Monday, June 22, 2009

Fragments and Links Five

I have once again collected a number of ‘mini posts’ that, if I was actually a blogger and not an on-line essayist, might have been individual posts. Instead, I group them and post them as ‘Fragments and Links.’ Previous versions are here: 1, 2, 3, and 4.

KwOD is dead. The only radio station I could listen to without my ears bleeding, suddenly, and without notice, simply ceased to exist one Friday morning in May after 18 years of modern/alternative rock. And as if to add kick us when we were down, it is now a soulless 90's station. Way to replace the best music since Bach with the worst.

In the absence of a descent radio station I’ve been listening to a lot of Rise Against lately. I have a favorite line:

“I don’t ask for much
Truth be told I’d settle for
A life less frightening
A life less frightening
Is there a God tonight
Up in the Sky
Or is it empty just like me.”
Rise Against – Life Less Frightening

While we are surveying redemptive, musical, pericopes:

“I’m not alone cause the TV’s on
I’m not crazy cause I take the right pills….every day”

-Jimmy Eat World - Bleed American

I think it is fun that Word wants to spell check ‘pericopes’ as ‘periscopes’.

It reminds me of my Masters Thesis where a previous version of Word constantly wanted to change ‘boreholes[1]’ to ‘brothels’. I sincerely hope that some late night editing session didn’t let one of those slip in.

So I expect to do a full post after I go to the concert on tomorrow, but just another brilliant album by Aaron and the boys from mewithoutYou. Though, ‘It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright’ (their latest) is so different from ‘A-->B’ (their first) that at this point, I think it would be fair to say that mewithoutYou is actually my two favorite bands. The ‘A-->B’ and ‘Catch For us the Foxes’ mewitoutYou was a transcendent screamo/dissonant poetry band. The ‘Brother Son, Sister Moon’ And ‘IACIAFIAADIA’ version is a hardish, whimsical, folkish, storytelling band. I can’t say I don’t miss the former band, but I can’t say I would have wanted to miss out on the latter band. What they have in common, is the lyrical genius (and I do not use that word lightly) of Aaron Weis. Here is one of my favorite lines from ‘IACIAFIAADIA’:

“When they swear their love is real
They mean I like the way you make me feel”
Every Thought of You

I was struck recently by the structural parallels between two excellent but thematically antithetical songs. ‘World at Large’ by Modest Mouse and ‘Passing Afternoon by Iron and Wine are both aesthetically transcendent and thematically engaging. Each is built structurally around the passing of the seasons as the verses investigate the sequential rhythms of a climatic year. But as these two great artists stare deeply into the rhythms of the earth’s rotation they almost could not see them more differently. Isaac Brock (MM) sees in them the ticking clock of his discontent. They are the metronome of his boredom setting the pace for his wandering:

“I like the autumn but this place is getting old/I pack up my belongings and head to the coast.”

“The days get longer and the night smell green/I guess its not surprising but it’s spring and I should leave.”

Samuel Bean, (I&W), on the other hand, vests the seasons with rhythms of a grounded existence. The repetitive details of life are not the trigger of existential crisis but the irreducible components of beauty and meaning.

“There are things that drift away like our endless, numbered days
Autumn blew the quilt right off the perfect bed she made
And she's chosen to believe in the hymns her mother sings
Sunday pulls its children from their piles of fallen leaves”

“There are sailing ships that pass all our bodies in the grass
Springtime calls her children 'till she let's them go at last
And she's chosen where to be
[2], though she's lost her wedding ring
Somewhere near her misplaced jar of Bougainvillea seeds”

I love both of these artists, both of these albums and both of these songs…but my personal existential quest is to cross the thematic line from the former to the latter.

I am pretty sure that if you looked up the word ‘horrifying’ in the dictionary, this is what you’d find.

My friend Jason just got on Facebook. He is still evaluating if it is something he is going to do, but he has enjoyed seeing the different ‘groups’ recommended to him, presumably because his friends are in them. He said ‘it is fun to see some religious group that you are in, next to the ‘I love morning sex’ group that is probably because of some other friend.’ Now I have been accused of being easily offended…which I have challenged. I am really difficult to offend. Upon reflection, my friends have reconsidered and suggest that offense is projected upon me[3]. But this time I was offended. While I don’t have a lot of use for the ‘group’ and ‘fan’ features in Facebook, I would almost certainly join an ‘I love morning sex’ group far before ‘some religious group.’

Speaking of my friend Jason, we were walking through downtown Davis and walked by a particularly annoying street preacher the other day. I said, “There are very few people I would like to pummel. That guy is on the list.”

