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Monday, July 16, 2012

Sunday Morning Questions

Why do people still go to church? After all, Sunday mornings are a lot easier if you just get out the waffle iron to feed the kids, peruse the thick Sunday paper (if your neighbors don't steal if before you get up), and think languidly about an afternoon in the park.

A lot of people think this way, apparently, according to Ross Douthat's piece in Sunday's New York Times. He writes that, especially in liberal denominations, attendance is plummeting -- 23 percent in the Episcopal Church over the last 10 years, for example. However, the conservative wing of the faith is not doing so well either.

On the conservative side of the church, we have the Southern Baptists, who have taken the bizarre step of adding a homemaking curriculum to their seminaries, so that women will learn how to cook and sew for their husbands. Too many churches have substituted praise bands for choirs and replaced pulpits with tall stools, to make things more homey (not necessarily a bad thing), but they have also substituted messages about personal growth and prosperity for teaching about the parts of the New Testament that are a little hairier than the Easter and Christmas messages. (The Old Testament? We don't need that.)

On the liberal side of the church, over the past 50 years, the Episcopalians and their adherents have welcomed just about every type of theology and every trend that modern culture has brought along with it.

As a result, the distinctive message of Christianity is slowly vanishing. All you really need to understand the truth that is coming out of many churches -- emergent or not -- is a Nativity scene and a cross. The problem, of course, is that when these items become reduced to symbols, they are peers with every other symbol out there. Instead of piers that give us stability, they become trinkets.

Liberal theologian Gary Dorrien summarizes the crisis this way: "liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God's holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good? When the social gospelers spoke of the authority of Christian experience, they took for granted their own deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer, and worship."

But back to my earlier question. Why should we go to church? I can meet my friends in other places, at more convenient times. I can do volunteer work whenever I want. There has to be a pressing reason for me to roust the family, throw them into the car, and head to that building with a steeple on it.

We can make the Church emergent if we want. We can turn it into a network of coffee houses, or a giant megabuilding with huge parking lots, or a series of homes. But the venue won't matter if what happens inside isn't about the truth.

It can be relevant to our lives. It can make us feel better. It might even challenge us for 15 minutes, until the pastor gives us the answer. It might even warm our hearts.

Guess what? We can find all of that on television. We don't need the Church to do that.

Instead, we need the Church to teach us the way of Christ. We need the Church to show us the gospel. As we grow in the faith, we need to start teaching others these things.

This doesn't involve judgment, or dusty questions of arcane doctrine. Jesus didn't have much to say about postmillennial or premillenial tribulationism, or soteriology, as you might have noticed. He called people to live according to the truth -- and when people were around Him, they didn't have a hard time figuring out what that meant.

It does involve a set of distinctive ways of living, and of believing. When we lose that distinctiveness, we are no longer the Church. When we try to be like everyone else, we end up being like the Southern Baptists, who managed to hold decades of worship services without ever confronting the wrongs of slavery or Jim Crow. We end up being like the giant megachurches, who fill their seats regularly for the weekly motivational speech, without transforming many lives. We end up being like the Episcopalians, who have lost none of the pageantry of worship, but who seem to have lost all of the rationale.

If we want the Church to do these things for us, though, we have to be willing to do them for the Church, and in the Church. Because, in the final analysis, the Church isn't another movie theater or cable channel. It is what we make it, in our clumsy attempts to worship God.

And that is why we go.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Road Trip!

Pocket KingsPocket Kings by Ted Heller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With the passing of Ray Bradbury went one of the most prescient minds in all of literature. Two of his creations from "Fahrenheit 451" have taken a pit bull's grip on the way we interact with one another: the Seashell, with which Guy's wife withdraws from him at night to listen to her own music, and the parlor walls that show television programs. The ultimate media purchase, of course, was the four-wall parlor that would show holographic television shows in the middle of the room -- making it as though the owners had a new set of friends over for the evening.

Fast forward to the Walkman, and now the iPod in all of its forms. Fast forward to the online avatar, behind which any person can take on a new identity and actually BE that identity, at least as far as the rest of the chat room knows.

Enter Frank W. Dixon. No, he's not the pseudonymous group of men who wrote all of those "Hardy Boys" books, although people mistake him for that conglomerate when he goes into bookstores looking for his own published work. Instead, he is a novelist who has written one decent novel, one bad novel, and then a third that is so dark and depraved that it disgusts the editorial assistants to whom he sends it. Indeed, his own agent has stopped contacting him -- even enough to release Frank's book back to him.

Caught in writer's limbo, Dixon has a full-time job (the nature of which we never really learn) and a beautiful wife, but neither are enough to assuage the growing hole in his self-esteem. And so he turns to the world of online poker, becoming the avatar Chip Zero. Even as he gains weight and starts to look insane in real life, he takes on a grandiose form in the poker room, attracting the attentions of the Artsy Painter Gal and the watchful eye of the Second Gunman. Over the course of the story, Chip Zero builds up over half a million in winnings. Unfortunately, he forgets what it is like to be engaged in the real world. He goes to working half-days and then quits altogether; he sets up an all too real week of adultery in London with the Gal, only for his wife to find out (and for the week to have an even weirder conclusion).

The story is all too predictable, though, careening towards an ending that you can, if you want, guess about halfway into the book. The first-person narrator starts to sound like Richard Lewis in any of his appearances on "Crub Your Enthusiasm" after about 8 1/2 pages. Which is good if you like that sort of thing. The plot moves quickly, and there are some nice comedic touches, such as the banter on the cross-country cab ride that Chip Zero, Second Gunman and the Toll House Cookie (yes, THC) take in real life from New York City to Vegas, only to find that real-life poker is much too scary for them; they end up spending the week gambling via laptop.

However, I don't like watching traffic accidents unfold over the course of several hours or days, and while I was reading, I would keep waiting for Frank to slap himself in the face, to wake up and realize the depths to which he has sunk, the life that he is missing. The only question, of course, is whether he will realize that he still has hands.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Want to See the Future? Are you Sure?

Blackbirds (Miriam Black, #1)Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've always been a sucker for stories that bend the space-time continuum a little bit (or a lot). Whether it's the Old Testament story of the sun staying up in the middle of the sky for 24 hours in a row while Joshua defeated the Amorites, the incessant wandering of the soul of Sam Beckett in "Quantum Leap," the daily stresses of Gary Hobson, who woke up every morning on "Early Edition" to a newspaper that would tell him that day's coming tragedy, so that he could stop it in time, or even Bill Murray's confinement within Groundhog Day, it always interests me to see what authors do -- and how characters end up responding -- when the rules of time change.

And so when I saw Chuck Wendig's paperback "Blackbirds" on a "Recommended" stack at the local library, I had to pick it up. Miriam Black, his main character, can tell when someone is going to die just by touching them. She envisions their death and knows the day and the hour. Mind you, she cannot intervene; somehow the system knows that she's coming, and so her interference in the fate of that person ends up being the cause of their death.

Not a happy way to live. She's taken off to the roads, wandering as a modern-day hobo. A con artist named Ashley notices her odd behavior -- meeting up with strange people just before they die. She tries to save them, but she can't. But she can't stop trying. And so she takes up -- briefly -- with Ashley, but at the same time, she sees the death of a kind trucker named Louis. The twist: she is present at his death scene, as he calls out her name.

Ashley, unfortunately, has irritated some meth dealers. Not just your average East Texas-gas station kind of dealers, but the ones who are psychotically involved in the maintenance of product and profit. Ingersoll practices the sort of cruelty that makes Jigsaw seem a bit like Fred Rogers, and he has gathered two lackeys, Harriet and Frankie. Harriet is on board with Ingersoll's clinically cruel hatred of the world, but Frankie still has one foot planted in reality. At the end, though, it is the way that Miriam deals with Ingersoll -- and with the reason that she gained the ability to see death in the first place -- that gives the story its interest and intrigue.

