cure for consumer confidence.

The cash and business crises plaguing the economy right now aren't immaterial, they're merely material--the types of artifacts that a disparate crowd of atomized individuals can point to and say, "This doesn't look good." It's where we turn psychologically, as a culture, from there that defines the moment. If we turn inward, if we ball up in a corner, we go nowhere. That, I think, is where we are, and we as a culture need to be roused from that pity-coma forthwith.

I've always been a fan of Franklin Roosevelt. I thought he was cool when I was about eight, and I've never changed my opinion of him. But I'd also never read his first inaugural address, which was delivered in a similar time and climate as our own. I read it today and was struck not by its attack on the material crisis of the day but rather by its confrontation of the psychological crisis of his constituents. Roosevelt wastes no time in his first formal words as president of the United States:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.

Imagine my surprise when Roosevelt's seminal line, the one he'll be remembered for forever, came not at the very end of the speech but in the third paragraph, in the sixth sentence of his presidency:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Roosevelt doesn't skirt the truth about the national situation; indeed, "only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment." But then--again, all of a sudden--check this out: "Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered, because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for."

Roosevelt was not afraid to call the worst practices of his culture onto the carpet of national rebuke, but he also wasn't afraid to remind people that life does not consist in an abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15):

True, they have tried. But . . . they only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy, the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves, to our fellow men.

Roosevelt's is a confederate confession, a call to enlistment:

If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize, as we have never realized before, our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take, but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress can be made, no leadership becomes effective.

This is what I want. This is what we need: not to be reminded daily how unconfident we are, not to be driven by fear into policies and politics packaged in the rhetoric of fear. We've had plenty of that in the past twenty years. Now we need to be shaken from our malaise. We need to be reminded that where we find ourselves today is not where we want to find ourselves tomorrow. I want to be called onto my own carpet and confronted in my paralysis not with despair but with possibility, with responsibility.

If I may paraphrase a great speech: The only thing we need to be anxious about is anxiety itself.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Is Heaven Any Sweeter?

David Bowie makes fun of himself and his universe in this twenty-minute film by Julien Temple. Hilarious--trust me. I own it on VHS, which means it's super-old school.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

I Got No Memory of Anything At All

My friend Web 2.0 has tagged me with a meme. Here are the rules:

1. Post the rules of the game.
2. Tell us five vivid memories that you have (from anytime in your life) that never seem to fade. The memory can be a defining moment (birth of a child, day you got married) to some funny incident that you witnessed. I suppose you should be willing to share the memory too. Be truthful.
3. At the end of the post, tag one to five other people to take part in the meme (be sure to list their names and link to their blog)

People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their five things. And so on. And so on. And so on.

It's worth noting that one of Web 2.0's vivid memories is of me making a fool of myself. One wishes that one could erase other people's memories, a sort of "Eternal Sunshine" raygun. Alternately, one might wish that other people would filter their memories to protect their friends from worldwide humiliation. But I digress.

I'm actually cursed with a horrible memory. Brother and sister, mother and father, friend and coworker alike regularly ask me to participate in memory-sharing, and I regularly let them down. For whatever reason, memories rarely take root in my consciousness--certainly not in vivid detail.

Nevertheless, I see what Web 2.0 is getting at. The more vivid the memory, the more we might expect it to have shaped and formed us. Everyone who was alive remembers where they were when President Kennedy was shot or when President Nixon resigned or when President Clinton said "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." If you were conscious, you remember what you were doing when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff or when the Columbia exploded on descent or when terrorists flew two commercial jets into the World Trade Center. In the wake of that moment everything shifts a bit, including us.

I've been reading Martin Buber's I & Thou and found myself needing to write the following down.

“I can neither experience nor describe the form which meets me. . . . The relation in which I stand to it is real, for it affects me, as I affect it.”

With time we dissect and categorize and assign meaning to these moments, but in the moment of their occurrence, in the moment we're encountered by something or someone they are not utilities but realities, and they affect us in real, permanent ways.

With that, and with a bias toward returning to Web 2.0 the favor of universal humiliation, I present five vivid memories.

1. I remember sitting on my porch waiting for my ride to my first roller skating party, a ride which never showed up. I suspect I had written down the wrong day.

2. I remember standing alone in the parking lot of my church after youth group, waiting for my ride to pick me up. I remember not being able to get "Karma Chameleon" out of my head, no matter how hard I tried.

3. I remember taking turns with Web 2.0 slamming our heads into our locker, when a classmate shook her head derisively and told us "You are such nerds." (Please note the plural.)

