Tuesday, December 4, 2018

So...I'm on Jeopardy! today

(See title. That pretty much covers it.)

Be sure to visit Tiffany Brooks, PhD for my "live"
(depending on when the episode airs in your market) critique.


Will I win or will I bring shame upon my family, lo, for seven generations? 

Tune in to find out!

Monday, December 3, 2018

My Best Piece of Holiday Advice


I have very few pieces of profound wisdom that I can offer the world that did not come from someone else, from common sense, or from listening to the “Sunscreen Song” about 800 times during the ‘90s.

But I do have this:
Make it your goal to go home from the annual “Dirty Santa/Yankee Swap” game with the worst possible gift.

I know, I know. Where did you read that first: The Bible or Shakespeare? Seriously, though, this is a philosophy that struck me more than a decade ago, and I have sought to implement ever since.   Whether it has done me any good is, of course, debatable, but since I have very few epiphanies I can say with confidence are completely organic to my own experience, I’ve decided to take this one and run with it.

A dozen years ago or so, when I was at a work Christmas party where a gift-stealing game was one of the centerpieces of the annual event.  (I should add that, despite my best efforts, I tend to be the bearer of less-popular and less-frequently stolen gift. I realize that bringing alcohol to the exchange would be the easiest remedy to this poor track record, but since I don’t drink – I say and do enough stupid stuff without help – I tend not to want to go that route.)  This year, however, I had found a kitchen gadget that was normally twice as much as the spending limit, marked down to 50% off.

I was delighted when one of our young interns selected the gift and her face immediately lit up when she saw it was something practical and legitimately useful for her as she was just beginning to equip her grown-up apartment. The gift was quickly stolen by another intern who had a similar reaction.  But then it was nabbed by a much older and more well-established co-worker, and then an executive, until it was finally retired.  I remember feeling a little annoyed that people who could have easily forked over the cash for the kitchen gadget at full price were fighting over it (good-naturedly, of course) while an intern for whom that item would actually have been a really nice item, was left with something like a shower radio in the end.  (Which is kind of cool, admittedly.)

It got me thinking.

That was the same year when one junior employee brought his out-of-town girlfriend, and she selected one of the inevitable gag gifts in the bunch: a hideous Christmas ornament of some local celebrity that made the nightmarishLucille Ball sculpture look downright complimentary.  I remember how quietly she sat, smiling and watching the rest of the festivities for the course of the game, but obviously knowing there was no way she was going to be pulled into any of the socializing-through-gift-swapping the rest of us were happily engaged in – myself included.
As I watched her, I couldn’t help but think that all of our bids to get the best gift really missed the point of the whole game, which was draw people in and create a fun banter between people and their partners. The hope was that we would leave the party knowing each other a little better – a kind of holiday team-building exercise. But it didn’t really work that way.

I emerged with a set of beautiful goblets in a hard-fought victory against a woman in accounting, but I couldn’t shake the disappointment on the young woman’s face – not disappointment about her gift, but disappointment that she was not going to be able to participate in the engagement that everyone else was enjoying.  At the end of the party, I approached her and asked if we could trade gifts. I knew it was too late, but that hideous ornament now leers at me from our tree every year as a reminder of what I decided that night:  My goal, from that point forward, would be to leave every gift exchange with the worst possible gift.

I’ve tried it since then, with other companies I’ve gone on to work for, with small groups from church, with book clubs, with holiday block parties – and it’s hard to describe the degree of satisfaction it to know that you are there with the subversive goal of coming out on bottom. 
I want to make it clear that I am IN NO WAY suggesting that games like Dirty Santa/Yankee Swap are harmful and should be banned from holiday parties for any other kind of overly-sensitive nonsense – they are fun and spirited and always, always hilarious.  But if we are committed to the idea that Christmas or Hanukkah are actually about commemorating sacred events in our faiths’ histories, why not practice that across the board?

Nothing in those exchanges is ever anything I couldn’t buy for myself, if I actually wanted it, and I suspect the same is true for you, too.  The much bigger reward is finding a way to pull people in and to give people who are just starting out a better return on their $20 gift-limit buy-in than maybe I get.
Of course, there is no good way to share something like this without sounding like you are holding yourself up as a model of virtue and best choices, but those of you who know me know that when I am trying to be intentionally self-congratulatory, I go WAY bigger than this. And I realize that I’m a total wet blanket by trying to bring some kind of moral lesson into one of the most lighthearted and silliest traditions around the holidays. But, you know, you asked for my best season advice so…

Oh, wait.  You didn’t ask. Well, in that case, I probably am just sharing this to feel better about myself.  (But seriously, try the worst-gift-in-the-exchange thing this year…and if you find yourself in a gift exchange with me and I go home with your gift, please don’t take it personally.)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

I'm baaaaaaack!