The plot glides along like a police car on the oil slick that James Bond used to be able to send out behind his racer with the push of a button. The punches come so quickly that, when redemption comes, you almost miss it. Funny how life is like that.

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Stand Your Ground

As the media try to convict George Zimmerman for such offenses as telling his wife to wear a bulletproof vest while she goes around town, thanks to the frenzy that the media continues to look for wood to pour on the fire it started, using the tragedy of Trayvon Martin as its kindling, two other cases have also popped into the public eye: the trial of Jerry Sandusky, and the death of Jesus Mora Flores.

No matter whether George Zimmerman ends up in prison, thanks to a jury that would have decided to get the stench of Casey Anthony out of Florida jurisprudence and just convict SOMEBODY in a famous case, or whether the judge realizes that it's not a sign of depraved indifference toward human life (a key element in second-degree murder by Florida law) and throws the whole thing out, sending Zimmerman home, or something in between, his life is over.

No, he's not dead, but he will have the same shadowy existence of Casey Anthony, hiding in a house and (maybe) blogging about how he can't do anything or go anywhere.

Maybe he deserves it. Or maybe justice is more elusive, more slippery, than anything we can mete out in a news cycle. But when Trayvon Martin's mother abruptly backed off from her eerily accurate portrayal of the situation as a "tragic accident," this matter officially became a cause for the Powers that Be to use, rather than a horrific confluence of bad decisions.

But the trial of Jerry Sandusky and the death of Jesus Mora Flores also bring the question of justice back to the table. Who is Flores, you ask? Well, he allegedly grabbed the 4-year-old daughter of a rancher in Lavaca County, Texas (a bit east of San Antonio) and headed for a "secluded area" on the property. When the rancher found out, he went and called for his daughter. When she screamed, he ran to her. A few minutes later, Flores was dead. The sheriff's department investigated it as a homicide, but the county prosecutor decided not to press charges.

The question has flown across the blogosphere...should this rancher "get away" with killing the man that he saw abusing his daughter?

So, you see your daughter being molested...are you supposed to ask the guy to stop? Or just yell at him? Or call the police and wait for them to get there?

Which, of course, brings us to the Jerry Sandusky trial. As Rick Reilly poignantly asks, why is this trial even happening? Why are these abuse victims being forced to testify -- and be cross-examined -- about the horrors of their childhood? Is hearing all of this, and then waiting for a jury to say what everyone already knows, justice for anyone? Will a life sentence in protective custody be justice? Or would it be a power outage in the general population one night, with Sandusky in the middle of the rec room when the lights go out?

The law is one of the mechanisms that we use to keep order. It's a hamhanded mess at times, but only because we are flawed as individuals. We lie, we make excuses, and we want to simplify what happens to other people into five-word sentences or, when possible, pictures and YouTube videos. We also want revenge, in as grisly a fashion as possible.

But then we second-guess each other. We wonder if what we did was really right, or whether or not people in horrifying moments could just have done something different. After all, if Mike McQueary had picked up a folding chair in the locker room and brained Sandusky when he saw him in the showers with his victim, Victims 1 through 10 would not be going back through hell now.

But what if Sandusky had been with his victim in the shadows between two buildings? And wearing a hoodie? And a different ethnicity? And the victim had run away before the police could show up? Where would McQueary be today? Would Joe Paterno still be coaching? Would he still be alive?

That's the problem with living the way we do. We want things to be simple, to be easy. We want what we want, when we want it. Unfortunately, we forget that the people we use are also individuals, not tools for our bidding. We also forget that when tragedy strikes others, and the Today Show or Bill O'Reilly package that tragedy for our consumption, that there is often far more at work than we will ever take the time to consider.

Three cases....three sets of unanswerable questions.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Two Empty Suits and the Oval Office

Taft 2012Taft 2012 by Jason Heller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you follow my reviews, you know that I am setting mysteries down for a while. I'm not liking any of them, which might not be fair to the people who read this, because they might be good.

So my new rule has been that a book must contain a very cool concept, or at least have been well received by an author who is very impressive to me. Yes, very subjective, but that's why anyone with a keyboard and an imagination can set up one of these blog things.

The concept behind "Taft 2012" mirrors a concept that I have had in mind for a book of my own for a long time. Luckily, the concept isn't so close that mine will look like plagiarism, if it ever finds its way to a publisher, but here it is: William Howard Taft, instead of slinking away after his four years in the White House to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a few years later (by the way, he was the only President to do that), simply disappears on the morning of President Wilson's inauguration in March of 2013. He appears again, in the same place where he was napping on the White House grounds in 2011, having napped in some sort of wormhole for 98 years.

He is clearly not an impostor: he knows the Presidential ID code that all Chief Executives, at least in this fictive world, have had since Andrew Johnson was in the White House, and his DNA matches samples that were preserved in the detritus of information that was taken from him way back in the days of the Titanic.

Of course, he clearly represents a conundrum to the world of 2012. Yes, he gets a pension just like all of the other ex-Presidents (thankfully, not retroactive to 1913). He gets Secret Service protection.

Meanwhile, all around him is swirling the Presidential campaign of 2012. President Obama, although unnamed specifically, hovers in the background, running against an equally (in the view of the book) unimpressive unnamed Republican opponent. Taft, still finding his way around this new world, has a great-granddaughter serving in the Congress -- from his own home district in Cincinnati. He becomes an object of curiosity and (somewhat) odd attention when he happens out into his environs in D.C.

Then, an interesting thing happens. A talk show host, and a host of bloggers, decide that this mild Republican Progressive is just what the American public needs, in the giant vacuum between the Secular Moral Majority, which is what the Republican Party has become (at least in this writer's opinion) and the Former Liberals Occupying the Middle by Default. Neither party has great ideas; neither party has workable solutions to the nation's problems; neither nominee has the courage to voice an opinion stronger than a weather report.

And so why not Taft? In 1912, he was belittled by the great TR for having let down his vision of the Chief Executive as holder of the "Big Stick." In 2012, though, his notions that people should think freely, act decently, and take care of one another when needed strike a chord with the American public.

Until we find out who is bankrolling this grassroots movement. But that would spoil things. I will say that processed foods are also a source of the author's (and Taft's) venom in this story.

And so Mr. Heller's book is whimsical, somewhat silly at times, but at other times it is spot on. The characters are a bit flat, although Taft's New Year's Eve romp with a punk rocker made me laugh out loud. After all, this was a man that had to be pried out of the White House bathtub, because he was just that large. In the era BEFORE high fructose corn syrup and the Happy Meal.

The narrative structure hops around, from straight story to quotes from his assistant, to surveys taken in the news, to "rants and raves" posted on Craig's List. This gives the book more of a documentary feel, like this is more of a look at a political movement than a novel. The end result is a fake political movement, along with its own real website. It definitely blurs the lines between reality and fiction, but not any more so than, say, The Audacity of Hope did.

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of the most "important" political issue of our time consisting of gay marriage, while Syrian children die by the truckload under the thumb of Assad. I'm tired of our leadership waiting for their underlings to tiptoe out to important positions to see if they will be victims of public outcry before the leadership itself will take those positions. I'm tired of leaders settling for easy answers, or even no answers at all, because they don't think we're paying attention.

So in between reading these outstanding reviews, and checking Facebook for status updates, do something to change the world. One outrage at a time.

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My Last Mystery...for a While

Or the Bull Kills YouOr the Bull Kills You by Jason Webster

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First of all, I'm willing to concede that I've read too many mysteries lately. The newest C.J. Box offering, for example, Cold Wind, answered all of my questions about Joe Pickett's mother-in-law, in a way that was much too easy, with some preaching about wind turbine energy that I found just as annoying as I find all of that dreck that Nathaniel Hawthorne lined The Scarlet Letter with, in order to transform it from a 50-page story into a novel.

