Monday, January 30, 2006

new lesson

Somewhere in the middle of performing "The Muse" at church yesterday, I realized that it wasn't that good a piece.

It has all the essential elements of drama. The main character, Neil, is having a struggle both internalized as an inability to create and externalized as a job he hates because diligence and quality are liabilities rather than assets. The conflict reaches its climax as he appeals to Calliope for inspiration, and it reaches resolution when she points out that he already is communing with her quite effortlessly, and hands him his paintbrush, a visible indicator of his reinstatement as an artist.

The essential failing of the drama, as I see it, is that it fails to say anything truly meaningful in his context. So Neil hates his job and feels wasted as an artist. Those are certainly common enough attitudes, I'm sure, but the sermon that the drama was written to prepare the way for was "Tuning into God."

The drama didn't say anything about prayer, and it didn't really depict anything that would stir the soul and make people think about how they could pray. It does provide insight into my character and some of my struggles -- the ad agency described was based more or less on my experience with WCN Newspapers -- but I'm not convinced it provides any great insights into God, or prayer. I had hoped to do something where Calliope dived to a deeper level than Neil, and her insight and weightier messages slowly changed the way he was viewing his problems and began the process of resolving them.

And, ironically, my complete failure to accomplish that was probably the greatest strength of the drama.

The preacher referred to the piece several times during his sermon, saying how great it would be for us to develop an image of prayer as a matter of sitting down at a table in a cafe and chatting with God over a cup of coffee. After the service, several people came up and effused praise all over me because of the drama.

Later Sunday it hit me why people may have reacted so strongly to it. I've taken it for granted for years that prayer is simply a conversation with God, and I've often depicted it in conversation and writing as something akin to having a milkshake with Godor sitting down and talking with him over a burger. This is an old, familiar way of thinking for me, but that doesn't mean it's universal or even common. A friend of mine thinks it's great when I ask questions like what kind of dog Jesus had as a boy, because he's not used to thinking of Jesus in such human terms. By the same token, an accustomed way of thinking about prayer still can be insightful and revolutionary for someone who's never looked at it that way before.

So what made the piece effective had nothing to do with the stronger points of my writing, nor even what I hoped to do. (The writing has some weaknesses anyway that I really should change to make it stronger, anyway.In a way, I'm reminded of Charles Sheldon's book "In His Steps." The book is badly written. The writing style is meretricious, there is no character development or plot to speak of, the book is melodramatic, and when characters appear, they're usually gone within the next five or six chapters. But I read the book, and even as I groaned over the writing, I was moved by its poignancy. The message itself was beautiful, and heart-rending, and even if it did spawn that fucking WWJD marketing craze about ten years ago, it remains a deeply powerful one: Before you make a decision, stop and ask yourself what Jesus would do, and then do that.

The book endures and remains worth reading not because of the writing, but because of the message. I'd rather have lousy writing and a good message that fantastic writing that says nothing. (Best of all is the writing that is both excellent and meaningful, but that is the rarest of combinations.)

This in turn inspires some thinking about my own writing, namely the principle of letting go. Nothing is ever finished; there is always room for improvement. But at some point you have to accept that it is done, toss the story upon the water, and begin work on the next one.

the artist on show

I didn't really expect that Evangeline would sell any pictures yesterday, but it appears I was mistaken.

Evangeline held her premier art show Saturday at the academy where she takes weekly art lessons. The opening ran from 3 to about 6 p.m., with more than a dozen people attending, including her grandparents, a few friends, some people from our church, and even Evangeline's school teacher.

Until Saturday, the youngest person to hold an art show at the academy was seventeen years old. Evangeline is only six. I'm very proud of her.

Ana, the academy director, made Evangeline's big day one to remember. She bought her flowers, had the academy set up with a sign congratulating Evangeline on her debut, and did everything she could to make Evangeline's art show and exhibition a big deal. After we reached critical mass of attendees, she asked Evangeline five unrehearsed questions about her art, which Evangeline handled with aplomb. Evangeline explained the media she used for each drawing, as well as details about some of the techniques, such as clustered numbers, inhabited initials and thematic pieces.

Evangeline drew a heartwarming "Ah" when she explained that her inhabited initial M was chosen for mommy and ran over to give her mother a kiss.

And yes, she sold several pictures. Not the originals, mind you. At six years old, Evangeline's not keen on the idea of parting with any of her artwork, not even the pieces she does on the back of a placemat at the restaurant, but she was willing to let people buy prints of her artwork, and at least three people expressed interest in buying one or more pieces of her work for their home or office. So that's around five or six pieces.

