Sunday, November 28, 2010

why trendy hipsters will save grammar

Just about every trendy hipster person I know has read Eats, Shoots and Leaves and enjoys The Oatmeal's explanations on grammar as well.  My guess is that it fits into a few key trendy hipster values:

1. A chance to feel better / look down upon others.  This is especially true with grammar geeks (like myself, who is sort-of Trendy Hipster Light) who were frowned upon by peers during their childhood.
2. A chance to engage in an art that is vastly becoming irrelevant.  Like learning shorthand, speaking Old Norse or having a typewriter on hand, learning grammar lets trendy hipsters engage in a geeky endeavor that lacks any real practical element.
3. A chance to be ironic, or when that fails (often) a chance to find unintended humor. Once you master grammar, you can mock the subtle irony found in signs, in books and in music.  So, I can laugh aloud when the football announcer mentions that "Philadelphia literally has an explosive offense" or "The Giants literally destroyed the Cowboys."  Nope, despite my initial hopes, the Cowboys are still a football team.

I have a hunch that trendy hipsters will not procreate as much as other segments of the population. Which is too bad, honestly, in terms of language lovers.  However, in the long run, they might just be the very subgroup that keeps grammar intact.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Rethinking Family

At Thanksgiving, Micah asks me, "Where's Aunt Beverly?"

He notices that Uncle Charlie is alone and he senses that something is different. I am tempted at first to use a euphamism like "passed on" or "left us" but instead I tell the truth.

"She died yesterday."

"Does that mean she's not coming back?" he asks.


"But I like her. She's fun. She smiles."

He's quiet for awhile and then adds, "She always plays with me and Gabriel."

It's a three year old's eulogy and although it doesn't capture all that she was, it certainly captures a part of her that I will remember. If Micah has taught me anything about life and death, it's that people matter. I used to believe that life was a story and there were minor characters. Now I see it as an overlapping of stories, not with minor characters, but with major characters that I never got the chance to know as well as I could have (due to time and space).

Micah's right. I miss Beverly's smile on Thanksgiving. She was the first family member to giving me the passing grade when Christy first introduced me years ago. I remember that we talked about Van Morrison of all things, because even though we didn't have much in common, she wanted me to feel like I mattered.  I think about all of this as Micah runs over to play in the dirt with his cousin.  For a moment, I get teary-eyed, so I move inside to see if the Cowboys will pull out a surprise victory against the Saints.

When I first married Christy, I thought she was crazy for referring to her "relatives" as "family."  I grew up isolated from most of my extended family, so I never quite understood her language.  Over time, I began to see the value of an extended family.  It happened with swim lessons and dinners at Aunt Jan's house or with breakfast on Sunday mornings with Aunt Sheri.  When Christy completed a triathlon (pregnant, nonetheless) it was her extended family (her nephews and her Aunt Beverly) who cheered her on during the hardest moments.

I'm beginning to see that the nuclear, just-those-who-live-in-the-house view of family is limited and myopic.  It's why I feel grateful that my own kids see my parents and my sister and my wife's family so much.  It's why I recognize the gift of being two doors down from my mother-in-law.  For all the talk of recovering the sense of community lost in America, I'm convinced that for my own children the answer hasn't been found in programs or in megachurches or in master-planned communities.  It's been in the large, extended family that has collectively loved them well.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Rethinking Black Friday

We're bundled up at three thirty a.m., hoping to get the right spot so that we can all buy the cheap laptops that are sold "while supplies last," which is the legal way of saying "bait and switch."

I silently curse the man three spaces up who brought a lawn chair and space heater.  Maybe he'll die of carbon monoxide poisoning.  Dark thoughts, I know, but it's what happens when you are curled around the side of the Best Buy building, shivering beside the dumpster that smells of death.

After an hour, we shift from being arch-enemies in a capitalist competition to being comrades in the communal cold.

"How was your Thanksgiving?" I ask a stranger.

