Saturday, August 25, 2012

Supervision by Status Update

I hate to read too much into something, but I think I may have discovered an unintended consequence of the Age of Social Media: people who report to you now want to report to you every little thing.

I hasten to add: no one reports to me. The only people whose vocational success I am entrusted with are interns, who work for free, and I am currently internless. So my research pool could not be smaller. But I do observe stuff, both firsthand and secondhand, and it seems to me from what I've observed that people raised on social media tend to give people who, um, weren't so raised updates on the progress of a project in extraordinary detail.

"Just wanted to let you know I wrote that email."

"Just wanted to let you know I finished that filing."

"Just wanted to let you know I got back from my break."

It's really quite conscientious, I guess, but it's also sort of like micromanagement in reverse--"micro-managedment" or "micromanage me!" maybe. I don't know what protocol or even etiquette demands in such a situation: "Roger that"? "Well done"? "Okey-dokey"? I actually think no response is expected; I think there's simply now a new expectation that no task is completed until its completion has been shared.

It strikes me that this is how an early adopter of social media might organize her day: chronicling and reporting every action is the regimen Twitter is notorious for. Older and less networking-savvy folks find this to be obnoxious and a sign of immature self-involvement. I've never subscribed to that opinion and was as early an adopter of these media as I could be, which may be a signal of my own immaturity and self-involvement but I prefer to think is evidence that I got the inherent logic of it: a world that has barreled relentlessly into a culture of atomized individualism--human rocks and islands who have no need of anyone (no, old people, that's not at all obnoxious or self-involved)--has unmet needs for a shared life. We post our thoughts and feelings and actions not because we are so satisfied with ourselves (well, sometimes that's why we post them) but because we can't be sure of what's going on in and through us until they've been at least put in the way of other human beings to affirm or dispute. "I think, therefore I am" has, as a first cause for the Modern Age, shown its limitations: our thinking cannot be independently verified, and so it is in fact the least reliable indicator that we exist.

In place of Rene Descartes' dictum has stepped the tribal African notion of ubuntu, characterized by John Mbiti as " "I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am." I reviewed a book about ubuntu here a few years ago, and I've also encountered it in other reading, particularly that of Desmond Tutu and other writing about the South African experience. Its impact on the world, it seems to me, reaches far beyond people's familiarity with the term. We are, I'm happy to speculate, more influenced by non-European cultures than we realize; in some ways ubuntu has transcended its long-officially segregated conceptual location to completely overhaul how we understand ourselves and, more prosaically, how we report to our supervisors.

I'm all for it, although it strikes me as a bit inefficient to have to hear and acknowledge every little thing that every coworker is doing at any given moment. It makes me sort of want to start a new social media platform just to outsource the whole process: call it DoneList, maybe, or Get Out of My Space.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Read with Ears to Hear: My Review of Richard Rohr's Falling Upward

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of LifeFalling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have never not been preoccupied by aging and death. My friends have observed that about me and exploit it for comedic effect; my younger friends like to tell me what grade they or their parents were in when I passed through some key rite of passage; my older friends like to remind me that I haven't been a kid for a long time and that there is a fiber-rich diet in my future. They laugh when they see me stress out over such comments, but I'll get the last laugh, I think: the younger ones will eventually themselves be old; the older ones will eventually be dead.

The passage of time is certainly fascinating to me, but it's made more profound and troubling by its association with questions of vocation. "What do I want to be when I grow up?" is a question that plagued me for a long time but that has long since been replaced with "What am I doing with my life?" or, worse, "What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" In the face of such weighty questions, a simple vision for aging and calling is undeniably attractive. I found such a simple vision in Richard Rohr's Falling Upward.

I saw Rohr speak on this topic at the 2011 inaugural Wild Goose Festival and was immediately won over to his take on it. The basic premise is this: we spend the first half of our life building the container into which we will pour the product of the second half of our life. Our first half is preoccupied with externals--status, yes, but also personal rules and priorities, a vision for how life should be. In the second half we turn our eyes from such externals and start to note both what they've done and failed to do for us, what they've allowed us to do in life and what our preoccupation with them has cost us and those we love. The first half is the search for identity; the second half is the search for serenity.

That is probably oversimplifying things, but Rohr's premise is alarmingly simple. There are two distinct calls placed on us in life; the first is provisional, preparing us for the second. The transition from one call to the next is often precipitated by crisis, but more generally by a sense that the first call is completed, or incomplete: it cannot fulfill a life in and of itself.

