Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Looking Like an Idiot... Is a Good Thing

“No, you want to twist the wire as you’re coiling it. One hand over, one hand under.”

I was standing in a dimly lit theatre hall holding a fifty foot roll of speaker wire as Ameen tried, yet again, to show me how to coil the wire. Instead of simply curling it around my wrist and elbow as I’d done my entire life, Ameen was showing me how to do it properly. I could feel my face getting red as he patiently corrected the position of my hands. I’d played sports my entire life, considered myself reasonably intelligent, and yet here I was unable to coil a damn wire.

Our church had an unusual setup. Every Sunday morning we unpacked a huge trailer of equipment to convert an entire theatre into a church, complete with Sunday school classrooms and live worship. I’d joined the setup team, happy to volunteer, and completely unaware of my burgeoning exposure as a technical moron. Assigned to the main theatre, I hadn’t realized the volume of wires and speakers and sound equipment necessary to run a service. Normally I liked fiddling around with our television at home, hooking up the sound system and setting things up. And yet, here I was, having that sense that youo’re in way over your head. I hadn’t felt like such an idiot in a long time. Abstract concepts and philosophy? No problem. Writing, counseling, artistic conception? Great. Working with my hands? Um, not so much.

I still couldn’t coil the wire, but someone else had finally come over to help. Hours later, I was still shaking my head, long after we’d packed things up again. A damn wire? Really? The whole morning had been a bit surreal for me. My inability to perform such a simple task lingered much longer than I’d expected, and I was frankly surprised at how much it had thrown me, how incompetent I’d felt. I wasn’t looking forward to the next week, when I’d be forced to do it all over again.

Upon reflection a few days later, however, I realized that I’d made the right call in joining the setup team. Not only was I learning a new skill, but I was stretching myself, something I didn’t do as often as I had in the past. It was incredibly humbling, but I had enough self-awareness to know that if I stopped putting myself in uncomfortable situations once in a while, I’d become an insufferable shit.

Our society forces us to specialize. There isn’t a whole lot of necessity these days for the pioneer in an agrarian society that has to be good at everything just to survive. And if we’re to advance in our fields, the sheer volume of people and industry means that most of us are pushed into a niche. Everything else is done for us. Everything from food preparation to fixing things around the house.

It gets progressively more difficult as to take risks as we get older. We become more specialized and take fewer risks. We experience a certain confidence in dealing with issues with which we’re familiar, and generally choose to ignore the things that have the potential to be embarrassing. We define ourselves by our fears, by our dislike for certain feelings, and instead of growing and learning, we plateau. Life isn’t a journey anymore, it’s a treadmill. And as soon as we reach that point, bitterness creeps into our lives.

Feeling like an idiot sucks. But if we’re not willing to be embarrassed, we’ll never learn anything new. We’ll never understand this whole empathy gig, this whole idea about walking in someone else’s shoes because the only shoes we wear are our own. That makes it harder to appreciate other skill sets, and can lead to elitism and arrogance. When we try new things, however, that begins to change. Instead of being a permanent expert, we become permanent beginners. And while that may sound like a load of frustration, what it means is that every day is new again, that our posture becomes one of humility and grace, and that our life suddenly needs to be lived again.

If you have the opportunity, sign up for something that will make you look like an idiot. It won’t feel great at first, but if you push through, you’ll find your reward when it’s over. Even if it just means learning how to coil a damn wire.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

E Blog: Top 10 TV Shows from 1995-2005

Yes, I know it’s Oscar nomination week. And I’d love to write about the list of nominees, but I’ve only seen a few of the films. Despite my love for movies, I rarely go to the theatre anymore. It moved down my list when I realized I was continually telling people to shut their damn phones off. So my wife and I bought a 50-inch Plasma instead. These days, the movies I watch tend to be a bit, err, aged. I see the occasional blockbuster when it comes out (Hello, Dark Knight Rises), but for the most part I wait until they’re on Netflix. My wife and I don’t have Netflix, but we… ah, hell never mind.

Instead, I decided the first Top 10 list should recognize some TV shows back in the day, back when network television was watchable. (Thanks to my man, Jason Ramsay, for the Top 10 idea).

Comments are welcome. Be as passionate as you like in disagreeing, just don’t be offensive. And if you don’t know the difference, look up “douche bag” and figure it out. I have faith in you.


Any show that appeared between the 1994-1995 season and 2005-2006 season. Also, I had to have seen the show. Most of those shows on the list, but not all, are network shows (CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX) because I didn’t have HBO, which was the only cable channel with their own programming back then. And so before anyone starts shitting on my list, I’ve never seen the Sopranos (or Arrested Development) which is why it isn’t in my Top Ten.

Top Ten (Mostly Network) TV Shows From 1995-2005

10. XENA/HERCULES (1995-1999)

XENA and HERCULES had to be on this list together. Xena actually originated as a character (a villain) in Hercules, before spinning off into her own show. I loved them both. (I write fantasy, remember?) Special effects were just starting to improve, enough so that what we saw on the screen wasn’t Clash of the Titans cringe worthy. (I mean the original, with Harry Hamlin in a short skirt and that stupid metal bird.) Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules was cool and kind, but it was his relationship with Iolaus (Michael Hirsch) that really fueled the show. The same was true of Xena (Lucy Lawless) and her deepening relationship with Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor). I was going through a personal shitstorm when these two shows were in their heyday, and they were the perfect escape, along with offering a bit of inspiration. Gold.


