Sunday, December 9, 2012

On Shiny Turd Selection: Implications of Electoral Politics and Total Disclosure

…The election came and went, and in keeping with the characteristic relevance of this little blog[1] I am finally ready to comment on it. 
Anyway, let me set up my thoughts with my two favorite comedy pieces on the election:

Lincon’s opening line in the last one says explicit what the other one and much of the comedy and rhetoric surrounding elections communicates:
“By the power vested in me by this giant bald bird
The president shall not be the shiniest of two turds.” -Nice Peter (as Lincon)
And the general frustration with the quality of candidates doesn’t just show up comedy or discourse.  It actually emerged in several polls.  Consider three:
1.       One district in Nevada returned 10% of the vote for “None of the Above”
2.       A district in North Carolina where a cat came in third
3.       And a surprising number of people voted for Rosanne Barr for PRESIDENT (who may be 3% more qualified for political office than a cat).
But why is it always like this?  Why do we get to the actual choice and always want to push the ‘restart’ button.
My father had a theory that has infused me with political cynicism for decades.  He argued that in order to rise to the level that one of the political machines would recognize you as a candidate, you have to be so morally compromised and bought and sold that it is impossible to vote for a good man for president.
This is an alternative to the standard us-them distinction that emerges from partisan politics.  Instead of the ‘us’ being ‘my party’ and the ‘them’ being ‘the other party’, it redefines ‘us’ as the reasonable electorate composed of decent people and ‘them’ as the political machine.

But I don’t think that is the whole story.  When I look at Governor Romney and President Obama, I don’t see wicked men who inhabit qualitatively different moral realities from each other or from ‘the rest of us’[4].  I see a couple of extraordinarily gifted, morally flexible, political pragmatists who genuinely want to lead our country into the most just and prosperous future (despite divergent beliefs on effective tactics) but who also love power and desperately want to wield it.
So how do we get to the point that we can’t stand these guys? 
I have a two word answer: Full Disclosure.
You see, the difference between them and me is not that I am good and they are bad.  The difference is that they have been subject to a process that no human can withstand: Full Disclosure. 
Normal people have the luxury of partial disclosure in our relationships, so people like us.  We get to selectively reveal our positions, ideas, history, prejudices, hurts, fill-in-the-blank-a-phobias, selfishness, addictions, and overall crazy, so people generally think we are good and kind and just.  And if we have been appropriately socialized with the standard set of cultural coping mechanisms, we can keep it up pretty effectively in all but our closest relationships.[5]  But it’s a ruse.  We maintain respectability through the filter of partial disclosure.
But human brokenness cannot withstand the near omniscience that a multi-billion dollar information-entertainment industry generates.  In the end, a person – even an incredibly impressive person - turns out to be…just a person.  And a person turns out to have inescapably turd-like qualities.
And I think that is one of the things John is getting in his gospel, when he says:
19The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.
Full disclosure terrifies us.  Transparency is something we demand, until it is applied to us.  And one of the central insights of Christianity is that if we take a break from our self evaluation through the eyes of others…whose opinion we have manipulated through the process of selective disclosure…and if we ‘step into the light’ and allow the gaze of omniscience to fall on our behaviors and motivations, we emerge with a very different self evaluation.  We emerge with a self evaluation that requires someone or something to rescue us from ourselves.
And so, I reject the us-them of party rivalry, but I also reject the us-them of the ‘shiny turd syndrome’ in favor of an us-us. 

I am the turd…just not that shiny. 
I would wither under the gaze of full disclosure faster and more cataclysmically than these guys did.  And so would you.[6]  But the Christian narrative argues that full disclosure is something we all actually experience.  There is One who is not fooled by our ‘press releases’ and ’30 second spots’…who recognizes motivations that we have not only stopped advertising but have stopped noticing ourselves. 
But unlike the relentless harm and self promoting injury behind the quasi-omniscience of ‘the press’, actual omniscience is laced with love and compassion.  Divine judgment is not a snarky expose or petty entrapment.  It is an invitation to healing and relationship.  In Jesus, the one who knows is also the one who loves and the one who heals. 
This post was written while listening to Babel[7] by Mumford and Sons
[1] I am still working on posts on the Battlestar Galactica and Lost Finales…and mewithoutYou’s third album that came out several years ago (which doesn’t seem that timely given their 4th album came out a year ago).
[2] The hunger games version of “Bad Lip Reading” is the hardest I’ve laughed since the first season of Community.
[3] On a serious note, this essentially articulates my perspective on the debate.
[4] This is why, CS Lewis argues, there can never be a ‘Christian party’.  Besides the awkwardness of Christians wielding power, there is the issue that Christianity teaches things that both parties value, stuff like justice and freedom.  (And if you don’t believe that both parties actually want a just, free and prosperous society, you don’t know enough thoughtful people of the other party).  But it is entirely appropriate for Christians in good conscience to come to different conclusions on the tactics it takes to get there.  And tactics are a matter of individual conscience…and the Scriptures demand (for good reason) that matters of convince require loving diversity.  Therefore, Lewis asserts a Christian party can only ever be a ‘some of the Christians’ party.
[5] This is also why many people end up feeling the same way about their parents and spouses as we do about candidates.  Family is the ferment of full disclosure.  You cannot be good enough to be loved in that context.  Love has to be given.  It has to be a grace.  Love in the context of the disclosure of close quarters only works if it is a place of forgiveness and the active pursuit of being ‘for’ the other despite their failings.  This is also the stuff of platonic intimacy, and one of the reasons our culture has put so much weight on romantic relationships that should be carried by intimate friendships.  Our friendships are primarily value-added commodities rather than arenas of grace…and so they are fragile and ephemeral.
[6] If you read this with the hopes that I would disclose who I voted for, I apologize.  You might be able to find something in the archives that provides insight into that question.  But, frankly, I am much more interested in the humanness of the process than the agendas of the parties.  If we can’t talk about power in love, we are not qualified to wield it.  If we can’t assert a little self skepticism we are not qualified to exert political skepticism.  And while we are at it, if we do not shudder at the complexity of economics and the poverty of our tools to isolate sensitive variables we have not begun to select the right economic way forward for our country. 
[7] This post, and many, many others.  Just a great album. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cambodia Journal and Pictures

