Monday, July 30, 2012

The First Shall Be Last, and the Servant of All

Marcia Moston, Call of A Coward: The God of Moses and the Middle-Class Housewife

Many of us blithely sing “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back,” on a Sunday morning with no regard for what that actually means. But Christ didn’t hedge when he said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” If we believe God is great, and God has a path for us, we must accept that God’s path far exceeds the small plans we make for ourselves.

New Jersey housewife Marcia Moston found this out the hard way when her husband came back from a church trip to Guatemala and informed her that he had been called to take over a shelter for widows and orphans, in a Mayan village so isolated that it didn’t have phone service. That makes no sense, Moston said. She was a church volunteer, a loving witness, a model of good American Christianity. What more did the Lord want?

As it turns out, everything. Moston found herself at what Bonhoeffer would have called the choice between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” If we believe Christ has redeemed us, we must ask what we’ve been redeemed for. Do we bestow God’s blessings on ourselves and keep living as we always have, or do we trust the Lord to have a plan for our lives, even if we cannot see it at the moment? Too few Christians ask themselves that question.

Moston had to give up the comforts we associate with American living, and venture into a country so underdeveloped that she had to get cooking water from a cistern in the ground. But as she recounts in this memoir full of touching poignancy and unexpected humor, God coached her to discover resilience she didn’t know she had. She learned to love with a depth and commitment she never would have discovered in her suburban life.

She also learned the importance of giving up control. We humans have this pathological need to believe we can control our circumstances, but something always sidelines us, such as recognizing our debts to others in need. But we can also make an idol of the very goals we believe God gave us. So just as Moston got comfy in Guatemala, her whole family came down with rolling hepatitis, cutting her mission short.

The idea of calling is not unique to Christianity. Secular psychologists have a similar concept, under the heading of “disposition.” Joseph Campbell explained that we all have something we are meant to do in this life, and until we start doing that thing, everything else will make us unhappy. I suspect that many Christians in the pews can relate to this feeling.

Moston believed, not unreasonably, that God meant for her to work with the disadvantaged in Central America. So when illness forced her family to return to America, and a sudden call turned her urban New Jersey electrician husband into a rural Vermont minister, she thought she’d lost everything her life was supposed to be about. You’d think, after two hard lessons, she’d come to recognize God’s purpose in her strange circumstances.

As it turns out, she found a new calling, connecting New Englanders eager to put their Christian calling to work, with needy Central Americans ready to see what Christianity looks like in action. She also learned that, despite her desire to cede control to others, she has a remarkable gift for leadership. Her ministry has helped link two groups of people, each known for their insularity, in a relationship of Christian reciprocity and unbounded love.

The life Moston describes is one of constant learning and discovery: the life of a Back East woman who thought she knew more than her churchy parents, so she left everything behind, only to find that the promises of this earth aren’t worth much. The life of a born-again housewife who learned that God has a way of turning us out of our complacency. The life of a wayfaring stranger who learned that wherever God plants us, will be our soul’s real home.

This is the book I wanted when I read Joe Loconte’s The Searchers. Where Loconte dances around the idea of Christianity as a journey we must undertake with our God, Moston recounts what it’s like to go through such a real and arduous journey. In her case, it involved literally moving from place to place. But the more important journey took place inside her soul, as she learned the difference between her culture and her faith.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Copy This Copyright Rant

A promising-looking petition on the White House website asks the administration to reverse the ongoing trend in copyright law, which has repeatedly extended the term of copyright protection. For individual work, like this blog, the term now extends seventy years beyond the creator’s death, meaning these words may be protected for well over a century. Work made for hire is now protected for 120 years after its creation. 120 years!

The petition does include one error. It wants to restore the term of copyright to its “original” 28-year duration. But America’s first copyright law, the Copyright Act of 1790, gave works a protected life of fourteen years, with the option of a fourteen-year renewal. The Founding Fathers wanted to protect the creators of original works, but in a primarily agrarian economy, the imperative to tinker with common knowledge was a powerful motivator to growth and well-being.

Who, then, benefits from copyright protection that won’t lapse until our great-grandchildren are in their dotage? Certainly not writers, by which I mean novelists, poets, and journalists. Most books published in America sell the bulk of their copies in the first year. Stephen King may butter his bread with The Shining for decades, but most working writers crank out one book (or more) per year because that’s how long they can expect to receive residuals.

Visual artists may receive some payments for the licensing of their work. But for the most part, they make most of their money on the original sale of the work. They, too, have to keep producing to get paid. Superstar actors may receive residuals, but most actors get paid a salary. And most musicians don’t make any money on their recordings; they make their living mainly on live performance, and have to tour incessantly to cover routine bills.

Creative Commons
MIT economist Erich von Hippel, in his book Democratizing Innovation, makes a persuasive case that technology producers are not helped by intensive copyright and patent protection. Apple Computer, for instance, is renowned for its innovation, yet is famously slow in reconciling real consumer need to engineering interest. Linux Red Hat and Mozilla Firefox, both open source technologies with massive end user adjustments, have proven more useful for most consumers.

In short, creative people receive little benefit from marathon copyrights. To see who does benefit, consider the most recent amendment to American copyright law, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. More specifically, look at its most common nickname: the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. Bono ramrodded the act through a compliant Congress at the behest of Disney, a major contributor, because protections were about to lapse on “Steamboat Willie.”

More generally, long copyright protections serve the interest of filmmakers. Because of the ease of consumption and the constantly upgrading technologies of distribution, films have a very long life expectancy. Right now, movies created in 1923 remain under copyright, meaning only the classic silents and the very earliest talkies have lapsed into public domain. Note that they have this protection, not for creating the films, but for distributing them.

