Saturday, March 31, 2012

Subway Is People!!! Corporate Personhood on TV

I've been on an anti-corporation kick lately, partly because I live in perpetual mortal terror, on behalf of the publishing industry in which I work, of the virtual/multinational behemoth known as; partly because of how clearly the political process of electing people to public office has been overshadowed by monied interests in the wake of the corporation-friendly Citizens United case decided by the Supreme Court in 2010; and partly because I'm reading Unequal Protection by Thom Hartmann, which challenges the notion of corporate personhood using as many words as most publicly traded companies have shareholders. All this to say, lately I'm a little obsessed.

Of course, my obsession is helped by the glut of news stories showcasing the shadow side of corporate personhood--strategic outsourcing that cripples communities, threats of relocation that extort crippling tax incentives from state and local governments, the way an entire country freaks out over every little dip on the Dow Jones, not to mention the millions of dollars funneling into presidential campaigns Republican and Democratic alike from monied interests. It's almost enough to cause someone like me, with no business savvy but a pretty strong streak of paranoia and an even stronger populist impulse, to run as fast as I can off the grid.

Don't worry, Amazon et al., Inc., I'm not going anywhere. I'm too indebted to my tech products, brand-name clothes, movie previews and broadcast television to venture too far. Also, I occasionally get a little pressure release from said broadcast television, which is self-aware enough (in a way only an artificial person such as a corporation can be self-aware; think Skynet in The Terminator) to poke fun at itself in a way that amuses and mollifies me and thus increases its profits. The National Broadcasting Corporation (Nnnn . . . Bbbbbb . . . Cccccc . . . ) has taken the lead in this effort, so far as I can tell: its show 30 Rock has been built largely on its wry mockery of the network and its ownership by first General Electric ("We bring good things to life!") and more recently Comcast (referred to on the show as "Kabletown"). I laugh and I laugh and I laugh, and I stay on my couch while NBC brazenly announces, through its online product, its "evil plot to destroy the world"--seriously, that's the tagline on their ads.

This week the other Must-See-TV show Community got into the act, mocking corporate personhood by introducing "Subway," a new student at Greendale Community College who meets the requirements of the school's bylaws for Subway ("Eat Fresh!") to open a store on campus. I laughed and I laughed and I laughed. Here's the opening scene; I apologize for the thirty-second Lexus commercial you'll have to watch first. You can, by the way, watch the whole episode on you can also watch the world descend into a new landless feudalism that can only end in a scenario not dissimilar to that of The Hunger Games (now in theaters).

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Being Zimmerman, Mourning Trayvon

A friend of mine recently posted on my Facebook wall: "'Arrest Zimmerman!' What did you do to piss Al Sharpton off?" It'd be funny if it weren't sad. Being a Zimmerman these days is difficult, if only because being a Zimmerman is normally so innocuous. The last time the name Zimmerman made headlines, so far as I know, was World War I. Zimmermans aren't often newsworthy, so I rarely hear my name bandied about. These days, though, since George Zimmerman shot and killed a young black man named Trayvon Martin in Florida, the name Zimmerman is everywhere.

I wince a little every time I hear it, even though I'm not related to the shooter and I'm nowhere near the Florida town where the shooting took place. We are known by our names; we are, in fact, in many ways the sum of our names--the genetic and cultural information that has gathered and compounded over generations of our ancestry. By shooting an innocent kid, George Zimmerman has changed the culture surrounding my name, from innocuous associations with Ford dealerships and cinematic art direction to murder and racism.

I know, I know. Nobody's proven racism on Zimmerman's part. That's because it's impossible to prove empirically, even as it's impossible to deny the presence of racism in contemporary culture. Oh, we try to deny it--or at least if we must begrudgingly admit it as a cultural problem, we deny it as a personal problem. Ask around, though, and countless black men will tell you specific (often multiple) instances in which their ethnicity got them into trouble--not their conduct, their words or their reputation, but their race. These men get in trouble at gas stations, at libraries, driving from point A to point B, walking through their parents' neighborhood. Trayvon's name has become a symbol of a chronic and pervasive spiritual problem: hear "Trayvon," think systemic, structural racism. My name has also become a symbol: hear "Zimmerman," think racial violence.

