22.10.09

Searching for Delight: Our First Cardinals’ Game

Child enthusiasm expressed itself in verbosity, and that particular numerical superseding that often follows the comparisons of boyhood “one-upmanship”—echoing the braggartly ways of manhood. And why not—this was the first time any of us had seen a major league baseball game live. Heck, even I felt the butterflies of anticipation, expressed in the more mature feelings of responsibility.

“Has anyone ever swum across the ocean?” one asked.

“No,” I said, adding, “But people have swum across the English Channel.” It was enough.

“I bet I could swim five miles an hour,” said the youngest—not concerned with the location as much as with his potential for speed.

“I bet I could swim five miles,” said another—distance, not speed, his only concern.

“Maybe a hundred,” said the third.

“Or a thousand,” and I tensed in expectation of the certain reply: a ga-billion-trillion-ta-infinity. Their heightened comparisons faded into the background of the rhythmic sound of tires on highway joints—the metronome of our advance.

We parked beneath the Arch—the Gateway to The West. That structure—utterly impractical—is nevertheless impressive. But bigger than the Arch were the eyes that beheld it: wide and forward, amazed. Delighted. That monument—the gate that never closes—is a regional marker for the beginning of every westward trip and eastward return, or vice versa. But the scope and scale of the massive structure is missed by the casual passerby, underwhelmed, in a way one small child never could be while standing beneath the legs stretched north and south.

For those unfamiliar with the place—long sloping ramps descend beneath the ground in that space between the Archway legs, emptying out into a grand, high-walled space, off of which doors lead to a museum, gift shop, cafĂ©, and small theater. In this last, films of the Arch’s construction play in continuous cycle, broken by the brief intervals of people ushered in and out.

The museum-seeker is greeted by the statue of Thomas Jefferson, who stands overlooking the contents: everything from a wigwam to time-piece guns, outfits, icons, a stuffed longhorn, bison, and several bears. This is America’s history, captured and preserved, dehydrated and homogenized; shells absent the lives lived in the negative space: gloves without hands, boots without feet, glasses without eyes, and hats without heads. That macabre image of the bygone Midwest solicits a fleeting reference to the Tin Man and his song: If I only had a brain.

Back in the main hallway, people line up for their journey to the top—a line that will lead to another and that to another, until finally all will board small round chambers whose small chairs were designed for a nation of people smaller (or certainly lighter) than those who file in today. I’m certain the ascending, jerky motion—that somehow keeps one always aright to the ground and gravity—was quite the invention of the 1960s: an era of fast cars and travel to the moon.

From the top of the Arch, a series of thick windows unfold images of the landscape—mostly urban. The occasional farm can still be found—eastward—but the rest of Greenland has given over to gray concrete, black-top, and the rainbowed reflections of glass.

Today, the rainbow is predominantly red, with the convergence of Cardinal fans. Whether it’s the communal aspect of commonality, a result of mere proximity, or whether a facet of the Midwest—strangers talk like old friends, comparing stories of games past. Some focus on the sheer quantity attended, while others intimate a particular moment. Some boast of their seats, others of their near misses with greatness. Scalpers beg tickets, or promise them at ten times their value. Vendors sell water, shirts, hats, pennants, hot dogs, peanuts and cracker-jacks. Everything but the national anthem brings a dollar.

“This is our third game in a month,” the self-declared Chicagoan says to me, upon learning this was our first game. “Of course, the best game I ever saw was…” His voice gets lost in the sound of the crowed and the exclamations of my boys—but I find myself nodding as if to appease his desire to be heard. People want to be heard—want to be the one who nearly misses greatness.

“I bet I could jump over that wall,” says one of my boys—and I anticipate references to future jumps in the ga-billion-trillion-ta-infinity.

Inside the great underbelly of the coliseum, the senses are assaulted—pictures of old players, current year stats for the league, more vendors, and young college girls begging to take a photograph (to be made available online for some ungodly amount). The proximity of the interstate outside the south wall lends to the sense of urgency, hurry, and haste—as fans reject the lock-step formations of the outside lines, in a frenetic rush to line up again: for signatures. It’s autograph night at Busch Stadium. Forget that I’ve never heard of the two guys who’ll be signing balls and hats and the occasional body part—no more than the different-but-still-talking man behind me has heard of them. It’s an autograph—the potential not to miss greatness this time.

But greatness is not to be found in the autograph of an up-and-coming, or in the choicest of seats, the clarity of recollection, the highest jump, the furthest swim. These are but fleeting glimpses of significance, flailing hearts and fumbling hands worn by the tides of life’s darker side—unemployment, death, war and rumors of war. These people are here in the hopes that a moment, a breath, may exalt them from the longing for more, and exude them into a sigh of contentment.

I would come for that. But not this time. This time, I came for a different glance: the backwards look of excitement reflected in firsts. At the beginning, my children wear guarded masks of uncertain confliction—eyes searching to take in the magnitude of some thirty-five thousand people and the immense arena. The first innings come and go, with only brief moments of echoing excitement. But they wait and settle back into postures poised for…what? They do not know.

Until it happens—Albert Pujols, the St. Louis wonder, swings hard on the fourth pitch. From our seats nearly parallel with the left-field line, the ball seems to hover a moment in air. Motionless. Then, as if propelled by the sudden release of pent-up longing—the ball vanishes over the fence. Homerun!

The eruption momentarily startles the boys, but almost as suddenly they are swept up in applause and cheers, and a round of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Hopes are satisfied, longings fulfilled. For a moment, all present have come near to greatness.
The walk back to the car is full of words and retellings. No longer is the excitement the expectation of the unknown, the untouched, un-tasted. These are the boasts of drunkards—filled with an uncommon energy.

No longer at awe—once beneath the yawning gait of the Arch—they run about and fill up the gateway: their souls the size of that great maw, pushing upwards against the farthest reaches of light dying skyward in the evening air. The rhythmic metronome of highway joints follows us home, while backseat voices fall to whispers, then mumbles, and then silence. And in the half-glow of dome lights—caught in the backwards glance—the faces of children reveal contentment. Veni. Vidi. Volupti. I came. I saw.

I delighted.

20.10.09

Nighttime Walk

Long blackness falls
upon the broken path
that into woods descends
a wild ride,
cutting sordid through thick morass—
while skyward rises moon
and Jackal cries.

Bare feet plod
neglected dress of shedding pines
to find the way the heart has gone
before,
while Frost’s divergent paths
profane the ground,
sets at odds the unified intent.

Trident winds chide the silent oaks,
sends up groans of August-ine regret
till tree-lined skies
give way to starry eyes
where long the dark valley
of the river forge sighs

and I hear the call, “Come up!”

But not tonight:
for the hour is late,
and I have plod the gauntlet of the night,
a man intently searching for delight
who, for troubled pains,
gains a seldom glance
of a world un-beholden.

31.8.09

NASA Presents Solution to Future Delays: Blow it Up on Purpose

(from the “Not Quite NewsWorthy Reports”)
(August 31, 2009) Cape Canaveral , FL. After a week of failed attempts, NASA has presented a solution to future weather, safety, and traffic induced delays. Beginning with the next un-manned launch, NASA will attempt a regular scheduled launch. If hindrances of any kind occur, NASA will voluntarily blow up the vessel.

A NASA spokesman came out early, and anonymously, to share the exciting news. “We call it the ‘Shovel Ready Project.’ Think about it—we spend anywhere between $200 million and $1 billion taxpayer dollars getting these launches ready. And then it’s ‘wait, wait, wait.’ We have hundreds of union employees standing around making lots of money, not to mention more than a few underpaid illegal aliens—and I’m not talking about the District 9 kind. By blowing up these rockets while still on the launch pad we create immediate shovel-ready jobs.” Literally.

After far too many mechanical delays, and not a few series of unfortunate events—not to be confused with the book series by the same name—NASA believes that self-destructing their projects will draw attention away from the persistent failure of their attempts at success. 

