A Man is Back, With Updates

Ah, fall. School starts, routines begin, school continues, routines falter, school continues to continue, routines somehow straggle on. Few updates of late because I’ve been busy. My drafts folder has gotten full, however, so here’s everything in one big post. Think of it as a newsletter.

One. During Art Walk the other weekend, we wandered through downtown Birmingham, mostly 1st and 2nd Avenues (North) between 23rd and 25th, with a short, bouncy jaunt down the cobblestones on Morris. Birmingham isn’t a big city, which we like very much. We get a bit of city culture and architecture (see photos) but it feels comprehensible in a way that Philadelphia never did. We didn’t run into anyone that we knew at Art Walk, but if we had, I wouldn’t have been too surprised.

Two. Jesse Thorn’s Put This On web series is pretty good. Thanks to limits of budget and subject (men’s clothing) it doesn’t have the scope of, say, Chef’s Table, but it’s informative and entertaining. What more could you ask of a web series? More than the content, I was interested in watching Adam Lisagor develop his style. Lisagor is the creator and director (creative director?) of my favorite explainer video company, the unique — though much-imitated — Sandwich Video. There’s one moment in the first Put This On video when the video cuts to Adam’s face a little “too” early and he stares at the camera for a few awkward seconds before he starts talking. I think Lisagor finds awkwardness funny, which makes his commercials really interesting. You feel like he’s on your side, sharing a joke, almost poking fun at the products he’s selling. Irony as a marketing tactic.

Three. This brings up something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: does faithful living mean cutting with or against the grain of “how the world works?” Ought Christians have the best websites on the web, or ought we spend our energies on more important things?

Four. I somehow landed a job at the local baptist university, teaching two sections of something called Communication Arts. My beat-up standard-issue metal adjunct desk is three decades old and contained one thing when it was delivered to my office: a rusty razor blade. Hint, hint?

Jokes aside, Samford has a beautiful campus (see photo) and has been a great place to work so far. My one-year-old daughter and I spend lots of time sweating our way past the buildings on our daily walks.

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Five. The problem with stuff like this is that debunking is the easiest form of argument. You can always say, “My opponent hasn’t read thus and such,” and pretend that you’ve excoriated him when all you’ve really done is list book titles. I haven’t read anything by Jordan Peterson, but I doubt I’d find him as maddening as this dude seems to.

Ideas are Embedded in a Man’s Tools

…In every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself. It has been pointed out, for example, that the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century not only made it possible to improve defective vision but suggested the idea that human beings need not accept as final either the endowments of nature or the ravages of time. Eyeglasses refuted the belief that anatomy is destiny by putting forward the idea that our bodies as well as our minds are improvable. I do not think it goes too far to say that there is a link between the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century and gene-splitting research in the twentieth.

~ Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (p. 14)

A Man is Fit to Burst

Rachel Jankovic’s second book on raising kids, Fit to Burst, had some really good sections that I, as a part-time stay-at-home dad, want to remember. And, as the wise man said, blogging something is the best way to remember it.

In Christian circles there is constant talk about free salvation. It is free, thank God. But it is only free to us. God paid a great price for it. Jesus paid with His blood. It is free to us because someone else paid a great deal. And this is why we do not work out our salvation by never doing anything that might be hard or difficult to us. We imitate Christ, and we make sacrifices for others. We do things that are hard, that cost us much, because we want our gifts to be free to others.

It can be tricky to walk the line between “by grace you have been saved” and “work out your own salvation.” Why try to do good works when salvation is given freely? Rachel gets right at the heart of it here. Salvation is given freely, but that’s only possibly because Jesus paid for it dearly. Rachel ties this to parenting by making the point that the gifts your children receive may be free to them, but they most likely came at a heavy cost to you (straining the budget, staying up late, long days at work). Like God, we joyfully pay the price so that others can receive freely.

Lord willing, your kids pay it forward.

