Monday, August 27, 2007

A Better Dragon Story

Time to return to my roots. Let’s talk about Dragons.

Thanks to my friend Assistant Village Idiot, who recently published a post decrying the de-fanging of the dragon in modern western culture. As often happens, AVI goes for the jugular and ends up firing directly into the heart and out the other side making a hole the size of a basketball. I recommend reading his post on dragons because that’s what got me going on this stream of consciousness riff. Then come back here and hang on because some of this might actually make sense. (I’m not editing this – it comes out how it comes out- and I’m feeling pretty ranty tonite)

So, why would anyone really care about how this culture, our culture, views and portrays dragons. Well boys and girls, it’s all about the story. Our culture is essentially shaped by the kind of stories we tell and hear, and the way we tell and hear them. We ourselves, as atoms of culture, are shaped by the stories we engage ourselves in. Why do you think it is that movies and television are such powerful influences on our culture? It’s because they tell stories in an especially powerful and compelling way and they tell lots of them. We are constantly being washed by stories – washed and soaked and saturated and waterlogged and marinated. The stories we hear most get into our bones and we can’t ever really get them out except by replacing them with new stories.

Dragons are a narrative object. They are antagonist, protagonist, creators of conflict, vessels of metaphor. Dragons arise from and manifest the worst and most pernicious and evil aspects of ourselves and the world we live in. Dragon is the embodiment of evil great and evil small – and the size has little to do with how dangerous it is.

If there is no evil, if Dragons are really our friends, then does that change the way we think about evil? Are we more willing to live with our own personal dragons? For most of our Dragons are personal. Evil is not all Hitler and Osama. It’s easy to look at those goons and say, “Well, at least I haven’t killed 6 million jews today. I must be alright.” That’s letting yourself off the hook too lightly.

What are your Dragons? Be honest now. You have them. Here is one classic list from the Ancient Writings: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” There are other lists, but this is a good one to start with. I might also add laziness, greed, fear, ignorance, injustice, oppression, slavery, addiction and apathy. Think these Dragons don’t live in you? Think again. Look again.

You must kill them. There is no room for truce or parlay. Instead of chatting with it, our Parents ought to have asked for the Angel’s sword and lopped the head off the serpent in the Garden. no. The only right response is to go after him hammer and tongs, no mercy, to the death. Using a different metaphor, Jim Rohn puts it this way:

"You cannot take the mild approach to the weeds in your mental garden. You have got to hate weeds enough to kill them. Weeds are not something you handle; weeds are something you devastate."

So here is a story for you. You discover a dragon ruining the kingdom of your Life. So you ride out to slay it. You call it by name and run to battle. You thrust and cut. You are thrown down. You rise again. You beat and bleed. You fight on and on until, with the help of Dragon Bane, you slay the beast. The worm lies before you and you place your foot on it's head, blood dripping from your sword and sweat from your brow. You shout a challenge to the other serpents to let them know that you are coming for them too.

I like that story.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Uprooting Evil - Jesus, Sarcasm and You

Sarcasm is the close cousin of insult. Sarcasm is sharper, less blunt than insult. If insult is a cudgel, sarcasm is a knife, with a serrated edge.

Sarcasm can be bitter and belittling and when used indiscriminately, it can wound deeply. Yet when something truly deserves to be belittled, there are fewer weapons more useful than the cutting remark. We tend to confuse love, goodness and kindness with mere niceness. We forget that the truest love is at times the most demanding, abrasive and hard. Sarcasm can be used to shock the foolish out of their folly.

The prophets, the Apostles, and Jesus are most excellent examples of the use of sarcasm to shed light on the madness of their time. Remember Elijah mocking the priest of Baal by suggesting that their god must be taking a dump? Or Jesus calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers or whitewashed tombs. How many times did Jesus say to his disciples variations of “are you deaf or are you just stupid?” Then there is Paul, in Galatians 5, where he suggests that if a certain group of Christians who are fixated on keeping Jewish law including circumcision are so set on it, they may as well just complete the job and whack off the whole deal.

(For a more complete treatment of Sarcasm in the scripture, read A Serrated Edge by Douglas Wilson. It has some flaws, but it makes a strong case for not always being nice, but always being good. Go here to read how Wilson acknowledges and fills in some of the holes.)