I don’t want to include either of these shows, because I prefer to reward (intelligent)narrative. However, both of these shows changed the entire course of the television industry. Which means we’ll be stuck with shit like Big Brother and Jersey Shore forever. (That’s fine, so long as you promise to never release a “book” from people like Snooki. Hand out something healthier for the kids to read. Like crystal meth, for instance. Or heroin.)

If you weren’t around for the first five or six years of SURVIVOR (The US edition), you missed a phenomenon. SURVIVOR parties. SURVIVOR nights. Everybody watched it, and nearly all of us were entertained.

Until the past two years, AMERICAN IDOL has been a ratings behemoth, spinning off into X-Factor, the Voice, Dancing With the Stars, and a whole host of others. I’m not sure why I still like it, although it peaked probably in season 6 or 7. Sure, it’s all a giant commercial, but nobody does stories like AI. So far this year, however, the show is showing its age.

8. HOME IMPROVEMENT (1991-1999)

Great chemistry. Great cast. Strong female lead. Patricia Richardson is wonderful here, and her gentle affection for her husband while providing a strong female lead is palpable through the screen. Tim Allen’s grunts were heard in hardware stores all around the country. Or in my case, the bookstore disco. (Don’t ask.) Tim’s friendship with Al is the best part of the show, and as a throw in, Pamela Anderson got her start here. (Yeah. You forgot that didn’t you?)

Favourite line: (From Al) “I don’t think so, Tim.”

Note: I had to decide between Home Improvement and Frasier here, and I chose HI because Frasier just wasn’t as consistently funny.

7. LAW & ORDER (1990-2010)

Before the cable explosion, and before this show expanded to 3 different cities, you could watch Law & Order 83 times a day if you had the time. A formulaic legal drama that rotated its (top-notch) cast about every three years, it always delivered with good writing and a winning formula. It was the best way to kill a few hours if you were a student. And hey, any show with Michael Moriarty as part of its original cast has to be on the list, right? Favourite cast members include Jill Hennesy, Angie Harmon, Chris Noth, Sam Waterston, and Jerry Orbach.

6. THE SIMPSONS (1989 – present)

The longest running night time series in television history, the Simpsons changed the notion that animation was a ‘children only’ format. It was considered a risky experiment when it first aired, and a number of idiotic "family" groups pressed for years to have it cancelled. (There will always be people too stupid to understand smart comedy. These are the same people who feel Huckleberry Finn should be banned from schools.) These days, it feels tame, as a number of shows like South Park have pushed The Simpsons to the mainstream. I’ve had a harder time digging into a number of the new animated “satires”. They’re not nearly as intelligent. The Simpsons was smart and funny, but it had a heart too. A tough trick, but one it has managed for over twenty years.

5. SEINFELD (1989 – 1998)

A show about nothing, that like the Simpsons, provided the culture with a number of idioms. (Personal favourite: “sponge worthy”) Jerry Seinfeld’s straight man was the hub around which these quirky, hilarious characters revolved. A ratings blockbuster, Seinfeld was the meat in NBC’s Must See Thursday night sandwich in the nineties. It would probably be higher on this list if the show had been a bit more poignant, but the characters were empty narcissists. Even comedy needs something of a heart. In terms of pure humour, however, Seinfeld is probably the most consistently funny sit-com ever.

4. ER (1994 - 2009)

Lightning paced. Superbly written. Wonderful (revolving) cast. Compelling storylines. For the first ten years or so, ER was that rare show that was a ratings blockbuster and loved by the critics (with a record 124 Emmy nominations). It faded at the end, but that doesn’t diminish what it was or the impact it had on the industry. I wish more TV producers would learn from a show like ER, and not appeal to the lowest common denominator. You can have a popular, thrilling show and have your flawed characters speak intelligently. Great, great show.

3. ED (2000 – 2004)

A quirky show about a hotshot lawyer Ed (Tom Cavanaugh) who sets up his practice in his old hometown when he’s fired by his big firm, and tries to win back his high school crush Carol (Julie Bowen). Yes, this show is higher on the list than ER and SEINFELD. I don’t care. This show was friggin’ awesome. Ed was a smart, funny complex character, as were all the characters on the show. Having a main character in a wheelchair, dealing with serious issues for teenagers in a serious way, and an overall egalitarian bent made this show an original. And Ed’s relationship with Carol, along with the chemistry between the two actors, pulled this show along for four brilliant seasons.

NOTE: This show hasn’t been released on video. There’s a good deal of original music in the show, and the show’s creators did not work out an arrangement with the musicians before the show went to air. That would never happen now, as every show goes to DVD or Blu-Ray. You can still find episodes online as torrents. Worth the download. Wonderful show, and I still miss it.

2. THE WEST WING (1999 – 2006)

When The West Wing first aired in the fall of 1999, it was must see TV almost immediately… for politicians. For four years, Washington watched closely as one of the best script writers ever to wield a pen (Aaron Sorkin) took a swipe at those in power. How? By creating a fictional white house and filling it with flawed, intelligent and big hearted characters. This wasn’t a show about how things worked in the White House, but one that wondered “what if”? It was a show of possibilities manned by an amazing cast, and for the first four seasons it hummed along. Allison Janney had the role of her life here, and she blew the doors off it. When Sorkin left after the fourth season, the show took a dip, but the seventh and final season, the election campaign, eerily foreshadowed the 2008 Obama-McCain race, and was mesmerizing in its own right.


1. FRIENDS (1994 – 2004)

“You’re over me? Um, when were you… under me?”

(Ross to Rachel, with her riding on his back in the kitchen trying to get to the phone. Do you remember?)

