Saturday, March 28, 2009

One Book to Make Time For

Picture this:

You have been unemployed for months. Just when you thought your house, car, and pet turtle were all going to be repo’ed by the evil bill collector, you are saved from your fate by unexpectedly landing a job. On your first day at work, your boss sidles over to you and tosses a floppy manual on your desk. “This covers everything you need to know to keep this job,” he advises. “Read it.”

Do you read it? Cover to cover?

OK, now try this one:

You are young, single, and now madly in love with the most wonderful person, who suddenly has to leave town for a compelling reason (let’s say cross-continental job transfer, or short-term missions trip, or to care for a close relative in a health crisis). Weeks pass and you find that “tweets” are not the next best thing to being there. The absence is becoming unbearable to you, when one day, you open your mailbox and find a thick envelope stuffed with several hand-written pages from the very one you are missing so much.

Do you read it? Word for word?

What about this:

You lose someone you love very much—an older, respected family member who has been your closest mentor, maybe a parent or grandparent—and while you are still in mourning, one of your siblings or cousins mentions finding this wonderful stash of material—private notes, journals, scrapbooks. Your loved one evidently not only meticulously kept a journal over the years, but also turned out to be one of those unobtrusive millionaires-next-door. Today, the family is gathering to read what has been left behind. You get the chance to see what you really meant to the one who mattered so much to you.

Do you read it? Do you look for your name?

What books feed your life?

Leviticus. Tedious?

Song of Songs. Too mushy?

The Testaments. Too long?

I find it incredible that there are people who consider themselves Christians but have yet to take the opportunity to read—cover to cover—the very volume that provides them direction in the duties of Life, inspiration from the One who Loves them, and riches from the last will and Testament that is their legacy.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Becoming Famous Despite Shrinking Social Distances

I thought, today, about the irony of an actor applying make-up to the face of an amateur attempting to portray an actor—an Escheresque thought to twist my mind while spending the day alone. Following close in the footsteps of her dad, our darling daughter was plying her newly-learned skill as make-up artist at a local “Every 15 Minutes” event. Due to unexplainable logistics problems, today she felt the need to have a friend accompany her and provide assistance.

That friend happens to be an actor. If you ask him, I’m sure that is what he would affirm. He has spent innumerable hours considering the craft. He has paid his dues in the required local amateur events, served for wages little higher than sheer gratitude in experimental attempts to break into the market, and actually succeeded in making his face stick to product that has seen the light of day.

The event they were assisting this morning required the early-morning painting of over two dozen high school faces in the macabre shades of death. This was all in preparation for a mock car wreck staged for the benefit of the pre-prom student body—a grim reminder of possibilities each student’s parents would rather not face. Some of the students, standing in as “actors” in the scene, would be made up to look like victims of specific injuries—all designed biologically-precisely by an attendant emergency-room nurse supervisor. Claire and her new-for-today assistant were tasked with bringing those hospital-exacting schemata to life.

I could just hear the backroom chatter now. The creator of the morbid moulage, coaxing his palette’s plaster onto the site of the student actor’s wound, somehow letting slip that he happened to be an actor…for real. What impact in conversation that ensued?

When I was little, I knew the magnetic pull a comment like that could make. I happened to grow up being the kid sister of an actor. On the rare occasion when he came to my home to visit, every school-mate of mine for a multi-mile radius somehow heard the news and flocked to my front yard. I’m not sure what they expected when they got there. I’m not even sure they knew what they expected. But this was someone “famous” and that is what is supposed to be done when someone famous happens by.

That, however, was when there was one source of daily entertainment—one television, with three predictable stations, that offered itself as near-sole provider of entertainment to an entire population. If you saw it on TV, chances were that everyone saw the same thing. And people who were seen on a screen like that became, by definition, famous.

So, if famous means everyone knows who you are, what is happening to famous today?

In the current iteration of the niche-marketing mantra, the plethora of entertainment products makes the star of one DVD a nobody in everyone else’s world. And that is just looking at today’s world. Add the digital capability of reviving one’s favorite entities of times past, and even today’s stars get buried.

Wired’s Chris Anderson analyzes the economic imperative of yesterday’s blockbuster in his book, The Long Tail,and concludes it is the digital prowess of today’s technology that both annihilates the economic necessity of hit-driven stardom and enables the esoteric candy-shop environment where both the hits and flops of years gone by are still on the shelf. Old or new—if you know where to look, now you can find almost anything you’ve always meant to buy. “Don’t step on that dwarf—hand me the pliers!” may not be a winner on today’s sales charts—may never have been when it was new—but in the aggregate, generates enough sales to justify its current “for sale” sign.

