August 12, 2009
Pace and Peace
I wrote the following three years ago. The details have changed, but the story remains the same. Consider this "Escape from Urgency" in our Summer of Escapist Fantasy.
I just walked into a wall. It wasn't like I had my head in a comic book or was testing to see if I had sonar or anything; I just walked into a wall. My head was somewhere else.
This weekend my eighteen-month old nephew ran into a wall. He was so excited running down the hallway that he turned too early. It was cute because he's so little, and he's cute when he runs, and he got over it quickly. But I'm not little, I wasn't running, and I'm clearly not over it. Not cute.
I've noticed lately that when I get stressed, I start to check out. I don't listen as well when people talk to me, I don't notice how people are feeling when I see them or talk to them. And lately it seems like I can't stop running, like I'm facing wave upon wave of hyperactivity--family visits here, road trips there, writing projects there, special events here. I'm coping by checking out, which is clearly not coping at all, if it means that I'm stepping on toes and walking into walls. . . .
It strikes me that a person is much less likely to slam into a wall while walking than while running. At the very least, it's easier to stop, but walkers are also more likely to be aware of their surroundings--unless, of course, their minds are racing and their heads are somewhere else.
I came across this passage from Henry David Thoreau's Walden, which I think offers a pretty astute analysis of the crisis of pace: We think we have to know everything, even though we cannot, and so we strive continually and thereby gradually and unrelentingly run ourselves down.
So I'm going to try to run less and walk more. As soon as I can pry my head out of this wall.
August 9, 2009
Escape from Books?
A friend on Facebook(tm) wrote the following (he's in that time of life when you're predisposed to write in all-caps):
Some of the responses from well-intentioned old people in his life:
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:40 PM
August 6, 2009
Escape the End
I enjoyed a childhood mercifully unexposed to the hysteria surrounding end-times speculation, the frantic numerology that tried to decide whether Ronald Reagan or Mikhail Gorbachev was the more likely Antichrist. I note that the question is as yet unresolved, but I still leave it to others to figure it out. I suppose I'll get a memo when the final word comes down.
Instead of the number of the beast, I spent my childhood fretting over a different kind of apocalypse.Today marks the sixty-fourth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which combined with the bombing of Nagasaki three days later, ended the Second World War and ushered in the Atomic Age. Between the immediate decimation and the radiation poisoning that ensued in the aftermath, the bombings claimed upwards of a quarter-million lives. They also gave us a symbol of desolation that has lingered for the better part of a century: the mushroom cloud.
This mushroom cloud followed me around more often than I would have liked. I had mild doubts that I'd achieve adulthood. I read library books about intercontinental ballistic missles. I fantasized about impressing all the pretty girls in my class, who would survive World War III unscarred but who would need the occasional rescue, which thanks to my radiation-supplied angelic wings, I could uniquely provide.
Some folks view apocalypse as a kind of escape; I viewed it as something to be escaped. I had a professor who suggested that the calendar be recalculated so that it began with the bombing of Hiroshima: that would make this the Year of Our Devastation 64. I resisted that idea because I wanted to live as far removed as possible from termination points.
Starting a calendar over creates a new beginning--in this case, the beginning of the Nuclear Age--but it also creates an ending, one that no one saw coming. The year before Jesus was born wasn't commonly referred to as 1 B.C. or even A.D. -1. It had a more fluid designation: "the time of Herod king of Judea" (Luke 1:5). Endings--particularly the abrupt endings that accompany regime change or nuclear or cosmic apocalypse--are turbulent and traumatic. More often than not they elicit mourning, and an anxiety about what comes next.