I'm going to attempt to revive this blog after a several-year hiatus that, not coincidentally, alligned precisely with birthing a tiny human into the world.

Y'all, for real.  Any eye roll I ever made when a parent-friend of mine used having kids as an excuse for not having time for literally anything else -- I take it back.  I take it back a thousand times.

But now that the little one is able to go potty on her own AND wash her own hands, I feel like I am suddenly time-rich and I am definitely living my best life now. I mean, seriously, the handwashing thing took up at least 73.86% of every day.

So here we go again.  There is probably going to be some recycled Facebook content at first, and to that I say BACK OFF. I'VE BEEN HELPING MY CHILD NOT BECOME THE TYPHOID MARY OF PRESCHOOL RATHER THAN CREATING A MASSIVE BACK CATALOGUE OF CONTENT. Is that what you wanted -- a nation-wide health epidemic for the sake of your occassional reading pleasure?  Geez. Get over yourself.

Um, yeah. Okay.  Here we go.  Should be interesting.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

This is the same piece I posted on Facebook back on July 24.  I actually wrote it the previous week, more to get my own thoughts down on paper than anything. I'm not saying it's especially profound, or even particularly good writing, but since several people have asked what I thought of /Go Set a Watchman/, I'm just going to share this as my response.
---

Killing Mockingbird


“Remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father's right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”
~To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee


When a friend who works in the news industry first texted me urgently on the morning of February 3 with the news that Harper Lee would be publishing another book, I was pretty sure this meant I only had two wishes left from that genie whose lamp I found on the beach.

I rushed to Amazon and pulled up the page, just to verify with my own eyes. My finger hovered over the “Pre-Order now” button and I felt flooded with a nerdy happiness I hadn’t felt since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows became available for pre-order. And then…I lowered my itchy trigger finger and walked away from the mouse. I couldn’t bring myself to do it and I wasn’t sure why. Still, I reasoned—July was ages away. I’d have plenty of time to place my order before the release date.
I couldn’t explain why I felt reluctant to commit, except that maybe, deep down, I couldn’t fully wrap my head around the reasoning behind why Harper Lee would be enthusiastic about publishing an earlier, rougher draft 55 years after her literary mic drop.

There was no way this could be a bigger travesty than Scarlett was to Gone With the Wind—I mean, at least these were both authored by the same person—but there was just something so poetic about a person who told the one burning story in their soul that they had to tell, and that was all. There was no sophomore slump to tarnish the legacy; this was A.E. Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young” if ever there was one.

Then the stories began to run and the rumors began to surface that maybe publishing this manuscript really wasn’t Lee’s idea—or at least not one she had been agonizing over for more than half a century. And there were other rumors, too: that the manuscript was, perhaps, not quite as unsullied a fossilized literary find as one might think; that it read as if an editor with 21st century sensibilities and New York prejudices, or even a certain political agenda, might have done some tweaking.
The more I read about the manuscript, the more I came to realize that—for now, at least—it was not something I wanted to read.

Not too long after I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time as a child, a beloved uncle passed away. I remember my mother telling me at the open-casket funeral, “If you feel uncomfortable looking at the body, just touch the hair. The hair will always feel natural and real.” It was good advice—his hair did feel much more lifelike than the waxy-looking face in the coffin. But that was also the problem. It felt too real. My uncle had the exact same hair as my mother, and feeling it was like feeling my own mother’s hair spread out on that satin pillow. It was at once completely detached from the world in which I was living and breathing and yet, at the same time, wholly familiar. It was my very worst fears realized, even though the logical part of my brain knew that there was nothing logical about my feelings.

That is the best metaphor I can draw to my feelings regarding Go Set a Watchman. In reading something that is bound to feel at once so unmistakably familiar and yet also so utterly foreign, I know I will be groping for the hair—the one unchanging element that still feels like the story and characters I have loved so long. And, for me (as I suspect it is for many readers), that element is Atticus Finch. In my mind, what makes him so iconic is that he is a beautiful, fixed, immovable character—not without his flaws, of course—but an almost archetypal figure who transcends everything else as a timeless hero still deeply rooted in his time and place.

