School’s Out Forev… Oh Wait, We’re Back

So I’m back in college. This is an unexpected turn of events, but (not counting a brief and semi-disastrous stint in a graduate English program) my somewhat meandering 20180823_172911professional arc has passed through a place where it actually makes concrete sense to go back. And on August 16th I found myself back in a classroom with people who are almost literally half my age. Let’s just say this 21st-century classroom is a lot different even than the 21st-century classroom I was in when I was 18.

In a sort of sequel to what I saw on campus during my brief tenure working at a college, here’s 5 bits of advice (read curmudgeonly opinionating) that I’d offer my classmates this time around.

  1. Close your laptop. This means you, guy who sits in front of me and plays solitaire through half the class. I mean, at least you’re not looking at pornography, at which point I’d have to whack you over the head with my textbook (see point 3 below). Anyway, you or someone you know has paid upwards of $2000 for you to sit in this course, which breaks down to this hour costing around $70. If you want to pay someone $70 for wifi and a place to sit for an hour, I’ll clean out my garage and get a Square swiper. Bring a friend.
  2. Seriously, close your laptop. Do the research. It’s not helping you learn and it’s likely inhibiting you from learning. Take notes on paper. You’ll remember them more clearly.
  3. Spring for the real textbook. This semester has been my first exposure to the abomination that is the eTextbook. At least the version I’m using from McGraw Hill seems to actually function as though reduced comprehension were an intended goal from the outset. For one, it greys out what it considers unnecessary text. Useless stuff like the intro paragraph to each chapter that frames everything you’re about to read and offers an outline. It’s a built-in layer of disengagement.
    McGraw Hill also offers something called Smartbook Learn Smart (Which, give me a break with the redundancy. If you have to insist twice in three words that your gadget is “smart”, well, color me dubious.) It’s basically a series of quiz questions that pop up while you’re reading. To keep you engaged, I guess. Some small quibbles, though. Like the questions run out before the chapter ends so you can “finish” without finishing. And there’s that issue of literally, in the book itself, teaching to the test. It actively trains your brain to glean just enough facts to escape its clutches. All told, it’s shallow comprehension and minimal retention. And it’s a pain in the ass to navigate, hence the longing to escape. You can keep your keyword searches and just let me scan the chapter. Learning happens in the fringes, too.

    1. This brings up a broader point about college as a whole. It’s a great place to learn and it’s filled with smart people from which to do so. But, the university as an institution cannot deliver learning. What it delivers institution wise is a GPA, which is a shorthand for performance that can be strikingly divorced from what you actually leave college knowing. It’s been my experience as a hiring manager out in The Real World that GPA doesn’t mean much on a resume. It really only matters to grad schools. Do what you have to do to keep your scholarships/athletic eligibility/position yourself for more education or whatever, but take it with a grain of salt. You’ll be out there building a life from what you learned long after anybody cares about your transcript.
  4. Don’t bother taking a picture of the white board with your phone at the end of class. If you can even find that photo in the avalanche of selfies and other ad hoc photojournalism of your college life, it’ll just be a meaningless bunch of scribble on a wall. Take your own notes. See point 2 above. And, because I love pointing people to Wendell Berry, give this a read. Especially the last 10 paragraphs or so.
  5. Ask questions. Forget the stuff about “No such thing as a stupid question” and “If you have a question, someone else probably does, too.” Filling in gaps is the lowest purpose a good question can serve. If not more importantly, at least more conscientiously, questions make professors feel like they’re in a room with fellow humans who care about what’s going on. Having done a stint in front of a classroom, engagement is one of the best services you can offer any teacher. But, also, asking questions disrupts the lecture in important ways. It opens the door into a different part of your professor’s brain. Not the part delivering prepared material, but the live creativity. Considering that your professor got their job for a reason, this is probably my only really good advice. Try to access that part of any professor’s mind as often as you can.

Outside the classroom, I can’t really help you. I’m doing by best to keep up with a marriage, two rowdy boys, two even rowdier dogs, the job for which I’m going back to school to do better, a first-floor renovation at my house, and occasionally writing something so I don’t get kicked out of my writing group. I can not even imagine the world of a true college freshman anymore so I won’t pretend to have anything worthwhile to say. But in that classroom, we’re on the same page together. Think about making it a paper one.