The creative personnel behind classics like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and Citizen Kane have already made and spent their money from these films. Indeed, nearly the entire cast and crew of these films are long dead. Yet the studio executives, who mostly were not born when the films were made, continue drawing residuals for nothing more than keeping the films circulating. This creates a huge gap between creative work and economic reward.

This problem has spilled over into other creative endeavors. American courts continue to dither over whether music recorded for major labels constitutes proprietary creative work, or work for hire. The difference means not just who owns the recordings, but what distribution protections it entails: work for hire means a long guaranteed income for the labels. Proprietary work means a more variable protection guaranteed to the artist.

Guess which one corporations favor.

That’s why, starting today, I release part of my rights on this blog. Look at the righthand side of your screen, at the bottom of the column, and you will see my new Creative Commons license, allowing you to share my work, as long as you keep my name on it and don’t try to sell my words.

Copyright terms that will outlive children not yet born serve to protect only one force: the corporations that hold the keys of access. But creativity is too important to belong to corporations. Please sign the petition for freer creativity today.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

One More Contribution to the Season of Lincoln

Stephen L. Carter, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln: A Novel

Though 11th Grade History extols Lincoln as the President who won America’s Civil War, in his time, Americans regarded him as a moderate. He refused to punish Southerners who surrendered, balked at Sherman’s “total war” tactics, and greeted Lee’s surrender by ordering the band to play “Dixie.” This made him popular with the masses, but the extremists who always get elected to office couldn’t stand him, and didn’t flinch to say so.

Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter imagines a world in which Lincoln survived Booth’s 1865 assassination attempt. In 1867, the Old Rail-splitter dangles between the Radical Republicans, who want a harsh, military-based Reconstruction, and a loose affiliation of moderates, Democrats, moneyed interests, and wealthy deal-makers, who want... something. With feuding conspiracies at his heels, Lincoln has to go outside the government for his defense.

Abigail Canner has just started clerking for a Washington law firm. She hopes to be America’s first black woman lawyer, but she has to earn her stripes from the bottom up. When her boss, Lincoln’s personal attorney, is gruesomely murdered with a black prostitute, and the police show no interest in the investigation, Abigail grabs a spade and starts digging. What she uncovers shakes her faith in Lincoln, law, and the American system to her core.

Carter accomplishes a remarkable feat, creating a setting that is remarkably gripping and energetic, yet primarily cerebral. His world rides on the strength of legal argument and testing evidence. Many stereotypical components of legal thrillers put in only brief appearances: this setting is rich in harsh words, yet remarkably nonviolent. Romance is subdued, constrained by the etiquette of its day, and courtship happens from the neck up.

Yet it’s also a world in which much is at stake. America’s first-ever Presidential impeachment will inevitably have lingering consequences for the nation: executive power or parliamentary? Hard money or soft? Military payback or careful forgiveness? Most important, how will voters take what amounts to a legalized coup d’etat? These questions permit no easy answers, and Carter keeps readers guessing remarkably late in the book.

This story takes remarkably few liberties. Much of Carter’s “case” against Lincoln comes from the impeachment of his Vice President, Andrew Johnson. But Johnson was regarded as a lucky drunk, foisted into the Presidency by blind chance and someone else’s politics. When the same sectarian divides attack a popular war President, the stakes increase exponentially. A case that actually turned on one vote now spills blood and threatens to restart the war.

Carter has published several legal thrillers in which past secrets collide with present exigencies. To date, he has mostly used contemporary settings, and where he has ventured into history, he has kept it within living memory. His decision to go back nearly 150 years sets a new standard for his own work. His level of ambition comes across in his prose, which is dense and slow-moving, but well worth the investment.

We seem to be in some kind of “Season of Lincoln” right now. Considering media lead times, it can’t be collusion that caused this book to appear so close to the movie version of Seth Graeme-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Sometimes a cultural moment occurs when we all turn to face the same icon at the same time. Right now, that seems to be Abraham Lincoln.

Remember, Lincoln did more than just win the war. He held America together when Diamondbacks, Radicals, night riders, and others wanted to pull it apart. Regions of the nation were permanently at each other’s throats. Election days could often end in fistfights, and so could Congressional debates. Language we wouldn’t use on our worst enemies became the lingua franca of political discourse.

The parallel with today’s America couldn’t be any more blatant.

Maybe the nation needs a new Lincoln. Obama voters thought their candidate could fill that role, which explains the messianic tone surrounding his inauguration. But it’s hard to imagine a candidate of such restraint and discretion getting elected today, when name-calling and bald lies dominate political ads. Instead of making false promises, Carter conjures our need for a new Lincoln by reminding us who the first Lincoln really was.

This book could easily descend into either hero worship or extended silliness. It’s a testament to Carter’s legal acumen and storytelling prowess that this remains a gripping, thoughtful, exciting read. And it rewards readers by resisting easy answers and proffering food for thought which will linger long after you close the cover for the last time.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

American Car Culture Has To Go

Does anybody really enjoy driving anymore? That’s not a rhetorical question. Do you revel in the call of the open road, spend time behind the wheel as a recreational pastime, or “get your kicks on Route 66”? I doubt it. Cars have had a far-reaching impact on American life, American cities, and American expectations. And if we believe our own senses, these effects have been less than salutary.

An NPR report this week repeats grumbles, which reporter Franklyn Cater admits are a century old, that American cities pursue “war on cars.” As proof, Cater notes cities creating dedicated bus, bike, and pedestrian lanes; aggressive speeding and parking enforcement; and refusing to widen congested urban streets. Such measures aim to slow traffic and encourage walking or car-pooling. Some people are angry because the measures work.