4. I remember my first date with my now-wife, in which she waited for me to clean up after a performance before we went to see the movie Five Heartbeats. I remember holding her hand during the movie.

5. I remember my friend Dennis coming up to me during a break in a high school jazz competition to tell me that the Challenger had exploded over a watching crowd in Florida. I remember not believing him and telling him it wasn't funny.

Is it any wonder I'm so insecure? OK: I tag Pete Juvinall, who is decidedly less melancholy than I am.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An American Name

Of all the history being made today, of all the ceilings being broken, of all the much-anticipated change coming to Washington, of all the words carefully crafted and soberly uttered, one word keeps cutting to the front of the line for me: Hussein.

Today America makes history in all sorts of ways, not the least of which is how the name Hussein will be heard from here on out. For some, Hussein has to date been the name of a late foreign dictator who didn't flinch at the use of chemical weapons even against his own citizens. For some Hussein was the face of the Axis of Evil. For some Hussein was a link in the chain of global terror. As of today, Hussein for these people necessarily means something different.

There are other insinuations of the name Hussein, other stigmas that have to date attached themselves to the word--not least of which is the reminder of American hubris. George Bush won my vote in 2000 with a simple phrase that hinted at his purported approach to foreign policy: "Ours must be a humble nation." An attack on our shores complicated that promise, of course, and the ensuing Bush Doctrine, which sanctioned pre-emptive attacks on the presumption of an imminent threat, changed our reputation throughout the world from benevolent dictator (which we were) to violent empire (which in the eyes of many we now are).

I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of a decision to go to war, nor do I understand the great complexity of international relations. But I do know that, until today, Hussein as a name has been not a uniter but a divider. Stories abound of discrimination and even outright violence against Americans of Middle-Eastern descent in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. One woman famously threw John McCain off his game during a campaign stop last year, when she muttered incoherently into his microphone about how Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim and can't be trusted. Extremist talk-show hosts spat the name into their microphones as a latent attack on their political opponent's right to hold office. Not to mention the occasional slips of the tongue in which our new President's last name was inadvertently replaced with the first name of the world's most famous terrorist, Osama bin Laden.

In 2008 and for years previous the name Hussein was a controversy in America. But today that changes. Today our new president takes the oath of office using his full name: Barack Hussein Obama. Hussein today becomes an American name. America the creedal nation, bound not merely by geography or ethnicity but by the presumption that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the inalienable, God-given rights of every human being, today broadens its vision of itself. Black children today will grow up believing that they might one day become president; Middle-Eastern children today will grow up believing that this land is their land.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Wide Awake in America

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. . . .

Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and . . . when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously constructed dams that block the flow of social progress. . . .

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God. . . .

The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? . . .

In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as being the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists. . . . So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are. . . . Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned to outright disgust. . . .

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. . . . Let us all hope that . . . in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Music Is for the Merciless

American Idol is back. True to form, it launched with all the major players in place--Simon, Paula, Randy, Ryan--and reinvented itself by adding a fourth judge: Kara DioGuardi, a songwriter with an impressive client list (if you consider Ashlee Simpson impressive) and a backstory that includes being Paula Abduhl's roommate. Beyond that, the song remained the same, with the occasional bright light singer interspersed with pitifully deluded nonsingers, and hilarity abounding.

The judges clearly had their favorites. They made no effort to hide it; they'd tell a contestant outright not merely "You have talent" or "You have potential" or "You have a bright singing career ahead of you" but the more fundamental "I like you." For the contestants they liked, they went beyond performance critique or generic encouragement to what you might call life coaching, American Idol style.

In such unguarded moments the show offers a unique window into the music industry, illuminating the rationale for classic country superstars such as Dolly Parton, Broadway hitmakers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, punk rock girls such as Gwen Stefani and pop idols such as Mariah Carey showing such unmitigated, unabashed respect for one another. To the outsider, the music these artists create can seem irreconcilable, even in some cases critiques against each other. What hath Webber to do with Carey, for example? More starkly, how can rocker David Cook and teen crooner David Archuletta be expected to both grow in their craft by sitting down with Dolly Parton? But within the industry these artists recognize not just the individual musicianship of their peers or mentors, but also the guild to which they've each joined themselves.