Such language is not fit for greeting cards. People, especially religious people, who use such language today are thought to be too rough, to angry. The point is, however, that certain things, certain people, certain actions, certain error demands rough treatment. It is to be gone after, hammer and tongs, full tilt, no mercy. It is fine to be positive and to seek out the good in things, but to deny the negative, the evil and the wrong, to pretend it is not there and to not even acknowledge it is folly of the highest order.

Jim Rohn, a favorite speaker of mine, talks of the importance of the negative. It is not only necessary to plant and tend the flowers and vegetables in your garden, but you must also pull the weeds. And you have to go at the weeds, ideally with a sharp hoe, perhaps on your hands and knees, but you cannot neglect to pull the weeds. If you do they will grow up to choke out your garden. You must have no mercy. In the same way, it is necessary to identify and recognize folly, stupidity and evil for exactly what they are and go at them to destroy them, giving no quarter.

As Jim Rohn says, “Sometimes you have to love like a mother and hate like a father…And sometimes you have to love like a father and hate like a mother.” Hate those habits that would destroy us – hate laziness, worry, ignorance, fear, apathy. Hate those things which will lead us to poverty, disease, wrecked marriages, ruined lives. Hate those things which bring oppression, injustice, and prejudice. Hate them and make it your life’s mission to destroy them. If you focus just on the good alone, to the total exclusion of rooting out the evil, you let evil have it’s way too long and pretty soon it can own your garden.

And so sarcasm, used rightly, is a tool for good in uprooting evil. It certainly takes wisdom to use it rightly, just as it takes wisdom to use a sharp knife. When using sarcasm on others, you had best be sure that you have the facts straight, and that you aim your sarcasm at the right target. Sarcasm is not a thing to use lightly – for the same reason that I don’t give knives to small children. But when it’s needed, it is not only OK, it is good to have the right tool.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Mary Oliver

Just discovered a poet. Mary Oliver. Check this out.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Lawn Lament

Mowing the lawn is stupid.

I'd rather:

  1. Burn it every couple weeks.
  2. Rent it to a farmer who will mow it for hay 3 times a year.
  3. Till it under and sow it in wildflowers.
  4. Buy a goat in the spring. Let it eat my lawn all summer. Turn it into shish kabobs and curry in October.

I had a friend recently described to me as a "Lawn Nazi." I guess that means that he is extremely zealous and exacting in his approach to lawn care. I guess that makes me a "Lawn Communist" because it's the most opposite thing to a fascist of the front yard that I can think of.

My lawn mower broke, and I ignored the growing grass for about 4 weeks, hoping it would just go away. Parts of the lawn reached almost 8 inches high. I actually kind of liked it that way. I bought a used mower for $75 and knocked the grass down today. I'm not sure whether it was a much better mower than my old one, but it sure seemed to work better. Of course, the blade was probably actually sharp, so that instead of bludgeoning the grass into submission, I was actually cutting it.

Whatever. Mowing the lawn is stupid. Really stupid.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Journal

Today is a bit of an anniversary. I have been keeping a journal for one week. Whoopee.

Not a blog, you understand. This is a real live honest to goodness write-it-with-a-pen-in-a-book journal. I’ve tried this kind of thing before with limited success. This time I think I’ve figured out how to make it work. The secret seems to be to think less, and write less.

Journaling has become this big emotional psychological introspective meditative spiritual exercise. What happened to the good old days when a journal just recorded some of the things that happened today? Not that there won’t be moments of emotional writing. It’s just that I really don’t have time for that, especially after I wring myself dry writing this blog for the three of you that read it.

I aim this to be a journal that I don’t mind other people reading. Does that mean stuff will get left out? Sure. But I’m really seeing these books as a legacy for my children. How did Dad spend his life? At least from the age of 44, now they should have an answer to that. Maybe they can learn some lessons from it. Of course, there is always the chance that they won't really care...(sigh***)

I’m using the notebooks produced by Moleskines (MOW-luh-SKEE-nah). I like the size and shape, and I like the idea of having a set of these labeled by dates, sitting on the shelves. The name is also fun to say with an Italian accent.

I gotta go. I haven’t written about today yet.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Political Bubblings

You may have noticed that I'm not really big on writing about political and economic events - that stuff that commonly passes for news. Mostly I am aware of it, but it seems that a lot of it I simply have little or no influence over. So when things happen like Karl Rove announcing his retirement, or the stock market goes haywire, I hear them, note them with a certain dispassionate interest, and move on my way.

But this Karl Rove thing keep popping into my mind. I'm not sure why.