Research and statistics repeatedly reveal that Americans enjoy the idea of cars. We like the principle that we could crank the ignition and motor across the continent simply because we take a wild hair. A remarkable number of Americans compare their feelings for their cars to romantic love. Many people give their cars names and treat them as members of their family. Some even admit they buy gifts for their cars on Christmas and Valentine’s day.

But those same stats reveal a different picture when we get past the broad strokes and actually look at the brass tacks of owning an automobile. Ask about insurance payments, maintenance costs, commute times, the DMV, skyrocketing gas prices, and the frustration of changing the oil on a hot summer day. No, really: ask somebody. The story will veer remarkably from our great national car narrative.

The myth of the Great American Road Trip has given way, in many cities, to ninety minute commutes. The ease of getting from place to place seems less impressive in much new urban sprawl, so vast and intricate that we cannot find our destination without military-grade satellite technology. Car culture has become so frustrating that many people, including me, joke that we’d be unable to drive if we injured our middle fingers.

Only cars enable today’s single-use urban development. City planners no longer include public parks in subdivisions, and it’s unsafe for kids to play in the streets. It’s hard to organize three-on-three basketball in a sloping driveway, so we should not act surprised when kids prefer to stay inside, watching TV and playing X-Box, feeling increasingly alienated from peers and society.

And that’s just kids. When even sallying forth to the supermarket requires a journey worthy of Odysseus, who can blame adults for not getting involved in community activities?

If cars have a deleterious effect on individuals, the cumulative effect is worse. I dread to think how much productivity we squander on daily commutes. Many cities, during rush hour, smell like the smoking section of an unwashed men’s locker room. And because we’re encased in our hermetically sealed capsules, we reduce the number of chance encounters with diverse people daily, shrinking our creativity quotient.

I did the math recently. I need my car for work, but spend much of my paycheck maintaining my car—the primal vicious circle. Without my car, I could shave five hours off my work week. That’s five hours for family, or hobbies, or growing a garden, or catching up on sleep. No wonder France and Germany, with the world’s best mass transit, have 35-hour legal work weeks, versus America’s stultifying 40-hour standard.

Frustratingly, the poorer individuals are, the further they likely live from work. Thus, the people who would benefit most from a reduced car culture are the people who can least afford to abandon their cars. Buses and taxis seldom visit the poor side of town. That’s why routine tinkering around the edges disappoints, because the problem is so integrated into our lives. Extracting it will be painful.

We cannot eliminate all cars. We rely on automobiles for mail and package delivery, safe transport of perishables, and emergency services. My parents, living in the country, would be trapped without their car. But if we compare the vast marginal costs to the limited core benefits, we know that most of us are not better off for owning cars.

Finding ways to minimize our automotive reliance will cause pain and dislocation in the short term. But for our long-term health as individuals and a society, we must reduce car culture to the smallest possible size. Our cars stand between us and our homes, our communities, and real human life.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Refuting the Myth of the Sci-Fi Virgin

Hugo Gernsback
James Reich, writing in, declared that we can trace the stereotype of the sexually misaligned science fiction nerd back to Hugo Gernsback, the pioneering magazine editor who largely laid the genre’s modern foundations. Gernsback’s nigh-Victorian aversion to sex, in contrast to the lurid exhibitionism of the penny pulps of his day, in Reich’s telling, set the stage for a neutered genre that persists to this day.

Reich’s theory is elegant in its simplicity. If we can trace a single continuous line of sexual dysfunction over the course of nearly a century, then we have a main critical thread that permeates the literature. There’s something satisfying about laying the trajectory of an entire publishing genre at the feet of a single man. Reich’s photo of a buck-toothed nerd sandwiched between two pairs of boobs makes a nice touch.

This theory also spits in the eye of reason.

Do we really believe a single editor’s grab for upmarket panache has influenced youths’ sexual development for nearly ninety years? Has no other editor really had sufficient influence on the genre as to leave a mark on its mores? That arrogates a lot of power to one man, who is conveniently not around to rebut the argument. And it assumes its audience is beholden to a moral structure that was already wheezy when Gernsback channeled it.

Reich’s thesis requires its audience to approach the literature as a complete sexual tabula rasa. It requires science fiction readers to remain immune to the influence of parents, teachers, peers, religious leaders, and other role models. It requires readers to stick their fingers in their ears and close their eyes when faced with today’s sex-obsessed popular culture. And it requires them to never read any literature other than science fiction.

It starts to seem somewhat unlikely.

Isaac Asimov
Unfortunately, Reich sees a correlation, and assumes that fandom causes sexual repression. But he does nothing to prove causation—because his is not the only explanation, or even the best one. I find it altogether more probable that people who are drawn to a life of the mind, and feel at best torn and ambivalent about fleshly appetites, would gravitate to literature that shares their values.

At one time, such readers probably would have read mystery fiction. Its use of complex mental puzzles would have satisfied the longing for intellectual stimulation, and broadly sexless protagonists like Auguste Dupin, Miss Marple, and Sherlock Holmes would have let the thinking audience feel comfy in their own skin. Cozy mysteries, with their overwhelmingly cerebral appeal, would have been just what such nerds needed.

But the intrusion of swinging masculinity, by authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, let in much of the primal physicality that brainy readers wanted to avoid. It’s impossible to read mystery today without encountering sex in such detail as to cross even jaded Lotharios’ eyes. The genre is now laced with heaving bosoms, sucker punches, and other flourishes that Agatha Christie would have lamented as unevolved.

Meanwhile, science and technology came to dominate the public discourse, giving rise to slickly published science fiction. Who can blame nerds for leaving the mystery fold and migrating to a genre that spoke to their desires? Reich’s “Raygun Gothic” provided a home for a certain audience for half a century. But since the 1980s, this genre too has attracted an increasing sexual forthrightness, and many nerds now favor fantasy or nonfiction.