I guess I need to print up a price sheet after all.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

the artist in retrospect

The bio we're showing at the gallery today:

Evangeline Learn has been doing art since she was old enough to pick up crayons and scribble on her father's notebook. Her initial work, done almost exclusively in the media of Crayola crayons and magic markers, reveals a strong postmodern influence and communicates the existential crises familiar to toddlers everywhere.

By the time she had turned 3, however, Evangeline had mastered the technique behind curved lines and complete shapes, and soon began a period noted for its use of familiar story characters, with works like "The Big Bad Spotted Wolf" and "Little Spotted Riding Hood," as well as avant-garde pieces like "The Scissors Family at Home." Cut-outs and collages soon followed.

Art from her next period is noted for a strong Disney influence, with works like "Sleeping Beauty Descending a Staircase" and "Sleeping Beauty Holding a Broom." Little Green Men from the "Toy Story" movies also became a common motif during this period, and at times Evangeline would join these disparate elements in innovations like "LGM Cinderella."

Evangeline has been learning art in a classic setting since she attended her first drop-in session at the art academy when she was five years old. She is now six. During the past fourteen months, she has explored new media, including wash pencils, inks, pastels and charcoal. She also has gained familiarity with artistic techniques like shading and perspective, and has broadened her horizons with a wide array of drawing tools.

Evangeline's artwork is held in several private collections across the United States, including specifically commissioned pieces of work in the Washington, D.C., area that later were reprinted as limited-edition postcards. The assortment of work on display here at the gallery comes from Evangeline's personal collection.

Although this is Evangeline's first formal art show, work of hers previously has been displayed at invitation-only venues such as The Refrigerator Door, The Bedroom Wall, and Other Places Around the House.

Evangeline would like to thank her parents and sister for their unwavering support as she develops her artistic skills, and gratefully acknowledges her debt to Miss Ana, who has taught her so much. She is honored to have her first art show here at the studio.

great quote

Why is it that you always hear people protesting "No blood for oil!", but nobody ever bats an eye at the Red Cross' policy of "blood for cookies?"
-- Ben Brucker

Thursday, January 26, 2006

holy frak

We just finished watching the first season of Battlestar Galactica last night on DVD.

No frakking way. The show has been building to a head the whole season, particularly during the two-parter "Kobol's Last Gleaming." In that, we saw a wedge driven between the government and the military; we saw Apollo actually side against his father and Colonel Tigh; we saw Baltar apparently give in completely to a sense of divinely decreed destiny; the Galactica Boomer's reality just came crashing down on her; and well ...

Holy frak, did she really kill Adama?

It's going to suck having to wait for someone to buy us Season Two ...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

church drama

A two-person drama I've written has been given the green light for a performance this Sunday at church.

It's not a tremendously original piece, but it does deal with the subject of tuning into God during prayer without becoming a how-to manual. Rules for how to pray successfully always irritate me because they turn something sacred into a a barren technique, and that fault becomes even more annoying when the lessons masquerades as art. Art stirs the soul. It does not give you five simple rules to master a spiritual discipline that grows out of a relationship with the divine.

Anyway, the chief selling point for "The Muse," as far as I'm concerned, is that it shouldn't be obvious right away that the drama is about prayer, in part because God is depicted as a woman the pray-er is having lunch with.

I wrote it with this casting in mind. The pray-er is identified as "Neil," and God in the script is called "Calliope," primarily because none of the nine Greek muses has dominion over the area designated, but Neil Gaiman wrote an excellent story about Calliope for "Sandman." The dialogue and reactions are written for man-to-woman interplay, such as the time Neil tells Calliope "You have always been my muse" and calls her "the most beautiful person I've ever known."

This line will take on a whole new humorous element when we perform it Sunday, because Tim, the fellow in charge of creative arts ministry, was only able to find a guy in his early forties to play the part.

Yes, on Sunday, I (in the role of Neil) will be professing my undying love to a man perhaps eight years my senior, telling him that he has inspired all my work, and that I can't imagine life without him.

They're going to run me out of town on a rail.

waiting for godot was easier

Dear Girl Scout people:

I contacted the Girl Scout council a few times last year in hopes of plugging my daughter Evangeline, then 5, into a Girl Scout Daisies troop in the area. At the time, I was told there were no troops she could join, as the only active troops in the area were tied into other organizations and therefore had other criteria for membership.

Evangeline is now 6, I'm still willing to help lead a Girl Scouts troop at whatever level she's in, and we still haven't heard anything from any Girl Scout organization in the area. Nor have we heard any announcements through her school, as we had been told by a council representative last year that we could expect.