"It was bad," she answered.  "My dad always gets drunk and tells obscene jokes to the kids and so my sisters end up yelling at him until everyone drives home angry.  And you?"

"Oh, it was good."  How do you possibly top her answer?

"Mine was lonely," the man next to me adds.  "My wife passed away two months ago and I just didn't feel like being around anyone but then I didn't want to be lonely, either.

He takes out his wallet and says, "There she is.  Or was I guess.  I'm still not used to that."

"I'm sorry," I say.

"It's okay.  It's not your fault."

It's silent for awhile before he says, "This is my first time doing the whole Black Friday thing."

"Kind of sounds like the name of a metal band, huh?"

"What do you normally do on the Friday after Thanksgiving?"

"Well, we would decorate for Christmas. But in the morning my wife would wake me up and we'd make love.  She said it was the best cure for a hangover.  So last night I just crashed on the couch.  I just didn't want to wake up in bed.  But I couldn't sleep.  So I thought I'd take a shot at getting a cheap computer or something."

"Makes sense."

"No, it doesn't make any sense.  I always thought women were supposed to shop to heal pain."

We stand in silence for another half an hour, neither of us feeling much like talking.  Both of us missing our wives.  I look at the sign again.  Best Buy.  I've got it all wrong.  If I really want to buy into what's best, I'll leave the line, hop in the car and cuddle up next to my wife.  

But I wait even longer and I lack the energy and overt selfishness to push away fellow patrons and snatch exactly what I want.  So, I leave early, lost in the dark fray of humanity pushing and shoving and yelling at one another.

I drive to QT, pick up my free donut and realize how easily I was duped.

I refuse to make the lowest price my bottom line.

She Was Reading

I used to believe that identity was something we choose and form and shape by our own will.  It bothered me to no end that society and family and environment shaped our stories so much.  So, I simply believed otherwise, opting for a philosophy of self-reliance.  Still, I couldn't shake the notion that who I am is, to a large degree, based upon those around me.

With that in mind, I wrote the following piece:

She Was Reading

She was Reading, a bookish child whose fate was sealed by the solitary pronouncement of two pseudo-bohemians who never should have procreated. Bored and restless with the vapid poetry of the smoky jazz houses, they grew tired of looking tired and restless with the restlessness. She was their avante-gard project.

She did everything within her power to grow out of her name, trying to live out her cartoon fantasies of an image-bound future of visual media and technocratic cyber codes and Twitter in all its simple glory and the melodramatic Lifetime movies her dad would watch when no one was looking. But alas, she was Reading. All the time. Everywhere. She couldn't escape the magical icons crying out each monosyllabic utterance, an abstract chorus creating meaning and worlds and memories in an eternal flame she could never extinguish. She was Reading.

Growing up, her dad had read her Atlas Shrugged, because the folks in Whoville seemed bound too closely to the meter and rhyme of an impostor doctor drawing saggy-chested women who seemed too realistic a representation of a coffee shop crowd past its prime. Her mom read her Pride and Prejudice, not to offer an insight, but to cleanse the palate afterward and prepare her for the day that she could grow into The Color Purple. She wore the heavy, industrial verbiage like a child's costume jewelry and by fifth grade she had realized her parents couldn't see how gaudy it had become in an age where nouns were already becoming verbs and a text was anything but sacred.

Sometimes she would step out onto the grass, barefoot with freshly painted toe nails, envious of the militaristic marching ants who had freedom in their lack of freedom. She took serious the call to consider the lilies, not for romantic impulses or for the sense of spirituality, but to shut out the stream of letters. And even then, when she closed her eyes, the words appeared in red-letter Garamound. She considered it sacrilige and so she would imagine a short, portly man yelling at a crowd in a language she couldn't understand. But inevitably she saw the red letters.

If words could create reality she had no need for a creative destruction but simply an escape. She recalled St. Paul. "The letter kills but the breath creates life." And she'd pray to the Unknown for a flash of light on a Damascus Road to blind her from her typographic typecast.