Olympic Dreams

Jacques Ellul once said that once a movement becomes an institution, it’s dead. He was talking about the dangers of locking faith up in a bureaucratic, self-preserving power structure, but I think his words have a ring to them when you think about the Olympics and other “amateur” sports organizations (ahem, NCAA anything).

There’s a charm to the idea of the Olympics–competitors from around the world gathering every few years to compete at games and showcase all the crazy and amazing things the human body can do. I mean, I mostly hate figure skating, but it’s still amazing that people can strap knife blades to their feet and zip around the ice jumping and spinning without breaking an ankle or cracking their skull open. (It’s all the arm waving and dancy fingers that lose me). And there’s the second-hand exhilaration watching a skier go airborn as they fly down a mountain right on the edge of disaster (not to mention the ugly thrill when someone crosses that border in a tumbling heap).

That’s the legend of the Olympics. The reality is a little less satisfying. The Olympics™ has become an ultra-competitive business. There’s the IOC, plagued with accusations of graft as less-than-reputable nations grease the wheels of the bidding system to get that legitimizing feather in the cap of Western media descending and fawning over their culture and turning a collective blind eye to whatever doesn’t fit the feel-good narrative packaged for the viewers back home. Then there’s weird decisions like barring the French skiing team from putting a small sticker on their helmets to honor their friend who died in training while over on the snowboard slopes, brand names and logos festoon the bottom of every board.

Then there are the athletes. The number of stories I’ve heard of athletes changing their citizenship to whichever country will give them the Olympic stage has been disenchanting to say the least. And what of the apparently high socioeconomic bar for Olympic athletes? How many athletes will we never see because they don’t have the money to build a ski slope in their back yard and they don’t have access to wind tunnel training to improve their aerodynamics and they don’t have someone to drive the 5 hours into the mountains for private training on the regular and they don’t have access to the array of nutritionists and trainers and balance coaches and personal sports psychologists and myriad other personnel that spread in the wake of elite athletes like the human train of an immense veil?

And this, I think, is Ellul’s point. The Olympics started as a movement, but the whiff of glory and, more alluringly, dollars has attracted a crippling amount of interests. Maybe this is simply the curse of human endeavor–every good thing eventually attracts the appetites that will crush it. And maybe this is the blessing of the human spirit–ever inventive enough to devise new good things that have not been discovered and mined yet. Sitting in front of whatever coverage NBC decides I’d find most attractive, I find the Olympic myth harder to see in the Olympic machine. It feels like time for a fresh movement. I wonder where the new thing will come from.

*     *     *

In honor of the ragged Olympic spirit, here’s Pearl Jam at their most puerile offering their own thoughts on the ’96 Atlanta games.

Why Winter is the Best Season

Why Winter is the Best Season

People often look at me like I escaped from an asylum when I tell them Winter is my favorite season. These are usually the people who pledge their allegiance to the quasi-pagan sun worship that it is to choose Summer as your favorite. It’s madness, I tell you. And here’s five reasons why:

1) Summer is actually the beginning of the dying of the light.
That’s right, the Summer solstice may be the longest day of the year, but it’s also the beginning of the long descent into darkness. It is a grim day and filled with dread. The Winter Solstice, however, is filled with hope because that first cold dawn following is the first herald of renewal. And we haven’t even started in on the glory of Christmas lights in the neighborhood.

2) Snow is better than rain.
Can you make a rain fort? Have a rain ball fight? Build a rain man? Do you get rain days off from school? Can you shovel rain to earn extra money? No, No, Not unless you’re Dustin Hoffman, No, and No. Snow is the best of all precipitation and it is trademarked by Winter, Inc.

3) Winter has the best holidays.
You can’t beat Christmas. Especially not when combined with Advent. It’s got the best music. It’s got the best decorations. It’s the best. You may point to Easter, which is a good one, but I tell you there is no Easter without Christmas. And Easter comes in the Spring which is at least 50% Winter, anyways.

4) Winter is cold.
This may be a controversial point for some, but hear me out. You know what’s possibly the worst part of Summer (at least in Kentucky)? Mosquitoes. You know what you never see in Winter? Mosquitoes. And if it gets cold enough for long enough, the deep freeze kills off mosquito eggs and makes for a more pleasant Summer. And for the remaining skeptics, I ask you: can you shed enough clothes to cool off when it’s 95 degrees and 95% humidity? No. Can you put on enough blankets to be warm? Yes. Stop whining.

