Sunday, August 31, 2003

revolve

Remember discussion about the TNIV and whether it was worthwhile? As makeovers of the Bible go, that was mild. Check out Revolve!

I've been giving this way more thought than it deserves, and what it's boiling down to for me is the question of whether this is marketing or presentation.
I'm all for presenting timeless truths in a ways that can be understood by each generation. That's why I prefer churches that use contemporary services, with modern music, dramas, video clips and so on. They're using popular artistic expressions as a way to engage the people of their target generation with the gospel. In a good church that practices these things, the substance is rich, the meaning is real, and the timeless stories the Bible contains about jealousy, fratricide, love, sacrifice, resentment and betrayal, and most of all redemption gain new resonance with an audience that might never hear or understand these things otherwise.

Without a doubt we could do some things to present the Bible better.

The problem for me is when we come into marketing. Marketing is generally as phony as a three-dollar bill and, when done this way, has about as much currency with Gen X as that bill. (I'll let members of Gen Y and subsequent generations say for certain what works for them.)

We're past the point with our culture that celebrity endorsements and attractive faces will sell Bibles. That comes across as pure hokum because everybody knows the Bible isn't cool. About the only people who are going to buy these Bibles are Christian teens who want to be be cool within Christian circles. Maybe my imagination is too small, but I don't see this topping bestseller lists.

Marketing like this, while it is well intentioned, is not the way Christ models for us to draw people to God. He also met people where they were at, but in a decidedly personal, nonmarketing way. He never acted cool, and when you get down to it, the gospel is as fundamentally uncool as you can get. It tells us things like this: "Sell all you have and give it to the poor, and then follow me." Or: "If you have two cloaks, give to the one who has none." Or: "Don't resist an evil person; if he sues you for your tunic, give him your shirt also; and if he strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer him your other one also."

It's about not trying to control everything that comes your way, and accepting that some really unfair sh*t happens from time to time.

Last year around this time, you may recall I was in a pretty desparate situation. My son -- I still think of him that way, even though he wasn't born to me -- was about to be taken away from me and returned to the people who he had been born to.

A well-connected politician who knew the situation offered to intervene. Although he couldn't guarantee anything, he seemed to feel it was pretty certain that if he were to step in, Isaac would not return to his biological parents. Other colleagues of mine had ideas on how I could use media leverage or other connections to stop Isaac from heading back into an abusively neglectful situation.

Would Isaac have stayed if I had put up a legal fight and let the politicians who offered to do something to keep him here? Maybe. And you could even argue that I would have been saving him from the heartache of what's happened to him since, not to mention the grief it caused Evangeline when he moved out.

That's not the way of the Cross, though. The way Christ teaches and models for us lies not in fighting tooth and nail to protect our rights or to keep others from hurting us, but in going to the Father in prayer, and sometimes in just dying.

That's a religion for TOTAL LOSERS. Oddly enough, when we make that our practice, that does a lot more to draw people in than marketing the Bible and its inner beauty strategies probably ever will.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

growing in contentment

As I write this, my 33rd birthday slowly but surely is slipping further and further into the past.

Thirty-three doesn't seem like a particularly significant milestone. For one thing, it lacks that ending zero we usually associate with landmark ages and anniversaries. Additionally, while it's too far up to be considered truly young, it's also shy of what we generally consider middle-age, and nowhere near old.

Still, it's definitely something. When he died at the age of 33, Alexander the Great had conquered most of the ancient world, spreading the Greek language across three continents and seeding civilizations from Egypt to India with pockets of Hellenistic thought.

By the time of his death in 323 B.C., Alexander the Great had lain the foundations for what eventually would become modern Western civilization. In contrast, I'm the managing editor of two weekly newspapers and like to make fun of inspirational e-mail. Somehow, that just doesn't seem all that impressive by comparison.

Three years ago, when I turned 30, I made an ironic list of ways I would live m life differently if I were given the chance. Two of my favorite regrets were that I had tried to do something self-fulfilling rather than making millions of dollars, and that I had engaged immediately in trying to make the world a better place rather than saving such altruism for my retirement years.

Three years later, I'm still not very close to making it big. As any career journalist will admit, this is not a profession that pays especially well. The salary is hard to quantify, but it's somewhere between "diddly" and "squat." Nor do I see this as likely to change, since by my nature I don't seek jobs where the principal reward is pecuniary.

