Category Archives: philosophy

Prayer, Suffering, and the Nature of God

So how’s your week? Oh yeah? Cool.

Mine included the two devastating, soul-crushing defeats of the Most Excellent Angels at the hands of the Boston Evil Sox of Boston. Which, of course, led me to contemplate the purpose of suffering, and prayer, and the nature of God. No, I don’t think I’m overreacting, why?

(WARNING: This post contains philosophy. Do not read while driving, or while operating heavy machinery. Some content may not be suitable for children or undergrads. The views of the author are not necessarily those of a rational person. Proceed with caution.)

Suffering poses a philosophical problem for those who believe God exists. If God is both omnipotent and loving, then why does suffering exist? Is he capable of alleviating suffering, but chooses not to, in which case how is he loving? Is he willing to alleviate suffering, but incapable, in which case how can we consider him omnipotent?

There is a classic solution to this problem. It argues that in God’s economy, it is the greatest good that counts, and therefore only as much suffering exists as is necessary to produce God’s best possible outcome, the most loving outcome for the most people. We’ll call those two concepts “necessary suffering” and “greatest good”. Like a doctor who causes pain in order to perform a life-saving surgery, some suffering is necessary in order to produce the greater good. A child may suffer with an abusive alcoholic father in order to produce a certain kind of character in that child, which will lead to great benefit for those influenced by the child when he grows up.

The greatest good requires the existence of free-will creatures, since so many of the great virtues (love, courage, integrity, justice, charity) are impossible apart from free-will. If we had been created as automatons, we would be incapable of any of those virtues.

There can be no world in which free-will exists, in which suffering does not also exist. God chose to decree a world with free-will, and allows only as much suffering as is absolutely required to produce the best possible outcome (either in overall human happiness, or flourishing, or if my undyed Evangelical roots are showing, numerical count of souls saved). So, God is constrained by these limitations, imposed by his own nature: the existence of free-willed creatures, the entailed existence of suffering, and the need to limit that suffering as much as is possible while producing the most loving outcome for the most people.

Each individual act of suffering can only be justified if it is necessary to produce the greatest good. If we hold that God is both loving and omnipotent, then we must hold that every actual instance of suffering is therefore “necessary suffering”.

We might rebut that some acts of suffering don’t seem connected to any redemptive good outcome, but we should acknowledge how limited our perspective on the matter is. We see a few things, for a few brief years, with limited understanding. God sees all things, and their eternal outcomes, with full understanding. On the basis of his character alone, we might yield him the benefit of the doubt and allow that all acts of suffering are necessary to produce some good that outweighs the bad.

Let’s lay out the classic resolution in nice tidy philosophy math!

  1. An omnipotent God can control all circumstances and outcomes for all given situations.
  2. A loving God would act to cause outcomes which produce the greatest possible good, and the least possible suffering.
  3. In a world where a loving and omnipotent God exists, every individual instance of suffering occurs only because it is necessary for producing, in the final balance, the greatest possible good.

If we accept this solution, the dilemma seems to resolve. I don’t think it does, though. I think it just shifts to the problem of prayer.

Does prayer influence God’s actions?

The knee-jerk response is “Yes, of course!” We are commanded to pray, and examples are held up to us of how to pray, those examples include petitions for actions general and specific, we are told that God moves in response to prayers, Jesus even gives us a handy parable that shows how important persistence is in having our prayers answered.

Let’s take a specific case of human suffering, a child with a painful and terminal cancer. Suppose that child is surrounded by loving people of faith, who pray fervently and earnestly for the child to be healed. I realize that in a reading audience of this size, there are undoubtedly people who have faced just such a case as this, and please, I mean no disrespect or insensitivity. I apologize for treating a freighted emotional circumstance as a math problem. Allow me though, if you will, to pose this case in a detached way in order to explore this dilemma.

There are 3 possible outcomes in this situation.

  1. God did not intend to heal the child, does not alter his intent based on the prayers, and the child dies.
  2. God did intend to heal the child, and intended so prior to any prayer, and actually does heal the child.
  3. God did not intend to heal the child, the prayers altered his intent, and so he heals the child.

The first two cases fit neatly into our previous perspective on necessary suffering. If the child does die, their suffering was necessary to bring about some greater ultimate good, even though we cannot possibly understand how or why. If the child is healed, then God was able to bring about the greater good without that particular instance of suffering.

It’s the third case that causes me to have mental hiccups. There are two states to God’s intent in the third case. Let’s call them (A) intends not to heal, which is the state prior to prayer, and (B) intends to heal, which is the state after prayer. In the classical resolution of the problem of suffering, only one of those two outcomes leads to the greatest possible good. If (A) leads to the greatest good, then (B) cannot. If, on the other hand, (B) leads to the greatest good, then (A) cannot.

This leaves us in a very difficult situation. If we allow that (B) does, in fact, lead to the greatest possible good, on the basis that it is the course God actually chooses to take, then we must also say that, prior to (B), in the case of (A), God intended to follow a course of action that included unnecessary suffering. We must choose between two equally distasteful horns:

The Unloving God

  1. A perfectly loving and omnipotent God only allows suffering that is necessary to produce the greatest good.
  2. If prayer alters God’s intentions, then there are some cases in which God’s intention prior to prayer includes greater immediate suffering, and intention after prayer includes less immediate suffering.
  3. Either God’s final intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s original intention does not, and includes unnecessary immediate suffering, or
  4. God’s original intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s final intention does not, and therefore produces less than best final outcomes, and unnecessary final suffering.
  5. A God who intends unnecessary suffering cannot be perfectly loving.

The Unhearing God

The alternative to the unloving God is to accept an unhearing God; we may strike point 2 from the argument above, and say that prayer does not alter God’s intent. Whatever he does, he always intended to do, and the earnest and persistent pleas of people of faith do not, in any way, alter God’s intentions.

I know there are some very smart, and very philosophically oriented people who hang out here, so if anyone can help me pick this lock, I would very much appreciate it. I don’t have a solution here, just the question. It seem like, in the end, we have three impossible choices: a God who is unloving, a God who is unhearing, or a God who is unable.

Do It First, Then We’ll Talk

This semester marks a pretty radical shift in my teaching. I’m adopting two new philosophies for each of my courses, rearranging lecture content and schedules, changing project parameters, all around two new principles.

The first is simple. I’ve made it a goal to never “lecture” for more than 20 minutes at a time. At the 20 minute mark, I stop, and we do something else. Either a class discussion, or a small project, or a break, something else. I’ve been on a steady diet of TED talks for the past 12 months, and I’ve been trying to capture the power of that strict time limit, the intensity of a well-crafted 20 minutes. I think it represents the upper limit of my students’ attention span, and rather than fighting it, I’ve decided to embrace it and use it to my advantage.

The second principle is more fundamental, and for me much more difficult. Most of the time, my thinking moves from principle to extrapolation. Once I learn the structure of MIDI messages, I can then move on to figure out how you might use them to deliver different kinds of musical information, how you might edit or filter them, a whole host of ideas can follow out of understanding that underlying principle. I organized my classes along similar lines, first teaching all of the core principles of a field of study, and then putting them into practice in the back half of the semester with projects. The result was that I bored my students to death in the first 6 weeks of the semester, bombarding with stuff that I knew was important, but that they really didn’t care much about.

I’m flipping that around this semester. I’m following a “do first, understand later” plan. In music technology, that means getting students to record and mix something the very first week, before they have any clue what they’re doing, and waiting until November before we even start getting into vocabulary, graphing, any of the more technical parts of the course. In Music & Ethics, it means pushing case studies to the front, and systematic moral philosophy to the back end.

I’m hoping that two things happen. First, I’m hoping to make some students more comfortable with unstructured progress, the ability to learn how to function with uncertainty. I’m coming to believe more and more that this is a critical skill to success in life, and something that they have not learned well to this point in their schooling. The skill used to figure out how to record a song with a piece of software without knowing “how it works” is the same skill set that they will later use to plan a semester of music classes, or produce a recording, the same skill set that will let them survive their first year of professional life, when they don’t know how anything works. The ability to jump into something with only a vague sense of how it works, and to emerge successful, is on the top tier of necessary skills for the professional musician.

My second hope is that it will spark a series of questions, that it will ignite curiosity in the students, and that the back half of the course, the systematic, academic, vocabulary and principles part of the course will become a series of answers to questions that they actually want to know the answer to. Instead of saying “this is a continuous controller message, here’s how it’s structured, memorize this, it’ll be on the test,” it will become “on those projects you’ve been working on, you kept using the mod wheel to change the sounds in interesting ways, here’s what you did, this is why it worked, here’s how you can use it to do other cool things, because it’s structured in this way.”

Basically, I’m trying to trick my students into being curious about the things that I think they should know.

I’m interested to hear from those of you who are teachers, in any capacity. What do you think about these ideas? Any of you go through big upheavals in how you view learning, based on your own experiences? Am I being hopelessly optimistic that these changes will make a difference in how my students learn?

Contentment and Gratitude

Posts in the Sermon Prep: Contentment series

  1. This Week’s Sermon Will Be on Contentment
  2. Contentment and Gratitude
  3. Paul’s Writings on Contentment
  4. Solomon vs. Paul: gratitude, simplicity, the present, and meaning
  5. The Secret of Contentment

Martin Seligman is the leading prophet of the new science of Positive Psychology. Since its inception, psychology has been fixated with a disease model of mental health; the role of psychology was “making miserable people less miserable.” It wasn’t until recently that Seligman and others started to ask if psychology should also be focusing on what they call “positive intervention”, specific learned actions to increase the flourishing of already healthy individuals. They are working to identify what happiness is, what different factors contribute to it, and to develop specific exercises that can increase happiness.