So I went to Cambodia…and I took a bunch of pictures and kept a little journal.  It’s here:
Scroll down and go to the second page of posts for the coolest stuff (the weekend in Angkor Wat), and I think my most interesting/reflective post is this one:

Note: I am starting a strech of 6 campus talks in 3 weeks.  They will start to show up over at  my manuscript and mp3 pages next week.  After that, it looks like I have regained my ability to post so I'll put up some of my backlog.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Overly German, Philosophical Mouse: A Poem

For some reason blogspot isn't allowing me to load pictures.  I have several posts and a whole Camboida travel series ready to go as soon as I get this resolved.  But until then, I spent most of the last 2 days on airplanes and in airports, which generally means...I wrote a terrible poem that you get to read.  The poem was based on the following passage from Chesterton's Orthodoxy[1]

"But if the mouse were a German pessimist mouse, he might not think that the cat had beaten him at all. He might think he had beaten the cat by getting to the grave first. Or he might feel that he had actually inflicted frightful punishment on the cat by keeping him alive. Just as a microbe might feel proud of spreading a pestilence, so the pessimistic mouse might exult to think that he was renewing in the cat the torture of conscious existence. It all depends on the philosophy of the mouse...You cannot even say that the cat gets the best of it unless there is some best to be got." Orthodoxy - The Eternal Revolution

This just seemed to beg for a poem (at least it seemed to do so in the haze of total time zone shift somewhere over the Pacific).

The Overly German, Philosophical Mouse

The German mouse, full up on cunning
Hatched a plan that spared him running.
He allowed the cat to close the distance
Sentencing him to prolonged existence.

When oblivion is the highest gain,
The surest way to win the game,
Is neither to flee nor run for cover                      
But make a trophic donation that prolongs the other.
[1] One of my all time favorite books that I am re-reading and has spawned a number of posts in various stages of completion.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Second by Second Retro Diary of my Impressions on the Anna Karenina Trailer

So I love Russian Novels.  Among all authors, Tolstoy is eclipsed in my opinion only by Dostoyevsky.[1]  But that is a stylistic and ‘body of work’ assessment.  I think that you could make a credible [2] case that Anna Karenina is the greatest work in the history of the genre.  But regardless of the relative merits of these great authors, I think it is a pretty safe assertion that AK is one of the 5 finest novels of all time.[3]  And now they are making a film.[4]  So I am going to be one of those annoying bloggers who is so protective of a text that I’ll post a preemptive evaluation of the trailer. 
But, come on, this isn’t Twilight or even Game of Thrones.[5]  You could even argue that taking on a text from the classical cannon like this bears more responsibility than LOTR.  So I have produced a blow by blow retro-commentary [6] of my initial viewing of the AK trailer.  Also I decided to add an quasi-quantitative measure that I am going to call the NM –Nervousness Meter – which is a scale of 10 (not nervous at all, 100% excited) to 0 (certain this will be a train wreck[7]) which will allow me to plot the emotive arc at the end.
There is probably very little difference between someone who writes a rant parsing every second of the Twilight trailer and someone who does the same thing with this film …but I did the latter anyway.

0:00-0:06 (NM =6.5) – Adaptation is hard enough if you have a thin text like Pride and Prejudice or even a thematically simplistic one like the Hunger Games.  It is just tough to translate genres.  So ‘book purists’ are often simply dismissed by pointing this out.  I am usually among those who do so.  But if AK, simply cannot be adapted to a 2 hr film[8] because of its sheer scope, depth of characterization and complex of intertwining themes that depend on both of the former…I’d prefer it be left undone.[9]
Still, I was excited that a story I cared about was becoming a film.  So the ‘nervous meter’ started pretty optimistic:
0:23  – (NM = 6.5 - unch) Hmm, Keira as Anna?  Just from the gestalt I would have gone with Rachel Weis[10] or someone, I don’t know, Russian?  But Keira is sufficiently striking[11] and has a good track record with period films, in my opinion. 