Also, on the topic of Facebook, on my last two business trips, I have gotten together with two high school friends and my college roommate. I have to say with pseudo-poetic vagueness, that each of these connections significantly augmented my humanness…and none of them would have happened without Facebook. As a technology, social networking is at worst, morally neutral. Curmudgeonly technophobes[4] wine about how our generation is missing out on life because of our technology. What most of them don’t realize is that our generations value human connection and community more than the last few. The spatial boundaries of those connections are just more difficult to discern.

With that said, I do not foresee myself getting onto twitter. That is not a moral statement…just a practical one.[5] Facebook taxes the limits of my ability to process information. While twitter optimizes what is unquestionably the most valuable feature of Facebook (the status update) – twitter culture generates more of this valuable content. It is more than I can process.

“What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” – Herman Simon NY Mag

And then there is nano-blogging.

Can’t wait for pico-blogging. That is when I’ll get back into it. My day was brought to you by the letter ‘w’.

Many who read this site regularly also frequent my brother’s blog. But I really enjoyed this link he featured a couple weeks ago.

Now, to be fair, I have a lot of respect for several of the guys lampooned[6] in these images, but the satire does get at some of the weaknesses of the emerging/emergent/relevant approach

I used a clip from Beautiful Mind in a talk the other day[7]. But I had forgotten what a fine film it is. I would never list Russell Crowe as one of my favorite actors, but would re-watch many of his films given the chance. But here is one quote that caught my attention:

Nash: Find a truly original idea. It is the only way I will ever distinguish myself. It is the only way I will ever matter.

This reminded me of Tim Keller’s frequent quoting of the original Rocky film where he tells Adrian that he has to fight because it ‘is the only way I’ll know I’m not a bum.’ Keller calls these things ‘identity factors,’ the things we vest in that give us value. We all have them and they are not benevolent masters. The incite pride by generating feelings of superiority and despair by crushing us for not attaining them. They are what the Bible calls idols.

Keller usually goes on to say (following Luther) that the human heart has the propensity to make ‘identity factors’ of arbitrary moral criteria leaving us with ‘moralistic religion’ which is an idolatry as insidious as hedonism[8]. But here is the interesting thing…moralism as an identity factor can be (and increasingly is) secular[9] in nature. Consider the following excerpt

“What is most interesting to the anthropologist is the ease with which puritan outrage can be displaced from one topic to another and the equal ease with which the thing formerly disapproved of can be overnight exonerated from all taint of sin. This has been particularly evident in the case of sex… When sexual taboos were lifted…it looked around for other pleasures that it could forbid, not because God was offended by them but because they offended the thing that had replaced God in the Puritan conscience — namely the Self. Any pleasure harmful to the self must now be subject to the same absolute condemnation as had been directed against the pleasures of sex. Hence the hysterical campaign against smoking, which has not taken the form of advising against something harmful, but the far more alarming form of condemning that thing as a sin. You can portray young people on the screen as engaging in sexual orgies, beating each other up, swearing and exhibiting every kind of nastiness. But you must never show a young person with a cigarette in his hand, since that will be condoning and encouraging sin.”[10]

What the author of this passage calls the puritan legacy, Keller (pejoratively) calls religion in distinction to the cosmic, unilateral rescue of the gospel, which leaves us with no moral high ground from which to condescend.

I was talking to a couple work friends about the phenomena I encountered in Guyana (and Nepal) where the cows wander the streets. We were trying to come up with a cultural equivalent, in our context. I offered the following: “I guess we have dogs that we let wander around…but we don’t exactly worship them.”

Uncomfortable silence followed as Mark looked at Cam and then said with a smile ‘Sorry Stan, I think you might be in the minority here.’ Ah, Davis. He added good naturedly, ‘I think you could do worse.’

I have slowly been making my way through the original Stargate Series on Hulu. I quit watching it at least 3 times because it was so bad. But people I respect enjoy it, so I kept giving it another try, and it has gotten better. The interesting angle the stargate contributions take to the Star Trek narrative structure is to send contemporary humans with contemporary technology to other worlds[11]. I think the most pressing question about the series is as fllows: “Richard Dean Anderson can’t act his way out of a paper bag…so why is he so watchable?” Why do I laugh at his one liners?

But I have found that 10 years has translated into a fascinating thematic evolution. Consider the exchange during a season 2 episode (1998) where the arch villain sought sanctuary on earth. He was unrepentant and declaring his intentions to wipe out humans even as earth faced destruction for harboring him. Yet they declared him a prisoner of war extending protections of the Geneva Convention to him. They refused to give him up or allow him to be tortured for information, though he was dying. He mocks the humans for not giving him up:

Apophis: A single human life is worth so much you would risk a world
[12]: That’s right. That’s why they call us the good guys.