But I have read enough about this new book to know that the Atticus Finch of Watchman is, in many ways, a different man than the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird—yet too similar to be read with detachment if I find I cannot reconcile them as the same character. That is not hair that I care to feel. That is not the novel I love. That is changing the entire experience of a book that, in its own complex and challenging way, “didn’t do one thing…but sing its heart out for us.”

For now, I would still rather enjoy To Kill A Mockingbird as it has taken on significance to me every time I have encountered it:

As a fifth grader, reading it the first time as, coincidentally, the Berlin Wall was coming down and German reunification was beginning. The book and the political situation mirrored one another to me as I struggled with the deep complexities I knew were far beyond my capacity or maturity to comprehend; but I understood, instinctively, that I was witnessing something profound that I would appreciate more when I was older.

As a sixth grader who wanted to be a professional author someday and pored over the book as if there were some kind of code I could crack to understand the genius I knew was there but still did not fully grasp.

As a high schooler who secretly resented Gregory Peck for not resembling the Atticus Finch of my imagination when we watched the movie at the end of studying the novel in the tenth grade. And the following year, when I set foot in England for the first time in my life as part of a drama troupe from our school performing To Kill A Mockingbird at several schools around London. (I played the morphine-addled Mrs. Dubose and it was some of the most fun I have ever had on stage.) That trip was the first real stepping stone in my life-long love affair with England and set me on a path that would have me moving there for graduate school several years later.

As a brand new English teacher, working to instill a love and appreciation for the novel in my reluctant high schoolers in rural North Carolina.

As a fledgling college professor, delving into the place of the novel among 20th century American masterpieces and the critical issues it raises about race, justice, southern-ness, the canon, and myriad other topics.

As a military wife as we prepared to move to Meridian, Mississippi. (“That’s Dill’s hometown!” was literally my first reaction when I learned of our new duty station.)

As that professional writer eleven-year-old me dreamed of becoming a writer who has actually does make a living by my pen, and who still revisits old favorites periodically both as a refresher course on great writing and as a way to keep my ego in check by realizing that I will never, ever write anything so perfect as what Lee accomplished.

To me, this is the reality of To Kill a Mockingbird. It does not need a sequel or a re-imagining or a glimpse behind the curtain—nothing that will irrevocably alter it in my mind’s eye. At the risk of being morbid by tying in another funeral, it’s the same reason I chose not to look my grandmother in her casket. I knew I would never be able to unsee her in that way and I would rather remember her as the gorgeous, Liz Taylor-lookalike who weathered a difficult life and left this world with a heart on fire for clothing children in the third world. I didn’t want to see her as the mortician imagined her or even just as the shell of who she had been—she was so much more than that body.

To Kill a Mockingbird is so much more than the events it describes or the words on the page. It is a novel that has walked me through life, as I know it has done for millions of other readers, too. That is not an experience I am ready to relinquish to a companion book (for lack of a better term) that, once read, I will not be able to un-read.

One of my biggest pet peeves is that very loud and determined block of people who seem determined to make sweeping judgments about movies they haven’t seen, plays they haven’t watched, albums they haven’t listened to, or books they haven’t read. And so, for that reason, I am withholding any verdict. If you choose to read Watchman, I am eager to hear your opinion on it. I reserve the right to change my mind at any point in the future if I decide it is something I want to read, too. But for me, for now, Scout and Jem and Dill will always remain children, Atticus Finch will always remain the quintessential warrior monk, and it will always be a sin to kill a mockingbird.