I went to a memorial service last night expecting to comfort people who were mourning. Imagine my surprise when, despite an obvious sense of loss, the room was all smiles and laughter and a wizened joy. There had been an end, no doubt; but there had also been a beginning. And in some respects the end was an escape: no more pain for this woman who had endured so much pain, no more tears for a woman who had seen her share of heartache. The end for her ushered in a corresponding beginning, that beginning we celebrate when we look past the hysteria of end-times speculation to envision a world entirely reconciled to God, a world that need not fear weapons of mass destruction or the other machinations of an inhumane humanity. We count our current calendar not from Hiroshima but from the beginning of Immanuel, God with us; in the end of what we now know, we'll begin to count our calendars from the beginning of us with God, when everything is made new.
So even as we mark the somber occasion of the destruction of life and the dawn of the Nuclear Age, we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. World without end, Amen.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:40 AM
July 30, 2009
Escape from Precision
t started out innocently enough. I wanted to post a quote from Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan to my Facebook(tm) account, but I couldn't think of a way of conveniently including bibliographic data. So I settled on linking the name of his book to its Amazon.com(tm) page, with the presumption that interested readers could "search inside" to find the particular page number of the quotation. Here's the tricky thing: Amazon(tm), so far as I can tell, doesn't list the edition that I got from my library to read, so I just picked one of the editions available there and linked to it instead.
It turns out the third printing of the 1964 McGraw Hill(tm) hardback edition of Understanding Media has a scandalously large number of typos. It also turns out that it's painfully difficult to intentionally misspell something on the iPhone(tm). My notes, inadvertently, effectively serve to cover over the infelicities of the original edition.
Portrait artists, I'm told, used to do that when painting royalty, conveniently neglecting to paint warts and scars and mustaches onto the ladies and gentlemen of the court. But that was so they would get paid, or even so they wouldn't get their own heads cut off. Now we do it inadvertently, accidentally. Here's a sample text from Understanding Media in two forms--first in its original form (page 353 of the 1964 McGraw Hill[tm] edition) and then as it might appear posted from an iPhone(tm) to Twitter(tm)--in 2 posts, because it's 2 many characters 4 1:
Note that mutli-nationalisms is corrected in its spelling and omits the hyphen. Elsewhere character spacing has been sacrificed, and an ampersand replaces the word and. The digital age has ushered in the end of precision, I tell you. What's an editor to do?!?
I would imagine McLuhan himself would have a thought or 2 @ the subject, but the bottom line, I think, is this: Reading does not have to be, nor necessarily should it be, as secluded an exercise as we have come to think it is. Precision is a value, to be sure, but a lack of precision doesn't shut down a discussion, which is where all communication, I think, is headed.
This post originally appeared at my personal blog Loud Time. It's been modestly adapted here.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:16 AM
July 16, 2009
Onward and Upward
Sometimes, I've found, work just gets in the way of things. We didn't know what to get four siblings--ages eight to sixteen--for their birthdays, for example, so we decided to take them all to see Up, this summer's 3-D animated motion picture from Pixar. Nice sentiment, yes? Now all we had to do was figure out a time all four of them--not to mention my wife and I--would be available.
(Incidentally, "my wife and I" is a good indication that this Strangely Dim post was written by Dave, not by fellow contributors Lisa or Christa.)
Turns out that the only time we could come up with was middle of the day Wednesday. Turns out that would be OK, since my boss is out of the office and will never find out I played hooky because he doesn't read this blog and NONE OF MY READERS OR FELLOW CONTRIBUTORS WOULD EVER RAT ME OUT.
So Wednesday I escaped the IVP offices and drove out to Wheaton to pick up the kids, then to Downers Grove to see Up at the Tivoli Theater, a restored "classic" cinema with free refills on popcorn and drinks. On the weekends they precede shows with an old-fashioned organist (not one of those crazy futuristic organists like at other theaters), but this was a Wednesday noon show, which, it turns out, doesn't draw a lot of people. The six of us plopped down in the dead center of the theater, donned our 3-D glasses, slurped our drinks, gobbled our popcorn and enjoyed the show.