The notion of "falling" enters in at this transitional moment. We experience the death of a loved one, or the collapse of a profession that we had come to define ourselves by, or the end of a relationship that we thought was forever. Or we start to notice that the things we have invested so heavily in for so long are simply not returning their investment; they don't prop us up so much as trap us inside themselves. We feel ourselves in free fall, all the while hearing a whisper to some higher aspiration. We are being beckoned beyond ourselves; we are, it turns out, falling up.

This transition calls for wisdom and humility and resolve. "The human ego prefers anything," Rohr writes, "just about anything, to falling or changing or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo, even when it is not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future." Rohr suggests that most people actually never enter into the second half of life; rather than fall upward they grasp tightly to some artificial anchor to the present--they make an idol of their kids or their spouse or their job or their car--and drown out the divine whisper with TV and music and corporate worship and even their own inner diatribes against the status quo. People who reject the second call don't become the elders that ground a culture and give it a future; they just become old--wrinkly, crotchety, useless. They have neglected or even rejected the search for their true self, the self beyond the reputation that they've often carefully cultivated. They never ceased being the persona they created to occupy the space they found themselves in, and so never die to themselves only to be resurrected into what their community needs, their God demands and they themselves have always wanted to be. "Your stage mask is not bad, evil, or necessarily egocentric; it is just not 'true,'" Rohr writes. "It is manufactured and sustained unconsciously by your mind; but it can and will die, as all fictions must die."

That's the thing: we should outlive our fictional selves. The world needs us to, because in order to run well it can't itself be bothered by these deeper truths. We need ourselves to, because we will search in vain for the ultimate meaning of our lives without the perspective of the second call. The people we love need us to, because the grace God invests in us is dispensed best and perhaps only out of this second half of life. "The classic spiritual journey always begins elitist and ends egalitarian." In other words, only our elders (in the truest sense of that word) can give us what we need for our own spiritual journeys, and they can only do it by forsaking their own impulses toward elitism. The truest elders among us, like Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama, are sometimes the most childlike.

The book wasn't perfect. For as much as Rohr avers that not everyone achieves their second calling (in fact most don't), it often comes across as an inevitability, which will reinforce in some old (but not elder) readers their automatic moral and spiritual superiority over people who are younger than they are. The old, crotchety people I know don't need any such reinforcement, and so I'd be reluctant to put this book in front of them. Rohr also implies that Christian doctrine is the enemy of the second call, that the codes of conduct and the attitude of exclusivity that attends to most organized religion (not just his own religion, although he minces no words about the state of contemporary Christianity) is helpful for the immature but to the person on the second journey seems silly. He may well be right, but his argument feels a little thin (and self-serving), and will be a bridge too far for many readers.

Bottom line: this book, like any book that aspires to call someone from one developmental stage to the next, should be read mainly by those with ears to hear. And those folks should read it more than once. So, probably, should those who read it without ears to hear; the second or third time might be the charm.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Quick Thought on Hopelessness

Being, as I am, a bit of an Eeyore personality, I find that the undaunted cheeriness of some of my friends can be occasionally grating. I'm reminded of R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People," a fizzy jangle from a band generally more comfortable in the shadows. When the book of the world is finally written, R.E.M. will be remembered ironically for "Shiny, Happy People" and remembered gratefully for its more somber, empathetic "Everybody Hurts." Mark my words.

Anyway, today I read a line from someone who suggested that if you are hopeless, it's generally your own fault. You have turned your eyes from the Giver of every good gift; you have turned instead to ephemeral idols and found that they cannot bear the weight of idolatrous need. You are hopeless, and you need to stop it.

I found that line of thought annoying. Mainly because I'm not sure that such a thing as hopelessness actually exists.

Oh, I've felt hopeless, believe me. Any Eeyore worth his stuffing has. But feeling hopeless and being hopeless are two different things. Hope is, in fact, a thing--not a thing possessed by us but a thing visited on us. "Hope is the thing with feathers," Emily Dickinson wrote,

That perches in the soul. . . .
Yet never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Hope is self-sufficient; it has no need of us for it to endure. Moreover, hope is a gift, a promise of God: "Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him" (Psalm 62:5). Hope is present where God is present, and God is everywhere present.