The truth is that I know what my future will bring. In the next 40 or 50 years, assuming I live that long, I'll probably enjoy moderate success as a writer. I'll write and publish a few books, possibly tour a little bit to promote them, and then I'll die. Within a few years, no one aside from family members and a few close friends will remember me.

I not only know that, I'm content with it. At the moment, the chief joys in my life are my wife, Natasha, and our two daughters, Evangeline and Rachel. They are more important to me than any career ever could, and the time I spend with them is more exciting than any news story, no matter how hard-hitting or exclusive it is.

Evangeline is almost 4, and the evenings I spend with her are the highlights of my work week. They're a nonstop whirlwind of playing hide-and-seek, holding ticklefests and all-around commotion before we settle down for a bowl of ice cream, stories and bedtime.

On weekends, whatever we can do together, we do. She has helped me to do everything from baking cookies, to turning compost and opening presents for Christmas.

Rachel is just shy of her 10-month mark. She lightens the load on my shoulders as soon as I come in the front door and she greets me with her wide, grinning toothlessness. One of the great joys of being a father is to watch her grow, as she slowly unfolds her language skills and takes her first, tottering steps into the world

History tells us that Alexander the Great built one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. Ruling the ancient world without descending into the barbarism other emperors were known for, he united the city-states of Greece before conquering Turkey and Phoenicia, subduing Egypt and building an empire that reached as far east as India.

That's impressive, but what we often forget is that when Alexander the Great died among the ziggurats of Babylon, it was after a night of carousing. He had conquered the entire world, and found it to be a desolate and empty thing because there were no challenges left. He died in despair.

In many ways, he's a great prototype for today's professional. Many men, including my own father, lament that they spent too much time at the office and missed the best years of their lives with their children. I hope one day to quip that I spent all my time with my family and missed the best days of my career.

That would be a good life.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

no time for glibness

One of the observations that struck me when I read a friend's journal, as I shared with my wife today, is that Christians often make glib or overquick statements concerning homosexuality and how thoughtless we are when we do that.

My friend presented two of those on her site, the "Homosexuality is an abomination before the Lord; yea, gays and lesbians are pimples upon his face, and he shall pop them" view, and the "Well, it's a sin, but it's no worse than any other sin" attitude.

The first, while it neatly sums up the traditional view of homosexuality, fails to do anything but rudely say "I disapprove of you and what you do and so does God" while the other dismissively equates a very basic and driving part of a person's nature -- their sexuality -- with practices and behaviors that are less deeply rooted in who a person is, such as a person's inclination to fib on their taxes or a disrespect for authority. Those latter things, and other practices like them, while they may be deeply ingrained in a person and difficult at times to deal with are nowhere near as fundamental to a person's psyche as their sexuality.

In each case, the response indicates a failure to connect with another person as another person, to see their inherent worth and to love them in the true, personal sense that Christ calls us to. It made me stop and wonder how I had treated my friend, and whether I had shown her the same unconditional love Christ has, or if I had treated her as less than a person in herself, and just as a gay Christian (as though that were all she is) or if I had treated her in either manner so described, or in some other way that I haven't described yet.

And that of course inspires any number of other thoughts, including the oft-stated observation that Christianity is a very simple religion to "get" -- that accepting Christ's death on our behalf reconciles us to God -- but also one that is impossibly hard to follow in truth. This whole idea of loving other people and being part of a community is just impossible to get.

Monday, August 25, 2003

mad over 'crazy'

Back in the 1970s, Marvel Comics published a magazine called "Crazy" that was more or less its response to MAD Magazine, which is published by arch-rival DC Comics. I only ever saw one issue of "Crazy"; ironically, it was the final issue. It was amazingly clever, much funnier than I recall "Cracked" or "Mad" ever being.

The issue started off with the secret origin of Caspar the Friendly Ghost. In it, Caspar reveals to Wendy the Witch that his father killed both Caspar and Caspar's mother -- stabbed them to death, as I recall -- and told police that a madman had done it, so he could collect on their life insurance policies. Wendy and Caspar proceed to attack Caspar's father, who is living it up on the insurance money. He crashes his fancy car into a tree, and then Caspar kills him pretty gruesomely. Not a very pleasant story, but it was done so over-the-top and with the same innocent, clean style of illustration as the old Harvey Comics that I'm laughing just remembering it.

One of the other features was a rip-off on the Smurfs, featuring such standbys as Weak-Bladder Smurf. "Papa Smurf has to take a bath because I smurfed on him!" he proudly declares, which remains my all-time favorite smurf line.