Up has, as is typical of Pixar films, an outlandish premise: an old man becomes fed up with the cold press of industrialization all around him and decides to escape to the South American rainforest via thousands of helium balloons attached to his house. A boy scout with an emotionally distant dad inadvertently stows away, and they become unlikely partners, house in tow, on a wild adventure. Like I said, outlandish.
Movies, it turns out, are escapist only when they don't deal with themes that you have a hard time dealing with. I, for example, have a hard time dealing with aging and death. Spend any amount of time rooting around in the Strangely Dim archives and that will become self-evident. So here I was, sitting in the middle of a theater in the middle of the day in the midst of four kids I've known since they were born, watching what was supposed to be a silly distraction from an otherwise burdensome day. And here I was, confronted with aging and death. Some kids' movie this was.
It really was quite a good movie, though. Pixar is well-practiced at telling very grown-up stories in a format suitable for children: from Toy Story to Wall-E and beyond, Pixar makes kids laugh and adults stroke their beards while laughing. Helium is a good medium for Up, because we're carried gently, quietly, almost imperceptibly along from seeing old age as a sad ending--a story of nothing but increasing loss and disappointment and marginalization--to seeing old age as just another chapter in the story that is being written with us as ink.
Up doesn't deny the age (and corresponding limitations) of its hero any more than it denies the sadness of his sidekick's homelife. And yet in true outlandish fashion we see this very old man haul a house across continents, we see him turn his walker into a weapon, we see him let go of his disappointments and embrace the next passage of his destiny. Outlandish? Yes. Effective? Yes.
I'm pretty sure I'm still closer in age to Up's sidekick than to its hero, and yet this question of aging still regularly nags at me. But, as I learned from Up and countless other life lessons, facing your fears, your disillusionments and even painful realities like aging and death often results in new adventures, new courage and, sometimes, whole new chapters in the story of your life. Not bad for a kids' cartoon.
July 14, 2009
My Summer Nemesis
Okay. Maybe The Brothers Karamazov isn't my nemesis per se, but this tome has been mocking me from my very tall bookshelf for at least six years. Every summer I take it down from its little perch and set it on top of the pile of books I hope to get through with all of the "extra time" summer inevitably provides for reading. And every year the summer draws to a close and The Brothers returns to its shelf unopened--except for three summers.
Each of the three years I tried to make good on my intention to read The
Brothers, I made it a grand total of about fifty pages, at which point I
invariably said to myself, I just can't give this the time it deserves.
Grand justification, I think: it retains the bibliophile's piety while
crediting the work with the appropriate amount of depth and complexity. I might
have added, Really, I started reading it for the wrong reasons anyway.
There are lots of good reasons to read books--even long, foreign classics whose tonnage is comparable to that of a Sumo wrestler. Most of us know why we read--for education, for pleasure, for self-improvement or for vocational advancement. Self-torture is unlikely to make it into a list of reasons to read. In fact, if you're like me, you have a few shelves of books which you purchased in moments of enlightened clarity--books that you "should" read, books that you felt you "should want" to read. And so you bought them, and when you returned from that cloud of misty enlightenment you realized (maybe even after a few pages of dutiful reading) that you did not want to read those books at all. But maybe you would read them later. Or use them for reference. Or, perhaps their words would slip into your dreams by some form of literary osmosis as they lay stacked beside your bed.
When I think about The Brothers Karamazov, I invariably experience a wave of vague shame at my failure to make it to the end. Most other unread books have very little (if any) psychological effect on me. For whatever reason, this one has stuck with me, so this summer I decided to take it up again--largely due to the fact that a good friend had started reading the book, and I thought that I could count on that person to compare notes and progress with.
No such luck. She bailed on The Brothers and picked up Crime and Punishment instead. This made me curious to find out if Dostoevsky's tome has had this effect on others. I began to ask around to see if anyone else had finished the book. To date I know of one person who has, and he took it upon himself to read much of the Russian literary canon plus commentaries just for kicks and giggles. (Needless to say, pride prevents me from comparing notes with him.) Everyone else I've asked who started The Brothers at some point bailed on the project. One person even suggested that Russian literature is best read in winter. This leaves me in lonely straits.