“Think about it,” this unnamed insiders challenged. “Under the current system, we build, launch, and cross our fingers for a successful mission. If all goes well—nobody notices. If something goes wrong, it all blows up in our face.” In fact, this last phrase was the impetus for the new plan. According to the insiders, voluntarily blowing up rockets will be perceived as a waste of money, with intentionality. Compared to failed banks and auto companies, this would be an improvement—the perception being that these industries are “a waste of money with NO intentionality.”

“Under the new system, we at least pretend we’re going to try a launch, but then we’ll blow it up on purpose. The news will be all over us. And we’ll have answers. We’ll know exactly what went wrong. This takes all the questions out of failure. Failure will be deliberate.” Some have argued that this last line should be NASA’s new motto, but apparently GM has already filed for trademark for the same phrase.

Other NASA options: We did it on purpose. One small step for man; one shovel-ready project for mankind. We came, we built, we blew it up.

Of course, this new proposal would only apply to unmanned flights—a caveat that NASA failed to reveal in the early phases.

“We saw a sudden drop of in applications for the astronaut positions, followed by a rash of cases involving depression and alcohol abuse by those within the system.” Fortunately, NASA was able again to tap Government Stimulus Plan money to fund an investigation into these cases

“We started with a broad statistical survey that involved a million Americans. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t the general economic condition that was at the heart of the problem. After we found a disproportionate number of these cases within our Astronaut program, we did a six-month intensive program surveying the general outlooks of our 49 current astronaut body.” The findings were unanimous: astronauts were terrified of the new proposal.

“We asked lots of questions: How many hours a day do you Wii? Where do you like to take vacation? Do you drive an American car? What do you think of Russia? If you were left on the moon alone for a month, how would you feel? In the end, we realized it was the wording of the new proposal—which we quickly changed to say “for all NON-MANNED flights.”

The survey also found that a majority of astronauts objected to the newest Star Trek film on points of historical accuracy, while some 75% feared for their continued employment.

Asked where the idea for this new proposal came from, the spokesman said, “Obamacare. We really liked the idea of an intentional Deep-Sixing of a project.”

Who will oversee the implementation of this new direction for NASA? In a breaking new report, our sources indicate that Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke has asked for the privilege. Apparently, he believes this is the best way for him to oversee the distribution of Stimulus Plan funds for shovel-ready projects. Asked by Congress if he believed this was a conflict of interests, and how NASA relates to banking at all—Bernanke is reported as saying that NASA has filed for banking status, and will soon be called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Bank, or NASAB—the Arabic patronymic. Caught off-camera, Bernanke is reported to have said, “Can anybody really argue that NASA isn’t a troubled asset?”

Summarizing the new proposal, our source exclaimed, “Consider it the Fireworks in August, or October, or December, or January, or just about any month except July. Consider that.”

Disclaimer: in case you missed it, the above satire is brought to you for your viewing pleasure.

24.7.09

Taleb's Problem. Not a problem for "Silent Evidence"

Nassim Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, introduces a concept he calls “silence evidence”—particularly the problem of silence evidence as it weights into the decision-making process. In short, the results and conclusion from whatever pool of data we may be studying can be (and likely is) skewed—possibly contradicted even—by evidence to the contrary which (for one reason or another) did not survive. In order to illustrate this concept in practice, he provides several key examples (there are others to which I will refer, but these are a few):
1. The Adventurer Casanova
2. Restaurants in New York City
3. The Phoenician “Cemetery of Letters”
4. Cicero and the Trouble Worshipers
5. Patients that would have lived (and some who died) from a drug.
In each of these examples, the evidence which failed to survive contradicts or severely affects the evidence which survived to be studied, from which conclusions were drawn.

There are two questions which must be answered in examining the validity of silent evidence, and to what extent it is actually a problem. First, is it a valid factor in our equations? If it is, secondly, how can and should silent evidence be used?

Keep in mind, truly silent evidence (pure) is utterly untraceable and immeasurable. Nothing remains of it to actually study. In this sense, Taleb’s example of New York restaurants is only semi-silent evidence (not pure). While to the casual observer, it seems that restaurants in NY survive and thrive (and so, I conclude, I should open one! Right? That’s how the argument goes), business, property ownership and other records remain to be discovered by the ardent inquirer. This simply goes to illustrate the varying degrees of silent evidence.

My purpose is to explore the purest kind of silent evidence—of which nothing remains: no sign, no marks, no unnatural “void” where something should be and isn’t. The evidence is utterly and completely silent.

So to the first question: If evidence once existed—or yet might remain available for later discovery—to contradict, disprove, or diminish the impact of previous findings, then house (before this discovery) can and should this type of evidence be accounted for?

Silent evidence will either confirm our conclusions (e.g. “people die eventually” and I don’t need all the bodies of the generations to prove it) or else contradict our evidence. In the above example, I’ve drawn an estimation of the number of restaurants that are thriving (visible evidence) and the disproportionate number that have failed (silent evidence). The actual relationship may be much greater—how many really survive? One in one hundred? One in one thousand, or one million? Regardless—the silent evidence (when accounted for) must either confirm the findings of the visible evidence or else contradict it.

It’s worth noting here that Taleb’s main point is to show how prone we are to discount likely outcomes based on errors of interpretation (e.g. we find what we want to find), and so fail to consider a broader scope of possible data. Question: can silent evidence be used to prove both a positive and negative outcome? That is, can it prove some things more unique (less likely) and other things more common (more likely)? How we answer this question will also answer the question of proper use for “silent evidence.”

I submit, and will attempt to prove that silent evidence is helpful only in preventing our estimation of the likelihood of desirable results and our underestimation of negative results; but not vice versa. In this sense, silent evidence is only a problem if we have overestimated the results of our findings (usually positive or desirable) and conclusions, and underestimated negative results and consequences.

Let me illustrate with this example from restaurants in New York. Taleb writes, “Consider the restaurant business in a competitive place like New York. One has indeed to be foolish to open one, owing to the enormous risks involved and the harrying quantity of work to get anywhere in the business, not counting the finicky fashion-minded clients. The cemetery of failed restaurants is very silent: walk around Midtown Manhattan and you will see these warm patron-filled restaurants with limos waiting outside for the dinners to come out with their second, trophy, spouses. The owner is overworked but happy to have all these important people patronize his eatery. Does this mean that it makes sense to open a restaurant in such a competitive neighborhood? Certainly not, yet people do it out of the foolish risk-taking trait that pushes us to jump into such adventures blinded by the outcome” (115). IF we were to chart this “visible evidence” against the “silent evidence” on a Venn diagram, it would look as follows (illustration 1).



We could likewise diagram each of the illustrations Taleb presents:


There is a fundamental different between all of these examples and the further examples Taleb presents—namely about patients who would benefit from a drug that kills a few patients and so is taken off the market (112), and Katrina-related deaths resulting from a re-allocation of resources and funds (110), and the stability of species from the surviving fossil records (108). The diagramed examples have some aspect of “visibility” or what I call soft-spoken evidence. Silent evidence in each case merely shows that inaccurate assumptions were made and applied. And yet, we know that these assumptions (or deductions) are inaccurate because of soft-spoken evidence.

These other examples, on the other hand—the patients, the Katrina survivors, and the stability of species—is pure speculation. There is nothing wrong in asking what species might have existed but left no surviving record, or how many people died because funds were reallocated to Katrina (and away, in his example, from cancer research). Nevertheless, this information remains is beyond the reach of measurement, and as a result (while we can assume and speculate) our Venn diagrams would be little more than the expression of this speculation.



Consider that in each case, there is simply no way to know the relative proportions between the visible and the silent evidence. Take the fossil record, for example. Which of the following two Venn diagrams accurately expresses the real relationship between the types of evidence?

Answer: we could pick either or neither and be right. Until the “silence” is broken—we are left to speculation. On this particular point, the problem of silent evidence is merely a theoretical discussion for scientific observation and empirical data collection.

And so we ask again—is silent evidence helpful? For science, no. Science must continue to record and document what is visible until the silence is broken. I can ask the question, “Could pigs fly?” but it is mere hypothesizing until some evidence presents itself.