5) Winter is beautiful.
The night sky is never so sharp and clear as on a cold winter night. The sun hangs low in the sky even at midday which fills the south-facing rooms of your home with the best light they’ll get all year. Then there’s the birds. A red cardinal in a skeleton tree, especially one fringed with snow, is nearly unsurpassable. Not to mention chickadees and titmouses. Winter is a visual feast.

***BONUS*** 6) Winter has the best food.
Winter is the season of comfort foods. Steaming pots of chili and thick soups. Pot pies. Baked goods. An order of fish and chips from the Irish Rover tastes better and better the colder it gets outside. Do you sit down with a steaming plate of macaroni and cheese (the thick, casserole kind) in the dead-dog days of August? No.

*     *     *

So that’s it. Winter is definitively the best. The facts are irrefutable. Enjoy the greatest season of them all.

Is a God who survives enough of a God?

Is a God who survives enough of a God?

So, there’s an image of a bumper sticker making the rounds of the Internet over the past few days. Russel Moore used it as a sounding board to level a sharp and important critique of playing fast and loose with the faith in order to secure a political gain. His starting point is assuming that the bumper sticker is in favor of firearms. But, I think he misread the slogan. He sees the bumper sticker as using Jesus as cover for some mere and short-sighted political agenda. But, what if the sticker is using our love of guns and self-defense to smuggle in the absurdity of such a savior.

I’m saying the sentence, “If Jesus had a gun he’d still be alive today,” works better if you see it as a Trojan horse. jesus gun 2If you chuckle and say, “Hell yeah,” because you think the right to bear arms in self defense would solve a lot of societal ills, then you’ve already taken in an invasive idea that’s meant to undercut you at the heart. Because Jesus wasn’t trying to stay alive. He was trying to save us.

The image of Jesus drawing down on the centurions and shooting his way out of Gethsemane like the OK Corral is patently ridiculous and that’s the whole point. There was something more important to Jesus than his own survival. If Jesus had the same attitude towards guns and self defense as many professing Christians on the political right, we simply wouldn’t have a Savior. It seems, then, pretty urgent to dig into this disconnect. Are there actions on our part that might reveal our survival instinct to actually be an idol?

The question this bumper sticker really asks is not about political liberty vs constraint. That’s how politicians frame the gun debate, and there the argument rages. But, Christian faith always goes further than asking “Can I?” It also asks, “Why do I want to?” That might just be the question Christians ask the least and to tragic results. The question this bumper sticker urges us to confront is where exactly our call to be Christ-like ends and where our call to preserve our own temporal life begins and at what expense.

It’s a hard question to ask, but we need to ask it. Should a Christian kill another person? Is self defense an adequate reason to extinguish the image of God? Is the defense of children or family? Or, is desire to bear arms a sign that love for this world outweighs our faith in its Creator? A symptom of our fear of death preceding our fear of God?

I don’t have an easy answer. I certainly wouldn’t condemn someone who actually did use lethal self defense when they or their family faced actual harm. But, the rest of us only have the theoretical fear of such a catastrophe. And theoretical fear is something that can run rampant and roughshod over our faith if we don’t watch out. It’s here that I absolutely agree with the point this bumper sticker is trying to make*. I cannot universally condemn the use of guns. But I can look on the desire for guns with almost universal suspicion because the fear of death has always threatened to undermine the fear of God. And that’s the real heart issue that the church has to address (and address again and again for each generation because the fear of death takes endless forms).

Is our faith sufficient cause to embrace weakness?

* Incidentally, I also agree with the point Dr. Moore makes in his essay, I just see firearms as the personalized version of the grasp for political power that he calls out. I don’t think you can speak to one without having to speak to the other.

 

 

The Good Doctor

The Good Doctor

I’ve seen my share of shows with musicians who would qualify as historic. I saw Bruce Springsteen on The Rising tour with nothing between me and the stage but a cameraman. I’ve seen U2 a few times. Bob Dylan. Pearl Jam, of course. Third Eye Blind. Wait, we were talking about historic. Scratch that last one. Double strikethrough.