If this sounds like an episode of Oprah masquerading as science, then yes, it does sound exactly like that. Until you check out the actual research, the methods they’re using, and the rigor with which they’re analyzing the results (check out their published results in the journal of the American Psychology Association – pdf link). They’re doing actual sciency things! Like, using a control group, accounting for deceptive self-reporting, tracking the degradation of results over time, things like that.

Obviously, somebody in the group spent a little time reading old dead white guys, because they’ve divided up that big vague term, happiness, into three different kinds of lives, which are suspiciously close to the kinds of eudaimonia that Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus kept harping on.

  • The Pleasant Life – what we might think of as a life of leasure, surrounded by comforts and positive experiences. The rock star life. Solomon (maybe). Of the three kinds of happy, the pleasant life dissipates the most quickly. It turns out that the positive emotion generated by pleasant experiences acclimates quickly. The first time you use your new iPhone, you generate a lot of joy. The second time, some. The third time, it’s become habituated, you acclimate to it, and you no longer feel joy. Debt, yes; joy, no.
  • The Engaged Life – the person who has sustained experiences that match up closely with their strengths, and from which they derive satisfaction. When they are engaged in those experiences, their awareness of things outside of their local experience decreases, the “time slows down” idea. The poker player who is completely in the moment whenever she plays. The musician for whom the 50 minute singer/songwriter set at Hotel Cafe is a highly engaged experience, where time slows down and they meld into their songs. These experiences have a more lasting effect on personal happiness, and rather than being quickly acclimated to, they produce increasing satisfaction. The more engaged experiences you have, the more each one impacts your personal happiness.
  • The Meaningful Life – Using your primary strengths in the service of something larger than yourself. Mother Teresa. Larry Brilliant. The Apostle Paul. Richard Simmons. This produced the most sustained level of satisfaction of any of the three, and it is the least easily dissipated. You know, almost as if human nature were uniquely designed with this in mind!

Armed with these different definitions of happiness, Seligman and others designed exercises to try to increase the amount of satisfaction or pleasure derived from positive experiences. These include things like doing a personal daily review to reflect on three positive experience, and to examine the causes of those experiences. Another exercise is to plan ahead of time a beautiful day, and then to carry it out. Again, what distinguishes this from checkout stand pop psychology is that these exercises are done with large population samples, the outcomes are measured against control groups, and the outcomes are measured multiple times afterward, to check for decay. These are rigorous scientific studies, not self-help guides.

The exercise that sparked my attention was something called a “Gratitude Visit.” In this exercise, you think of someone in your life who did something positive that had a lasting impact on your life, whom you never properly thanked. You write that person a letter expressing your gratitude, you go visit that person face to face, and read them the letter. Of everything tested, the gratitude visit had, by far, the largest impact on a persons positive mental state. Participants had a 30% increase in personal happiness in the days following the exercise, they maintained high levels of joy in the month following, and it took about 3 months for the impact of the exercise on mental state to dissipate. 3 months of increased joy, from one act of deeply expressed gratitude.

I love it, so much, when scientific process gets around to demonstrating things that people of faith have known for a long time. This is not a science vs. faith statement – science is executing its search for knowledge by a different means, and with appropriately self-limiting tools at its disposal. But for people of faith, this idea of gratitude as an essential component of happiness is as old as Adam (or at least, as old as Moses and his merry band of bitchy Jews).

Gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. Entitlement demands, gratitude receives. Entitlement is the byproduct of pride, gratitude is the emotional of humility. I don’t think it’s an accident that Paul’s landmark statement on contentment, and his explicit connection of contentment to the person of Chris, comes only a few paragraphs away from his landmark statement on humility, and his explicit modeling on the nature of Christ.

Humility begets gratitude, gratitude yields sustained joy, the kind which does not dissipate into discontentment.

Previous in series: This Week’s Sermon Will Be on Contentment

Next in series: Paul’s Writings on Contentment

Inevitable Imperfection – My Absurdly Long Wall*E Review

First, a word.  

If you have not seen Wall*E, feel free to spend some time reading my little meditation on why Pixar is the greatest thing ever, but be warned: the actual review of Wall*E, the movie, is spoiler-tastic, filled not only with key plot points, but my opinions on the aesthetic choices of those plot points.  If you have even the vaguest intention of seeing this movie, please stop when I get to Wall*E, go see it, and return there when you’re done.  I have no interest in ruining your movie-going experience.  This is the virtual version of the “Post Movie Dissection over Coffee at Jerry’s Deli”  You shouldn’t be here if you didn’t just plant your butt in the seats.

This review is painful for me to write, and joyous at the same time.  Wall*E is Pixar’s first flawed film.  The Flaw is brief, about five total minutes of film, and should in now way stop you from enjoying the other 92 minutes of sheer, sublime perfection.  

What is perfection, especially when talking about something so subjective as a film?  Well, let’s have a look at perfection, shall we?

Toy Story.  Toy Story got everything right, from the first frame to the final.  An ingenious, multilayered, hilarious, thrilling, touching moral fable about children, greed, pride, joy, acceptance, love and heartbreak, hubris and devotion.  Indulge me for a moment, for I just watched Toy Story again this past week, on a 4 inch tour bus screen with 30 High School Students, and yet its genius still shone through.  Remember with me…

The outrageously entertaining action sequence, featuring R. Lee Ermy’s band of green, plastic army men assaulting a child’s birthday party, at the behest of a small civilization of toys, sending the military in to assuage their security fears in a changing world.  

The instantly recognizable humanity of Tom Hanks’ Woody the Sheriff, facing unexpected displacement as the chosen leader of his tribe.  The tribe of toys themselves, both looking to Woody for leadership and resentful of his role as Chosen One.  

Buzz Lightyear.  My stars, what a joyous creation.  All piss and vinegar, lasers and lights.  Unable to see, even for an instant, past what he believes to be true, in the face of painfully obvious reality.  Woody is justifiably enraged at his insanity and astonished to see his friends shellacked by this impostor.  

The entire middle act, where Woody and Buzz, protagonists and antagonists both, find themselves relying on and using one another in their attempts to survive and return home, or in Buzz’s case, save the galaxy.  

The descent into Sid’s lair.  A place devoid of love or peace, save a little girl who gets constantly harassed by a villain.  Where are mom and dad?  Ah… asleep or shouting.  Sid is no simplistic caricature.  Oh, he’s a villain, make no mistake, but the filmmaker’s aren’t content to stop there.  They are storytellers, they want you to understand why he is who he is, and their command over their craft tells the viewer all they need to know in short order, that the action may continue.  

The unfolding of the final 15 minutes.  A breakneck action extravaganza.  Dogs, mutant toys, a rocket strapped to a spaceman’s back, minivans, near misses, mid-air collisions, old friends reunited, relationships restored, the kids cheer, the conflict’s resolved.  

Oh, and also, some madperson had the idea that the little sentient toy aliens inside an arcade game at a pizza joint would become a mad bunch of cultists who worship, “The Claw,” might be the most wonderfully absurd comedic idea of the mid 1990′s.  

For a second, think about the first time you say Toy Story, in 1995 or so.  We now take for granted the fact that there was media created before CGI implanted itself into our sense of visual possibility.  You had never, ever seen anything like Toy Story.  It was a visual wonder.  The camera was everywhere and unbound.  Visual and sonic information was woven into technologically secured sacred marriage of old-school writing chops, great voice acting, a killer Randy Newman score, and a bunch of animators who were in love with the idea of telling us a story we’d never forget.  

Don’t worry, most of them won’t be this long.

A Bug’s Life.  This was #2.  A Bug’s Life was the one that taught us that perfection could happen twice, and that there are shades of perfection.  I have fewer memories of this one, off the top of my head.  I remember thinking it was whip smart, again.  It was astonishing to look at, again.  Denis Leary as a ladybug.  Yes, please.  The insane, dazzling complexity of the Bug’s world.  The one wide shot of a trailer with one moth frantically yelling at the other, “Don’t go into the light…”  ”But it’s soo prettttyyy  ZZAP!”  FUNNY!

Was A Bug’s LIfe as perfect as Toy Story?  I dunno.  Shades of perfection.  A Bug’s Life was perfect for what it was.  I am getting the giggles as I search my memory banks for the great lines.  I’m gonna have to watch this one again.     

Toy Story 2  Uh oh.  A sequel already?  You’ve only made 2 movies.  Against all odds, Toy Story 2 was as good as the first.  A wild adventure that expanded the world that was so elegantly created in the first one.  

An existential drama… with children’s playthings dealing with their own mortality.  The poignancy of Woody’s discovery that the only way to stay needed forever was to surrender his ability to play, or be played with.  The bitterness of Joan Cusack’s Jessie, never wanting to love again, ready to surrender true love for something that will last, but is profoundly sadder.

Oh yeah, but it’s a comedy, too.  How great is Buzz Lightyear’s toy store encounter with his nemesis, Emporer Zurg, leading to a great confrontation between the formerly deluded hero pitted against the only toy in the galaxy more devoted to his perspective?  It’s great right?  

Toy Story 2 is one of the great sequels, in company like The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, Terminator 2, even Godfather Part 2.  I mean that in all sincerity.  Cartoons are art, at least to my family.

Monsters, Inc.  This was my least favorite of the perfect Pixar canon.  A lesser degree of perfection.  Still, it did exactly what it was supposed to do, and even though I didn’t find the emotional connection in this one as with the others, it’s still as entertaining a movie as any other I can remember from that year.  It made a zillion dollars and had several charms, like John Goodman’s Sully as he falls in love with little Boo, and the astonishing creativity of the final chase scene through a mechanized maze through a matrix of bedroom doors that can open to anywhere.  This is a buddy action comedy with a heart, it’s not curing cancer.   But it’s still perfect.  It doesn’t miss a step, never fails to entertain.