It is at this point that we can see how silent evidence is unhelpful, as well as where it is helpful. Some of Taleb’s examples are right on, especially where silent evidence is used to curtail our over-eager risk taking. In the other examples, he simply misleads. Silent evidence can only contradict something, but (so long as it is silence) cannot prove or disprove anything. Whereas, in the realm of risk assessment—Taleb’s main area of study and training—silent evidence is a valid (even significant) aspect and element to consider.

Ask: what are the odds that a restaurant will survive in NY city? What risks must a casino insure again? What is the likelihood that I could lose all my money in the stock market? What factors should I consider when buying a house? These are all types of scenarios where silent evidence should, and must be, considered; or else we risk experiencing Taleb’s “black swan.”

Ask again: How many unregistered ships have been lost as sea? How many once-existing species have vanished without a trace? What is the likelihood a planet will explode? How many children in the 3rd century died of starvation? The truly silent evidence of these questions is unattainable.

Silent evidence serves to protect overestimation, which tends to diminish the possibility of risk. Take two casino owners and their risk management approach. One insures against high losses at the tables and personal injury on the premises. This owner has chosen to ignore the other (outlier) threats to his business (underestimating the negative consequences and risks). Consider these risks:



Keep in mind these are but a few of the many possible risks. If all threat scenarios were within the realm of expectation and possibility, there would never be any black swans. Still, if the casino owner expanded his protection to the range of the dotted line, he would be protected against a range of more possible situations. With each possible consideration, one increases awareness or risk (overestimating a negative possible outcome) and so is better protected by that mitigation (tendency to underestimate risk, overestimate success).

I believe the answer to our first question is: yes. Silent evidence can be used when one is attempting to mitigate risk, contrary to the propensity to assume the best, accept only visible evidence, and dismiss risk. This is the extent to which silent evidence can and should be applied.

Taleb, to the contrary, tries to use his “silent evidence theory” to prove anything. He uses it to argue that the earth isn’t rare in that it exists, but only rare in that it survive. He uses it to argue that people who died of cancer would not have died had monies not been rerouted to Katrina. He uses it to argue that vastly more species existed than we know about, contributing to our erroneous assumption regarding the stability of the species.

Because Taleb makes such a point to stray in this area, I will take him to task on the point of ontology. Taleb writes, “Consider our own fates. Some people reason that the odds of any of being in existence are so low that our being here cannot be attributed to an accident of fate. Think of the odds of the parameters being exactly where they need to be to induce our existen (any deviation from the optimal clibration would have made our world explode, or collapse, or simply not come into existence). It is often said that the world seems to have been built to the specifications that would make our existence possible…it could not come from luck. The problem here with the universe and the human race is that we are the survivain Casanovas. When you start with many adventurous Casanovas, there is bound to be a survivor, and guess what: if you are here talking about it, you are likely to be that particular one… So we can no longer naively compute odds without considering that the condition that we are in existence imposes restrictions on the process that led us here” (117-118).

Let’s graph Taleb’s argument:


How many others didn’t survive, Mr. Taleb? One, two, ten, a billion, a quintillion? The above graph represents a visual ratio of, say, 1:10. So the odds of us being here are really only 10%? Depends what you are graphing. Based on the size of the universe, that there are even 10 places where an “earth” could exist and support life is pretty insignificant. But maybe the ratio should be 1:1,000,000,000,000,000. (At what point does possibility get replaced with probability?)

In either case, we’re just guessing. There’s no proof. Using this reasoning, I can argue just about anything I want: there is no God, there is no soul, frogs used to be able to fly (fossil record simply failed to record it), people used to have tails (ditto), and Jupiter is made out of colored cheese (prove me wrong!).

By attempting to apply silent evidence to scenarios where risk is not involved—but odds and statistics are—the evidence fails. No longer something to consider, it merely becomes something to speculate about. This confusion between risk and odds as mere synonyms is part of the problem. The odds of something aren’t correlative to its risk. They aren’t even the same thing, but Taleb treats them as though they were. The odds of a restaurant or adventurer surviving under certain conditions are unlikely; there are great risks to both. Silent evidence can cause us to dismiss that evidence. But the odds of the earth being here are immense; but there is no risk here. There is no silent evidence that can confirm that we’re the lucky ones. In fact, quite the opposite—silent evidence would prove how incredible the odds of our existence is.

In conclusions, answering our second question, silent evidence can only be used where to counter actions based on visible evidence, which tend to diminish or completely dismiss potential for or risk of failure. Applied to other realms—it become little more than a tautology: proving whatever one believes to be true in the first place.

25.6.09

Vain Promises of Eternity


This world promises glory, but glory fades. This world promises eternity, but death takes away. 1980’s sex symbol Farrah Fawcett died this morning, followed by rock and pop star Michael Jackson this evening. Money, fame, glory, power, and influence are powerful mechanism of trade and economy. Death is blind to such present realities—and cares not for status, ability, popularity, or intention. This world promises what it cannot fulfill.

There is only One who has conquered death, only One who can conquer it still.

24.6.09

Three Deeper Issues with Television, Part 3: Faith Relegated.


The final thematic element that you will be bombarded with (in most TV viewing) is pandering of faith as acceptable but unfounded and irrational. “Faith is fine…for you.” Several episodes of House M.D. drew this conclusion. But don’t suggest for a moment that it has any place in a fact-founded, reason based discussion.

How is this different from generations past? I haven’t thought through this completely, but the past 50 years strike me in this way:
• 1950s – faith national: “a cultural thing.”
• 1960s – faith critical: “a personal thing.”
• 1970s – faith assumed: “a Sunday thing.”
• 1980s – faith political: “welcome at the table.”
• 1990s – faith ignored: “irrelevant to the conversation.”
• 2000s – faith empty: “mystic, abstract, personally relevant; corporately irrelevant.”

Watch episodes of the original Twilight Zone series—particularly an episode called “The Obsolete Man.” Faith was an accepted practice in the 50s. In the 1960s, it came under attack as part of a larger assault on the family and become “a personal matter.” (Watch the original Star Trek series and you catch glimpses into the cultural tenor regarding faith.) Then in the 1970s, religious affiliation dropping, it was relegated to a “church thing”—something for those people. In the 1980s, faith seemed to have its greatest voice in the Moral Majority as a political power. And in the 1990s, it seemed to serve only to advance a neo-evolutionary worldview (watch the movie Contact, with Jodi Foster); or else be dismissed as purely relativistic.

Post 9/11, faith has been given this mystical position: on the one hand, it’s non-scientific—which is to say irrelevant and of no consequence; but, on the other hand, its “good” for people to have a faith. “It” helps with life. “It’s” irrelevant, except to the one who holds it—then “it’s” relevant, tolerable, significant, and worthy our respect.

Numb3rs takes up the issue of faith: Don nearly dies, and starts going to the synagogue (he’s Jewish by birth). His girlfriend is antagonistic, and his brother is dismissive. His father is encouraging, and his brother’s girlfriend is tolerable. Conclusion: faith is relevant…for some.

House M.D. takes up the issue of faith: a woman is dying and she believes her “faith” will save her. House is antagonistic. Cuddy is permissible. Foreman justifies. Cameron is encouraging. In the end, she is healed in ways that remain subject to interpretation. Conclusion: faith is relevant…for the believer.

This is faith today—unfounded and non-factual. It’s a table, really, around which all sorts can come and offer varying views and opinions: some accept, others believe, criticize, dismiss, argue, lambast, encourage, support, and still others don’t care. This is the mystic and “non-concrete” faith as presented on television.

What is wrong with this? It teaches us that faith in God, or a god, is something wholly abstract. For religious proponents, faith has always had concrete consequences. Whether one was a Buddhist, Muslim, Jew or Christian—faith was real. The Being in whom one believed actually affected reality. Faith even changed and transformed reality. For the Christian, we do not believe faith—expressed in prayer or fasting or spiritual devotion—is an appeasement to God. Rather, that God in his Grace ennobles faithful expression by dignifying it with consequence. A man prays and is delivered. Another fasts and receives direction in some decision. This is the ennobling of consequence. Taleb would petition silent evidence, of course. But that aside, faith was always concrete—and for true believers, it always will be.