I'm sure you can imagine my frustration. We live in a state where most children are overscheduled and have very few opportunities to develop friendships with other children their own age. Girl Scouts generally is viewed as such an opportunity. It's low-pressure, it's heavy on group activities and knowledge-building, and it's been a part of the American landscape for dozens of years. If there is a troop in our area, including neighboring municipalities, that is accepting new members, we are interested in having our daughter join.

I'm told by a friend of ours who is a Scout leader a few miles from here, under a different Scouting council, that she's not allowed to accept new members in her daughters' Brownie troop because there is a waiting list two to three years long. If that's the case for the local council, I'd like to repeat what I said last year, that I am willing to assume a leadership role in Girl Scouts, particularly if it opens up the opportunity for my children to become involved. If there are other children her age who have been waiting to join a troop, this would be a win-win situation for more parents than just us.

Please contact me and let me know what options are available. Thank you.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

thyroids and butter

In six more weeks, I'll be entering the final stage of my cancer treatment, with a dose of radioactive iodine.

Thyroid surgery like I had back on Dec. 8, while it removes the bulk of the cancer, never really eliminates it all. Invariably there are some small amounts of thyroid tissue left behind by the surgeon, and it's also fairly standard that some of the cancer cells metastasize and spread to other parts of the body, such as the adrenal glands or lymph nodes. Although I'm unlikely to grow a new thyroid in my armpit because of these cells, they are still cancerous and need to be eliminated.

Thankfully, part of the function of thyroid cells is to absorb iodine, and this ability passes on to thyroid cancer cells as well.

On March 3, I'll be getting a dose of I-131, an iodine isotope that will let hospital technicians see where all the cancer cells are when I get my radiometric body scans on March 6 and March 7. If I understand this correctly, they'll use this information to calculate the dosage of radioative iodine I'll need to destroy the cells when I get that treatment, most likely that Friday.

There is no threat to my healthy body tissues from the iodine, nor will I pose a threat to anyone else with my first iodine treatment. After my second treatment, however, I'm supposed to stay away from children for two days, and then avoid bodily contact with them (hugging, kissing, sitting in my lap) for the two days after that.

I'm still trying to figure that out, but it sounds an awful lot to me like I need to find somewhere else to stay for a few days where I'll have my own private bathroom and can avoid contact with other people. Hotels are out of the question, at least from what the nuclear medicine person told me today.

Three weeks before my first dose of iodine, I'm supposed to stop taking my thyroid medicine.This is going to make me increasingly sluggish and out of sorts in the days leading up to my treatment, but it's supposed to cause my body to start producing thyroid stimulation hormone. A blood test on March 1 will measure the amount of this hormone in my bloodstream, as well as levels of thyroglobulin and antithyroglobulin hormone. I'm sure there's a reason for this, but I don't know what it is.

I'd have to say that, on the whole, this appears to be the least pleasant part of having thyroid cancer. At least in the weeks between diagnosis and surgery, I had a lot of fun making jokes about it with people. I can't think of anything funny about having no energy for weeks on end, but if somebody has some suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

Friday, January 20, 2006

not getting the idea

Around the United States Monday, people and institutions were called on to remember the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose prophetic voice galvanized the Civil Rights movement and forced America to face its jim crow ideas of justice and deal with its racism.

As Real Live Preacher notes in a blog entry today, not every quite grasps the subtle nuances of this bit of history. Some librarians, for instance, apparently think that Dr. King nailed 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg, sparking the Proestant Reformation.

A friend of mine, upon visiting the entry in question, observed that his employer marked the holiday by giving out cupcakes, some with white icing, and some with chocolate. As he ate the cupake, he pondered how senseless it was to honor Dr. King's life work with something as empty and meaningless as cupcakes.

But then I reflected that Dr. King would have probably enjoyed a cupcake or two, and let it rest. He would probably be gratified to know that, given [my employer's] integrated labor force and management staff, the need for marches had been reduced to the need for a memorial cupcake.

Still, as I asked him, if that's the case, why was the chocolate icing mixed in a different bowl from the white icing? (Either that, or the chocolate icing was thoroughly washed out of the bowl before they put white icing in.) And I'll bet there were separate trays for the white- and chocolate-iced cupcakes.

In all seriousness, I think the United States as a nation has made a great deal of progress since the days of segregation. Giants like Rosa Parks and Dr. King have cast their long shadows down the corridors of history, and we're all marked by their coming ... and by their passing.

