Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Hardware envy

This Thanksgiving, as everyone was whipping out their cameras to take pictures of the kids, my father looked at my camera and said, "My God! That thing is huge!"

Well, he's right. It's a six-year-old Sony Cybershot, and it's about the six of a box of animal crackers. But what makes it more interesting is that this same camera elicited whistles of appreciation from the same man five years ago.

There's nothing new about hardware getting old . . . or men talking about their computers or gadgets they way they used to talk about their cars. But it's not just the hardware that's changing -- the people who are using it is changing just as fast. A seventy-year-old man is dissing my camera. Before you know it, some homeless man is going to laugh at my Cybershot and ask if I looted a Salvation Army depot to get it. And I'm going to sound like the crufty old geezer still typing his letters with WordStar on a PC Junior -- "Well, it works fine for me, I don't really need anything newer . . . "

This may be my first keeping-up-with-the-Jones moment . . . where I stopped to wonder whether I should buy something new, not because I wanted it, or needed it, but because I wondered what people would think of me because of it.



Friday, November 24, 2006


Reviewing a movie in the same year that it came out is doing pretty good for me, so I don't feel too awkward writing about Cars. Reviewers generally liked it, but thought it was the weakest offering from Pixar so far, partially because of the difficult nature of making a car world emotionally engaging, but also because of slow pacing. Even knowing all that, the shortcomings did not make themselves conscious to me. I enjoyed it the whole way through.

Yes, there were times when I felt the awkwardness of the premise . . . it became most noticable when the romantic tensions reached their peaks. We can go with the car thing through infatuation, even flirtation, but once we reach immanent physical intimacy, our brains just stop, with nowhere to go. And the windshield eyes were just an eensy bit distracting at times.

The only thing about the pacing that seemed off was the fact that the plot elements were so predictable. I would have enjoyed the surprise plot elements -- the Hornet as crew chief, Guido as pit crew, the backwards driving -- if they had been genuine surprises. But I still enjoyed them, especially Guido.

The biggest surprise for me was the fact that the story stuck to its guns on its moral position. Most Hollywood pictures would let the small-town team boost Lightning McQueen to victory. A few Hollywood pictures would have the guts to let Lightning sacrifice his victory to let the King win his last race. But precious few would really have the wisdom to celebrate defeat, to recognize genuine sacrifice, and to let the hollowness of victory-at-all-costs reveal itself. What's more, it felt quite realistic; I really could imagine something of that sort happening on the NASCAR circuit. NASCAR is full of personalities and tradition and stories; it is a serious sport, and yet it has the same sort of larger-than-life dramas that puts it somewhere between reality TV and professional wrestling. It only makes sense that the big sponsorship would go, not the car that won the race, but to the car that won the most fans; and even more sensible that the car wouldn't throw over his original sponsors. That, more than anything, made the movie feel true to the NASCAR spirit that bred it. While they did a perfect deadpan sendup of the driver giving his sponsor's plug, they also wouldn't dream of letting Lightning giving up on Rust-Eaze. Some things are still sacred.


No thanks

I wrote a rather curmudgeon-y post about things I didn't like about Thanksgiving. For some reason, I couldn't bring myself to post it. It seems heretical, almost sinful, to show anything other than genuine thanks on this day. I could get cranky about the usual shortcomings -- extravagance, materialism, veniality, shallowness -- but what do I really achieve? Carping shrinks the soul.

Upon further reflection, I realized that my rant was just symptomatic of holiday depression. There's nothing like a big conspicuous celebration of abundance to make you aware of unhappiness. Not the unhappiness of deprivation -- "boo hoo, everyone else has something to be thankful for, but not me." I mean the unhappiness of abundance: "O my God, I have everything you could possibly want in life, and yet I still feel like I'm missing something."

I don't know if this is merely par-for-the-course existential awareness, or something significant in me. I am a big believer in the spirituality of gratitude; I have a plaque with the Chinese character for "gratitude" in my office. And yet this is one of the days where I can count on being glum for no good reason.