What is the benefit of having faith relegated to the non-concrete? Namely, you put an end to fundamentalism. If what a Muslim or Jew or Christian believes can be reduced and relegated to some abstract feeling of peace and goodwill—then maybe there won’t be many more reason to have wars that grow out of religious convictions (the Afghanistan war is more religious than political in nature, proving that religion impacts politics, and has very real consequences…aka, 9/11). Where science failed to “prove” religion irrational, and philosophy (Nietzsche) failed to render “God dead,” television presents religion as relevant to a diminished sphere of influence: an individual life. Continue to reduce that sphere, and eventually religion has as much power as a “mall cop” (I’m thinking the new movie that’s out): enough to be an annoyance, but not something to take seriously.

But as Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Budhists—we must insist that faith is concrete. Either we insist that God (a god) can save us, and give him the opportunity to prove it—or else we have no grounds for proselytizing. We must insist that the God in whom faith is put, if real, has real and significant effects upon reality. Otherwise, we accept Hollywood’s version. And when that happens—we stop praying, stop fasting, stop seeking the direction of the Creator who made us and God who sustains us. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Faith is empirical in its outworking, or else it is nothing more than the feel-good preference that House and Numb3rs (and a dozen other shows) would have us believe.

This is particularly harmful to children who, on the one hand, are told by parents and pastors that God is real and He really works in and through events; but are instilled, on the other hand, with the assurance that their faith is powerless over the lives and events of those who don’t believe (the way magic has now power over the logical, in the movie Flight of Dragons!).

Such is the philosophic assault that TV has upon us. We watch their shows that convey “faith” and feel good afterwards. But reflect upon these conventions: I believe we will certainly find our faith less reliable, ourselves less confident, and our God less powerful. Under such subtle attacks, our faith withers away from the desperate spaces of creation. Redemption ceases being a divine act and becomes a human endeavor. Faith may fill our heart, but never does it overflow into others. It may comfort us, but we are left bereft of opportunity to encourage others with “the hope that is found within us.” In an environment where believers insist upon empirical consequences for faith, mysticism grows weak. The invitation by the God of the Bible is: test, taste, see.

Compare that to the invitation of television and the contradiction is obvious: “Just watch.”

Three Deeper Issues with Television, Part 2: Heroification


The second detrimental thematic element of television (as a modern story telling medium) is what I call heroification. In today’s politically-correct, “appease all” world, Hollywood can’t talk about “truth, justice, and the American way” (or even just “truth and justice”!). That isn’t a message likely to draw in the international community of viewers within or outside of our borders. Viewership drives revenue and so ideals like mercy, justice, absolute truth, and rational faith take a back seat to soft narrative—where conflict centers on some “event-oriented” or “emotional” tension. If there is no “justice,” (non-partisan) then there is no real “injustice”—just criminals or patients or clients (on the one hand) and police, doctors, and lawyers (on the other).

CSI isn’t about seeing justice done (I watch them all)—they rarely (if ever) talk about justice, rightness, or truth—but is, instead, about a team of scientists seeking to solve a case. Private Practice is not so much about changing and improving the lives of patients for the betterment of…what? Themselves, society, the world? (e.g. restoring the effects of the fall). Rather, the misfortune of patients is merely the thematic tension that allows us to see the relational dynamics of the doctors as they interact, debate, conflict, copulate, fight, debate, etc., etc.

Making the world a better place, extending goodness and mercy—that’s so yesterday! (Modern values have exploded into the void left by these neglected virtues, values like the environment, equality, and anti-imperialism.) Will Dr. House solve the case in time and if so what does it teach us about House—drug addicted, bitter, angry, disrespectful, spiteful, undermining, bad-talking, abusive Dr. House? Heroification isn’t about the understanding the world, or ourselves, or propensities (if anything, the “picked-on” Muslim is likely to turn out the innocent bystander of the terrorist attack [e.g. both Numbers and Lie to Me had this storyline]; while the evangelical Christian will be boorish, daft, and prone to stupidity).

Nor is heroification about a hero. That too is yesterday—we don’t want Superman or the A-Team, Matlock or Stingray. Give us broken, screwed up, passed over, divorced or divorcing, characters—but then heroify their lifestyles. Used to be, you watched daytime talk-shows to see who was “more broken than I am” and nighttime drama to see “who I should be like.” It is very possible that these have completely flip-flopped. Don’t give us heroes to “imitate or emulate.” Give us characters with careless relationships, compulsions, and corrupt; but environmentally friendly, open to sexually-orientation, and universally accepting. Lower the bar. We don’t want someone to live up to; just someone to watch.

Therein is the essence of heroification. Where there is no God, there are no ultimate morals—mercy, justice and righteousness—and ultimately meaning must center upon the main characters: Horatio Caine, Gregory House, Cal Lightman, Walter Bishop—and whatever scenarios these characters find themselves tangled up in; dragging us along with them on their stumbling journey through life.

Heroification is intended to make us feel good about our values, our choices, and our live styles; assuring us that we aren’t as “f****d” as others (moralists? Christians?) would have us think; and that our cause—however pathetically irrelevant or culturally acceptable—will be enough to merit our praise…by the great accident of evolutionary history...."coming soon to a channel near you, this Fall."

Three Deeper Issues with Television, Part 1: the "60 Minute" Day


Pick a show. Any show. Watch it for a month and you are likely to experience—though maybe not explain—three stylistics elements that bend our perception of reality toward hopeless despair. I would suggest that, more than sex, more perhaps even than violence, these philosophical undergirding shape us.

The ’60 Minute’ Day
Television, as a narrative medium, skips the lulls of life—waiting in traffic, going to the bathroom, sleeping, being alone—except in the rare exception that these drive the thematic line (Seinfield has used all of these as thematic elements). Instead, television presents a world where character formation and interpersonal relationships jump, in seconds, from an office encounter to a restaurant interchange ten miles and four hours away.

The result is that viewers begin to have our concept of “normal” and “flow” shaped by these lull-less lifestyles. Such that—by contrast—our own lives seem dull, boring and more lull than activity. Dating people are surprised by the deep bitterness of betrayal that takes longer than a 2-hour special to heal. People shaped by death are shocked that the grief lasts beyond the 25 episode season. Television narrative necessitates haste and speed—forty-two minutes to establish believability, construct a scenario, build tension and come to climactic resolution.

Not life. Life, by comparison, is shaped by the slow and low points—how I respond in a traffic jam, what I think about before going to sleep, what I eat for breakfast and lunch, paying bills, reflecting on life. In television, there is no reflection: it’s boring to watch someone think. We get it from time to time, in those last “music-filled” moments of an episode, when the scene moves in slow motion and some nascent pop-artist sings.

Our reaction to this “real life” is to seek the level of activity and motion found only in television—the going, as it were, from one scene to another instantaneously. The speed and multifunctional aspects of the internet and interstate serve our addiction to some extent. But eventually, these leave us listless—unfocused, disconnected, bored.

It explains yet another way that the normal, lifelong commitment of marriage is assaulted. Long-time married people know that the shape and stability of their relationship will be crafted more in the ten-minute conversations at meals or in the morning before work, or at the end of the day; more than in the ten-minutes of sex in the shower. And yet—TV shows us the sex in the shower until we think, “Only my relationship is boring.”

I think the recklessness of drivers is due in large part to this sense of the “60 minute” day—this artificial compression of time and relentless energy of characters written without compulsion (or with it!), without grief (except thrown in to spruce up ratings), or consequence (beyond the next episode). And marriages, relationships in general, financial behaviors, introspection, and generally our view of self.

Attempted, we may attain this pace, for a season (no guarantees of a renewal next Fall!). But ultimately, we exit the “60 minute” day at the season finale of despair, listless vanity, and a reckless abandonment that gives up seeking meaning in life.

(Next: Heroification)

9.6.09

The Glorious Fitting of Incarnation

Someone asks, “Doesn’t it say a lot about the smallness of your god that he could inhabit human flesh?” I wonder if, instead, it says something about the great care and value vested in the creation of humanity. (Psalm 8:5, in reference to humanity, is applied more specifically to the person of Christ in Hebrews 2:7.)