Nonetheless, we have a lot further to go. I have friends who have been pulled over for "driving while black," and I doubt I'll ever forget the racist remarks I've heard as a reporter, like the fellow at a car show who complained that all the n*gg*rs who drive BMW's have ruined the car for him, the police captain who referred to Arabs as "ragheads" or the mayor who referred to his predecessor as a "stinking Jew." Nor can I forget friends of mine who have been called faggots or dykes because of their sexual orienation.

We've made progress, but we have a lot further to go.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

new post

I made a new post, "The Rag Doll God," over at A Messy Faith. This one came quickly and easily for me, and I think it's a good piece of writing. I wish they all were like that.

a new look for dr. king

Evangeline told me yesterday that her class did a play about Dr. King. Imagine my surprise to hear that she had been given the starring role.

I was surprised to hear this, since I normally would think Evangeline a little too feminine and a little on the pale side to play King, but from what I can tell, she did a good job. As we were leaving school in the car, I tried quoting a line or two from King's famous "I have a Dream" speech, and Evangeline not only corrected me, she remembered more of the speech too.

In many ways, this isn't surprising. Evangeline has always impressed me with her utter incomprehension of how people can hate one another based on something as trivial as the shade of their skin. When we've read books about slavery and the Underground Railroad, she's cried to think that some of her friends would have been slaves a hundred fifty years ago, and when we've read stories about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, she's cheered when they become free and when they outsmart the slavery system.

What really pleased me, though, was about two weeks ago when I was reading the girls Dr. Seuss' "The Sneetches." When we reached a page where some of the star-belly sneetches were playing a game on the beach, Rachel (as she is wont to do) started identifying the sneetches one after another as various members of the family. It's a harmless thing and it makes the story more interesting for her I guess, but when she said one of the star-belly sneetches was her sister, Evangeline objected.

"I'm not a star-belly sneetch," she insisted. She pointed at one of the forlorn plain-belly sneetches watching the game from the sidelines, and said, "That's me right there."

It's funny, but each generation teaches its children not to judge people by the color of their skin, and yet is accused by their children, when they grow up, of being racist to one degree or another. If Evangeline's attitude holds, I'm hoping her children won't be able to say any such thing.

parent-teacher conference 2

Big things are coming Evangeline's way the next couple months, as she works to improve her focus, tackle two big projects and tackle some tough new math skills at school.

Those are the goals Evangeline, her teacher and I set after our second parent-teacher-student conference, last Thursday. Parents, teachers and students meet every trimester at the charter school to measure the student's progress and to set personal goals for the next three months.

The biggest problem Evangeline is having at school remains her time management skills, which isn't too surprising, given her father's own problems in that area. Evangeline herself admits that she sometimes gets distracted by what her classmates are doing, and she often spends more time on lunch than she should.

I've been trying to address this at home by giving her a preset time limit for certain tasks -- say, twenty minutes to complete a writing exercise -- and hoping that the steady reinforcement will help her internalize the skills. I don't know what else I can do.

The first of Evangeline's big assignments is to read the Magic Tree house book "Dingoes at Dinnertime." As she reads, Evangeline is supposed to write down any new words she encounters, and then write a book report once she finishes reading. She also is supposed to create a model of the tree house to put in a re-created scene from the book, complete with a full-color backdrop.

Unfortunately, she claims to have finished reading the book already -- she just checked it out from the class library yesterday -- and it's difficult to get her to read something twice, even a Roald Dahl book. So I'm going to have to read through the book with her, asking her about each word I think she doesn't know, and having her take time to write the book report as we go.

The other big project this trimester is to research Roald Dahl, whose books Evangeline loves to read. Her research project last trimester was Barbie. I have to admit I'm looking forward to this one a bit more, since I enjoyed Roald Dahl's books when I was her age, and am finding them a blast as we read them through together. We've borrowed a children's book about Dahl from the library, so the next step is to figure out artwork and start designing the poster, I guess.

Less dramatic an undertaking than her two big projects, but no less important, Evangeline is going to be hitting the math books a little extra. A lot of the homework assignments she's been getting have been below her ability level pretty severely. So, instead of those, we're going to tackle multiplication, graphing and fractions.

That might seem like a lot, but Evangeline already understands the ideas behind multiplication and fractions -- she even can do a few multiplication problems with no fuss -- so it's really a matter of developing the concepts further for her. The only new skill will be graphing, and given her mathematical brain, I don't foresee many problems there either.

At our last parent-teacher-student conference, we set Evangeline the Barbie research project, the time-management goal, and the task of learning to recognize the various U.S. denominations of coin. Evangeline excelled at the Barbie project, and not only knows her coins and their values, she can add them effortlessly in her head and find multiple combinations for the same amount. (She's also begun participating fully in gym class, which had been a concern before.)