But it does not leave me unresolved. I've started it, and this time I intend to finish it. In truth, this time around I've rather enjoyed the story. And anyway, maybe summer isn't complete without a summer dare. Since summer doesn't officially end until September 22, there is plenty of time to take this one up.
July 10, 2009
The Sausage of SummerA few weekends ago I saw a billboard that almost begged to be blogged about on Strangely Dim as we contemplate summer. Huge letters imposed over a peaceful, scenic picture of . . . something (I don't actually remember the picture because I was distracted by the letters, but I know it was peaceful. And green.) boldly said "VACATIONVILLE." And then, much smaller but still large enough to read from the road (which is, after all, the point of billboards), I noticed "Johnsonville®" (read: "Sausage is all we do.") in the corner. Now, I don't know about you, but when I think of vacation, I think of lounging by a beautiful lake or lying on a comfy couch with a stack of books next to me, or maybe eating homemade black cherry frozen yogurt. Call my crazy, but sausage doesn't come to mind. When I think of sausage, memories of youth-group pancake breakfasts and . . . well, only fundraiser pancake breakfasts emerge. Not vacation.
And, if we're talking about escaping (which is what we are talking about at Strangely Dim this summer), we have to bring up the topic of comfort food. But when I'm feeling particularly down, meat is not generally what I reach for. Chai and peanut butter cookies? Yes. Sausage? Well, maybe I'm in the minority here, but no.
However much their sign doesn't resonate with me, though, they raise a good point: Summer (like every season, admittedly) has special food--some of my favorites. I eagerly wait for strawberries and peaches and blueberries to appear and relish the taste of fresh fruit on yogurt, or in salads, or in desserts like shortcake which my sister and I make for dinner some nights using our grandmother's recipe. Fresh markets pop up in the suburbs, easing my homesickness for the farmstands of my growing-up days and offering us suburbanites an easier way to buy local. And, granted, the nicer weather offers barbecuers a plethora of opportunities to show off their skills with tongs and beef, chicken and, yes, sausage. There are new flavors to savor and try.
So whether you're traveling or staying home on these summer days, escape from your regular recipes and fast-food stops, and enjoy the fruits (and veggies) of summer. Support local farms if you can. Try a new recipe with friends. Grill sausage if you like. Just make sure to savor what you eat.
June 29, 2009
Summer--It Turns Me Upside Down
Whenever I finally escape, I'm pretty sure it will be to the 80s.
Last summer I attended my high school reunion; this summer I've scheduled two playdates with childhood friends and commandeered my brother-in-law's Rock Band game for Beastie Boy and Duran Duran jams.
I'm not alone in doing the time warp again this summer. We've seen reboots of retro classic film franchises such as Star Trek and The Terminator. Captain America, one of the industry's oldest comic book superheroes, who successfully leaped generations from the 1940s to the 1960s for an impressive 45-year run but died earlier this millennium as a martyr for an ideological conflict, is once again alive and kicking. Zac Efron played Matthew Perry's midlife crisis in 17 Again, and Chace Crawford is gonna cut loose as middle-age darling Kevin Bacon in the remake of Footloose. The Beatles are changing the game of Rock Band with their special edition release later this year, and Barack Obama is the most energizing president since John F. Kennedy--if you ask Kennedy's family. And speaking of John F. Kennedy and the Beatles, even the generation gap--the perceived worldview difference between older and young Americans--is reaching levels not seen since the 1960s.