Fantasy. Embrace. Flower. Incense. Rosary. Polaroid. Clay. Stained-glass windows. Kodachrome.

She turned to vinyl before it was vintage and listened impatiently through an album just to hear the repetitive scratch, cycling quietly, wordless in form and flavor and texture as if to tell, even Frank Sinatra, "I can outlast your words." It was her cathedral of scratch and she dreaded the notion that club DJs had turned a sound so pure into a formal structure - pimped out this beautiful silent non-silence to the coked-up college kids dry humping to banal beats like a puppy on a warm blanket.

She pulled out a Moleskin her brother had bought her and she began the violent swirl that would eventually disguise itself as a very feminine ivy. Yet, mindlessly, she began to form a letter, not a noticable letter, just a lower-case "l" or perhaps a "q" in waiting. Methodically, melodically matching each stroke with the cadence of the city bus where she tried to focus on the urine-soaked passenger who mumbled gigantic curses against capitalism and socialism and nationalism and any ism he could muster up in the moment.

Paragraphs and pages. Ink bleeding black, words flowing into one another in a cursive she hadn't felt since she was in the primary grades. Drunk on the words, she woke up in a daze, head pounding, the Moleskin tatooed with lines she was afraid to read. "It was merely mental masturbation," she wrote.



"Okay maybe a bad one night stand. This isn't love."

She hid the notebook in her satchel and began to crochet, but even the repetitive hip hop on her tiny earbuds seemed to tell the same nihilistic narrative in the same iamb of a Shakespeare tragedy and without thinking, she began thinking and reciting and enjoying the rhapsody.

"You can't escape who you are," she wrote, then crossed out the "you" in thick, drippy ink and wrote "one" as if to say, "I can't take ownership of the first person. Not yet."

"One can't escape who she is," she rewrote it, until eventually it became first person. "I can't escape who I am."

Perhaps she could wean herself. Find a paperback action thriller or check out the latest soccer mom craze, be it wizards or sexy vampires or Oprah's monthly choice. Or maybe she'd find a detox between red rock canyon walls, a desert place where words could not break-in and she'd find solace in her yoga and hiking.

She fell in love, like an awkward virgin couple on a honeymoon, uncertain about whether it was any good and scared about venturing further, but still feeling that faint sense of normalcy. She was Reading.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Rethinking Evangelism

I'm at work one afternoon with someone who thinks I'm a pansy because of how seldom I talk about God in the staff lounge.

"You'll try and convince people that Sufjan Stevens is a great artist, right?"

I nod my head.

"You'll try and convince people to read The Tipping Point or whatever book your into in the moment."

I nod my head again.

"So, why not do the same with Jesus?"

"Because Sufjan Stevens won't save a soul and The Tipping Point doesn't cut to the core of one's existential questions.  It's not that I'm ashamed of the gospel.  I'm not.  I just don't think these questions can be hashed out that quickly and with the force of argument.  You can't argue your way into love and that's what it's all about.  God wants to be loved."

"God doesn't need to be loved," he says with a sigh.

"Sure he does.  That's why there's the Trinity.  So he can give and receive love at all times."

"God doesn't need anything," he says.

I don't deny his points.  Perhaps he's right.  For what it's worth, I can't picture God as needy or anything like that.  But what he desires, what he truly desires, seems to be love.  And that doesn't happen through shouting matches and megaphones.

Rethinking Dogs

I'm seven months married and Christy is three months pregnant.  She sends me back to the car to get a form we're missing for the DMV.  A lady asks me to sign a petition to turn all animal shelters into no-kill shelters.  I pleasantly decline.  Christy then asks me to get the M & M 's she'd left.  Again, the lady asks me and again I pleasantly decline.  It happens a third time when I go back to get her water bottle.  

It's not that I oppose direct democracy, per se, but that I don't see the utility in this particular ballot measure. When schools are chronically underfunded, I do not want tax payers voting to keep unwanted animals alive.  

This time as I decline, the lady says, "What, you don't love animals?" 

I respond, "To eat! Otherwise, not so much."  

