Why the Daily Posts–And Why They’ll Stop

The predominating problem of most of my life has been lack of discipline. Since this very much effects my writing, interspersing good days with dry spells and letting my progress in a given project depend entirely on which side of the bed I woke up on, I decided to change that. And what better way than to make myself write and post on a blog every day?

Having done so pretty consistently since break began, I think it is safe to say I have the output thing down. The problem is, that an increase in content has not also been an increase in quality on this blog. In order to reach that level of output, my posts have tended to be, on the whole, cheap and easy and less than what I expect of myself.

Now, on the one hand, that is perfectly fine. The point was discipline–that I would force myself to sit down and write for an audience (however small) on a daily basis for an extended period of time. But I do not want this blog merely to be a training ground for my discipline, and I do not want to give what audience I have low-quality stuff. I have higher standards for myself and honestly want to contribute a whole lot more.

This means my experiment in self-discipline and daily blogging will be coming to end in the near future. I will be moving from daily posts on whatever I can find to less regular posts on stuff I actually care about and am willing to talk about coherently. Anything less is a disservice to the people who read this thing. Hopefully that shift towards quality will still allow for regularity, and hopefully this test of self-discipline has proven I can sit down every day and crank out the words. But regardless, I want to give you something better, and in the near future.

This experiment has also been helpful in another way. It has allowed me to find out what I tend to talk about given the chance, and (far more importantly) what I have that people can benefit from. That is something that is hard to pin down, something which has a lot of potential to evolve, but what I have learned will probably also give me some direction in where to take this in the future.

Let me wrap this up by saying “Thank you.” I have received a lot of interest and encouragement over the past few weeks, and it has been a real blessing. I have some great readers, and I hope to show my gratitude by giving you something better.

God bless.

The Crafty Whites of West Virginia

I recently watched a documentary titled “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.” The family in question, descendants of the Appalachian entertainer D. Ray White, are all notorious criminals. The camera follows them for several months, recording outrageous interviews and wild parties, births and deaths, prison visits and one sad farewell at the entrance to a rehab center. We meet murderers, thieves, and plenty of drug traffickers and addicts. When all was said and done, however, it was not the horrid lifestyle or its grim consequences that held my attention. What that left me thinking were the insights these white trash criminals had into human nature and the way the world works.

Towards the beginning and end of the documentary, there are several interviews with local lawyers and justices of the peace. One of these men was very insistent that while the Whites were not educated, they were far from stupid. Every one of them, drug addled as they were, was intelligent. And despite this native intelligence, they were all trapped in an endless cycle of drugs and violence.

Behind this lifestyle is a belief that the world is inherently a hard place. We have no control over the course of our lives, because those around us with more wealth and power are determined to use us for their own ends. And if we are not stabbed in the back by someone in authority, or struck down by some crippling accident, in the end death will come for us all. Life here is nasty, brutish, and short. All we have is our family, our wits, and a brief opportunity to work the system and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

It is not as if they are unaware that the fast and loose lives they live have consequences. Throughout, the Whites are quick to admit what they did to get themselves into any given mess. They do not even necessarily think those consequences are undeserved. This is simply how life is–you try to get away with as much as you can, and if you are caught, tough luck.

More striking is the fact that this family is quite firmly grounded in a Biblical view of the world. They are aware of heaven and hell, aware of Christ’s free offer of salvation. There is also no mistaking the fact that they are hell-bound, and know it. That is simply where they stand.

I find it funny that Christians will sometimes compare outlaws like these to more reserved upper-middle class pagans, and come out on the side of the more respectable sinners. The Whites have a real insight here. If life is hard and the world ahead is hell or annihilation, then living a quiet life is ridiculous. Eat, drink, and be merry. Get high on whatever you can find, get money however you can, fight whenever you feel like it, and sleep with whoever you can get. Tomorrow we may be dead, so live now. When Mamie White was asked what she wanted people to do at her funeral, she said, “Party their balls off. Blow pot in my face and snort pills on my head, and…f***in’ rock and roll, baby!” Death comes to us all, so live like you’re dying.

