Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Political Debates as Kabuki Theater

Watching the political debates, what little I could stomach, anyway, made me think about what I knew was coming:


-- Everyone who already supported him was going to say he won.


-- Everyone who already supported her would say she won.


-- Almost no minds would be changed.


-- The media would spin it the way they were going to spin it no matter what happened within the debate itself.


It's interesting to be a Tuesday morning reader of this stuff, especially to read comments or headlines like, "Trump unquestionably won" or "Clinton the undeniable victor" ... sometimes on the same front page of the same newspaper (do they still print those) or web site.


Not like sports.


We may argue that the referee blew the call and the ball was definitely in the air before the buzzer, or that the umpire should have called that ball a homerun, but the outcome is what it is. This team won and that team lost.


In the real sports, I mean, not those genned-up, fake ones, like pro wrestling or the NFL.


Somewhere, there is probably someone who has created a metric that tells who won a debate, but it hasn't caught on, and probably won't. Our debates aren't even debates. Whoever you thought won the most recent presidential debate (and I'm thinking it was probably Jill Stein, for getting kicked off campus before it even started), neither one of the participants would have even qualified for a high F in a debate class.


It's theatre. It's Show. It's a chance to pretend that the candidates are knowledgeable, acceptable potential leaders of the country. It's a chance for the media to act like they care about both sides of the issue(s).


It is, in this most recent case, anyway, a ratings bonanza.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Glasses

"Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses." ~Dorothy Parker


"My grandmother lived to be ninety-five and never needed glasses. She always just drank right out of the bottle." ~unknown


I am fifty years old now and wearing my first pair of glasses. I don't know that it makes me feel old (everything is doing that!) but it is making the world seem like a moonscape. The ground is too close and has rolls in it, the table tops are trapezoid shaped and leaning away from me, and peripheral is a fun-house mirror.


But it's not as bad today as it was yesterday. Even as I look to this computer screen, I am seeing the letters better than I was yesterday. I have no-line bi-focals and there is supposed to be a range in the middle of the glasses for looking at computer screens. Yesterday, it seemed like it was about half a pixel wide, but today I can actually see the screen pretty well. Yesterday, reading was difficult as well because the "sweet spot for reading" was at the bottom of the frame. Way at the bottom. Like one line of text at a time, just above the rims, bottom of the frame. It's still not great, but already it's getting better.


The glasses haven't changed. And, honestly, the glasses work best when I don't try to find that sweet spot. See, if I stop thinking about it, I realize my head tilts to just the right angle for best visibility through the lenses. If I think about it, though, then I start tilting my head like a bobblehead, trying to find the exact right spot where things become clear.


And then the sweet spot seems to get smaller.


If there's a meta-message here that applies to something beyond glasses, I'm not sure what it is. Probably something about "trust".


But not blind trust, because that that would counteract the glasses.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Why "Home Improvement" is the 5th-greatest show of all time

There are pop-up ads—I’m sure you’ve seen them—that get your attention just because they purport to show or tell something outlandish. I got sucked into one of those recently about “Worst TV Shows of the 1990’s” because the show it used for its click-bait picture was “Home Improvement”. This got my attention because, of course, “Home Improvement” was not only the best show of the 1990s, it was the 5th best show of all time.

The great thing about the internet, like “the good thing about toe fungus”, is that we can throw these things out there without fear of repercussions, mostly because no one ever reads my blog, anyway. There are so many other blogs, articles and—of course—porn, out there, why would they stop off here to read what a used-to-be-minister and former-writer thinks about … anything?

Another click-bait article (can’t remember what the attracting picture might have been) was a nonsensical article from the wonderful folks at the “Crawfish Boxes” (a web site dedicated to articles about the Houston Astros) about how the Astros are actually better than the Texas Rangers. After beginning with a premise better suited to The Onion, the author went on to detail how, position-by-position, the Astros were actually better than the Rangers. An innocent reader could be forgiven for thinking the writer had any idea what he was talking about, but only if they could prove conclusively that they were completely oblivious to the fact that the Rangers regularly beat the Astros like the proverbial rented mule. As of this writing, the Rangers have won 9 of the 10 games played against their cross-state “rivals”.