The past always beckons, it's fair to say. We doctor our wrinkles and nurse our grudges. We archive photographs and unearth old relationships online. We collect kitzch and commendables from our formative years, and we complain about the present as a pale imitation of the past. Summer kindles this longing, I think, in each sideways glance out any window. We're reminded that in days of old we used to run freely through the sprinklers, roam freely through the woods, laze freely throughout the day. When I was a kid I would ride my bike from one end of Des Moines to the other on the off chance that I might find a comic book to add to my collection for a good price. I'm reminded of John Mayer's wistful nostalgia: "These days I wish I was six again . . . if only my life were more like 1983."
In 1983, of course, I was worried about the end of the world as we know it, that intercontinental ballistic missles (ICBMs for short, which is pretty funny to say out loud, now that I think about it) would be launched either by accident (a la War Games) or on purpose (a la The Day After). And in 1983, of course, I was dreaming of being an adult--fully autonomous, dream girl at my side, conquering this world and others. Even my post-apocalyptic scenarios were hopeful, with me sprouting angelic wings and rescuing people from danger.
There's something euphoric about imagining ourselves from one time period to another. It's the ultimate escape: once you indulge your mind in the impossible, anything becomes possible. Anything, of course, except fully engaging the present. To the degree that we imagine ourselves into other eras, to the degree that we indulge the notion that some time other than these times are the best of times, to the degree that we're living in dreamtime--to that degree we are living only half-awake.
Meanwhile, wildly interesting--exciting and even daunting--things are happening in our midst. My toddler nephew is singing a song by the Ramones ("Hey! Ho! Let's Go!") while putting together floor puzzles of the universe. The earth is heating up. People are losing their jobs and their homes. People are writing new books and making new art. These and other things are happening not in dream time but in real time, and they alternately demand and reward our attention. Elvis Costello put it nicely in his song The Other Side of Summer: "There's malice and there's magic in every season." In other words, every season merits our full attention.
I count ten veiled references to old songs in this post. I invite/challenge you to sniff them out. I'll send a free copy of my book the first person to get them all.
June 24, 2009
In Defense of Ordinary Time
It seems presumptuous and even a bit preachy to pre-empt our summer of escapist fantasy by appealing to the church calendar, but as I thought about this writing experiment my mind kept going back to Kimberlee Conway Ireton's second chapter on Ordinary Time in The Circle of Seasons. Turns out she takes on pretty bold-facedly the longing for what lies beyond our immediate grasp:
I wanted to experience that glimpse of the transcendent, to be thrilled with the momentary parting of the veil between heaven and earth.
What I have since realized is that I do have these glimpses of the glory beyond and that they are a mixed blessing. The parting of the veil fills me with awe and delights my soul, but it also opens in me a yearning, a deep and almost painful desire. . . . In the past, I have grasped at whatever ushered me into the enchanted realm beyond the veil--the sleeve of my husband's crisply striped shirt, the roses fresh-cut from my rosebushes and sitting in a bowl on the counter, the crescendo of the organ as we sing the name of Jesus in church--in an attempt to replicate the experience and so quench my desire to live in moments of mystery. This never works.
Summer may be the time when our escape impulse is most intense; it may even be the time when escape seems most sensible and achievable. This is summer, after all, where everything flourishes and even blazes with life. But for the church, summer means Ordinary Time.
Starting a mere week after Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the miraculous anointing of the church, and lasting till Advent, when our longing for the return of God becomes so acute that we can no longer ignore it--Ordinary Time is the longest season in the church calendar. Ordinary Time is so ordinary that according to many traditions it happens twice each year: from barely summer to nearly winter, and between Epiphany and Lent.
It strikes me that the Scriptures prepare the church for this prolonged ordinariness. Pentecost is marked in the early verses of Acts 2 with a big bang--fire and wind and dynamic preaching and mass conversion and all that stuff. But it very quickly gives way to the later verses of Acts 2, which are profound in their plainness. Here the Scriptures describe teaching and eating and praying (oh my). Even miracles are described in the passive voice. If you want to get your church all riled up, read them Acts 2:1-41. If you're brushing up on your bureaucracy, read 42-47.