There are great shows, and then there are those rare shows, those few gems, that define a generation. In the seventies, it was MASH. In the eighties, it was CHEERS. From 1994- 2004, it was FRIENDS. And if you’re one of those idiot critics that think FRIENDS was “over-rated”, tough shit. FRIENDS spawned, like many other shows on this list, a host of imitators. None of them got it right. Well, not like this. The romance between Ross and Rachel was poignant to the end, even when the show started to lose steam after season seven. Joey and Chandler were, well, Joey and Chandler. (“What are they doing?” “They’re running.” “Oh?” “They do it a lot.”) The cast for the show, the six primary actors, had the kind of chemistry show runners drool over, and the writing was top notch, especially the first five seasons. When I think of FRIENDS, I think about my life during those years. Even now, I can flip over to an episode (Yup, they’re still in syndication) and I’m immediately taken back to my life in my mid-twenties. FRIENDS was funny, but it had a big heart, too. We laughed and cried with them, felt their pain and enjoyed their triumphs. And when it was all over, and when Ross and Rachel decided to give it one last try, one of the greatest decade long rides in TV history was over, and we were better for it.

1A. ROME (2005 – 2006)

A two year series produced by HBO for nearly 200 million dollars. Twenty-two episodes. The best television show in history, perhaps because it’s filmed like a twenty-two hour movie. I have it as 1A here, because it did not define a generation, and it falls somewhat outside the purview of this list. Gritty Rome in all her earthy glory. A fantasy writer’s delight, for certain, but there’s nothing not to enjoy in this series. Intelligently done, well acted, with unbelievable sets that take you to another time and another world. You can’t do television any better than this…


Friday, January 27, 2012

Relationships: How the Past Can Destroy the Future

We all have a tendency to look back and remember events and relationships as better than they were. Our brain doesn’t record events like a video camera. Neurologically, they’re actually memories of memories, coloured and tagged and shaped over time by emotion. Therefore, our perspective of what actually happened is not nearly as clear as we think. We may look back fondly upon our time in a certain city or church or relationship and believe that those times were better than the present. That those relationships were better. Most likely, however, we are forgetting the dark moments, the hurt that we went through, the reason we said goodbye in the first place. The past often seems better than the present only because it gets redrawn by our brain. If it was a photograph, the picture has been airbrushed completely by our brain.

In most civilizations throughout history, this neurological function forms as a kind of psychological defense. Instead of dealing with past miseries, we are enabled to move forward by remembering more kindly the times in our life that weren’t good to us. With the advent of technology and the proliferation of massive networks like Facebook, however, these old relationships remain a presence in our life.

In the history of humanity, we have never seen an age when the past mingles so freely with the present. And yes, it causes problems.

On my Facebook, I have a large list of friends from various moments and times in the past. Friends from grade school, my first church youth group, old college beer buddies, students I worked with, family, old clients, friends from different churches and political groups, and co-workers from one of the endless array of different jobs over the years. It’s a strange blend of the past and the present, and aside from answering the usual “what are they doing now” question, it always takes me on a bit of a journey into my past.

Sometimes, it’s helpful. When I see the old familiar names, I feel less scattered about my life which has seen a number of twists and turns along the way. It points out those markers by reminding me of where I’ve been, and reminds me why I’ve made certain decisions.

Unfortunately, this constant reminder of the past sometimes clouds our judgment. How many people do we know who have gone back to old relationships, even after countless breakups, because they remember the “good times”? And those relationships are not merely romantic ones, but our relationship with different ideas, different expressions of our humanity.

Fifteen years ago I was an ultra conservative evangelical Christian. A pastor and a firm believer in patriarchy and assigned gender roles. My view of the world was largely binary. (good, bad; black, white). These days, my journey has shown me other things, and my views have changed. Still a Christian, but with a different perspective. My view of life is more prismatic, more story oriented. I no longer believe in assigned gender roles, believe God to bigger than my belief structure, actively support gay rights, and consider myself a feminist. My memory of my time as a conservative, however, is largely pleasant. I had the pleasure of befriending and working with a number of sincere, loving people. And from what I can tell on my various networked sites, my friends who stayed the course on that path are just as sincere and kind as they were when I shared their beliefs. As a result of those pleasant memories, I’ve often thought about heading back down some of those roads, at least the ones that point to ministry and working in a church again.

But there’s a trap there, and it’s similar to the one of going back to an old boyfriend who was great in the beginning and then treated you like shit for the last six months of your relationship. A year passes and all you remember is how great he was in the beginning. You start dating again, and suddenly you’re caught in the same mess with the same drama, only this time it’s worse, because your self-esteem takes a hit when you realize that you’ve made the same mistake twice.

This past week I probed further than I had in a long time to head back down the road to ministry, and I was smacked by a jolt from the past, as if I’d taken a time machine back to 1995. In a matter of hours, I realized my mistake. For all the fondness of my memories, it was brought home, very quickly, why I’d changed course in my beliefs.

Working in a church and helping young people remains a possibility, but this past week has served as an eloquent reminder of why I’ve made certain decisions along the course of my life, choices I do not regret. Choices that have led me to where I am now. That isn’t to say I haven’t made mistakes, I’ve made many bad decisions and will make more in the years to come, but the reminder that I need to keep my focus on the future was a needed one.

People change and grow as we age, and so this attempt to replicate the history will always fail. The challenge in these times, when the past is mingled so closely with the present, is to accept where we’ve been, enjoy the fond memories, and move on. To look to the future with hope, and continue our search for greater wisdom.