I have never really liked George W Bush. I voted for him once, but with misgivings at the time. I felt then that he was the better option (and he probably was) but I had a vague fear that he simply lacked something the office requires. I am not a Bush basher. I am a registered Independent, but have traditionally voted along Republican lines. For the past several years, I find that both sides of the aisle have their collective heads quite firmly implanted up their collective bungholes. I have been rankled by the so called Religious Right's unswerving, flimsily structured support for Bush -- as if investing him with a prophetic office he cannot wear. Even worse, they are in such danger of expecting the government to usher in God's kingdom -- and then being shocked and disappointed when government can't actually deliver. These are my people! That they can be guilty of such folly blows my mind. at the same time, because they are my people, I know where they are coming from.

I have been even more deeply rankled by what appears to be the Republican's inability to really understand what the Evangelical Block really wants, but is more than willing to use them as a political stepping stone cum cudgel. I'm afraid the Rove really is the "architect" of the Bush presidency, and it's effects upon the Republican Party. If so, I think his retirement may have enormous implications, even at this late date. Of course, there's still Cheney...

So I don't really pay much concious attention to politics, but I find that it does bubble around in the back of my brain quite a lot. The problem is I'm always afraid that, although I have opinions, I really pretty ignorant about the whole things, and would do better to just shut up.

Of course, ignorance has never really stopped me from spouting opinions about other things.

Car-ma all over

In case you care, the cause of the pink puddle in my driveway has been diagnosed and repaired. It was a bent dipstick tube. Easy to miss, easy to fix.

As for the bumper of the Outback, the auto insurance companies are working things out. I may not have to pay anything.

That same day, my wife's purse with wallet, keys and cell phone went missing. It has been found. It is now back in her possession.

And the cycle of life continues. Worrying accomplishes nothing. It's just a dragon that must die.

Rodrigo y Gabriela

If you seek good new music, let me point you to one of my new favorites. Acoustic Rock Guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela.

This is not flamenco. It is metal gone acoustic filtered through Mexico via Ireland. Yeah you read it right. Click the link and go to their Myspace page so you can listen to a few of their tunes. It's all available on I Tunes.

As you listen, note that it's just two guitars and four hands making all these sounds -- even the percussion. Dig that crazy beat man.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Bad Car-ma

I am working on several different posts right now that haven't gelled yet. The topics to come will include marriage, Jesus and Sarcasm, and Wendell Berry. Yeah..I know that's a bit rangey. Such is the private life of my head. When you spend too much time behind the wheel, you have lots of time to think about all kinds of weird poop.

But I felt like I wanted to post something tonite, so you get to read about my cars.

I just spend $1650 on a new transmission. Much less than I expected, but still not exactly cheap. Imagine my excitement when I returned home Saturday morning after making a run to our town dump, only to find a puddle of red fluid in my driveway. There is not supposed to be a puddle of anything in my driveway. It's supposed to be in the transmission. Now I still can't drive the thing anywhere. The mechanic will be hearing from me Monday morning.

Then on Saturday, on the way to the beach for a family outing, a Chevy pickup manages to back into my Outback and rip off the rear bumper cover with it's trailer hitch. To my chagrin, I must say that I gave my children a bit of a vocabulary lesson. I was already a bit uptight about several events of the morning, and when I felt the crunch on my car, I felt this parallel popping sound in my head and immediately started pounding the steering wheel and calling upon the Maker of the Universe to condemn most everything around me to perdition. And I must say that I was rather passionate about my prayers.

Yeah. Not really my proudest moment. Mostly the girls were just a little frightened, not by the words, but by my....demeanor.

After exchanging the requisite information the the other so-called driver, I pushed the bumper cover back on (mostly) and said, "There! Good as new! Let's go to the beach." We did, and had a swell time.

Sometimes, it's all just a mystery why things happen the way they do.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Poetry of Insult

I love a good insult.

There are few forms of wit that can match the well formed slur. Verbal abuse, properly executed, is one of the highest forms of expression. A well formed smear is poetry nonpareil. Although I believe that this highest of literary forms has been largely ignored, imagine my delight to discover that there is actually a journal dedicated to “verbal aggression.” It is appropriately named Maledicta. Isn’t that precious? I would warn you before visiting that site, it is replete with "strong language" and is not for the faint of heart or those with delicate sensibilities.