Harlan Ellison
That said, Reich does dance close to one lingering consequence of Gernsback’s legacy, without ever quite touching it. Long quotes and allusions to Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, and Harlan Ellison, who had to push back against censorious publishers, which wanted to dumb SF language to that acceptable on Saturday morning cartoons. That, unfortunately, we can lay on Gernsback’s lap.

Gernsback was unabashed in advocating his pedagogical purposes with his “scientifiction.” He wanted to use the tropes of boys’ adventure fiction to teach youth the ways and reasoning of growing science. This inculcated the attitude that SF is for children—and that reading SF is symptomatic of arrested childhood. This belief proves remarkably durable, outside the genre audience, despite copious evidence of serious adult readership.

In short, Reich’s thesis only makes sense to outsiders, and only if they don’t think too hard about it. Hugo Gernsback made a limp bid for post-Victorian respect. James Reich uses that hoary grab to infantilize science fiction audiences decades after the fact. I ask you: which of the two really holds legitimate, intellectually ambitious readers back?

Monday, July 16, 2012

An Ambient Beat for a Modern Heart

Silentaria, What's Real?

Composer Rixa White’s solo electronic extravaganza appears, at first blush, to have much in common with, Vangelis, Jon Anderson’s Yes, and other synthpop veterans. It’s certainly a nostalgic throwback. But Silentaria doesn’t merely mimic thirty-year-old pop icons; it also throws in an aggressive bass line that provides a fuller sound than first-wave synthpop ever enjoyed, bolstered with occasional dance floor rhythms and muscular mixed genre sounds.

On its website, Silentaria bills itself as “the Voice of Emptiness,” presumably in reference to Buddhist meditation techniques. But I’m not sure how well it lives up to that name. I mean that in a good way: this album has a very full, rich sound, making best use of its conventional and programmed instruments. It pushes Eastern pentatonic scales and Western staggered harmonies together in ways that, while not always surprising, are certainly never boring.

Like many such ambient music ensembles, Silentaria is essentially one man, and as much a triumph of engineering as musicality. Rixa White, a software entrepreneur, turned his attention to composing and recording in 2010, and this is his second album. Like those who paved the road he travels (Yanni and Kitaro come to mind), White uses his synthesizer to combine conventional piano composition and a programmed orchestra in a large, theatrical soundscape.

Silentaria’s music relies less on virtuosity and more on pattern recognition, as this style often does. But Silentaria is not satisfied to have its music permeate below the level of conscious recognition, in the best Hearts of Space tradition. Tracks like “Vital Doubts” and “Consciousness” have athletic pacing and driving percussion lines that demand to be heard. Even White’s softer compositions shift tempos and instrumentations enough to keep your attention hooked.

Rixa White
Then, when White has your attention, he upsets your expectations. Tracks like “Curtains Over Eyes” and “Real Fantasia” may sound like ordinary ambient music if you listen with only half an ear, but closer examination reveals unanticipated contrasts. Shakuhachi beneath skirling electric guitars; intricate symphonic orchestrations over pining wordless sighs. White’s compositions reward active listeners with curiosity enough to follow his changes.

White also makes well-considered use of samples. Sounds of weather, children playing, and animals in their habitat crop up at unexpected times, reminiscent of the pioneering work by acts like Mira Calix and Atom Heart. Even the human voices that peek through the wall of electronica come by way of White’s programming. I particularly appreciate that White can synth human voices without using that ubiquitous, tiresome AutoTune flutter we keep hearing everywhere.

And White also isn’t above a certain amount of winking irony. My favorite track, “Sorrowful Truth,” moves with great thoughtfulness, but nothing like the mournful plod the title implies. As it accelerates toward the end, throwing on playful woodwind hooks and humming wordless choir, we start to grasp White’s message: that when sorrow and truth come into competition, only one can triumph. Sorrow may be necessary, but truth is brimming with vitality and might.

I can’t pretend I have no problems with this album. Some of the tracks don’t live up to the high standards White sets himself. “Diversion,” for instance, is undercut by a cheesy beeping descant, an obvious composer’s fingerprint somewhere between a touch-tone phone and R2-D2. And the title track, one of the few with lyrics (and few enough it is), features a growling male voice demanding: “What’s real?” A female voice provides the answer every Beatles fan has already supplied: “Nothing is real.”

But these brief misfires do not set the tone for the entire album. On the whole, we can roll our eyes at such frankly ordinary choices in the odd deep album cut because the rest of the album has the power to carry us through. At least it tries, and tries harder than any five random pop confections. White’s smart orchestration and intricate programming result in a sound that is at once rooted in an electronic tradition, yet not so hidebound that it sounds the same as every other New Age drone we’ve all heard before.

Much ambient music sounds good for one or two tracks, but sticking with the artists over the length of an album can be difficult. As track mounts on track, they often reveal rhythms so unvarying that you could do Pilates with them and never miss a beat. Silentaria, however, has crafted an album that is emphatically not a soundtrack for jogging or vacuuming. Rixa White puts himself through hard changes, and expects you to join him on the journey.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Road to Emmaus Is Not Straight or Paved

Joseph Loconte, The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Christian books and Sunday sermons are different. One is printed, the other oral. One lets the audience set the pace, while the other exists under external time constraints. One encourages careful unpacking and examination of claims, while the other has little opportunity to do more than illustrate points. So why do authors lose sight of this distinction?