My question: Can you imagine Jack Bauer saying anything like this? The constant entertainment exposure to the rarest, most extreme moral dilemmas has seared our consciences and made us moral pragmatists that would condone practices we executed[13] the Japanese for as war criminals after WWII.

I have been into the work of Bryan Fuller recently. ‘Dead Like Me’ was intriguing, but didn’t really work. (I suspect it was miscast, but mostly it was hopeless in the most literal sense of the word.) I didn’t get through season 1 and it didn’t get through season 2. But Wonderfalls was good[14] (canceled after 4 episodes, but there are 12 available on DVD) and Pushing Daisies was great (just canceled after essentially[15] one season of episodes).[16] Sooner or later networks are going to stop giving him opportunities, and we will be worse off for it.

The reason I think Pushing Daisies worked where Dead Like Me didn’t, despite the dark themes of both series, was that Dead Like Me matched the dark themes with a dark tone, resulting in an oppressive, hopeless package. Daisies gave its protagonist a more hopeful future, but the series’ brilliance was that it offset the dark themes with an almost cartoonishly light, innocent tone. This worked. I am sad to see it go.

Bill Simmons on the 2009 Red Sox: “The best way I can describe Fenway during any Papi at-bat is this: It's filled with 35,000 parents of the same worst kid in Little League who dread every pitch thrown in the kid's direction. There is constant fear and sadness and helplessness. Nobody knows what to do.” Silently nodding.

The second paper I submitted from my PhD work was provisionally accepted to the ASCE Journal of Geotechnical Engineering, provided I reduce it from >10,000 word equivalents (figures take up the space of 150-600 words but, as you know, are worth 1,000[17]). I find cutting to be far more difficult than writing.[18] So I took up Augustine’s advice as my motto for the task:

“From now on, therefore, I shall do my best to control my pen so as neither to include anything superfluous, nor to omit anything necessary…” (p 712)

Though, the word ‘irony’ comes to mind since the Bishop of Hippo[19] included this quote in a 1,100 page book with about 250 pages of value.

I know there are already way too many of them, but I want to start a new academic journal. I would call it JOFER – The Journal of Failed Engineering Research. I would read that journal. There is no mechanism in academia to transmit the positive information that emerges from ‘failure,’ so failure is more likely to be repeated than success. Plus, doesn’t that sound like fantastic Friday pub reading…’They tried to resolve and RFID tag through how many feet of water??? I feel better about my week.’

I mentioned this to a friend and he pointed me to the Journal of Irreproducible Results, which I have found entertaining.

My friend Tiffany posted the following course evaluation from a Professor at Columbia University[20]:
Part 1: "What book in the course did you most dislike?"
Part 2: "What flaws of intellect or character does that dislike point up in you?"

I am preaching on Acts 10 (Peter and Cornelius) in 5 months. I am so excited about it that I already have a rough draft[21]. It is going to include a long anecdote about urban youth ministry and my experience forging an affectionate, deferential relationship with the youth leader who had only been out of jail a couple years. But my goal is to make it through the whole talk without using the phrase ‘comfort zone.’

On the topic of cliché. I just finished ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote. The thematic juxtaposition between incalculable depravity and a deeply familiar humanness makes the book worth the time in its own right. But that is not why I read it. The following excerpt from Steve Turner’s book Imagine has set the recent agenda for my reading program:

“Poetry, for example, is a useful antidote for the poison of sloganeering, spin and double talk. It helps words retain their meaning because it acknowledges that corrupt language results in corrupt thinking. If the best words can no longer be said, the best ideas can no longer be thought. “If a nation’s literature declines,” said Ezra Pound, “the nation atrophies and decays.” -turner

My craft and ministry[22] is one of words and ideas. I was beginning to feel like I needed a diet of well crafted words (on any topic); a reservoir, if you will, out of which I could summon well crafted words. Not big words, but surprising, sublime, winsome and poignant words. There are just very few places, inside or outside the church, where one is just going to happen on a source of these kinds of words. I have been crafted by a cliché and sound bite culture. The antidote to this is a diet of beautiful words. Despite his grizzly, dark (though starkly human) topic, Truman Capote’ words fulfill this criteria transcendently.

Do I undermine the previous 3 paragraphs by confessing that I followed In Cold Blood with Downtown Owl, Chuck Klosterman’s first novel?