Then there was a spoof they did of some of the old Avengers comics around the time of the Kree-Skrull War back in the early 1970s. As I recall, the story was that the Skrulls had kidnapped a cow that the Vision had fallen in love with. Great send-up of the Avengers, with the original artwork intact:

"That's it, Captain America! Throw away your shield -- your only means of defending yourself against these far more powerful bad guys."

"Just don't think of pulling these ridiculously long and exposed cables that obviously supply our power."

"Are you going to hit them with your repulsor rays?"
"Nah, I'm just going to skate around in a silly pose."

And the closing feature was the battle of Captain Contradiction and the Evil Gainsayer: "I almost got you there." "No you didn't." "Yes I did." "No you didn't."

And so on. Ah, good old Crazy. Too bad I found out about it at the very end of its existence. I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

pet food to eat

My mother once made my Aunt Julie some tuna sandwiches using a tin of cat food, back when they were much younger. From what I'm told, my aunt thought the sandwiches were great until she discovered why my mother kept laughing.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

journey to compassion

I have a friend this week who came out of a closet she's lived in for the past few years.

Jane -- that's not her real name, which I won't use for obvious reasons -- is 18 years old. She's come to realize over the course of her high school career that she's a Little Bit Different from her friends. She's gay.

Unfortunately for Jane, her parents found out before she was ready to tell them. Her mother spent most of the next few days crying, the entire family went to see a psychiatrist, and everyone in the family forgot how to laugh. All told, it sounds like a fairly miserable experience.

I've never actually met Jane in person. I know her through an online humor forum created and maintained by a mutual friend, but when I learned what was happening, my reaction was the same as if she attended my church or lived down the street from me.

All day Monday and Tuesday, she was on my mind as I alternately prayed for her and her family, and tried to dig up resources that they could use, such as contact information for chapters of Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays in her area.

That's actually a fairly major departure from how I would have reacted a few years ago. Although my moral views on homosexuality have remained largely unchanged in the past 10-odd years, my attitude toward gays and lesbians themselves has undergone a steady migration from homophobia to tolerance.

Homophobia is a funny word to use. It's certainly not a term I would have used to apply to myself back in college. After all, as a devout Christian since a conversion experience when I was almost 18, I recognized a need to "hate the sin and love the sinner," a popular cliche in evangelical circles often used to provide a safe cover for not loving people regarded as sinners.

It's a common thing in evangelical circles to view homosexuality with hostility. You hear all sorts of comments about "the homosexual agenda," along with arguments that the growing acceptance of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle will lead to the deterioration of the family as an institution and to the destruction of society as a whole.

The basis for all this invective is found in about six or seven places in the Bible, including one verse in Leviticus that actually prescribes the death penalty for gay sex, a penalty also prescribed for adultery.

Elsewhere, in the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul mentions homosexuality in a fairly comprehensive list of human behavior that also includes sins like gluttony, rage, drunkenness, greediness, malicious speech and other offenses.

Mix these Scriptures with a pervading sense of fear that the bad guys are winning and society slowly is being subverted, and it's easy to see why many otherwise decent people latch onto the growing acceptance of the gay lifestyle as one of the root causes for all that's wrong with the world today.

I'm sorry to say that I bought into it. While I professed to care about all people, including gays and lesbians, the truth probably is that I came across as more concerned that people know how I felt about what they were doing than about how I felt about them -- which means, of course, that they really didn't mean that much to me at all, however much I protested otherwise.

Things started to change my junior year when a friend of mine lent me Tony Campolo's book "20 Hot Potatoes Christians are Afraid to Touch." A fairly well-respected voice in the evangelical community, at least among college students, Campolo made the radical claim that gays and lesbians have the same inherent worth as their heterosexual relatives.

What's more, he gave practical examples of people who behaved in a way in keeping with the uncompromising love Christians claim to uphold as their model: a minister who officiated at the funeral of a gay man who had died from AIDS complications and stayed afterward for two hours, comforting the companions of the deceased; and a church that gave several thousand dollars to help AIDS victims.

My senior year the AIDS quilt came to Lackawanna College. Other members of the campus Christian fellowship stayed away, concerned they might send the wrong message, that they approved of homosexuality.

I not only went and looked at all the quilts, I volunteered to help read the names of those who had died.

That might not seem like much, but it was a beginning. During the next five years as my faith deepened, I had to ask myself hard questions about what it means when Christ calls his followers to love friends, enemies and strangers alike; and about what St. James means when he writes that faith expressed only as words is no faith at all.