I have a dog, Max, who was very submissively high-strung when he was a pup. I think he must have routinely been pushed out of the feed-bowl or something, when he had no home, because he found it almost impossible to relax with something good. If we gave him a rawhide chew, he would just hold it in his mouth, hiding in his crate and whimpering. It tortured him to have something simple and good, because he was sure it would be taken away from him at any moment. Sometimes I think I'm like Max: consciousness of my blessings becomes a curse, because it only increases anxiety of immanent loss. It's easy to see the self-inflicted neuroticism in the dog; much less so in oneself.

It's not enough to have a lot; it's not even enough to have enough. The only peace to be had is when you feel perfectly content with nothing at all.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Amass media

Today we bagged up six garbage bags full of VHS video tape. Seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, five seasons of Angel, faithfully taped, labelled, and stored in indexed shoe boxes. Janet had snagged the bulk of them from reruns on UPN -- we saw much of the series on tape to catch us up to the story somewhere along the fourth or fifth season.

Fans that we were, we eventually acquired the complete DVD sets . . . which occupy about a tenth of the space as the video tapes. Anybody we knew who would have any interest at all in the tapes would most likely already have access to the DVDs (through NetFlix if nothing else). The tapes were too big to ship to someone who wasn't local -- you could probably buy the DVDs for the cost of shipping the VHS. We couldn't even give them away on Craig's List, for fear of some zealous industry lawyer giving us a hard time.

So . . . into the trash bags. With every box, a part of me kept saying, "But . . . but . . . maybe we could reuse the tape," knowing full well that we've taped all of maybe two hours of programs in the last five years. In an age of DVRs like Tivo, how many people are still using tape anyway?

We are attached to things, not by what they give us, but by what we put into them.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Forever drugged

Not too long ago one of my dogs developed a gastrointestinal problem, one that made it almost impossible for her to eliminate without severe pain. Fearing some awful cancer, we popped for a high-end diagnostic. Thankfully, there was no sign of the big C, and by changing her diet and treating her with some steroids, the inflammation was eliminated.

Score one for modern medicine. This is usually where the doctor can (and does) declare victory and forget about the case. But that's not the real end of the story, because, much to my surprise, the medication was supposed to last forever. "In about 75% of cases, the animal needs to keep taking the medication their whole lives," the vet told me. "So," I asked, "How do we find out if she's one of the lucky ones?" I got a long pause from the vet; evidently he doesn't get this question very often. He knew exactly how to get a dog onto this medicine; he didn't know exactly how to get a dog off the medicine . . . nor did he provide a lot of guidance in doing it.

I might not even have asked, except for two inescapable truths:
  1. The medication cost about $50 a month, not enough to bankrupt me but certainly enough to give me pause.
  2. The medication had some really noticable side-effects; it made her ravenously hungry, and changed her from an easy-going dog to one constantly jonesing for every scrap of food.

We backed her off the medication completely. After several weeks she's doing fine, with a modified diet but no steroids. Which leads me to ask some troubling questions:

  1. Long-term clinical studies certainly watch for the effects of medicines used persistently . . . but how much do they look at the long-term effects of not using them? The problem is that the drug companies have absolutely no incentive to study the best way to get someone off a drug. And so, we shouldn't be surprised that we get drugs with instructions to "take a pill a day for the rest of your life."
  2. If the pharmaceutical companies aren't helping people (or animals) get off their drugs, what about the doctors? They don't really have a good incentive, either. Doctors are habitual interventionists; they want to do something. They also don't want to complicate matters by trying to use less of a drug; why mess with it if it's working? And let's not mention all the perks that pharmaceutical companies shower on the doctors.
  3. What about the patients themselves? I could easily, out of laziness or inertia, kept giving my dog the same pills; after all, why mess with something if its working? If I had been the one with knots in my bowels, I might not have been so eager to experiment with backing off medications.
  4. How much trouble are we making for ourselves, by accepting chronic medication? And how can we find out?