The purpose/dream of all such articles, though, is that such outlandish or inflammatory headlines will attract readers. Why we want them I’ve forgotten, but most bloggers do. So, anyway, here’s my list of greatest TV shows ever and why whoever put “Home Improvement” on a worst list is—probably nice as can be and uber-intelligent in all other matters—wrong.

1.       The Andy Griffith Show There is, of course, no disputing this assertion. Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, Sheldon Leonard, et. al. created television’s perfect show. From the opening theme music (admit it: you’re whistling it now), we are taken back to a perfect time that never was. Even though some argue that the show was somewhat inferior after Don Knotts left (they’re right), it was the number one rated show during its final season, so even a “weak” Andy Griffith is better than anything else on TV.


2.       The Dick Van Dyke Show Almost as perfect, Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner and (notice a pattern here?) Sheldon Leonard created another great show. It’s funny, it’s quotable, and what red-blooded American male isn’t in love with Laura Petrie? Richie Petrie gets a bad rap sometimes as not being a good actor, but I think the reality is that he’s always held up against Ron Howard, which is like being compared to Babe Ruth on the ball diamond.

3.       Maverick At a time when there were 31 other westerns on TV, Roy Huggins presented a new kind of western with James Garner (then, soon after, Jack Kelly) that soon rose to the top of the ratings—ahead of all those other westerns, as well as every other genre. Every episode is like watching a big screen movie with the excellent scripts and top-notch acting. Some have said that every anti-hero who followed—in the movies or on TV—owes a debt of gratitude to Garner’s roguish gambler who, when all else failed, could be counted on to do what was right (and get the girl).

4.       The Rockford Files Garner and Huggins struck again (though Huggins didn’t stay with it very long) in creating the best P.I. show of all time. Rockford was as quick with his wits as with his fists and was as likely to solve the case through guile as through wits. And it’s been written elsewhere (not by me, but the premise is correct) that the episode “The House on Willis Avenue” may have been the best episode ever written for television due to it’s incredible prediction of the shape of things to come, especially the crime of identity theft. (Go watch it and remember: this was made in 1977 before even Al Gore had heard of the internet.)

5.       Home Improvement Based loosely on Tim Allen’s stand-up routines about the emasculating of the modern male, HI provided eight years of hilarity. But go back and watch them if you haven’t seen them in a while and you may be surprised to find that they also found ways to deal with subjects like menopause, mid-life crises, hospice and what to do when you accidentally glue your head to a table. HI is a great, funny show, it just wasn't able to topple the four listed above (an impossible task, when you think about it).

While there have been other shows produced for television, of varying degrees of value, those five are the best the medium has ever produced. If I had to list the next 15 best shows (and why not, it’s my blog), I might say (and might change tomorrow, only the top 5 never change): 6. Grizzly Adams; 7. The Waltons; 8. Star Trek (TOS); 9. Seinfeld; 10. Lois & Clark; 11. Chuck; 12. Blue Bloods; 13. JAG; 14. Gunsmoke; 15. Gilligan’s Island; 16. The Simpsons; 17. Matlock; 18. 6 Million Dollar Man; 19. Get Smart; 20. Coach.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Withering Church

Was in a small, west Texas town last week to see some patients and came across the 1st Christian Church of That Town . I had wondered where it was, as I had had some dealings with it before, sort of. Back in 2010, I attended a meeting of what was called (I think) the Panhandle Evangelism Association, which amounted to two people from our church, the minister from That Town, and an old college alum of mine (who was ministering at a church in Amarillo at the time). So I had wondered if the church of That Town still existed.

Having taken a wrong turn in my effort to get to the nursing home, I spotted a building with a sign out front that proclaimed (in muted tones), "1st Christian Church." Nice-looking little building, and there were two trucks pulled up out front so I thought maybe someone was there mowing the yard. I stopped and went in and was met by two elderly gentlemen whose names I don't remember. They greeted me and I told them who I was and I found out that they were 2/3 of the church. On Sunday mornings, one of them brings his wife. And they live more than an hour away. He told me the Church of Christ had tried to buy the building from then and my thought was, "Sell! Sell!" but he was born and raised in that church, he father was a founder, and he can't bear to let it go.