So there are some big goals on the horizon for her this time too, but I think she's going to do just fine.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

the transmigration of bunk beds

On a happier note than lost children, we have just rounded out a very socially active period at our household with the migration of a set of bunk beds from a friend's house to ours.

The girls last night got to sleep in their very own bunk beds for the first time ever. The beds were a gift from our friends Anne and Vince, whose son no longer needs them. To be honest, I'm not really sure why they had a pair of Ikea bunk beds with only one child, but I'm not going to begrudge them the opportunity to pass on to us a costly piece of bedroom furniture. We broke the beds down, moved them, and set them up in the span of a single day, ranging from around 1 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. (Evangeline was difficult to get moving this morning, but that was to be expected.)

The new beds allow us to use less floor space for bedding, giving us the chance to use the bedroom for other things as well, such as some of their toys and maybe a place we can create an impromptu art studio for Evangeline.

This wraps up a rather active weekend where we have had a steady procession of friends and guests cycle through our house in rapid succession. Saturday night, we had friends for dinner whom we've got to know through our children, who attend or have attended preschool with one another, and through my biweekly Dungeons and Dragons sessions. Sunday evening was another of those D&D friends, followed Monday by another good friend of Evangeline's from preschool.

Thank God for friends. It seems at times that we have so few of them, and we so quickly pass from one another's lives. Every connection we have with another person reminds us that we are real, and gives us another opportunity to see God.

irritation with god

Back in college, I noticed that God's judgments in the Bible always came mixed with mercy of equal measure. I wonder sometimes if the reverse isn't also true.

About four years ago, my wife, older daughter and I opened our home to a 2-year-old foster child whose parents had neglected him in some pretty substantial ways. During the nine months he was with us, Christopher made a lot of progress and became apart of our family. The day he left, my heart was torn from my chest. I've never stopped thinking of him, and in my heart he will always be my son. I would have adopted him in a heartbeat, but for reasons that continue to escape me, the state decided he belonged with his parents, even though they had made no progress or improvement in the areas that had led to the removal of their children.

Chris had a sister, about eighteen months younger than he. While Chris stayed with us, Dominique stayed with another young couple from our church. Although she also returned to her parents after nine months, Dominique remained a part of her foster parents' lives, and somewhere in the past two years, she moved in with them.

Kevin and Katey are now in the process of adopting her. Her biological mother is signing the adoption papers today. All that remains is for a judge to make it official.

I'm happy for them, but I haven't seen Chris in years, and right now all I want to do is cry.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

the artist in the spotlight

You'll have to forgive me if I sound a little proud of Evangeline here, but if I do, it's because I am.

Evangeline's art teacher at the Academy of Art of Hoover Point and Gallery has invited Evangeline to exhibit her original artwork at the gallery. This isn't in conjunction with other students or a tack-on to a larger exhibit that includes other exhibitors. This is an honest-to-goodness art exhibit of Evangeline's work, and she has it all to herself.

The exhibit kicks off with an opening reception from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Jan. 28, where people can come and go as fits their schedule and munch on age-appropriate snacks while they're there. Evangeline's instructor, who runs the studio and gallery, gave me a guide to hosting an art exhibit that suggests wine and cheese or something similar. I'm guessing grapes, crackers and other nonsugary snack foods are a good idea.

In all seriousness, I have my work cut out for me. In the next two weeks, I have to sort through Evangeline's work with her, pick out the ten best pieces of art to display, frame them, help set them up at the gallery, get invitations to all her friends and other people we want to have come, write up brief descriptions of each work, create a brief amusing or serious bio, avoid mentioning the exhibit to people who are going to think I'm putting on airs about how great my daughter is and continue with my normal litany of chores and responsibilities like housekeeping and helping Evangeline with her homework. (Plus, I want to get some honest-to-goodness writing done each day.)

Still, as you can probably tell, I'm excited about this. In my more fanciful moments, I have visions of an artist's bio years from now that begins, "Evangeline Learn held her first art show when she was only six years old" but I'm not so completely caught up in this that I can't see the other side of the equation. Essentially, for no fee, we're going to be advertising the art academy to a group of Evangeline's friends and classmates. The ones who actually come to the opening will get to see the academy, their parents will get some of the literature, and some of them may even start taking lessons. So it benefits the academy.

On the other hand, from what the teacher told me, she's never actually done a display of any work by children before, and she's said in the past that she considers Evangeline to be her finest student in that age group. And if Evangeline's a good artist for her age, a lot of it's because of the classical instruction she's received at this studio. So if the teacher wants to use an art show to attract some of Evangeline's friends, I'm fine with that.