There's a particular worldview to this guild, if you take the unguarded comments of the judges seriously. There's the first test that contestants are subjected to: "Are you the next American Idol?" "Maybe," "Yesss?" and "I think so . . . ?" are all wrong answers; "You know it!" or some similar expression of audacity is correct. Decent but timid voices are weeded out, as are stage presences that appear contrived, as though the contestant knows she needs to take command but doesn't know how to do it. People who parrot their favorite artists are confronted; people who have been told by friends that they have a good voice are told by judges that they have a bad voice.

Those who exhibit some mix of teachability and moxie are ushered into the second circle of special knowledge: "You're going to need to be a lot more confident." "You have to envision yourself winning this." "I need to see you convince me that I should love you." Candidating for idolatry is not for the timid; contestants have to not merely want to be worship but somewhere deep down believe they deserve to be worshiped. This is not to say that they're not lovely people; you can be magnanimous and gregarious and benevolent, and still be a heretic. You can be a saint, as Martin Luther points out, and still be a sinner.

Step one: Be cocky. Step two: Get cockier. How then, an American Idol contestant might ask, shall I live? Week one of the 2009 season was especially unguarded. Simon encourages a contestant to "get mean." Paula encourages a contestant to "be selfish." Again and again the favored contestants are given the secret of success in the music biz: Look out for number one. Elevate yourself without wasting emotional energy on the well-being of the people around you. Charisma comes later, but for now remember that you're in a contest that whittles down mercilessly to one.

These are values in the music industry not because people in the music industry are uniquely hateful. I suspect that most people in the music industry are very nice, actually. No, these are carefully cultivated defense mechanisms, concluded by the guild of musicians to be essential to survival. To take the stage is to desire acclaim but to invite critique. Everyone, from the oldest to the youngest, from the skilled to the unskilled, forms an opinion about the products presented to them, and in the music industry those products are contained in a person--with a mind, a heart and a soul. How much strength a musician has is revealed by how they react to the scrutiny they're faced with.

That's why American Idol begins with mockery, and ends with mockery revisited. Mocking bad music is the privilege of the guild, and with the benefit of hindsight the audience (and even the performers) will laugh and acknowledge that the musicians were right. We may be calling in our votes, but the guild is calling the shots. Mercy is for the weak; the music industry is for the merciless.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

When Is a Vanity Plate Not a Vanity Plate?

I was following a car on the tollway in inclement weather when I noticed the license plate: "Mega PMS." Needless to say, I put three or four car lengths between us.

Unfortunately, that put me too far back to get a good photograph of the license plate. I wanted to prove that I saw it, because such a totalizing, charged message as a permanent fixture on a minivan seemed, to me at least, implausible.

How do people decide how they will define themselves for others? You see a similar concern occasionally bubble to the surface on reality television series: the "vamp" or the "jerk" on a living-together show like Survivor or The Real World will complain on screen or after production has closed that the camera edits portrayed only one side of them to the audience, neglecting to fully represent their wholesome, caring personality. Kara DioGuardi, the newest judge on American Idol, laid it out in Entertainment Weekly: "I know who I am, but what are people going to perceive me as? . . . They may think my intensity and my boldness are bitchy. I hope not. I don't think I'm bitchy. Do you think I'm bitchy?"

Al Hsu wrote here about different approaches to updating Facebook statuses--the virtual equivalent, perhaps, of the vanity plate. They're less static, of course: changing a Facebook status is infinitely less bureaucratic than changing a license plate, and in theory at least, the vast majority of people who see a person's Facebook status knows them enough to offer a bit of context to each passing comment, whereas you never know who's reading your license plate.

I wonder if the ambiguity I see associated with Twitter, by both users and nonusers, has something to do with the many unanswered questions surrounding self-expression: Where is the dividing line between sharing yourself and vanity? When is a detail too picayune to waste other people's time with it? When is a statement too foundational to be later supplanted? And how are you defining yourself in the process?

But I have a slightly less introspective question I'd rather submit: What would be the world's wrongest vanity plate? I think the one I saw the other day--"Mega PMS"--might come close, but I'm open to other contenders. Try to keep it clean, please: consider mine one of the outer boundaries of the contest. They don't let you put vulgarities on your license plate anyway.

Oh, and if it's your vanity plate I'm poking fun at, I'm really, really, really sorry.

Monday, January 12, 2009

My Dad Is a Genius

My dad pointed out to me this evening that, since Governor Blagojevich's senatorial appointment has been received into the Senate, and since he testified under oath that he did not pay or promise anything for the position, the governor can now say that he did not, in fact, sell Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat. Early reporting suggested that conspiracy in this instance is still criminal, regardless of whether the conspiracy plays out or not. But by giving away the Senate seat, Governor Blagojevich may have bought himself a get out of jail free card.