When I learned that Manhattan historian and policy expert Joseph Loconte had turned his scholarly eye to the Road to Emmaus narrative, I had high hopes. As a classic expression of the doubt all Christians suffer when life collides with our faith, Emmaus retains a central place in Protestant theology. In a sense, we all find ourselves on a journey of doubt, often unaware of who is on the road with us.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the Road to Emmaus is a part of the Resurrection narrative unique to the Gospel of Luke. Two Christians walk home on Easter Sunday, having survived the turmoil of the Crucifixion. Deep in despair, they converse with a third traveler, a stranger who expounds to them on the true meaning of the Law and the Prophets. Only when they sit to eat do our two Christians recognize the stranger as the resurrected Jesus.

Loconte uses Emmaus as a metaphor for the struggles Christians face when life’s turmoils intrude. When marriages implode, loved ones die, or any other great tragedy upsets our lives, we find ourselves in a very real sense walking a dark road, unsure of our destination. Only at the conclusion, when we see Jesus face to face, do we understand the purposes God has always had for us and our lives.

Yet somehow, Loconte circles the point without ever touching it. He approaches the point with endless throat-clearing, constantly introducing topics but never really touching their core. More than once, I thought Loconte was about to say something profound, but instead, he would end the chapter, skipping merrily onto the next idea. I repeatedly found myself ruefully shaking my head, wondering what went wrong.

It occurred to me that Loconte might mean to introduce topics at a level suitable for a general reader. I read a lot of theology, and Loconte might have a target audience less steeped in Christian thought than me. Yet when he introduces illustrations like John Ford movies, the Buddha’s journey, and the writings of Joan Didion—then repeatedly walks away—I wonder what audience wouldn’t feel confused and let down?

I keep reading Loconte approaching the inherent profundity of our human need for a spiritual journey. He talks about people faced with divorce, death, and even the 9/11 catastrophe, who confront these crises by simply giving up on God. The difference between these people, and those who find their faith strengthened, as I see it, is whether their spiritual journey actually commences. But Loconte evidently misses this.

Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, notes that all cultures and nations share a myth in which true believers journey through death, into renewed and purged life. Some refuse that journey. When the gods summon them from their comfort and rest, into the walk of rebirth, those people call the gods “monsters.” They cling to the life they have, even if it gives only hollow comfort, and never discover why they were born.

The hero, though, embraces that journey. The hero leaves everything familiar, and acts on trust. Like Abraham, Moses, or Christ in the desert, the hero wanders in search of purpose. The hero always dies. Whether literal death, like Jesus, or figurative death, like Moses’ exile, the hero only knows rebirth when old life has fully and permanently passed away.

While all cultures share this myth, only Christians have the Spirit to walk with us. Buddha may guide, or the prophets point the way, but all other faiths send sojourners on the path of new life alone. Christians believe we have Christ at our side. That’s why the Emmaus journey looms so large in our theology, despite only occurring in one Gospel, because we all walk that road, but we need not walk alone.

Loconte dances around this idea, never quite reaching it. He’s so busy with his illustrations, sermon notes, and other cow paths, that he misses the opportunity to share a profound insight. I think Loconte has all the pieces in his hands. He just hasn’t assembled them in a way that communicates with his audience.

On a related topic:
If God Is Awesome, Why Is Christian Lingo So Tedious?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Who's Gay? Who's Not? Who Cares?

Last week’s revelation that CNN’s Anderson Cooper is gay delivered the usual chorus of applause and catcalls. Some people praised his forthrightness, and his willingness to come forward as a public figure. Others condemned him as the latest embodiment of America’s moral decline. The response was as predictable as online Twilight fan fiction. And it all overlooked one important question: does it matter?

Cooper has spent over two decades cultivating the respect of broadcasting executives and viewing audiences for his solid, authoritative reporting. He gained attention by sneaking into Burma with a forged press pass and providing some of the only quality coverage during the military regime’s repressive crackdowns. This presaged his high-intensity career. He has parlayed early accomplishments into a reputation on par with Edward R. Murrow.

And he has done that without recourse to whom he has sex with.

When Cooper’s announcement hit the news last week, I couldn’t help flashing back to 1997, when actress Ellen DeGeneres outed herself on the cover of Time magazine. I remember feeling quite offended by this news—not that the star of a top sitcom was openly gay, but because a respected news source considered this front page material. Was there really nothing more newsworthy in the world that week?

As a society, we have become grotesquely fascinated with celebrities’ sexual proclivities. Recent disclosures that sitcom star Jim Parsons has been in a relationship with the same man for ten years, or that Gillian Anderson has had relationships with both women and men, have had entertainment rags practically salivating. Whether stars want it or not, their sex lives make profitable fodder for the ancillary media that accrues to them.

Yet I wonder who cares. Jim Parsons’ sexuality will not affect my enjoyment of The Big Bang Theory. I won’t burn my X-Files DVDs because Scully is eyeing the same women I am. I see a certain relevance when Ricky Martin or Melissa Etheridge, who sing love songs, let us know which category of people they have in mind as they sing, but even that runs kind of peripheral, because they’re good songs, regardless.

Yet our obsession with celebrity sex has distorted our approach to popular culture. One side so eagerly wants to make heroes that they rush people into the public eye before they’re ready, like Richard Chamberlain, or after they’re dead, like Malcolm Forbes. The other side is so offended by homosexuality that they invent lurid tales of decadence and moral collapse. Celebrity sex turns liberals into exhibitionists, and conservatives into pornographers.

Admittedly, some people do have legitimate reasons to publicize their sexuality. Barney Frank, the first openly gay member of Congress, wanted to let constituents know where his loyalties lay, and thus how he would likely vote. Apparently, Massachusetts voters didn’t disapprove. George Takei has a thriving career as an activist, and certainly he has a right to let fellow travelers know he has “skin in the game,” pardon the expression.