When President Obama reflected on the senseless death of this innocent kid, he noted that "if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon." He's right, and I'm glad he said it: the president is himself a symbol of cultural progress on racial issues, and his notoriety actively subverts the social separation of races that pervades American culture and impedes racial harmony. Trayvon has a name and, thanks to the news and the president, a familiar face; because we can imagine him in our lives we can mourn his death. But I have a name too, and now when I hear it, I'm reminded that we, and I, continue to have a race problem. That being the case, we, and I, have an obligation to actively subvert that race problem wherever we encounter it--even if we encounter it in the dark corners of our unconscious.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Learn to Love the Hard Way: The Shaping of Things to Come

The Shaping Of Things To Come: Innovation And Mission For The 21st Century ChurchThe Shaping Of Things To Come: Innovation And Mission For The 21st Century Church by Michael Frost
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been stalking the missional church for the past three years. My first exposure was somewhat accidental; someone put Mike Frost's Exiles on the free table at work, and I poached it and read it and loved it. It's ridiculously long, but his vision for the church was brilliant and the people he profiled were doing things, and calling it church, that I wanted to do and call church.

Eventually my pursuit of the missional church turned mercenary, as I thought perhaps I could compel some of these folks to write books for my book-publisher employer. I lived not far from the home base of Forge America, a training network for missional church issues, and from Wheaton College, where missional church guru Alan Hirsch was working to develop a master's degree program related to these topics. So I downloaded Hirsch's The Forgotten Ways onto my phone so I could be more conversant with the issues. I loved it; his ecology of the church and mapping of a missional DNA was intriguing and exciting and hopeful. My mercenary heart was strangely warmed, and I became a believer.

Finally I started reading The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church . . . and then I put it down. Finally this week, three months into my Year of Overdue Books, I finished it. And it's really good and inspiring, just as all the other books I've read that touch on these themes are good and inspiring. It took me a while, but I'm glad I've read it.

In The Shaping of Things to Come, Hirsch and Frost work together to paint a picture of the kind of church that can survive the end of the Christendom era and reassert the centrality of Christ and the sovereignty of God. They argue for a Hebrew understanding of God and the world, as opposed to the Hellenistic worldview that dominated the church from the fourth century onward. A Hebrew perspective, according to Frost and Hirsch, is more earthy, more alert to the immanence of God, less preoccupied with theological abstractions and imperial hierarchies. God goes before his people, follows behind his people, oversees and understands his people, in the Hebrew theological mind. It's this mindset that is most conversant with the spirit of the contemporary age, which has grown weary of the scientific method and longs for a ground of being that speaks as effectively to the soul as it does to the left brain.

This Hebrew mindset allows for a more grassroots approach to the establishment and development of faith communities. Frost and Hirsch see missionaries, moreso than priests, as the appropriate template for a post-Christendom era. Priests serve in a church or cathedral, ministering to those who freely gather and transmitting the modes and mores of the past to the faithful of the next generation. This model is not a model for the expansion of the church; it's maintenance at best and managed marginalization at worst. It's fundamental to the idea of Christianity that the church is a base camp for the ongoing outreach and witness to the world around it. "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?" (Romans 10:14). Not to disparage priests, but they no longer carry the credibility they once did; they no longer preside over temples at the center of town and in the center of the people's imagination. The church is now on the periphery, a dangerous anachronism in the minds of many. The church, such as it is, is in trouble.

My boss likes to quote someone or other as saying, "There's nothing like the gallows to sharpen the mind." We think most creatively, we act most assertively, when we're in trouble. Our model can't be those who enjoy the favor of empires but must be those familiar with gallows. We have to look, in our era, to the martyrs for our model of being the church--the people of God.

The martyrs of the church have always been missionaries--loving the land of their sojourn but not bending the knee to it, reserving their praise and fidelity for God alone. Missionaries and martyrs learn to love the hard way, from a place of modesty and marginality. They form churches in the shape of the people they long to see in worship and fellowship. They see arbitrary hierarchy for what it is--occasionally helpful but always dangerous and sometimes inherently counterproductive--and they structure themselves in ways that most effectively serve their chosen mission. They don't settle for a ministry; they keep their eyes peeled for God's next movement.