Senator-designate Roland Burris, on the other hand, simply acquired himself a U.S. Senatorial pension.

I'll let it go soon. I promise.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

That Moldy Opportunist

On Wednesday of this week, Neil Steinberg from the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a really clever, really helpful assessment of the State of the Impeachment. Here's a representative piece:

Were I teaching the novel Our Political Moment, I would try to draw my students into seeing how the author -- in this case, fate, or God if you prefer -- so handily supplied [Roland] Burris, that moldy opportunist, rising out of his political grave to dog [Barack] Obama's inauguration.

"Why is he there?" I'd purr, eyebrows raised, spurring the class with a quizzical look.

Perhaps as foreshadowing -- should Obama eventually be caught straying from the straight and narrow. Perhaps to give our story a Gothic twist -- [Rod] Blagojevich is not yet dead, but his ghost child, Burris, haunts the ramparts; his remarks lifted from the speeches of Shakespearean clowns, grandly struggling to turn his benefactor's cheap stunt into democracy's bright lamp.

That's why I don't write fiction -- you can't make this stuff up.

I see the two major players in Illinois's political scandal in really only two dimensions; I describe them each in only one word. For Governor Blagojevich that word has been, since prior to his first gubernatorial election, twerp. I've already explained that here, so I won't go into it. But Roland Burris is a late entry into my political consciousness. For all his much-ballyhooed life of service--elected thrice to statewide office, blah blah blah--I'm discovering him as we go. Whereas Illinois and federal officeholders are tripping over themselves to show Burris due respect for his political tenure, however, I have nearly no power (including, as of yesterday, significantly less purchasing power--but I'm not bitter) and consequently significantly less accountability. So I choose for Burris the word opportunist.

Not "moldy opportunist." You'll have to talk to Steinberg about that one.

Burris isn't the first person in the annals of power that I've reduced to the word opportunist. He's only the most recent. But in his company, he would be sorry to learn, is a fictional icon of opportunism, Lex Luthor. I wrote about Luthor in my first book, Comic Book Character (which, probably, can technically no longer be called a book--but I'm not bitter):

Motivated, apparently, entirely by self-interest, [Luthor] has built himself a material empire by outwitting and usurping anyone who gets in his way. He has a knack for turning adversity into opportunity, even turning the sale of his soul to to the devil to his own advantage. . . . Luthor, convinced that his successes in life prove his worldview correct, is stymied by Superman's great power and apparent altruism. Since they inhabit the same city, their paths often cross. Superman's agenda is straightforward--truth and justice--but Luthor's vendetta against him is nuanced by his obsession with power. Given the right set of circumstances, Luthor will go the extra mile to help Superman out.

Luthor's opportunism is fueled by narcissism; in issue 123 of Superman he co-opts messianic language to describe his own exploitation of Superman's plight: “As always, the question is this: do I gain more from Superman’s suffering—or his salvation?” Power consolidated through the methodical manipulation of people and events. Ripped right out of the headlines, no?

Take away his less savory plots of world domination--causing California to sink into the ocean, killing his parents, selling his soul to the devil, what have you--and Lex Luthor begins to look a little bit like Roland Burris. He sees an opportunity and takes it. He takes someone else's lemons and sells lemonade to his neighbors. He creates a political circus and denounces his opponents' political theatrics. He gets a senate seat (and a senate pension) for free while watching his benefactor go down the tubes for trying to sell it. Yes, if I were forced to choose one word to describe senior statesman Roland Burris--and let's face it, no one's got a gun to my head--that word would be opportunist. It would most decidedly not be Senator.


Oh, out of fairness to the reader, I should note that my thoughts on Lex Luthor once inspired the only time someone offered to pay me to stop writing. But I'm not bitter.

Oh, and in other comic-book news, check out the story on Spider-Man declaring Barack Obama "Nerd-in-Chief." Junot Diaz is right: we do find ourselves square in the Nerd Age.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Help! I'm Inaesthetic and I Can't Get Out!

I need your help; or I should say, my employer needs your help. We've got two book cover options for one book, and we need to whittle down to one. Go to my other blog (Strangely Dim) for details and a link to the survey. Five people will be chosen at random to get a free copy of the book once it's published--whether your choice for the cover was picked or not. Get started here.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Everybody Needs a Catchphrase

Ally McBeal's therapist once told her everybody needs a theme song. When Ally tentatively started singing the theme song to her own show, the therapist stopped her: "That's a terrible theme song," she said.