I remember thinking, “How long can they keep this up?”  For the first time, we had to wait two years to see, and I am not sure we were prepared for what came next.

Finding Nemo was the first of the four great Pixar movies.   This was Pixar’s Pinocchio, their Bambi.  Mom died before the opening credits, ya’ll.  So did all of Nemo’s brothers and sisters.  This was not a movie about safety.  It’s undersea environment was an ocean of wonder.  Alternately a crystalline beauty and a delight, or a murky world of danger and loss, the world of Nemo was altogether different than anything we had seen before from Pixar.

Consider these subtle changes:  Finding Nemo is a road picture, as where the first three had a definite sense of space, and place.  At 100 minutes, Nemo was longer by 10-15 minutes than most animated features before it, Pixar’s included.  It also moves in less of a traditional three act structure, instead moving episodically as a road picture should, as Marlin and Dory continue their search through the endless vastness of the sea, a father and a plucky sidekick hoping against hope to reclaim his son against all odds.  Heavens.  It’s The Searchers underwater.

But it’s funny, too.   Remember Bruce, the great white who drags Marlin and Dory to his shark infested AA meeting.  ”Fish are friends, not food.”  Funny.  Remember merry band of crazies in Nemo’s prison tank, especially the really nutty one that only shouts “BUBBLES!”  VERY funny.  Remember, oh please tell me you remember the squadron of seagulls, capable only of yelping… “Mine?!  Mine?!!?  MIIINNE?!?” as they chase our heros through Sydney harbor.  Funny. funny. funny.

Oh, and it also made you weep.  Remember the poetry of the sequence where Marlin’s story of bravery sweeps across the ocean, all the way to a dentist’s aquarium, where his despondent son is hoping against hope that his nebbish father might actually come save him?  

This was a subtle thing, but for the first time, the scoring duties were transfered to Randy’s nephew Thomas, whose scores never fail to evoke a lyrical and haunting musical texture.

Inexplicably, they decided to outdo themselves with…

The Incredibles.  Ask any fan of sci-fi, or James Bond, or comic books, or action movies, and they’ll tell you that The Incredibles just instantly implanted itself in their cerebral cortex upon the very first viewing.  This was the first movie directed by someone who wasn’t grown up in the Pixar farm team.  This was the creation of Brad Bird, the thus-far under-appreciated creator of the past forgotten gem, The Iron Giant.  He’d been brought into the Pixar fold by his old roommate John Lasseter.

Bird was brought in long after they’d started knocking it out of the park, and as evidenced by their first creation together, they gave Brad the keys to the kingdom.  I could man-crush on The Incredibles as much as I did for Toy Story (1), but I won’t.  

Let’s just say this:  The Incredibles was, for me, the first purely grown-up Pixar movie.  Sure, kids might dig it, but it was for mom and dad and we knew it.  It was PG.  It had a real bad guy.  It had a great script.  Think about all the great exchanges between Holly Hunter’s Elasti-mom and Craig T. Nelson’s Mr. Incredi-dad.  Talk about capturing the moment when you must choose between being the superhero vs. raising the next one.  When was the last time you were looking forward to hearing dialog from an animated face?   (Also – Craig T. Nelson killing it?  Whaaa?!) 

Let’s talk about the action.  Breathless.  Huge.  Beautiful.  This is Spielberg inside a computer.  This is Raiders vs. Jaws vs. Return of the Jedi.  It’s Die Hard and Goldfinger.  It’s X-Men and Father Knows Best.  It had Samuel L. Jackson AND that chick from NPR.  It was about mediocrity and jealousy.  Jason Lee’s Syndrome was Salieri with rocket boots sans religious grounding.  

Oh, and did I mention funny?   Baby Jack-Jack?  Hello?

Cars has been long derided in the blog-o-sphere and by fanboys as “My least favorite of the Pixar canon,”  Having recently concluded, courtesy of my 2 1/2 year old son, my 3,445,987th viewing of this film, I can tell you with some certainty that this is simply untrue.  

Cars is a little gentle thing, yes, but it was such a love.  No great threats here.  No barracudas eating mom.  No existential toy drama.  No movie geek homages.  Well… perhaps a few.  

Cars was about friendship, and slowing down.  It was about the dangers of going too fast.  It featured the voice talents of the late George Carlin, and Cheech Marin.  R. Lee. Ermy again, and those two guys from Car Talk on NPR.  Old voices, gravelly and worn, with a wink and a smile and a good natured sense of humor and drama.  Good Lord, even Larry the Cable Guy managed to be endearing.  I don’t think we’ve accurately stood in wonder of that present reality.  ”Larry the Cable Guy, in the right role, can be…. endearing.”  Seriously, try and say that three times.  It’s not easy to do.  

Then there’s Bonnie Hunt, who could warm up the frozen north with the sound of her voice, Owen Wilson playing a lonely hot-shot with a perfect mix of bravado and relational retardation, and the great Paul Newman, in what may end up being his final role.  Tony Shaloub, Michael Keaton, and the ever present and ever wonderful Pixar mascot, John Ratzenburger are all put to use as the great tapestry of characters unfold.  

Cars is a gentle thing, it moves slow.  When it revs, it revs hard, but at its heart is a little James Taylor tune.  If someone asked me to show them ten movies that portray the best of what it means to be an American, Cars would be on that list.

Oh, and forgive me for forgetting… it’s also zingy and funny and loopy and wise.  It’s a movie with a sound moral compass.  How often can one say such a thing?  

Ratatouille was a total and complete surprise.  It came out when I was out of town for a week, and then one thing lead to another and another, and Erica and I didn’t get around to seeing it until a couple of weeks after it had opened.  Perhaps it was also because it was a movie about… a rat.  A chef rat.  In Paris.  It didn’t feature any big stars.  The trailer was somewhat… lackluster.  I dunno… by the time we got to it, it had been relegated to one of the smaller theaters in the multiplex.  I had low expectations.

I was wrong.  

Ratatouille is, I think, my favorite Pixar movie.  It’s a movie about art, and artists.  It’s about genius, and those who can appreciate genius, and how those who truly appreciate genius are somehow themselves wrapped up in that genius, creating the natural circle of artist, art, and patron.  One feeds and nourishes the other.  They are symbiotic.  

Oh, and it’s funny.  It’s gut-bustingly funny.  It’s grab the chair and gasp for breath funny.  It’s Bugs Bunny vs. Monty Python funny.  It’s slapstick, but elegantly and intellectually so, which is the rarest and purest and only truly joyful brand of slapstick.  

Ratatouille reminded me that it’s great when filmmakers have something up their sleeve that you do NOT see coming.  

So, there it is: perfection.  Eight movies, all perfect in their own ways.  Eight different shades of greatness.  The box office and accolades and fanboy lore have intertwined into a success story that was earned the old fashioned way.  As Pixar guru John Lasseter is regularly quoted as saying, “Quality product is just always a great business plan.”   

Which brings us to Wall*E.  Yes, this is still a movie review, not merely a geekasm.   

Wall*E is not perfect.  Wall*E is magical, yes.  Visually stunning, yes.  Romantic and evocative, yes.  Thought provoking and timely, yes?  

Perfect?  No.  It’s imperfection might go over the public’s head, and as evidenced by it’s glowing reviews and strong opening box office, it’s going to take an artistically minded, formerly Evangelical Christian to point it out, and that’s me.  For the record, I am still an evangelical Christian, but I could write an equally long essay about the difference between Evangelical, and evangelical.  That’s another blog.  

I think that one of the problems, in retrospect, that I will have with Wall*E is that it was so effectively marketed as The Greatest Thing Pixar Has Ever Done.  From the first preview, with the Lords of Pixar reminiscing about a pitch meeting Way Back When where they batted around the ideas for A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc., Finding Nemo, and Wall*E.  

The setup is brilliant.  What happens if, after the human race abandons a used, battered, hopelessly polluted earth, they forget to turn off the last clean-up robot?  Well, it turns out that he develops a life all his own.  Wall*E is a beautiful character.  Childlike, but not childish.  Curious, but not greedy.  Sacrificial, but he takes care of himself, (see the great bit early on where daddy gets himself a new pair of shoes.)  

Much has been said about the nearly wordless opening act, but not yet enough.  It’s simply one of the most beautiful, tragic, depressing and uplifting sequences I’ve ever seen on film.  Wall*E lives in a rusted, lifeless, abandoned world devoid of life, or love.  He is alone, save his friend the cockroach, who can take a laser beam to the face and keep scurrying about.  Pixar can make you chuckle even in a post-apocalyptic dystopia.  

Pixar?  Post-apocalyptic dystopia?  Yup.  What makes the opening sequence of Wall*E so astonishing is how much joy it finds in the little things, amidst an unassailable mountain of debris and despair.  Wall*E collects little wonders in his plastic igloo cooler as he goes about his day(s).  A bra,  A Rubic’s Cube, a VHS player (amusingly attached to what appears to be an iPod.)  All of these things he discovers as he sifts through endless mountains of our trash.  

At night, Wall*E studies his treasures and watches old movies.   He obsess over Hello Dolly, of all things, learning how to hold hands, wanting to dance, wanting to… live.  

No reason is given for Wall*E’s development of a personality, and none is needed.  He’s so rich a character, so immediately accessible, that some sort of ham-fisted forced explanation would just be a distraction.  More on that in a moment, ham-fisted explanation, that is.  

Wall*E’s world is turned upside down by Eve.  Eve is an exploratory probe, searching for signs of organic life.  After a terrifying and spectacular arrival in a sleek, monstrous ship, she is set free to flit about and search for her prize.  The ship disappears, and they are left to themselves. 