Monday, January 16, 2006

the travails of name-calling

I got this from my brother Ward earlier today. It's about the heartache and travails of being called names when you're a little child:

This past week Hannie was very sad about school. She wouldn't tell us why but she cried about it. Yesterday after school, she broke down and told Rhonda that another girl in her class was calling her a name. Rhonda sighed and asked Hannie what the other girl was calling her. She replied, "Melissa."

I understand completely. For my entire year in fifth grade, I was called Herb.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

useful little petition

You know, I feel kind of odd telling a minister he needs to shut up, but I think there are times even awkward things are made necessary.

Case in point, this petition to get Pat Robertson to stop saying stupid things on national TV. I wrote an entry about this problem of Robertson's over on my other blog, "A Messy Faith." I have my doubts as to how effective electronic petitions really are, especially with someone who appears to believe that everything he says reflects the will and attitude of God, but we must embrace quixotic causes especially if we want to survive life here in the shadowlands.

And of course, there are other problems with Robertson's attitudes, such as the theme park he wants to open is Israel to cash in on the Christians who go to the Holy Land hoping to walk the same part of the world where Christ once trod. Do we really need a 125-acre site exploiting people's faith? I can't see the wisdom in this, although I'm sure I see the dollar signs lining up outside Robertson's wallet.

So, yes, Pat, I agree with the author of the petition. You undoubtedly have accomplished some good things for Christ in the many years you've been in the ministry, but at this point you've become a caricature with apparently nothing useful or meaningful left to say. Please shut up.

the year in review

About six weeks ago, I took this entire blog and my Messy Faith blog, had eleven copies bound and printed at the local Staples, and then gave the collection away to family and a few close friends for Christmas.

As Christmas presents, it was probably one of the cheapest ideas I've had in thirty-five years, but it also was one of the most meaningful, I think. People might not laugh as much as if I had given them season six of "The Simpsons" on DVD, and they might not be on the edge of their seats like if I had given them "Battlestar Galactica," but hopefully by the time they're done reading it, they'll know me better.

Those two blogs, that collection of my writings, distill into written form a lot of my thoughts, experiences and identity over a period of about eighteen months. There's stuff in there that's funny, stuff that's thoughtful, other parts that are informative and some that are merely stupid. It's me. Take me or leave me, enshrine me, mock me, or ignore me, it's me as I am, or at least as I was during that time.

It's been interesting getting the feedback from people as they've received it. Just about everyone loves my piece on Elmo, and a few people have said they're looking forward to reading it or letting me know that they're enjoying encountering my thoughts. My oldest brother today said he hates it, because every third entry or so he has to put it down and stop to think about what he's read.

It was an eye-opening experience for me to read it as well. One thing that struck me is that I write an awful lot about my faith, particularly as I try to explore some of the deeper currents within Christ. Another thing that struck me is that for someone who claims not to like politics, I wrote an awful lot about that as well, and sometimes pretty harshly when it comes to the GOP. Believe it or not, I feel bad about that, not because I think my thoughts were wrong, but because I think my attitude was a little too in-your-face and defiant, as though I somehow have to prove I'm not one of "those Christians" on the Religious Right. The chip on my shoulder has been awfully big at times, and it shouldn't be.

I tried reading some of my older journal entries, compiled for the Iowa Division of Youth and Family Services while our foster son was living here. My first thought on reading through them was, "Geez, I was a real dickhead to his biological parents." (I shared this with a friend of mine, and her reaction was, "Yeah, you were. I noticed it at the time but decided it wasn't appropriate to say anything. I figured you were smart enough to figure it out sooner or later on your own.") I ended up not including them in the volume I gave out at Christmas, because it ended up being too much work to format it correctly, and too upsetting to read through the material again. I need time to process and assimilate it all over again.

Fellow bloggers, take note: The revelation that comes from reading your own writing months later can be painful, but it will be worth it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

getting closer

Writers know they're getting closer to the heart of God when they can read a masterpiece someone else wrote and enjoy the writing as much as if they had written it themselves, and read their own masterpiece and take no more pride in it than if someone else had written it.

unbelievable ...

Cancer surgery should be done on an outpatient basis, without the hassle of an overnight stay at the hospital.

That's the sentiment of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, according to a letter we just got from them regarding my recent cancer surgery. The hospital bill was $13,627.62, and the insurance company says it won't pay a dime over $2,156. The letter notes that we're not responsible for the difference, but I'm still appalled.

How in the world is a thyroidectomy outpatient surgery? I was in surgery for something like three-and-a-half hours, during which time my throat was cut open and one of my organs was removed. They took me back up to my room sometime after 10 p.m., and I was still drifting in and out of consciousness for the next hour or two because of the effects of the anesthesia.

