Friday, July 31, 2009

the following story contains mature subject matter: viewer discretion is advised.

The first planting company I ever worked for had a golden jock-strap mounted high on the wall at the office. Mostly I just ignored it. There were all sorts of pictures and paraphernalias mounted on that wall, and while a gold-painted jock strap is interesting, it never really stuck out to me until the last year I worked there. I don't know if it caught an errant beam of sunlight or what, but I asked Todd the shop manager what it was all about, and this is what I found out:

The golden cup was up there in honor of Lance G (son of one of the owners of the company). About fifteen years ago, Lance was a foreman and was riding a quad (ATV) across a pretty gnarly bit of terrain. This was back in the days before there were a lot of rules, so people could still get hurt, and Lance ended up rolling the quad and getting banged up a bit. He was mostly all right, except for one thing... the "packaging" that surrounded his "personals" got torn just a weensie bit, and his personals kinda sorta... well... popped out. They were still attached -they were just taking a bit of a sightseeing trip.

I know that's kind of gross, but that's life for ya. As it happened, the first aid attendant in camp was new that year and happened to be a woman. Lance did not really know her all that well, but soon became much better acquainted, as this strange woman had the responsibility of literally holding the items in question in her literal hands as they trundled him off to town for a little tailoring action.

Picture that for a moment (but not too vividly) and think about the absolute awkwardness of the start of that relationship, and then hang on for the punch line... they started dating, they got married, and by the time I heard the story in 2005, they had two lovely young girls and a fine strapping young boy!

There - now aren't you glad you tuned in? What a colossally marvelous use of all that extra time you have on your hands. But remember this: at least it's only time on your hands... it could be worse.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

on weddings

Six years ago I sat by a fire in Alberta, Canada and tried to convince a friend of mine to buy a piano. He was planning his engagement, and could not decide between spending three thousand dollars on a bit of twisted metal with a shiny rock, and a new piano for his girlfriend: a vocalist and musician. To the pragmatist in me, the choice seemed obvious. A ring is only a symbol, right? And if a more expensive symbol made for a better connection, then it would follow that people like the Trumpmeister would not have made quite so many beautiful, eternal connections over the years.

A piano was practical, fit the situation, and was still a large sacrifice that would very clearly show his commitment. He was a student with loans so it seemed a good thing to do. I think I lost. The pull of culture, especially regarding all things wedding-related, is exceptionally strong. Although there are a lot of counter-cultural people I know who shuffle off the shackles of this consumatorial coil, there are many, many more who make the first large decisions of their lives together as couples in a direction that demonstrates exquisitely clearly that they're thinking not with their heads, but with a mulched-up pile of People magazines. Why?

Why, when as a couple you own sixty thousand dollars of school debt, do you choose to dig the hole deep enough for another truckload of money? Is it defeatism? The average North American wedding today costs around eighteen thousand dollars, and while many are able to bilk their in-laws into shelling it out (which is always an awkwardly mentioned item in drunken father-of-the-bride toasts), very few people stop long enough to ask whether they should be spending quite this much money in quite exactly this way.

I apologize, right off, for my money-grubbing attitude. It is easy to be as controlled by not spending money as it is to be controlled by spending it. I do feel, however, that in light of what we know about the prevalence of extreme poverty and suffering in the world, that we ought to be thinking long and hard about what, exactly, we are celebrating when we commemorate our weddings with orgies of (plasticky, decadent) spending of material goods.

I understand the argument: that this is a big event, and it is a good thing to celebrate big events with big, explosive shindigs. Some of the poorest people in some of the poorest countries go absolutely nutbar with the credit cards for weddings (well, they would if they had them... but you get the point). A marriage is a huge deal, and I agree with the need for a crazy party. I would never try to set a specific amount that would be a good idea for a wedding, nor would I be stupid enough to to suggest that having a dirt-free wedding like my own really says all that much about the value or expected longevity of the marriage. I still think, given the way things are in the world, that a wedding like the one my friend Leland just did (two people and a passing shepherdess on a windswept bluff by the sea in Ireland) is a good idea - but I would never proscribe such a wedding.