Of Springsteen, I will say that the concert was an epic. His energy level was astounding and I almost passed out by the end (though that was probably more related to having been standing on concrete since sometime in the mid morning than to being overcome with an ecstatic fit).

U2, especially the first time, was nearly a religious experience. Which, I think that was most of Bono’s point.

Bob Dylan was actually a little disappointing as he grabbed the wrong key harmonica on nearly every song and even then and all the songs kind of sounded the same. Still, Bob Dylan: check.

Pearl Jam, well, they’re Pearl Jam. I almost passed out the first time I saw them, too. Near the end of Alive. That may have been more on the ecstatic end because my acoustic-noodly, DMB-loving mind was undergoing an instantaneous and electric metamorphosis.

All that said, I think the historic musician that I will remember most fondly is one I saw in a small club in Louisville, KY not too many years ago and, sadly, close to the end of his life. The great Dr. Ralph Stanley.

When you consider voices with an unmistakable, inimitable tone, Ralph Stanley has a dark, lonesome tenor that sounds like it issues forth from the heart of a mountain. I would put him in that unrivaled pantheon with the likes of Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, Billie Holiday, or Otis Redding. He may not have the acrobatics or the celestial aura of fame, but you know exactly who you’re listening to. He occupies a spot that nobody else can nor probably ever will.

And, he was just as much a pioneer as anyone from the British invasion or that unlikely soul corridor that stretched from Motown to Muscle Shoals. Coming out of the oft-forgotten and wholly otherworldly Appalachia, bluegrass music shares with jazz a very high distinction of being a true born-and-bred American musical movement. Ralph Stanley helped cut the trail that brought the sound down from the mountain where it had incubated since pre-Revolutionary times and into the public consciousness. Whether banjos and church harmonies are your cup of tea, there’s no arguing its a clarion call of American experience.

Then there’s the show itself. Dr. Stanley up on stage with his son and the rest of the band (the Clinch Mountain Boys). They played through a set and spent the rest of the night as a live jukebox. You could call out literally any song they’d ever done and they’d fire it up. Tunes were called that you can’t even find recordings of anymore outside of chance yardsale vinyl finds and they’d rip through it like it was their latest single. That’s no small feat for a solo artist, much less a seven-piece band. The sound, the joy, the complete mastery of the bluegrass canon, that voice. It was a special evening.

All this came to mind because I looked Dr. Stanley up last week and found, to my sadness, that he’d passed away over a year ago. I came to his music late in his life and still he’s brought me a great deal of joy. I’m glad I got to see him. I may never see The Rolling Stones and the chance to see the real Led Zepplin was gone before I was born along with so many other early rock and roll flameouts. But, here’s the thing. Rock and roll, love it though I do, has a hard time with aging. Vocal chords get shredded. Tinnitus sets in.  Hedonism takes its pound of flesh. Ralph Stanley was cut from a different cloth that only seemed to improve with age. At this time in my life, that’s the picture I want to hold before me. A little quieter though no less rich and so built to last. Steeped in history and rooted in place. Peculiar, even, but for that all the more cherished and rare. That’s the American experience I hope to have and Ralph Stanley proves the possibility.

Brief Thoughts on The Nashville Sound

Brief Thoughts on The Nashville Sound

My copy of Jason Isbell’s new record came in the mail Tuesday night and I’ve been able to listen to it a couple of times since then. My first impression is that The Nashville Sound is a sonic gem. The vocals are recorded pretty dry at times, especially on the opener and the lovely “If We Were Vampires”, and it gives a cottony intimacy to the quiet songs. It’s a sound I just can’t get enough of. The double-tracked vocals “Chaos and Clothes” are another excellent choice. The record is also louder than its predecessor. The electric guitars come out more often, which is just fine by me.

And then there’s the songwriting. Isbell has traded in some of his storytelling (which is superb) for more commentary and that makes a few of the songs hit pretty on the nose. Some people might find this troubling. When Isbell is telling stories, he comes at the poetic heart of what he has to say at an oblique angle. That distance on his part allows the listener to get in right up close, so to speak, and sop up the imagery and let it flavor their own longing and memory.