I like the idea of a theme song, but being a wordsmith, I think it's more important that everybody have a catchphrase. Heroes have it: the Thing shouts "It's clobberin' time!" whenever he enters into battle, and the Tick strikes terror into the hearts of his enemies every time he yells "Spoon!" There was a time when any adorable child actor worth his network timeslot had a catch phrase, from Jason Bateman's sly "You're gonna laugh!" to Jan Brady's whiney "Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!" I taught each of my nieces catch phrases until their parents subtly suggested I stop; the most recent were "I'm important, yo!" (the story behind that one is in Deliver Us from Me-Ville) to the politically savvy (if I do say so myself) "What's the drama, Barack Obama?"

I'm drawn to catch phrases because they communicate reliability. We know that regardless of how different his strokes get, Arnold Drummond will still give voice to his suspicions by cocking his head to the side and inquiring, "Whatchoo talkin' bout?" We know that no matter what kind of vodka goes into the glass, James Bond's martini will be "shaken, not stirred." We let out little cheers whenever we hear our hero's catchphrase because they offer a baseline of familiarity, stability, to a scenario we otherwise haven't figured out.

I've noticed lately that some writers have a literary equivalent to a catchphrase. They don't serve quite the same purpose, but their persistent occurrence in a writer's material offers some of the same clues to their personality. We know, for example, that Sting is particularly impressed with one line of lyric from the song "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic":

Do I have to tell the story
Of a thousand rainy days since we first met?
It's a big enough umbrella
But it's always me that ends up getting wet.

We know Sting likes this lyric because he sings twice in that song, and because he imports it into other songs he writes, including "O My God" from the Police's Synchronicity album and "Seven Days" off his solo project Ten Summoner's Tales. It's an unorthodox line--Irish in its sensibility and bite, ironically romantic--that characterizes Sting's approach to songwriting. No wonder he likes to remind himself of it.

But some phrases occur less intentionally, I think. They serve as indicators of a writer's unconscious agenda, a thematic phrase for what they consider important. I've read several books by Lynne Baab, for example, including her most recent Reaching Out in a Networked World about church communications. I even edited a couple of her prior books--Sabbath Keeping and Fasting, both on particular spiritual practices. In all three she slips in the phrase "for our time" at key moments. I lost count as I read through Reaching Out. I doubt she'd notice if it were edited out of any one of her books, but the fact that, in various permutations, "for our time" occupies so much space in her writing is evidence of how much space it occupies in her thinking.

Lynne is a pragmatist, a practical theologian with an emphasis on practical. Her latest book is immensely so, helping usher intimidated church secretaries, pastors and elders into the digital era in a way that communicates their church well. She does this because of her conviction that every church is where it is, every Christian where she or he is, "for our time"--intended to carry a message from ancestors to descendants and to give witness to that message "in our time" to onlookers and critics. Lynne thrives as a writer because of her unspoken conviction that there's no point writing for some past or future time, only for the cultural, spiritual moment we find ourselves in.

Lynne is not alone in employing an unconscious catchphrase. I deduced the band behind a song I heard on the radio this week as much because of a representative lyric--"in this life"--as because of the singer's singing and rhythm section's rhythm. The song was "Gone"; the band was Switchfoot; the lyric appears in at least two other songs of theirs and I suspect several more, a reference to the brevity of the life each of us is experiencing and the consequent significance of each little occurrence and the simultaneous importance of not putting off the life to come. "In this life" for Switchfoot communicates both pastoral concern and cultural critique.

I'm pretty sure I have my own unconscious catchphrases and even unconscious catchphrase constructs in my writing, but I don't know what they are; if I did, they wouldn't be unconscious now, would they? Such turns of phrases can become our own little cliches if we're not careful, or they can become a rut that our thinking settles into. But more often than not, I think they serve as an organizing theme for our communication, the through line that tethers even our most divergent creations to each other. I'd be interested to hear of any catchphrases you've identified in authors you enjoy reading, and if you'd like to point out some of my own, I promise I won't blow you off with a flippant "Asta la vista, baby."

Thursday, January 01, 2009

So This Is the New Year . . .

The year ended in confusion.
Don't ask me; I don't know what happened.
But I am a man with a mission. . . .
The sun always sets with room for regrets. . . .
Give to receive--find all that we need.
"I Walk Away" by Crowded House

So . . . happy new year!
Let's hope it's a good one, without any fear.
"Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" by John Lennon

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'...