Of course, there's awfully cool stuff happening in the ordinary days of the Church of Latter Acts 2. Passive or not, wonders and miraculous signs were done. Meals were shared. Property was redistributed according to need. The people's favor was enjoyed. And daily, the chapter ends by observing, people were being saved.
Kimberlee notes that the veil separating us from a more wondrous view of God is not really ours to pull back.
Instead, when we embrace Ordinary Time as part of whole gift of our existence, we sometimes find ourselves pleasantly surprised by how thin the space we occupy actually is. The veil itself drops long enough to give us a sideways glance behind it at ultimate reality. We're reminded that even the most ordinary time is undergirded by something extraordinary.
We live the bulk of our lives in the daily, doing the same tasks again and again--preparing food, showering, dressing, checking voicemail or email, doing dishes or laundry, commuting to work--and it can come to feel like a grind, pointless and redundant. But it is precisely because these tasks are daily that they have such transformative potential. . . .
In sharpening our physical senses to be more aware of this world, we are also quickening our spirits, opening them to the earthly beauty that surrounds us so that we will be more ready to receive visions of the unearthly beauty that lies just beyond our senses on the other side of the veil. As with any grace, we cannot force or demand such a vision. We can only wait for it, attentively and hopefully, as we engage in the relationships and work that constitute our lives.
The most extraordinary moments, it seems, come not when we run away from the ordinary but when we walk by faith right through it.
June 18, 2009
The Summer of Our Discontent
Remember when we were kids and each year followed a familiar, structured rhythm? School would start in September, we would get a few weeks of winter break, more school, and then summer! The end of the school year meant one thing: summer vacation! Freedom! Every year I would look forward to nearly three months of sleeping in, watching morning cartoons and reading.
The memory I have of this transition from school to "not-school" is that it registered only as the beginning of summer rather than an end to classes. There was such relief. I liked school reasonably well, but I always felt as though the break from all the expectations of classes, of sports schedules, of navigating the tumultuous waters of the schoolroom social hierarchy, was a well-earned respite. I planned each year to revel in it. And I did--for about two weeks, at which point I was generally ready to go back.
Of course, there came a point when summer was less about respite and more about stresses: summer school, summer jobs, the uncertainty of whether or not I could see family, year-round employment with limited time off. Summer vacation, which had always seemed like a given--almost a right--became at times merely a hope, often limited more by financial concerns than by time constraints. Summer, it sometimes seemed, was not so much an opportunity for rejuvenation but rather a season of discontent.
I don't think I've been alone in this. The summer vacation event seems to be part of the fabric of the season. As with Christmas (when we ask when coworkers or friends might depart to visit far-off relatives), come May and June we begin asking what everyone's summer vacation plans are. It's exciting to hear about other people's plans to far-off places. On the other hand, things can get awkward when no destination trip is in the works. More than simply an event, the summer vacation is a cultural norm, a goal, a symbol of social status or financial standing. People who take lavish vacations are envied; those unable to take them are pitied.
But more, even, than this, I wonder if the idea of a summer vacation has taken on some of the symptoms of a greater cultural phenomenon: escapism--not just "getting away" but actually "tuning out." Given the cultural trend toward embracing new technologies that allow us to escape in some form from the immediacy of our surroundings or circumstances (such as television, video games, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) this wouldn't be at all surprising. Especially since so many other forms of escapism are designed to be taken with us wherever we go--including on vacation.
Whether we're boarding a plane or packing the car for a road trip, the one thing that summer vacations have in common with gaming, watching T.V. and spending hours on Facebook or Twitter, on cell phones or with music blaring through our headphones, is perhaps a sense of separation from the "real world," of going to a "neutral" location where the cares and concerns of work or family or future are suspended while we disconnect, or engage something that exists differently. It's easy to forget that, no matter how far we travel--virtually or literally--we can't actually leave it all behind.