I read too much to remember the reference, or even how accurately these details are. Nevertheless, the inklings of a story read stay with me: a man whose granddaughter survived a horrific car (airplane?) accident. The narrative conveyed how he was actually the one who built, installed, and tested the safety restraint device which was the means of her survival.

Asked, “Were you surprised to hear that she survived, and that you—in a different time and place—had a hand in it?” the man answered something akin to, “Surprised? Yes—that anyone could survive that is a miracle. But not surprised at my part in it—no. I think about my family each and every time I am installing and testing the safety systems of these cars.”

What does it say about the capacity of humanity—made in the image of God—that He would design us with His own Son in view: His Son who would someday take up this same form? What does it say that every sampling of human expression, across the scope of history and space, bears the form designed to be taken up in the great union of God in Human Flesh? Furthermore, what does it say about our descent that we have stooped so low beneath the weight of base corruption, and what—that one day, face to face with fellows of the same substance, we would be tempted to worship that which was created? This is the Weight of Glory, of which C.S. Lewis wrote the following:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no 'ordinary' people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit -- immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment” (The Weight of Glory).

4.6.09

Irregular Ground Rules: Taleb on the Presence of Intelligence

Central to the ongoing debate between creationists and evolutionary theorists is the presence of intelligence: is there intelligence present in or behind the reality of existence? The presence (or absence) of an intelligent designer is the crux. Without it, there is no creator. But without it there can be no discussion either.

In the other species that I’ve taken to studying, there are no others that are studying (empirically provably) their origin and or existence. I am yet impose my own impressions upon the inquisitive expressions of the Orangutan, but here—the presence of my intelligence, observation, and summation—make my summations questionable. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s words, “However, our presence in the sample completely vitiates the computation of the odds” (118).

See the issue—I can only prove that discoveries can be inadvertent, that narration can create a fallacious view of reality, or argue from silent evidence that the earth is the lucky .00001% of the universe wherein the precise elements existed to produce life; I can only argue these things in the presence of my own intelligence (limited as it is).

By Taleb’s own assessment, it is only a matter of possibility that the life-diversity of the earth would come into existence because of the scope and expanse of imaginable attempts (universally speaking). And yet, despite the presence of human intelligence and reasoning, it is actually more likely that his own book would have been written already, without him, before him.

But it wasn’t. It took him, and the presence of his intelligence to set the guidelines for discussion that insists on the absence of intelligence in empirical defense of creation. In my interactions with all manner of other species, I have never been so limited in my argumentation. Taleb must check his own cognitive intelligence at the door if the same rules are to apply on both sides of the table.

Taleb writes, “Most of the debate between creationists and evolutionary theorists (of which I do not partake) lies in the following: creationist believe that the world comes from some form of design while evolutionary theorists see the word as a result of random changes by an aimless process. But it is hard to look at a computer or car and consider them the result of aimless process. Yet they are.”

Agreed—these are the inadvertent discoveries of humans—intelligent humans who were trying to do something. By Taleb’s own position, he should have ample evidence from turtles and ameba that significant movements in technology, medicine, knowledge, awareness, understanding, or any other facet of study, result regularly from equally incidental attempts. Where is the turtle’s equivalent of a computer? Where is the ameba’s equivalent of a laser?

The presence of the human intelligence in each of Taleb’s examples invalidates argumentation against intelligence. Not that his interpretation of these narrative anecdotes is irrelevant, but they are invalid as documented evidence for the position of non-intelligent existence.

Taleb has no problem saying that the presence of earth in predictability models for creationist verses evolutionist perspectives skews the visible evidence-erroneously—toward intelligence design. By contrast, the presence of human intelligence seeking something, and finding something larger or more significant, is assumed equally supportive evidence of his position. See the tautology? By Taleb’s own rules, the presence of the human intelligence in any of the inadvertent discoveries invalidates these cases as evidence for his position. Furthermore, his assessment and interpretation of these anecdotes further distances him from the objective assessment.

Historically, it’s been the position of evolutionists that support of their case will be the finding of other examples of life beyond earth (remember the excitement surrounding the Martian rock that seemed to have a “microbe” petrified in it; it turned out to be nothing more than a strange formation within the rock). Now, Taleb argues that it is more likely the absence of evidence which equally proves the evolutionary theory. In short, everything proves the theory.

That is, in the presence of the intelligence of humanity.

17.5.09

Regret of Prose

I suppose there is no quicker way to lose sight of all that is beautiful, all that is marvelous, all that is utterly incompressible in its glory, all that demands our arrested attention—than to become completely prosaic. Poetry forgotten is the sunset ignored, and nature overlooked; the minutia of life in the flower, of struggle in the ant, of music in the bird, of freedom in the doe—until it all fades to the un-stately background of noise, uninterpreted.

Somehow, I forget to remember to notice—and find a thousand unreconciled moments fleeting beyond the hazy fog of recollection. I forget to see that my children are…just that: children—playful, fun, full of the energy of enthusiasm at surprise and inspiration. I forget to hear their exclamations of insight as the melody of praise. And, dour, I pour out dismissal upon them—reprove, retreat, correct, instruct. All because I have become utterly prosaic.

The poet hears the refrain of nature's tale, of glory echoed in the unlikely sights of human expression and nature’s cry. The prosaic sees only the practice of convenience: umbrellas, sidewalks, stop signs, and the clatter of feet upon the late-hour steps. The poet hears music to be sung—the prosaic, noise to be buffered against. The poet sees lines of despair and spaces of redemption—the prosaic, utility. The poet a journey—the prosaic, a distance to span. The poet, possibility in the hour—the prosaic, a critic of time past.

I would be a poet. I would shed the trappings of prose and leave the unmeasured lines of dictation to find, in a small space upon a page, the gathering of my heart, my hopes, my longings—which, like a song sung and a glory glimpsed, reflects the place where angels wait upon the Savior. Such are the realities that prose will never know and only poetry will reveal.

Ode To This Fall

Ode to this Fall when all of life and one
small part of earth is lost to childhood days,
where play and light grow short, while nights blow cool,
and flowers fell to dreams of summers past.

The sunlight tilts through leaves—a solemn lean
which says we’ve moved to change this giant orb,
no more to bear the wrathful heat of sun
that once in scorn bore down on youth o’erhead.

Where birds once sang and fireflies flew
to light the sky in motioned stars, and still
trees bare a whisper made, now quiet all—
the world walks the hour and readies now to sleep.

These are the days I’ve never mourned to live
and lived to love as though they were my all,
my life enclose and echoes of the past:
In Fall, I feel I am a child again.

14.5.09

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a Review


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, sadly, is many things—curious it is not. Not for lack of opportunity. Imagine the possibilities—a child who lives his life backwards…of sorts. Ignoring for a moment that both ends of Benjamin’s life had him cuddled at 21 inches—he really could have proved, well, curious. Imagine how differently he could live his life, having listened to and learned from the lives of those who can look back, morn, grieve, and reminisce. Would Benjamin (Brad Pitt) allow those reflections to shape him—to be the guiding wisdom that directed his life on a different path?

No. In fact, quite the opposite. Take away the man who was “struck by lightning seven times,” and the hand-me-down stories from the old-aged to the old-looking Benjamin are little more than tales of sexual misadventure, infidelity, and remarriage. There’s the man who was “married three times” and the womanizing Pygmy. There’s his adopted mother, Queenie, who isn’t married to her live-in boyfriend. There’s Benjamin’s real father, and Captain Mike, who both frequent a brothel.

In fact—sex is one of the all-too-common, non-curious, aspects of the film. There’s the British Consulate’s wife, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), that ends up having an affair with Benjamin—an affair that has the ground rules of “never looking at each other during the day, and never saying ‘I love you.” There are the various women Benjamin beds during his “younger” days—in between his encounters with Daisy (Kate Blanchett). There is the moment when Daisy shares her near-lesbian encounters in order to seduce the simple-minded Benjamin, and the years on “the mattress” that Benjamin and Daisy spend in their better years. And then there’s Daisy’s late-life infidelity with Benjamin—ignoring her vows to her husband.

