Friday, March 28, 2014

Ten Commandments Scavenger Hunt! Part Four, Commandment Seven

Congratulations to Andy Jack, who won the most recent Ten Commandments Scavenger Hunt by posting the following example of theft to his Twitter account:

@david_a_zimmerm March Madness costs employers $3.8 billion in lost productivity. Join my pool:
Good point there. After all, Andy Jack is the walrus. (I could be the walrus; I'd still have to bum rides off of people.) Follow Andy on Twitter at @ajax678 for insights like these and a steady stream of homages to John Hughes.

**Keep reading for a chance to win a free book!**
So that's three commandments down, seven to go. Up next:

Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Such an antiquated phrase for such a current crisis. Here's an excerpt from the book:


Will spoke up. "We say that so often, don't we. 'As long as no one's getting hurt, it's OK.' It seems to me we may not know that someone's getting hurt right at that moment. In my experience we don't realize just how much damage we can do to each other - and ourselves - until much later."

Sarah chimed in. "And the ripples of the affair spread out far beyond the spouses. If the affair rocks the husband or wife's world, then those same waves can hit their kids just as hard. Then they spread out to families, to friends, to neighbors. ..."

"So why do we do it?" asked Sam. "Not just today, but back in the Bible? Why do people commit adultery?"

John said, ... " I dropped into the Rescue Mission for lunch last Thursday. I sat down at a table and got drawn into a conversation with three folk who live in the same apartment complex. ... One of them ... has noticed that his neighbor's wife has had a couple of male visitors 'that I don't think are friends with her husband, if you know what I mean.' ... To which his friend respondd, 'Well, you know what the Bible says about women like her. She tempts weak men by saying,

I have perfumed my bed
with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.
Come, let's drink deeply of love till morning;
let's enjoy ourselves with love!
My husband is not at home;
he has gone on a long journey.'"

"You're making that up!" said Sarah. ...

"So, once again, it's the woman who's to blame, huh?" said Yasmina. "Like those poor, weak-willed men just couldn't resist her 'spices.' That's why men commit adultery?"

"Well, at least according to my dining companion."

"Who was quoting the Bible, though, right?"

"Yes. Although it was a pretty select choice of all that the Bible has to say on the subject." John turned to the group. "But what do we think? What's behind adultery - why do we do it?

For once, there was prolonged silence in response to a question, until Carlos said, "Umm, because people aren't getting it at home?"

Sarah reached across the table and swatted him upside the head. Carlos blurted out, "What? What did I say?"


So there you have it: a taste of adultery. Get the whole enchilada and nine more besides by picking up the book Ten: Words of Life for an Addicted, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided and Worn-Out Culture. (It's 40% off for a limited time!)

Or you can win it here: just find me a current cultural example of adultery and tag it with the hashtag #10Cscavengerhunt. The best example (as judged by me) gets a free copy of the book!

Meanwhile, if you'd like to hear more about the book, or you simply want to hear Sean's comforting British accent, watch a video about Ten here:


Miss a scavenger hunt? See the whole series to date here.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Most Criminally Overlooked Tweet

I can't seem to let it go. Two weeks ago I tweeted the following:

John Piper, in case you're not familiar with him, is a pastor out of Minnesota. He's highly influential among the "neo-reformed" movement in conservative evangelicalism. It was Piper who famously tweeted "Farewell, Rob Bell," upon the release of Bell's book Love Wins, which landed Bell on the cover of Time Magazine. A tweet by Piper about a 500-page book by an unknown scholar on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) launched it into bestseller territory. Piper is kind of a big deal. I imagined my Klout score going through the roof.

Nobody retweeted my tweet. Nobody favorited it. Nobody nothinged. I tried to start a meme:

Nobody joined in. Nobody expressed outrage on Piper's behalf. Nobody hashtagged. #Frownyface.

The original tweet was inspired by an infographic posted to Tim Challies's blog in mid-March that explained the history of the movement known as the "New Calvinism," of which Piper is a revered leader.

Midway through the infographic (circa 2006) was the performance by rapper Voice at Bethlehem Baptist Church, where Piper was the pastor. The notion of John Piper causing an explosion of rap's popularity in the mid-2000s was funny to me. I can picture Eminem, receiving his Grammy, rehearsing the litany of legends who shaped rap history, dropping Piper's name like it was hot. I can picture Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake giving a shout out to the Passion Conference during one of their regular odes to rap music. I can picture John Piper with grills on his teeth and pants on the ground. I can picture all these things. But for whatever reason I couldn't get a meme going about it.

I can't seem to let it go. Pray for me, John Piper!

Friday, March 21, 2014

No More Flat Affect Stanleys!