###

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Confession

With all the previews for Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day movie that are out right now, I feel the need to come clear regarding my feelings towards that book.
Not a fan.
But before you judge me for my dislike of a classic piece of children’s literature which, I admit, is pretty awesome despite my dislike of it, please allow me to explain.
I was a wildly sensitive little kid with a rather extreme tendency for anthropomorphizing anything and everything. [For “was” read “am.” For "little kid" read...yeah. And it’s not just that my car has a name—that’s normal. Lots of cars do. I mean that our vegetable peeler has a name; our lawnmower has a name AND backstory…] Anyway, as a wildly sensitive little kid with a rather extreme tendency for anthropomorphizing anything and everything, I remember vividly the day when Mrs. Amy McDavid read that book to my kindergarten class in 1984, because two things stood out to me:
1) She pronounced the word “pajamas” as “pah-JAH-mahs” with the middle syllable akin to the vowel in “cot” whereas my Yankee parents pronounced the middle syllable akin to “cat”; and
2) Alexander says, “I HATE my railroad train pajamas.”
While the first point is just one example of the many linguistic conundrums that would be a hallmark of my childhood years following my family’s move from Minnesota to a small town in Virginia, it’s the second point that was my problem with Judith Viorst’s timeless tome exploring pre-pubescent angst.
You see, I was hurt—nay, DEVASTATED that Alexander not only harbored such animosity towards said pajamas but then went on to speak it aloud. What if the person who bought them for him heard him? What if they read the book? What if their feelings were terribly hurt?
...and what about the pajama's feelings?!?!?
What if the railroad train pajamas found out about Alexander’s public trashing of their very essence of being? How absolutely worthless would they feel about themselves? They're pajamas for crying out loud--it's not like they had the agency to pick themselves up and walk to the house of a little boy who would love them!
Okay, so my 5-year-old brain probably did not use the phrases “harbored animosity” or “essence of being” or "agency" but the emotions invoked were very, very real. I did have enough of a sense to realize that the devastating distress that book caused for me might seem irrational to other people if I tried to explain it, but I couldn’t NOT tear up when I thought about that page. And so…
…I never read the book again. I still haven’t. I know the essence of it. I am culturally literate with regards to its content and message and have been known to tack “even in Australia” to the ends of sentences. But I have never again revisited Alexander in his misery. Now that the commercials for the movie are everywhere, however, I felt compelled to make this confession.
And now that that is off my chest, I can return to my work as a rational adult…at my desk named “Sylvia.”

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Jamais Vu (Part 3)

Yeah, I know it’s been a good half-year or so since I bothered to post anything.  That’s the surest way to lose any kind of a consistent blog readership and the precise reason why my last attempt at a blog died.  But here’s the thing:

1) I am a professional writer—as in, I have a full-time job writing 40+ hours a week to pay the bills.  I love writing but I also have a hard time transitioning from “work writing” to “personal writing” because at the end of the work day, my word-quota has often been tapped and my brain is ready to clock-out in order to be able to rest before it goes right back to generating more words on the page tomorrow.
2) Often, my ruminations are nothing anyone would find interesting or are much too personal for broadcasting on the interwebs.
3) If I do have a passing funny or interesting thought, I tend to share it on Facebook rather than here because I get instant gratification on Facebook from people casually “liking” my status as they scroll aimlessly through their newsfeed and, for some reason, that makes me feel validated and better about myself.
4) This is my blog and I’ll update it when I feel like it.
That being said, I plan to spend the next few weeks (or months…or however long it takes) re-examining a few of the stories from scripture that I’ve always been taught to interpret one way but which strike me as potentially having a very different message when I strip away the preconceived lenses through which I’ve always read them.
I’m not trying to be intentionally contrary or in any way disparaging or disrespectful towards more traditional interpretations, nor am I implying that I have some kind of grander, deeper view on scripture; I’m simply laying out some questions that have occurred to me and asking for some honest dialogue about other ways that we might consider these passages and what alternate lessons they might (or might not) offer us.

Rad.  Let’s get started.
---
Brothers from Another Mother

I have heard every variety of sermon and Sunday School lesson as to the impatient actions of Abram and Sarai regarding the promise of children, which led them to turn to Sarai’s maid Hagar as an alternate means of reproducing, since Sarai was post-menopausal and had been barren even in her younger life.  Through Hagar, Abram produced Ishmael, who became the father of the Canaanite people.  It was not until a decade or two later that Sarai (now Sarah) conceived and born Isaac, as the son of the covenant and the father of the Jewish people.
The most common interpretations I have heard tend to be along the lines of:  And that’s why you should always wait upon the Lord.  Abraham and Sarah instead sought their own way instead of having faith and the result was an illegitimate son whose descendants are STIL L at odds with the people of Israel today.  (Alternately, I have also heard this same story used as a warning against surrogacy and potentially even IVF or other alternative fertility processes for childless couples looking to grow a family, but that is a discussion for another time.)
I understand the message of waiting upon the Lord that is consistently evoked with the reading of this story, but I’m not sure that’s really the message in the text.