It's this missionary impulse that drives the missional church that Shaping defines. Frost and Hirsch draw deeply from Martin Buber's writings to learn how Hebrew thinking interacts with the postmodern world; they draw on the work of Marshall McLuhan to understand how the habits and practices and shape of an organization such as the church can subvert the explicit and self-conscious message of the organization. Frost and Hirsch are able and nimble philosophers, and their theological work is rigorous and energizing.

But the particular genius of these two is their firm resistence to the gravitational pull of abstraction that attends to so much philosophy and theology. These two are storytellers as much as they are scholars, and they are fiercely committed to the notion that whatever the church is, it's people made in the image of God bearing the good news of Jesus Christ. As intricate as the book is, it's eminently practical and remarkably hopeful.

The type is too small; I think that's what killed my momentum on this book the first time around. I may also have hit a little "missional fatigue" somewhere along the way, maybe a sense of dissonance between the church of Frost and Hirsch's imaginations (and experiences) and the church in which I participate. I may have been too old when I started the book; I'm feeling a little younger now that I've finished it.

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

This Year's Blagojevich

Today, disgraced and defiant, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich surrenders himself to a federal prison in Colorado to serve his fourteen-year sentence for political corruption. Local news programs are doing nothing but tracking his vehicle from home to airport to airport to prison. What follows is a repost from the month after his initial arrest.


Pardon my long post, but I'm feeling a bit heady. Illinois is a heady place these days, after all: the Bears may make the playoffs, the junior U.S. senator is about to become president, and the governor is about to be impeached and imprisoned. The 2016 Olympics are a possibility here that is strengthened by our favorite son ascending to the presidency but weakened by our chief executive allegedly conducting a political crime spree.

I’m fascinated by the governor’s story. He’s been in view here far longer than President-Elect Obama, to be honest, and his own presidential aspirations have never been far below the surface. Senator John McCain, the “maverick” reformer cum failed presidential candidate, told David Letterman that Governor Blagojevich once told him that he considered himself a reformer like McCain, thanking him for being a political role model. McCain and Letterman shared a laugh over those comments, absurd as they sound alongside transcripts of foul-mouthed shakedowns from the governor’s office.

The conversation about Governor Blagojevich has shifted, at least temporarily, to the question of his mental health. People think he must have been crazy to conduct so brazen a campaign as the one to sell a senate seat and force the firing of critical journalists. The mental health community, however, is stopping short of calling the governor psychotic; instead, they’re calling him a narcissist.

Dr. Daniela Schreirer is a forensic psychologist at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and she does not see any sign of mental illness in the public Blagojevich, but believes he does have sociopathic traits.
"We're just talking about traits. We're not talking about full-blown diagnosis. But certainly, there's the same sense of entitlement, the same sense of thinking I am superior. I can do whatever I want. I am not going to be caught," Schreirer said.
Blagojevich was, at one time, a rising star. He achieved office initially by being charming and self-deprecating; an advertising campaign consisted of everyday Illinoisans struggling to pronounce his last name but admiring his qualifications and energy. He eventually became a U.S. Representative and made a name for himself by helping to negotiate the release of three American soldiers, who were being detained in Yugoslavia under dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

Three years later he was running for governor, but the presidency was on his mind. In an ad that cemented his reputation in my mind as a twerp, he had grade-school students quiz him about American presidents: “Sixteenth president?” “Abraham Lincoln! . . .” Ostensibly about his commitment to education, the ad told me that he viewed the governorship as a stepping stone to his true destiny as president of the United States. And yet he spoke clearly, candidly and winsomely with interviewers, among other things stating with enthusiasm that he and his family “love Jesus.” This at the time was one of the most plainspoken, unambiguous comments on personal faith I'd heard from a candidate who wasn't in the pocket of the religious right. So while I didn’t vote for him (remember, I thought he was a twerp), I had hopes that his tenure as governor would be marked by policies that reflected his love for Jesus—just and compassionate programs, ethical policies and practices.