Did you know that 2014 is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Flat Stanley? Neither did I. In fact I'd never heard of Flat Stanley until I got a package in the mail from some friends of mine. Their daughter was doing a project for school that involved sending paper dolls - "Flat Stanleys" - to people like me all around the country. We were asked to send her photos of our Flat Stanley in action in our everyday context. I had fun with it; I used my Flat Stanley as a bookmark and put him in the box crusher in our warehouse and placed him in various other absurd environments. And that was that.

Flat Stanley was originally a book. Fifty years later it still is. But the world is a much different place. In 1964 all the other kids would get their pumped up kicks by running around and playing; by virtue of being flat poor Stanley was left out and had to figure out how to function as a two-dimensional being in a world of three-dimensional activity, engagement and meaningful contact. Not so anymore; these days two dimensions are a luxury, and three dimensions are reserved for video games and movies about robots. Flat Stanley travels the world, meets interesting people, gets his hands and feet dirty, connects otherwise disconnected people to each other; most of our lives, quite frankly, are flatter than he is.

So I think it's particularly good news that Mike Frost has published his new book Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement. Mike is a missiologist, a student of culture and a theologian with a passion to see the church act in real and redemptive ways in the world. He's concerned about the extent to which a faith system that is rooted in the Incarnation - the God of the universe taking on flesh and dwelling on earth - has capitulated to an increasingly virtual, isolated and apathetic approach to life. The church, he fears, is following instead of leading, and it's well on its way toward what he calls an "excarnate" existence.

The cover of Mike's book puts the concern in stark relief. Behind a bold, imposing title we see a crowd of lifeless faces, like the assembled tributes in the various districts of Panem before anyone thought of fighting back against the capitol. They're zoned-out zombies, too lethargic to kill and eat. They are, if you will, a bunch of Flat Affect Stanleys, waiting for life to come to them, failing to live in the meantime.

When you look at it that way, you start to think, Maybe there's a different way to live ...

So I propose, on this fiftieth anniversary of the surprisingly lively Flat Stanley, that we launch our own Flat Affect Stanley campaign. Here's what I envision:

1. I send Incarnate to a friend.
2. My friend takes a photo of Incarnate in a setting that hints at the life beyond the life we've too often settled for. Maybe it's in a garden, maybe it's among a group of friends, maybe it's on the back of a giraffe. Whatever it is, it's real and it's real life, and it's by no means flat.
3. My friend posts that photo to Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook, or their blog, or Pinterest, or whatever, or all of the above, with the hashtag #NoMoreFlatAffectStanleys.
4. My friend sends Incarnate to another friend. OR
4a. My friend buys another copy of Incarnate and ships it to another friend. (You know you're going to buy it online rather than go to a real live bookstore.)
5. And so on, and so on, and so on ...

I think it could be fun. If nothing else, it'll get you out of the house.

Who's up for it? First person to contact me using the hashtag #NoMoreFlatAffectStanleys will be the first person I send the book to. I'll take and post a photo myself first. In the meantime, here's a video of Mike talking to Lance Ford about Incarnate.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Incredibles II: Violet Rising

I heard the news today - oh, boy. A sequel is in the works for The Incredibles, my very favorite Pixar film ever. The Incredibles are a family of "powers," people with exceptional abilities. The parents had been great heroes for a time, until the tide of popular opinion turned against them and they had to go underground. Their children were encouraged to keep their powers secret, until a crisis emerges that draws them out and makes heroes out of all of them.

One of those heroes is Violet, the family's oldest child. Her powers are invisibility, and an accompanying ability to generate invisible force fields. She is, essentially, the Invisible Woman, from the Fantastic Four, except that she's a girl - not yet a woman.

In my book Comic Book Character I dedicate a chapter to chauvinism in storytelling associated with super heroes, especially in the early days of the genre. Why did women's powers tend to be so passive, so latent? When all the men around her are smashing, burning and stretching past anything that gets in their way, granting a female character the ability to disappear at will is hardly a great leap forward for feminism.

But Violet is, for me at least, a different story. She is, after all, a girl - not yet a woman. And she was dreamed up not in the 1960s, the nascent age of proto-feminism, but in the new millennium during feminism's third wave.

Moreover, she's a Disney princess, after a fashion, and Disney has nearly a century of hit-and-miss experience telling coming-of-age stories of young women. The writers of The Incredibles gave her those powers on purpose, to tell a particular story.

I think there's more to that story. When I've imagined a sequel to The Incredibles (oh yeah, I've imagined it), the story has centered around Violet. What follows is a brief sketch of the story I would tell, if I were at the helm.