The only truly curious aspect of the film is the complete lack of consequence for actions. Captain Mike never suffers the Clap or any other sexual diseases—for that matter nobody does. Despite all the sleeping around, nobody ever gets pregnant—until Daisy gets pregnant to advance the storyline. There are no angry husbands who find out about a wife’s infidelity. There is no bitterness in Benjamin at being abandoned by his father—no bitterness at his waltzing back into Benjamin’s life in a far-from-transparent manner. There aren’t even consequences for the very old and dying Daisy, as she reveals to her daughter that the man she called father was not—and that she was the child of a man who lived backwards. There is no longing—except for just a moment, when a disabled young Benjamin watches with real curiosity children playing in the streetlight of a summer night. There is no evidence of emotional grief when love ends up…empty. No sorrow. No confusion. No guilt. No penalty. No consequences.

And that is as far as the curiosity goes. Take away for a moment the fact that this Benjamin—this “son of my right hand”—was born an old man, and this movie becomes quaint and common. Curiosity is lost. The chance to see a life lived differently is thrown away on the far too-common theme of promoting sex at the expense of marriage. Curious—that viewers are offered no answers to their own emotional realities, longings, consequences, and universal human experiences. That isn’t life. It’s science fiction.

30.4.09

Spin the Wheel: Save a Billion...or $25


Spin, spin, spin. We have become about spin. Take, for example, this news that GM wants to restructure to give bondholders and the union-run health care trust 99% control of the company—to save taxpayers $10 billion dollars.

This new plan isn’t going to save the $15.4 billion that taxpayers—or rather, the government on our behalf—has given this company. That money is gone, forever. This “$10 billion savings” is the next handout that GM will ask for to continue past June 1.

And what is this about “equity holders” getting 1%? That’s more spin—and means that if you own stock common stock in the existing company, it would be…well worthless. For every $100 in GM stock someone currently owns—equity—it would be worth about $1. Then again, when bankruptcies and bailouts are concerned, “equity holders” often walk away with nothing but the capital losses they get to report on their 1099.

The message of this restructuring is this: “Let us restructure, and you lose only $15 billion. Don’t let us restructure, and you’ll lose $25 billion now…and uncounted billions in the years to come.” In Michigan, that’s call a steal. In DC, they call that a deal. But Mississippi, we call that "damned": damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

What is the other option? True bankruptcy. In true bankruptcies, courts oversee the distribution of equity to existing debt holders. Granted, GM’s debt to value ratio is non-existent. That’s what happens when you stop making money and become a business buoyed by socialistic governance.

And then there is the problem of the unions—those collective entities that served a purpose a century ago, when corporations abused employees. Unions were relevant when Ford would fire a woman who lost a finger on a die-cutting machine because of the injury (read, “The American Jitters” by Edmund Wilson).

Today—Unions have become, for the most part, the self-promoting monsters they unseated in corporate abuse. And yet, the union will still retain 41% stake in the “restructured” GM. Far from actually having to negotiate prices, pay scales, and benefits the way that most people do—their strike lines and power of sway would continue to derail this rail-less, and direction-less, company. Look at Delta Airlines—they aren’t much better off since their restructuring. As late as last June, Delta was still pursuing arbitration to come to agreement with their pilots union.

Given the option between the Michigan and DC, I chose Mississippi. There is a reason Russia got rid of its Czars. GM will restructure one way or the other—with taxpayer money, or union control—but in the end the bill will land in the same place. The citizens of the USA.

A century before unions, that had a different name: taxation without representation.

28.4.09

Reflections on Ben Edwards' Funeral

The rain was an appropriate backdrop for a funeral, and the gray of the sky reflected the black suits that filtered into the normally cheer-filled lobby of Powell Symphony Hall. I didn’t know Ben Edwards (other than brief passages in the hallways at church)—and from the laughs, smiles, and general good-spirits of the crowd, I wager most of these people didn’t; not personally, at least. They—not unlike me—were there for proximity, someone they knew or knew of, or heard about, and so on. Even throughout the funeral, most of the laughs sounded more like the release of anxiety at having to be uncomfortably close to death—not separated by a television or computer screen—while also listening to a preacher’s reassurance that (in not so many words) heaven is real, God is real, and Jesus is the only way.

Ben Edwards was the great-grandson of Albert Gallatin Edwards. A detailed history of the Edwards family can be found here. Suffice it to say, Ben followed in the footsteps of the generations before him—faithfully working in the investment company that his great-grandfather had helped build. AG Edwards (the company) survived the Great Depression, the financial shake-out of the early 1970s, and Black Monday in the 1980s. It even bypassed most of the derivatives collapse of the late 1990s. But what success could accomplish, it could not eventually fend off—growth by acquisition. Wachovia Bank managed to convince a majority of shareholders to sell the firm for $6.8 billion in May 2007. Edwards’ shareholders got $35.80 in cash, and .9844 in Wachovia stock—then worth close to $54. Just over a year later—Wachovia desperately accepted a $7 per share merger (read “rescue”) by Wells Fargo.

Today, with the rain falling, and no-so-subtle voices filling the lobby of Powell Hall—there isn’t much left of the Edwards’ name. AG Edwards is now Wachovia Securities. Come May, it will be Wells Fargo Advisors. At best, you can pick out an A, a G, and an E from that name (but not in that order). Along with the name has gone the wealth as well. From SEC declared holdings, the value of Ben’s Wachovia stock was reduced by 82% before Wells Fargo rescued the trouble Wachovia. And now, along with that, has gone his life.

Let the curtain fall along with the rain.

But that isn’t the whole picture, because the Edwards’ name does continue—and not just in the fledgling company that his son Tad has started. It honors on a house just off Ballas road—a house once owned by members of the Edwards family. A house that now is being developed into a gathering place for community leaders, for artists, and for Schaeffer Fellows—whose desire it is to compel a sometimes watching (sometimes sleeping) world of the reality of Christ and His Lordship.

The Edwards' name also marks a building at the campus of Covenant Seminary—a school the Edwards family helped to found and establish. Longtime support of the Seminary means that thousands of Gospel ministers have been trained thanks to the Edwards family. Ben’s name does continue—in India, with Paul Billy, a church planter who received scholarship during his studies at the seminary in the ‘90s. Ben’s name continues on in Brazil with Luciano Pires, in France with Nicholas Farelly, and in a dozen other countries where graduates serve, minister, and faithfully proclaim the gospel of salvation.

From a worldly perspective, Ben’s life ends in failure. Even the aforementioned link gets it wrong, predicting, “AGE celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1987, and it seemed quite possible that its 200th would be celebrated in 2087 by a young man with blond hair and boyish features named Benjamin Edwards VII.” There will be no 200th. There wasn’t even a 110. It doesn’t take much to lose the world’s favor.

And yet, when this world has forgotten that Ben died, eternity will remember that he lives. Ben has the inheritance that we all desire—an inheritance that can’t be bought (out), sold (short), or lost (on the gamble of derivatives and structured notes).

Listen to the Funeral Message:

20.3.09

Reflections on Mary Alice's Situation

Mary is doing well—now part-way into her second 24-hours of antibiotics. She eats, sleeps, dirties diapers, spits up. Everything is normal. Everything—except for the wires strung up to her chest to measure heart and respiration, and the IV in one foot, and the red diode on her other foot that registers her blood-oxygen levels. It doesn’t take long—a few hours really—to completely lose track of time and any external reality. The small room—full, with Shannon and I, Mary and her bed, a couch, a chair, a small shelve, and the monitoring station—quickly becomes a reality unto itself.

For a moment, I glimpse the lives of people cornered by debilitating or chronic conditions. A man can be 36 or 96—it doesn’t matter. Close him off from external stimuli, from any sense of whether it’s a cool or hot day, whether there is sun or rain, wind or calm; from news as to the financial crisis, the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan; from family, from friends, from the common duties of laundry and dishes, uncut grass and cars in need of inspection renewal—cut him off from these and suddenly life slows down to a crawl. I find myself reacting only to the buzz of this monitor or the alarm on that one. Instead of staring at television, I watch the sometimes-regular, sometimes-irregular waves of EKG, respiration, and blood-oxidation.