There is so much out there, so many people and places and twists along the path, all waiting to help you move closer to your dreams. The past can serve as both a warning and a pleasant aside, but it is ill-suited as a map for the future. Don’t waste your time waiting for the past to come again. Set your course for new fields, new ideas, and take the road less travelled. Believe me, you won’t regret it.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Shuffling Towards Greatness

We were lounging around the desks, waiting for our last student, Bill, to be picked up. He was over at the computer playing an educational game, lost in a world of swirling colours and numbers. Deanna, my co-worker, was complaining again.

“Where’s his mother? Every day she’s late. Why can’t she be here on time? With a son like Bill, she really should be more organized so we’re not all sitting around waiting on HER schedule.”

I glanced at the clock on the wall.

“It’s only five minutes,” I said. “It’s not a big deal.”

Deanna harrumphed and then started complaining about something else. I tuned out. Bill’s mom showed up a few minutes later, apologizing profusely.

“I’m so sorry. I just got behind- Bill! C’mon, let’s get ready.”

Bill shuffled towards his mother, smiling broadly. Although relatively high functioning for a developmentally disabled student, he wasn’t particularly verbal. I helped him put on his jacket, and he patted me on the head as he always did.

“So how was his day?” His mother asked me.

“Oh, it was-“

“He did very well this morning,” Deanna said, cutting me off. She’d positioned herself in front of me and was smiling at Bill’s mother. “I started a new program with him. I had this great idea based on his love for colours, and we’re really making some progress with his counting.”

“Oh, that’s good.” Bill’s mom pulled the toque over her son’s ears.

“And how are YOU?” Deanna said. “It must be so hard, what with your two other children and all that you do.”

“Well, Bill’s worth it. I’m just sorry that I always seem to be a little late.”

Deanna laughed and clapped her hands together.

“Oh, we don’t care about that! We know your schedule, right Steve?”

“It’s okay,” I managed to say, though my insides were heaving.

Bill’s mother smiled her thanks and left, holding her son’s hand as he shuffled towards the exit. As soon as they were out of sight, Deanna rolled her eyes.

“As if an apology matters. She’s late EVERY DAY!”

I grabbed my coat and left the school without a word to my co-workers. Days like this were always upsetting. Deanna had been pulling this shit for the past two years, and she wasn’t alone either. More than a few of my colleagues spent most of their time complaining and gossiping. When I left the school board two years later, I hoped to find a job, a place, where I didn’t have to associate with two-faced Sales People like Deanna. I’d seen it in the church. I’d seen it in the schools. There had to be somewhere I could go…


One of the more fatiguing truisms is that there will always be “Sales People” in your life. There will always be people who “market” themselves to your boss but do nothing when no one is watching. There will always be people who sound great and talk great but who won’t lift a damn fingernail unless they’re getting paid for it.

For seven years, I watched great teachers struggle to get their lesson plans done while coaching three teams and making themselves available to their students. All this while a number of their colleagues sat around and did nothing but complain about their salary and gossip about the students.

If you’ve worked in a church, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve worked in a hospital, you know what I’m talking about. In every job, everything you aspire to do, you’re going to find people who have success because they know how to work the angles. They will cause fits of frustration, especially when you’re struggling so hard to do things the right way.

My advice? Keep struggling. Keep doing things the right way. Like a punch in the gut, Sales People erode our willingness to walk the extra few steps to do things right. They remind us that the world isn’t fair, and that it rewards cheap and glossy more often than it rewards deep and meaningful.

But the world needs people who won’t take shortcuts. The world needs people who will care about others even when there’s no ‘reward.’ Sure, some people will make more money and earn favour before you do because they’re willing to do anything and say anything, to lie without regret. There will always be people who skim. But when we start comparing ourselves to the Sales People, we forget why we’re here. We forget that the greatest rewards in life are nearly always unseen. We forget the satisfaction that comes from doing things the right way. And we forget the influence our lives have on those around us, and what a difference we can make, regardless of the spotlight.

Greatness is never achieved through the shallow lens of notoriety. It happens when we understand that the primacy of others matters more than our own recognition. We don’t need a number, be it the one in our bank account or the hits on our website, to tell us who we are.

The world is moving faster these days, and there’s great pressure to climb the Mount of Recognition. And more than ever, we need people who will stay away from the gold diggers and grave diggers, people who will look beyond them to understand where greatness truly lies.

Forget the Sales People, my friends. Forget the fifteen minutes of fame and four minutes of airtime. Instead, remember the people who impacted you through your life. Remember their example. Remember how they shuffled along, never in a hurry, more concerned about shaping their character than their reputation. Remember their example, and don’t let the others pull you down. Be great instead.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Saturday Morning Birdseed

Just a few sprinkles this morning.

As we try to figure out what this site is and what it will be, I'll be adding a few regular "features" during the week. On Friday, as I once again went back to rewrite Chapter 1 (!?) in my 760 page, 30 chapter novel that I've been working on for the past 3 years, I came across an "authour" website that put me in full rant mode. But as it was Friday, I thought I'd post those thoughts early next week when we're all a bit grumpier.

Instead, I thought a trip around the entertainment world (movies, television, books, trends, etc...) as a regular Friday post might be fun, along with a completely subjective top ten list. (Thanks to Jason Ramsay for the idea) Any other ideas for regular columns? A sports round-up perhaps?