There is no doubt that the Whites pay for their wild ways in the here and now. Hangovers, heartbreaks, addiction, jail time, and lost family members haunt every one until they meet an early death. They may die thinking the party was worth the price, but that is hardly a world worth living in. I do not want to settle for that world, and I do not believe we have to.

As Mamie White and Jesco affirm, there is a God in heaven. He offers us salvation freely. And here is the thing: death–which haunts our heels every day we live–death claimed the very Son of God. But Jesus came back from the grave. He came back whole and healed, and he will never die again. The world was given into his hands, and nothing can any longer stand in his way. The Bible says that if we believe this, and if we confess that Jesus is Lord, we will be saved. Death no longer has any claim over us. Any suffering in this life is only temporary. There will come a time, at the end of all things, when those who follow Christ will be raised from the dead and given an eternal reward. That is a hope worth living for.

But someone who lives like the Whites, if they fall on their knees and repent and follow Christ, is still left with addiction and bad habits and a world of consequences. Because they are now the temple of God, they cannot keep living as they once did, and that is a big change to make. But Paul assures us in Romans that if we will to do what is right, it is no longer we who sin, but the sin that dwells in us. And we have been freed from that law of sin and death, so it can be conquered. Furthermore, Christ has promised to help us walk in righteousness if we simply ask him.

The Whites of West Virginia have a far greater insight into the human condition than many who live cleaner lives. But the consequences of that clear vision is a life that matches the despair they see. But the Gospel is an answer to that despair, a way out of Boone County and the world of drugs and violence they have created. Their lives pose a great question for all of us, and Christ is the answer. I pray that the Whites, and people like them, would come to see it.

God bless.

We Are America

Right now I am working through Stephen Fry in America, a fascinating survey of this wonderful civilization we have cobbled together over here in the New World. One thing Mr. Fry is constantly noting is the great diversity throughout the states. There is no denying, we are a strangle quilt of disparate peoples.

In a college that serves people from all over, discussions of differences and similarities between various American locales is bound to come up. It is interesting to me how people define not just their own local cultures, but the culture of America as a whole. For example, several of my Midwestern friends consider their region to be the generic “America.” After all, isn’t that where the movie makers like to portray such universal(ish) figures as Clark Kent and James T. Kirk?

On the other hand, I grew up around the fringes of the southern great plains, a place the natives like to call “America’s Heartland.” Then there is a local pastor who insists that all of America has been infused with New England Puritan DNA. A lot of good Southerners, especially from the Old South, will tell you that we have best preserved the American political heritage. Over in the New South, I am more likely to point to our rich musical heritage, a force which spilled out of the Appalachians and Mississippi Delta to define American culture through rock, country, blues, and every variant thereof. And many Left Coast folks are quick to tell me that Seattle has defined the last fifty years of American history, or that LA and Hollywood have been the America that the world has come to know. But what about our capital, DC? Or New York, the quintessential American city and landing place of immigrants?

Just take a look at that. People define America by religion, politics, music, movies, small towns, and big cities. Is the Deep South the most American because it is so very unique, or is the Midwest more American because it is more generic? Or take the classic question, East Coast or West? There is not really one right answer. Each of us defines America based on our own little slice of the American experience. And  most of us can make quite a good case for the importance of our region and its contribution to our overall ethos. Honestly, I don’t think any of us is altogether wrong.

The fact is, America is not one thing. From the very beginning we have been big and diverse. A Bostonian at the beginning of the War for Independence was probably at least as different from a Scots-Irish backwoodsman on the Georgia frontier as he was from the redcoats they both fought. And since then, the differences have only grown greater. We are not monolithic, and that is not a bad thing. We are as diverse as the Mediterranean when Rome was through with it, and have gained as much from our commerce and justice system as they ever did.

So what is America? America is what it has always claimed to be: a union of states. America is a community of cultures under one roof, a big feast with a hundred dishes brought to the table. America is not one secret ingredient, or a formula that we can find by whittling away all the regional quirks. It is those regional quirks that make America. It is not found in one location or one group of people. Quite simply, we are all America. And that, to me, makes the whole thing more interesting.

Running

I’m running in the night, my feet slapping the pavement. My breath is ragged, my lungs burning, but still I run. The air is cold like ice, cutting my throat as it tears in and out. But my heart is beating hard, pumping blood like fire through all my veins into every inch of skin. I am warm, and my skin radiates heat and steam and sweat into the freezing darkness.

