Monday, November 24, 2014

Yashmak

(Poetry Scales 26)

In the spectrum
between burqas and bikinis,
where is that happy medium?
Either end makes of women
an object; on either
end you can’t
really see them.
When it comes to
conversation, parlance, or
interaction; desire or disturbance…
each amounts to distraction. The
coverage most flattering,
of cloth on a model
is neither inches
nor yards, but the
good taste in
the middle.

Neither property nor treasure is ever so pleasurable as a friend, a person, a being, a soul.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Too Many Cooks" by Rex Stout

I would consider myself a fan of Rex Stout and his detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Even though I have only worked my way through about one fourth of their cases in my 30+ years of reading. For one thing, they are hard to find on shelves, but they are also a pleasure I like to take and digest as opportunity presents. I have not actively sought out the full collection. Perhaps I should.

Following a suggestion from Eugene Peterson, I like to play with the idea of Nero Wolfe as a type for the church. I also simply love to read the stories and thoughts in Archie’s words. If I were to make a list of my favorite sleuths in fiction, Archie Goodwin is sure to be very near the top.

At first, “Too Many Cooks” is a bit uncomfortable to a modern reader. Written in the thirties and taking place in the “high society” of West Virginia, it presents an unpalatable picture of race relations. However, one quickly realizes that Wolfe and Goodwin are not a part of that picture. They are men of their time and culture, but ahead of their time in their attitudes about race. Wolfe expresses an attitude outside of the setting, when addressing a room full of black men.

“The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing that ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them.”

What is even more forward thinking is the context of that statement. Wolfe is calling a room of witnesses whom he thinks are biting their tongues to protect a fellow black man racists. Subsequent American history is full of such racist examples on both sides of the divide.

Bits of insight are aplenty. Addressing a “certain type” of woman, the kind who uses men or more precisely her sex to advance her state in life, Wolfe offers the following brilliant run-on sentence:

“Nature plainly intends that a man should nourish a woman, and a woman a man, physically and spiritually, but there is no nourishment in you for anybody; the vapor that comes from you, from your eyes, your lips, your soft skin, your contours, your movements, is not beneficent but malignant.”

Another wonderful idea that fits well with the game of using Wolfe to represent the church, is the following ideal:

“I wouldn't use physical violence even if I could, because one of my romantic ideas is that physical violence is beneath the dignity of a man, and that whatever you get by physical aggression costs more than it is worth.”

Philosophy and intelligent ideas aside, “Too Many Cooks” is also a great closed-room-mystery. Check it out!

Friday, November 21, 2014

"Bryant and May on the Loose" by Christopher Fowler

“On the Loose” finds Bryant and May directionless, having been fired after a previous case. The narrative feels a little disjointed as well. And, even when another case surfaces and they are called back in for one more effort, things are a little hard to keep straight. Perhaps that is the way murder investigations are in real life, but novels demand a little more order. Here we are not even sure who has been killed, and at one point it feels like they have two copies of the same body. Characters abound, and for some reason I had a lot of trouble remembering who was who.

All that said, it is clearly another case in the very well defined and consistent Bryant and May universe. We have a mystery whose solution is somehow stumbled upon by our heroes, seemingly in spite of themselves. As always it has to be chalked up to Bryant’s intuition. And, as always, it is arrived at whilst he is chasing fringe theories and arcane histories. Because in this world, culture and events are tightly intertwined with their locations and histories.

London’s King’s Cross district is apparently just a Christian veneer laid over the oldest pagan site on the island, and that somehow drives a murderer to replicate ancient sacrifices that were practiced there, not intentionally but coincidentally. Our detectives chase several red herrings and outright mistaken theories until the solution is stumbled upon, but in the end we will get another novel with the same villain.

Hopefully that spoiler doesn’t ruin the book, but quite honestly it is the first of this series that I am not recommending, so maybe it doesn’t matter. The other ones I have read are much better and I would suggest checking them out. Here, here, and here.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Comfortable Crusading

Last week a bunch of people were sharing the heart-warming story of a man who had developed a font designed to help dyslexic people read. The idea was inspiring. People wanted to get the word out. More people need to find and use this tool to help. Or do they? A little more digging reveals that the font has been around for several years. Long enough to be tested. It turns out that the font is no better for dyslexic readers than other ones.

But what really matters, the results or the intentions?

In today’s culture we definitely trend towards intentions over tangible results. People want ideas that feel good and that can be sold. We avoid hard problems or tricky solutions.

In another do-good-the-easy-way front, today in Dresden there is a protest against the opening of a new clothing store. People are protesting against sub-standard, inhumane working conditions. They want more fair trade and better conditions for workers in Asia. However, simple, slight investigations into the company reveal that—while there are problems across the board in the clothing industry—the chain they are protesting is one of the ones that is trying to do something to change things. Not only that, but a lot of the accusations against them have been demonstrably falsified.