But, on new songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope the High Road”, Isbell isn’t showing as much as telling. For 3-4 minutes, it’s about him more than you. He gets right up close, and in order to keep the same space between artist and listener–space that let’s the listener feel a sense of belonging with the song, space that Isbell provides free of charge with fiction songs–the listener needs to shift. Understandably, some might not like this affront to their sit-back-and-consume habit of listening. But, I’m ok with it. I’m willing to work at approaching the songs from a distance because I trust Isbell as an artist. So, here’s what I make of the aforementioned tunes.

Isbell and his wife (who sings and plays the violin in the band, which lends a heartbreaking dimension to that vampire song) have a daughter, their first kid. And so the music isn’t just art anymore, it’s legacy. It’s not an offering to some disembodied audience, it’s evidence of the kind of man Isbell is within his time. Evidence which his child will gather with a Holmes-like prodigy. Our kids are the master sleuths of who we really are, and Isbell wants to be found out to be good.

So, for me, these uncomfortably direct songs aren’t just about what Isbell has to say (and I do happen to agree with a lot of it, awkward as it feels), it’s about why he’s saying it. I feel that fatherly panic of wanting my own sons to find me out to have been a good man in the end. What forays I make into artistic expression (like this very thing you’re reading and all the other things in the same digital attic) I make with more than half an eye to how they might guide the boys I love. I’m glad Isbell broke the show don’t tell rule. I’m glad he went that route. It shows me that he’s the same kind of father I am no matter what he’s telling.

Neighborly Hope

Neighborly Hope

It strikes me that any politician only wins by the slimmest popular margin (and sometimes not by a popular margin at all). Their use of power–and this is the inherent nature of power; it cannot do otherwise–will please half of the population and send the other half into bouts of depression and paroxysms of outrage. So I cannot for the life of me figure out why anyone who claims to be a Christian would throw any flamboyant support at all towards any politician, much less the mode of the in-the-highways, in-the-hedges gloating and mocking and general mouthing off that passes for political speech these days. In doing so, these professing Christians (of all political stripes) are showing themselves willing to alienate half their neighbors just so they can feel like a winner in a losing game. Talk of depression and outrage, that pretty much does it for me.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t have political leanings or even an idea for what kinds of policies would best serve the common good. I’m just saying, what happened to that ambition to live a quiet life? To do your level best to live at peace with people? Have we so bought into the narrative that politics is the final arbiter of riches and ruin–a narrative that, mind you, tilts awfully heavily in favor of the politicians–that we are too afraid to laugh at such a preposterous notion? And live out that laughter by being decent neighbors?

We’re too caught up in the utopian, the treadmill lies that we’ll get there just around the next bend, but only if the right people hold the reins. We need a good does of the apocalyptic, the settled realization that, based on a few thousand years of pretty much ceaseless and fruitless power struggle, things are pretty well going to flame out long before we get anywhere so we’d best look away from the squabbling in the dining car and consider that ghostly spirit seated up in the engine. Christians are supposed to believe God is that one up there with a hand on the whistle and a hand on the brakes working to save as many from ruin as will be. It’s why we go on so much about ‘Thy Kingdom come’. It’s because that Kingdom is supposed to be so much more desirable and assured that it cools our jets about wrestling over this one.

What can a government do? They can stop and start the flow of money and they can stop and start the infliction of punishment which is, as I said before, laughable along the arc of the cosmic. And it’s also a real source of suffering for those on the receiving end. Is it really such a good look to be merrily clutching the coattails of someone’s oppressor?

To put it another way, if you’re waiting on the power of kings and presidents, you’re going to be waiting an awfully long time. Anyone in this country who’s been waiting around on a state-drafted and -enacted solution to the human condition has been waiting 241 years and things have only gotten as good as they are now. I mean, we have free wifi just about everywhere, but all that’s really worth is bringing the full scope of human atrocity and pettiness into our pockets and living rooms. We did get penicillin, though, and that’s hard to find fault with.

So, while I realize that the world is crazy and it’s a perfectly good instinct to want to stop the crazy, against the blinding angels of our misplaced hope, nonetheless, I pledge my grievance:

The hope for preventing crime and dissuading criminals isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for feeding hungry kids and and keeping the homeless from freezing to death isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for rebuilding the family unit as a stable and reliable source of flourishing society isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for anyone not already hell-bent on racial hate isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for anyone not already hell-bent on seeking an abortion isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

And, by God, no strong right arm of any legislature will ever be the hope for anyone hell-bent on anything. Then, hope can only be neighborly.