Despite the fact that it's Leafs-Canadians tonight on Hockey Night in Canada (for those of you south of the border, this is an old NHL rivalry. If it was college football, the equivalent might be Notre Dame - USC) I'll post something later today. I'm thinking it will be a late entertainment blog.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Snow Day Dance Break

Turned out to be one of those days when driving seemed like a dumb idea, considering how we all turn into morons when it snows. And since I'm sure we could all use a break, why not get up and dance around for a bit. Robyn will help you.

Oh, and make sure the video camera on your laptop is off. Just sayin'

Writing Fantasy, Tim Tebow and the Cult of Winning

Someone asked me again recently why I write fantasy. Wasn’t that a genre for children? Why didn’t I write something more serious? Perhaps something for grown ups. Although it’s a question I’ve fielded a number of times in the past two years, it always throws me a little, and I usually end up stammering a different response every time. When it’s done well, fantasy writing provides everything I’m looking for in narrative. A great story. A big story. A new world. An escape. Incisive commentary on our culture. Theological and philosophical reflection. But upon reflection, the greatest aspect of fantasy, and why I chose to work in this genre, is that it emphasizes the journey of life. And in a culture married to winning and success, fantasy novels remind us of that old sports axiom: it isn’t whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.

Consider Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS. The tale of Frodo and his friends is essentially an internal journey manifested externally in the form of elves and Mordor and new kingdoms. Tolkien was creating myth, and all myths, all great tales, provide guidance for our interaction with a shifting and often tragic existence. The world makes no sense, and help is needed to navigate the journey. There’s a reason that many people, especially young people, who read fantasy or science fiction are categorized as “geeks.” They are outsiders in school or in their homes. They feel shunned. Different. For whatever reason, they do not fit with the people around them. For them, fantasy provides a bridge to navigating this world while looking through the lens of another.

These days, the stigma of fantasy as something for “geeks” has been erased. (Thank you, Ms. Rowling) And it has slipped into the mainstream as our world has continued to get faster, spinning with lightning speed, pushing us to change more quickly, acquire more, and just move Move MOVE! And above all, just win. Whatever the cost, even if it’s the only fifteen minutes you’ll get, push yourself to the top.

We are a culture obsessed with winners. Fantasy is a genre obsessed with participants. We are a culture that teaches success at all costs. Fantasy reminds us that success is not found in the ending, but in the story itself.

I wrote a piece just last week about Tim Tebow, the popular Denver Broncos quarterback who became the story of the year in the NFL. On Saturday, Tebow’s Broncos were annihilated by the New England Patriots, and seemingly overnight his name disappeared from the news. It won’t matter how many disabled children he meets before games or how much he gives to the poor if he starts losing next year. There are a lot of good people out there. But we want winners.

What about you? Who are the winners in your field? In your life? If you’re a pastor, someone will inevitably ask you how many people are in your church. If you’re in finance or investments, you will measured by your earnings. Parent? Tell us how successful your children are. And if you’re a writer, we want to know how many books you’ve sold.

We aren’t the first culture to be obsessed with winning or the first to quantify it in power or material gain. But in a world of over seven billion people, where the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen, the emphasis on getting to the top of the mountain has become paramount. Instead of focusing on the path itself, on the relationships we build and the content of our character, we turn our gaze to the top and forget the richness of the journey. We forget that we weren’t created to win or even compete, but to simply participate.

It’s easy to get lost in the cultural maelstrom, and sometimes it’s impossible to escape that narrative in our jobs or personal lives. I write fantasy for the same reason I read it. It reminds me that the journey is the story. That I’m the only one who can decide what it means to win.

Whatever the culture says, whatever you read or see on television, that decision belongs to you. And if you decide to go a bit slower, decide that you don’t need to be famous or popular or rich, that joy comes from giving, not having, I think you’ll discover what it truly means to win. But that decision isn’t up to me. It’s your path, my friends. Your journey. Are you winning?


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Christians and Hollywood Support Big Brother? What?

I think I was twelve when I saw A Thief in the Night, a 1972 film by Russell Doughton and Donald Thompson. The film looks like a bad home movie now, but it was terrifying as a kid. Thief, along with its three sequels, forecasted the end of the world. It illustrated the rapture (the idea that certain Christians will be taken up to heaven while the rest of the world sinks into war and madness) and the coming age of a one-world government ruled by the Anti-Christ. That was later updated by the massively popular Left Behind series coauthored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which sold over sixty million copies. It was essentially the same story, the same theological idea, thematically comparable to the novel 1984, by George Orwell. A dominant one-world government that controlled the masses through drugs and propaganda or, in the case of Left Behind, microchips. (Incidentally, most evangelicals were worried as soon as they started putting computer chips in animals. It was only a matter of time before they did the same to us.)

Which brings us to the new bill SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and its younger brother PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), which are proposed to be introduced into legislation in the U.S. Here in Canada, we face a similar battle, although much of it is happening under the radar. The essence of these bills, what the legislators will tell you, is to prevent people from “stealing” their material. Movies. Music. Etc… They’ll tell you that they are trying to protect their goods like you would retail merchandise in a store. So why is this important? And what does this have to do with Big Brother? Well, there are a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest is that we live in a world of computers. It wasn’t always this way, of course, even sixteen years ago technology wasn’t nearly as pervasive as it is now. Back then, computers sat on desks at home or in your office.

Those days are gone. Everything is now a computer. Your car is a computer. Your phone. City infrastructure. Banks. Planes. Everything is either a computer or runs on one. The problem is that we can’t build computers to only run certain programs. (I’m not going to go into technical details, but I’ll post a few links if you want to read more why this is so) The best we can do is insert spyware to manage these computers. This spyware already exists and is used, for example, in ambulances. Everything is tracked, from location to time stamps on the sirens to the speed of the vehicle. Which is fine for ambulances, but what about your car? What about your laptop? These bills, and ones being introduced in other countries like Canada, are an attempt by big business to make more money by controlling you.