Of course, I may also just need to change genres for a while. Stephen King, for example. I'm a huge fan of his, but the last two I've read from him barely cracked three stars. Again, it may be that familiarity breeds contempt.

So, with "Or the Bull Kills You," I changed authors (this is Jason Webster's debut novel, after a nonfiction career) and countries (I've not read a novel set in Spain since "Don Quixote" in high school). At least I don't think I have.

This is a novel about bullfighting and about love. The main character, Max Camara, is a homicide detective in the town of Valencia, assigned to solve the murder of the flamboyant and successful bullfighter Jorge Blanco. Not only was Blanco murdered, but the attacker tried to hack off some very private parts of the torero before running away.

Yes, Camara has been dogged by allegations of police brutality in prior cases. His superior is ready to can him, or at least demote him to a very menial position in the civil service. He fights against the political establishment in the whole city. A hot girl hits on him, but then she ends up moving away (oh yeah, spoiler alert, if you couldn't see that coming). He leads a tortured existence, so he starts drinking when he wakes up, and fortunately his grandfather grows pot for the two of them.

By the time these cliches have stopped landing on your head, you'll also find that the bullfighter was engaged to an older woman clinging to notions of her beauty (think of someone between Madonna and Carmen Electra on the age/sensuality scale), but also secretly gay. No, the gay lover didn't kill him. But I won't tell you who did.

So, I've come to two conclusions after reading this book. I think there was a lot of cool description of the "Fallas" festival that happens in Valencia each year, but I was distracted by all of the meaningless maudlin meandering that took up too much of this book.

But I might also be worn out on mysteries. So, I'm not reading any more until the library notifies me that my hold on James Lee Burke's newest, Creole Belle, is ready for me to pick up. This should be sometime in July or August.

If you like pensive detectives with a dark side, then by all means go for it. If you pay attention early on, you'll solve the mystery in the first 80 pages. But if you don't, and if you do enjoy reading a man's thoughts after he has been dumped, for page after page, then this might be the summer read for you. Just don't expect things to turn out well.

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Monday, May 28, 2012

Love Lifted Me...but not Jack Black

If you go north out of Dallas on U.S. 75, or east on Interstate 20 or 30, or even south on Interstate 45, it does not take much for you to notice the scenery changing. In Dallas, only the established wealthy and the poor have large trees in their yards; everywhere else, the subdivisions were put in by leveling the trees first. As you travel from the city, though, you'll notice the world turning greener, with an increasing number of pine trees. If you roll down the windows, you'll pick up that scent that trees and grass give off after a warm rain, unless it's the wintertime. Your allergies might start bothering you, but somewhere down in your bones you will realize, even if only subconsciously, that you are not far from barbecue, from corn on the cob, from a steamy pie with a side of hand-cranked ice cream. You'll be tempted to stop for a while.

If you do pull off the road and spend some time in an East Texas town, you'll see that this is not like any other part of the state. Some call this the place in Texas where the Old South begins, and while Louisianans are quite different from East Texans in many ways, with the magic of Cajun and creole, the similarities do pick up again in Tennessee and Arkansas. West of I-45 and U.S. 75, things are different. There are the granola culture in Austin, the desert moonscape of the Rio Grande Valley and southwest Texas, and the culture of Dallas, a place so artificial in so many ways that nature has even responded, giving us the humidity that befits a harbor, even though the sea is 300 miles away.

But in East Texas, you'll see a region that has coalesced into small towns that are fiercely loyal to their own, that mistrust the outsider and despise the snob. Everyone in your town will know your business, which can be a good thing when you need help, but can be a bad thing when your life turns upside down, because everywhere you go, people know about it. This is not an area in which homeowner's associations and zoning laws do well, because of the individualism that runs like a high-voltage power line through the area -- at least as far as personal rights go.

The church is the hub of the community in East Texas, in ways that larger cities have lost. In other parts of the world, there are synagogues and mosques and churches that have services in multiple languages -- but not in East Texas. In larger cities, more and more people are staying away from church, and megachurches and emergent churches and coffeehouse churches are trying to find them and bring them back in, but that movement has not made into the Piney Woods yet. Yes, the church is a place of worship, but it's also a place to maintain your friends, to hear the latest news, to see and be seen.

When I was a child, my great-uncle was a Baptist pastor who served several of these small churches in Grayson and Fannin Counties. My own family went to one of the largest churches in Dallas, and so when I went to visit my great-aunt and great-uncle, things were definitely different. The people in the churches that Uncle Harold served were happy to see me and remembered my name, even if it had been months since I had been there. There were no columns or arches in those churches, and the stained glass was probably plastic, and the organ had no pipes, but the feeling in those churches was warmer in those places, and it seemed like there was no place for anyone who was not genuine.

Of course, if you were different from those around you, you had to work harder to fit in. And that's where the story of Bernie Tiede comes in.

Bernie was a mortician's assistant in the town of Carthage, Texas. He was a single man in his late 30's with what his boss described as an amazing sense of how to design the inside of a funeral home, and how to serve the needs of the bereaved families, especially the elderly widows. He would dote on the elderly women in town after they had lost their husbands, and his singing voice and flair for the preparation of corpses for open-casket funerals made him one of the most beloved people in town. Even if he was seen as "effeminate," which might mean that people thought he was a closeted homosexual. In a town like that, there is no diversity that will ever be officially recognized; instead, you carry out your affairs privately.

Marjorie Nugent was a prickly widow who was known to be mean before her husband's death, and she became even more so afterward. Bernie reached out to her, and his warmth caused her to soften and make him her constant companion. However, she became so possessive and emotionally abusive that, in 1996, he shot her in the back and stuffed her body into a freezer in the garage. For nine months, he was able to cover for her absence, because she had alienated her family and her town from her.

The most unusual part of this story, though, is that when the rest of Carthage found out what had happened, no one wanted Bernie to go to jail (that link goes to a well-written article in Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth). Everyone in town loved him -- and everyone hated the mean old woman who had made his life so miserable. In fact, the trial had to be moved to the tiny town of San Augustine, because the prosecution didn't think it would get a fair shake from the jury. I dare you to find another example of that.

Fifteen years later, this story has become a major motion picture. Here's the trailer:

Yes, that's Jack Black. Many of you may be fans of his body of work, but I was not one. He's all well and good as the voice of that panda, but Gulliver's Travels just made me mad. Turning an ignorant curmudgeon into a slacker trying to impress a girl? There are movies that will do that without making Jonathan Swift's most important work even less understandable. By the way, if Hugh Laurie is looking to change his brand after the end of "House, M.D.," the role of Lemuel Gulliver in a well-written script would be very interesting. After all, he only has Jack Black and Ted Danson preceding him in the role.

Back to Bernie, though. This movie also stars Matthew McConaughey as the district attorney who must sit in his church pew and hear his pastor call for prayers for Bernie -- even though Bernie confessed to shooting a woman who had given him over $3 million in the back. True, Bernie gave most of the money away, or bought things with it and gave those things to people who needed them, but it was hard to argue that a woman who had taken him to Egypt and New York City and Russia -- all first class -- could have goaded him to murder. So now he's in prison.