0:29 – (NM – 6.5) Jude Law is fine as Alexei[12] (though when I heard he was attached to this film my thought was, “outstanding, he’ll be perfect as Vronsky” – I wonder if that means I’m old). The Vronsky character also seems totally acceptable from a gestalt perspective too (I know nothing about the actor, but it doesn’t matter much…dude is an empty cavalry uni…he’s not that challenging to act). 
0:47 –( NM = 7) These scenes they are showing look and sound great.
0:51 – ( NM =9) OK, I’m in.  There is only one director I would have accepted… Joe Smith.  And we got him.  Direction is a 100% win.  Atonement was as incredible (I wrote a piece on it) and I doggedly defend the superiority of his 2005 Pride and Prejudice[13] adaptation against the BBC truthers.  He is the epic virtuoso that this story deserves.  And that makes a lot more sense of Keira, too.  She is Smith’s leading woman.  If we want him, we get her.[14] I can talk myself into this.
1:01 – (NM = 7) ‘A Bold New Vision’ – from the interviews I read this means that most of this is filmed on a stage as a metaphor for ‘the stage of the Russian aristocracy’.  This seems gimmicky[15] and a recipe for the one way this could go horribly wrong…deciding that Levin’s story is dull and that it is expendable to fit the time requirements of a feature film.
1:10 – (NM = 6) – Hmm, speaking of Levin.  We’re over half way through the trailer.  Where is he?  I’m getting a little nervous.
1:15 – (NM = 5) - So Anna just confused love with an orgasm.  This is in character.  That is precisely the kind of confused, shallow person Anna was.  But this is why she is such a tragic, cautionary character.  But I’m a little nervous that we are supposed to identify this as an accurate observation by the moaning, thrashing protagonist rather than the devastating error Tolstoy would have seen in it.  OK, don’t get too cynical…remember, Atonement was stark and honest…and trailers are meant to get people to films.
1:30 – (NM = 9) – And there’s Levin, and that threshing scene (one of my favorite moments of the book) looks great…[16]
1:31 – (NM = 8) …hold on, is Levin being played by a Weasly …
1:32 – (NM = 6) …um, this guy seems like kind of a tool…
1:34 – (NM = 4) …yikes, that was not much Levin (3 seconds?), and no Kitty, and what we got made him seem like a pompous, d-bag.  OK don’t panic.
1:33 – (NM = 3.2) rewind[17] …hold on, there’s Kitty.  Um how old is she?  She looks 12!  Now we’ve got a pompous, lecherous, d-bag.  Don’t panic.  Smith is setting up a caricature so he can turn it on its head.
1:41 – (NM = 3.5) No more Levin sightings (the narrative really seems to be centering on the affair), but I’m just thinking about casting a Weasly.  I guess I don’t mind casting Levin with a no-name.  It actually makes a lot of sense.  You don’t want such a complex, sublime character to have to carry the burden of the other performances on a famous actor’s IMDB page.  Of course Ed Norton[18] was the call here.  But maybe this guy killed the audition.  Maybe he spent all of the time in the last 7 years that he wasn’t flying around on a CGI broom working on a Russian commune because he loves this book so much and like Christopher Lee and LOTR, it has been his life’ s goal to play Levin.  I’m talking myself into this.
1:59 – (NM =4.8) There’s  Levin again…I think…
2:00 – (NM =3.2) …and gone.  He’s like a ninja.  You can’t actually tell if he was even there.  And that would be great...IF HE WAS A NINJA…But this isn’t a period marital arts film… he is a Russian farmer who is supposed to be the central grounding character of the story.  We should be able to tell that he was on the screen.
2:10 –(NP = 3.7) And, the train.
2:15 – (NP = 3.5) I don’t remember this much dancing in the book.

2:24 – (NP = 2) “You can’t ask why about love.” …?...What?...Are you serious?  Is that ironic?  Is that really the summary quote you want to leave us with?  Is that the central idea of the film? (It’s the tag line on the poster.) I realize that is an incredibly popular modern sentiment…but it’s absurd.  And that is why reading old books is a useful discipline.  It can force us to asses assumptions of our age that none of contemporaries would even think to challenge.  Old books allow us to encounter people who call BS on absurdities of modern culture to which we have become too accustomed to evaluate.  Did the film makers even read the book?  Was there another novel with that title?
2:26 – (NP = 1.4) What? The Weasly actor isn’t even in the top 4.  Does that mean that Levin isn’t a ‘main character?’
2:31 – End (NP = 1.2) …?...?...What?  Really?

Here’s the thing.  I recognize the limitations of adaptation.  I appreciate that an adapted work of literature becomes its own work of art.  And if a text as brief as Pride and Prejudice is difficult to pull of in a feature length film, AK is going to require deep, devastating cuts.  You might even be tempted to cut half the book…say, the Levin’s half.  From what I can tell, Levin is featured in approximately 4% of the trailer (a very generous 6 of 150 seconds).[19]  And the one line we get from him is stuffy and pompous.  But here’s the real issue.  From the trailer it seems like the themes of the film are not only not resonant with the themes of the text…they are the OPPOSITE!  It is one thing not to do justice to a text in an adaptation.  It is another to do violence to it.
You see, there are two big differences between AK and Madame Bovary that makes the former one of the great works of all time and the latter almost unreadable:
1.      Tolstoy is an HD author.  The imaginative pictures are crisper and the emotions calibrate with reality with a deeper resonance than almost anything I have ever read.[20]

