IVP - Strangely Dim - Hooray for Cliches! Archives

August 31, 2007

Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall

I have two cats, and I like them quite a lot. I don't like them at all, however, when they start freaking out on me, because watching cats freak out is like watching an exorcism gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Unfortunately, my cats freak out on a relatively regular basis, for reasons that are pretty predictable. The biggest contributing factor is the presence of undomesticated, feral cats sniffing around the windows of my house. I don't know if my cats are threatened by this uninvited interloper or simply jealous that some cats get to roam free while I, their tyrannical host, force them to stay inside near a steady supply of food and fresh water, presumably so that I can maintain the exclusive privilege of scooping up and dispensing their waste products. But I digress. Whenever a feral cat comes within view of my cats, they respond first by darting from window to window, trying to get the best possible vantage point, then by howling, hissing and screeching at levels that build quickly from mild agitation to what resembles demonic possession. And of course, because I'm a mean guy and won't let them outside, they can't take out their aggression on the feral cat, so they take it out on each other. Everyone involved is inconsolable for long stretches of time afterward--except for the feral cat, which just ambles away lackadaisically, its work apparently done.

I react generally by shaming my cats, speaking sarcastically to them about how proud I am of them for defending our home. I can't imagine what would possess a sentient being to react so irrationally to the mere presence of another sentient being. But this week I started to get a clue.

I looked out my window early one morning to see a strange-looking guy walking around on my driveway. Now, in his defense, he didn't look really strange; if I saw him at the mall or in the dentist's office I probably wouldn't give him a second thought. But in my driveway he looked decidedly strange and positively menacing. I started darting from room to room, trying to get a sense of where this guy had come from, where he was going and what he was doing on my private property. I was moving quickly from mild agitation to sputtering near-madness.

I should add that (a) I share a driveway with my neighbor and (b) I have a new neighbor, whom I've met only once in passing. Although I can't be sure, this stranger in my driveway was probably my new neighbor in his driveway. I came thisclose to welcoming him to the neighborhood by charging out after him in my bathrobe, ready to defend my turf to the death.

Now the question: Is this kind of behavior more excusable in cats or people?

I'm embarrassed by my vulnerability to the psychology of turf. We're conditioned in the culture we inhabit to protect our domain, to jealously guard the boundaries that we have established for ourselves and, more significantly, for our neighbors. "Good fences make good neighbors" is poetry quoted as often as "There once was a man from Nantucket," I'd wager, and it's usually quoted approvingly--even though the poem's tone is more aptly communicated in the more melancholy opening line "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." Good fences may make good neighbors, but in so doing they subvert what was good about us in the first place.

God hadn't said much in sacred Scripture by the time he said "It's not good for the man to be alone," and I think we do that comment an injustice by interpreting it (as we so often do) solely as the case for sexual intimacy. The psychology of turf was nowhere to be found in Eden--the only thing off limits was the thing that kills. Meanwhile no one in God's good creation was condemned to be alone. We've done that ourselves.

The mere fact that I share a driveway, my former neighbor in the real estate business tells me, is countercultural, a boundary transgression that most homebuyers wouldn't dream of committing. But having transgressed that cultural boundary, how now shall I live?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:24 AM | Comments (2) are closed

July 2, 2007

Stick a Fork in the Fortnight

The cliches have been multiplying like rabbits, but today our fortnight comes to an end. Back to the grindstone, everybody!

By the way, my friend Dan tried to rabbit me yesterday by cell phone, but thanks to the miracle of caller ID I got him instead. Congratulations, however, to Lisa for winning the in-house contest yet again.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:46 AM | Comments (3) are closed

June 27, 2007

Four Score and Seven Cliches Ago

Great Britain is fed up with America's current crop of potentially great communicators. Frustrated by the cavalier approach to proper English being practiced by the candidates for next year's presidential election (and apparently inspired by our Fortnight of Cliches), a British newspaper called for sample sentences of empty inspiration. One winning entry--"I hear what you're saying but, with all due respect, it's not exactly rocket science"--was OK, I guess, but hardly a match for the statements on offer from the candidates themselves. I won't name names, but here are some potential leaders of the free world, in their own words:

"I believe if we set big goals and we work together to achieve them, we can restore the American dream today and for the next generation."

"We can give people the education and opportunities they need to fulfill their God-given potential."

"We're a bit down politically right now, but I think we're on the comeback trail, and it's going to start right here."

"It's time to take stock and be honest with ourselves. We're going to have to do a lot of things better."

"Its time for innovation and transformation in Washington."

Some of these statements are cliches in the classic sense, but most of them are something more nuanced. They're cliched--contrived statements that sound good but under scrutiny don't offer anything. They're the sort of things that make you shout "Whoop whoop" at a rally, but you wouldn't say them to your boss and expect a raise. In the words of William Shakespeare, they're just so much sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Such is the lingua franca of political campaigns, however. Candidates numbering in the double-digits compete for airtime on television and radio programs that allocate time for reporting in increments of seconds, not hours, and so the strategy necessarily shifts from articulation to inspiration. One lays claim to the mantle of "candidate of the American dream"; one calls dibs on solidarity with God and the common people all at once; one offers a political party a messianic vision; one comes across as honest and humble as the day is long; and one claims outsider status in an insider terrain that's out of ideas.