Monday, November 20, 2006

"You get wise . . . you get to church"

I stopped commenting on The Purpose-Driven Life lately, because the earbud on my Treo stopped working and I haven't been able to sneak in chapters while driving. But I haven't lost interest.

What I find most remarkable, and what clearly defines the whole purpose-driven movement, is that Warren has identified the church -- the local, tangible community of believers -- as a primary, essential part of the Christian's spiritual mission. That might not seem like news, but in an individualistic American culture there has always been a tendency to see collective spiritual life as valuable but non-essential. How many people do we know, after all, who say they "don't go to church" but still assert that they are "good Christians"?

Warren makes a long and strong case for the primacy of the community. I think he's right, in terms of all the psychological dynamics involved in religious life: it's almost impossible to be really serious about anything without working collectively with others. Unfortunately, I find myself slightly less convinced by his scriptural references. Most of the New Testament is Paul's letters to various churches -- of course it's going to talk about church-building ad nauseum. Jesus himself certainly valued spiritual friendship -- "wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am in their midst" -- but in general he seemed to be knocking heads with organized religion more than touting its benefits.

There is also the inevitable creepy feeling of cultishness in all this talk of the primacy of spiritual community. Warren is calling on people to surrender a huge part of their energy, their autonomy, and their money (oh yes, Warren mentions that specifically, and rather often) to the church and the church leaders. Again, I agree with Warren's basic position; I think everyone does need a spiritual community of some kind, and that a genuine community will require sacrifice. At the same time, I think most people will feel uneasy about all this talk of surrendering to a collective that is specifically authorized by God. The line between dynamic community and mindless conformity is all too thin, and it's only the slightest of nudges before the demands of the church leader becomes the commands of God.

Part of that uneasiness is justified, and part of it is a natural part of the spiritual life. People are perfectly willing to surrender their lives to Jesus, because Jesus does not make a habit of showing up and asking them to change their lives. Surrender sounds absolutely great in the abstract. Preachers, however, do make it their business to ask people to change their lives, and puts very concrete demands on the believer. Suddenly surrender doesn't sound so hot. Suddenly surrender means real sacrifice, and faith is no longer faith in abstract good, but real trust that something good is going to come out of these sacrifices.

Surrender is a primary theme of the Christian faith. And yet, every time it comes up, I have to ask, "What, exactly, are you surrendering to?" If your surrender is an abstract sacrifice to an abstract God, I suspect you might not have given up anything at all. But if that commitment has some teeth, and asks you to do things you wouldn't have done on your own, then it has real meaning. Joining a spiritual community does not assure you that you are getting closer to God, but it definitely will put some teeth into you spiritual life.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Can I copy your sermon?

The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article a few days ago about the growing trend of pastors cribbing part or all of their sermons from online resources like desperatepreacher.com. It's a controversial practice, because such reuse of sermons is largely unacknowledged; parishoners don't realize they are getting a recycled sermon, and some of them feel cheated when they discover that their minister's wit and wisdom is not original.

I can go either way on this one. One the one hand, I can relate to the minister's challenge. I, too, have to come up with new spiritual content for a weekly gathering, and there have been many times when I've "borrowed" meeting ideas from other group leaders or from our own collective archives. That seems only practical.

On the other hand, I've witnessed how much the quality can degenerate when all the resources used are canned. The process of creating the weekly content is a part of what keeps the minister's mind in the right place. If he can't find a new and interesting angle on the teaching, then odds are good that he's not sustaining his own spiritual life sufficiently. The sermon is not just a single performance; it is a barometer of his overall being. In that regard, I think church-goers are being cheated if the content is not original.

When I went to the funeral of a close friend's father, the minister gave a little eulogy that was so banal as to be insulting to the deceased. The central theme was the image of "saving my fork," since the best part of the meal was yet to come. My friend's family was understandably pissed. "My dad did all kinds of things for the church --he helped build the church, he and his family were extremely active for decades. If he stopped to talk to anyone, he could have found more to say than some bullshit about forks." If a minister gets in the habit of recycling material, he runs the risk of missing opportunities to say something important about the people and situations that are at hand.