2.      Tolstoy wrote himself into the story.  Levin is generally thought to be autobiographical.  And his story parallels Anna’s.  He has the same angst and unsettledness that she does.  He has many of the same disappointments and even the same self destructive tendencies.  Even in the latter pages of the book, after he has made better choices and, by any sane accounting, has forged a better life, “…he hid a rope so that he might not be tempted to hang himself, and was afraid to go out with his gun for fear of shooting himself.”  Levin doesn’t find contentment because he is optimistic or simple.  He is haunted and dark.  But he finds contentment through a relentless application of just action towards the oppressed, hard work, faith and wise choices.  It’s not that he’s uninteresting.  He’s incredibly interesting.  But he finds his way in a life of substance, living for other people and for God.  And that leaves AK with the note of hope that MB lacks.[21]
It is not that I think that Anna isn’t well represented in the trailer.  She appears to be.  And that is why she eventually finds her life intolerable.  Anna is not a tragic hero.  She is just tragic.  She is cautionary.  Levin is the hero.  Levin also felt his life intolerable, but found a settled contentment in the careful details of a gritty real love, in hard work, and in just, loving action towards others.  He found happiness when he stopped chasing it.  He found love when it ceased to be the central quest of his life.  Anna was a narcissist obsessed with her own happiness and her own loves, and thus, both eluded her. 
[1] My brother and I periodically have a LT vs FD debate…and I take the latter.  This is mostly evidence that my brother and my relationship is built 35% on arguing and we have to manufacture stuff to argue about because we agree on most things that matter. (We disagree on politics pretty often, but like I said, we agree on most things that matter).
[2] If false. I have three words for you: “The Brothers’ Karamazov.”  But in my opinion, AK is a close second in the fictional literary cannon.
[3] Especially if you were to grade on a historical curve that takes into account the fact that much of the reason Stenger is great is not just Stenger himself but his debt to Flaubert and Tolstoy who, themselves, owe very little to anyone. However, I would argue that AK cracks the top 5 without historical normalization…though I realize that that might just be the fanboy speaking.
[4] I know it isn’t the first AK film, but I have ignored previous attempts.  For reasons I cover below, I’ll not only see this one but will make it the second film I see in the theater in 15 months.
[5] Ok, so I admit it, I love GOT…and hate it.  It is classic HBO, hours of compelling art and fine story telling – of the finest quality on offer in mainstream American culture… interspersed with disturbingly frequent 3 minute porn shorts.  And GOT amps up both of these.  Better storytelling and more porn.  (And it’s not like The Wire where the there was totally unnecessary nudity but it kind of fit in artfully and was more thematic than erotic.  In GOT they are ‘porn shorts’ in order to provide an erotic emotive subsidy to the story telling.  Which is sad, because the story telling stands alone and does not require an elicit dopamine subsidy.)  I have decided to watch it anyway.  We just close the laptop and/or fast forward when the inevitable porn comes on.  But I am not entirely comfortable with that decision.  So I do not endorse this show but I am watching it.
[6] This narrative device is borrowed from Bill Simmons who often does ‘retro-diaries’ of sporting events which are almost always entertaining.
[7] ****Spoiler Alert****: Pun not initially intended but I left it intentionally
[8] Novels like this are just begging for a John Adams/Band of Brothers type HBO series that has the time (and patience, b/c as much as HBO frustrates me, they are patient with their projects and characters) to develop these complicated characters and develop these rich themes. 
[9] I mean, for all our deficits the one commodity our culture has in great surplus is aspiring (and often talented) writers.  There is arguably as much writing talent working at book stores in LA as there is acting talent waiting tables.  If you are going to make up a story, don’t destroy a classical work…make new art.
[10] I guess I pictured AK as a particularly tall woman (standing eye to eye with the men in her life) who, while not necessarily  voluptuous (I actually never wondered about her precise shape or dimension), would have a bit more, I don’t know, woman to her.  There is one point in P&P where I describe KK as looking as if she ‘is desperately in need of a sandwich.’
[11] Which is the way I pictured Anna.  Not necessarily the most beautiful woman in the room but someone who would immediately attract attention when she walked into one.
[12] From the extended scene they put out, he might be the highlight of the film.  He seems to absolutely nail a difficult character.
[13] Speaking of Pride and Prejudice…if you haven’t checked them out already, I have definitely enjoyed the “Lizzy Bennet Diaries” – a revisiting of the P&P story in a series of contemporary, fictional vlogs. 
[14] And I know this wasn’t a consensus, but I thought she was great in his other two films.
[15] A thin artistic excuse for cost savings if I wanted to be cynical…but we are only 61 seconds in…so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.
[16] At this point I was thinking, ok we got the Anna montage, now for an equal and opposite Levin montage.  I honestly believed that the next 40 seconds would play out like the 1 second we got between 1:30 and1:31. 
[17] This is not in real time.  I went to the imdb home page, found out who played kitty and then scanned the scene for her.  Turns out she is 24.  They only made her looks 12.
[18] Though, in fairness, I probably don’t so much believe he is ideal for the role as I think “if you want a role done right, just give it to Norton.”
[19] And I think 6 seconds is generous
[20] Tolstoy is the master of the visual and emotional world while Dostoevsky is the great master of the psychological world.  I read one author that said: You can be in St Petersburg in the winter in a FD novel and not even know it…he is so obsessed with the internal world of his characters that he loses interest in their external world.
[21] I mean, it would be like making an adaptation of Crime and Punishment that focused on Rodka and underplayed Sofya’s story because it takes too much time.  The former is not worth telling except in contrast and interaction with the latter.  Levin’s story may seem losable because it is not deeply intertwined with Anna’s (and because there is less sex).  But if you lose it, you alter the tone and content of the novel irreparably.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What Men Want More than Sex…a Surprising Insight Brought to You by the Makers of Fine Whisky