But when celebrity sex become public domain, the result is consistently dangerous. Consider the Kardashians, whose romances, marriages, and pregnancies resemble a flea circus on meth. Many people wonder why Kim Kardashian ended her highly profitable marriage so quickly, by airing dirty laundry in public. The answer is simple: because she lacks any marketable skill besides her sex. Without public attention to her genitals, she has no way to make a living.

I don’t want to be seen saying that all celebrity sex is tawdry, or that all gay celebs should keep silent. When Sean Maher came out recently, for instance, he did so with the noble goal of giving gay youth a positive role model. With his stable relationship and growing family, Maher provides a sterling example of how open homosexuals are legitimate members of their communities. His openness helps raise the bar of the discussion of sex in society.

And if Anderson Cooper wants the world to know he’s gay, God bless him. He should no more have to conceal his fondness for men than I should conceal my fondness for women. But that, in itself, doesn’t make him admirable or heroic. Recent coverage threatens to obscure his contributions as a journalist, reducing him to a bland icon like Judy Garland, who reputedly ended life shuffling through motions that no longer interested her.

As a nation, we owe it to our celebrities to stop looking up their trouser legs. Let’s lionize them for what they do, not who they sleep with then the cameras shut down.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Finding the Facts in a Very Cluttered Case

DiAnn Mills, The Chase: A Novel

Diann Mills presents a Christian thriller novel, which apparently means no cussing and chaste romance, but remarkably blunt scenes of brutal violence. I like a lot about this book, from its interesting characters and nuanced interactions, to its well-paced, almost cinematic portrayal of a story based on a real-world case. Mills’ adaptation of real characters and situations gives her story verisimilitude. Yet she keeps finding ways to take me out of the story.

Kariss Walker, former Houston media starlet, left journalism to make a living writing chick-lit. But the last case she reported for the evening news, about a young girl found starved to death outside an apartment complex on the bad side of town, won’t let her go. So she decides to restart her career as a suspense novelist, and in pursuit of the best possible story, she teams with the local field office of the FBI for some field research.

Too bad her weatherbeaten training officer, Agent Tigo Harris, cares more for a gunrunning sting he hopes will stop American rifles funneling to Mexican drug cartels. Pursuing this Holy Grail, Tigo stonewalls Kariss, takes crazy dangerous risks, and skirts the edge of legality. But when people he cares about start dying, Tigo realizes an outside eye, like Kariss offers, might clinch the deal and stop the Arroyos, who are less a gang and more domestic terrorists.

Ignore that Mills pilfers the premise behind the TV series Castle. Even Mills obliquely acknowledges this fact. These are pretty interesting stories. The starved baby comes from the Beloved Doe case that baffled Houston for five years, and the gunrunners touch on the power of the headlines. When the two stories converge, as we know they will, they present a conspiracy so intricate, yet so plausible, they make The X-Files look like a bedtime story.

Yet Mills keeps finding ways to get between me and the narrative, reminding me that I’m reading a book. Start with the fact that our main heroine is a novelist, researching how to write... well, how to write the book in my hands. She keeps talking about the author business, phoning agents and publishers, and inserting thoughts about how, wow, this experience I’m having would be great in my novel! I can only describe that as visible authorial fingerprints.

She also alternates between gritty frankness and nigh-Victorian modesty. In the very first chapter, her FBI agent manages to shoot two gang bangers in the chest from a moving car (don’t overthink it). At various times, Mills describes people getting their heads blown off, bodies showing signs of elaborate torture, and several situations where Kariss lives in fear of getting raped. And she describes these scenes with unflinching detail.

Yet her Feds and gangsters won’t drop an f-bomb to save their lives. Really? I kept waiting for somebody to let fly with a good old-fashioned blue streak. I don’t think Jesus would mind if we depicted people talking how people talk. And sex... well, it just doesn’t happen. Our leads have the romantic tension that is mandatory in genre fiction today, yet neither will speak first, so their courtship consists of playing web app games on their smart phones.

Then Mills feels the need to clutter her good, muscular core narrative with more ornaments than a Christmas tree. Tigo’s dying mother; Kariss’ sister pregnant out of wedlock; her ex-brother-in-law, whose banal uptown greasiness hides darker secrets; the deportee father, who discovers his daughter’s grim fate, and searches for his missing wife. It gets hard to keep all the subplots straight.

All these cow paths impinge upon the attention Mills gives her central narrative. The story she promised us gets compressed, and she wanders away for whole chapters. This book could benefit from some judicious trimming, because if Mills had a more austere storyline to hold our attention, she could spend more time fleshing out the story that we readers have hung our hopes on. In other words, Mills should tell less story, but tell it better. This text says she could.

Don’t get me wrong. I read this entire book in two energetic sittings, and don’t regret the time spent. Yet I feel I could have gotten even more out of the experience if it was more tightly focused, and the author invested her energy into telling only one or two plotlines with all the strength she could muster. The thriller market is crowded, and she should reward readers’ investment with the strongest possible story she could tell.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Contemporary Verse and the New Classic Tradition

Aaron Poochigian, The Cosmic Purr: Poems

Too much current poetry falls into two camps: singsong lyrics to soothe risk-averse masses, or image-rich free association evidently designed to alienate the audience. What happened to versifiers like William Blake and Walt Whitman, who saw their ability to reach and challenge readers as a duty and a privilege? Or holy poets like Sophocles and Shakespeare who crafted celebrations of the motivating spirit that makes us both human and divine?

Like his fellow classicist AE Stallings, Aaron Poochigian forms a bridge between the dead luminaries he translates, and today’s introspective verse. He makes use of the ancient, somber forms so many readers love, but he applies them to a muscular contemporary poetic ethos. And though his verse is very new, addressing current concerns for a living audience, it has a lyric texture of something much older, with a robust Greco-Roman spine.