Wall*E falls goggles over treads in love with Eve.  He follows her at a distance.  Old music swells in the background, and Pixar again performs a miracle.  Wall*E reminded me of every adolescent crush I ever had.  Remember when the mere sight of the object of your obsession made you dizzy?  Remember when lust wasn’t about sex?  Remember when you could just sit there, stare, and lose focus on everything else in the world?  Wall*E captures something so inherently human, and transported my mind back to a season of my life that I thought I wanted to forget.  I was wrong.  Hormone enabled obsessions are strangely beautiful.  They seem so real, and can, IMO, lead to things that are real.

So, Wall*E loves Eve.  In a great genre and gender-bending little plot twist, it turns out that Eve is violent, rash, and dangerous.  One false move, and she starts shooting.  Wall*E survives due to his resourcefulness and kindness, and Eve (ever the teenage girl) allows him to tag along.  

When Eve finds what she’s looking for, a programming code inside her takes the plant into her body, and shuts her down and locks her up tight.  She is but a tool in someone else’s hands a mechanical slave who is serving a purpose.  

Wall*E does something wonderful here.  He continues his devotion to a inanimate object that is now not only capable of loving him back, but unable to do anything.  Wall*E serves this comatose Eve like the way a spouse would care for her.  He sacrifices and endures for love, love that is not (at least in this moment) returned in any measurable quantity.  

Now.  Up until this point, I was convinced that Pixar had indeed outdone themselves.  The visuals are… just magnificent.  Sound design, brilliant.  Storytelling, otherworldly.  Emotional content, rich.  But then, the ship returns, and Eve is callously whisked away with Wall*E in hot pursuit.  He hitches a ride to their destination, and Wall*E (the movie and the character) takes a strange turn.  

See, it turns out that the human race has been living on a space luxury liner for all these 700 years, waiting for their fleet of handy-dandy cleanup robots to clean up the mess they left behind.  They have grown horrifically fat, and bored.  They float around in their hoverchairs, attended by a sub-class of robots, talking past one another on a 3D internet apparatus, and are fundamentally disgusting, the worst of what complacent humanity can be.  

Now, here’s a problem that really messes with the 2nd half of the movie.  I think the filmmakers thought that they would need to up the comedy factor in the 2nd half, as to not alienate their audiences after the darkness of the opening.  They were right, but the comedy becomes a cartoon… a kid’s movie in the worst sense of the phrase.  The humor is obvious, and cheap, far below the standard pop and zing of Pixar’s impossible standards.  The human characters are too sad to be lovable, but too annoying to be pitied.   I sincerely wish that the ENTIRE story had been told visually, with the humans all mumbling in some Charlie Brown-esque language that the robots cannot understand.  

Ok, back to the plot. 

Wall*E cleverly shadows Eve all the way up to the bridge, where she is awakened and opened up to discover, the plant is MISSING!  The plot thickens!  She is assumed to be faulty and sent down to the repair bay for reprogramming, and, as can be imagined, escapes and madcap adventures ensue as they try and track down the missing plant and discover who (or what) stole the evidence from them that the Earth is returning to a livable status.  

While they’re on the bridge, we meet the character of The Captain.  He is momentarily excited when it’s revealed that Eve is carrying a sign of organic life from earth, but also terrified.  No one knows how to actually do anything outside of their slothful routine, so the idea of actually having to, you know… lead, is daunting, but also a bit exciting.  After they leave, there’s a short bit where the captain starts to investigate life on earth, via his computer.  He goes all through the night, and has something of a transformation process as he starts getting a picture of how far the human race has slid into apathy and boredom.

Now, The Captain is the only human character with anything resembling a story arc.  He’s sort of the stand-in amalgamation for the entirety of the blubbery mess below.  Herein lies Wall*E’s fundamental flaw.  (Spoiler Alert)  It’s revealed that The Autopilot, a robot cleverly designed as a futuristic ship’s steering wheel on a telescoping arm with a malevolent red eye, is trying to stop the humans from returning to earth, as his usefulness will be rendered null and void… or something.  

Anyways, The Captain sinks the ship of Wall*E with some really low budget dialog as he argues with Autopilot as to the future of their vessel.  ”In the past we’ve been powerless, but now life is SUSTAINABLE again…”  etc.  It’s like dialog that’s a vessel for environmental buzz words, not real dialog.  I was watching a CGI fatso read the brochure for Greenpeace.    

Pixar has been undone by a great old truth: If you’re more concerned with getting your message across than you are concerned about telling a great story, you’re screwed.  I mentioned that I grew up an Evangelical Christian.  I also grew up a movie nerd.    These two realities were interesting bedfellows.  

Every once in awhile, some group of Christians would pool some money and make a movie.  

Christian movies suck.  Know why?  If you’re more concerned with getting your message across than you are concerned about telling a great story, you’re screwed.  Ironically, this is why I believe Jesus was successful as a preacher.  He told stories with hidden meanings, allowing his listeners to make the connections themselves.  

I seriously don’t know if anyone other then Formerly Evangelical Movie Nerds will make this connection, but I did, and it forces me to disqualify Wall*E as another perfect addition to the Pixar canon, much to my dismay.  

How would I have fixed it?  Are you listening Pixar?  If so, you have any job openings for story editors?  Here are my two suggestions on how you guys could have fixed it.  Any of them would have done the trick. 

Make the movie longer.  It clocked in at 97 minutes, 15-20 minutes shorter than Ratatouille, Cars, or The Incredibles.  Give us more time with The Captain.  Let us care about him.  Let that sequence where he’s discovering all the things we used to do as a race be as poetic and beautiful   For heaven’s sake, smarten up his dialog.  Al Gore had better dramatic timing.  You guys know better!  Did you want to make sure that every kid in America heard the word “Sustainable?”  It’s just not a good word for this.  It leaped at me like a green tinged freight train.  I winced.  You guys know better!

I’m all for going green and conservation and accountability.  I’m all for stories about sacrifice, and hard work, and love and hope, not to mention the consequences of sloth, ease, laziness, selfishness, and quick fixes.  You guys had a killer, killer opportunity to underplay it, and let the viewer make the connections between these themes and the VERY political issue of global climate change.  We would have made the connections, I promise.  We’re quite bright.  

Oh, also… guys… seriously… At the end of the movie, you have what could have been a fantastically emotionally charged moment as the Captain leads the children back to their home planet, and puts the first living thing back in the Earth’s soil in hundreds of years.  This could have been a thrilling, hopeful moment.  Instead, we’re barraged with this idiot telling the kids something like.. “You guys are going to do sooo much farming… you’re going to grow vegetables, and blah blah blah.”  In another decade, it would have been Goofy delivering this bit of dialog. 

Ok, my other suggestion, I already mentioned.  Make the whole thing a silent movie.  How astonishing and haunting would it have been to deprive us of human language through that 2nd half as in the first?  How amazing would it have been to force us to reconcile a human future so utterly alien that we can’t even decipher what they’re saying?  

Have your people call my people.  I can begin work for you immediately.  I have opinions.  

Ok, so 15 years ago when I started this article, mentioned that Pixar’s imperfection has caused me joy, and it’s still true.  Here’s why:  Now, I can go and enjoy the next one without impossible expectations.  Now that I’ve been disappointed, even slightly, I can go back to simply enjoying the work of master storytellers.  I swear I’m not an Anton Ego, guys.  

I still really enjoyed Wall*E.  I actually plan on seeing it again in the theaters, now that my impossible expectations have been deflated, to attempt to catch all of the hundred of thousands of choices that the filmmakers got so right, and just appreciate their craftsmanship.  

Forgive me Pixar, for holding you to an impossible perfect standard.  In all fairness, it was your own fault.  

 

A Short Survey of Interesting Topics

I have 7 students in my Music and Ethics class this semester. They’re just about cresting the first difficult climb in writing their thesis papers. They’ve done the bulk of the research, and had to turn in a full footnoted outline of their argument. All that’s left for most of them is to spill the actual ink, and turn it into something readable. And then, of course, the editing.

They’ve picked some pretty interesting topics, so I thought I’d throw them out here for you folks to peruse. These are their thesis statements, roughly, along with some background.

  1. Sacredness is an ascribed quality, not an objective quality, therefore music that is sacred is always sacred to some person, or group of people. It is sacred because it serves the function of producing desired internal states, considered spiritually significant by people who call the music sacred. This means that 1) people outside of that group have no obligation to the “sacredness” of the music, and 2) it is inappropriately limiting to the creative process to force composers to work within a certain genre of music because of its “sacredness”.
  2. The emphasis on competition within High School music programs is detrimental to the education process. A music educator has an obligation to select repertoire for their ensemble based on artistic merit and educational value, and not competitive value.
  3. A film composer’s evaluation of a potential project should be based on the over-arching primary theme of the film, rather than content that serves that theme. She may choose to work on a film with a strong positive primary message, even if the film also contains graphic sexuality and violence. If the strength of the primary theme outweighs the presence of objectionable content, the project as a whole can be considered good, and worthwhile.
  4. There are three categories of repertoire that are frequently controversial in music education: music with sexual themes (sensual and explicit operatic works), music with overt religious themes (everything written between 600 and 1600 C.E. in Western Music), and music by controversial composers (Wagner’s pro-genocide stance, for example). A music educator has an obligation to perform these works, in spite of the controversy. To avoid them both limits that artistic experience of the students, and presents a skewed perspective on the scope and history of musical literature.
  5. A composer’s original intent is the fundamental guiding principle for the interpretation of a work. Contemporary performers and conductors have an obligation not to deviate from the best understanding of the composer’s intent in their interpretation and execution of a work.
  6. A musician has an obligation to only create works that best express their aesthetic judgment. It is a violation of the purpose of music, and the nature of the musician, to make choices based on values of broad appeal or commercial viability. There are strong parallels between a musician using their craft for less-than-art purposes, and prostitution, in that both treat the person as a means to an end, in violation of the second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative. (This is going to be a helluva paper – this student is incredibly bright, and is making some very, very strong arguments in support of this thesis. Once he’s finished, I’ll give more of my thoughts on this topic).
  7. The lyrical content of music is capable of making moral claims, even in poetic and non-propositional formats. Songwriters have an obligation to produce works whose moral claims contribute to social unity. Songwriters may not plead ignorance in their understanding of these moral claims, and must take responsibility for their social impact as contributing factors to social change. To claim that songs are not sufficient causes for any particular social change is not an argument against their contributory power to those changes. The two primary case studies will be the identification by Klebold and Harris with the music of Marilyn Manson prior to the Columbine High School shootings, and the release of the song F*ck Tha Police by NWA prior to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (I think this student is going to argue that the moral claims of F*ck Tha Police actually fulfill the obligation toward social unity, by exposing an underlying reality that then prompted broader attention and calls for change.)