What do you talk about in such conditions? Visitors usually want the same information—how is Mary. The reports grow more similar, more monotone—and eventually become little more than a summary recounting hard facts: the fever broke no report from the blood culture still waiting to see what the urinalyses shows nothepetitusormeningitisanotherbloodsampletomorrowtotestCRP. And with the report completed—there is nothing else to ask, to say. Maybe a prayer and an offer for help. Then the momentary stimulation of something external is gone and the monitors become the center of attention. This is the self-centering reality of older men and women in hospice or long-term care. In such an emptiness of time and space, only the past becomes real—only the past remains a place to fly away to. I know why old people long for the past. I understand that, and grow thankful for the present.

Then there is the all-consuming aspects of the treatment. Playing with Zeke last night, I found myself completely disengaged from what we were doing. I began thinking about Mary, about the IV and the antibiotics, and her absence, and her monitor. I let myself pretend to be present with Zeke when, in reality, I wasn't. I understand now some little bit of how hard it is to fight the consumption—to continue to engage other children or a spouse, friends, or chores; when your mind constantly defaults back to the small room—that self-imposed prison of the soul. I understand that, and am thankful for places outside the hospital.

Then there is the gut-wrenching fear of realizing—after all the fighting to put it out of your mind—that you forgot. I’m not just talking about for a moment, a moment when I can concentrate without thinking about Mary at the hospital. No! I mean completely forgetting. To find myself cleaning out the garage and thinking about supper, stopping to break up a disagreement between the boys, and wonder where Shannon is—wonder, like I didn’t know she was at the hospital with my daughter. It hits me. I can’t breathe for a moment. I forgot. I have a daughter.

I understand now why so many of the pods—that’s what they call the individual rooms that the NICU babies are in—are vacant of parents or grandparents. In some rooms, people are in and out. But in one of the rooms, I haven’t seen a single visitor. Only the nurses care for the child, and the volunteer “cuddler” (e.g. retired people who walk around waiting to hear a cry, so they can rush in and offer comfort). We’ve been here, what, 36 hours—while some of these babies have been months in transition from very serious conditions to these more stable situations. After 36 hours, I’m tired of the hospital, and scrubs, and new nurses introducing themselves to us every 8 hours. What must it be like after a week? A month?

Maybe after a month, you are used to being self-centered, on the one hand, and all consumed, on the other, and forgetful, on the third. No—none of these babies have three hands. But some can’t breathe without “forced air.” Others need perpetual IV drips. Others have their eyes still covered, and are under a heating lamp. And this is in the south wing—the “stable wing.” In the north wing, where they first admitted Mary, the babies lie as close together as the various machines and bulk of the incubators will allow. Their conditions are much worse. Some will be delivered from there and move here, and from here go on to a full and healthy life. But there are others—God knows—that will not. I understand that, and I'm thankful for the grace of healthy children.

I’m thankful—that Mary is responding to the medicine. Thankful that, by all accounts, she should be coming home next Tuesday. I’m thankful that she isn’t more serious. But I’m also thankful for these tastes—of what life becomes like for parents and spouses and individuals who are stuck in these perpetual care situations. I’m thankful to see, for a moment, the world through their eyes. This is not the way life is supposed to be. There is nothing normal in these situations.

I would not have chosen this, but I have sipped the sorrow that must be the perpetual drink for so many people in this life. And for that too, God, I am thankful.

16.3.09

Rather to Dream of Something Better

The compounding of contradiction becomes more clear now. The spending of nearly $1 Trillion got a couple of disgruntled objectors. But the spending of a few hundred million dollars by AIG “on bonuses” has received the outrage of the ruling party (now the number is up to $650 million). Not that they shouldn’t be angry—but consider proportionality. The Stimulus plan threw $1.2 billion dollars at NASA “just because.” NASA, of all places. Shovel ready? Job building? Economy advancing? It doesn’t really matter—that’s someone’s pet project that promises possibility: just “maybe, maybe” we’ll find some cure to cancer, the global threat of warming, or the economy out in that great expanse. And then NASA went and blew up a $273 million satellite intended to study the environment. For comparison, that’s 1436 houses offered 100% loans at an average of $193,000 each. Bye-bye—thank you for flying NASA. Bye-bye.

The double-speak is getting more convoluted. Anger at the way money is being spent by others. Frivolity at how Big Brother is spending it. Throw a billion here or there—so what. But, if you get caught spending money on some unjustified expense—watch out! Yes, we want you to “consume” your income and more to stimulate the economy, but if you get caught saving or paying off debt or eliminating loans—watch out! How dare Germany not embrace an even greater “rescue” package! How dare China consider not buying American debt!

It all sounds so backwardly normal, doesn’t it? On the one hand, bank officials are begging for money because they can’t go it alone, but then warn the Government to stay out of banking because they “aren’t experts.” Auto makers warn of Armageddon without a bailout, but then kindly tells Washington it has no business questioning their business practices. There is such a comedy of errors in the thinking that any attempts to rationalize against it somehow fail. As though finding that mathematicians are saying 2+2 isn’t 4—your best attempts rest on the reasoning discounted as yesterday, antiquated, and irrelevant.

Community broke. Somewhere in the past, it broke down, and we walked away. Maybe, like in the movie Avalon, it was in the movement away from the city and into the suburbs. Maybe, it was when we pretended that externals were more important than reality. Maybe it was when husbands treated wives as lesser beings, or when industry moved out of the home. But the individualism that was once tribal and geographic turned on itself in a Lord of the Flies manner—it isn’t just “us” against “them.” It’s “us” against “us.” You against me. Me against me. Like The Masque of the Red Death, the disease we thought we locked outside was found within. Like Noah entering the ark only to find—half a year later—that the sin he sought to escape was there. Right there. Inside them all.

But Community is being fixed—in all those places where people have stopped asking the question, “What can my government do for me?” It’s hard to get the words past the proverbial “full mouth.” We’ve suckled so long that source of stolen milk that it’s hard to refuse. But refuse we must. The purse of government comes with the long strings of subjugation. Thinking past the spiderwebs of complacency, like the befuddled marsh-wiggle, we must dare to stick our hand into the enchanted fire—trusting that the smell of burning flesh and a faded memory is more beautiful than the lies of safety, security, and comfort.

And either we will stick our hand to the fire, and give up that which we cannot keep…or else we will grow so fat as to put our hand into the bowl, to have it never return to our mouths. Fire or chains. Sacrifice or secruity. There is a reason that epocs past held to the tension of antitheicals. Only in the absolute is there power. All else is the ambiguous hum of the enchantress: Take, and eat.

24.2.09

OM* - Stimulus Plan Just in Time…for NASA.

NASA SATELLITE CRASHES MINUTES AFTER LAUNCH

Maybe NASA and the auto industry should consolidate. Then, over-priced and under-performing vehicles of all types—terrestrial and extra-terrestrial—can be developed under one grand auspices. They could call it GANSAM—Generally Autonomous Nationally Sanctioned Aeronautics’n’Automobile Manufacturing.

Having witnessed—on the news, that is—the deaths of two entire space shuttle crews, I am grateful that this project was unmanned. And yet, there goes $273 million dollars. Clocking in at three minutes of flight, that averages US$ 91 million per minute. Not even Delta charges that much for its most expensive flights.

Thanks to the new Stimulus Plan signed into law by our President, NASA now has an additional US$ 1 billion, $2 million dollars--$400 million for the construction of a new space shuttle, $400 million for climate research, $150 million for aeronautics research, $50 million for the rebuilding of facilities damaged in 2008 floods, and $2 million to pay for the people who are going to oversee the spending of this money. I'm assuming these are the shovel-ready projects that we heard so much talk about--projects destined to save the collapsing economies in Ohio and the budget short-fall in California.