Blagojevich became governor in what might be considered the easiest campaign ever: the current Republican governor, George Ryan, was on notice that he’d be facing trial after his term ended, and the Republican candidate to replace him shared the same last name: Jim Ryan, no relation. For the second time in his career, Blagojevich’s last name carried him into office. Four years later the Illinois Republican party still couldn’t get its act together; State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka was the only Republican holding statewide office, and when she ran against the governor on the argument that he had failed both to manage the state’s economy and to fight corruption, one video of her dancing with former Governor Ryan put an end to her chances to unseat Blagojevich. He made Elvis jokes about being “All Shook Up” over his victory and settled into his second term.

The governor’s second term has been characterized mainly by gridlock. It seems that he’s systematically alienated everyone in state government, such that the legislature and the Chicago Transit Authority, among other institutions, faced near-implosion while he sat in the bleachers enjoying hockey games. Some tried to call a constitutional convention for the express purpose of making it legal to recall his position; others spoke explicitly and frequently about his grandstanding and bullheadedness.

Barack Obama, it’s presumed, frustrated Blagojevich’s career plans by taking the national spotlight in 2004's Democratic National Convention and launching an ultimately successful presidential campaign in 2007. This was to be Blagojevich’s year, if you believe the scuttlebutt, but public and peer opinion had turned against him, so that by election day 2008 he had, among his liabilities, a federal investigation into his office and a devastatingly negative reputation among his constituents, and as almost his only asset, a recently vacated senate seat.

I feel bad for Rod Blagojevich. That’s a relatively new feeling for me; I’ve typically dismissed him as a mere worshiper of “the characteristically American bitch goddess of Success,” as Mark Stritcherz put it in America magazine. But Blagojevich is merely the most recent and most pronounced example of the pervasive streak of narcissism, with its attendant sense of entitlement and invulnerability, that runs through our culture and, I think, every human heart.

Blagojevich is, in that respect, this year’s Gary Hart, who dared reporters to follow him in their suspicions of his infidelity, and who resigned his own presidential campaign when they did exactly that and caught him in an affair. Blagojevich is this year’s Richard Nixon, who publicly told onlookers “I am not a crook” but who privately and obscenely violated the law on tape. He’s this year’s Ananias, who made a grand public gesture in donating his wealth to the early church but who was revealed to be just another poser with a wicked heart. He's this year’s Cain, who killed his brother and then stared down God with a brazen dismissal of the accusation: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He's this year's me, and all the mes here in Me-Ville.

Stritcherz goes on to lament the Me-Ville we find ourselves in, a world effectively incapable of policing itself or aspiring to self-sacrifice toward the greater good, by describing the world we've fallen short of:

In a morally and spiritually robust society, institutions identify such characters as rascals and discipline them accordingly; they can separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were.
I paraphrase the apostle Paul: Who will rescue us from this city of death? Thanks be to God who, if we dare follow, will deliver us from Me-Ville, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Keep Calm. Carry On. Repeat.

My friend Sean recently directed me to a video that tells the story of a British propaganda poster from the 1940s: "Keep Calm and Carry On." I liked the video so much I downloaded the app, which takes up quite a bit of space on my phone but allows me to revisit the video fairly regularly, as well as to make my own propaganda posters. Watch the video and then read on.

According to Wikipedia the poster, along with its companions "Freedom Is in Peril. Defend It with All Your Might" and "Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory," were intended to enliven the patriotism and civic responsibility of British citizens; an Economist article draws our attention to how it ""taps directly into the country's mythic image of itself: unshowily brave and just a little stiff, brewing tea as the bombs fall," mainly to demonstrate how little of that legendary level-headedness remains in the world today.