It's not my kindest moment and the woman realizes it.  She shoots me a horrified look, as though I just gave a Heil Hitler, but this quickly turns to pity.  The woman looks down on my lack of compassion. 

"I'm sorry.  I know that you really believe in this and I respect what you're doing, volunteering your time and all.  It's just that I'm not a pet person."  

*     *     *
Six years later, I'm sitting on the couch.  Skye sighs heavily, letting me know in the gentlest way possible that she wants to play.  I'm tired, but I oblige.  And so begins a rousing game of chase.  Bizarre.  I'm a grown man chasing a Scottish Terrier around the tile floor and then letting her chase me.  

On some level, I still don't get the love of pets.  I don't understand paying exorbitant amounts of money on food and surgery and customized chew toys.  A pet is, after all, just a pet. Yet, in having a pet, I notice that I pay closer attention to body language.  I'm a little more patient.  Not a lot, but enough to realize that pets play a bigger role in life than I had once imagined. 

I'm not one to write a book about how I can learn about God through whispering to sheep dogs.  Nor am I one to call the animal who licks its ass "a member of our family."  Still, Skye has her place in our home and oddly enough, I'm glad she's around.  

Rethinking Paragraphs

I once saw paragraphs as formulaic.

At least four sentences.

Topic Sentence.
Supporting Detail #1
Explanation of Said Detail
Transition Word followed by Supporting Detail #2

And so on

Tidy rectangles.

Blogging changed this.

Without the economy of paper, I could reduce a paragraph to four sentences.

And guess what?

No one cared.

If anything, the medium itself screamed at me, "You can't pull a Dickens and run a 12 sentence paragraph.  These are pixels not papyrus dammit and you'd better respect the fact that they are one tab away from chatting with friends than reading your long-winded nonsense."

So, I began to see paragraphs as different.


White space.

No sound is still considered a note in music.


Liberated from the confines of grammar school lectures and formulas.  I'll write as short or as long as I please and press return when I want, because I need space.

Rethinking Iowa

I'm running on the treadmill trying to make sense out of a "straw poll," in Iowa.  A group of mostly eastern elitists don their custom cowboy wear and pretend to understand rural America.  It seems embarrassing, both for the caricature of rural America and for the urban America that I consider to be home.  The media plays along with the game, presenting Iowans as ignorant bumpkins unable to make up their minds about political issues.

It's as if CNN and Fox News and MSNBC are collectively warning America, "these are the folks who will decide our political future, America."

Meanwhile, friends on Facebook are sucked into a pretend agribusiness.  It's essentially Sim City meets Future Farmers of America.  Call it Sim Iowa.  I read status updates from my urban, trendy hipster friends who are starting gardens and asking somewhat naive questions regarding soil and light and the basics that we pretty much forget when we wrap our veggies in plastic and keep our animal flesh in styrofoam and cellophane.

I check out my blog feeds and see some forward-thinking posts by Russ Goerend and I learn about Van Meter and other 1:1 schools and I realize that Iowa has some of the most forward-thinking, tech-integrated schools in our nation.

Since when did Iowa become so trendy?

I try and unravel the mystery.  Iowa.  It's so vanilla.  It's like a blank canvas.  Name a city in Iowa.  Seriously, it's nearly impossible for most Americans.  And yet . . . it's the vanilla ice cream that becomes a fresh look at the sundae.  It's the canvas that becomes a work of art. To be in Iowa is to be in a state of constant innovation, but always in subtle, understated ways.  It is the anti-California (not so much politically as symbolically) and maybe that's exactly what our nation needs.

Boring?  Perhaps, initially it is.  Yet, the sense of normalcy within the state is the beginning of innovation.  Iowa, as a state, reminds America that our roots and our future are all connected.  Iowa, as an extended metaphor becomes symbolic of what we all long for: to move forward in a positive direction and yet to also recover some sense of geography lost in the midst of modernism.