"We'll get back to flying at a pace that allows us to do so successfully," said Chuck Dovale, NASA Launch Director, at a press briefing after the failed launch. The project took 8 years to develop. Eight years and $273 million dollars! This wasn’t included in the new stimulus plan—intended for new research into climate.

Ironically, the very thing that makes NASA perpetually unsuccessful is the very thing that will keep GM and Chrysler from producing truly innovative vehicles. Governmental money for governmental projects return investment on capital well below the break-even point. Always. That is why so little privately-funded space exploration projects have gone forward. The knowledge that there is a regulating government body, that can carte blanche restrict or confiscate anything questionable to that broadly-undefined category of “national security,” and (dispensing with pleasantries) ignore budget constraints—is as much a barrier to entry as anyone needs.

Were the government to offer a contract in the sum of $1 billion to any private company capable of delivering regular payloads of satellite and human cargo, on schedule, safely, reliably, dependably, at a fraction of the cost—America would see a kind of innovation unparalleled in recent years.

As it is, we just got to see a $273 million fire-work display. That is, those of us who were watching.

The rest of you get nothing.

21.1.09

Top 10 Lessons I learned from “Mansfield Park” (by Jane Austin)

1. Even halfhearted attempts at good pursuits can produce the purest good and greatest glory.
2. To be simple is not a vice; to be shallow is. Simplicity can be overcome with patient instruction, but shallowness is rarely plumbed.
3. A woman who loves a man “save for his occupation” loves only the figment of her imagination imposed upon another being.
4. A father does well to mind the unnecessary praising of his daughter’s beauty and qualities by those who have set their hearts upon her social successes.
5. A man who must have the attention of any woman will lose, in the end, all hope of having the love of one.
6. Sin is entirely less satisfying 3 months in, as it was at the onset of deception.
7. How one speaks concerning good is less revealing of the inclinations of the heart than how one speaks concerning evil.
8. One illness in this life can do more to bend us straight than the innumerable blessings received.
9. In the end, what you most fear is less likely to happen than that which you never even considered a possibility. That’s why they are called “blind spots.”
10. There are far worse things in life (and the character of a man) than marrying your cousin.

12.1.09

Understanding “Crisis Applicants” and Evaluating our Institutional Responses to Them

“[S]he might soon learn…not owe
the most valuable knowledge we could any of us acquire—
the knowledge of ourselves and of our duty,
to the lessons of affliction…”
Jane Austin, Mansfield Park


Our perception of the number is that “economic downturns actually serve to increase enrollment” based loosely on the perception that a difficult or declining job market offers—in addition to limited employment opportunities—the opportunity to either pursue further training (careered individuals) or delay market-entry (recent graduates).

When this is the extent of our observation, we prepare to respond in this manner:
• “Yes, lots of people are enrolling in light of the economy and job market”
• Finding a job later may be easier with a higher degree of training as the economy improves.”
• “Investing in education now will pay off when the job market improves.”

I cannot help but wonder if our correlation is too narrow, effectively reducing stronger enrollment opportunities. And rather than a 1=1 ratio (down economy = higher enrollment), we should be asking what about a down economy (besides the obvious job market) may be factored into the equation.

Our current equation makes it a financial matter exclusively. But could it not also be an issue of stability or security or eternity? I think down markets should be viewed as one part of a greater category: crises. A down market (or may be) a crisis—and crises, more than comfort, challenge us to examine fundamental beliefs and values. Only as someone is faced with difficulty is he forced to answer questions which, in times of relative peace or prosperity, can be easily ignored or dismissed as irrelevant. Bernie Madoff could quip ambiguous responses to questions on his investment philosophy—when times were good. The failure of his hedge fund has forced him—and those working or invested with him—to answer questions long-neglected questions of life’s ultimate purpose, value and meaning—beyond financial stability, and subsequent public exposure.

Going to graduate school is one kind of response to a crisis. The billionaire, Thierry de la Villehuchet—who lost over $1.5 billion through Madoff—chose a different response: suicide. The benefit of viewing economic difficulties as but-one example of a type of situation (resulting in the pursuit of graduate school) is that we change the way we look at other recruitment opportunities.

Yes, the current financial and economic situation is a crisis, as were 9/11 and Katrina. But so were the recent UVA shooting of 2007, the floods in the Ohio River Valley in 2008, and the current impeachment of Illinois Gov Rob Blagovich, and so forth. The fruit of such crises is long in playing out—but the fruit of another crisis is daily lived out in the testimony and ministry of Chuck Coleson.

Every crisis offers an opportunity for some group of people, or individual person, to ask those lasting and eternal questions—the kind that result in decisions to pursue seminary.

We know crises play such a role in our lives. Post 9/11 saw a spike in church attendance unparalleled in recent decades. Though not a lasting response for some, many were converted in the days, weeks, and months immediately following that event. How will the effects of Katrina upon New Orleans eventually play out to break the back of witchcraft and dark spirituality in that community? (Which crisis event caused the radical change in the life of Anne Rice—from sexual and sadistic vampire novels, to those portraying the humanity and deity of Christ Jesus in her newest trilogy?)

The privacy of people often prevent us being aware of the individual crises that they are encountering—a rebellious child, a recent miscarriage, death of a close family member, a rocky marriage, or some kind of destructive pattern of addiction. Only as these are revealed can we offer the best kinds of responses. In this way, personal crises offer a limited opportunity to engage people with the deep questions of purpose and meaning.

Which is why our recruitment responses to a public crisis is so important. Community crises become a personal crisis for individuals with a direct exposure to the effects. Jews and Arabs alike, in my community, have responded differently to the current war between Israel and Hamas in the Gazs region—differently than each other, and differently than myself. We can graph this as follows:



Community crises become a personal crisis for individuals within a given segment based on a direct correlation. Our recruitment in the above situation would be concentrated on those individuals who are experiencing a community crisis on a personal level.

Another example would be to look at the effects of 9/11.



We can assume that all people in the World Trade Center faced a crisis moment during the 9/11 attacks—as did many (if not most of their family members), the residents of New York, the nation, and the world—to ever lessening degrees than those closer to the event.

In this event, it becomes more difficult to identify those individuals who were processing a public crisis in an individual manner. But the point is made—that as individuals process a public crisis, those individuals are in a place to “owe the most valuable knowledge we could any of us acquire—the knowledge of ourselves and of our duty, to the lessons of affliction…” (Jane Austin, Mansfield Park, 473).

Seeing financial or economic turmoil as a kind of crisis changes the types of responses we can have to “crisis applicants”—particularly for career transition people going to seminary:



What are the immediate changes we can implement in response to this reality?

Questions to Ask “Crisis Applicants”
• Good Question: Why are you thinking about seminary now?
• Better Question: Has there been an event in your life that has caused you to pursue seminary at this point?

• Good Question: Has the economy been a factor in your pursuing seminary at this point?
• Better Question: How has the current economic situation affected your decision to pursue seminary at this point?

Having a mission statement regarding crises is also helpful. Instead of assuming that the inquirer is considering seminary for financial reasons primarily, a statement reflects our broader appreciation of crises—as a seminary, observing not simply the external possible realities, but the internal spiritual reactions that take are either present or potential:

We believe that all crises—personal, familial, communal, national, environmental, economic, or global—are an opportunity for people and nations to ask fundamental questions about good and evil, and the purpose and meaning of life. Crises are also an opportunity for the church, as the body of Christ, to proclaim the Gospel of Salvation in Jesus Christ, in response. And we believe that—like Esther—God raises up ministers and messengers for such a time as this. Our commitment is to encourage and advise you in this time to help you discern your role and response in light of whatever current crisis caused you to consider seminary—so that you can answer to yourself, and those who ask: And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?(Esther 4:14)

The other benefit of this type of approach is that it broadens the opportunities for recruitment. Instead of seeing periods of economic instability as somehow unique recruitment opportunities—we can begin to see smaller and more localized crises as recruitment opportunities within key areas, regionally or within certain demographics.

In summary, we improve the quality of our response and the possibility for recruitment interaction through broadening our understanding of types of crises, and having approaches that address individuals along the spectrum of response—those transitioning because of the “lessons of affliction” more than just a weak job market.