[I say the sign proclaimed the church in muted tones because while it had the name spelled out, it did not have the service times anywhere on it. So, if Joe Smith decides one Sunday morning he would like to attend 1st Christian ... how's he going to know when to show up? I asked them that in a polite way and they took it kindly, though acted like they had never thought of anything like that. The building itself is in OK shape, though it smells musty and the interior is definitely from the 1970s. So, from a strictly superficial standpoint, the church has 3 strikes against it before a service could even start.]

That Town is a dying, rural town. Doesn't even have a grocery store anymore. Just a Love's, another convenience store (which is across the street from the Love's), a Subway and a Sonic. A dozen Mexican food restaurants (which is a really low number for a town of that size in west Texas). The town square is just a square of empty shops around a courthouse. There's an old, closed movie theater on the square that I would love to see the inside of. So, even if you had the wherewithal to--say--sponsor a church-planting team to come in and take over the building, canvas the area, etc., what are the chances of it taking off in a town like that? I'm sure it COULD be done, but I wouldn't bet on it BEING done.

This Town (the town where I used to minister) is not a dying town like That Town, but I could sure see the church where I used to serve following the path of that church in That Town. Maybe it won't, but there is very little in the church's current makeup to make one say, "That'll never happen here!"

On the other hand, I think churches/congregations may be like plants. Some of them are designed to be planted, grow for a while, then die off. It should only be sad if we prolong it long past the sell-by date, holding onto a building more than onto our Lord. We should probably rejoice in the time it had and the lives it affected when it was supposed to.

Normally, I think cultural fads flow from the big cities outward, but I wonder if this particular flow--while it may be coming from the cities (I could write more on that later but probably won't)--is most clearly visible in the rural areas: the church model of 'if you build it they will come', sometimes called more formally 'the attractional model', is nearing it's end. Our culture bombards everyone--but especially our young--with attractive enticements. Many churches have tried to jump on that bandwagon and are meeting with a season of success, but I think that season is closing. For some, it already has.

There are think tanks in the world of science and politics and art (and maybe every discipline) who try to predict "the next big thing". New methods of propulsion. New mediums for art. Demographic changes that make old methods of polling obsolete.

Surely there are think tanks for the church. I wonder what they are predicting? I firmly believe that God will always preserve a remnant, but it may not be anything like what we expect a "church" to look like.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

God Said, "No"

I had always wanted to be a writer, practically from the first time I learned that one could take those letters we were being taught and shape them into words, which could be gathered together into sentences with which to create stories someone would want to read.

So I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. And I read and I read and I studied how those who wrote the things I liked to read wrote. Why does this sentence work? Why was this detail revealed here and not elsewhere? Besides teachers and profs, my instructors were L'Amour and Lewis, Christie and Faulkner, Hillerman and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Tolkien, and hundreds more.

And I prayed.

I prayed for over 40 years that God would use my writings for his glory and the support of my family. And God said, "No."
With my last work, "The Last Valley" trilogy, I prayed and researched and wrote my best work, each sentence carefully chosen to advance the story and convey the message that I thought God had given me. I worked to pour layer after layer of heart and metaphor into the tale in hopes that I had finally written what the best thing I had ever written.

God said, "No."

I put out fleece and the answer God gave me was, "No."

There was a time when--one month of March and one month only--I sold over 200 copies of my books. I prayed that was the start I had been praying for, but it was a sales height never reached again, apparently a fluke. Two years later, after constant prayer that I would be the writer that I was supposed to be and that my books would "take off", I was selling 3-5 books a month. I advertised, I used social media, I even tried eschewing those things and "leaving it in God's hands".

So I put out fleece. I prayed from the beginning of the year that during March I would sell 100 books. If I didn't, I would accept that God did not want me to be a writer.

Boy, did God say, "No!"

In March, I sold 4 books. Not 100. Not 10. 4.

I am no longer a writer. Maybe I never was. Not a good one, anyway. I wanted to be a writer, a novelist. Maybe I was good but …

But God said, "No."

Friday, August 19, 2016

Good Listener

I am known as a "good listener".


I am not.


What I am is quiet.  For most people, that seems to be enough. In this world, people are looking--mostly in vain--to find someone who will allow them to complete their own thoughts. Barring that, at least a single sentence. I do that: I sit silently while they speak and don't interrupt until they're done, so people assume that I'm listening.


Or, they just like the appearance that I'm listening. Because everywhere else they go in life, someone finishes their sentences for them.