To each their own. Make merry like it's your hundred and eleventieth birthday, by all means. But before you do: please, please, please stop long enough to think about why you are wanting to celebrate the way you are, and if maybe (just maybe) it might have something to do with a stack of bridal magazines and too many nights alone with the rom-coms and a box of kleenex.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

the amazing inferiority of women

Women are inferior to men in lots of ways. I know this because my sister-in-law told me, as a way of explaining why she sees her relationship with my brother as her: 49%, him: 51%.

This is the bonus of living with other people for a week or so - you get insights into ways of thinking that are so different from how you think that they seem... well... insane.

I asked her for an example of how women are inferior to men and she said, "Well, like... sports and stuff." Hmmm. Setting aside the fact that there are many, many women who are superior to many, many men in the various sports, I had to argue back against her underlying premise.

"I know what you're saying", I answered, "But I don't know if superiority lies in being inherently capable, on average, of being stronger, faster or higher scoring. It seems to me that women are not inferior in sport but different, and that they are capable of greater grace and poetry of motion than men - not to mention better all-around sportsmanship, as anyone who's ever refereed both men's and women's sports will tell you."

At least, that's what I was going to say. She cut me off with gales of laughter, and then called my brother in so he could laugh at me, too.

It makes sense to me, though, and I have a blog where I can win every argument by being the only one talking - or at least, by having the power to delete anyone who disagrees with me (I don't, but I could if I wanted to you spamming mongrels).

So I say this: Why do we have to envision value in sport the way we do? Why must we make it about speed, spectacle, power and dominance? I would think that the fundamental purposes of sport ought to be the enjoyment of the body and the refinement of its abilities in the context of temporary communities occurring around games with guidelines and purposes defined for mutual pleasure. It would seem that the natural proclivities and inclinations of women (in general, often, et cetera), if actually taken to be as valuable and significant as the attitudes of men, would provide a balance to the sort of conceptualization we currently have, which glorifies winners and despises losers, implying that the to the victor ought to go, well, everything.

It is just this sort of destructive attitude - foisted upon the world by a patriarchal, consumer, capitalist society that thrives on the elevation of a small, brutish minority - that has led to our destructive attitudes towards not only sport, but other areas as well. It affects the way we approach work - how we devalue good, hard, human work in favor of any job that makes ridiculous money at whatever cost. It creates an environment for our thoughtless acceptance of war and it's inevitable collateral human damage. It perpetuates the sort of attitude that glorifies the economic oppression of the weak by the powerful. It glorifies the fornication of the American Church with the powers-that-are. In short, it is an ugly, vicious, anti-Christian attitude

It is very pleasant if you're the winner to believe that losers deserve to lose... at least for a while. The problem is that by very definition the chance of being a loser is much, much larger. Most people don't win it all, and if we maintain the idea that domination is more important than, say, neighborliness and love, then it follows that most people will live lesser, weaker lives.

I am not arguing against point-keeping in sport, or even competitiveness. Competitiveness is fun, and allows for measurable goals. It is not inherently wrong to have a winner in sport, or in any other endeavor (except, perhaps, a marriage, and maybe a bunch of other things I'm not thinking of right now) but if competitiveness is not moderated in some way it quickly becomes despotism. We can and should value excellence in sport, as we do in every other field of endeavor, but we need to be very careful how we define excellence.

It seems to me that this whole man/woman duality might offer us just such a moderating, modulating influence, and that if we could learn to value women as different but equal, instead of using the degrading term "inferior", we might actually take a step towards returning some semblance of balance to our deranged, teetering world.


I don't think I really thought much about my body until I was maybe eleven or twelve, except when it was rude enough to demand immediate attention by contracting amoebic dysentery or getting cut with a knife or infested with a bot fly or stubbed of toe; and in those situations it only interested me in the afflicted area - not really as a whole "thing".

In seventh grade, however, when most of my friends were hitting puberty and enjoying the ravages of hormonal onslaught and the rapid accumulation of secondary sex characteristics, I was not and my body therefore became important as a thing. A non-manly thing, to be exact. I know I've mentioned this before, but confession is good for the soul, so I would appreciate your indulgence as I catalog my impression of my body on the eve of my thirtieth birthday.