In the years before Hulu Amanda and I consumed visual media almost entirely through DVD’s.  This meant that my exposure to commercials was limited to my occasional trips to sports bars to watch the Badgers, Sox, Kings, Sabers or Dolphins.[1]  So for years I had a very skewed sample of the kind of 30 second spots that the industry was generating.  Let’s just say, I’ve seen more than my share of beer ads.  And it became clear, pretty quickly, that if you are marketing alcohol, and the appropriate unit of measure for cleavage content in your commercial isn’t meters,[2] you’re just not trying. 
As ‘they’ say, sex sells.  And it turns out ‘they’ are right.  A spate of new (and sometimes disturbing[3]) research demonstrates that association of mundane objects with sexual arousal induces the same arousing brain chemicals (and reduces willpower) when the mundane objects are introduced in a sexually innocuous setting. 
Bottom line.  Sexual marketing is effective.  Which is what made this commercial[4] so striking:
The most striking thing about this ad is what it lacks: Women.  There is a single brief exchange with a woman.[5]  The alcohol in question is not offered as some sort of sexual elixir, but as a catalysts of friendship.  It makes me wonder….As our culture grows more alienated and alienating[6]…is there something that men want more than sex?  Is there a desire that marketers are tapping into that is more powerful than our procreative impulses? 
I think the answer is yes.  I think you could argue that substantial community and authentic friendship are the more fundamental (or at least the more neglected) human need.  In his recent survey on the science of human flourishing[7], David Brooks cited a study which concluded that “joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income."  The sexualization of our culture and our obsession with romantic narratives[8] has led to a glaring lack in our platonic connectedness, and has left us poorer for it.  The Christian narrative could have told us this was how that would play out.  But in lieu of listening to ancient wisdom, a whisky commercial tells the same story.
[1] One of the advantages to growing up hundreds of miles from the closest pro or D1 sports team is flexible loyalties.  I was not tied to childhood choices by the laws of sports bigamy.  In some cases (Red Sox, Dolphins) I kept my childhood teams chosen for childhood (enjoyment of mascots) and adolescent (contrarian annoyance with Yankee and Bills fans growing up in upstate NY) reasons.  In other cases, I was free to take on the teams of the various towns I lived in (Madison, Buffalo, and Sacramento). 
[2] Or yards if you must…but, really? 
[3] In Predictably Irrational Dan Aierly describes a study (that he needed to get European sponsorship for because US funding sources were not comfortable with it) that involved…let’s just say, providing the male subjects with ‘special,’ protected, laptops that were not vulnerable to damage from stray…‘fluids.’
[4] Which turns out to be a trailer for a short film, but I didn’t catch that from my first couple viewings, so I am treating it as stand alone content.
[5] That could be described as warm or even respectful
[6] Mainly because entertainment has become increasingly refined and individualized…but the workplace is also moving in those directions.
[7] The Social Animal, I used this quote a couple years ago when it showed up in his NY Times column and used it again in a recent talk. 
[8]I also think that focusing our romantic narratives on sexuality and ‘falling in love’ (or a peculiar 18 month dopamine surge at the beginning of relationships) has exacerbated this…because many marriages are not built on substantial friendships. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Cities Part 5: Bangkok

So, I went to Bangkok.  I worked pretty hard while I was there so it didn’t warrant its own travel blog (computer modeling in a hotel makes for pretty dull posts), but I did do enough interesting stuff to get a post together as part of my cities series:
Bangkok was a much more cosmopolitan city than I expected …more along the lines of Singapore and the Pacific Rim cities than a ‘developing world’ urban center.  I really liked it.
One of my favorite parts of Bangkok was my morning runs.  I generally enjoy exploring new cities while I try to reclaim some semblance of a jogging pace.  My hotel was near one of the main parks and it was pretty amazing.

At 6am the park was full of runners, bikers, walkers and, especially, citizens of the older variety clustered in color coordinated callisthenic groups (some of the Thai Chi-ish variety, others more along the lines of sweating to the oldies).

Traffic and the Elevated Train


We happened on a kind of Bohemian arts district totally by accident one day, which I loved.  It centered around this art gallery which specialized in contemporary artists that worked with traditional iconography.

The way our meeting and teaching[1] played out, we had one free day in Bangkok.  So we did the standard tourist thing exploring the city center and taking the water taxis to the main historical sites along the river.  These are mainly Buddhist temples.  But, despite knowing quite a bit about Buddhism of the Tibetan variety, I am still pretty ignorant about South East Asian varieties which are deeply influenced by ambient Hindu an local belief systems and arts.[2]  But the arts and architecture are certainly distinctive and colorful.[3]

Of course one of the highlights of Bangkok was the food.   Our schedule meant we ate a good deal of mall Chinese/Japanese food which was quick and allowed us to get back and work in the evening (but was WAY better than that sounds – the malls were enormous and the ‘food courts’ restaurants were nice and, according to our guides, pretty authentic).  But I got to do a fair bit of food adventure:
Someone wrapped my pad thai in egg!?!

Bangkok is known for its ‘street side’ food.  We got this curry for ~$1.  It was amazing.  Also, I totally aprove of the diverse and copious use of mushrooms.

Well hello there delicious Silurforme.
But the highlight of Bangkok was that I had a friend in town. My college friend Tim has been the classic globe trotter (living in Indiana, NYC, Dubai and Bangkok) in the last 8 years or so. It had probably been over a decade since I had seen Tim and probably 15 years since we had spent significant time together. It was a blast to see him. He and his girlfriend Mae were outstanding local guides.

It is hard to separate this section from the previous because Time and Mae were responsible for the most fun food experiences of the week (see the shy catfish above) taking me to a Lao restaurant, introducing me to the ‘low brow’ local beer (which, to be fair, I enjoyed) and to Thai barbeque.

Thai BBQ - and my hosts.

Now Thai bbq needs a bit of explanation. They brought out a circle of coals and put a brass dome over it with a slab of pork fat to lubricate it (which we decided our friend Brian would call ‘pork butter’). Then a variety of marinated meats were applied to said scalding brass dome and cooked…the juices accumulating in a trench where it cooked seafood and turned magically into a delicious soup.