I like the video because it takes place in a bookstore--a used bookstore, but a bookstore nonetheless. Apparently the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster, while earning the largest print run of the three (more than three times as many as "Your Courage" were printed), had extremely limited distribution and faded almost immediately from the cultural consciousness until a copy of the poster was found among some boxes of books sixty years later. It's out from under copyright protection now, so the bookstore reprinted it freely for its customers, and word spread, and now it's everywhere. I like that it was a bookstore owner who found it, appreciated it and made it available to her customers. I like that something in a bookstore captured so much imagination in such a short period. Given the whole range of uncertainties associated with book publishing these days, and how bent toward the future an entire industry is, I like how quaint and stubbornly British the spirit of the phrase is, and how something so antiquated can be so reassuring in our own ephemeral age. There's lots to like about this poster and the story behind it.

Still, I wonder, why now and not then? Why did it take six decades for people to embrace this message? At the height of the Blitz on Britain in World War II, as many as 150,000 people a night were taking shelter in the London Underground. That's a captive audience for propaganda, and "Keep Calm and Carry On" is pretty good messaging for citizens who are enduring a relentless air bombing campaign. In fact the result of the Blitz was a kind of collectively stiffened upper lip, a resoluteness that Germany must not win the war, that Britain must endure and overcome. And yet even as England emerged from the war victorious, the rallying cry "Keep Calm and Carry On" didn't survive it. It's almost like they wound up not needing it.

Why didn't they need it? And more to the point, why is it catching on now? By most accounts our upper lips today are nowhere near as stiff as those of our grandparents and great-grandparents, and so such appeals to our inherent ruggedness ought not work. Besides, I for one am not British; I'm American, and we're inspired by much less modest propaganda than what came out of mid-twentieth-century Britain. "Let's roll" is more our speed. We're also, by and large, far too ironic for such an easily mocked rallying cry: "Keep Calm and Carry On" in the face of persistent explosions is as absurd to our postmodern sensibilities as "The beatings will continue until morale improves." Give us plain-spoken propaganda, and we'll fold it into some kind of profane origami and throw it right back in your face.

And yet that's not what's happened. Instead of scorn and mockery, the video and the phrase have engendered, for the most part, wistfulness and even faint traces of hope. I watch this video and sigh with the realization of how wounded so many of us are, how ill-prepared we've been, over the course of the Nuclear Age, for hardship. I read this one poster and realize just how cumulative an effect that arms races and cold wars and atomic clocks and dirty bombs and terror attacks and global warming and economic meltdowns and wars and rumors of wars have had on our hope, how the steady failures of our most longstanding institutions--from governmental betrayals of their citizenry to church scandals and yellow journalism and even celebrity malfeasance--have caused us to assume the worst and to measure our own wisdom by the sophistication of our cynicism. I watch this video and realize how helpful, now and then, a plain-spoken, unself-conscious directive can be. "Keep calm," some faceless, nameless typesetter fits to a poster, "and carry on." And somehow I'm emboldened, empowered and even encouraged to do so.

I recently read J. C. Ryle's A Call to Prayer, another gift from another friend that hearkens back to another time and place. Ryle was the first bishop of Liverpool, an earthy blue-collar town that would give birth, some sixty years after Ryle and fifteen years after the war, to so definitively postmodern and endearingly cynical a troupe as the Beatles. In his day Ryle didn't sell prayer to his readers; he compelled it of them. He writes as much (if not more) of our responsibility to pray as he does of the privilege and benefits of prayer. And whereas people of my generation and nationality express our opinions in personal, tentative language of feeling--"I feel that people don't pray much"--Ryle uses creedal language to assert his convictions: "I believe there are tens of thousands whose prayers are nothing but a mere form." It's brash, it's arresting, it's anachronistic, it's . . . somehow reassuring.

I'm coming to believe that what the world needs now--or at least every now and then--is a little less feeling and a little more believing. There's something oddly fresh about plain-spokenness, directness. It's odd because it's anachronistic, or maybe it's odd because we've forgotten how empowering a stiff upper lip can be.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Value of Light: Writing as Truth-Seeking

I happened upon this post from August 2009. I think it bears repeating, for writers and other communicators who aspire to live in, and work with, the truth.


My day job is as an editor for a publisher of nonfiction books, and as such I try to help people frame and structure their ideas so that their reader won't nod off. Often, that's not an easy task. There are many shapes that a nonfiction book could take that readers will tolerate, but my favorite is something along the lines of this:

1. Articulate the problem.
2. Trace the history of the problem.
3. Identify the core principles that pertain to the problem.
4. Tease out the implications of the core principles.
5. Reorganize the world around those core principles and their implications.