You would like to see your kids taking what they were freely given and turning it into still more free giving. This is because God’s story is never little. He works in generations, in lifetimes, and He wants us to do the same.

I love how Rachel emphasizes the generational scope of God’s promises. Good stuff.

Another:

Good leadership is engaged and involved the whole time. It is clear about expectations and consistent about consequences. But good leadership always starts with the leader. It always starts with what you expect of yourself. If you are engaged in disciplining yourself, your children will know.

One way children learn self-discipline is by seeing their parents act it out. Someone (I forget who) used the analogy of the new recruits who think the drill sergeant is being harsh when he drags them out of bed at five in the morning. The recruits forget that the sergeant had to drag himself out of bed at 4:30 in order to give them their unwelcome wake-up call. Leaders are held to a higher standard. That’s as it should be.

One more:

In our house, we make a point to discipline only when we have a biblical name for the offense, because we want our children to know that what we are doing is enforcing God’s law. So they would know they are being disciplined for disobeying their parents, not splashing in the sink.

Just a good rule of thumb: if you can’t name the sin, don’t discipline for it. You can make a rule against splashing in the sink if you want to, but then the kids will be disciplined for breaking the rule, not for their overexuberance.

Watching a Man in the Process of Ruining Himself

A friend tweeted that she’s having a hard time getting through Breaking Bad. I understand. It took me five years to get through it all, even though the whole thing was available on Netflix — I am the anti-binge-watcher. One reason I dragged my feet is that I had a hard time getting used to the pace. It was fast when it should’ve been slow and slow when it should’ve been fast. I’ve since changed my opinion (more on that later), but at the time, I often felt lost, unsure of what I was supposed to think or feel. I rarely thought about the show when it wasn’t playing in front of me.

But the biggest reason is took me so long to get through Breaking Bad is that I despised Walter White. I guess there are people out there who see Walt as some kind of hero, standing against The System, or who identify with his mid-life hissy fit crisis. To me, he was just gross, a trodden-on slug of a man spewing excuses while actively ruining his life. (I should say, ruining it further than he already had.) Every episode, I asked myself, “Am I supposed to connect with this guy?” His phony ethical dilemmas bored me. If Walt had been shot in the chest by a random drug mule in the middle of Season 2, I would have sighed with relief and closed my laptop.

I remember the moment when my opinion of the show started to change. I don’t remember the episode or even the season (Netflix: it all bleeds together), but there’s a point when Walt has a chance to quit the drug business, to wash his hands of it all and start over, and he chooses not to. At that point, he went from a man pretending to be a victim to a man deciding to be a villain and I thought, “This show has a moral center after all.” His exploits immediately got more interesting. Plus, it’s around that moment that we get to meet Gus Fring for the first time, and that guy… He can’t help but make things interesting.

T finished watching Breaking Bad recently (it took her about 2% of the time it took me), and after re-watching part of it with her, I have a lot more respect for the quality of the show. For example, it’s one of the few TV shows I know of that uses silence liberally and with great effect. Breaking Bad would rather imply than show, which is a mark of great cinematic storytelling. You can tell that the creators of the show have a lot of respect for their audience. And, though I still don’t have much patience for Walt, I admire the awe-inspiring stuff Bryan Cranston pulled off with that character.

My friend who doesn’t like Breaking Bad said she’s tempted to switch to Better Call Saul. Do it, I told her. Switch. Follow Saul Goodman into his own world. Better Call Saul is a fantastic show — dareisay, more fantastic than Breaking Bad. The writing? Excellent. (Though the Mike-and-granddaughter scenes are so saccharine they make my teeth wince.) More importantly, the flawed protagonist actually tries to be good and doesn’t make excuses for his sins, which is more than anyone could say of Walter White. On top of that, the show is funny, even pleasant in places.