This is not an issue of protecting copyright. The issue is the power these huge corporations will have over people.

That sounds alarmist, I know, but this is not a small thing. Privacy matters because it is the basis for this crazy idea called democracy. Without privacy, without the right NOT to be watched, we find ourselves back behind the Iron Curtain or somewhere in China. And as we can only control content through Spyware, that’s exactly what we’ll be doing. Providing unseen eyes into our private lives.

Whether we like it or not, computers are here to stay. When I go to the store, I often see elderly men and women being walked through the process of sliding their debit card properly through the reader so they can buy groceries. Even twenty or thirty years ago that would have been unimaginable. But now it’s here, and it’s here to stay. So what we must do, then, is work very diligently to ensure that we protect our privacy despite the invasive nature of technology. That’s why this bill, and its cousins around the world, matter so much. They give too much power to a small group of people.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these bills is the group responsible for it. I know Hollywood is a business, I get that, but how can these executives be so hypocritical? Voting to suppress art in the name of profit? Hollywood (movie companies) will earn well over fifty billion dollars this year through box office, merchandising, television rights and movie sales. Is that not enough? And where are all the evangelicals crying out against this Rapture-like madness? I don’t subscribe to that eschatology, but many evangelicals do, the same ones who form the base of the Republican Party. And where is the Tea Party? Wasn’t that movement all about freedom?

What this tells me is that both groups, who claim to believe in freedom and democracy, are full of shit. The evangelical movement, a large swath of it anyway, pimped out its soul twenty five years ago to politics and big business, and now retains the voice of a chattering squirrel. This during a time when it should be leading the way, if only to give credence to its own eschatology.

Frankly, the whole thing is discouraging. Christians and Artists (although, you could probably assign this to the greedy Hollywood execs) joining forces to support Big Brother. I never would have predicted that. I guess it’s just another reminder that what people say they believe and what they actually believe are completely different.



This is the best essay I’ve read on the subject, but the site is down today in protest of the bill, so you’ll have to wait until it’s up again to read it. It’s worth the wait.

The issues are outlined further here.

SOPA would make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a criminal offense, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison if a user gets caught streaming this content 10 times within six months.

One last article from Wired here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Nothing but a Dream

Although I'd heard snatches of Martin Luther's King's "I Have a Dream" speech, I'd never read it in its entirety before. Wow. What a writer...

"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day."

-Martin Luther King Jr.

Find the whole speech HERE. Thanks to Gangrey for posting it.


Some Morning Inspiration

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I first realized that I wanted to be a writer, I was hesitant about telling people my dream. It wasn't practical, for one thing, and I wasn't very good either. I wrote in secret, and when I did mention it to others, I made it sound like it was just a hobby, a side pursuit. I didn't talk about the way it made me feel, the way it lit me up inside and filled me with excitement. Not until, that is, I read Stephen King's ON WRITING. King was firm about not only the amount I needed to read and write every day to be successful (4 – 6 hours, 1000 words), but also that I needed to own my dream. That so long as I didn't respect my dream, nobody else would either.

I took both of his suggestions to heart, and not only began to immerse myself even more in my books and work, but I began to tell people, timidly at first, my dream of being a successful writer. I was sure that I would be laughed or mocked, or see those signs of disapproval that people give without always vocalizing it. An eye roll. The disapproving head shake. Mostly though, people were supportive. They wanted to see how I was doing, how the dream was progressing. Because I owned my dream and took it seriously, others did too.

Look, there will always be Dreamkillers. There will always be people who will tell you that you can't do it. I think you'll find, however, that if you look past them and really go for it, you'll find the encouragement you need. Most people want to be inspired. Humans are mimetic creatures, and we're always looking for models, others who will encourage us towards our God-given passions.

What do you want? What is that burning passion inside you? To own your own store? Write video games? Become a painter? You can do it, because the necessary ingredients are already there. Don't let others bring you down. Instead, be their inspiration.

Go get 'em…


More Emerson quotes here.

Yeah, it's a Jordan commercial. Still great.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Schools are Killing Our Creativity

This inspiring and very funny talk by Ken Robinson outlines the importance and necessity of creativity, and how schools teach us NOT to be creative. One thing he doesn't mention here is that the hierarchy of subjects was established in universities even before the industrial revolution, as far back as the 15th century. The only difference was the diminshing influence of theology.

Having spent many years in the Canadian public school system, I can verify what Robinson says. School curriculum does not give equal status to art or aspiring artists, and many teachers, themselves successful products of such a system, do not have either the time, or in some cases, the will to allow for such "distractions." It goes without saying that if we think of creativity as something "extra", and mold teachers to reward conformity, we cannot be surprised when the culture loses its ability to think outside the box.


Book Review: DAVITA’S HARP by Chaim Potok

When I was a kid people were either good or bad. The good ones went to church and dressed well and smiled a lot. Bad people wore jeans and didn’t go to church and had tattoos. I was too young to understand the complexity of humanity, my ten-year-old brain hadn’t developed that ability yet. But even through adolescence and into my early twenties, my views regarding the nature of people didn’t change. Not really. Good people were Christians who practiced their faith religiously and in full view of the public. And then there was everyone else, the non-Christians and atheists and Muslims who didn’t get it. (I reserved special distaste for people who claimed to be Christians but insisted on consuming wine and beer and didn’t seem to understand that these were the “Last Days”.)