If Iowa represents anything, my hope is it represents a sense of centering.  It's the notion that change for change sake is empty, but change for the sake of meaning is absolutely necessary.  It's the idea that often the greatest innovation does not come from people who say, "let's try to be innovative," but instead from people who say, "let's do something worthwhile."

I may never understand the love of corn or hot dishes or straw polls or FFA.  And that's totally fine with me.  But if I want to see some amazing things happening, I might very well need to visit Iowa sometime soon.

Rethinking Thanksgiving

being a dad made me less cynical

I once lost my love of Thanksgiving.  I enjoyed the gravy and the burnt marshmallows on top of the sweet potatoes.  However, something about the holiday didn't fit.   I knew the "real story" of Thanksgiving, where the pilgrims colonized the indigenous people groups.  I knew the commercialism of the day and I experienced the lack of gratitude from shoppers at the grocery store.  If you need a reality check to see that the world is dark, simply spend a week working at a supermarket chain.  You'll see how people dehumanize people in subtle ways.

I conjured up an anti-thanksgiving holiday called Cynic's Day.  Here people would hold contests to complain about the world and then play rigged carnival games that no one can win.  When this is all over, they offer gifts that no one wants, like balloon animals and buckets of stale pop corn.

I was a spoiled suburban sophomore with a cynical streak and an axe to grind against America and capitalism and history and everything else that had formed me into the person I was.

Things changed in college.  I still had the cynical streak, but I watched friends who couldn't go home to see their family.  They would meet up at Brad and Debbie's and we would all eat pie and watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  Maybe it was my time spent in working class homes or maybe it was the subtle reshaping of my mindset by a slightly cynical sage, but I began to see the utility of thanksgiving.  Gratitude was necessary for survival.

I began to see that optimism was not a sign of weakness and that, within the framework of a broken world, I could find gratitude in a venti coffee or a deep conversation or a sunset (as cliche as that might be).  Marrying Christy helped melt away some of the cynicism.  She often presented a new perspective on the very things I railed against and she found delight in little things I had often missed.

Having kids simply magnified this mentality. Toddlers rejoice in the simple and give thanks to the Universe or to God or to whatever it is they vaguely conceive as being in control of fate. I learned to dance and to smile and to laugh and to sing often and spontaneously.

I still know the "real story" of Thanksgiving, but now I see the pilgrims a bit more like myself - people trying to sort through the notion of God and life and sometimes committing social injustice in the name of survival.  I see them as broken people who were at least able to admit they were broken and who were able to turn once a year and say, "I don't deserve any of this.  Thank you."

So now I embrace Thanksgiving.  Don't get me wrong, I still don't understand the parades and the Cowboys or Lions and I'll never get mincemeat pie or black olives.  But I see value in stopping once a year, admitting the tangible side of grace and saying simply, "I don't deserve any of this.  Thank you."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rethinking Zombies

I used to believe there were bad people.  Bad groups.  Tea Party Folks.  Rich Suburbanites. Outrageous Coffee Shop Leftists.  Megachurch Leaders.  Then I began meeting people from these groups and seeing that they weren't stupid or ignorant or entirely misguided.  They simply saw the world differently from me.  This piece stands as a metaphor of that.

He stands before the fountain, makes a wish and pulls out a cup. He calls the concoction a “suicide,” and surrenders his taste buds to the random sample of corn syrup and coloring. His is a world of plastic fragments and vivid chemicals.

We cram into the plastic shell of the SUV and begin the journey of release. While other boys will be dressing as zombies and using extortion for free Fun Size Snickers, we’ll be celebrating the autumn equinox by breathing in the steamy vitality of life, recognizing the vapor of existence and the illusion of eternity forged in plastic.

He’ll cry.

I did the first time.

On some level, I still do. It’s just that surrounded by a hyper-macho group of men, tears are not even an option and within minutes of the Flesh Feast, I experience the paradoxical sense of losing and gaining, living and dying, destroying and creating.