When I say that Poochigian’s verse has an older tenor to it, I don’t mean he presents it like a museum piece. Poetry, for Poochigian, is no mere dead specimen for critics to parse and teachers to enforce on defenseless pupils. Consider these lines from his sonnet “Off the Clock”:

Co-conspirators for an afternoon,
we gathered, hush-hush, at the slow café.
Last week was debts and earthquakes but today
nothing is pressing. If a coffee spoon
is stirring, if the shadows lengthen there
beyond the awning, or the daily news,
catching the breeze, rustles around our shoes,
our minds are absent, and we just don’t care.

Notice that Poochigian uses the octet, the opening eight-line passage from the original Italian sonnets invented by Giacomo di Lentini. This form is much rarer than the Shakespearean quatrain, largely because it’s much harder to sustain. But Poochigian also contemporizes the line structure, with enjambed line endings, and very short clauses within longer lines. It has a disconcerting effect because it’s both ancient and, in some way, subtly new.

Traditional forms work well for Poochigian, as for the better known Stallings, because they see forms as tools they can use and adapt as needed. Many New Formalist poets treat forms as hidebound and inviolable, and would not create the tension between enjambed lines and mid-line commas. That would be just too troubling. Poochigian uses forms like a carpenter uses power tools, customizing them with ad hoc splices to make them suit his needs.

This same malleability applies to his subject matter. As a classicist, known until now primarily for his translations of Sappho, he has spent his professional life immersed in the Greco-Roman world. But he lives in Judeo-Christian America, and in some of his verses, he views Jerusalem (to pinch a metaphor from St. Anselm) through the lens of Athens. Consider the opening stanzas of “The Bad Tree”:

Why was the bad tree so appealing?
Why did the fruit perspire so much?
Its musk reached out, a red-light touch
tugging them toward a funny feeling.

Their friend the snake spoke like his glide.
Who could refute such breathiness?
God never talked to them like this.
They gobbled, giggled, ran to hide.

Poochigian continues in this manner, daring to ask: why is knowledge forbidden? If the truth will make us free, why does knowing comprise our Original Sin? Like Socrates twisting Euthyphro’s ear, Poochigian resists the desire for pat answers. To him, the question, not the answer, reigns supreme.

This give-and-take pervades Poochigian’s verse. The contemporary illuminates the ancient; the pagan illuminates the Christian; the life of action illuminates the life of the mind. Poochigian is not content to sit still, and his voracious mind roves over many topics, challenging us as readers to reevaluate what we think we take for granted.

Some of Poochigian’s topics will take nobody by surprise, yet his viewpoints certainly will. For instance, this book’s concluding twelve-poem cycle turns a modern eye to ancient and medieval topics. In poems like “Medusa” and “Helen’s Iliad,” he presents myths often told through pugilistic male eyes. But he forces us to see them through the vantage of the women who are so often passive, yet so instrumental, in these archetypal stories.

Aaron Poochigian comes from a firm foundation, which he builds onto with confidence and panache. For a generation that has come to associate poetry with open mic gloominess or lit class antiquity, he serves as a breath of fresh air. He writes for ordinary readers, and I believe ordinary readers, if given the chance, will embrace him as few of today’s poetic generation has been embraced by plain-spoken, literate masses.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Bad Idea Disguised as a Strange Novel

Ben Coes, The Last Refuge: A Dewey Andreas Novel

Just in time for Independence Day, former political insider Ben Coes presents the most ill-considered praise of militant nationalism in many moons. The author, who has connections to George HW Bush and Mitt Romney, punches every hot-button issue on this year’s electoral slate, and apparently seeks to enflame feelings. I fear, if read by uncritical audiences, this novel will cause irreparable harm to US foreign policy.

Dewey Andreas, ex-Delta, covert assassin, and semi-illicit security consultant, is ready to settle into a life of relative normalcy. Unfortunately, a Mossad officer—the same one who rescued Andreas from Hezbollah insurgents mere months earlier—is captured and spirited to Iran’s most notorious prison. With American agents sitting on their hands, and Israel on the verge of prompting World War III, Andreas goes guerilla to pay his debts at the point of a gun.

But Andreas discovers bigger forces at play. In Israel, the father of the officer he means to rescue has Polaroids, originally meant for Andreas himself, of a nuclear weapon. Painted on the nose-cone, in Farsi: “Goodbye Tel Aviv.” Suddenly, besides rescuing a friend, Andreas must also prevent the most deadly act of terrorism in world history. That isn’t even the final revelation in a book that never stops accelerating.

It’s impossible to separate this book’s story from its politics, and impossible to ignore that I consider its politics flat damn wrong. Coes uses moralistic words like “evil” and “detestable” to describe Iran, while pinching his description of Dewey Andreas from other well-known heroes like James Bond and Jack Ryan. This includes violence so comically choreographed that it would only make sense inside the Matrix.

The narrative implies that Andreas is justified in anything he does, no matter how heinous or brutal, by the exigencies of a hard world. This includes murder, kidnapping, torture, and what I can only describe as acts of war on American and international soil. Though he does this all officially off the grid, he has the tacit blessing and under-the-table financial support of America’s military intelligence apparatus.

If this guy were real, we’d call him a war criminal. In a prior book, he orchestrated a military coup in Pakistan, and continues to trade on that accomplishment in this book. He admits that, back in the Reagan years, he assassinated foreign nationals on foreign soil. In this book, he uses human shields, hires contract enforcers, and smuggles weapons across international borders. Serbia extradited Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague for less.