I was looking in a large bathroom mirror a few days ago and I noticed that my shoulders actually almost seemed sort of broad-ish. Not really broad, mind, but just broader than they were before. The conclusion I reached was that my bone structure has finally firmed up (in this ridiculous fifteen-year puberty I seem destined to endure) to a point where it could probably tolerate a somewhat intensive exercise regimen, if I was willing to invest the time, money and effort necessary to build those elusive muscles. So it's possible that, with a year of hard work, I could have more the sort of body that people call "attractive" and less what I have now, which isn't really repulsive as much as sort of "Blah".

I'm really considering it. Which may be a sign of how corrupted I am by my culture and how years of Hollywood osmosis have taught me that my unsculpted body is somehow less valuable. On the other hand, it may be just an acknowledgment that even though I've kept my baby face and still look to be possibly even in my teens, the wear and tear on my joints and bones is unmistakable and if I want to stay active and healthy from this age on, I'm going to have to make an effort.

I'm not entirely sure it will even work. Healthwise, yeah, but not necessarily in the "making me universally more attractive and manly" department. For one, I have a huge head. Freakishly huge. Most people don't really notice it, but it's almost impossible for me to find a hat or helmet that fits comfortably. Second, there is my weird torso-to-leg ratio, such that most of my height is in my legs. This means that many people I am taller than when standing quickly become taller than me when we sit down. No big deal, really, except on that deep psychological level where I already feel un-manly. Down there in my cringing inner self I still take a battering every time I notice this phenomenon being played out - even though my conscious self is abundantly aware how silly it is to feel this way.

That's the funny thing: I know with my mind that I really don't have a "freakishly" huge head and that my upper-lower body ratio is within the range of normal human biology. I know that while I am slim/slender, thinner by a fair bit than the average male, that I am still not ridiculously skinny and have been blessed with enough coordination and athletic ability that I can perform reasonably well against many men who are bigger and stronger than I. I am even aware that I am and have been actually fairly physically attractive to a number of people.

I have kind of a pretty face and my body must not be too much of a turn-off, because over the years I have had a number of women and men tell me they find me attractive.

So why doesn't this awareness seep down to the level of my deeper self? How come I still feel like a wimp next to a big, strong man? Is it just a matter of too much cultural conditioning, or a by-product of some flaw in my upbringing? I want to just laugh it off and say, "I quit", and it may be that my present personal situations and difficulties are all that are keeping me from doing so, but if it isn't and there is something more, I want to know what it is, so I can avoid passing it on to my son.

I guess I'm telling you all this for two reasons:

One, because every time I talk about something that hurts me deep down in my inner softies, it gets a little less hurtful and I get a little more free. And Two, because I figure that there may be other people who have felt this way, or even people who have met me and thought of me as a confident person, and it seems to me that disillusioning them of this idea about me may just help them to find a little more freedom, too.

Let the healing begin!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Wendell Berry

I'm in love with an old farmer dude. Well, with his literary voice, actually. I recently read "Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community" by Wendell Berry, and I don't mind saying that by the time I was done I was in love.

His writing is so freakin' packed. Not in the dense, obfuscational sense of people who invent new ways of obscuring their meaning (like with words such as "obfuscational") so that no one will figure out they're just scared little chickens with big vocabularies. No, his writing is packed so full of wholesome juicy goodness that I just want to laugh with joy. And I do, often.

All the things you might have liked to hear me say in my own little way, he says better. About Christianity, about God, about dualism and the warped idiot-stick way that all of that gets envisioned. Wendell Berry arranges words in a way that is simultaneously precise and expansive.

To give you a more informed opinion, the New York Times Book Review says: "Read [him] with pencil in hand, make notes and hope that somehow our country and the world will soon come to see the truth that is told here."

I concur.

Don't take our words for it, though. Here's a link to my favorite essay from the book, entitled "Christianity and the Survival of Creation". Read him and weep. Or laugh. Or sing. Or all of it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Why "Fireproof" is Immoral

An old family friend recently wrote me regarding my previous rant about the movie "Fireproof", wanting me to know that some of her friends had watched it and had told her that it had some good points in it that had helped their marriages. She suggested that maybe I ought to just take it for what it is intended to be - an accessible sermon with a few good points.

I can't do that, though. Once you put a piece of "Art" out into the public sphere you enter the highly contentious world of art criticism, about which everyone has opinions, some of them quite firm and granite-like. "Taking it for what it is" would essentially be to quash my own side of the public debate.