In addition, it used to be a significant find to discover that one’s friend or acquaintance was a relative of someone famous. Does it seem that almost anyone is related to a famous person nowadays? Or is this just a shrinking world? The famous series of “Small World” experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Harvard in 1967 sought to answer the question: What is the possibility that two randomly-selected people would know each other? With an ever-increasingly connected world, the path linking two total strangers seems to be shrinking. That “social distance” makes random connections more likely, stand-out anomalies less likely.

Obscured in the lateral breadth of product, buried in the vertical crush of historic variety, shrink-wrapped in diminishing social distances—what’s a star to do?

Assuming that humble, toothy stance of “yeah…yeah, I’m an actor” may not ignite such a reaction now, thanks to our post-modern world.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Creating the Tools That Shape Us

I’ve been fighting to win at the game of catch-up when it comes to sleep. We’ve been away at another debate tournament, this time enjoying the peacefulness of the University of San Diego campus.

Tournaments have this one unwritten requirement that all participants (student competitor and adult parent-judge alike) must be able to thrive on less than enough sleep. Whether powered by sheer adrenaline or other more mundane substances like caffeine, the participant must be able to attend to proceedings for more hours in each day than should be humanly possible.

So the other day, when I finally had a chance to regain my pre-exhaustion equilibrium, I was somewhat annoyed that that opportunity was interrupted because my now-out-of-town husband had neglected to turn off his alarm clock. Thankfully, it was set for the more merciful weekend wake-up routine rather than his brutal workweek setting. That, however, meant I was now conscious enough to comprehend what his talk-radio squawk box announcer was saying before I flipped the switch—hence exposing me to an ear-worm that kept me from my morning’s intended purpose.

The announcer was giving a run-down of the various communications devices made available in recent years. I’m sure he was headed for the virtues of the newer social media at the point I pulled the plug. The part that stuck in my head, though, was his analysis of email: “the clunkiness of email.”

Clunkiness! As if email were no longer a viable tool, useless owing to its antiquated format. The thought was just incredible to me. Do you know how useful email is?! How it has streamlined not only communications in general, but work in particular? And that is “clunky”?

What would be next on his list of communications improvements? MySpace or Facebook, assuredly, would find a place. Twitter most certainly, honing the communications space even further. The task, it seems, in avoiding clunkiness in communication is to polish the skill of saying more in less space.

Fine. You can have your 140-character parameter. But there is only so much you can write on a postage stamp. I know I’ve already ranted about the fact that there isn’t much that can be said, beside weather report or dinner plans, in so short a space. What I’m concerned with now is the impact that thinking—and communicating those thoughts—in such short phrases might have on us as people.

It seems we rarely give thought to how the world we create is actually shaping us, its creators. In the campus buildings I spent last my last week at, however, the architecture made no secret about how it shaped us. This was a private college campus with Catholic roots. Its builders seemed to instill the virtues of the faith even in the walls that housed the people, both believers and non-believers, so that a reverent hush and saintliness descended on all visiting there. That, by the way, is no mere figure of speech. It was incredible to see people walk into a building, and—by the sheer shape and acoustical characteristics of the building—immediately assume the humble position of whisperer.

There is an artist that, earlier in the 20th century, perfected the technique of twisting the observer’s mind by drawing “up” as if it were “down.” M. C. Escher’s “Relativity” is the well-known 1953 lithograph print depicting staircases that seem to ascend if viewed in one direction, descend if seen from a different perspective.

Earlier in his career, Escher produced a lithograph, “Drawing Hands,” showing a hand drawing a hand which was (predictably in Escher fashion) drawing the first hand.

“Drawing Hands” has become the visual icon, in my mind, of what we are doing to our verbal selves when we hamper our abilities to connect interpersonally under the guise of honing our communication skills. We don’t realize the impact our self-imposed limitations have on our own out-reaching minds.

There is no doubt that friends, visiting with friends in Charles Dickens’ England, would take quite a bit longer to finish their sentences than friends hanging at today’s mall or coffee shop might take. However, I wonder at the possibility that today’s conversation might be no more verbose than the proverbial cave man’s might be. We chop, whittle, and discard all the “extraneous” words to be concise…and also suck out all the flavor, freeze-dry the content, and UPC barcode the synopsis as time-saving devices so we can do more.

More what?

The exercise of taking time to express one’s self represents not only the contents of what the speaker or writer is saying, but the process of developing the thought behind it. While this is not always true, saying more may very well mean thinking more. At least it puts a person in the position of feeling the need to do so.

If all we are required, in our “modern” society, is the ability to say something in 140 characters, we will either be elevated to the status of master haiku creators, or reduced to the off-the-cuff redundancy of driveling rehashers of the weather and dinnertime repasts. If we vacuum-pack our contents, what does that say of the brains required to produce that content? Most people are simply not up to that challenge. As far as I’ve seen, the smaller the container, the skimpier the content.

Twitter? For clunkiness, I prefer War and Peace. But I’ll take email any day.
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