I also had to look into the darkness of my own soul and consider honestly whether my own sins were any more acceptable to God than somebody else's.

In November 1997, I took a position as a reporter for The Princeton Packet just after one of my co-workers there had told her parents that she was a lesbian. Heather was a hard-working, professional, no-nonsense type of reporter. She reported things as they happened, called them as she saw them, and wasn't afraid to ask public officials tough questions, or to stand up to them.

About six or seven months later, another co-worker told me that he was bisexual. Like Heather, Bill is about as non-threatening as people come, and his high-octane personality and sense of humor make him a lot of fun to work with.

Neither of them is an evil or malicious person, nor is any other homosexual I've had the good fortune to know in the years since, either professionally or privately. The whole of the "agenda" I ever heard any of them pursue was nothing more sinister than getting the same respect, opportunities and treatment as their straight colleagues and co-workers.

That doesn't sound very awful to me. To be honest, I'm really not sure why I ever thought it did.

Friday, August 15, 2003

power outage

I was at work when the power went out, and when we realized that it was a widespread thing -- that a bunch of places lost power all at once -- the question a number of us immediately asked was, "Is it terrorism?"

The answer, thankfully, is no, but on my way home, a number of radio commentators were remarking at the eerie similarity to two years ago at the number of people who were having to hoof it out of New York, and the panic that was being spotted in some corners because of the assumption we were under attack again.

It was especially bad in this area because they just arrested the arms dealer in Newark who was planning to sell about 50 surface-to-air missile launchers to terrorists here in the U.S.

I just read on ABC News that the power is coming on in most places, although there may be some residents who won't have power until some time this weekend. It's still not clear exactly what caused it; reports of a fire or lightning strike at the Niagara falls generator plant have been discounted.

All things considered, it's not that bad. There's been some looting in places, and probably some aggravated medical conditions and even a few deaths because of the blackout, but it could have been a lot worse.

Don't worry about us. We're fine. (Well, I'm wide awake at 5:50 a.m. because Rachel woke me up four hours ago, but otherwise, things are good.)

tower of babel

Back when I was teaching English, I was looking for a way to integrate my lessons better with the gospel, to find a more holistic approach than the cheap tack-ons that most Christian schools use in the curricula.

It occurred to me at one point that language is what makes us fundamentally stamped in God's image. John describes Christ as Logos, the divine Word with the power of creation and the authority to give reality form.

In other words, as with God, language isn't something we do, it's what we are. Because I'm primarily an English speaker, I have any number of preconceptions about love, God, faith, sin, the weather and time stamped into my mind. It's a tremendous exercise for me to break away from the definitions we have of those concepts in English and imagine them as they are presented in a non-English language.

We could take the word "god" for example. There's no real analog to that word in Hindi, so we substitute "Brahma" because that's the closest thing, but it's still a poor choice. In Hindi, "Brahma" is the sum of all things; God as an individual entity does not exist, but is found in and through all the world. Similarly, our concept of "sin" fails to find an adequate corresponding term in Hindi, where their term for "sin" refers to breaking the caste order.

Because I'm an English speaker, I also have a difficult time understanding why Spanish has estar and ser. Both infinitives translate as "to be," although with different applications. A Spanish speaker has no problem getting the difference, and can't understand why we use "to be" as a catch-all for both ser and estar.

It strikes me that what God was doing at the Tower of Babel essentially was breaking humanity up into different ethno-linguistic groups, each with a different way of relating to him so that we could learn from another to appreciate and worship him in new and different ways. It also had the effect of breaking up the spread of our sin, since ideas now must be translated from one language to the next and we cannot all rebel together as in the days of Nimrod.

Of course, it also makes it more difficult for us to understand one another, since the curse wasn't a one-time event, but something new that was levied on the human condition so that our languages always are changing and mutating, and even within our own language we lose some degree of discourse with the past as words like gandermooning disappear and other words, like let, take on completely different, if not opposite, meanings from what they once had.

the power of images

Interesting paper.

I agree with the points he's made -- and I hope some people in Hollywood read it. One of the chiefest strengths of the paper is on how the archetype is diminished once we have an image of it.

That is, I think, one of the chief failings of cinema in our age. It's not enough to let us imagine the horrible scene, we have to see it in gory detail, whether it be murder victims in movies like "Se7en," rape victims in "The General's Daughter" or what have you. The monster that we cannot see is much more terrifying than the one that we do; the crime scene that goes unshown can be far more unsettling than the one shown in full-color. Good directors understand this; more studios need to as well.