But Jack Black is simply amazing in this film. Instead of being that loud annoying moron that he seems to have played in about 136 other movies, here he has become that portly, effeminate mortician's assistant. His singing voice and his demeanor just nail, with precision, every oily minister of music who has stepped into a pulpit between Dallas and Shreveport. He oozes sincerity, whether it is comforting the bereaved at a funeral or struggling to handle the increasing meanness with which Marjorie treats him. Her habit of staring right at him, demanding eye contact without saying a word, while she chews each bite of food 25 times (even if it's refried beans), drives him crazy. And she keeps doing it because she knows it drives him crazy, and she knows she can manipulate him into taking her to lunch every time she wants him to. Her character is a bit too flat to merit attention from the Academy, but there are not many women that you would hate more, after seeing this movie. McConaughey's flustered, cornbread management of the role of the district attorney is true, from his imitation of the hand motions of the evangelists he'd seen in three-piece suits as a child during his closing arguments to the jury.

No matter what you think of people who live in towns without symphonies or even minor league baseball teams, without Trader Joe's or the Whole Foods Market, though, the spirit of this East Texas town comes out, ultimately, warm and comforting. People who don't quite fit in with the mainstream, in terms of lifestyle, are left alone -- but not excluded, if they want to be friends with everyone else. It is a real shame that this doesn't mean that diversity has gained acceptance in this part of the world, but the good intentions are such that it's hard to believe that won't change over the coming years. It will just take a little more time, just like it takes more time to crank a case full of peach ice cream than it does to run down to Kroger and buy a half-gallon. You can't force that ice cream to be ready any faster, but when it is ready, your mouth will remember it when you're sitting on your front porch, fighting off the trip to the nursing home, wondering why dessert just isn't good anymore.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Mile 81Mile 81 by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The novella is an underutilized genre, in my opinion. While the epic of Harry Potter might indeed require seven large doorstop-sized volumes to tell in full, and while Stephen King's Insomnia might well be worth reading a text the size of Anna Karenina, the discipline of telling a story that is too long to be considered "short," yet does not require even 100 pages, is fading from American letters.

The temptation to stretch a story past its necessary, or even desirable, length is not a new one. Consider The Scarlet Letter, for example. You could tell that story in perhaps 50 pages, even with a length interlude in the forest. It is Hawthorne's desire to drive his point into you with a rivet gun that stretches that story well over 200 pages. The introduction, The Custom-House, is over 30 pages on its own -- and most readers just jump right over it and go to the story.

In other words, it is important to let stories be stories. And this is where the ebook format may help writers. Publishers may not want to front the cost of an 80-page release. It doesn't really look like a novel, and so readers may walk past it to something that looks better, just because it's longer.

But did stretching the economical "Heart of Darkness" into that marathon "Apocalypse Now" improve the story that much? Granted, the classic Duvall line didn't appear in Conrad's novel, but then again there was no napalm in the days of colonial Africa.

The novella in ebook form goes right to your e-reader, or to your computer screen, without the bias of looking smaller than its peers in the ranks of the novel.

Which brings us to this story. Young Pete Simmons, age 10, is spending the day in the care of his older brother, but his brother wants to go play with his friends at the town gravel pit, and Pete is just too "little" to be cool enough to hang out with the 13-year-olds. So, he tells Pete to entertain himself for a couple of hours and goes off.

Pete doesn't go home and play his XBox all afternoon, though. Instead, he heads off to get into the type of adventure that will impress his brother, and he heads down to the abandoned rest stop at Mile 81 of Interstate 95 in Maine. Boarded up, what had been a Burger King is now rife with stained mattresses, cigarette butts, soda and beer bottles, and the other detritus of bored teenagers looking for some thrills. He tries some hits off a bottle of vodka that he finds, and soon he is fast asleep on one of the filthy mattresses.

Meanwhile, a strange station wagon pulls up to the rest stop, and the driver door opens. No one, however, gets out. The grown-ups who try to solve the mystery of this station wagon pay the price for being a Good Samaritan and seeing if the station wagon's owner needs help -- to tell you anything else would spoil it.

This would have been a great story to let my son read. He's 12, likes scary stories, and this would be a great introduction to Stephen King. I'm normally not on the side of those who protect kids from content, though, but the language that Pete has in his internal monologue may be in my son's as well, but it's not something for a father and son to share -- at least for a few more years.

As far as a tale told in the true Brothers Grimm tradition, though, the station wagon stands along side the Gingerbread Man and the Big Bad Wolf in the pantheon of childhood villains. The way that the station wagon's owners succeed in bringing horror to this sunny Maine day is an indictment on the ways that too many adults turn off their minds when they forget what being a child is like. So while the story seems to warn against being a Good Samaritan, the true lesson is that it is never a good idea to stop, at least completely, seeing the world like a child does.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

The Death of Gregory House

You have to be an addict of some kind to fully appreciate the genius of "House, M.D." Whether your vice is Vicodin, like House, or alcohol, or porn, or other drugs, you see yourself in the eyes of House. The self-absorption through which he sees the world is evident in the half-shrugs that he gives when baldly confronted with the choice between right and almost-right, and the maddening pauses that keep him from becoming the person that he could.

NOTE: The series finale of "House, M.D." aired tonight (May 21, 2012). There is information in this post that will reveal the events of that finale, so if you read on, you may find that the episode is "spoiled" for you.

Which speaks to the genius of Hugh Laurie, who has put on the costume of this genius who draws people toward him through the sheer magnetism of his ability, only to drive them away with the thorns of his personality. Many of the barbs that he throws are intentional, as with the insults that he uses to keep his diagnostic team at bay. Other barbs come from deep within, much less superficially, as in the episode in which Cameron confesses her attraction to him, only for him to pause long enough to give her hope before telling her that he does not like her.

The things that House wants in life are not that different from the things that any of us want. He wants love and a family. He wants to love others, and for that affection to be returned. For whatever reason, though, he does not know how. One is sure that therapists could march in to the situation and declare him to be high-functioning Asperger's, or autistic, or perhaps even irascible. He finds love not once, but twice, but in both instances his behavior drives the women who love him far away, looking back on him with pity even as they decide that a life with him is not going to happen.

Occasionally, House finds mirrors of himself in the patients who end up in Princeton Plainsboro. There is James Sidas, the brilliant physics student who found a way to dull his intellect through a regimen of cough syrup, because he was happier as a dazed deliveryman, on an intellectual level similar to his simple but loving girlfriend, no longer tortured by the whizzing speeds at which his mind operated when not weighed down by the alcohol in his Robitussin ("Polite Dissent," Episode 8, Season 6). Ultimately, though, House decides that is not a life for him.

After enough time has gone by, House finally wears down his friends. The pain that comes from an old leg injury drives him to Vicodin, which has a far stronger relationship with him than any person can. The strength of his addiction causes him to forge prescriptions for himself, to rummage through the hospital pharmacy, and eventually to capture the attention of the police (by being so rude to a police officer who came into the clinic that he ends up being the target of that officer's vendetta).

Even after a stint in rehab, even after finally winning Cuddy's heart, House never leaves his true mistress -- his pain medicine. Medication is far easier than dealing with actual people with actual needs, and so even the Russian woman whom House married just to spite Cuddy -- and who falls in love with him -- ends up fleeing from him, when it is clear that his own weaknesses will consume him.

And so when the final episode begins, House is lying on the floor, in the second story of a burning building, next to a dead man. The dead come to visit him, to spur him out, but Amber can't shame him into taking his life back up again, and his first love, Stacy, shows him what he can still have -- if he will try to live, but he just lies down. It is when Cameron comes to tell him that he deserves the rest that death will bring, even though all that means is that his self-centered disdain for others will have turned out to be right -- that dealing with other people simply is not worth the time and effort -- that he struggles to his feet, insisting that he can change. That he will change.

Of course, that is when Wilson and Foreman run up to the building, only to see House's profile against the glass, fire behind him. A beam falls on the shadow, though, and then the building explodes. House is dead, and the funeral immediately follows.

Colleague after colleague (but not Cuddy) gets up at the podium, giving short, superficial tributes to House's work, and to the way he challenged them. It is when Wilson turns from praising Caesar to killing him, calling him an ass and a jerk, that he gets a text message on the phone that had belonged to his best friend, House, telling him, "Shut up, you idiot."