(Of course this presumes some prior identification with the problem and some hope of a solution on the part of the reader. And so the book is packaged around the promise--an introduction and a conclusion (perhaps better thought of as a benediction) assure the reader that the ennui that led them to the book can be confronted and contended with--and sold by its solutions with a catchy, memorable, hope-filled title. Instant classic. Or something like that.)

This structure is, incidentally, how practical theologians tend to think. Practical theologians emphasize the feedback loop between the abstract work that historically has characterized theology and the world-made-by-and-sustained-by-God that inspires such abstractions. They ask questions like "Why are so many people getting tattoos? Why is the Bible seemingly so opposed to tattoos? Are the tattoos of the twenty-first centuries A.D. and B.C. the same? If not, how ought we to think about contemporary body art?"

My utter lack of body art aside, I suppose my enthusiasm for such grounded theological reflection may make me an armchair practical theologian. My patron saint in this vocation is G. K. Chesterton, who wrote the following as an introduction to his Heretics, a collection of essays playfully challenging the prevailing post-Christian minds of his day.

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good–” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

I've referred several new authors to this parable lately, a reminder that they have in a sense embraced the call of this monk, and while they thus may be occasionally and even "somewhat excusably knocked down," clear and cogent books are their gift to a world that too often doesn't know what it wants or even needs. I daresay their books are their ministry, their mission.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

To Die, It's Easy: My GoodReads Review of Maus

The Complete MausThe Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One can hardly call oneself an expert in the genre of graphic novels without having read Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer prizewinning Maus, the story of his father's experience of the Holocaust interwoven with their own complicated contemporary relationship. I did just that, effectively, eight years ago when I wrote my book Comic Book Character (now in its second printing! Ha ha) without doing exhaustive research of the genre. I'm sorry for that, America. I'm repenting of that oversight and others during this, my Year of Overdue Books (books I should have read by this point in my lfe). Maus is doubly appropriate for the project, since I borrowed the two-volume set from a friend seven months ago when I saw it on her bookshelf while we were filming a promotional video for my booklet The Parable of the Unexpected Guest (now in its second printing!). I'm sorry for hoarding your stuff, Rachel. Thanks for your forbearance.

Maus was worth the wait and measured up to everything its broad acclaim made it out to be. How does one tell someone else's Holocaust story in a way that avoids melodrama on one end and reticence or dismissiveness on the other? How do you reawaken disgust and shame and repentance and reverence over a tragedy of the ages that has suffered the neglect and overfamiliarization of a short-memoried and shallow age? How do you convey the complexity of war-torn Poland and Germany and Hungary, or the complexity of the relationship betwen survivors and their children? It turns out that a comic book is uniquely up to the challenge. In bold strokes throughout, Spiegelman represents emotion and hardship both in the past and in the author's present. Portraying Jews as mice and Germans as cats (and French people as frogs), he aids the reader's understanding and communicates the particular tragedy: Nazis hunted, terrorized and devastated the Jews in the same ways that cats play with their prey; Jews were conspicuously Jewish in Europe for no really good reason apart from the broad anti-Semitism that made Naziism possible in the first place. The art in this book isn't pretty, but it's brilliant.

So is the writing. An Eastern European, old-world English dialect carries through the books; you never lose sight of the fact that Spiegelman is being told this story in his father Vladek's second tongue, but the language still is fluid and clear. Spiegelman's own English is unaffected, reinforcing the distance between a father who is usually hard to take and a son who has not yet come to terms with what the Holocaust cost. There's an intimacy between the two, in the sharing of this dreadful but sacred story, that gives full weight to the pain that so often settles in between father and son. The familiarity between the two belies the gravity of the topic; little glimpses of humor punctuate the tragedy and remind the reader that this really happened, that real human beings really did this thing to one another. We identify easily with Spiegelman, and we find ourselves surprised as we come to identify with Vladek. But what's most troubling, what's most powerful, is how we come to recognize ourselves in the villains. The casualness of the evil that pervades the Holocaust is evident in the casualness with which Vladek recalls the atrocities he faced, the lengths he went to in order to survive and protect his family, the steady reports of parents, siblings, cousins and children who died along the way. It's remarkable that Vladek lived through it, that he was able to tap into a seemingly limitless creativity to overcome what seems impossible to overcome. No wonder he was so frustrated by his son's seemingly cavalier approach to life, his apparent lack of ingenuity. No wonder his son was so irritated by his propensity to save meaningless things and destroy personal treasures. You can hardly imagine them understanding each other, but you feel you understand them both.