Now it’s not that I personlly like to practice insulting people. Those who know me know that I generally speak with respectful care and precision. Yet the man who enjoys collecting stamps may not be a particularly good correspondent. He just appreciates the stamps.

When it comes to insults, the lazy and inarticulate can of course now rely on technology to produce their insults. It is easy to find websites that will manufacture cheap mass produced insults. These are humorous in their way, but they lack the nuance and appeal of real “handmade” insults. The true aficionado of slurs can always appreciate the efforts of the clumsy amateur as at least possessing a lively authenticity that the machine made insult lacks. After all, it must be said that the most important ingredient in artful rudeness is soul.

It is important as well not to mistake mere verbal excess for wit. If your idea of a powerful insult is that it must have at least 12 words with 4 syllables or more, then you are missing the point. If your subject (or your audience) has to spend more time figuring out what you just said than it took you to say it, you have failed to be effectively insulting.

I also must say that while profanity may be used with most excellent effect, it’s overuse renders insulting language dull, in the same way that too much spice can ruin a dish. The clumsy insulteur simply piles curse words on top of another without regard to meter, logic or any sort of rhetorical or poetic device. One can use profanity in abundance, in the same way that Indian cooking uses spice with an especially unapologetic boldness. But even Indian cuisine pays attention to the balancing of flavors and textures. The more dense the profanity, the higher must be that art to lift it above the gutter. When it works, it is sublime. When it does not, it’s just ugly.

Classical insults fall into one of several general categories

Appearance – physical appearance, mode of dress, race and or gender
Heritage -- national derivation, family, social class, or citizenship
Personality-- intelligence, skill, education, morals, behavior.

They may be executed thus

The direct attack – the upfront, no-holds down verbal assault. Ideally it is both clever and shocking, but either can suffice, depending on your goal.

That’s nice tie. Does it come in silk?
You are the only case where the baby died and the afterbirth lived.
It’s amazing that such a big head can hold such a small mind.

When you are dead, I will have your skin tanned and made into a saddle so I can spend the rest of my life farting on you. (from "Lords of the North" by Bernard Cornwell)

The riposte – The quick and unexpected turning of someone’s attempt at wit back on themselves. This is a glorious thing to behold.

Mr. Churchill, I perceive that you are drunk.
Yes milady I am, but tomorrow I shall be sober, while you shall still be ugly.

The veiled strike – accomplished to the face, but in such a way that the insulted is not aware that he has just been dissed. Sometimes this amounts to carefully covered sarcasm. Since it is very situational, it’s hard to provide good examples here.

A true insult is always given face to face. Otherwise it is merely gossip, which require neither art nor nerve.

Insults do not require anger or hatred. In fact, many of the finest insults are between the best of friends, who show their affection for one another by the trading of effrontery. If not affectionate, then many find the trading of insults to be very entertaining, as in the African American tradition called The Dozens.

We have not even touched on Shakespeare's insults, or applications of insulting speech in a variety of social situations. It really doesn't matter, I suppose. If you don't like it that's too bad. Your just bitter because your parents wanted a boy.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Baptism and the Shema

A week ago this evening, my oldest daughter was baptized. I wanted very much to reflect on that event in this venue, but my schedule lately has prevented me from doing much writing at all. So finally, here are a few thoughts.

This was certainly a pivotal point in my daughter’s life and spiritual journey. It also marks a significant high point of my own. My understanding of baptism has been deepening and broadening for several years. And, as I have come to see, that is exactly as it should be.

Baptism is a rite of initiation. It has been described as the doorway of the sacraments for it leads the initiate into the other sacraments. It is an act modeled for us by Jesus, and commanded by Him. It is described clearly by Paul as the sign of the New Covenant, a parallel to circumcision practiced by the Jews. It is most importantly, however, not a human act, but an act of God, who promises to work his way in us through this strange, mundane ritual.

At root, it is simply taking a bath. Washing up. Sprinkling, pouring, dunking – it’s all about the water. Somehow God uses this common ordinary water in some uncommon extraordinary way. Somehow, this symbolic ritual matters. A lot.

The Gnostic in us rebels against this. We like to ignore the inconvenience of baptism because it is so…material. It doesn’t seem spiritual enough. It’s all so wet and sloppy. Yet Christ clearly commands it. He uses it. Our baptism reminds us of our own story with Christ. He come for us. He died for us. He rose again for us. He dwells on high for us. He is with us in our baptism and our baptism is always with us. Ultimately it is His work, and not ours. It is what God does to us and for us in our baptism that really counts. But for some reason, he has set it up to work by the water.