The scene shifts and we find Wilson pulling up next to a figure in black on a set of stone stairs, leading up to a brownstone. There is House -- legally dead, having switched identities with the dead man who had lain next to him on the floor. It was this man, finally, who had shown House that change was possible, that even a person who had let addiction run its cold fingers around his very heart could commit great sacrifice -- if he had nothing left to lose.

And so House realized what he had to do. By leaving behind his medical license, his apartment, his legacy, he truly made himself free. His next gesture as a free man is to spend the next phase of his life being Wilson's friend. Suffering from terminal cancer, Wilson believes that he has five months to live. House knows this and asks him, "I'm dead. What do you want to do for the next five months?" When Wilson pauses to remind House what might happen when the cancer worsens, House simply responds, "Cancer's boring." Then they head down a country road on a pair of motorcycles, fields of green all around them.

In Luke 9:24, Jesus said that "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.." This comes in a conversation with the disciples in which Jesus predicts his own death; right before this, though, he had sent the disciples out on their own, going around to heal the sick. Then, he had performed the miracle of feeding five thousand people who had shown up to hear him, turning a handful of fish and bread into enough food for this crowd.

While it might be a stretch to find theology in the escape of an atheist from a burning building, the imagery of House, lying in a room surrounded by flames, as he decides whether or not he will rise up and leave the building, does suggest the power of choice that exists for all of us, regardless of our religious persuasion, or lack thereof.

And the choice is this: will we go out into the world and do what we were made to do? Or will the distractions that lie in wait for many of us, whether in the form of syringes, magazines, bottles, or in the simple presence of fear and anxiety, keep us content to survive, rather than to live?

If you want to see what it is to survive, instead of to live, watch any of the first 176 episodes of "House, M.D." If you want to see the kind of choice that can push you into life, though, watch #177. It's called "Everybody Dies," but it will make you want to live -- and to laugh. The identity of Gregory House may be officially dead, but the vision of two friends, riding free on a green day, having cast aside their fears and their illusory needs, is a testament of hope.

Be Glad You Don't Live on an Ant Farm...a Great Beach Read.

Under the DomeUnder the Dome by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The original "Twilight Zone" show featured an episode entitled "Stopover in a Quiet Town." A married couple had gone to a party the night before, had a little too much to drink, and then they awoke the next morning in a strange house. The phone doesn't work, the food in the fridge is plastic, and there is no electricity. When they go outside, they hear a girl laughing, but they can't find anyone in the town. They find a stuffed squirrel in a tree, and they discover that the "grass" is really papier-mache. The laughter sounds again, and they chase it, but still do not find anyone.

Eventualy, they come to a train station and hop on. However, the train makes a circle and returns to the same stop. Once they get out again, they are chased by a giant shadow -- that turns out to come from a hand. This hand belongs to a giant girl, whose parents are aliens who abducted the couple to live in their daughter's toyland. There is no way out.

The question of what people would do if they were trapped with no escape has fascinated writers for centuries. Whether it's Sartre's "No Exit" or "The Simpsons Movie," the ways that people would slowly (or quickly) turn on one another, and social order would break down, have served as a fascinating plot point in work after work.

Stephen King began "Under the Dome" in the 1970's but put it aside until 2007. The story of an inexplicable force field that traps the residents of Chester's Mill inside, while the outside world can look inside (and even hear inside) is an interesting morality tale. There is the prototypical "big fish in a small point" in Second Selectman James Rennie, who sees the dome as an opportunity to create his own empire, and there is the dissident hero, the oddly named Dale Barbara, who was bullied by some townies, who was one hitchhike attempt from leaving the town before the dome appeared, who also happens to be a retired soldier who is stop-lossed when the dome hits, because he happens to know a highly ranked military leader who has been charged with solving the problem of the dome.

As with just about every Stephen King story, there is a diverse cast of characters. There is the crazy meth addict hiding out in the Christian radio station, his depressed ex-wife who thinks he is hundreds of miles away, a merry band of nerdy kids who end up finding the source of the dome, an OxyContin addict who is a town selectman, a sad farm kid who loses the rest of his family to accidental death and suicide, and even a May-November romance, as a couple who happened to be vacationing in Chester's Mill takes in a pair of children whose parents had run out to a convenience store -- just over the city line -- and were not able to get back into the dome.

The plot is one of King's best, snaking back and forth from subplot to subplot, keeping the intrigue hopping for over 1,000 pages, a tough feat in a small town with no way out. One does wonder, though, why it took so long to see the radioactive glow around the apple orchard (I can't tell you more without revealing the source of the dome).

The most gripping character is Rennie, who changes from being a corrupt blowhard to a brutal dictator, willing to stop at nothing to keep power, in a matter of hours. Too many of the characters, though, including the hero, "Barbie," are more types than people -- at least in comparison to masterworks from King's body of work such as "Insomnia" and "It."

As always, though, the enemy is the darkness within each of us -- and the truly random which can come from without.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Too Many Fools, Too Little Time

Feast Day Of Fools (Hackberry Holland, #3)Feast Day Of Fools by James Lee Burke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The 1890 U.S. Census was the first to report that all of the territory of the United States had been charted. As the twentieth century dawned, and technology created more and more ways to connect people to the government, from utility service to cellular phones to IP addresses, there were fewer and fewer ways to stay "off the grid."

All three of James Lee Burke's main characters (Dave Robicheaux, Billy Bob Holland and Hackberry Holland) find their lives intersecting with unsavory characters who revel in their ability to stay hidden, even in the twenty-first century. Hackberry Holland is in some ways the flattest of the three characters, as he carries around all of Robicheaux's rage without the lapses in judgment that make the Robicheaux novels bristle with tension. While "Feast Day of Fools" fits right in with the Burke tradition of providing an amusing collection of villains, the way that Hackberry and his deputy, Pam, skate around the plot push this book more toward what I would call a "spaghetti mystery," in the grand tradition of the "spaghetti Western."

Don't get me wrong -- the outrage that the murderer Preacher Jack Collins shows when the people who fall into conversation with him refer to the wrong literary device is genius, and the brief appearance of Eliado and Jaime, two bad guys who make the mistake of double-crossing the Preacher, had me casting about in my head for the two best actors to portray these knuckleheads.

You'll love the way that Burke describes the very southwestern tip of Texas, and the northern parts of Mexico, which does indeed look more like features of the moon than anywhere else that this planet has to provide. And the scene where Hackberry convinces a bartender to give him information with a pool cue is up there with another Burke scene where Clete Purcel uses a fire hose inside a casino bathroom to completely humiliate (and soak) a greaseball who has been giving him a hard time.

But if you're like me, you'll end up wishing that Pam and Hackberry would either hook up or not, and you'll realize that there are a few too many villains, and a few too many connections, such as the random appearance of the Predator drone and al Qaeda, to keep this latest work on track.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Business of American Sports is Business

A couple of days ago, the great Josh Hamilton became the 16th player to hit four home runs in the same game. He also hit a double, for 18 total bases, the second most of all time. If you haven't seen the highlights yet, you can see them here:

Because we live in a free-market, capitalist society, the historical nature of this athletic feat, as well as the raw talent that wrought it, were quickly shoved aside in the media by the question of what this would do for Hamilton's long-term contract prospects. After all, if Hamilton is hitting like Pujols, shouldn't Hamilton get a contract like the one Pujols received?

Local sports-talk radio in Dallas this morning was spewing outrage over an interview that Josh Hamilton gave to Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci. Basically, when Verducci asked if Hamilton felt like he should come back to Texas with a new contract after this year, Hamilton said that, because of the foundation of his faith and his basic preparation, he could play anywhere. He acknowledged the depth of the support the Rangers have shown him, and said that it is "appreciated on both ends."