If you can’t stomach Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul provides a nice intro to the pace, style, and world of that particular TV universe. It gives you a chance to respect the quality of what you’re watching without that icky feeling that you get from trying to root for Walt. If you like BCS and want more, tap into BB with a new appreciation for its artistry. True, by starting out with Better Call Saul you’ll miss some of the winks and foreshadowing, but in my opinion, it won’t lessen your enjoyment of the show. Most of those insider moments appear in the various B-stories anyway. The central story — the Jimmy-Chuck relationship — will be completely intact, and that’s where the best writing is.

And, c’mon, it’s got shots like this one. Doesn’t get any better than that.

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A Man Does Not Reason, He Insinuates

One cannot destroy Pascal, certainly; but of all authors Montaigne is one of the least destructible. You could as well dissipate a fog by flinging hand-grenades into it. For Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and influences; or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince you by his argument.

~ T. S. Eliot on Montaigne, from Eliot’s introduction to Pascal’s Pensées

A Man Refuses to Settle for Anything Less

A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
Q: Grabbed aholt?
A: A Louisiana expression.

From Walker Percy’s interview with himself, published partially here.

I did a DuckDuckGo image search (yeah, yeah…) of Percy to go with this quote, and a picture of this guy popped up.

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I thought, Is Zeljko Ivanek playing Walker Percy in a biopic? How’d I not know about this? No such luck. The picture is from an episode of Big Love where Ivanek plays a character named J. J. Percy Walker. I can see why the algorithm got confused.

If anyone were going to play Walker Percy, though, Ivanek would be a good choice. There’s no small resemblance between the two. See?

Walker Percy

A Man is a Confused Citizen of the Ever-Changing Web

Every time the Google updates Gmail, I spend about a week like a sleepless traveler in an unfamiliar airport. Blinking lights and new shapes, all the wrong colors.

My dad recently passed an observation on to me that he got from some smart person: the airport is the quintessential 21st-century place. The airport combines consumerism, boredom, loneliness, distraction, entertainment, convenience, surveillance, and a sense of dislocated time and space. An airport is full of strangers, often miles from home, mindlessly shopping for disposable entertainment and gadgets they don’t need. They have the freedom to travel almost anywhere in the world, but at the same time, they are under constant surveillance. In an airport, be ready to part with your privacy at a moment’s notice. In most airports, every gate looks the same, so traveling to Omaha is an almost identical experience as traveling to Tahiti. You lose your sense of place. (Pilot Mark Vanhoenecker calls this “place lag.” Get his book if you like flying.) In an airport, you’re usually tired, harried, and confused, but all of your needs can be taken care of in a bland, generic, Band-aid sort of way. In an airport, the world is at your fingertips – and you just want to go home.

Sounds exactly like spending time on the internet.

A Man is a Shining Psychedelic Optimist

I’ve been interested in Walter Kirn since I found out he spoke at Wordsmithy in Moscow. Stumbled across his blog recently and got a kick out of his bio. Writing a bio that’s actually fun to read is one of my ambitions in life. Like this one.

I live in Montana and California but go to NYC a lot. That big picture is my wife. The little one is me when I was her age. I have kids. I grew up in a town of 500 where a noon siren sounded every day so people who worked outside knew what time it was. The town of 7,000 where I live now is pretty bombed out from the recession. The movie Up in the Air is based on my novel. George Clooney played me. He could have stolen my girlfriend and showed signs that he knew it, but he didn’t. I think that indicates class. In both of them. The movie Thumbsucker is based on my novel. Of all the H’wood people I’ve met, my favorite is R.Downey Jr., a shining psychedelic optimist. I saw Samuel Beckett on the street once in Edinburgh wearing a long navy blue wool coat. It was like seeing a great British sailed frigate from the Empire days come knifing up a little river, that shocking, that beautiful. I also met, unexpectedly, Jorge Luis Borges once, long after I thought he was dead. It was 1985. It was like meeting Kafka. He recited a speech from King Lear (in English) and then explained how it might be improved.