We treat hope as a responsibility when it's a gift. And so we see people who feel hopeless, we see circumstances that appear hopeless, and we pass judgment and declare them as such. And then we wash our hands and get on with our day. In doing so we fail--we sin against--those who have lost sight of hope.

Why does God provide us with hope? "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13). We are to pour out the hope that we carry by God's grace; we are not meant to hold on to it but to lavish it. Love, the apostle Paul tells us, "always hopes" (1 Corinthians 13:7). And love is our responsibility to our neighbor, the second great commandment that is like the first.

Hopeless, in our current climate, is a term we assign to people or circumstances that we're no longer willing to deal with. We've forsaken the challenge to love our neighbor as ourselves and so to hope on their behalf, to share our hope liberally with them. To call another person or circumstance hopeless is in fact to call ourselves hopeless--or, more to the point, to call ourselves pitiless, merciless, useless.

Sorry. I guess I'm a little cranky today.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why So Serious? Batman Versus the Avengers

I've now seen Batman: The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man three times each, which means The Avengers officially still holds my heart. If I had to rank the three films, I'd say The Avengers is my favorite, The Amazing Spider-Man (while still enjoyable) is my least favorite, and Batman is somewhere in the middle.

I'm not entirely surprised by this, since I've been a geek for The Avengers for roughly thirty years. But maybe I should be surprised. Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is entirely unique in the catalog of superhero films; it's the only set of films that's had a fighting chance at winning Oscars for acting or directing. (Heath Ledger, for example, won best supporting actor for his portrayal of the Joker.) Superhero films are in a class all by themselves, judged by their own peculiar merits, but among superhero films the Batman trilogy is in a class all by itself. And yet this year I prefer The Avengers, which, for as much as I like it, is pretty standard comic book fare.

I find myself wondering, What if? What if Batman had been released first? It's possible that, as much as Batman Begins was hailed as a "game changer" at the time of its release in 2005, resetting the bar for what a superhero film should be, The Avengers was this year's game changer, and The Dark Knight Rises suffered in our estimation as a result.

I've written elsewhere about what might be called the "sine wave of silliness" in Batman storytelling. To wit: Stories about Batman are either serious or silly, and they trend toward the one or the other for long periods of time until the pendulum swings back. The 1960s Batman TV show was unabashedly campy, and it defined the character for the better part of a decade. Then the serious side of Batman came back with a vengeance, until Saturday morning cartoons demanded a kinder, gentler and smileyer Bruce Wayne--until Frank Miller envisioned a dystopian future when a retired Dark Knight Returns. And then, George Clooney put on the tights for Joel Schumacher's homage to 1960s camp in 1997's Batman & Robin, killing a film franchise that under Tim Burton's watch had effectively reconciled Batman's silly and serious sides.

And then, in 2005, Batman Begins made us take superheroes seriously. The film was dark and sober, penetrating and poignant. Everything since then, from Superman Returns to Ghost Rider, has been judged by it. Only Batman: The Dark Knight eclipsed it, with Heath Ledger creating a portrait of the Joker that is still haunting.

Just because nothing compares to Batman films, however, doesn't mean that we won't drop good money on other superheroes. Iron Man benefited from our good faith, presenting us with a lesser-known character portrayed by an actor whose career had stalled. Robert Downey Jr. delivered a comically care-free and cool performance, a billionaire playboy whose superpowers are not natural but manufactured,--a less heroic but more relatable alternative to Batman's uber-serious, mopey Bruce Wayne.

The success of Iron Man set into motion the release of The Avengers, which retained Downey's cavalier and larger-than-life attitude, and extrapolated it out into a team/community setting. The Avengers was the culmination of five films showcasing four characters (six, if you include the cameo by Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye in Thor and Samuel L. Jackson's appearance in Iron Man and Captain America). Over the course of those films (all of which, with the exception of the first Iron Man, were released in between the final two films in the Batman trilogy), our expectations have been changed: we've come to ask of our superhero films--with Heath Ledger's disturbing Joker, ironically enough--"Why so serious?"

If Batman: The Dark Knight Rises had come out in April, we would have thought of The Avengers quite differently come May. But in some respects the die had already been cast: whereas Batman is a trilogy, The Avengers has been, in a manner of speaking, a quintilogy. Five against three in the battle between serious and silly: the odds favor silly.