I run, and leave my stress behind. Every obstacle, every failure, is a mile away, the distance growing with every step. The worries of every tomorrow no longer have a hold on me. I have broken free, and moved ahead. Alone in the darkness, I am unshackled.

I reach the end too soon. There are limits to the road, and limits to my strength. I stop, but not entirely. I keep walking, breathing hard, and moving ahead. Here, where there are no people and no messes to clean up, where the air is fresh, I can think. I can think about life in all its complexity, all its trials and joys, and reduce it to an equation. Numbers on a page, a logic puzzle, a simple list of facts. On that level I can deal with it.

Step by step, I work it out, and the houses of town grow closer. I develop plans, and the quaint little boxes with their well-lit windows and their steep, snow-covered roofs rise up before me. My heart beats against my chest, not yet recovered from my earlier exertion. As it races, so my mind races. But my legs move slow, trembling from freezing sweat and use after long neglect.

I come level with the first house of the neighborhood, and break into running again. Not a full-on sprint, but a steady pounding on concrete. I am going for distance. No great distance, but long enough for me. I stretch and push my limits, and the night flies past. It is cold– far colder than I had anticipated. And the only way out is to run. I grin between breaths, because I knew this would happen. I would get out here, and it would be cold, and the only way to escape it would be to push myself one step farther.

So I run. But I no longer run away. I run to. I run to the extra step, to the record broken, to the new horizon, and to the next second shaved away. I run back to my problems, fueled by adrenaline and a moment of escape. I run back to my mistakes, with the knowledge and the drive to correct them. And I run back into a world of hopes and dreams and second chances. I run back, because the world is ahead. As home gets close and I grow weak once more, unable to take another step, I silently mock my weariness and start sprinting. It’s a short, clumsy sprint. But not long ago, I did not have the drive even to run.

Wolfman and the Curse of the External Stimuli

The werewolf is an interesting critter. Through no fault of his own, he is placed under a curse. Now anytime a full moon breaks out of the cloud cover, our mild mannered family man turns into a ravening beast that slaughters everything in arm’s reach. Tragic, really.

This is not how the story always went. Early on, werewolves tended to be witches who made a pact with the devil to earn their transformative powers. If not that, then they were people who had skipped out on Lent, or committed some other taboo, and got cursed. In fact, even when the occasional innocent was cursed, he did not become a ravening beast so much as a run-of-the-mill wolf for seven years or so until he went back home having lost little more than time.

The change in mythos is striking. Like a lot of curses in scary stories, you originally got in trouble for doing something wrong. Nowadays, the curse is incurred simply by dumb luck. And now that curse doesn’t just mean fleas and poor living conditions, it means you become a wild-eyed killer at least one night a month.

The first time I noticed this, it bugged me because I thought of it in terms of shifting blame from the one who committed the offense over to external stimuli. The curse was no longer the fault of someone sinning, and the mindless slaughter was now the fault of the moon or bumping into gypsies. Our society already spends so much time shifting the blame away from sinners, so I just considered this one more iteration of the same bad philosophy.

After a while, though, I realized that there was some truth to it. On the one hand, you cannot blame your sins on the external stimuli. The beast must pay for his crimes, because the problem is in the beast and the moon is just the occasion of his lunacy. On the other hand, fallen man is not exactly free. Quite the opposite. However hard he tries, just like the werewolf in the movies, whenever the full moon rises he will howl.

Grasping the hopelessness of man’s fallen state, however, is not exactly unusual for the horror genre. What is missing is a solution. Take either angle–wolf brings the curse on himself, or curse as inescapable tragedy–and you still have a man under a curse. But how do you kill the beast and keep the man?

A lot of the time, you simply don’t. The wages of sin is death, so the wolfman has to die. But in our world the sinner had a substitute, a perfect God-man who died for him. Now the sinner, though he might get a little loony from time to time, is free of the old man and the guarantee of death that comes with him. I have still yet to see a good werewolf flick that does the same. Here, as elsewhere, there is a lot of material for a solid Christian artist to work with.