It’s fun to sit in conferences with these students and read through their arguments, to see the evidence of their critical thinking. I love the fact that I don’t have to prod any of them to find the value in this process – they all seem to understand that spending time thinking deeply about these themes will be beneficial to their development as musicians, and as people.

An Ethical Gamble

This morning, I’m making a $100 bet that my students are ethical.

I got to class early, as I usually do, and left my things on the front table, again, like normal. I pushed my phone and wallet to the edge of the table, until the wallet fell to the floor, and the cash fanned out. A crisp $100 is there for the taking.

I’m curious about who will be the first to walk in the room and see it. I’m certain that none of them would actually take it, but depending on the person, they might really think about it.

We’re talking about Virtue Ethics today, my favorite way of thinking about ethics. Virtue Ethics denies the presumption that ethics is primarily about actions – this action is right, this action is wrong. Instead, it says that ethics is primarily about the virtues people hold. The right action is determined by acting in character with deeply held virtues. In this case, I think most of the students will say that they didn’t take the money because … well, they’re honest. They possess that virtue.

They didn’t do some complicated math about greater benefit to human happiness, they didn’t stop and consider God’s commands, they didn’t pull out their handy notes on Kant’s categorical imperative to only act in ways that are can be reasonably made universal. Instead they acted out of habit. Out of virtue. Out of a learned and cultivated perspective that values integrity.

We’ll see. I may be $100 short, and a little less idealistic, in about 10 minutes.

Lunch with Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff is coming to APU. He’s a very distinguished Professor of Philosophy, most recently teaching at Yale. He’s written extensively on religion and reason, on the rationality of Christian faith, and on the possibility of aesthetics in art. He’ll be giving two lectures, tonight and tomorrow night, both in Munson Chapel, starting at 7PM. Tonight’s lecture is titled “Speaking up for the Wronged”, and tomorrow night is “Love and Justice.” Come if you’re interested.

But the thing I’m really excited about is happening tomorrow at noon. I’m having lunch with Wolterstorff. Well, me and the rest of the music faculty, but I’m still gonna pretend that the two of us are on a date. He’ll see by my eager smile and witty repartee that the rest of these people are mere distractions, and the two of us will escape away together to a pine-covered hillside, where we’ll talk for hours about realism in art, epistemology and religious experience, universals and their implications for ethical norms, just the two of us …

… did it just get awkward? Why the uncomfortable silence, everyone?

Anyway, I’m throwing this out to our wide reading audience, those of you who troll by the RSS feed and keep tabs on us from afar. I know many of you have read Wolterstorff’s writing. In fact, it was a reader here who first introduced me to his writing. If you were sitting down to lunch with him, what would you ask? Any burning questions about ethics, art, religious knowledge, any of those kinds of things?

I promise to dutifully report back to you every sparkling gem of wisdom that falls from his hand. And to leave out the awkward intellectual man-crush stuff.

On Beowulf and Yoga

After last Friday’s discussion of MoCap, The Uncanny Valley, and 3D filmmaking, I thought it was worth a follow up to discuss my impressions of “Beowulf,” as I saw it in 3D later that very day.

Oh, and I’m going to talk about Yoga, too.

First, Beowulf. Beowulf will go down in history as a film unlike most, in that I loved it and despised it at the same time. I want to go see it again, and I never, ever want to see it again. It’s been a long while since I’ve been so totally transfixed, awed, and downright stupified by the immersion experience of a film… oh, and also hated it.

The look of this movie is done a total injustice by it’s previews, which struck me as only moderately interesting. Visually, the only word that describes Beowulf is “Stunning.” I was wishing they would rewind the opening animated logos for the production companies before the thing even started.

The opening scene is a celebration in the mead hall of King Hroogar, played by Anthony Hopkins. I found myself dashing around the screen, trying to take it all in. The depth of field created by the 3D presentation means that a virtual “prop” like a goblet can be seen in utmost clarity as it reflects the light of a virtual fire roasting a virtual pig.

To get right to one of the questions we posed last Friday, which is, “Do the MoCap characters look better then they did in The Polar Express or Final Fantasy,” and the answer for me is yes and no. For some reason, elderly characters looked “right” to me. Perhaps its the flaws in the skin that make it so.

Anthony Hopkins’ capture is one of the marvels of the film, for my money, leading me to ask the question that Jeremy can perhaps answer, which is, how much, in the brave new world of MoCap, does a great actor influence the final, rendered and realized portrayal? Is Anthony Hopkins just that much more skilled then Ray Winstone, or Robin Wright Penn, that his facial muscles just give more interesting information to the computer?

So, have I painted a picture for you? Remember the first time you saw, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or Jurassic Park, or more recently The Return of the King, and you just thought to yourself, “I’ve witnessed something wholly new and groudbreaking?” It’s like that.

So why’d I hate it? Well… first of all, Beowulf is one of the most relentlessly violent, downbeat, depressing films I’ve seen a a long while. The PG-13 rating is totally disingenuous. If this film had been live action, it would have been rated a hard R for violence. Limbs ripped, eyes gouged, chests opened, organs cut out, all in the aforementioned crystalline clarity of digitally projected 3D.

But oh no… it’s not just the gore. It’s just… sad. George McFly’s Grendel is awful to behold, in every way. The cast-off bastard son of a demon witch and a drunkard king, murderer and eventual victim of mutilation and violence. Grendel’s Mother is momentarily sympathetic in her grief over her freshly dead spawn, until that is she gets a whiff of Beowulf’s man-scent or some such thing and then I guess she’s cool… or something. We’re subjected to Beowulf himself, in all his masculine emo discontent.

Bleh!

This film is made for teenage boys, and lowbrow teenage boys at that. Calling it an animated film for adults is a mistake, as butt, dick, boob, and even midget jokes are present in spades. Hey look! Beowulf is naked, and a sword is perfectly placed to cover his junk! Get it? Here it is again!!! GET IT?!?!?!?!? DO YOU EFFING GET IT?!?!!?

Yes. I get it.

Our “Hero” is a one dimensional warrior in a three dimensional world. He’s all balls and no brain, and he pays the price. I cared not what happened to him. In fact, the only character I actually cared about was his sidekick, Wiglaf, played by the wonderful Brendon Gleeson. However, the film is such that, quite literally in the final frame, we are robbed of something resembling a completed story arc for his character.

Even the 3D effects danced on the edge of immaturity.  For every shot that could be described as lyrical, there was a shot that screamed, “Hey!  Look at me!  I’m in 3D!”  Hey, filmmakers!  No more spears in the face, right?

Then there are these two really strange bits of dialog dealing with the spread of Christianity through Europe that left me sort of scratching my head. Odd Line #1 – John Malkovich’s character to Anthony Hopkins early in the film, referring to the priests praying to Odin in the wake of Grendel’s attack:

“Shall we also pray to the new God of the Rome, The Christ?” Interesting, I thought.

Fast forward to the 2nd act of the story, set 20 years later, and outta nowhere comes Odd Line #2 – Beowulf to Brenden Gleeson’s character as a band of marauders attempt to invade Beowulf’s kingdom, something like:

“No heros left in the world, the Christ God has killed them all.”

Huh? What? Is there something you’d like to share with the rest of us, Amazing Larry? Aside: if anyone outside of my immediate family gets that obscure dialog reference, you get a gold star.

Beowulf will not be a runaway hit, because Robert Zemeckis is a boy, and he had new toys, and boys with new toys (even boys who are brilliant filmmakers) do not always the wisest decisions make.

*************************

For some reason, this exercise in masculine excess crossed paths with another train of thought in my head, which is that of Yoga, and they both happened to fall on the same weekend.

I’ve been stagnant in my weight loss for weeks. It’s been terribly frustrating. I up my running. No change. My knees ache and pop. No change. 7 miles. Yes, for those of you who knew me as a cheeseburger snarfing lard-ass, 7 miles. No change.

ARGH!

In desperation, Friday morning I followed Erica to the Yoga class at our local gym. I had tried Yoga before in a class setting a few months ago, and I made it about 10 minutes before I bailed. Feeling like a clumsy pig on ice is not my idea of weight-loss recreation. This time, I was desperate. I knew that I simply was not going to finish losing this weight the same way I started, and I was determined to see it through. I stuffed the mental protests from my conservative evangelical upbringing, took off my shoes, aligned my chakras, and went for it.

I loved it. By the end of the hour, I could feel every muscle in my body. The next morning, I REALLY felt every muscle in my body. They felt elongated. I felt as if I had been tested, and passed, albeit with a fair amount of sweating and near-falling. For anyone who thinks that Yoga is for hippies and soccer moms, I’d like to challenge you hold a Warrior 2 pose (considered basic, FYI) for 30 seconds and see how macho you feel.