Fair warning, Batman fans: your next Bruce Wayne, I predict, will look much less like Christian Bale and much more like Adam West.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

NOTHING LEFT OUT! My Review of R. Crumb's Book of Genesis Illustrated

The Book of Genesis IllustratedThe Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My Year of Overdue Books continues with The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, a legend in underground/indie comics from the late 1960s and 1970s, who has long been fascinated by Jewish history and heritage, and who thus took on this 2009 book as something of a passion project. I was a bit dubious, frankly. I don't remember the circumstance, but someone in the media contacted me about it before its release--likely because of my 2004 book Comic Book Character, which made me an expert in the eyes of some (though surely not in the eyes of God or R. Crumb). I looked through some of the frames that had been pre-released to the public, including the opening frame, in which an impossibly white old man with a timelessly flowing beard held the gestating universe in his hands. I thought--and tried to communicate to the media as respectfully and professionally as possible--Give me a break.

Then I got the book for Christmas from my mother-in-law, who is very generous and attentive to the kinds of things that I might like. I received it with a thank-you, then took it to my office, where I work as an editor for a religious publisher. I thought my coworkers would get a kick out of it; they did--the entire academic editorial staff (a systematic theologian, a philosopher, a historical theologian and a biblical scholar) flipped through it for what seemed like hours while I tried to get work done. Then a visiting author saw it on my shelf and borrowed it, returning it about a month later with nothing but praise for it. Two years later I decided, Maybe I should finally read this thing.

First off, it's not for everyone. My comic book book offers a brief orientation guide for new readers of the genre; you can get an excerpt here. But if you've not read a lot of comic books, the progression from frame to frame, from text box to text box, might seem a bit intimidating at first. With the advent of reading online, of course, such reading is less alien now, but even so you might be further thrown by Crumb's graphic style and text treatment--thick, heavy lines that feel positively antique, which would seem appropriate given the text if the text weren't peppered so generously with exclamation points, the punctuation of late modernity. As much as this is the sacred text of Scripture (NOTHING LEFT OUT!), it is also unabashedly a work of R. Crumb.

So I entered this book dubious, but I came out of it a true believer. Crumb is as reverent as someone who takes his content to be mythology could be, and his reverence carries over even into the earthiest parts of the book of Genesis--which is, as it happens, quite earthy. There's lots of sex, graphically depicted; a fair bit of murder, graphically depicted; and a variety of other images you may never have allowed yourself to imagine, graphically depicted. (The world outside of Noah's ark is a stark case in point.) Crumb drives home a point that pastors sometimes make with a wink: the Bible is a grown-up book. The jacket for The Book of Genesis Illustrated says it straightforwardly: "ADULT SUPERVISION RECOMMENDED FOR MINORS.

So yeah, it's graphic. It's also reverent and insightful. Genesis has a lot of sex and violence, but it also has a lot of genealogies--begetting and begetting and begetting. Crumb's approach to that is remarkably human; sections of Scripture I often skip over in this case I read with pleasure, as Crumb presented distinct human beings with their loved ones in their element. The various altars of remembrance built throughout Genesis are made more real, more meaningful, by seeing not only what they may have looked like but how they may have been built (Jacob's pillar in Genesis 31 is an image that has stuck with me.) The tensions between people who are blood related but sworn enemies (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers) are palpable, and consequently whatever resolution takes place between them is greatly satisfying.

Crumb has done his research; his text notes are worth reading, although I give Genesis more authority than he does. For me Genesis is a sacred text, the first account of God interacting with human beings, establishing his posture toward the world he created, which involves love and frustration and self-sacrifice and redemptive action. For Crumb it is the earliest artifact of the Jewish people, an identity marker that explains much and little at the same time. For Crumb, Genesis is what it is; I suppose it is for me as well. Whatever that is, The Book of Genesis Illustrated was a delight to read and worth the wait.

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Saturday, August 04, 2012

A little Barbra Streisand to lighten our moods and light our paths:
Hegemonies light the corners of my mind . . .

Misty water-colored memories of the way we were . . .

Scattered pictures of the power we're now denied

Power we used on one another for the way we were.

Can it be that it all was so simple then,

Or has time rewritten every line . . .

If we had the chance to do it all again

Tell me: would we? Could we?

Hegemony may be useful. And yet

What's embarrassing to remember we may choose to forget.

It's self-righteousness we remember

Whenever we remember

The way we were.


Or, if you prefer, from the Who:

Meet the new boss . . . same as the old boss.

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'...