After the dinners they took me to a wet market[4] and to a ‘dance club.’ Now I admit being skeptical about heading to a dance club because, you see, I don’t really dance.[5] But I was pretty sure Tim shared my feelings about dancing, so I wasn’t too concerned. It turns out that a Dance Club is somewhere that you go to watch people dance while others sing pop songs. Apparently this is what most people do for fun in the smaller towns outside Bangkok, so it attracts more of a ‘rural’ crowd. Kind of like a line dancing or country bar.

Dancing, of varying quality...

...and bubbles.

Great city, interesting work, fun friends, amazing food. I’d love to go back with more time to explore

This post was written while listening to The Avett Brother’s Pandora Station


[1] One of the reasons that this is just a post instead of a whole journal is that I can’t really write that much about the work…which was really interesting and dominated my time there.

[2] My goal is to have a better understanding of this system before I go to Cambodia (and, hopefully, Ankor Wat) in August.

[3] If not exactly ancient. These sites are about 200 years old. So there is a little ‘colonial’ influence though Thailand was never colonized (which is a really interesting story in its own right, and, I think, a substantial source of national pride).

[4] Which was one of the highlights, but I didn’t take any pictures. I always feel weird taking pictures of people’s ‘real lives’. Taking a picture suggests that something is eccentric or extra ordinary. One of the things I really liked about the wet market (besides the general carnage) was the insight into local fish diversity.

[5] Rhythmic recreational body movement has always puzzled me as a cultural artifact.

Note: I officially went 0 for June posting here.  I haven't given up the blog.  I keep accumulating draft posts and will unleash a stream of completion soon. But we have been in the midst of a bit of a personal crisis here that is dominating most of my evenings (and, honestly, most of our mental energy), so it may not happen immediately.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Life After College: Deleted Scenes

I am giving a talk (MP3)on Tuesday on making the transition to life after college. Whenever I have to give a sapiential[1] talk I try to collect as much wisdom as I can to have the best possible chance of putting together something that is mildly true and helpful, despite the fickle nature of my observations and the fleeting competence of my synthesis. In this case, turned to friends who have been out of college a long time and know what it took to complete the transition, and friends who have been out of college for < a year, and could give me visceral, real-time insight on the real and pressing challenges of the transition. They provided way more value than I could fit in the talk. So I put much of the rest of it here. And, so, in no particular order, here are my friend’s thoughts (in addition to a couple quotes by people I don’t know and my ubiquitous midrash) on the transition.

Banality of Adult Life

“It took me a while to come to terms with (the idea that) I do not have to do it all right this instant. In college everything has to be done right this instant, you are working within a 10 week time limit on everything.” -Gail

"Harold had spent the years before college graduation in upper level seminars discussion on Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and the problem of evil.[2] He spent the years after graduation operating a cannon copying machine. It became obvious to him, as he stood there trying not to be hypnotized by the cruising green light of the machine, that he had become information age cannon fodder...his cohort seemed to exist mostly to provide fact checking and sexual tension." – David Brooks[3] - The Social Animal

Toothpaste for Dinner:

The little trivialities of adult life seemed more problematic to me than paying back student loans or furnishing an apartment. – Joel

This actually reminds me of the David Foster Wallace commencement speech.

“the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.” -DFW

I totally agree that the transition isn’t rendered problematic mostly by the monumental aspects of the shift (first day of work, moving to a new state, interviewing for a big job, etc) it is rendered problematic by the mundane aspects (e.g. not coming home to your roommate who genuinely cares how your day went, sitting in a the same chair for 8 out of 9 hours in a row[4], having access to the internet on your work computer). And it is rendered problematic by the loss of concrete measures of progress, success or failure:

Shift in Evaluation Metrics

It was really hard for me to transition to not having the measurement/approval function of grades in real life. Other sorts of evaluations that come with jobs, marriage, parenting are much less clear than many (even, admittedly sort of arbitrary) grading. Living on grace rather than grades is kind of mysterious. - Tiffany

I think the biggest lesson I had to learn in my 20s was how to live without the expectation of a major transition happening every 12 weeks. (That system) came pre-loaded with stuff to keep you busy and metrics for measuring your success…Figuring out whether you're a success or a failure is a lot more nuanced than it used to be. –Dave

The problem, as Dave and Tiff suggest, is not that we lose a legitimate metric of evaluation, but that we spend most of our young life chasing a ghost…a phantom…an apparition. And upon leaving college, it dissolves before our eyes leaving us wondering what we were chasing. Grades provide us concrete information on our value…but it is false information. The shock of losing the affirming nature of grades (or the freedom of losing their degrading nature) points to the depth of the idolatry they generate. But it doesn’t make the transition less disorienting.

Sparkle Deficit

The Difficulty of Adult Relationships


Try to find a community that you can really plug in for those deeper friendships. Maybe that's something structured, such as a home group, but maybe it's a group of local friends that you collect around you. - Corrie

I hate to say it, but I eventually had to abandon the formal home group model (at least in the parent-of-toddler life stage) in favor of a group of guys who meet every Friday for lunch or beers and read something together that mainly just affords an excuse to share our lives.

Life after college is very different. "Post college" is a mixed bag of young professionals, people in grad school, unemployed people looking for work, married couples, etc. This includes the friends you graduated with. It's nothing like college where everyone is in the exact same place as you in life and is experiencing the same things. So making friends is a totally different experience. –Monica

College is a season of life. Not every season looks like college, surrounded by friends and peers your age. -Mike

At the heart of a lot of the comments was the nature of developing friendships in the context of sudden and growing relational heterogeneity. For all its emphasis on diversity, undergrad is one of the most homogeneous collections of people that any life stage affords.[5] And the reason diversity does not come naturally to us is because we are desperately tribal creatures (an insight both Christian and academic anthropology share). But personal and spiritual growth often requires transcending age, class and cultural barriers in some of our relationships.