Maus is subtitled "A Survivor's Tale," which is apt. Vladek is a hero moreso than a victim, even though he and millions of others were victimized in the Holocaust. When you encounter a hero, you do well to listen for wisdom; Vladek's wisdom is summed up succinctly in volume one but embodied throughout: "To die, it's easy . . . But you have to struggle for life!"

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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Liturgy of the Unexpected Guest: An Idea for Lenten Observance

My aunt serves a parish in Canada, where they're currently in the thick of Lenten observance. She very kindly ordered a number of copies of my booklet, The Parable of the Unexpected Guest, for friends of hers, because she's a good aunt and likes to take care of her nephew. Then she came up with a creative way of using the story in the booklet to help people in her parish make their way through Lent. If you're trying to figure out what to do as a faith community in recognition of Lent, maybe her story will help you out.

We had our Lenten reflection evening last night using "The Parable of the Unexpected Guest" and we already have other people asking if we will do it again as they couldn't make it last night! We split it into 3 sections and my friend and I read it aloud (thanks for the way you split it up as that worked perfectly) and let people reflect silently after each section and then share a bit. At the end we gave each their own copy to take home and people really found it a wonderful experience!
I hadn't thought of reading the parable out loud and letting people process it on their own. I crafted some questions so people could discuss the paarable in groups, but this kind of nondirective experience of it is very appealing to me and reminiscent of how a friend of mine leads people through his survey of the Scriptures, The Story of God, the Story of Us: Read the story out loud, then let people draw pictures and write about what the story meant to them. The storyteller gets as much out of that interaction as the people listening. That's what my aunt managed as she curated this experience for people.

As I was reading it aloud, I often wanted to stop and just marvel at the way it was written and the ways it stirs me!! Thanks for the inspiration and the call to humility and the reminder to take more time to reflect on so many things in my life that I need to look at!
If you've read The Parable of the Unexpected Guest and shared it in interesting and creative ways, I'd love to hear about it.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Year of Overdue Books: Nickel and Dimed

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in AmericaNickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know you're late to the party on the book when the author complains about $2 gas (p. 135), mocks the "new sensation" television show Survivor (p. 160), and imagines a day when one's "Palm Pilot displays the menu and prices for every restaurant or store he or she passes" (p. 206). Yes, this entry is a particularly good candidate for my Year of Overdue Books--books I should have read by now, that I'm finally reading. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America at the end of the Clinton Years, before the war on terror became "the focus of [President Bush's] administration." She wanted to see how effectively what constitutes a living wage (read minimum wage) allowed workers to live, especially in the wake of sweeping Clinton-era welfare reform that rushed people off the roles and and into the workforce. This is immersive, investigative journalism, the kind of fearless, fully committed writing that should (though sadly rarely does) change the world. Nickel and Dimed made massive waves when it came out, but twelve years on, to quote the 80s Australian protest band Midnight Oil, "the rich get richa; the poor get the pitcha" at an increasingly alarming rate. In an age where bosses get dipped in bronze and given messianic power on broadcast television shows such as The Apprentice and Undercover Boss, the book merits an urgent rereading and extrapolating to account for the wider gap between rich and poor, the higher numbers of working, desperate poor, the dramatically growing creativity in governmental austerity measures on their backs, and the steadily increasing unlikelihood that they'll be able to hoist themselves into the middle class.