Yesterday, Monday, I went again, by myself. This time, I wore longer shorts and a looser shirt so that I wouldn’t worry about revealing my junk to the instructor. (I didn’t have a conveniently placed CG sword handy, you see.) I came earlier, so that I could stretch my muscles instead of leaping right in like I had before.

I sat on my little mat for 5 minutes listening to the ludicrous plinky-plunky music and relaxed and prayed. It was the first time in awhile that I had taken 5 minutes to just pray when I wasn’t in immediate need of something, I’m ashamed to say. I think I had forgotten how powerful Jesus is, because He came to meet me in the group classroom at 24 Hour Fitness in Thousand Oaks. He’s cool like that.

Somewhere in between my prayer and the beginning of the class, two young college-aged Beowulfs walked in the room, swords a-clanging, if you know what I mean. They had clearly come upstairs after spending some time lifting weights and ravishing maidens. Their gym shoes squeaked in the erstwhile quiet, and their “Whispers” were audible to all. One of them was clearly dragging the other, who was mocking the whole endeavor. “It’s not as easy as you think…” was the last thing I heard before the instructor started talking to us about finding our center and becoming one with the earth.

“This is going to be awesome,” I thought to myself.

Sure enough, even as I experienced a phenomenal growth from one session to the next in terms of balance and flexibility, our young Beowulfs grunted, strained, squeaked, and cursed their way through the session. I think the rest of us were blessed with a delightful mixture of pity and smugness. No one grew discernibly agitated at them for their disruption, even though the instructor had to spend a majority of her time correcting their poses so they didn’t tear a hamstring. I think they were actually trying, which is always an endearing quality.

They made me feel like I was Madonna. I was centered over the earth. I was balanced in my space., or some crap like that.

Yoga is teaching me something, but I don’t know what. I don’t care that the teacher is a new age, post-modern, post-Oprah, fortune-cookie philosopher. I don’t care. Her spine is straight and she has an appropriate amount of body fat. She can touch her toes.

My spine is still bent at the top from all those years of carrying around a hundred extra pounds. I can see my toes now, but I can’t touch them. My right shoulder is slightly higher than my left. I’m a mess.

I’m reversing two decades of poor physical decisions, and I don’t care that a Hindu meditation art is going to play a part in that process. Jesus is cool like that. When she says find your “self,” I think, “Find who God made you to be.” When she does the relaxation thing at the end and gives a quasi-space-age-sermonette about not letting your family negatively impact your energy over the holiday season, I think, “Honor Thy Father and Mother,” and, “Husbands should love their wives as they love their own bodies.” When she starts talking about modified plank pose, I think to myself, “Oh, the burning!”

You get the idea.

Dear readers, I don’t really have a way to link these experiences together for you in anything resembling a coherent thought, but they’re all connected in some sort of ironic, existential, spiritual cluster – eff.

Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

Posts in the Music and Ethics: Blog Dilemmas series

  1. Why Be Virtuous?
  2. Ayana and the Sacred Song
  3. Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

This is another in the series of ethical questions I’m having my class work through. I had just finished writing this up when i heard on NPR that Altria is shutting down it’s philanthropic work over the next two years. Good timing! Bonus points on this one if you can tell me what book I was reading when I came up with the names.

Gordon Struan is on the board of directors for Green Valley Orchestra (GVO), a professional regional orchestra known for its innovative programming and willingness to perform new works by modern composers. Struan’s role is to maintain and develop financial donors.

GVO, like many such ensembles, is having a difficult time meeting its financial obligations. Although their concerts are well-attended, the income from concert ticket sales alone is not enough to pay the salaries of the orchestra members. Without significant donations from outside foundations and wealthy patrons, the orchestra simply could not continue to perform.

Struan is faced with a dilemma. His three largest donors all lost large sums of money in the collapse of the real estate market, and have informed him that they are no longer able to donate to the orchestra. Struan must raise $6 million, or the orchestra will have to cancel their season and declare bankruptcy. Two potential donors have indicated that they might be willing to step in and give the needed money, but both come with strings attached.

smoking kidsThe first potential donor is a company named Altria. Altria has long been known in the arts community for their philanthropic activity; they support many regional performing ensembles, and seem especially interested in supporting innovative groups, like GVO, who perform new works. Altria is also the parent company of Phillip-Morris, a cigarette manufacturer that aggressively markets its Marlboro brand to children in 3rd-world countries. Altria’s support of the arts seems like a carefully calculated PR strategy to improve the public image of their company.

smokin grannyThe second potential donor is Victoria Wagner, a well-known and very wealthy member of the local community. Wagner has never shown an interest in supporting the arts before, so Struan is understandably curious when she contacts him with the offer. In the ensuing conversations, however, if becomes clear why Ms. Wagner has had a sudden change of heart. It turns out that her beloved nephew is a struggling composer, and has had difficulty getting his works performed by professional ensembles. Ms. Wagner makes it quite clear to Mr. Struan that if she writes a $6 million check, she expects the Green Valley Orchestra to debut his latest composition.

So, Struan is left with three options. He can accept the money from a cigarette giant hoping to buy some public good-will, he can accept the money from the doting rich aunt looking to launch her nephew’s career, or he can refuse both and close the doors of the Green Valley Orchestra.

Your job isn’t to solve this problem for Mr. Struan. In fact, I don’t even want you to tell me what you would do. Instead, I’d like you to think about the moral values that are in conflict in this dilemma. We will answer the following questions in class:

  1. If GVO takes the money from Altria, is it an implied statement of support for the company’s business practices?
  2. If a utilitarian were to evaluate the Altria donation, what consequences would they have to consider?
  3. Struan is having a hard time evaluating the Wagner donation. He has a sense that some moral principle is being violated by her request, but he isn’t sure exactly what it is. What do you think is wrong with her request? What kind of moral principle does it violate?
  4. Does it matter if the composition by Victoria Wagner’s nephew is well-written or not? Would it matter if he were already a well-established composer?
  5. Struan is a devout Lutheran, and believes that God’s commands are the final source of moral authority. Is there a biblical command that could help Struan navigate either decision?
  6. Kant said that we should act in ways that we would wish to see made universal rules. If Struan refuses to take money from morally tainted sources, is that an act that we would want to see universally applied? What would the consequences be if we applied that principle universally?

Previous in series: Ayana and the Sacred Song

Fellow Travellers In The Valley of The Shadow

He who goes by Bill Metanoya emailed me the other day and told me that he was going to hold his breath until I blogged again, that he needed a fix.  I can only hope that he was bluffing.  If not, my most sincere apologies to Becky and Larissa. 

Here’s my blog.  Take a deep breath, Bill, you’re gonna need it.

Sometimes obeying God feels like utter and complete shit, and the thing that pisses me off about most Christians is that they won’t admit it. 

God told me two years ago to do something, and I did it.  I completed the task.  I finished the race.  I fought a good fight.  I can say, without hesitation, that I obeyed Him. 

In the end, at least thus far, it hasn’t gone “My” way, or at least in the direction that I thought it should.  The end result has seemed like it in no way justifies the sweat, blood, and tears that I invested.  I felt like I was at the end of a big fat cosmic, “Eff You!  See ya sucka!”

Most Christians don’t like to hear things like that.  It makes them all twitchy.  The platitudes start flying fast and furious. 

The other night, some friends were over, and we were talking about this chapter in our lives, and this couple named Dan and Jaime listened intently to my story.  They nodded their heads and said things like, ”Yeah… we’ve felt like that before.”   

I told them how I felt like I had been stabbed in the back by The Almighty, and Jaime said something that finally meant something to me. 

It was along the lines of, “Well… you obeyed God and it didn’t feel good.  So what?  Congrats!  You’re now like every prophet in the Scripture.  You’re in good company.  The question is not whether or not it feels good, the question is whether or not you were obedient.”

It put my soul at something resembling peace for the first time in three months. 

Sometimes obeying God feels like shit, and I’m ok with that.  If, in the future, God brings someone into my path who says this to me, I will speak peace and truth and empathy into their lives like Jaime spoke into mine. 

You may now exhale.

Ayana and the Sacred Song

Posts in the Music and Ethics: Blog Dilemmas series

  1. Why Be Virtuous?
  2. Ayana and the Sacred Song
  3. Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

This is another in the series of posts I asked my Music and Ethics students to consider and comment on. Thought I’d toss it out to the wolves here as well:

Ayana and the Sacred Song
Ayana grew up the daughter of an international trade lawyer, and is an accomplished singer. Ayana moved around the world with her parents when she was young, and along the way learned several songs that were indigenous to the cultures she was living in. One particular song she remembered from a year spent in Australia, called YALKERI MURA MURA.

As her professional career advanced, Ayana often sang solo concerts, and used an arrangement of YALKERI MURA MURA as her encore. The melody was haunting and beautiful; people frequently approached her afterward and commented on how moving that particular song had been.

After one concert, Ayana is approached by a young Aboriginal Australian man, who confronts Ayana over her use of the song YALKERI MURA MURA. The young man informs Ayana that the song is a “naming song”, used by an artist when he creates a churinga, a sacred stone painting. The soul of the artist is imparted to the painting, and both the churinga and the song are considered sacred. The song is only to be sung while creating the churinga, and afterward only when handling it.

The young man tells Ayana that it would be considered highly offensive, even sacrilegious, among Aboriginal Australians to hear the song used to entertain listeners in a concert, instead of its intended ceremonial use. He asks Ayana to stop using YALKERI MURA MURA in her concerts.

What should Ayana do? Does the original cultural setting of the song have any moral weight in how she ought to use it?