The balrog in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" that Mallinson mentions is an excellent illustration of that. The echo of its approaching footsteps sets everybody on edge, but when it appears, it's like watching a video game.

Theologian Jacques Ellul wrote a fascinating book called "The Humiliation of the Word" -- I imagine its actual title is more like "L'Humiliation de le Parole," but I bought it in translation -- that examines the role of images in Scripture.

His essential thesis is that God proscribes images much for the same reason describes in the essay: It reduces the divine to the level of the profane, and strips it of its power. An old man with a long beard sitting on a chair in the clouds is nowhere near as awe-inspiring or unsettling as an encounter with the numinous; what's more, it decreases our dependence upon God to be with us in the now.

God's spoken word is what shaped the mountains and can shatter the foundations of the earth. Written down, while still True in the best sense of the word, it can become a snare to us because we get locked into the surface of it without understanding the full import of what it says. (Such as those Christians who refuse to have Christmas trees because they believe Jeremiah spoke against them.)

Take that degradation one step further -- print the verse under the picture of a Christmas tree -- and the meaning becomes even more fixed in the minds of those who see it, to the extent that it becomes increasingly difficult to read the verse or hear it and understand that Jeremiah was referring to idolatry, without at least thinking of Christmas trees.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

pidgin bible

Wycliffe has finally translated the Bible into Hawaiian Pidgin!
"God wen get so plenny love an aloha fo da peopo inside da world, dat he wen send me, his one an ony Boy, so dat everybody dat trus me no get cut off from God, but get da kine life dat stay to da max foeva." (John Tell Bout Jesus 3:16)


I guess I'd have to say I'm in favor of it, but part of me has a negative reaction to it, as though the pidgin should be considered poor English rather than a language in its own right.
If the pidgin is regarded as its own language -- a shaky determination with pidgins, which usually don't have their own written literature, a codified lexicon, or even status as the sole or primary language to a group of people -- then it makes sense to treat pidgin speakers as a separate people group.

Otherwise, aren't we just elevating poor grammar and language skills to the level of the standard forms? Where then do we draw a line for what makes good or bad English?

The point one of the translators makes about the koine Greek scriptures is a good one. The gospel wasn't entrusted first to the well-educated and established members of Roman society, but to the cast-offs who spoke a pretty mangled form of Greek.

The difference I suppose is that koine was a universal second language throughout the ancient world, much like English is today, and pidgin languages usually are small subsets of a larger language family that pidgin speakers already are familiar with and deal with on a regular basis.

In Haiti, only the wealthy 10 percent speak French, and the 90 percent who speak only Kreyol aren't going to understand French properly if it bites them in the tucish, as it sometimes does. Kreyol is the language that defines their culture and their world.

Is that the case for the pidgin English they're talking about in Hawaii? Beats me, but I suppose it can't hurt to have the Bible in any language -- even a pidgin language -- if it opens doors to more people finding Christ. It's not likely to do that, though, if the language hasn't got a more or less codified and universally accepted lexicon, though.

kiddie songs

So Evangeline, Rachel and I are in the car headed out to get some dog food for the dog. I convince Evangeline it would be nice to sing a song during the trip. After fishing around for a few moments, she decided to sing "Row Row Row Your Boat":
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the street.
Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary,
Once upon a dream.
Around this time last year, "Ring around the Rosie" was:
Ring around rosies!
Pockies, posies!
Washes, washes,
All fall down!
Cows in meadows,
Buttercups!
Thunder! Wipies!
All stand up!

And of course, the very first song she ever sang went like this:
Silent night, hose.
All's calm. All's bright.
Yine verse mommy
Sleep.
Silent night, hose.
Sheps quake at sight.
Kids are great.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

clover

The best way I understand to eliminate clover is through an early-spring application of corn gluten. A natural and biodegradable byproduct of corn processing, corn gluten acts as a new-growth inhibitor that stops seeds from germinating. Over a period of about a month, it biodegrades into nitrates that will fertilize your lawn. It has absolutely no deleterious effects on the lawn, the worms or the other beneficials that live in the lawn, nor upon plants with established root systems. You apply it in early spring, when your first flowers start to bloom, about six weeks before last frost.

Six weeks after you apply the corn gluten, overseed your lawn. The new grass plants will gobble up the space left by the weeds and will make it difficult for new weeds to get established later in the year. In the space of a few growing seasons, the yard should be virtually completely free of not only clover but other weeds as well.