If you would have asked me why my view was so extreme, I would have told you that believing in God was extreme and that you needed to follow your beliefs with your life. Or something along those lines. Back then, I’d heard of fundamentalism, but didn’t fully understand what it was or what it meant. All I knew was that people were either in or out, either on their way to heaven or to God’s eternal torture. It was simple and neat and easy.

As I’d held that view throughout my childhood years, I was certain that my understanding of people would never change, but when I started to see the lies and abuse fostered through such a simplistic perspective, I began to wonder. Perhaps the world was more complicated than that. Perhaps God was bigger than I’d imagined. Perhaps there weren’t two kinds of people after all…

These are the themes Chaim Potok addresses in his poignant novel DAVITA’S HARP. Set in Brooklyn circa. 1935, the novel tells the story of Illana Davita, a seven-year-old girl born to radical activist parents. Her mother is a non-practicing Jew who long ago gave up her faith after being raised in a strict orthodox home. Her father is an atheist and a journalist, a man who believes that a new era is about to be ushered in with the imminent destruction of Fascism. Both belong to the Communist Party.

Wonderfully told from the translucent lens of a child, the book traces Illana’s early years, her struggle to understand the tragedy both in the world and in her home. She does not understand the desperation of her parents’ activism or the rigidity of the religious people who surround them.

More than just another coming of age story, DAVITA’S HARP explores the dangers of secular and religious fundamentalism and how our inability to see the many colours of the world scar those around us. Published first in 1985, this prescient novel is particularly relevant considering just how polarized our culture has become, both religiously and politically. It seems we are increasingly pushed towards accepting the child-like notion that there are only two sides to every story. Only two answers to every question.

I’ll admit that there are days when the old me still likes this idea. Days when the world seems too complicated. Too hard. But then I’ll read a beautiful tale like the one Potok has crafted here and remember what I’ve seen. Remember how destructive such notions are. And for a while at least, I’ll find the courage to walk more slowly, to think a little more carefully, and love a bit more widely. No longer a child, and better equipped to handle the world’s lament.



NOTE: The original review from the NY Times is posted here, but be warned that it tells much of the story. Personally, I hate reviewers who insist on giving us a rehash of the entire story. DAVITA'S HARP is not a thriller, but I still don't want to know everything that happens before I read a book. But for those of you who prefer such reviews, it may be helpful.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tim Tebow: Better Than Fiction

I’ve often been asked how I create my fictional characters. (I’ve written three novels, but as I have yet to be published, take my answers with a box of salt.) Well, the process is different for every writer. Some start with a situation, some “meet” their characters unexpectedly in their minds, and then there are others who (eek!)simply pick out characteristics from a chart. For me, the process is both organic and situational. However a writer gets there, the one thing that all good characters share is some sort of flaw or contradiction, an internal or external weakness they are trying to overcome. These ‘failures’ are what help us identify with them, and once an audience identifies with a character, that’s when the magic happens. When a story becomes more than a story. With a guide that we can KNOW, we are taken to new worlds and given new experiences. We are challenged both in what we believe and who we are because we are no longer ourselves. For a time, we become someone else, and through that experience every notion of what reality means, what life means, is given a new lens.

It’s interesting to note here that according to most studies, there’s no difference between real or fictional characters in their ability to model for us or meet the mimetic needs of our race. Your model may be your teacher or it may be Xena (I’d choose Xena, of course), but both can dramatically affect who we are and who we strive to become. But the most powerful fictional character is not one we find in the movies or in books, it’s the person, the real person, who somehow manages to become surpass reality and become something more. Over the course of the past three months, Tim Tebow has done just that.

At first, Tebow seems too bland to be a good character for anything but those droopy romances. He’s white, well built and good looking. He’s devout and kind and the child of missionary parents. He’s also successful, winning multiple championships and decorated as one of the greatest college players of all time. Right away, you can’t escape the feeling that he’s been drawn from a chart, and not very well. As popular as Tebow was in college, he was largely just another athlete. It wasn’t until we discovered his “flaw” that his popularity began to rise. As it turns out, his failure was the arm motion he used to throw the football, the same motion that had produced his success and popularity. By the time the NFL draft rolled around, most experts predicted his failure, and when he was drafted in the first round, the decision was met with a chorus of eye rolls. “Impossible for him to compete with that throwing motion.” “He takes too long to get rid of the ball.” “He throws ducks, not spirals.”

That’s when his possibilities as a great character began to show. Denver, the team that drafted him, buried him on the bench and then fired the coach who had “reached” for him in the draft. Now offstage, fans began to lobby for him. “What happened to Tebow?” “Where did he go?” The past success of their current starting quarterback didn’t matter, and when Denver started the year with one win in the first five games, the new head coach grudgingly gave the ball to Tebow. In that game, he played terribly, but somehow managed to lead the Broncos to victory. Week after week he led his team to improbable, last minute wins. A lame, predictable script if drawn for fiction, but as this was real life, the story took on a whole new significance.

Perhaps if Tebow had kept winning into the playoffs, the story would have died, or at least, diminished in some way. Instead, the developing of his character continued, and Tebow started losing. Not just lose, but look, at times, like one of the worst quarterbacks ever to pull on an NFL jersey. His demise was once again predicted and predictable. He was mocked as much as he was saluted. And then, as with a well told fable, he produced his greatest NFL game to date, leading his team to a spectacular playoff victory in overtime with his team an overwhelming underdog.