So why is it such an issue for me? I really don't have a problem with the existence of poor art, after all. I won't invade your kitchen and tear up that atrocious paint-by-number your grandmother butchered. I think there is a very important and valuable place for art by the masses. It's just that I think there ought to be a different standard for art that is for the masses, and it pains me to see how nominal Christians tend to elevate crappy art thrown into this sphere to the place of higher quality art, raving about how amazing it is when anything more than a cursory glance shows its obvious flaws.

The end result is that anybody not in "The Club" is turned off to all Christian art, writing and film - even the good stuff - and the name of Christ gets impugned. Art is my thing, and my ability to strive to be heard as a legitimate artistic voice, capable of doing something positive, is seriously limited by the elevation of bad art.

As Madeleine L'Engle says, "Bad art is bad theology".

I am absolutely for people's marriages being helped - marriage is hard, obviously, and anything that keeps families healthy is a good thing - but a movie like"Fireproof" only works if you agree, ahead of time, that things like quality and excellence and truth do not matter as long as your point is made. I absolutely don't buy that - and tend to think that it is the sort of underlying attitude that says it's OK to bomb hospitals and children if you get rid of a dictator in the process. Whenever you put principles and making a point ahead of the truth, you do violence to the world and betray the name of Christ.

To give one very simple example, let's just look at the characterization of the protagonist, Caleb Holt, who starts the movie as a non-Christian fire fighter. The people who made this movie have a view of humanity in which they see anyone not in The Christian Club as somehow less than human. They see no need, therefore, to portray Caleb as anything other than a two-dimensional cutout on a flannelgraph. Caleb is not real. In a a screaming match with his wife, for example, he calls her all sorts of names, but never any really, really angry ones. He has been sanitized flat into a person who won't swear even when he's really, really mad - something unrealistic and inhuman even for someone in The Club. Granted, this may have more to do with their need to put on the blinders and sanitize the world, but lying about what people are really like is not just wrong, it's hateful, and it's not something you will ever find in the Bible.

A better example, perhaps, would be the ridiculous portrayal of Caleb Holt's pornography problem. He is depicted as looking at porn openly in front of his wife, despite her obvious anger about it, and he seems to feel no guilt, shame, or a desire to hide. As anyone who's ever dealt with this problem in any way knows, this is an inhuman depiction. The only conclusion I can reach is that the filmmaker's believe that people who aren't in The Christian Club are somehow sub-human, which is nothing less than an act of hate and bigotry, because it posits the inferiority of another people group. To suggest that those who aren't like us aren't really human in the way we are - like, for example, that they don't feel guilt or shame - is absolute horse manure.

We are, all of us, in the same boat. All of us. And when we pretend that those not in our club are fundamentally inferior, we are left in the position of maintaining the illusion of our own superiority - a vocation in which we will inevitably fail.

Bad acting and bad filmmaking are not just bad, they are wrong, because they increase the level of deception in the world and make it harder not just for people in The Christian Club to acknowledge the common humanity in everybody else, but also the humanity in themselves. They perpetuate a world of make-believe which inevitably leads to public and private failure.

As a big Jesus fan, I find it embarrassing and increasingly painful to watch The Name get dragged through the "Christian" night dirt.

"Fireproof" may be fabulous as an accessible sermon to show to your church (which I obviously doubt), but it is absolutely terrible as a movie with which to flood the Americanadian market in the name of Christ. Even if it does have some good points (which, I think, it does), it would be far less hateful and more worthwhile to list them in a one-page document and send me an email. This would keep down the level of immorality in the world and save me a valuable hour and a half, which I could then spend burning and censoring all the bad "Christian" "Art" I could find.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Fine and Pleasant Misery

Mistake Number One: Thinking it would be a good idea to pay for my trip to visit my brother, his wife and my new nephew by going treeplanting for a week.

Mistake Number Two: Acting upon this thought.

Mistake Number Three: Spending seven hours on the first day pounding four hundred and fifty trees an hour, while fighting a cold and operating on thirteen hours of sleep in the previous three nights.


One bonus: Planting in a bush camp with wireless internet, so I can inflict my misery on the world by posting this video on the interwebs. What will they think of next?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

My cousin Rachel died this morning.

I don't know what that means... not really.

Instead of trying to slog it out on here, when better men have done it better elsewhere, I will link to one of them, whose father-in-law also just died.

Read this.