The Best Advice Country Music Gave Me

This world is a lot bigger than we are. There is more going on than we could possibly follow, and we will never cease to be blindsided by one thing or another. We are very small, and can never grasp the whole picture.

But human beings were not meant to be passive. We can’t just sit back and take it, because we were created to take dominion over this world. We have the ability to reason, and the desire to change the world around us. It is part of the image of God–we are artists, creators, re-makers. Given a lump of world, we want to sculpt our vision into it.

The problem is, you can only analyze the data given to you, and we are never given all the data. You can never forge a plan that accounts for all the contingencies. You can never really steer life. If you fear what life can do to you, that’s a problem. And when you measure yourself against a particular all-important vision, when you plot out your path to achieve that and consider all else a detour, that lack of control can be terrifying. Failure is not an option, and every departure from the plan is a failure.

I’m that kind of plotter. I over analyse, over plan, and crash when I fail to understand or achieve. But I am also a country music fan. George Strait, Alan Jackson, and Tim McGraw shaped my young life. When I need to just relax and forget the craziness of my day, I turn to Montgomery Gentry or Brooks & Dunn. Often I find they look at life a little differently. Their angle, it seems, gives me far more peace of mind.

While there are exceptions, and always have been, country music tends to view the good life less in terms of goals and achievements, and more in terms of a way of life. Even a lot of the “chase your dreams” songs involve a home and a family–not something you arrive at, but something you live with. We can find life down a Red Dirt Road, or live the dream Where the Green Grass Grows. You don’t have to make a million, just be thankful that you’re working, doing what you’re able, putting food there on the table, and providing for the family that you love. That’s Something To Be Proud Of. You don’t chase your dreams in Hollywood or Nashville, you chase them on a tractor underneath that Amarillo Sky.

It isn’t that country music looks down on success or drive. Far from it, such things are considered a blessing. But more important than that are the simple things, just living life and enjoying it. It’s an Awful Beautiful Life, and if you Blink you just might miss it. You do not live the good life by going places or acquiring things, you live the good life simply by taking what life gives and doing your best with it. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, and whichever way he chooses, blessed be the name of the Lord.

And that’s what it comes down to. When we worry, dissect our lives and subject it to meticulous planning, then we never truly enjoy what we have been given or give thanks to the one who gave it to us. And that is what mankind is meant to do: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. You can’t do that when your eyes are stuck on the road ahead. You have to look up once in a while.

God bless.

You’ve Got To Believe It

I am a storyteller. Whether I am a good storyteller remains to be seen, but it’s something I do. In that endeavor, I’ve learned a thing or two. One of those is that it’s pretty darn hard to sell a story you don’t believe in. You can think it’s a good story, and you can dress it up in raw talent and technical mastery, but the fact is, if you don’t care then the audience does not care.

It’s not just true for prose, either. I’ve seen acting, and I’ve done acting, and in both cases there’s been good stuff and there’s been bad stuff. You can get the bad stuff from any number of things, but good acting generally only happens when the actor gets inside the character’s head. When you see the world through the character’s eyes, then you can present it the way he sees it. Ask Daniel Day-Lewis or Heath Ledger.

This means that a storyteller has to have a certain talent: empathy. If you want to tell a story, you have to believe the story. If you want to believe the story, you have put yourself in that world. There is a lot of imagination involved in that, and a lot of mental and emotional flexibility.

The problem is, no good story is told with just one character in mind. You have to account for the actions of all the characters, and if it’s a good story, then they will have very different motivations. This means you have to have a second talent: confidence in your own view of the world. You have to be able to look at things from multiple angles, but have enough of your own view to be able to separate yourself from the ones you are presenting.

Good storytelling demands this. Empathy and detachment, subjectivism and objectivism, reconciled in a single mind. If you’re not born with it, you have to learn it. It can be learned, but it takes real work.

These things are important, because no matter how good your story, there will be slow parts. You can’t just skate through on the action scenes or moments of high drama. If you get bored when your character goes out for ice cream, so will your audience. That means you have to want that ice cream so that your audience wants that ice cream. And if they don’t, you better be flanking that scene with a couple things you really do believe in. Because if it’s just one long stretch of things you don’t care about, why should we hear your story?

Now pardon me while I go believe in ice cream.