These, ladies and gentlemen, are our candidates. I don't begrudge them their meager choices of words, however; to be honest I feel sorry for them. They have to translate their likely bold ideas about governance into the sweet nothings that we've long become accustomed to hearing. The only things more cliched in a presidential campaign than empty words, perhaps, are empty gestures and attack ads.

We'll take our candidates to task for those cliches soon enough, I'm afraid. The audience of a presidential campaign--from potential voters to media outlets--is nearly as predictable as the candidates. It's worth noting that I read this piece in the Cedar Rapids Gazette ("an independent newspaper established in 1883"), but it was a column that originates in the Washington Post, and the author was writing about an unnamed British newspaper. So in short order the idea that presidential candidates speak in meaningless political cliches is becoming a meaningless editorial cliche. The chickens, you might say, have come home to roost.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:25 AM

June 21, 2007

If the Shoe Fits . . .

In the summer at my church, we have what we call "side-by-side" worship on Sundays, meaning that, in the absence of Sunday school, children and adults of all ages worship together. But we don't just worship together; often children help lead the adults in worship. This past Sunday, a woman leading worship invited children to come up front to help her lead the rest of the congregation in hand motions as we sang. With a little coaxing, a number of children ran forward. But instead of running to the floor space that had been cleared for them, they ran right up on to the platform where she was standing. And, though the kids were at different ages and skill levels, it was clear for some of the songs that they had no idea what the hand motions were. But they tried to follow the lead of the woman the best they could, not minding (or even thinking about it, I'm sure), that you could tell they didn't know what they were doing.

It was, you might say, as beautiful as the day is long. Their authenticity and eagerness challenged my worship after a week of days that were long and full of me trying to make it look like I knew exactly what I was doing on every "song," every task and situation that came up in a day.

Watching children reminds me of the wonder that each day and each event hold. I'm always amazed at the trust children possess, at their delight, at the bigness of their imagination and the possibilities of what can happen in a day. In their eyes, pigs could fly, maybe, and sliced bread (especially with peanut butter and jelly) really is the best thing since, well, sliced bread.

But I'm also amazed by their authenticity, their un-self-consciousness and straightforwardness. They don't try to hide what they're feeling. They will cry over spilled milk if it makes them sad. What's more, they're highly inefficient. They'll never kill two birds with one stone because days are about discovery more than productivity. The tying of the shoes before going to the park and the walk to get to the park should be as leisurely as the walk in the park, because all are new opportunities to see new sights, learn new skills.

My carefree childhood days seem very long ago. And I'm not, of course, getting any younger. In fact, I'm trying to do my best to put up a good front as a "responsible, mature adult," one who is efficient at work, pays her bills on time, serves in ministry, knows how to cook more than macaroni and cheese, gets her oil changed regularly and would never cry over something as trivial as spilled milk because she knows she can go to the fridge and pour another glass (even though she'll have to clean up the mess herself).


One of my goals this summer is to become more like a child. And maybe that points to how far I have to go to get there, the fact that I've made it a Goal. Maybe it can't be a goal. I suspect it starts with something as simple as slowing down to notice a few more details, and wonder about them. Maybe it comes with asking more questions. Maybe it happens by admitting as often as it happens that I don't have a clue what I'm doing.

I like to believe that, even though we lose so many of our childlike qualities--like wonder and imagination and delight--they are still in us, innate in us, part of the image of God we're created in. I imagine that, before they sinned, Adam and Eve were extraordinarily childlike in the way they viewed the world. I think those pieces still exist in us, and can be brought out if we're intentional and willing to be humble enough to learn. Christ, in fact, calls us to come to him as little children, so we must still be able to somehow retain and live out the wonderful qualities children possess, even as adults. I think living out those qualities again is part of becoming more like Christ, part of us fulfilling his image in us.

And, if the shoe fits--take your time tying the laces, and marvel that you know how to do it.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 3:18 PM | Comments (5) are closed

June 20, 2007

A Walk Down Memory Lane

Rather than be a stick in the mud, I decided to join in the cliché game. And talking about one game makes me think of another. . .

It's not that I want to toot my own horn, but I thought I'd let the cat out of the bag and tell you that back in the glory days of high school, I was a member of a state championship volleyball team. In elementary school I had been as slow as molasses in January, but through some rigorous training, I was fast as lightning by the time I got to the high school level. Still, Rome wasn't built in a day, and my team and I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into our practices. But our hard work paid off, and by the end of our season we were the top dog as far as Illinois high school volleyball was concerned. Our spikes packed some punch and our defense was out of this world. In fact, we made hay and won the state championship two years in a row. I mean, with most teams victory is here today and gone tomorrow, but we really cleaned up and--honest as the day is long--enjoyed a double-dose of victory. We were even ranked eleventh in the nation, which was just too good to be true!

But don't worry, friends. I haven't let this go to my head. It was just nice to take a walk down memory lane and remember that I had the time of my life on that team. As you can imagine, it's fun to be the cream of the crop every once in a blue moon.

Posted by Ann Swindell at 8:30 AM | Comments (1) are closed

June 19, 2007

And We're Off! (Like a Dirty Shirt)

No sooner had we inaugurated the Fortnight of Cliches than I noticed that our friend and coworker Jeff Reimer (rhymes with "Def Mimer") has jumped on the cliched bandwagon at his blog, where he quotes favorably the great book Woe Is I. Check it out and come back McSoon!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:18 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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