I'm generally content to let my clover be since it aids the biodiversity of the lawn and adds nitrates to the soil.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

product placement

Thinking about the proliferation of product placement in movies and such. When did it become so standard and prolific?

To be honest, it's only a problem when it gets really jarring, like when Legolas kept going on about how he find Irish Spring leaves him cleaner than three other leading brands, or when Sam told Frodo what he always does for hemorhoidal itch.

At times, it can get downright clever. The ten minutes of "Repo Man" that I actually stayed awake for and remember were amusing because every single product they showed was generic -- and I mean generic, with the black and white label that said simply beer, cola, or potted meat product.

About 30 years ago, it was the custom at Marvel Comics to run a one-page ad featuring one of their superheroes who would be hard-pressed to defeat the villain until he pulled out the Hostess Twinkies. The criminals would be unable to resist the spongecake and cream filling, and actually wouldn't mind being taken away by the police. Once, Captain Mar-vell even used Twinkies to prevent a Kree invasion of the Earth.

During the infamous Assistant Editor's Month of the mid-1980s, an issue of Marvel Team-Up featured Galactus as the villain who was threatening to devour the Earth. He was stopped by Aunt May, who gave him a bunch of Grosstest Twinkles. It had to be one of the funniest Marvel Team-Ups I've ever read, complete with lines like, "These Twinkles possess surprising amounts of energy!"

Saturday, August 09, 2003

waltzing matilda

So my daughter has this song on one of her children's CDs, and for some reason it makes me think of Australia:
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled,
"Who'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me?"
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda!
Who'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me?
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled,
"Who'll come waltzing Matilda with me?"

Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong,
Up jumped the swag man and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he watched and waitied til his billy boiled,
"You'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me."

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda!
You'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me.
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled,
"You'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me."

Up rode the squatter mounted on his thoroughbred,
Down came troopers! one, two, three!
"Now where's that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag?
You'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me."

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda!
You'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me.
"Now where's that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag?
You'll come a waltzing Matilda with me."

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
"You'll never catch me alive," said he.
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by the billabong,
"You'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me."

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda!
You'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me.
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by the billabong,
"You'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me."


Okay, after checking the dictionary thoroughly, I think I'm getting the hang of it:
swagman: an itinerant worker, like an "okie" here in the States
tuckerbag: where he keeps his food
jumbuck: a sheep
billabong: a (mostly) dried-up river
billy: tea kettle

So if I'm reading this aright, it's a folk song about an itinerant worker who was killed while "resisting arrest" for stealing a sheep. In essence, a form of protest over the gentility -- the "squatter" who claims to own public land -- and police brutality. (Three troopers to arrest one man?)

If I understand correctly, the squatter usually was an absent landlord, someone who might never have seen the land or sheep in question. While that doesn't undercut the legality of the ownership, it does make the contempt for the landowners more understandable, much like the laborers in California resented the corporate farm owners they had to deal with, like in "The Grapes of Wrath."

It gets even more interesting. (See, I obsess over stuff I find really interesting.) According to the author of www.waltzingmatilda.com, I'm not too far off in my guesswork.

He links the song to an eight-day period in 1894, when the landowners were trying to reduce by 12½ percent the amount of money sheep-shearers were paid. The sheep-shearers unionized, a couple of them were shot as insurrectionists, they burned down a few things, and things got pretty hairy. The writer, who claims to have done about 10 years of research into this, even identifies the swagman he thinks the song is about -- and yes, the incident the song describes apparently is even historical.

The web site author believes the events of that eight-day strike broke the back of a nascent class system in Australia and led to a society where people could move about based on ability rather than social class, which is why the song is such a fundamentally Australian folk song.

And if you think THIS is unpleasant, you should hear about "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" and "Ring Around the Rosie," and what they're about.

Friday, August 08, 2003

lotr easter eggs

If you have the extended version DVD of "Fellowship of the Ring":

1) On the first DVD, scroll all the way to the bottom of the scenes menu. When you are at the last scene, "The Council of Elrond," press the down arrow key again. This will take you next to the words "New scene." If you press play, Peter Jackson will introduce an MTV spoof called "Lord of the Piercing" that depicts an alternate rendering of the Council of Elrond. It's amusing, but it's also off-color.

2) On the second DVD, go to the last screen in the scenes menu. Switch to the right hand column, where it gives you choices of scene clusters. Scroll down to the bottom of the list, then press the Down Button. An image of two towers will appear; press play, and you will get a preview of "The Two Towers." Of course, you've probably scene the movie already, but the Easter egg is still there.