Still, it will be harder for a child raised around pets and petting zoos and animated cartoons. He understands personification while losing the sense of person and he experiences animation without knowing the slightest bit about the animistic culture that shapes his own story.

He’ll sink his canines into the raw flesh and feel the steamy sanguine fluid dripping down his lips. He will be at once repulsed and intrigued and in the process he will know something about humanity buried under the pavement of the Magical Kingdom.

Don’t get me wrong. We won’t kill a human. We’re not murderers. Zombies aren’t canabalistic. We don’t go on murder binges and terrorize cities. In fact, we aren’t even a separate species from humanity. We are human.

I suppose some of that might have been true in the past. We would line up in rows and hunt an entire village. However, one must consider the cultural context. This was an age when Aztecs would sacrifice prisoners to their gods and Europeans would burn those who didn’t agree with their theology and slavery, rape and mass genocide were all fair game in war.

This was before the Age of Progress. We’ve found cleaner, more anticeptic ways of committing mass murder. Nowadays, we press buttons and hit targets and use drones, but I suppose shrapnel is simply a more evolved version of an arrow - one that allows the user to sit comfortably from a plush chair in an air-conditioned room, drinking Red Bull or stale coffee with fake creamer.

We’ve evolved.

Zombies, however, have not evolved. We still use our canines for cutting meat. I know it sounds primitive and upsetting that we hunt with our hands and suck the warm blood in the moment. Instead of thinking “backwards” and “primitive,” consider it “vintage” or “classic.” We’re organic. We’re into raw food. It’s just that we tend to go omnivorous and sometimes that means attacking large game. (Incidentally, no one seems offended by our society-wide salad binges)

You can fault us for eating meat that runs free range. I suppose if killing is wrong, then we are murderers. But the human body requires death. We are covered with bacteria. We inhale micro-organisms. You can’t go a minute without participating in the life cycle. So we’re all killers, I guess.

However, I miss the ethical argument that it’s better to eat meat that was once crammed into a tiny space and is now chopped up, days later, and placed on styrofoam and wrapped in cellophane. The Zombie culture doesn’t have quite the same affinity for petroleum-based products that one finds in most of the Western world.

If it were raw fish wrapped in seaweed, we would be trendy hipsters on the cutting edge. If it’s a wilderbeast and we’re attacking as a pack, well then it’s repulsive. Note to self: next time we attack a wildebeast, make sure that we don a flea market jacket, an ironic t-shirt and waver between self-loathing whining and sardonic comments about the world. Maybe we’ll play a vintage record and politely pull apart the animal flesh while discussing whether or not the Green Party is a viable option in this next election .

Or maybe we’ll just pump it full of phosphates and toss it onto the grill, cover it in some artificially-flavored corn syrup mix and then toss place it on a paper plate. I’m sure the earth will understand.

Another misconception is the intellectual capacity of the Zombie culture. This again stems from the inherent xenophobia and ethnocentricism of European missionaries. Our language is nuanced and layered in metaphor. Missionaries missed that, claiming we mindlessly grunted about in lined formations.

It takes awhile to grasp the gutteral sounds or to decipher the tonal language. In some ways, our language is actually more developed in the Latin-based languages that are all the rage in Europe. We have not only a second person plural (missing in English) but also a verb tense that allows for the second person to be addressed while removed from the first person. We also have verb tenses differentiating between definite, paradox, contradictory thoughts and congnitive dissonance. Layers. It takes awhile to comprehend the language.

Now, what about the myth of stealing the minds of humans and turning them into mindless walkers? It’s true that we are implored to “feast on the minds”

Yes, we believe in magic. We believe in a world surrounded by animism. Superstition, you call it. And maybe you are right. But we are under no illusion that the dots and ones and zeroes are the same as the flesh and blood terrestrial reality of community. We stare at the stars. You stare at a screen. Both of us believe in magic.

Perhaps the Zombie culture is indeed backward. Perhaps I am being ethnocentric in my own right. However, last time I checked, it is more inhuman to split apart and atom and blow away a city than to attack large game with our bare teeth.