According to the Gentle Musers on KTCK-1310 AM in Dallas, Josh apparently owes much more to the Rangers. He should give them a "hometown discount" to resign with them, because of the way that they have supported him since he came to the team. They have paid for an accountability partner to shadow him and to keep him out of trouble, which apparently has benefited the team, because since he came to Texas, Hamilton has only gone drinking twice. None of the illegal drugs that waylaid Hamilton during his years with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have resurfaced.

As Onlooker Slowdown previously noted, Josh Hamilton will always fight the demons of addiction. So far, thanks to his faith and dedication, he has done fairly well. The Rangers have helped him a lot.

But he does not owe them a "hometown discount." After all, if Hamilton's back suddenly gave out, or if he tore an ACL, or his timing went away, the Rangers would no doubt become less forgiving. As long as he is a star, he is worth the extra effort and expense -- on the bottom line. As Hamilton keeps hitting, fans will keep showing up to games, buying beer and hot dogs, paying for Josh Hamilton T shirts, and contributing to the bottom line.

Do you think that bullpen nightmare Mark Lowe, or last year's castaways like Arthur Rhodes and Esteban German, would have gotten the same level of grace -- and support -- that Hamilton has received? Not a chance.

Hamilton knows this. That's why he's preparing himself for life as, say, a Yankee. Or a Diamondback. Or even an Angel. Just in case the Rangers no longer see him as a business asset with a value that matches the way that he views himself.

More importantly, he is preparing himself for life as a well-balanced individual, buoyed by his faith and discipline to be the same person everywhere. Which is all of any of us should strive to be.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

In Defense of the Wild

Given that a story about a ruthless government exterminating the unruly among its citizenry, insisting on ritual sacrifice from its outlying districts, and starving the poor to maintain a decent quality of life in the Capitol is currently one of the most popular movies and books in the "tween" market, it is hard to believe that "Where the Wild Things Are," just the most famous piece in a mammoth portfolio of children's literature by Maurice Sendak, was banned from many libraries for the first two years after it was published.

Apparently, the fact that young Max had a fit and was punished, but had some imaginative fun while he was in his room, agitated the sensibilities of parents and librarians in 1963. Luckily, once the uproar from children who wanted to check out the book reached their ears, librarians started adding the book to their holdings.

Max's rumpus made it safe for many children to let themselves get mad.

It is fitting, though, on Sendak's passing, to think of all he wrought for children's writing. In the days before Sendak, the strongest emotions that generally made it into children's publishing were the irritation that Tigger's constant bouncing created in Rabbit, or the wrath of Mr. McGregor at finding that Benjamin Bunny had gotten into his lettuce yet again.

Because if "Where the Wild Things Are" is about anything other than a whimsical few minutes of daydreaming, it is about what happens when we listen to anger. Children do not know what to do with anger when it comes, as anyone who has spent much time at all around a two-year-old or a three-year-old can tell you. Without the right sort of parenting, those tantrums can reach grotesque heights in a seven-year-old, and can lead to incarceration for a thirteen-year-old. Or a thirty-year-old.

However, the books that children used to read did not teach them how to deal with anger. In the stories that they were given to read, nothing bad ever happened. People (and animals) got annoyed, or irritated, but never enraged.

But then came Max. If, as Colin Parr, one of my most talented writing students, put it, "the rage of Achilles is the rudder that steers the Iliad," then it is also the rage of Max that directs his ship, as he leaves the confinement of his room:

And he sailed off through night and day
and in and out of weeks
and almost over a year
to where the wild things are.

A wild rumpus later, Max begins to yearn for home, and so he makes his return journey, to find that his parents did not truly hate him, as he might have feared, as the supper from which he had been banished was waiting for him -- "and it was still hot."

It may be that, now, we put too much of our emotional selves out for public display. If you make the mistake of turning to the wrong channel on your cable box, for example, you may see shows that are dedicated to watching people yell at (and do silly things to) the people they do not like. It seems to me that the Real Housewives shows, and all of their spinoffs, have this as their purpose. What with blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, there is nothing keeping any of us from laying our angst bare for the entire virtual universe to see.

However, if you want to see what happens when we repress our frustrations or pretend that they do not exist, look at the girl (or boy) at your local middle school who is cutting herself (or himself) in places where most people won't see. Look at the child who is grinding his teeth in class, because of the aggregate wrath that those bullies he walks by on the way to school has built.

"Where the Wild Things Are" let kids know that it is OK to be angry. In healthy homes, their parents will still love them, will still hug them, when the "rumpus" is over. It is part of growing up to learn the best way to let the "rumpus" take place, but letting the anger out is so, so important. When we are allowed to let the "wild" in, just a little bit, the true dangers of repression stay on the far side of that wine-dark sea, far away from our children, and from us.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Nodding Off to Too Much Shock Value

ShortcakeShortcake by Christopher Gorham Calvin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At times, I envy the Margaret Atwoods, George Orwells, and Jonathan Swifts of our literary profession. While cynicism is often so corrosive that it produces bitterness, the anger that it generates can lead to powerful writing that serves as a corrective for many of the ills of society. When Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" delivered a rhetorical roundhouse to the British establishment, with its suggestion that the poor infants of the Irish be prepared for slaughter rather than be forced to endure the privations of life in an unfair, oppressive economic system, the very nature of writing changed, as sarcasm became a mode of discourse.

Several hundred years later, as the depravity inherent in the clouds of mustard gas in the Great War, the speculative greed that fueled the Great Depression, the destructive might that turned Hiroshima and Nagasaki into rubble, and the slow constriction of freedom that ensued after V-J and V-E Days, as the increases in technology and information created more for government to control, the dystopian voices that informed "The Handmaiden," "1984," and a wealth of other dystopian visions burst onto the scene. While the first instances of this trend were popular, it is unlikely that their authors thought that their successors, such as Suzanne Collins, would find their works had become bestsellers, or that the dark truths that inform dystopian writing would become mass entertainment.

The flocks of dystopian trilogies (yes, Hunger Games, I'm talking to you)that are sashaying into the public spotlight and garnering hordes of increasingly younger fans are, as any form of shock value does, starting to lose their edge. Oppressive government engaging in secret espionage to control/terrify/oppress/harass the innocent? Heard it. Seen it. The idea that the government has a secret program that might end the human race as we know it? Already know that movie.

Into this morass bravely steps Christopher Gorham Calvin's "Shortcake," the first in a planned trilogy detailed the story of "Evan" and "Amanda," a pair of children genetically modified to have superhuman powers of violence, but who ultimately team up to change the world, after a brief encounter with a violently annoying mass murderer, a brutally apathetic mayor, a secret prison stocked with animals who are supposed to kill any human inhabitants, and many other surprises.

By the time Amanda and Evan find each other, after they've escaped their cloning facility, the city of Eden has almost collapsed into ruin. The wordy description and the questionable motives that follow them (not to mention the unrealistic survivor of at least one ally, and the unforeseeable sympathy from a soldier, the "twins" have dragged us through several hundred pages...and apparently resolved nothing, as this is only Book I. It will require some persuasion for me to put aside some of the other promising books in my reading list to have the time for Book II.

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Mime, A Trumpet Player, and the First Air Hockey Table

The Quiet TwinThe Quiet Twin by Dan Vyleta

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you look at newsreels from the Second World War, it feels like 200 or 300 years have gone by. The very idea of a European country trying to take over all of its neighbors, and then shove millions of the conquered into death camps and eliminate them, without the rest of the world knowing, is simply inconceivable. The World Wide Web has made too much of the world transparent for things like to happen, except perhaps in parts of Africa. Even the Chinese are having a hard time keeping their protesters from making it into the light of the Web.