Previous in series: Why Be Virtuous?

Next in series: Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

Why Be Virtuous?

Posts in the Music and Ethics: Blog Dilemmas series

  1. Why Be Virtuous?
  2. Ayana and the Sacred Song
  3. Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

As part of the Music and Ethics class, I post something on the course blog each week for the students to read, consider, and then comment on. This is the first of the blog assignments, and I thought it would be interesting to post it here as well, for you folks to interact with:

Blog Assignment #1: Why Be Virtuous?
In class today, I gave you Plato’s view on the interaction between virtue and the human soul, and how a life lived excellently must mean a life lived with virtue. Plato’s is not the only view on the matter, of course. There are other views, by other smart people, on the meaning and purpose of virtue.

Let’s start off the blog assignments by reacting to a few of those perspectives. Here are four statements on reasons to be virtuous. They aren’t quotes, they are my own paraphrases of the views held by different philosophers:

  1. “The best reason to be virtuous is because of the nature of the human soul – we were created to be virtuous, and we do damage to our own nature, our own souls, if we deceive others and act with cruelty.” (Plato)
  2. “The best reason to be virtuous is because of God’s decree – He commands us to do certain things and not to do certain other things, and out of either love or fear, we ought to obey his commands.” (William of Ockham)
  3. “The best reason to be virtuous is the force of social pressure – if you are dishonest and cruel to others, society will shun you, and your capacity to enjoy life will be diminished.” (Ayn Rand)
  4. “The best reason to be virtuous is for the cause of greater social good – society as a whole is better off when people are honest and compassionate toward one another.” (Peter Singer)

There are certainly more options than the ones I’ve presented (include the option to say we shouldn’t be virtuous!), but let’s start with these. Which of the four statements above seems the most true to you? This isn’t a survey, don’t just jot down your answer; give us a little insight into why you think your option is the best choice.

Next in series: Ayana and the Sacred Song

A Virtuous Musician

Today was the first meeting of the brand new class, Music and Ethics. The whole class is built around the question, “What does it mean to be a virtuous musician?”

It was pretty electric – the students were excited about the course, and I was nervous (I still get nervous before every single class session I teach). I did something today that I’ve never done before. The students are all seniors, and I want to treat them like adults, so I let them decide their own class policies. They took the high road – two excused absences and their grade drops a letter, late work loses a grade a week, no excuses for missed reading and lack of participation in class discussion.

I had most of these same students as freshmen, in my Intro to Music Tech course. To see how much they’ve grown up in 4 years is encouraging. To watch them handle their business, and the maturity with which they embrace the challenges of the class, makes me want to do this every day for the next 20 years.

I’ll post some of the content from the course here at the Road House for your perusal, and you can follow along as I mold my own personal army of Virtuous Musicians.

Seasonal Affective Reordering

I love these kids.

These bright eyed recruits, fresh to the craft, newly minted and unpolished, these old and young all-at-once, these boundless excesses of energy, not yet stunted by perspective.

They are as unafraid of questions as any group I’ve ever seen, setting their frame-of-reference up against everything new and ready to see it changed and stretched and grown. They are wolves, and every new thing is their prey. Knowledge, experience, fear, wonder, they hunt it down with precision and abandon.

I sit down to eat with one of them, and hear confession. They are uncertain, and afraid, but they are undaunted. They are ill-at-ease with their received faith, with simplicity and steps and a church reduced to social gatherings, and are looking for some way of meshing old truths with the complexity of the world as they are coming into it. This is the very meaning of courage, to me, to lay aside old comforts in order to take up greater things.

UCO rehearsal campIn these days before the start of classes, there is the luxury of unhurried time, and a kind of egalitarianism. I am not yet their Professor, they are not yet at the mercy of my gradebook, and we can talk freely. We can be friends, for a few days more, and we can talk about ideas and their consequences. I think sometimes that I get to do my best teaching in these last few days of summer, when the campus is full of eager students, and my time is unbounded by lectures and grading.

I love this place, and these kids, and my place here with them.

Thinky Thoughts with Aly: Inequality vs. Inequity

It’s not my plan to make all Thinky Thoughts with Aly a Something vs. Something Caged Death Match, but thinky thoughts have a mind of their own (ha) and that’s just how they thunk this week. Actually, now that I think about it (double ha), pitting related concepts against each other to duke it to the death is one of the the ways we sort shit out. Maybe it’s part of the system Michael mentioned: “We take in data, organize it into a structure that makes sense of it, then use that structure to gather more data.” Maybe Conceptual UFC (RESPECT) is a good idea after all.

We’ll see. Onward…

This week I began editing Tony Campolo’s new book, Red Letter Christians: A Citizen’s Guide to Faith & Politics. (I’m excited and alternately petrified. This is My First Big Book.) I’m not very far into it yet, but it’s already got me thinking. [Side note: In days of yore, I used to think and write about politics a lot. This was until I came to the painful realization that obsessing about civics was a substitute for working out my issues, and I had to put on the kibosh to avoid the looneybin. Now that I'm fractionally less crazy, I'm allowing myself to put politics back on the cooktop, albeit on the back burner. Hey, they're important, but they're not Life.]

So I’ve been musing on the difference between inequality and inequity. In the U.S., “inequality” gets a lot of airtime, I suspect because we’ve got the holding of these truths to be self-evident thing going on as the bedrock of our democracy. (That would be “all men are created equal,” for any of you just tuning in.) But I’m not sure what ol’ Benji Franklin was thinking…it’s pretty clear to me that all people are not created equal. You’ve got tall people and short people, female people and male people (and sometimes in-between people), athletic people and clumsy people, smart people and dumb-as-a-stick people, musical people and hey-I-can’t-lift-this-tune-bucket people. If God created all men equal, She must be using a different dictionary.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure ol’ Benji wasn’t thinking that all people are actually created equal — he was just trying to find a poetic way of saying “Georgie, you’ve got about as much divine right to rule me as I have to fart on your face.” But we seem to forget the circumstances under which The Equality Clause came into being, and have a very bad habit of taking the words at face value, sometimes almost believing that we’re all the same with the lights off. But we’re not. And we’d do well to remember it.

Because aiming social reform at erasing our God-given inequality is about as smart (and effective) as using a paintball gun to screw in a lightbulb. It don’t make no sense.

I hate that “inequality” is so much more of an emotionally loaded word. I think that must be why we keep using it in place of “inequity,” which feels dry and math-ish in comparison. Dry or not, however, inequity is the real Nasty, the bugger we ought to strap on big boots to stomp out.

But it’s hard, and hard is difficult. Inequity is much less abstract than inequality, and that makes it uncomfortable. The numbers don’t lie. (CEOs getting paid 400% of the average worker’s annual salary, anyone?) It’s so much nicer to toss around Big Ideas like “All men are created equal” and golf clap until our hands bleed than it is to sit down with our slide rule and abacus and do the work.

Thinky Thoughts with Aly: What vs. Why

I haven’t been in a writing frame of mind lately, which is a bit unfortunate for one who aspires to make a living doing so at some point in the near future. Editing and writing, I have discovered, use different parts of the brain — or, at least, they use different parts of my brain — and I’ve found that switching between the two is like changing political parties: There’s a lot of paperwork and justification involved. I spend at least eight hours of my day in Editing Brain, and it’s hard to steel myself to fill out the triplicate forms and get my story straight (literally) to put on Writing Brain when I get home.

And also, hanging with my husband while knocking back a bottle of vino is a big distraction. Have I mentioned that he’s my favorite human and that kicking it with him tops just about everything? No? Well, consider that oversight remedied here.

Anyway, it’s been brought to my attention (mostly by said huz) that thinking thinky thoughts and writing about them is part of what keeps me sane, and hey! since we’re all for that, I’m going to try cutting through the mental red tape to put on Writing Brain once a week or so for — tada!: Thinky Thoughts with Aly.

[This is where I insert a disclaimer about my qualifications for thinking and writing about thinky thoughts compared to other authors' credentials, and ask for your patience with my rather elementary approach and tone. Disclaimer ends here.]

For today’s installment, dear reader, I’d like to write about What versus Why. I was actually inspired to think thinky thoughts about What and Why by a book proposal I reviewed this week as part of my editorial duties. (All the editors get together once a week to rip on the ideas of others, which we weren’t man or woman enough to come up with on our own. I love my job!) In the proposal, which was so excellent that I hope we don’t publish it, the author suggests that in this dear old Information Age — borne out of the Age of Reason and accelerated by yummy technology — we try to substitute information (What) for meaning (Why).

Why would we do such a nitwit thing? you ask. (I did, too…and this is where the thinky thoughts come in.) I think we do it because What is easy and Why is hard; because we secretly hope that if we can wrap our brains around all the What in the universe about a Thing, the Why of the Thing will become suddenly obvious and we can dispense with a little thingamajigger called faith (which is the only thing that makes sense of Why).

Here’s a poorly kept secret: I’m a trivia whore. I love to know shit from shinola, and I love even more to tell you the difference. Why? Because information is power. (And who doesn’t love that, can I get an Amen? ) Why does information equal power? Because we’ve predicated our entire society on the faulty premise that the What can save us. Think about the War on Terror. Or consider that the NY Times bestselling “religious” book of the year is based on the idea that we think reality into existence — that the What is the Why. Our sneaky negative thoughts (What) are the reason (Why) we’re in such a fix! (Damn. I wish we’d known this before, say…the effing Holocaust.)

I think you see where I’m headed. Our addiction to What is killing us.

I’m definitely not saying that What isn’t important — I think I may have mentioned that I like information as much as the next gal (and perhaps slightly more). My point is that only Why can make sense of What…not the other way around. To be didactic about it: We can use our What well only when we have a good Why.