(The Tebow story is a classic “W” plot found in most fiction. Hero goes through crisis, but things begin to change and they have success. Something happens and they start to fail again before rising up again to even greater glory.)

There are other elements to the Tebow character that have caused TV sets to hum and churn to record numbers. Increased exposure to his extreme religiosity, his stated “sexual purity”, the continued doubting of his ability by experts, the politicized environment of his chosen religious expression. For my money though, the most compelling aspect of “Tim Tebow the character”, is his un-self-consciousness. He doesn’t dwell on who he is as a character, unlike many professional athletes who understand the basics of mythmaking (or just suffer from extreme vanity) and address themselves in the third person. Every sportswriter who’s covered Tebow says the same thing. What you see is what you get. He’s a good kid. He treats people well. He’s trying to make a difference.

This could all change, of course. Protracted losing, a sense of entitlement, a change in his behavior and expectations. (I have my own nightmare of his political involvement twenty years from now, where he is used by lobbyists and politicians more interested in guns and business than helping others.) Unlike fictional characters, whose stories are drawn and complete, Tim Tebow’s story is as yet unfinished. Just like us. But for now he remains a growing iconic figure, referenced in presidential debates, mocked and loved by diehard fans and casual observers who know nothing about him or the game that has made him famous. Like many great fictional characters, many of them don’t understand why he’s so popular or how he came to be, they only know he exists.

Tebow’s story is the most compelling to cross the sports sections of our dailies in a long time. The irony is that if he were one of my characters, he’d be seen as unbelievable. And in this, we have our final lesson. The greatest fictional characters are those who already exist. I would never have created a character like Tebow, but there’s a reason he’s so compelling. It’s the same reason I’ll be cheering for him every time he takes the field and will continue to cheer for him in the future. That is, so long as his character remains the same.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why Dreams Matter (Aspiring II)

It’s a cold, wet morning, the perfect weather to work. For many writers, the ambience of snow and rain is preferable to a sunny day. Why? Perhaps it has to do with the nature of writing, of dealing with the lament of the world. Or perhaps it’s just a good reason to stay inside. Either way, I am inevitably cheered when it rains. (More so when it snows. There’s nothing like the heavy quiet that comes with snow.) That makes this the perfect day to officially re-launch this blog.

As I’ve mentioned in the About Me section, I started this site seven years ago, and stopped last April because I found it difficult to work on my novel and produce the long, heavy pieces typical of this blog. The dream had always been to become a novelist, but I was pouring so much into the posts here I didn’t have anything left for my book. That said, I was reluctant to give it up. It fed something I couldn’t identify. Something I needed. I was frustrated with my novel, and old enough (38) to consider if it was time to just let the dream go. On a whim, I sounded my frustrations out in Aspiring, and asked Chris Jones from Esquire to take a look at it. Not only did he look at it, but he wrote a story about me on his writing blog. Within a few days, I was contacted by a writer in Indiana. His name was Dan. He offered to look over what I had written so far. In the past, I would have turned him down, but I figured I had nothing to lose. I had no idea whether my story was any good, was fairly convinced that I had spent the past two years producing garbage, and wasn’t sure that I wanted anyone to see it.

I sent him what I had anyway.

Well, he read the first portion of the manuscript, enjoyed it, and made some wonderful suggestions to make it even better. With his encouragement, I was able to keep going. I stopped writing blogs and articles and focused on the book. Every day I wrote. Five, six, ten hours a day. Working, ever working. Trying to be a better writer. Trying to create an epic story that people could get lost in, the kind of tale I’ve loved ever since I was a kid. And every time I faced discouragement or loneliness, Dan was there to encourage me and pick me up. None of this would have been possible without my wife, as well, who similarly encouraged me and spent long hours editing my new pages and dealing with my neurotic nature regarding the work. (It’s good, I love it! It’s terrible, I’m a shitty writer.)

Well, it’s finished now. Three years of work. Years of long nights and longer days. This past month, a group of amazing friends agreed to do a read-through, for no reason other than a willingness to help. I eagerly await their critiques. There are no guarantees, of course, and the odds are long that I’ll even find an agent, but I’ve learned too much to ever go back. Learned about dreams and people. Learned how necessary it is to find others willing to walk with you wherever it is you want to go.

This story isn’t about fame or affirmation from strangers or whether my book makes the New York Times Bestseller list. This story is about the road we share and the journey we take together. It’s about new friendships and changed lives. About the power of dreams and what they mean not only to us, but to those around us.

It’s easy to trade in our hopes for the future, so easy to be cynical. Hell, it’s a daily battle for me. When I see the pain and tragedy in this world, it’s hard to see the point of doing anything, let alone pursuing a stupid dream. Some days I have problems getting out of bed because the force of sadness is so heavy I can hardly move. On those days, I just tell Bethany (my wife) it isn’t a good day, and she leaves me alone to work through the weight of sorrows. Inevitably, however, I turn back to the page. Turn back to the writing. Turn back towards trying to make a difference on this planet.

Dreams matter because they are your source for life. Yes, you can cast them aside and bury yourself in the everyday business of life. They are yours to do whatever you wish. Understand, however, that without dreams you set yourself towards a life of emptiness, ripe for the siren call of hawkers and cheap vendors trading on your dreams for an existence of instant gratification.

Life isn’t easy, and I don’t think it was meant to be. There’s a reason we have to deal with so much pain. So whatever you do, don’t trade in the one thing you’ve been given to fight the world’s lament. Hold on tight, and keep pushing. You may never reach your destination, but the journey will be worth it, that much I can promise you.