Why do people do this? Is it because the other person is talking too slowly? Maybe, but probably not. The real reason we interrupt each other is not to help them along but because we think whatever we have to say--even about their own personal thought--is more important than what they were going to say.


Whether it were accurate or not, I remember reading a book years ago about how the Indians--when they gathered in a teepee or wigwam or whatever--considered it very bad form to interrupt another speaker. So one man, usually one of the older ones, would speak and everyone else in the teepee would be silent until he stopped speaking. When he finished, someone else would speak. And, supposedly, they would speak in such a way as to show they respected the previous speaker by accurately quoting him and/or responding to what he said. This could go on for some time because everyone got their turn to speak and everyone was respectful--even of opinions they disagreed with.


I'm pretty sure such a process would kill most everyone I know. We interrupt, we talk over, we make arguments that have no bearing on the conversation, we plan our next statement without hearing out the current speaker, and we leave knowing far less about the topic at hand than we could have if we had swallowed our pride and ... listened.


I get the feeling that these people who compliment me on being a good listener don't, in the main, care whether I actually listened to them or not. They just wanted to speak and were glad someone let them.


So go ahead and speak.


I'm listening.


Or quiet.


And do you really care which?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why I Prefer the Prequels to Episode 7

OK, I know my title is already causing some readers to object and/or question my sanity. I realized that when I wrote it. I didn’t want to write some cutesy blog where-in I bury the lead somewhere near the bottom. So, just in case there’s some doubt, let me assure you that:

                --yes, I really do prefer the prequels to episode 7; and
                --yes, I am talking about the “Star Wars” movies.

In our culture, saying you like something over something else—especially when discussing anything even vaguely art-related like movies, books, paintings or music—far too many people assume that what’s really being said is, “I like that one and hate this one.” So no, I didn’t hate Star Wars 7 (sometimes called “The Force Awakens”). I even saw it in the theater three times and I liked it more each time. Overall, though, I think my opinion of it is best summed-up by someone I overheard while exiting the theater following my second viewing, “Well, that was the seventh-best Star Wars movie I’ve ever seen.”

I am not here to bury or praise Caesar, or SW7, for that matter. I might get to what I liked and didn’t like about it—depending on how I’m feeling in a few minutes—but my first focus is to give some basic reasons why I liked the prequels. [Notice: there’s an assumption here that the original trilogy is almost universally liked. Of course, some people don’t like it at all but, among us die-hard StarWarsians, the original trilogy is very well thought of. I find this interesting because, from about 1984-1998 I frequently read articles by people who didn’t like “Return of the Jedi”. Then, they had something else to throw aspersions at, so “Jedi” fell into good graces and poor Richard Marquand finally got to rest easy in his grave.]

But I liked the prequels. I even (this will make some more heads explode and I don’t really care because I doubt their loss will negatively affect the gene pool in any way) liked Jar-Jar Binks. I didn’t want more of him, but I thought he did what he was supposed to do: provide some slap-stick and comic relief for the kids. I remember when my children first saw The Phantom Menace. They were enthralled with all of it, but got a special kick out of this goofy, gangly, funny-talking Gungan. Was he Shakesperean? Of course not. But for my money, he was far less annoying that C3PO is in any given appearance of the golden droid.

Which isn’t to say I ever wanted to do bodily damage to good ol’ 3PO. He’s funny, he’s occasionally helpful, but he is always rather prissy, like an upbeat Marvin. R2D2 is cool, of course, and I think it’s clear that the movies generally hold him back. (Was this the real reason he has such a limited role in 7? The fear that he would take over?)

People complain about the politics of the prequels; namely: there’s too much politics in the prequels. I never have shared that complaint. Were the debates in the Senate as interesting as, say, watching Darth Maul get de-lowerhalfatated? No, but they weren’t supposed to be. George Lucas had created this grand saga about a whole galaxy and the politics of that galaxy informed the action. Back when Governor Tarkin said the Emperor had dissolved the Senate, we all wondered what the Senate was—how did it operate? if it existed at all, how does a ruler disperse with it and still keep things together? didn’t those who were disbanded object? And then, when we saw the Emperor in “Jedi” (and glimpsed through hologram in “Empire”), we wondered, “How’d that creepy-looking freak get to be in charge?!” We’d heard rumors about Obi-Wan fighting Darth Vader on the edge of a volcano, but what happened to that old dude?