During surgery, the doctors inserted drains into my neck to keep blood from pooling there, and those drains remained in place until 6 a.m. the next day. If this had been outpatient surgery, would I be expected to remove them myself?

Good grief. Outpatient surgery? If they're that out oftouch with reality, I'm amazed they didn't say, "This could have been taken care of in the hospital parking lot, or on a do-it-yourself basis with a bottle of bourbon and a Swiss army knife."

Even though we're not liable for the remaining 83 percent of the bill, I called the insurance company to complain about the arrangement. The popular perception is that medical treatment is going downhill in this country, and people have an overwhelmingly negative image of health insurance companies. This sort of thing does nothing to improve either view.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

merchandising as an art

Christianity Today has a good article online comparing the new "Chronicles of Narnia" movie to "Calvin and Hobbes," and how the creators of each handled the thorny merchandising question when it comes to their respective cats and other casts of characters. Watterson never allowed his creation to be cheapened with merchandising, since his feeling was that the use of their likenesses in ohther media diminishes or alters their significance in the comics medium.

And really, he has a point, doesn't he? Would Calvin be so quintessentially boy if you could find him on mouse pads, coffee mugs and what have you? Would Hobbes be uniquely Calvin's pet tiger if every child in the universe could have owned one just like him? Of course not. And hasn't Calvin's image been tarnished by the unauthorized merchadise? He's been locked into Adam Sandler juvenile humor mode by all those bootleg window stickers that show him peeing on other car manufacturer logos. Lost in there is the real essence of a boiy, his imagination, his other forms of mischief, and his poignancy. In the same way, the majesty and grandeur of Aslan has been reduced because of my daughter's ability to play with him and make him do whatever she wants. "Not a tame lion," indeed.

I've always have been impressed with Watterson's commitment to the sanctity of his art. Both he and the Christianity Today writer make an excellent point about how the medium is part of the message, and using the merchandising medium affects the message in the other media as well.

Things like this make me glad that we don't get TV signals in our house. There's a lot of merchandising the girls just aren't aware of, and that makes things a lot easier. We're not overrun in junk like we would be, and the experience of a movie or book isn't cheapened as easily or as quickly for them as it is for their peers.

It's like Evangeline with Spider-man. She has two sets of sheets, a T-shirt, a sweatshirt, a backpack, a winter hat, a place mat, sneakers, a video game plug-and-play set, and at least one coloring book. There's probably more stuff I'm not even thinking of. She's seen the movies and even read a couple comic books, but a lot of her association with Spider-man has been tied up in the merchandising and the times she's had to assert her right to like Spider-man at school, where her classmates have told her that Spider-man's just for boys. Spider-man is a material asset to her, rather than a moral story about responsibility and how a moment's inaction or refusal to care about someone else's problems can lead to real problems of our own.

Friday, January 06, 2006

getting over it

Today I attended a wake for a friend of mine, and I find it is stirring a number of unpleasant memories for me.

A wake in this case refers to the tradition of taking a co-worker out for lunch on his last day on the job, to celebrate his good fortune and wish him well for the future. Joe Sorrentino worked as a photographer for WCN Newspapers for about three years, the last two as chief photographer. He and I got to know each other during the nearly two-and-a-half years that I worked there, so when he called to tell me last weekend that he had been fired, I was as excited as he was.

WCN was not a good place to work. When I was there, a co-worker of mine and I tracked our hours as averaging between fifty and sixty a week, just to complete our basic responsibilities, which included editing the newspapers, writing their editorials, and writing four to six news stories for one of the papers. A typical starting salary for an editor was $24,000; for a reporter, it was less than $20,000. In its Union County office, WCN published seven newspapers, with a good many more published in three other offices in Essex County.

The standards of the company ranged from abysmal to nonexistent. The editor in chief regularly hired new people fresh out of college with no experience, provided no training, and gave them editorial responsibility for two papers. Stories often were so lopsided that they included only one source, and I had a reporter at one point who couldn't even write a sentence. I even caught her plagiarizing stories three times in the same four-week period, and they still wouldn't fire her. After I left, a friend of mine quit when the editor in chief refused to let him run on a valid news story on the grounds that it would have negative repercussions for a school board member in Hillside.

For my first eighteen or twenty months, I swear I did the best job I could. I diligently covered meetings, made phone calls, and dug up good stories. When one of the Board of Education members was charged with beating up a student in another municipality, I wrote a front-page story on it. When the school board made a first-of-its-kind appeal of a defeated schools construction plan, I covered it so thoroughly that the administration started asking me if there had been any new developments. I wrote hard-hitting editorials, pioneered innovations in the layout, and gave other editors and reporters ideas for their papers.