Moreover, Coes’ Iran is at best paradoxical. On the one hand, Iranian agents capture an Israeli national on US soil and spirit him to Tehran undetected. On the other hand, Iran’s rulers behave so maniacally that they beg to be played on film by Gary Oldman. They’re prone to petty grudges, incoherent rants, and Fascist shenanigans, including a kangaroo court so transparent that Judge Judy would fling her gavel. And with good reason: this Iran is a circus.

Ask yourself: if your arsenal had only one nuclear weapon, would you announce where you intended to set it off? Would you set it off at all? I venture that you would not. A single nuclear weapon serves best as a threat, when it could appear anywhere without warning. Once you use it, you’ve squandered your strategic advantage. But Coes’ Iranians don’t think that far ahead, because they’re mere hand puppets for Coes’ diatribe.

And some of the violence is so awkward it’s almost funny. At one point, Andreas jumps off a hotel balcony, twists in mid-air, and shoots well enough to hit a target on the balcony he just fled, at night, before splashing down in the hotel pool. Yeah, right. Elsewhere, his two contract enforcers open fire in an elevator, killing five Iranian bodyguards without hitting the diplomat they mean to capture, and even more remarkably, without hitting themselves with a ricochet.

This works, perhaps, because Coes thinks like a filmmaker, not a novelist. If he had a Hong Kong fight choreographer, flight rig, and soundtrack orchestra, his storyline might make sense. But in prose, his audience has time to wonder if everything he describes could work in a Newtonian universe. The sad answer is, it can’t. Then we wonder if his politics are as comically misguided.

Coes’ press biography stresses his connection to Mitt Romney. If Michigan Mittens wants to win this November, he might want to cork Ben Coes’ yap, because a post-Bush electorate will resist such weenie-swinging nationalism. At least I hope they will.

On a related topic:
Operation Ajax—America's First Battle With Iran

Monday, July 2, 2012

Separating Crisis Message From Crisis Mush

James Howard Kunstler, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation

I always find it awkward when I agree with a book, but have to recommend against it anyway. A book may be factually accurate, and accord with real-world concerns, yet still fail in the goals it sets itself. That’s the problem with James Howard Kunstler’s latest jeremiad. Though he (mostly) hits the target squarely, he touches so many topics in such a slim book that he loses coherence, does none of his concerns justice, and sounds like a curmudgeon.

Kunstler inveighs mainly against “techno-grandiosity,” his term for the hubris of assuming that technological innovation can solve the problems technological innovation creates. Cheap energy, material innovation, and boundless optimism have created a world of unprecedented plenty. But Kunstler believes this will be seen by historians as an anomaly. We face imminent fuel shortages, agricultural failure, and a world too crowded for its diminishing resources.

Unfortunately, our best and brightest assume, because society has seen an upward trajectory to this point, nothing can stop us now. If we run out of hydrocarbons, so what? We have technology to circumvent those shortcomings. We can build our way out of this cul-de-sac. The mere fact that current technology relies on the cheap, abundant energy that only hydrocarbons provide doesn’t penetrate the heads of these relentless cheerleaders.

So far, so sound. Kunstler’s claims make sense, they accord with the evidence we outside the halls of power see around us daily, and they sound persuasive. But instead of expounding on this core shortcoming, which bolsters every other claim Kunstler makes, he caroms through every ramification he can imagine, sometimes too briefly for us to comprehend them. Only somebody already in agreement with Kunstler will even want to follow his frenetic thought labyrinthe.

It’s hard to dispute Kunstler’s warnings about peak oil, unsustainable urban design, the false promise of post-humanism, and more—if you follow his hyperactive reasoning. Because he voices concerns I share, though more eloquently than I could, I agree with Kunstler. But he doesn’t stay on one topic long enough to do any of them justice. I’m persuaded because I’m already persuaded. If I came to this book cold, I doubt he would change my mind.

Kunstler also follows some weird cow paths. For instance, though he mostly addresses abusive reliance on technology, his longest chapter barely mentions that topic, focusing instead on the circumstances around the 2008 Wall Street implosion. Kunstler’s explication is less thorough than Robert Kuttner’s A Presidency in Peril—though Kunstler is funnier and more pugnacious. Still, telling a story well doesn’t matter if the story feels like an appendix.

Worse, both Kunstler and Kuttner miss the most important lesson of the meltdown: while media and government in the runup lionized pirate financiers, they also demeaned routine work. Laborers, teachers, and local service providers heard themselves openly described as “slackers,” “parasites,” and worse. No wonder they marched on Zucotti Park when not one bankster was indicted for the 2008 shipwreck.

Maybe that highlights the problem I have: Kunstler highlights the top-level malfeasance which created the current impasse, without really parsing what it means for the ordinary Joe who wants to earn a living. Peak oil, with its charts and histograms and sweep of technology, alarms those of us who care about umbrella issues. It means something different on the ground, where stats show that, the poorer you are, the further you probably live from your job.

Car-reliant suburban sprawl, one of Kunstler’s biggest bugbears, will certainly become a major menace when oil becomes so scarce that the poor can’t drive to work. But such sprawl was willed into existence, not out of malice, but because people need homes they can afford. And as the rich, who initially fled urban life, have now crowded the working poor out of city centers, people with hourly wages have moved where they can afford.

Kunstler, unfortunately, misses this. Though I can’t claim he’s unaware of the contemporary two-tiered social structure, he addresses it only fleetingly. Thus, while I cannot disagree with anything Kunstler says, I fear that when he addresses the audience who most needs to hear his message, his words will fall on deaf ears. Indifference, in politics, is so much worse than opposition.

I support nearly everything Kunstler says about what he justly calls “America’s war against its own future.” But if he doesn’t learn to pitch his message in terms that will penetrate his audience’s barriers, he might as well shout down a hole. I fear that’s what he’s doing already.