One thing I’d add here. The surest way to assure a first date doesn’t turn into a second date is to spend a lot of time talking about former relationships. This is true with friends too. I have had the experience of trying to connect with new, potential friends, post-college only to be repeatedly informed that I am not as “real”, “genuine”, “available”, etc… as their college friends. This was, undoubtedly, true. But repeated reminders of how I am disappointing did not draw me deeper into the relationship. Think fondly of your college relationships, but don’t hold the new ones to that standard…especially early on.


The dating pool is harder to find - relationships in general take more work. -Julie

“for the first time in our lives the arbitrary lines for when to get married are gone. (College relationships have) a minimum of 2-3 years because (of graduation). Well, once that grad date passes, if you meet a girl, you could marry…next week…” -Adam

Adam went on to point out that this increases the importance of pacing romantic connection, which, you can imagine, is especially difficult given the loneliness of the transition.

Find a Church…
...But Make Sure you Also Find a Theology of Church

Set your alarm on Sunday mornings, no matter how late you were out on Saturday night. It will be dreadful at first, and then after a few weeks, you’ll find that you like it, that the pattern of it fills up something inside you. - Shauna Niequist – Author

“they will continue to treat me as a visitor so long as I am wishy/washy or inconsistent with the community stuff. So if you find a church soon and want to get acclimated, go to the hangouts, get involved in a bible study, find a way to serve, "JUST DO IT" and that is how you will begin forming real relationships -Natalia

Find a church and get involved ASAP. You need support where you are. Skype and the phone are amazing and wonderful…but support and accountability where you are is really critical.-Monica

Church is important…Realize church will be different than (a campus ministry). It won't all be geared toward you. -Adam

The faster you get plugged in somewhere with a support system, the easier it is to face any difficulties that may come your way... –Gilda

A lot of people waste so much time trying to ‘find something real’ that they never figure out what is actually real. I say in my talk, ‘find a good church…no, forget that, it doesn’t exist, find a tolerable church and learn to love them.’ But mostly, if you can embrace not only the new time scale not only of life but also of community and spirituality, you might just unlock new reservoirs of truth and beauty.

If there's one thing I want to impress on the 20-somethings in my church, it's that they don't get to see some of God's best re-creative work unless they commit to their family, their community, their church for the long-term. And engage with God in the process of bringing that change about… I don't think there's anything as beautiful or heart-stopping as watching the Spirit take up residence in a person, place or group, and gently rebuild it over years and years. -Dave

Be willing to start at the bottom

One of the things I hit in my talk, that energetic, gifted, talented college ministry does not transfer to the church. You usually have to ‘start at the bottom’ serving in the church. This sounds like a simple call to not be proud or arrogant…to get over yourself. But it is more complex than that. A lot of students find that when they go from providing essentially pastoral care for a group of people to handing out bulletins or working in the nursery, they feel substantial guilt that they are wasting their energies and talents and ‘selling out.’[6] This requires us to develop our theology of grace (what actually gives us value) and followership (trust is not a right, it is earned).

Another note on ‘starting at the bottom’…this is true unless you join a church plant…understaffed churches tend to be meritocracies…they tend to put people to work without concern for age (and sometimes, without concern for gifting or talent – which sometimes works out well because often gifting and talent can only be recognized in the context of being thrown into something hard).

Taking a year off

Nothing was more controversial among those who read my talk than my critique of ‘taking a year off.’[7] Amanda and I have noticed that it is pretty rare to go directly from undergrad to grad school (even though many Davis grads will eventually decide to go to grad school). ‘Taking a year off’ is part of the culture here. Here is the bombastic thing I wrote (but re-wrote before I gave the talk):

Why are you “taking a year off” at 23? 23 is arguably the most energetic, potential filled year of your life. Why are you ‘taking it off’!?!?! If you need a year off… take it at 45…but 23? If Dan (the college pastor) came to me and said ‘I need a year off, I’m burnt out’ that would make way more sense to me than a college senior…but I hear it from them again and again…and not from Dan…because he’s a grown up. He knows how precious each year is and tries to squeeze each one for maximal kingdom value and momentum. You will NEVER have more energy or capacity than you do right now. Now is the time to do the ‘hard thing’ whether it is grad school, or peace corps, or a missions, or an impossible internship, Or take a REAL, sustained shot at a dream. Years in your early 20’s – before you have kids - are incredibly precious in retrospect. You WILL wish you did more with them.

The problem with that is that ‘taking a year off’ has enormous semantic range. Some people mean ‘I want to get serious vocational experience to build my resume, refine my research topic or decide if I love this vocation enough to invest 3 years and $100k in grad school.’ Others mean ‘I really want to spend a year serving in an orphanage in Africa before I go for my MBA.’ Obviously, those aren’t ‘years off’, but that is the language that has arisen around them. Those are intentional, wise, ways forward.

The other problem is that some (especially in this economy) find that all of the opportunities they pursued evaporated before their eyes. They find themselves taking ‘a year off’ by necessity. The year after college that unfolds for them is not selected but inflicted. And my simplistic, bombastic take on ‘a year off’ is more than unhelpful, it is hurtful.