First of all, consider the fact that the promise is given only to Abram at first, and not to Sarai (Genesis 15:4-5).  He is told by God that “no one but your very own issue shall be your heir” (NRSV).  Sarai is nowhere mentioned in this conversation; the assurance is simply that the child will be Abram’s biological child.  The first time the promise is extended to include Sarai is in Genesis 17, when God introduces the covenant of circumcision (and with it, the name-change to Abraham and Sarah), and then again in the following chapter when the angelic visitors inform Sarah that she will bear a son.  In other words, the initial promise never said that Sarai would have a child—only that Abram would.

Given that men retain their fertility much later in life than women, and since Sarai was already past the point of being fertile, can we really blame the couple for understanding the promise to imply that Abram’s child would, necessarily, come from someone other than Sarai?  We are so swift to accuse them of not having faith in God when they involved Hagar but, on the contrary, I think they showed tremendous faith because (let’s be honest) it would not have been unreasonable to question whether or not Abram was even…(ahem) capable…of fathering a child given his own tremendous age.

In fact, the text even tells us that God “brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:5-6).  Did you catch that last verse?  “And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” In other words, Abram had faith in the promise of God, and God recognized and honored that faith.

So where do we get off casting Abram as a man of no faith or patience in this story simply because the actions he took next don’t tie up into a neat and happy ending?

Putting aside the method they chose for a moment lest anyonethink I am advocating adultery, why do we have such a problem with the fact that Abram and Sarai took the non-traditional route in order to see God’s promised fulfilled?  Steven Covey (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) called it “Resourcefulness and Initiative.”  My mother called it “creative problem solving.”  Whatever term you use, we celebrate it in every other aspect of life.  In myth, it is how Odysseus frees his men from the Cyclops.  In history, it is Hannibal crossing the Alps by elephant.  In science, it is the story of Apollo 13.  It is the stuff that moves humanity forward.  It is a defining trait of heroes, both fictional and real.

But in this particular story of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar, we condemn the characters for looking around themselves, considering the facts of the case and the reality of the world, and seeking out a viable means of achieving the reality they have been promised is theirs.  In fact, some of us even blame tragic current events in the Middle East on that “creative problem solving” from a few millennia ago.

I know, I know.  It makes us uncomfortable to think of one of the fathers of the faith having a sexual relationship with a woman not his wife.  It might even make us uncomfortable to think about whether Hagar had any choice in the matter or if her social position as a female servant granted her no power to object if she did not want to be used in such a way.  (If that doesn’t make us uncomfortable, it should.)  But whether we like those implications or not, the fact is that they were the way of the world in the ancient Near East and nowhere does the text tell us (at least, nowhere that I can think of) that God was displeased or in any way punished the characters for those particular actions.

Of course I understand the dangers of cutting God out of the equation because we do not believe that He is capable of what we desire and acting according to our own timeline rather than trust His, but how many people of faith have been paralyzed by inaction simply because they were afraid of angering God by acting when no obvious solution is apparent?  What is wrong with empowering believers to look for unusual, unconventional, and creative ways to see God’s promises realized in their own lives?
After all, wasn’t Jesus a very different kind of promised messiah than the one everyone anticipated?  Did he not fulfill many of the prophesies about him in ways quite different than anyone expected?
Maybe God intended Ishmael to be brought into the world; after all, we are quick to point out in other contexts that He is the one who opens and closes wombs, is He not?  Maybe God wanted him to grow up and form a nation of his own.  Maybe Hagar’s son is every bit as much of God’s intended story for mankind as is Sarah’s son.  Maybe the people who lack faith in God’s sovereignty are not the characters in the story of Abram and Sarai, but we the readers who are too blinded by our own notions of how the story “should” have gone that fail to see the events as they are actually recorded and refuse to believe that God may have a bigger plan at work than any of us can possibly imagine.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Feel-Good Friday

Sorry, all two readers of this thing.  September ended up being a far crazier month than anticipated.  I'll try to get back into the swing of things with entries and updates this month.
Here's a Feel-Good Friday clip for today, though.
 
To set the scene:  A few years ago, I decided that I really wanted to master a bizarre skill that could have no possible application at any time, yet would still be awesome.  So I set out to learn the lyrics to the B-52's "Rock Lobster" in sign language.  I think I can still do most of the first verse.
Anyway, my history with the song coupled with my deep and abiding love for puns is what makes this clip so awesome I want to cry.