The task Eirenheich, a middle-aged and one-percenter journalist, gave herself was to spend a month each in three representative communities (in Florida, Maine and Minnesota), attempting to cover all her basic needs (housing, transportation, food, clothing, medical care) through unskilled labor (waitressing, retail, housekeeping, etc.). Lesson number one: There's no such thing as unskilled labor. There are infinite ways of failing at the work on offer at these levels, and more to the point, there are complex procedures and social systems to master in the relentless effort to keep the boss and the customer satisfied. Maids are not allowed to swear, smoke or accept a cup of cold water from their clients; a broken ankle is maybe a reason to slow down but not a reason to call it a day. Talk of unionizing or dissatisfaction with management is "gossip" and "time theft" and won't be tolerated; your personal property can be searched without warning as a safeguard against company theft; if there's time to lean (say, because you're five weeks pregnant) there's time to clean. Management need not be so imperial, according to Ehrenreich; workers still have their pride, and their pride is almost wholly invested in their work. She makes the compelling case, one we've begrudgingly accepted about overseas labor practices but still doubt at home, that "when someone works for less pay than she can live on--when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently--then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. . . . To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else" (p. 221). Who's messianic now, Donald Trump?

The book works on two fronts: the job front, where we meet Ehrenreich's coworkers and ourselves in our more exploitative roles as Wal-Mart customers, family restaurant diners and homeowners who hire out the cleaning of our homes; and the home front, where we see Ehrenreich testing the limits of a living wage. If you use a cleaning service, I don't think you'll want to read about Ehrenreich's time in Maine; she suggests (again, compellingly) that the task at hand is not the cleanliness of the home--removing bacteria, mildew and allergens--but the appearance of cleanliness. Floors are meticulously swept and vacuumed, surfaces are carefully and methodically dusted, toilets are scrubbed; but management is stingy with resources, so the net effect is a house that is keeping up appearances, just as its owner is: Ehrenreich emphasizes the promise to homeowners that maids will clean floors on their knees, a posture of ultimate submissiveness and human degradation. Things aren't much better in retail or restauranting or the nursery home where she weekends; we pay for things to make us feel good about ourselves, more so than for things that are good for us; and apparently what makes us feel good about ourselves is for our fellow human beings to suffer.

The other side of the book--the home front--is more intimate, mainly because working two jobs in each city doesn't allow the author much time to socialize. The housing available to her given her means is modest and sad and sometimes scary; it's also shockingly hard to find. Working poverty is an irreducibly complex problem: everything costs money, and everything must orbit around the job, where a job can be found. So you take what you can get in a living situation so that you can make it to your job on time, without pouring too much money into a gas tank, so that you can keep your job, so that you can afford the place you found within an acceptable distance from your job. People in such situations don't sign long-term leases; they rent by the month or the week or sometimes the day, depending on what's available and how secure the job is and, maybe most important, how effectively they can circumnavigate the barriers to residency their landlords or their bosses throw at them. For the working poor, every market is a seller's market.

Nickel and Dimed was the kind of muckraking book that all journalists should aspire to. Muckrakers endure the hardship of their investigation as well as the persecution by the powers that be who don't like their business being discussed. They tell a story that people have conspired, often unwittingly but always on a massive scale, to ignore. I wish I had the courage or the stamina of Barbara Ehrenreich; the thing we need more than anything is to see the world we've made, as consumers and producers, as industrialists and capitalists. It's too easy not to see it, to settle for the simulacra we construct around ourselves and present to the world and our mirrors. Every once in a while someone needs to shout "The Emperor got his clothes so cheap because the discount superstore has suppressed the basic human rights of its workers!" And the rest of us need in that moment to listen, reflect, and figure out a way to set things right.

Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. Ehrenreich's experiment in immersive journalism has been coopted by the entertainment industry to become reality television. Justice tourism allows the well-to-do to taste the hardship that many people suffer and learn how beautiful and dignified poor people are, learn to appreciate all that we have, learn that we have to start with the man in the mirror and make that change. We allow ourselves to feel just enough guilt to make ourselves feel penitent. "But guilt doesn't go anywhere near far enough," Ehrenreich tells us; "the appropriate emotion is shame--shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others. . . . Someday--and I will make no predictions as to exactly when--they are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they're worth. There'll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end" (p. 221).

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