But what I was trying to deconstruct is that the early 20’s is a time for fun and youth and enjoying the lack of responsibility. The reason crotchety old people like me find that so offensive is not because we miss being young…it’s not because we are bitter that we didn’t do that[8]…it is because we have seen enough years melt away to realize that they REALLY matter. You only get a few of them. And what you do with the years between college and kids will determine a lot of what the rest of your life looks like. So it is important to do anything you can to hit the year after college with all the momentum you can muster.

"Don’t go “find yourself.”  That’s stupid.  People don’t find themselves, they shape themselves.  Either actively or passively but they do.  People that go to Europe for a year don’t “find themselves,”  they just get shaped by some European people and culture instead of American people and culture.  Statistically you are at the most impressionable time in your life. You can’t help that and that’s not a bad thing.  It’s a natural thing (and a necessary one).  The question then you’ve gotta ask yourself and decide is, “who will I allow to impress upon me?”  Find some people who you want to be like, spiritually, practically, emotionally, etc. and hang around them.  Let them shape you." -Adam

Don’t Romanticize the Past

“Don’t romanticize the past. When I think of Davis, I think of senior year: Margarita Mondays, laying on the quad, knowing where everything was, being invited to so many activities on the weekends I had to say no to most of them. Then I moved to Madison and all of that changed: I had nothing to do on the weekends and no friends to do it with, and if I did, I wouldn't have been able to find it. But what I really should be thinking about is Davis in year 1… I think it took me a year or even two before I had truly close friends in CL… Now, that still wasn't as hard, but I definitely was lonely, somewhat lost, etc. This thing just takes time. If I stay in Madison for 4 years, I'm sure I'll love it here too and consider it home- I just don't yet--- but I'm starting too.-Adam[9]

We've almost been married/graduated for 4 years now and it's only been in the last year that we've found people we consider to be friends. –Kate

Friendship takes time. Intimacy requires accumulated shared experiences (which are rarer if you aren’t living in such close proximity). So you can’t compare the relationships of your first year out of college with those of your 4th year of college. Remember how lonely and alienating that freshman year was. And remember what it took to develop those intimate relationships. Do it again. The only way you will have deep friendships 4 years out of college is if you start immediately.


You’ve got to learn to budget. The financial world gets real and learning how to budget your money correctly is key. - Adam

Only a couple of the students mentioned money, but I will. This transition is an amazing opportunity. Because many college students are used to living on almost nothing…and will suddenly have substantially more than nothing. It is difficult to cut back on your standard of living. It is much easier to keep it from growing…or at least mitigate the rate at which it grows. The longer you can live on college expenses, while you make professional money, the more you will be able to save for the financial strains of a family and the more generous you will be able to be. Try to carefully pace the growth of your standard of living. Try to make choices so your expenses grow more slowly than your income. And then save and give.


Talk about work as worship. Talk about how every job includes things you don't like, even ministry jobs (especially?). Having the proper motivation for work (and domestic life too) is key or you'll just wanna quit. You're going to spend the best hours of the best years of your life working. You're going to spend more time at work than you do with your wife in your lifetime. How and why you work is a BIG part of living as a disciple of Jesus. -Adam

I will talk about this. But I have much more to say on it…to the point that it will get its own post.

This post was written while listening to the Bison station on Pandora


[1] There are two types of talks I give at our college ministry: 1) exegetical and 2) sapiential. I prefer the former because it outsources the responsibility for truth to a more reliable source than my deeply flawed understanding of people and reality. But sometimes, living a responsible, kind, caring Christian life in the modern world requires thinking about a topic that ancient texts do not weigh in on directly. In these cases, the Christian scriptures call us to ‘seek wisdom’. So some talks end up being sapiential or wisdom talks. Here’s the problem. I’m not that wise. So, in general, I do a lot of reading and interviews to try to stockpile second-hand wisdom on the topic of interest. This is generally how my dating talks go (see the series from January and February) and it’s how this one went.

[2] Harold is, apparently my kind of guy. Tolstoy and FD are my two favorite fictional authors.

[3] I know there are some people who will hate Brooks reflexively based on his political affiliation and some of his curious recent commentary on economics. But this was a really good book (which will show up in a future post and my year end reading list) and I generally find Brooks helpful and nuanced even when I disagree.

[4] This was one of the hardest aspects of the transition to me. In grad school I’d work for 2 hrs at my desk, move to a study lounge for 2 hours, move to a computer lab for 2 hrs, read in the union for 2 hrs and then go home and work for a couple hours. Sitting at the same desk and staring at the same wall all day was deadening.

[5] You could argue that 20-year-olds of diverse culture, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, belief systems, and gender – that go to the same undergrad - still have way more in common with each other than they do with the 28 year old software developer who has been laid off for 3 months, the 32 year old stay at home mom, the 40 year old stock trader, the 46 year old migrant worker, or the 67 year old retired grandmother.

[6] Now it is easy to write this off as pride, but there is also a certain measure of guilt that Christians can feel if they know they are underutilized. There is a balance here in Christian spirituality. We are urged to be self skeptical about our abilities and not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought (which psychologists tell us, is a natural and ubiquitous human inclination). But we are also called to be careful not to waste our lives. This is the tension of followership. We need to simultaneously actively reject arrogance and advocate for potential contributions we could make.

[7] Old people tended to love it, while recent grads warned me that it was potentially hurtful. It took me a while to sort out how they were both right.

[8] My regrets are not that I worked too hard in my early twenties…it’s that I wish I worked harder…and I kind of worked my ass off.

[9] I ended up making this the last cut from my talk, and it was the hardest cut…because it is really wise.