Thus concludes the first installment of Thinky Thoughts with Aly.

Reflections on The Eternal City

If you are drinking water from the fountain in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, you should climb to the top of the Spanish steps, turn left, stop at the hilltop cafe to buy a lemon gellato, then walk another 500 steps up the bricked tree-lined walkway. All at once, the trees part, and you will find yourself standing on the garden terrace of the Medici Princes. It is the balcony of Rome, and from where you are standing, you can see everything.

To your right is the Vatican, the towering dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the cathedral that birthed the Protestant Reformation. On the far side to your left, you can see the ruins of Imperial Rome, the city of the Caesars, just peeking out between and above the apartments and buildings. The arch and block architecture of Rome’s 1st empire on the left, and the dome and spire architecture of Rome’s 2nd empire on the right, and the whole city between is echo and cadence on those two themes.

The city is flowing with water. Every fountain in the city is fed directly from the Roman aqueduct, restored and doubled in capacity some 300 years ago. Is is fresh, clean drinking water, cool even on hot days, and the pride of the city. Romans will smile, and point to it, and say “Drink, drink! Is good!” Place your hand on the marble thigh carved by Bernini, stick your head into the stream of water, and drink!

Drinking from the Fountain

Rome invites you inside her history. I expected ropes and barricades, a history to be viewed and appreciated, but never touched, not stepped on, or leaned up against, or drenched under. Instead, I placed my hand on wall etched with an ichthus 1700 years ago, deep in the catacomb tunnels. When I was tired, I sat down on the marble foot of a column set in place by Raphael when he was the lead architect of St. Peter’s Basilica. I sat on a wooden bench in the Sistine chapel where Michelangelo paused to eat his lunch, those few days he did pause, while painting The Final Judgement on the front wall of the chapel.

Every ancient thing in the city is in the city, in the midst of a teeming and vital urban center, with people living their lives, just as people have lived their lives since the tribes of the Three Hills first met together to trade in the sunken valley that would later become the Forum. Rome is not a museum. Her bones are wrapped in flesh.

The Pantheon

Every ancient thing is a monument, a starting point and a prop in the telling of some great story, some story that moved the rudder of history, that set in motion some important thing still echoing today. This church, designed by this artist who was smuggled out of the French court by this pope, which caused this war between Spain and France, which is why this region is part of France to this day. This platform, from which Marc Antony delivered his impassioned eulogy of Julius Ceasar, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ear,” which drove Brutus and Crassus from the city, opening a power vacuum in Rome that would be filled by Ceasar’s adopted son Octavian, whose ascent to the imperial throne sealed the fate of Rome as an empire ruled by tyrants, and no longer a republic. This dank and fetid hole, where Peter and Paul were chained to the wall for 19 months before being martyred for their faith. This archway, built in honor of Vespasian upon his return from Israel after destroying the temple in AD 70, the act that would cement his political power bloc and cloak him in purple, the act that would crush the national identity and religious center of Judaism for 1900 years. This chapel, where Michelangelo, the 33-year-old sculptor, who had never painted anything before, painted frescoes with such ferocity and realism that art changed around him.

Rome is the story of the church. She was incubated and born in Jerusalem, but she grew to maturity in Rome. Rome gave us engineering, architecture, and city planning. Rome gave us banking, and modern economic systems, and taught us how to build infrastructure. Rome is the story of the Renaissance, bankrolled in its prodigious infancy with papal commissions. Rome is a thousand stories, a hundred beginnings, all told with props and monuments that you can walk between, lay hand on, lead against, and on a hot day in July, splash your head beneath and drink deeply from.

Drink. Is good.

italy slideshow

(click to see a slideshow of pictures from the whole tour.)

the nightlies

You should go to sleep

I know.

Why don’t you go to sleep? You need to be up early in the morning.

I know, I’m trying.

If you don’t fall asleep soon, you’re going to be too tired to play well at your gig tomorrow.

Then why don’t you shut up so I can go to sleep?

I’m just saying, better hurry up and sleep. Like right now!

I can’t sleep until you stop talking.

[5 minutes]

Hey.

What.

Remember when you were 19, and you said that really smart-ass thing to your professor in front of some friends? You were too immature at the time to be embarrassed, but now you’re old enough to know better. Maybe now would be a good time to feel embarrassed about it.

WHY WOULD YOU BRING THAT UP! I was almost asleep!

I bet he’s still thinking about it.

He is not.

What if you run into him at a conference someday … what will you say?

I have no idea.

Well, why don’t you take some time right now to plan it out.

I just want to go to sleep.

“Sir, I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m the kid who …” I bet you don’t even get that far before he punches you in the face.

It won’t ever happen.

But what if it does? You should spent some time being worried about that.

[10 minutes]

You know, you really embarrassed yourself at that gig today.

Hey, that’s not fair. I’m still worried about the imaginary conversation with my former professor … you can’t add a second thing on top of that.

I’m just saying …

Don’t just say!

You will probably never get called by those guys again. You didn’t impress them much. Didn’t you used to be able to read music? What happened?

I haven’t been practicing like I should be. I haven’t been practicing at all, really.

I know, it showed.

Shut. Up.

The bass player from tonight is pretty well connected in town. I wonder if he’s talked to anybody else about how badly you played.

It’s only been 2 hours since the gig!

2 hours is enough time to send 120 text messages.

Thank you, Mr. Math.

I wonder if you’ll ever get called for another gig.

What?

Well, why would they call you? You sure sucked it up tonight! There are hundreds, thousands of keyboardists in town who can do what you do, and they’re all better than you, and they practice more, and they’re younger, much younger, and they can work for cheaper than you can.

Thanks.

I’m just saying. Maybe tonight was your last professional gig ever.

I just want to sleep, man. Can you let me go to sleep.

Ok, sure. Sorry. Better hurry. Morning is coming soon, and the minutes are just ticking by. Even if you fall asleep right now, you’ll only get 5 hours of sleep.

AAARRRRGGGH!

[10 minutes]

OK, I have a question for you, jack-hole. How is it that you’re inside my brain, but I have no control over you.

I dunno.

I mean, shouldn’t I be able to shut you off?

Probably.

Why do you get to keep taking over my brain and forcing me to think of things that I don’t want to think about when I’m trying to go to sleep?

I have no idea.

It makes you wonder how much of rational thought is the product of free-will, and how much of it is us constructing a justification framework around impulses that are much less reasonable than we imagine. Maybe intelligence is just a justification scheme for decisions already made for us by lower level impulses.

Could be.

So, does that mean that rational justification for actions is a personal myth, nothing more? The very thing that gives meaning to our narrative is a sham!

Sounds likely.

So life, and rational thought more specifically, is just a continual state of Apophenia, functioning after the fact of the action or thought, instead of prior to it. It’s us trying to find patterns and meaning in assembled sets of decisions and actions, rather than us directing those actions.

Wasn’t there a study a while back that suggested this very thing? It showed the chemical reactions of certain brain processes relating to choices starting prior to any brain wave activity that would indicate that same choice being cognitive?

Yeah, I think so.

You think so?

Yeah, I think I read that, but I don’t really remember.

Well, don’t you think you should go look it up?

Yeah, probably, I think it was on … HEY, I’m trying to SLEEP! QUIT IT!

I didn’t start this one.

Crap.

[20 minutes]

Only 4 weeks until classes start. Have you finished planning out your lectures yet?

No.

This is the year.

The year?

The year that everyone finds out you’re a fraud.

I’m not a fraud.

Of course you are. You’re not qualified to teach any of those subjects.

My peers seem to think I am.

That’s because you’ve fooled them. But it can’t last forever. This is the year they discover that you’re just a fumbling, non-practicing, barely coherent, lazy fool. Goodbye, Academia. Goodbye cushy job, goodbye office, goodbye medical benefits, goodbye professional reputation.

I’m not going to get fired.

No, probably not. Worse, they’ll keep you around, but they’ll only let you teach Music Fundamentals. You’ll have to wander the halls of that place for another 30 years, never able to look anyone in the eye, because they know what you really are.

That’s a horrible thing to say.

Sorry.

You’re not sorry.

Of course not. I’m you, and you’re never sorry for anything you’ve ever done.

That’s not true!

Think about it. Think about all the awful things you’ve done that you’re not sorry about.

I don’t want to! I want to sleep!

So do I, but I can’t until you’ve thought about every embarrassing moment, every stupid thing, every failure, every wasted opportunity you’ve ever had, until you’ve thought about every obligation you can’t fulfill, every person you’ll let down, every responsibility you have to organize over the next 4 weeks, until you’ve processed every possible rabbit trail of thought in your silly little fraudulent head.

I will kill you.

Ha! How?

Scotch.

Yeah, that might work. How many more nights of this, you think, before you become an alcoholic?

SHUT. UP!

public anger

I’m sitting at an internet cafe, doing my e-chores. There is a married couple next to me having a very not-quiet fight. Something about some bills that didn’t get paid, and who dropped the ball, who is hiding mail from who, who is a control freak, who flirts more with coworkers at the Christmas party, whose still lives his life based on his mother’s approval … you get the picture.

All of the unhealthy relationship issues aside, I’m sitting here thinking about how rude public displays of anger like this are. Everyone else around is eavesdropping (no other option – they’re really loud) and everyone is uncomfortable.

I think I’m going to say something.

I mean, obviously not to them, because I hate confrontation, but to you all here on my super-blog instead.

Oh, and passive-aggressive angry couple, if you happen to stumble across this, he hid the letter from the DMV to force you to fail, because it proves that you need him to be in control, and she flirts with her coworkers because it’s her primary method of validating her self-worth. She gets drunk first so that she can claim she’s not responsible for her actions.

That will be $90.