The Incredibles II: Violet Rising
We watched her grow up. We watched her come in to herself. We watched her become a hero.

Now it's time to watch her disappear.

Violet Parr is all grown up. She's graduated from high school and is heading off to college. She and her family are going through all the emotions you might expect: excitement, anxiety, hope, sadness. But they don't have a lot of time to process those emotions, since the new age of heroes they inaugurated has also ushered in a new wave of villains. As usual, Violet has to make her own way out of town and on to campus.

This is exactly the sort of thing Violet won't miss. Dash, the charismatic speedster/ prankster, gets the lion's share of the family's attention, and now-toddler Jack Jack demands whatever energy might be left. Violet is tired of fading into the background; she's looking forward to finding her unique place.

She finds that place when classes start. One of her professors draws her out of her shell, and when she tells him her secret, he encourages her to be fully her true self. One of her classmates, meanwhile, sees Violet slip up and is in awe of her gifts but perturbed by her seeming repression; she encourages Violet to "lighten up and live a little." But things aren't exactly what they seem. Who has Violet's best interests at heart?

Back at home, the Incredibles are down one team member. They're learning in real time, and in devastating ways, how uniquely gifted and extraordinarily capable their daughter is. They miss her, and on a fairly regular basis they worry that they literally can't live without her.

Meanwhile, what is Violet becoming? Who is Violet without the Incredibles behind her? And without them, is she still incredible? How will she find her way out of the increasingly dangerous situation she finds herself in?

A story of heroes coming of age, of families adjusting to new realities, of a young woman finding herself and sharing what she finds with the world. This is Incredibles II: Violet Rising.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Ten Commandments Scavenger Hunt! Part Three, Commandment Eight

Well, I got off my game for a few weeks there. Sorry about that. My mom won the hunt for commandment nine on lying, by the way, which I'm mildly embarrassed to admit but a game's a game. Mom, your book is in the mail. Trust me.

**Keep reading for a chance to win a free book!**
In case it's not obvious, we're in the midst of a series on the Ten Commandments, inspired by the book Ten: Words of Life for an Addicted, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided and Worn-Out Culture by Sean Gladding. Sean is a friend, someone I admire greatly, and his books are always a delight. This one is a survey of the Ten Commandments (or, as he prefers, Ten Words) as explored by an informal gathering of an eclectic group of people at a coffee shop "somewhere in Middle America," as Counting Crows puts it.

Get Ten by Sean Gladding at 40% off! Click here.
Sean goes in reverse order through the Ten Words, so while this is only our third scavenger hunt, we're looking for the Eighth Word:

"No stealing."
Really, it's that straightforward. Here's an excerpt from the book:

"My house was burglarized once." Everyone turned toward Sam. ... "They wound up only taking some computer equipment and some loose cash lying around. The police thought they might have been looking for drugs or guns."

Ellie leaned across and touched Sam's forearm. "How did you feel?"

He patted her hand. "Pretty violated, to be honest. ... I started paying a lot more attention to people in the neighborhood after that. If I didn't recognize them and thought they looked a bit shifty, I'd sometimes follow them in my car. Making sure they weren't up to anything bad." He shook his head sadly. "But I eventually stopped that. That's no way to live - full of fear and distrust."

"That could have been me," said Carlos. "I've been in enough meetings to know that. ... I was already stealing. Taking people's pain pills from their medicine cabinet when I was using the restroom. Lifting bottles of liquor from their wet bars. You don't realize just how much you've done until you do a fourth step and write it all out. And then when I did my fifth step and read it to Rick, I learned all the other ways I'd stolen as well."

"What do you mean?" asked Ellie. ...

"How much time have you spent drunk or high? How much time have you spent hung-over and barely functioning? How much time have you spent thinking about partying? Or planning your next bender? Or sitting in jail? Because that's time you stole from your family. Time you stole from your friends. Time you stole from your employers. Time you stole from your community, by failing to participate." ...

The silence was broken by Steve, who spoke in a gruff voice. "Well, Carlos, hearing you talk makes me wonder if I'm not much different from you." Carlos looked up at him. "Oh, I don't mean that I've stolen bourbon from my friends. Or that I'm an addict. But I've stolen a whole ton of time from my family. ... I bet you if I made a list like yours and added up all the hours I was at work before and after everyone else was in the office, and the hours I was thinking about business while I was at home, and the nights I was entertaining clients - all time I stole from my family - I'd be shocked." His shoulders slumped. "Or maybe not. I guess I've always known in the back of my mind the truth of what I was doing." ...
That's the book. Now here's the scavenger hunt part: Fetch me an example of theft in our contemporary culture. It can be something personal, something commercial, something institutional, something metaphorical. You can confess it, or you can lament it. Or both, I suppose. Whatever it is, it should be specific.