Monday, August 04, 2003

why i do what i do

Every now and then, people ask me how much longer I'm going to be with the newspaper.

I don't think they're asking from a wait-til-the-carcass-drops frame of mind, though perhaps I'm kidding myself in that regard. Usually the question comes with a follow-up about where my next destination will be, with an unstated assumption that I'd like to work for a bigger publication like The Star-Ledger.

No, thanks. Been there, done that, hated every last minute of it. Before I started at WCN Newspapers, I worked for eight painful months at The Times. What was missing? The chance to make a difference.

Believe it or not, that sort of wide-eyed idealism is exactly what propelled me into community journalism back in 1996, and it's what has kept me in the business through years of being called a Democratic toady and a Republican stooge, through being demonized as a muck-raker and a trouble-maker, and through reams of vitriol poured out by people who have disagreed with editorial stands my newspapers have taken. (One of my most treasured journalistic possessions is a 1,500-word tirade to the editor from a former mayor after we endorsed his opponent and he lost re-election by a landslide.)

Recently in Quakertown, I was given a reminder of the way community journalists can affect the communities we cover if we stay faithful to our mission of reporting the news in a thorough, unbiased and professional manner.

I'm referring to a new computers-on-a-cart program that's coming to Frank K. Hehnly School, thanks to my coverage of the school district.

On Oct. 28, the Quakertown Board of Education was asked to decide whether to lease 24 laptop computers for Hehnly School at a cost of $6,912 a year for five years.

Only five of the 10 board members voted in favor of the program. Four voted against it, and one -- Garwood representative James Mattheson -- abstained, since Garwood sends students only to Arthur L. Johnson High School, and not to the district's elementary schools.

It was past midnight and I was back at the newspaper offices writing my story about the decision when it hit me. A majority of the Clark representatives had voted for the proposal. Even though his abstention was meant to keep him from influencing board decisions, Mattheson's mere presence on the board had raised the ante, effectively altering the outcome of the vote.

By this time it was much too late to call anyone, and I knew the explanation I would get -- five out of 10 is not a majority -- so I did what any responsible journalist would do: I filed my story, made a note to do a follow-up and went home to get some sleep.

On Thursday I reached out to Mark Maple of the Iowa School Boards Association.

"There's nothing in the statute or code, but there have been commissioner's decisions that typically say the representative would be a nonvote," Maple told me. "It's not an abstention; it's essentially a shifting quorum."

Maple referred me to an Aug. 5, 1997, decision by then-Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz about school districts with a relationship like the one shared by Garwood and Quakertown.

The decision is small -- barely five pages -- but it was an earthquake where the board's vote was concerned. Klagholz essentially wrote that if the issue doesn't affect the sending district, then their representatives don't vote.

Exclude Mattheson, and the vote is 5-4. Motion passes.

I called Paul Ortenzio, the Quakertown superintendent of schools, to tell him about my discovery. Since he had been given different legal advice from a qualified attorney, he was skeptical.

"The way I understand it, it has to be a majority of the whole board -- and the whole board is 10," he said.

Karen Amalfe, a school board member who had been lobbying for the laptops since the start of the summer, also was surprised by what I had to say, but she welcomed the news.

"That seems to be contradicting what the attorney told me," she said. Then she added: "If I could get that overturned, that would be wonderful."

That's pretty much what happened. Michael Gross, the board attorney, had been unaware of Klagholz's decision, but he agreed with my interpretation and said he had let the administration know that he was amending his legal advice about counting votes. The official record is going to reflect that the board voted to buy the computers.

The irony to all this is that I'm not personally convinced about the need for a laptop computer program myself. A former teacher, I regard parental involvement and teacher commitment to engaging the students as far more essential than the bells and whistles that make us so enamored with technology.

That's not important, though; what does matter is that the Quakertown Board of Education voted a certain way, and the way that vote was interpreted didn't square with how it was supposed to be counted. I had a question, I knew where to look for an answer, I found it, and I reported what I found.

In another month or so, a few hundred elementary school students are going to have access to computers they wouldn't have had otherwise, due in some small part to me.

That's what it's about. That's why I've stayed in community newspapers while co-workers of mine have landed jobs covering professional sports teams for the Associated Press, reporting for The Los Angeles Times, and chronicling the daily shenanigans at the New Jersey State House for one news bureau or another.