No…no I don’t.[23]

This post was prepared while listening to ‘Sing the Sorrow’ by AFI
[1] A word that appeared roughly 5 million times in the document…give or take.
[2] This line in particular is a striking explicit contrast to the Discrete Rodent as the latter song’s protagonist has selected contentment over restlessness, while the former has allowed yielded to his wandering heart.
[3] I think this is pretty interesting. I honestly don’t know what it would take to offend me. I got riled up once over a Freakenomics discussion and made a fairly impassioned case that the way abortion services were provided in our country is maniacally racist. But I think that is as close I have come to ‘being offended.’ I fully accept the ‘post-Christian’ nature of my culture. I don’t tend to take it personally.
[4] And, as someone who doesn’t own a cell phone, I do not use that term lightly.
[5] Like my resistance to cell phones…a resistance whose days are numbered.
[6] This movement is so adverse to labels that I can not find a single person that claims it…including me. But it would be disingenuous to say anything other than: ‘I have found many of these folks insightful, helpful and encouraging.’
[7] I used the clip of Nash trying to hit on the woman in the bar, but also enjoyed this one on the same theme:
Nash: Alicia, does our relationship warrant long-term commitment? I need some kind of proof, some kind of verifiable, empirical data.
Alicia: I'm sorry, just give me a moment to redefine my girlish notions of romance.
[8] Capable of similarly luring us to condescension with pride and crushing us with despair.
[9]And often political positions. I am continually astounded how much moral superiority people feel (on both sides) over which lever they pull, as if this cost them something.
[10] For more thoughts along this line, check out this link, that I got from the very good blog, Ladder on Wheels.
[11] If you use a spaceship instead of a worm hole to send humans to other worlds, you need to send a more advanced form of humanity. The worm hole mechanic means that contemporary humans with contemporary technology interface with alien cultures…which is potentially more interesting (though not budgeted accordingly).
[12] Richard Dean Anderson
[13] There are many aspects of the coalition between the American church and the religious right I am uncomfortable with (though I am finding myself less and less encouraged about the left) but I am pretty sure the low point of this was broad evangelical support of torture.
[14] Though, for me, much of its charm was its setting in the ‘greater Buffalo area.’
[15] The halved strike season and then half of the following season.
[16] In each series the protagonist is a flawed ‘spirit guide’ that, respectively, usher people to their death, intervene in some minor detail of their lives that has huge consequences, or tie up the loose ends of their death. These turn out to be fertile mechanics for worth while themes and engaging stories.
[17] I am constantly intrigued by the relative precision of this cliché. My Dissertation is going to come in around 400 pages with no less than 200 figures. Some of these figures are worth something on the order of 8,000 words…others are closer to 50...but they still provide the reader a break. Also, my MS advisor once chopped an entire paragraph of approximately 250 words and replaced it with an equation. I have done this several times since, and find that, a simple, 4-5 variable equation is worth on the order of 100 to 400 words. Anyway, I would love to plot a distribution of the value of images in words and find the central tendency. I suspect it would come pretty close to 1000.
[18] Though, I have had a lot of practice recently, as I generally write 50 minute talks for my 30 minute slot and then cut everything that is not essential…and then rearrange my perspective on what is essential and cut some more. It is a good exercise in repenting of self importance.
[19] I can’t seem to mention Augustine without referring to his town, since it is, without a doubt, the funniest named town in all of church history.
[20] Source: Edmundson's _Why Read
[21] 2 points: 1. God Challenges Peter’s Moralism and 2. God Challenges Homogeneous Christianity
[22] I have another post percolating on to what extent preaching is craft and to what extent it is a mystical spiritual transaction.
[23] The back to back chapters about the Catholic Women’s Bible Study and a flirtatious conversation in which he started each exchange ‘what he/she said’ (followed by 1 sentence) ‘what he/she meant’ (followed by two paragraphs) were classic Klosterman. There are actually surprising parallels between Downtown Owl and In Cold Blood. They are both stories told by New Yorkers and based in a small town in a rectangular mid-American state with disturbing endings. Sure Capote may be as transparent as Klosterman is present, and the former is genius while the latter is merely clever…but I like Chuck and feel like I can learn language from him.


Joel said...

I never saw "Pushing Daisies" or "Dead Like Me", but "Wonderfalls" fills me with joy. I can pull out the dvd's and it never fails to make me smile even if I'm tired and headachy and my slap-hand is itching to go off on someone.

Also, I know we don't often discuss music, but have you heard the new Greenday yet? I'm warming up to it, but feel like it's not as strong as "American Idiot".

stanford said...

Yeah, I'm not sure why wonderfalls didn't catch on. Well cast. Well written. Engagin themes. Great locations. Honestly, I just don't understand what constitutes network success.

I haven't picked up the new Greenday yet (I was non-pulsed by the single) but your analysis seems to be the consensus of my other music contacts. Fine work but no "American Idiot" which puts me in the intrigued but not urgent category.