The real problem is that the protestors want to effect change, but are choosing the easy way out. They are piggybacking on the publicity the store is generating to advance their cause. All the while other, more egregious chains already operate in town. The chances these protestors will impact the multinational company with their spectacle are minute, but local families will be hurt.

It is just another example of crusading in the modern, technological age. We have too much information but not enough willingness to vet it. We have too great an ability to broadcast our voice, but are not willing enough to invest the energy to say the right things.

Too much intention and too little concern for real impact.

Monday, November 17, 2014

An Aside on the Mocking, Rejecting, Domineering Impulse (Mark 15:16-32)

In more of an aside than a direct commentary to this passage, one is struck by the humanity—the negative aspect of humanity—that is clear in this story. As Christ goes to the cross to die and achieve the salvation of sinful mankind, He is scorned, mocked, beaten and rejected at every turn. And as much as we want to stand in condemnation of those soldiers, leaders, and criminals; we recognize a nit of ourselves in them.

On the one hand, people can be terrible. There is an element of sadism in humanity—a little bit in all of us individually, and a portion of society that is driven by it. In Roman culture one could see the more sadistic types gravitating towards being soldiers. But it is not just the professional thugs and killers in action here. Jewish leaders do their part.

Leadership and power is where we most clearly see this aspect of sin nature. Even today, even in the church, we embrace this idea of “strong leadership.” The Roman government could not tolerate any sedition—even from someone as seemingly insignificant as the Nazarene and His band of followers. Combine that need for a “show of strength” and the sadistic tendencies of the men in charge, and you get the scene that is here recorded. And the religious leaders of Israel were no better. They saw their herds of followers being drawn away by Jesus’ teaching and they conspired to get Him not just silenced or disqualified, but killed.

Jesus teaches another form of leadership. Service and sacrifice. Sadly the forms and models of “strong” church today do not follow His example. Today the strong, CEO model of celebrity Pastor is raised up as the type to imitate. This whole line of thought has been a bit of a leap, admittedly, but as an aside it does expose the trend.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Season 7b)


"Once More Unto the Breach"--Season 7c

Overall the episodes in the last season of DS9 are not getting the higher ratings I was giving to episodes in the 5th and 6th seasons, but some of the topics being addressed are as if not more interesting. The religious and political intrigue and the conflict on a galactic scale are definitely all things outside of the original, Secular Humanistic, utopian vision that Roddenberry had for Trek, but they are far more compelling and honest stories.

Episode 8 “The Siege of AR-558” 

This portion of the season is book-ended with two stories dealing with the darker (as if there was a lighter) side of war. Here we see a troop who have been trapped on an assignment far longer than regulations allow, but then again this is war and things rarely proceed according to rule. Sisko has been struggling with command—namely that his decisions cost individual lives—and decides that he will help this unit get the job done. In the end many more die, and Nog loses a leg, but Sisko’s is more in tune with his feelings, so…

Episode 9“Covenant” 

This is a pretty good telling of the cult tragedy story. Our big, bad enemy that we all love to hate descends to even lower lows. But the real meat in this episode is the questions it raises and the truths it reveals about faith, both the negative and the positive. This story exposes the danger of believing in untruth without going so far as to say all faith is naïve. A conversation at the beginning between Kira, Odo, and a few others actually has a lot of insight. Faith proceeds seeing, and when that faith rests on truth it can truly change the world.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Shake It Off"

Not a fan, but more of an appreciator. That is how I would describe my attitude towards Taylor Swift. In her early days, I really liked her fresh, insightful look at life that ran contrary to the usual teen-girl-silly-ness. And her current shift to pop is not a big leap. It isn’t as if country—especially female country—has been anything other than pop for years.

But you have to admit, the little gossipy “news” you hear about her now and then paints a different picture from the insight her lyrics delivered on her first couple of albums. And “Red” seemed to reinforce things. Then, “1989” began to slip into public consciousness and “Shake It Off” became an instant success.

The music is catchy, but almost too sugary. And that break-down near the end is almost unlistenable. BUT, then you watch the video…

That is what won me over. The playful way she makes fun of herself and the public persona that has developed around her. The way she is able to look silly trying to dance with all those gifted professionals, but come off as having fun and not taking things seriously. And the end where the message of the song is embodied in people of all stripes simply relishing the fun of not caring what anyone thinks.

It is another great song for Swifts audience of teens and young adults.

(Enjoy the original "Shake It Off" below:)


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Xenophobia

(Poetry Scales 25)

We often confuse…
     exchange… hatred and fear,
“I hate flying…
     needles… Easter bunnies… doll eyes…”
When it comes to the unknown
     or more precisely the different
a better label for our reaction
     would be… terrified.

Don’t be a child
     stomping life out of lizards.
When it comes to the other,
     even dangerous, or awry:
Tolerate, resist, learn,
     befriend, beg to differ,
But to live in fear…
     Hate is simple… and unwise.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Doctor Who 8.12 "Death in Heaven"

The satisfactory eighth/34th season of Who came to a satisfactory end. The Doctor was great, the companion was good, the stories were OK. There were some problems with “Death in Heaven” like U.N.I.T. brought in just to be wasted and the Brigadier’s problematic cameo. However, there were two ideas/messages that were brilliant.