Tweet it, Facebook it, email it to me or post it here in the comments; wherever you put it, use the hash tag "#10Cscavengerhunt" so the rest of us can find it.

The best example of theft (as judged by me) wins a free copy of Ten.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to hear more about the book, or you simply want to hear Sean's comforting British accent, watch a video about Ten here:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"If I Know You're On My Side": Bill Murray's Rough Start

I've been reading Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. It's really interesting; it suggests that when rock and roll gave up the revolution of the 1960s, comedy took over. Saturday Night Live served as base camp for comedy's insurgency; it was, in a sense, the most important thing going on in entertainment.

It was also, apparently, a hot mess. Drugs, violence, misogyny, betrayal, in-fighting. Maybe they became too famous too quickly. Maybe network television just brings out the worst in people. Maybe it was the 70s. I don't know; I'm only about halfway through the book. In any case, the front line of the revolution was a tough place to be.

Bill Murray is a surprising case in point. He joined the cast in the wake of Chevy Chase's departure when Chase was the darling of the medium--being groomed, it turns out, to be Johnny Carson's replacement on The Tonight Show. Chase left on a sour note--hurt feelings all around--and the SNL audience was not happy to see him go.

Meanwhile, Murray came in at a deficit. He had been passed over as a cast member when the show debuted, and even now NBC executives were vocally dubious about the value he added--with Chase's departure, they felt the show needed a pretty boy, not another bedraggled slob like John Belushi or a biker boy like Dan Akroyd. Imagine having your value assessed not by your talent but by your "pockmarked face."

The fans made their skepticism known too. Resenting Chase's departure, they felt no compunction about "telling Billy how much they hated him for it. ... 'You suck' was a common motif."

As if that weren't enough, Murray had to deal with the corrosive politics behind the scenes: fellow actors who marginalized Murray to protect their place in the pecking order; an office mate he had nothing in common with, including a philosophy of comedy; and some miscues on stage that eroded the writers' confidence in his abilities and kept him out of major roles in signature sketches. We know Bill Murray today as the guy who owns every room, but at the start of his tenure on SNL he was the loneliest guy in the world.

I've not seen too many of the earliest episodes of SNL, so I've never seen "The New Guy," the bit that producer Lorne Michaels wrote for Murray that season. Murray sat at a typewriter and delivered the following monologue.

Hello. I’m Bill Murray. You can call me Billy, but around here everybody just calls me “the new guy.” I want to thank the producer, Lorne Michaels, for urging me to speak with you directly. You see, I’m a little bit concerned. I don’t think I’m making it on the show.

I’m a funny guy, but I haven’t been so funny on the show. My friends say, “How come they’re giving you all those parts that aren’t funny?” Well, it’s not the material, it’s me. It’s not that I’m not funny, it’s that I’m not being funny at the right time. Honest. Before, I could be funny whenever I wanted. But now, as a professional, I have to learn to pick my spots, you know. This morning I picked up my laundry, and the guy said to me, “Bill, you know, every time you come in here, you say something funny. But I saw you on the show Saturday night, and you stunk."

Well, that hurts. It totally destroyed my confidence. ... Now what I’m asking for is your support. I’ve gotten some nice letters from old friends, and people I owe money to, but from you people, I hear nothing. I’m not asking for letters, but—I know this sounds funny: Support. ...

What I’m talking about is between you and me. If you could see it in your heart to laugh whenever I say something, I don’t care what it is, or if you can’t laugh, think about my family, and the father that I never really got to know. If I know you’re on my side, I’ll make you laugh so hard, you’ll have to hold your sides to keep from pulling a muscle or tearing a cartilage. It’s up to you. Yeah, you.
Imagine that on a comedy show. Imagine having to perform it. Imagine it being about you.

The goal was to win viewers' sympathies. It didn't work, apparently. He continued to suffer all kinds of indignities--until the last show of the season, in which he performed a sketch he wrote about a man hosting a talk show in his shower, featuring as guests his wife and the man she was having an affair with. The audience loved it, and it became not only the basis for a slew of other SNL characters but a prototype for the persona of most of Murray's comedic roles ever since: the guy who owns the room, yet who barely conceals his great sadness. The guy who points out the absurdity of everything he sees but who knows firsthand how much absurdity can hurt.

I've always had a soft spot for Bill Murray. Learning about his rough start at SNL certainly reinforced it--if in fact a soft spot can be reinforced. He's not guiltless in the sordid story of the birth of Saturday Night Live, but he is a case study in persevering through hard times and transforming them into something insightful, fresh, hilarious, and human.

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'...