However, it has only been 74 years since Germany invaded Poland, and one of those most terrifying wars in the world's history got underway. Only 69 years since the most destructive weapon in history melted away most of two cities. Since then, war has become less dramatic, but more permanent. The surveillance that is possible now makes life safer, yet somehow less diverse.

A case in point is the apartment building where the recently separated Dr. Anton Beer lives in Vienna in 1939. Downstairs from him lives Professor Speckstein, who was acquitted of sexual assault, but who received such disgrace that he resigned his position anyway, lives with his housekeeper and a niece, Zuzka, who has ostensibly come to the city for university but really is at ends about what do with her life.

Across the courtyard is a little girl, Lieschen, who lives with her alcoholic father and has a spinal disorder that makes her stand at an awkward angle. Above them lives Otto Frei, a mime who may or may not have killed Professor Speckstein's dog, whose twin sister lives in his apartment, slowly rotting in bed because of what may be a neurological disease but may also be psychological trauma -- it turns out that she may have been the girl who was sexually assaulted, leading to Professor Speckstein's trial.

Dr. Beer is enlisted by a Detective Teuben (imagine a hungry, prurient Robert Goren, from Law & Order: Criminal Intent) to help in solving a recent rash of knife murders (including the dog, but also four other people), and he takes on the case of Otto's twin sister, Eva, moving her into his apartment to cure her of her disease, as psychiatric conditions are his area of interest. He and Zuzka keep an eye on Lieschen, too, as she must monitor when it is safe to go in and spend time with her father, even though she is only nine. It is his discoveries, and his revelations, that show so much, and perhaps so little, about human nature.

Finding out what is, and what is not, true about all of these people, and their situations, is what makes the book compel the reader onward and onward into the labyrinth of life at the dawn of the Second World War inside Hitler's lands, a labyrinth from which no one would escape unchanged.

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Friday, May 4, 2012

The Bucks Stop Here

Usually, one of the signs of a successful pro sports franchise is a steady, level-headed owner or ownership group. Think about the Rooney family in Pittsburgh (the NFL's Steelers), or the Mara family in New York City (the NFL's Giants). You almost never read about these owners, because the attention is where it belongs -- on the field.

If an owner is in the news more than his (or her, thank you Marge Schott, former owner of MLB's Cincinnati Reds) team, then the team is usually having problems of some sort. Whether it's Donald Sterling (the NBA's Clippers) being sued for keeping blacks from living in the properties he owns or Frank McCourt using the storied Dodgers as one of the shells in his divorce court carney game, when there is chaos at the top, the team usually isn't very good.

In our own beloved burgh of Dallas, we've seen this in just about all of our sports. Take the Texas Rangers. Yes, they've been to the last two World Series, but it wasn't always this way. The ownership group led by Nolan Ryan has set the stage for stability -- and for calm. When manager Ron Washington disclosed his positive test result for cocaine, Ryan and the rest of the management group decided to trust him and give him another chance. The players and the rest of the team have thrived in an atmosphere of trust and respect -- and of high expectations.

Of course, Nolan Ryan wasn't always this calm, cool and collected.

And it wasn't always this way for the Rangers. Brad Corbett, who owned the team during the crazy days of the 1970's, a decade that featured a manager getting punched by a player, another manager only coaching the team for one day, and Billy Martin, may have been just the loudest of a series of odd owners. After a loss on July 1, 1977, Corbett broke down in tears and said he was going to sell the team, "because it's killing me. They're dogs on the field and they're dogs off the field." (Sports Illustrated). A year later, he went down to the Rangers' clubhouse after a 10th-inning loss to the Brewers (and after some drinks of his own), kicked open the clubhouse door, and yelled at everyone he saw. Not surprisingly, the streak didn't end, and the Rangers ended up finishing far back in their division.

But it's not just the Rangers. Jerry Jones took a team that could possibly have won five straight Super Bowls and turned it into one that won 3 out of 4, and then dragging it down into mediocrity, or worse, for the next 20 years. He has inserted himself into the media spotlight, meddled in decisions at every level, built a stadium that made the city (and himself) a laughingstock because of the cramped corners in which he was able to shove seats, only to have some of those seats fail at the worst possible time. He has managed to put the Cowboys' star on every imaginable product, from shirts and hats to charcoal and barbecue sauce.

Check out Jerry's look after yet another loss to the Giants.

Tom Hicks, who owned both the Rangers and the Stars, didn't get out much in public, but that was probably because he was busy losing money in his private businesses and funneling income from the sports franchises to cover the funds. He also bought an interest in the storied English soccer club Liverpool, and in the aftermath of that nightmare, the judge sorting things out won't even give him unrestricted access to the litigation documents, because he doesn't trust him. (London Daily Mail).

So, chaos at the top generally means failure on the field, or rink, or court.

But that brings us to the curious case of Mark Cuban. His Dallas Mavericks have made the playoffs for the past 12 years in a row. They won a championship in 2011, defeating the heavily favored Miami Heat in 6 games.

However, Mark Cuban has developed a reputation about complaining -- about officiating. He has compiled statistics and sent them to the league. There's nothing wrong with research, but when he sits on the sideline and screams at officials, opposing players, and people who are traveling with opposing players, that crosses the line. Not only is it inappropriate, but it hurts the team.

The year the Mavericks won 62 games, but lost to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs, the team panicked. Coach Avery Johnson shifted his rotations when he should have trusted him, but the lack of confidence appears to have gone all the way to the top. Here's Mark Cuban ranting at the officials:

In 2009, when the Mavericks lost to the Nuggets in the playoffs, Cuban got into it with...
not a referee....but a player's mother.

In 2011, Mark Cuban noticed that the less he said on the court, the better his team did in the playoffs. The results: a title, and a $90,000 bottle of champagne for the celebration:

This year, though, even though Mark Cuban decided to wait a year to go after Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, which meant that this year would be more of a holding pattern than a title defense, the playoffs again brought out the worst from the top. As's Jean-Jacques Taylor wrote last night, after the Mavericks went down 3-0 in the first round against the Thunder, "no team seemingly whines about the officials more than the Mavs, who follow their owner's lead. Rick Carlisle, the best coach the Mavs have ever had, has been doing it all series.
Whether he realize[s] it or not, all the complaining [does is] give the rest of his squad permission to moan and groan about every whistle that didn't go their way."

Mark Cuban has brought the Mavericks back from the NBA's graveyard. He has restored honor and glory to a team that had its first peak at an unfortunate time, the late 1980's, when the Lakers were also at a peak with Magic and Kareem.

As Cuban goes, so goes the team. He has proven, time and again, that he has plans for this team to be among the league's elite. Even if you don't like what happened this year, if his plan to bring in Deron and Dwight next year works, and we're going deep into next year's playoffs, he'll be back on top again -- and he will have been right.

But getting the right players (and the right coach, which he has) is not enough. The team follows their owner. When he's upbeat and passionate, the team soars. When he's over there ranting and screaming, the team falls apart. It happened in 2006, when he started panicking in the Finals. In 2007, when they collapsed against the Warriors. In 2009, when they fell apart against the Nuggets.

The year he was calm, we raised a banner. If his plan works, and if he remembers to be confident next summer, we should be raising another one.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Justice and Compensation

In the book of Genesis, Jacob and his family are making their way back to their homeland, when they stop and buy some land near the city of Shechem. Shechem himself sees Jacob's daughter, Dinah, is attracted to her, and rapes her. Then, he visits Jacob and his sons with his own father, Hamor, and asks for Dinah's hand in marriage. He even offers to let the two peoples intermarry over time.

Taking after their father's tricky ways, Jacob's sons insist that all of the men of the city be circumcised, to be like them, before anything else can happen. Then, a few days later, after all of the men of Shechem have gone under the knife, and are recovering, Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob's sons, slaughtered all of the men in town, looted their homes, and made off with their women and children.