Eventually, I wore out. I had busted my hump digging up stories, managing in the process to raise the ire of several prominent officials in my coverage area, and still I had nothing to show for it. There was no raise, a promotion I had been promised was given to someone else who earned less, and there was no help to be had in reducing the workload.

Worst of all was ownership. WCN Newspapers is one of the few remaining privately owned community newspaper chains, held by four siblings named Daniel, Cyann, Royal and Patrick, whose father, William, started it about thirty years ago. The siblings work about forty hours a week each, rake in hefty salaries and regularly eliminate personnel, close offices or refuse to replace broken equipment when they want a raise or see profits decrease, and treat their employees with inexcusable condescension.

From what I heard today, WCN has rolled several of its newspapers together, so that intsead of having seven Union County papers, it publishes four, each covering more municipalities. Publishing fewer newspapers was the pretext Daniel used for laying off Joe, which of course means that more quality news events are going to go unphotographed and the quality will drop still further. Additionally, the editorial pages of all four newspapers will run in common, which means they've all lost their voice in their communities. The papers are poorer for it, and so are the places they cover.

My prediction based on all this is that when William, the company founder, dies, his children are going to sell the place as soon as they reasonably can. Royal as much as admitted a few years ago at the Iowa Press Association awards banquet that none of them wanted to follow their father into the newspaper business, but they weren't given a choice. It's a shame that their dislike of the business has channeled itself into such disregard for the people who make them their fortune.
At one point, a group of us discussed forming a union and did some investigation to see if it would be worthwhile to take the plunge. To this day, my big regret is that we didn't push ahead. It's an awful place to have worked. I still get angry thinking about it, even though I left the place in October 2004.
I wish I could put this behind me, forgive and forget, but something about that place won't let me let it go. Chirst forgive the hardness of my heart, and let me be more like him.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

more for the therapists to deal with

Not only will my children need therapy to cope with the bait-and-switch we've played on them regarding "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," but now they're going to suffer from a video game disparity with their peers.

You see, many children today are learning to play video games on expensive systems like PS/2 or XBox or whatever the rage is these days. We, however, just received an Atari Flashback 2 as a Christmas gift from my wife's aunt in Atlantic City, whom we visited Sunday night and Monday. While other children are playing games based on movies like "The Incredibles" or "Lord of the Rings," with photolike graphics, my girls think playing Pong or Outlaw, with clunky and squared-off graphics, is the coolest thing ever.

The game console looks like a miniature version of the old Atari 2600, but without the need for cartridges. Instead, there are 30 or 40 games programmed in, with all the variations and skill levels that came on the cartridges. It's a hoot for my wife and me, since our generation grew up during the first video game craze, which was driven and dominated by Atari.

The Atari Flashback 2 doesn't have some of the cames I really enjoyed, like Space Invaders, but it has enough of the games I did enjoy that I'm having a good time playing it for old times' sake. (And so far, I've managed to avoid letting it become a complete and utter time waster.)

the tables turn

Chances are somewhere around 100 percent that my children will need therapy by the time they grow up.

The way I see it, needing therapy is nothing to be ashamed of. It's part of being human, although many of us prefer to tough it out, rather than get the help we need to become balanced, well-adjusted individuals. As far as the girls are concerned, I figure, since they're going to need therapy anyway, we might as well make it interesting for the therapist.

Just before Christmas, we took the girls to see the new live-action movie of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." The movie, as should be expected, was a tremendous hit with them both. Rachel was a little confused by the story and couldn't keep track of who was who or what was going on, and Evangeline thought some of the monsters on the White Witch's side were laugh-out-loud funny-looking, but heck, they are only three and six years old, respectively. They had a good time, and Evangeline knew the story already from reading the book last year, and that's what counts.

On Christmas Day, Rachel opened one of her presents to discover a DVD of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Once we explained what it was (being only 3, she knows most of her letters but not how to read), Rachel was excited to discover that the movie had come out on DVD already. Actually, as we explained, this was the classic animated movie distributed by Sesame Workshop.

Rachel, far from being disappointed, has asked to watch the movie almost every single day since then.

I am beginning to think that my children are not the only ones in the family who will need therapy by the time they grow up.

good news

We have achieved a major breakthrough in parenting: Rachel appears to be potty-trained. Aside from the occasional incident -- and we're talking less than once a day at this point -- she has been accident-free for most of the past week.

Let the rejoicing commence.