First, the beautiful truth that love is not an emotion. When Danny appears as a Cyberman and Clara wants to help him the Doctor is panicked. The only thing keeping Danny from killing her are his emotions. R so the Doctor (and the audience) assume. But it is his love that holds Danny back and that does not die when his emotions are eradicated because love is not a feeling but a choice. Or, as the episode phrases it, a promise. Wonderful.

Then there is the idea that the show has been exploring all season long. Is the Doctor a good man? Actually it has been a concern of the show for most of Moffatt’s run as show runner. He has been struggling with the liberal quandary that the Doctor must be a bad man because he has convictions. He believes in a truth and in right and wrong and that is a problem for postmodern thinking. Absolutes are only for narrow minded people like Hitler and George Bush. If the Doctor has absolute ideas like good and evil, he must be evil, right?

Even the Doctor begins to fall into this illogical trap. But in “Death in Heaven” he realizes the flaw in logic. He is not a soldier, a dictatorial figure, nor a bad man. He is simply a traveler that helps people out along the way. There are such things as good and evil and it is not “narrow minded” to encourage the former and oppose the later.

Again, wonderful.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Leipzig Quarter Century On

It must have been amazing to live through the fall of the Berlin Wall. Without actually having to go through life before the fall. It was easily one of the most important, historic, momentous events of the past 50 years. The world changed in a single night. Actually, it had been changing for a while—everything just came to a head that night when the authoritarian, dictatorial system caved in upon itself.

In East Germany, people had been fed up forever. But, instead of rising up to take their freedom, they peacefully met to pray and protest. Looking back now they see the greatness of their accomplishment, but one wonders if they really grasp what they did. They are so thankful for the freedom to travel. Other freedoms tend to be overlooked—or not considered because they weren’t necessarily grasped.

This is a part of the world that has seen drastic changes in worldview and ideologies. On October 31st, thirty minutes from Leipzig Luther posted a notice on the church door that rocked Western Culture for nearly five hundred years and counting. On the same day that the Wall fell—just 51 years earlier—Hitler had all Jewish buildings across Germany sacked and destroyed. So, the shift from communism to capitalism hardly raised an eyebrow.

In the 25 years since the fall people have simultaneously enjoyed the benefits of economic freedom while lamenting the loss of “securities” that communism provided. One thing they don’t miss is the assurance of assurance. They don’t believe any understanding of the world anymore. They have given up on ideology, which may be a good thing accept that along with that baby they’ve tossed out any hope of truth as well.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Doctor Who 8.11 "Dark Water"

It is a shame that pictures of the production for “Dark Water” were leaked months ago. A large part of the appeal of Doctor Who, especially where classic monster appearances occur, is in the surprise. “Earthshock” is a classic example. Cybermen especially benefit from this surprise element. While they are an interesting concept, they are also a bit of a single issue concept. How many times can that issue be explored compellingly?

But, that is merely the initial impression level to “Dark Water.” There are actually a number of other fascinating moments and ideas here. It is likely that this will be the more interesting of the two parts, assuming part two is mere action and evil bashing. This part has more to consider. For starters:

The idea of an after-life. This is something Doctor Who has shied away from, being a materialistic, science fiction program. Even here we have a “cheat” of sorts. We are not seeing the Doctor Who version of heaven or hell, but rather a “Time Lord technology” being employed in a dastardly scheme to conquer the Earth. Even so a few ideas emerge. The whole parable of the fetus idea of life and thinking that death is the end for one.

In the nether-sphere, we see a sinister take on the “every tear is wiped away” idea. Some think heaven will be a place where no one is sad. I think a more interesting take is one where heavenly comfort overcomes sad emotions.

And that whole idea of the Master—or the Doctor maybe someday—being a woman. I understand that it is seen by some as some feminist victory. However, to me it may be more of a betrayal of gender. Is it wrong to see gender as special and character defining in some way? Are there not characters—female characters—that would lose something of their essence by becoming male?

My favorite moment in the whole episode—perhaps the whole season—is the confrontation between Clara and the Doctor in the volcano. I’ll likely re-watch that scene multiple times in the years to come.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Doctor Who 8.10 "In the Forest of the Night"

The Twelfth Doctor has not been well served in his first run. Peter Capaldi has been a great Doctor so far, but the stories have been only so-so. Until last Saturday, that is. “In the Forest of the Night” was a big disappointment.

This was the occasional but inevitable environmental-message-seemingly-written-by-a-third-grader episode. Nothing makes sense and everything is simply filler for the last minute revelation that “the trees are magic and want to save us oh why can’t we treat them better!” Inexplicably, even the missing sister is inexplicably returned by the trees.

One must hope that the two-part finale delivers on all the hype the series has been setting up. Sometimes it has been the only thing bringing us back each week. And Capaldi deserves better.


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