Revenge? Yes. Compensation? Yes. Enough compensation for Dinah? Justice? What if you were one of the women in the city, and you had just seen your husband killed, and you were kidnapped by a foreign band of men? Would you think that justice had been served?

The truth is that there is no way to make up to Dinah for what has happened. The damage that occurred cannot be undone. Jacob could kill everyone in the region, and it would not turn back time.

It is also true that nothing will bring Trayvon Martin back from the grave. The remedies that our legal system provides to his family involve an attempt to punish the man who killed him.

The first attempt will involve trying to send George Zimmermann to prison. However, the fact remains that there are no witnesses to the events that happened. The pictures of blood on George Zimmermann appear to support, at least in some way, his account of being attacked. No matter how deep the news may have hidden these pictures, they will come out at trial. The law in Florida allows for self-defense when being attacked. As has been well covered in the media, the special prosecutor has laid charges that will be just about impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt.

Which brings us to the question of what a jury would decide. In Florida, we just saw last summer how unreliable jury verdicts can be. Of course, Caylee Anthony doesn't have Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson in her corner, and now her mother is biding her time until the public forgets that it was angry and decides that it is time to start buying the book that someone will ghostwrite for her.

Afterward, according to attorneys for Trayvon Martin's family, a civil suit will follow. Even if George Zimmermann is acquitted, he can still be sued for wrongful death, and in civil court, the burden of proof is less. If enough people on THAT jury decide that he just should not have been carrying that gun, even though it was licensed to him, he could lose everything.

But will that be enough? A verdict of millions that would bankrupt the person who, according to Trayvon Martin's mother, committed an accident? Of course, she retracted that statement after someone probably told her the right words to use in order to prepare for that civil suit, or convict George Zimmermann in court, or do whatever else will help her attorneys.

Here, it's an accident.

Here, it was cold blood.

This is why it was so right for George Zimmermann to apologize in the first public forum in which he could safely appear -- his first court hearing. Whatever happened that night was a tragic mistake that could have been avoided in so many different ways.

It feeds the needs of the media, and the prosecution, to have this be a racist hate crime. However, as with most stories, it will not fit neatly into a box. Instead, it seems to be a messy accident. The "depravity" that goes along with second-degree murder might sound good on television, and it might ring true to Trayvon Martin's parents, but the truth is that if both men had been of the same ethnic background, this case would have ended when George Zimmermann was sent home by the police, for lack of evidence.

So how can we compensate the Martin family for the tragic loss of their son? I hope that we will not do it by engineering the same sort of ridiculously flawed verdicts that made the American court system look like it was run by clowns in the decades before the civil rights movement. We will not have become an equal society until the same standards of the law apply to everyone, in every situation.

Somewhere, Mike Nifong is laughing. Or maybe not.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Happy Easter 2012...and a word from John Updike

The week before Palm Sunday, one of the ministers at our church began her sermon with the observation that Methodists hate talking about sin. Her voice showed her nervousness at broaching the topic, and during her homily, she compared it to the dust that we have to wipe up during spring cleaning.

Her nervousness was understandable -- after all, we Methodists are about social work, about changing the world, about bridging the gaps between one another so that God's love can shine upon us all. It is that love, we believe, that will draw us all toward the cross. When we talk about sin, the specters of judgment and those television preachers with their Bibles held high, hollering about brimstone, come to mind. Judgment raises barriers, after all.

But there is a difference between judgment and acknowledgment. No matter what your religious beliefs are, you can't say that evil does not exist. You can't say that people do not do horrible things to one another. Maybe you can say that you have never done anything awful, but I can't say that about myself. I have to acknowledge and banish, on a daily basis, my imperfections, so that I do not go running after them.

Sin is awful. It is the black mold that eats away at souls -- it can be so hard to scrub away that we just let it sit there and grow. It is the one weed in your rose garden that, every Saturday morning when you go outside to take a look, is already working its way toward your prize Texas Beauty. It is that crack that appears above your bedroom doorway one morning, showing the malaise in your foundation as it scornfully works its way up your wall.

And it is real. It chases all of us, because God's adversary wants all of us to be as miserable as he is. He offers to distract us, sympathize with us, befriend us. He even tried it with Jesus, out in the desert.

But it is not a tool. It is not a weapon that we use to judge each other. It is not a microscope that we use to analyze the lives of others. It is not a can of red paint that we throw upon those whom we find distasteful. It is a tarry, dark filth that, once it coats a person or a thing, becomes transparent and even shiny -- and to some, it even becomes an invitation. Because the temptations within sin call out to all of our weaknesses.

We need to fight sin. But we don't need to fight each other to fight it. Too many churches grasp either the first sentence, or the second sentence, but almost no churches grasp both of them at the same time. The problem is that you have to be able to deal with BOTH sentences at the same time to honor the teachings of Christ.

The beauty of Easter is that, in the spring, we are reminded that there is a way out of sin. There is no way to keep God's adversary from coming after us, but we have the overwhelming love of God, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and with the comfort of the Holy Spirit, as a sign of hope that, if we believe in Jesus' defeat of His adversary, and of death itself, a better life awaits us -- as the Methodists say, "the life everlasting." This is what grace offers us -- as Mrs. Onlooker Slowdown so wisely says, without grace, we all will end up alone. Far better to end up in God's country.

So, this Easter, focus on the cross...and the empty tomb. Don't think about the other people in your row. Don't think about all the people you don't like. Don't think about the stewardship campaign, even if your pastor brings it up. Don't think about politics, or self-help, or any of the other nonsense that too many pastors have painted onto the cross. Don't think about judgment, because those days are past.
They have been. For over 2000 years now. He is risen...indeed.

This poem is one of the most powerful meditations about the truth of Easter. Enjoy...and have a wonderful Easter Sunday.

Seven Stanzas At Easter

By John Updike
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that--pierced--died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Anxious Chicken

As a middle school teacher, I hear from a lot of parents who believe that medication is what their children need in order to succeed in school. With the right prescription, they will be able to pay attention. They'll be able to focus. They'll be able to interact more appropriately with others.

Now, don't lump me in with Tom Cruise just yet (if you click the video, you'll see his famous battle with Matt Lauer about his belief that no one needs any medicines for psychiatric conditions).

There are conditions that require medication as a remedy. However, in my opinion, there are way too many medications out there slowing kids' brains down and altering their personalities. Instead of prescribing new medicines, it may be high time for new ways to organize the ways teachers present information to the children in front of them.

Or, it may be time to clean house in the poultry industry (and other food processing industries as well). According to Nicholas Kristof's piece in the New York Times, researchers that were studying the feather meal from rendered poultry found that industrially farmed chickens receive all kinds of mood-altering substances in their feed.

For example, they get Benadryl. Not because of allergies, but to calm them down. Apparently, chickens suffering from stress end up producing tougher meat. Every masseuse knows this to be true in people -- so why not in chickens too?

Chickens also get acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) -- probably for the same reason.

However, they also get green tea powder and coffee pulp, so that they will stay awake longer and eat more. So the same chickens are getting uppers and downers?

And if that's not enough, chickens also receive arsenic. Yes, that's right, the same poison that these women used to eliminate pesky men in this classic Cary Grant movie:

Apparently, arsenic in low levels is "safe," and it makes chicken (and pork) a more attractive shade of pink. Well, carbon monoxide makes you turn a nice cherry red color, but that doesn't mean you should inhale it. And if you've been feeding your families more chicken because of the health benefits, you've just experienced a classic case of irony.

So, we're going to look more into organic poultry and meat at our house. Just remember, though, even life on a traditional poultry farm isn't all that great for most of the residents:

On the other hand, maybe cage-free chickens do have more fun...