So my daughter is baptized. Did she understand all the implications of what she was doing? Certainly not. Neither did I. Neither do I still. We who are in Christ, are all growing into our baptisms. At the end of the service, when we gathered around her to pray, I placed my hands on her head and prayed this prayer.

Great Heavenly Father,
Bind this girl to you now, and bind yourself to her, to never ever let her go. May she grow into you and you into her, blossoming in understanding and grace.
May she grow ever to be smart and strong and brave and beautiful and kind. May she love others as you love them. And may she love you with all her mind and all her heart and all her strength.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

I could not pray this through without choking up at least once. Afterwards, as I thought about what I had prayed, I realized that I had prayed a form of the Shema. I guess that is a fitting thing.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Goodnight Weekly World News

Continuing my theme of truth in journalism, I must note that Reuters recently reported that the Weekly World News will no longer be available in print after next month.

Where else will we go for news of Batboy? Who else will keep us informed about alien invasions, the latest Elvis sightings, demonic possessions of members of congress, Mother Nature's political support of Al Gore, and other important news that no one else will cover? I for one will miss it.

Fortunately, it will still be available online. I don't know though. There is just something about holding a paper copy in your hands.

Fear and Complexity

FDR said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Hmmmm.

I once spoke to a friend of mine who is a Psychiatrist. I asked him if he ever meets people who find out about his profession and try to get a free therapy session from him. What do you do when people start telling you how they’ve been feeling pretty depressed lately? His response was something like, “Well…maybe you should be depressed. Have you read the newspaper lately?” I was a little shocked by his answer, mostly because his reply was so quick that it was apparent that he actually did say that to people. Second because it made me think that maybe I should be depressed.

Have you read the newspaper lately? I suppose it is at least somewhat important to be an informed citizen, but can maintaining a level of responsible citizenship be detrimental to one’s mental health? It is true, at least in terms of your body that you are what you eat. It must also me as true from a mental standpoint that you are what you think about.

This is not new ground. I am not the first to say this. I just want to point you to a fascinating article that has a lot to say about what we are “eating” when we pay a lot of attention to the news. Michael Chricton helps remind me that much of what I might read, hear or see really leaves out much of the truth. The whole truth is much more complex and multi-hued than what is reported. The sensational and tragic is relatively easy to report. The fully rounded and 3 dimensional takes more time and effort on the part of both the reporter and the reader/listener/watcher.

I’ve long been suspecting this about the war in Iraq – that we are only hearing about body counts on our side, but never about any kind of positive forward momentum. We only hear about obstacles, setbacks and difficulties, never about any kind of victories. This sort of reporting is not just coming out if Iraq, but is endemic.

It’s not so much that I don’t trust the news (that sounds way too much like I’m some kind of nutbag conspiracy theorist). It’s more that I just don’t generally find spending too much time with it to be very helpful. When I do pay attention, I now ask myself what the other side of the story might be that’s not being told. I’m trying to be much more aware of the complexity that is the reality of our existence. Evil bad things do exist. So do good and beautiful things, and they often dance an intricate dance around one another. Even if I don’t know what the untold story is, at least being conscious that there is a useful mental discipline.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Took the Tranny in the Fanny

It’s an ugly moment when you recognize that what at first appears to be a huge piece of bad luck really boils down being your own damn fault.

Last year I had a car with 200,000 miles on it, in need of about $1000 of repairs. Decided it was time to trade it in and get some newer and more dependable. Picked up a pretty decent deal on a 1999 Subaru Forester with only 69,000 miles. Now just over a year later, the Forester has 105,000 miles on it and has a completely (insert your swear word of choice here)-up transmission. The good news is that it shouldn’t cost me more than $3000. It might only cost me about $2000. So my master plan to pick up a more dependable vehicle obviously was a stroke of pure genius.

But wait you say. How could you have known that the tranny would poop out early? You are correct. I could not have known that. And that is not where my fault lies. My fault lies in that damned dragon called failure to manage your money. That ugly moment when I realized that a little bit (OK, maybe a LOT) of discipline in regards to saving money regularly would have gone some distance toward mitigating this situation. It wouldn’t have avoided the problem, but it would have given me the wherewithal to combat it more effectively.

Lesson learned. I’m saving money from now on dammit! Putting a little away. Filling the slush fund. Secreting away a little mad money. That dragon must die and I start twisting the garotte today.