And, as I watch through the prequels (and read the books about George’s early drafts of all of the 6 original movies), I see an overarching story, with themes that rhyme (Eps 5&2 rhyme, then 6&1, then 3&4 tie up the poem) and the decades-long story of a galaxy’s change-everything war told through the eyes of a single family (and their droids).

I even like the dialogue in the prequels. Where some people complain—to the point of seemingly giving themselves bowel problems—about the dialogue between Anakin and Padme, I am impressed as a writer with what Lucas attempted. It’s just the typical story of the girl from the right side of the tracks who’s falling for the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks/galaxy. Do people really talk like that? No, but that’s the point: this isn’t southern California. These are a royal and a knight on a far off world. They’re not supposed to talk like the people you live next to! Did Lucas perfectly capture what he was going for there? Maybe not fully, but that brings me to a point where I have to mention 7.

Some of the things I have just mentioned that I liked in the prequels, I find missing in 7. Now, maybe, when 8 & 9 are out I’ll look back at 7 and see that it wasn’t just the world’s longest trailer, but was actually a quality launch-point for an inventive and well-told trilogy. Right now, though, I’m looking back at the prequels and seeing that Lucas tried (and, for me, succeeded) in both filling in a back-story and staying true to an incredible vision and I compare that to 7, which strikes me as the best …

I keep thinking back to a friend I had back in elementary school who lived down the street. He came from a rough home (pretty sure there was some abuse there) and loved to find solace by escaping into Star Trek, Space 1999, etc. When Star Wars came out, it became his world for several years. We both had a few action figures (which would be worth nothing now because we played with them ‘til they fell apart) and he had this idea of taking an 8mm movie camera and making a stop-motion version of “Star Wars” with our figures. Not a new story. He was mapping out how to create every scene from what would later be called “A New Hope”. It was going to be nothing more than a remake, a tribute, with no originality at all—at least as far as story went.

We went our separate ways in junior high, but it dawned on me while watching 7 that maybe my friend finally got his wish because someone went and made the best fan-boy copy-movie ever. With millions of dollars and the world’s best special effects guys (apparently), they went out and created a really beautiful tribute to (mostly) “A New Hope” with nods to “Empire” and “Jedi” thrown in. Even the official magazines of the movie tell of how the director and co-writer of the movie walked around NYC and Paris, talking about the movie and I picture one of them saying, “Remember that scene with the mynoks in ‘Empire’?” and then the other guy says, “Yeah! Let’s make the mynock bigger and put it on the front of the ship!” And on and on they went until they had created a visually stunning but creatively rehashed movie. Instead of continuing the poetry, if I may mix metaphors, it seems more like they’re just a really good cover band that just can’t quite capture the magic of the original song.
It’s making millions of dollars. Billions, even. People love it. “Rey” will probably jump up to the top 10 of names for little girls and “Finn” will be in the top 20 for boys and the percentage of people naming their sons “Poe” will jump from .000001 to .000002 overnight.

But I still like the prequels better than 7. When Obi-Wan says that what they’re going to do with the obvious trap is spring it (right after what gets my vote for the best space-battle ever filmed), I get a smile just thinking about it. As the pod-race goes on a little too long, I still crank up the sound to feel that thump-thump-thump noise in my chest. As the Jedi prove to be far more vulnerable than we had thought on Geonosis, I wonder why we’re surprised when Obi-Wan told us long ago that the Jedi were all but extinct—they had to have lost somewhere along the line and lost big.

I think it comes down to the fact that George Lucas’s vision caught my imagination, through all six movies but, to re-use my metaphor from earlier, the work of this cover band is good for a cover band, but it’s not really the way I want to hear the song.


In case you’re curious—and I can’t imagine why you would be, but since you’ve read this far—the “Star Wars” movies arranged in order of my preference would be 4-5-3-2-6-1-7. The order I usually watch them in is still 4-5-6-1-2-3 (and then 4-5-6 again) though there’s something to be said for the idea of watching them 4-5-1-2-3-6, as if 1-2-3 are Anakin flashing back to what led him to that moment where he hacked off his son’s hand.