A colleague at The Princeton Packet once told me she hopes to ride on Air Force One some day as a member of the White House Press Corps. Jennifer's good at what she does; I won't be at all surprised if she someday works for The New York Times or the Washington Post doing just that.

As for me, although I grumble sometimes about the hours I work and about the difficulty of feeding my family on what I earn, I couldn't be happier with my choice of careers. I make a real and identifiable difference for the people whose towns I cover. What more can you ask for?

I'm a community journalist. That's what I do.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

foster son update

We haven't seen Isaac in several months. His father, Craig, had been dropping him off here for weekendlong visits earlier this year for several weekends in a row. We put the kabosh on that because we felt we weren't helping Craig by enabling him to avoid his responsibilities as a father; we felt we weren't helping Isaac by letting him always be pulled back into a different family with radically different expectations for behavior; and we didn't feel it was helping Evangeline either since she was losing him again and again each week.

Actually, we didn't exactly "put the kabosh on it," but the blow-by-blow version takes too long to get into. We haven't seen him since early this spring or maybe sometime in February.

This morning, Evangeline looked up at Natasha and said, "Mommy, Isaac is my best friend, and I miss him very much."

This afternoon, she said, "Isaac, we need to send Rachel away so I can have my Lumpy back."

Sometimes, I think I've just had enough. Today is only the second time in my life I've wanted to get drunk and escape for a while.

harry potter spoilers spoiler

The Daily News is being sued for a preview on the fifth Harry Potter book, because the article was written before the book was released, complete with an image of two pages from the book.
Puh-lease! This is a nuisance suit, nothing more. The store put the book out early, a reporter bought the book legitimately, and the newspaper ran a legitimate article. Nothing wrong there.
Let's hope the courts have the sense to toss this suit out.

Friday, August 01, 2003

church shopping

I'm not into megachurches, which I find too big and impersonal for my tastes.

Natasha and I -- sort of -- checked it out Princeton Alliance Church, a big one in Plainsboro, last summer. They had an outreach event that we attended, but it didn't leave me wanting more. Princeton Alliance Church is huge. Way huge. It has enough people to require U.N. intervention and peacekeeping troops if they ever have a church split.

That means a lot of good things, of course: They have a large church complex, plenty of resources, and I'm sure they have an excellent, professionally run children's ministry. Most megachurches do.

But it's too easy for me to get woefully disconnected and feel lost in a group that big, which is why I enjoyed Community Gospel Church so much. It was big enough to have some decent programs and resources, but small enough that it remained cozy.

Niki and I have spent the past several months attending Cross Pointe Church in West Windsor (now meeting at the Boy Scouts offices on Route 1, south of Raymond Road). It's a decent church, aimed primarily at the Princeton area, with an eye toward the seeker, and we've even helped from time to time with planning the service. I've even given them permission to use my dramas free of charge.

We recently decided to start looking again because, despite the many good things we see about the church, the 25- to 30-minute trip each way has kept us from getting plugged into the church and we feel Evangeline would benefit from actual children's ministry. Right now, because she is the oldest young child there -- and the next oldest is about 2½ years younger than her -- she's not getting much out church except playtime.

The teaching itself is sound, the pastor is a great guy, and as far as that goes I have none of the concerns, viz. lying, manipulation, betrayal of confidence, and dangerously false teaching, that I had with Abner. None of that's an issue for us -- we just need some place we can get plugged in and our daughter can grow.

They are planning to start a bona fide children's ministry. There are at least two women I know who want to get one started, and one of them isn't even a mother.

I think what they really need is a few more children.


My impression is that Howard also got a little too eager to get the church started and had unreasonably high expectations about how easy it would be. When they started at the Radisson, he told me he was expceting about 100 people to attend the first meeting, even though they had done very little to promote the church firsthand. There were about 40 people or so, including several from CGC who were there to lend moral support, but that number gradually dropped down to about 15 before they left the Radisson and moved to the Boy Scouts.

The move also has lost them a few people, but they seem to be gaining some new faces because of the drive and desire of a couple new members to see the church grow.

I'm not sure of the financial situation, although one of our unvoiced concerns was they way they seemed to be spending money unnecessarily on a few things. My understanding on that score, based on some things Howard has said in person and in sermons, is that they're being underwritten by a Baptist church in New York.

CGC was a good church, but not perfect. We're not looking for "another CGC," nor for the perfect church, but we are looking for one that has the qualities we think a church should have: a strong commitment to community, decent worship, solid teaching, a commitment to outreach and a decent children's program.

No luck so far, but I'm still hopeful we'll find something good.