Archive for July, 2008

I just checked out Billy Collins latest poetry book. It’s titled The Trouble with Poety of course. The centerpiece poem comes on the second to the last page. I won’t quote the whole thing here for these parts are sufficient:

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry

I thought how fun (and possibly true) it might be to write this about other arts and disciplines…

the trouble with music is
that it encourages the playing of more music
more songbirds fluttering and chirping brightly
pooping on your windshield

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have played every note four bars
before, after, and with every other note

Music fills me with hope
and I rise high over the world on the wings of Icarus
Music fills me with despair
and I hit the ground hard as the curtain closes

But mostly music fills me
with the urge to play music

Or try this one:

the trouble with theology is
that it encourage the writing of more theology
more chickens crowding the roost
more crossing of the sea
to make one more disciple

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have measured the Trinity
down to the last parsec

Theology fills me with understanding
and the foundations of my city are laid deep
Theology fills me with confusion
and I despise my brothers

But mostly theology fills me
with the urge to write theology

And to end on a lighter note:

the trouble with cooking is
that it encourages more cooking
more fish out of the ocean
more rabbits hopping onto your plate

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when every taste is paired with every other
like Elk sausage in blueberry sauce
that was quite delicious
at the French place last night

Cooking fills me with joy
and I rise like a savory aroma
Cooking fills me with frustration
and I hit the fan above the range
distracted by the cost of ingredients
the mountain of dishes

But mostly cooking fills me…

That was fun!

My wife was having a discussion with some friends online on how to go about proving the existence of God. One person was playing the devil’s advocate atheist to challenge the others. Many of the first replies were predominately accounts of people’s own life experiences and how they came to faith. The challenger complained that these were all completely subjective and therefore irrelevant. My contribution goes something like this:

I think faith has objective and subjective components. So, because others can’t actually relate to our own experiences (the holy spirit moving in us, Jesus appearing to us in a vision, “burning in the bosom” (the classic Mormon phrase), etc.), then apologetics is limited in it’s ability to turn people’s heart toward the Lord. Maybe you can describe these things in a way that is helpful, or can relate your personal experience to them in a way that is moving, but it’s 1/2 of the mystery of faith that can’t really transfer to the next person so well.

However, I think much of our faith, (the other 1/2 if you will, though it’s not a math problem), actually can be treated objectively. These things appeal to our rationality, logical intellect, and our God-given ability to think things through. So on THAT front, there is much that can be done. Articulating these things can be difficult though, even for people who are strong Christians. People who have had very strong subjective experiences, often don’t feel so much need for their faith to be reinforced (so to speak), but systematic arguments for the existence of God. Or other theology for that matter.

Romans 1:20 is a really good place to start with and one of the key verses here:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities— his eternal power and divine nature— have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

There are a few different ways to approach this to the secular unbeliever. C.S. Lewis goes from the angle of morality. Is there such a thing as right and wrong? Well, it had to come from somewhere. It’s built in. God built it in. And so on.

N.T. Wright, in his newer apologetic Simply Christian cuts a wider swath and in addition to morality (the longing for justice), brings up questions of relationships (there is something deep inside us that makes us not want to be alone), and also the desire for beauty (there is something that makes music, art, sunsets, etc. stir something deep within us.) These are “echoes of a voice” – the voice of our creator.

In both cases, the apologists don’t even bring up the idea of Christianity or Jesus until way later in the discussion. We are just trying to establish the possibility that a generic “god” is out there. And not just out there, but actually might care about the race of man on earth.

-1. I think it’s very hard intellectually to be a pure atheist. It’s an exercise in faith against what is hard-wired in our minds.

0. I think most people who “don’t believe in god” are actually agnostic. That’s a lot easier. There maybe is a god, but we can’t possibly figure it out, so it doesn’t matter.

1. The next step up is deism, which believe there probably was some higher power that made everything, but he’s distance and doesn’t actually interact in the affairs of man. He wound up the universe, and maybe it has some kind of purpose, but we can’t do much more than make up stories about what that might be. So again, it doesn’t matter.

2. After that, you start to wonder if this creator actually IS more involved in the actual lives of his creation. And there you have most religions. (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, tribal religions, etc.)

3, 4, 5…Only after all that do you take the step of saying God cared about his creation, and specially about a group of people called the Jews, and that he was directly involved in their history for hundreds of years, eventually incarnating himself in the person of Jesus do you get to Christianity. Whew!

There are a lot of steps of stuff to believe in between agnosticism and that. Good thing we have the Holy Spirit and that subjective experience to jump-start people. Arguing through all that stuff would be tiring!

Paul Cezanne, the great painter said “With an apple I will astonish Paris.” What could possibly turn the heads of late 19th century French art critics? Something simple, done incredibly well. Cezanne ended up painting quite a few apples. Here are some:

I looked up other quotes by Cezanne and came across this one:

When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.

Postmoderns would of course reject his definition of”art” in this case, but I do not.

Today I clicked the link to one of those “20 ways to make more freetime” blog posts. However, I lost interest in the article when I saw the opening quote:

“The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure.” – Henry David Thoreau

Riiiiiiiiight. OK. That’s helpful. Try telling that to a mother of toddlers. Or a lot of other folks too. What was this guy thinking?

Dave Barry, in his excellent history of the United States, sheds some light on this character:

“Meanwhile, culture was continuing to occur in some areas. In New England, for example, essayist Henry David Thoreau created an enduring masterpiece of American philosophical thought when, rejecting the stifling influences of civilization, he went off to live all alone on Walden Pond, where, after two years of an ascetic and highly introspective life, he was eaten by turtles.”

Photo credit

There is a question, sometimes posed as a lament, in many of the writings I’ve come across lately. I could write down quite a list, but I don’t actually remember all the places. Another one came at me today though. It is the idea that there used to still be adventures to be had, unexplored places to chart, great feats to accomplish, but that for the most part, they are all gone. I remember reading as a child about the mysterious jungle of the Congo and how there was still things in there that no man had ever seen and lived to write about. That was an exciting prospect. But now, we have GPS, and I can pull up Google maps and grab the satellite imagery of my own car parked in the lot of my office building. Then I can swing it over a few degrees and peer deep into Africa and see right where that dangerous path by the waterfall leads. What’s the point in going there now?

Thomas Merton, in his book Mystics and Zen Masters, (which is about 90% straight-up history and reads like a graduate dissertation), discusses the story of St. Brendan‘s expeditions and how he found an island paradise somewhere beyond the Atlantic. Nobody could ever find it again though, but tales like this fueled exploration and also deeper desires inside of us. Christopher Columbus would have been well aware of this particular (myth?) when he set out to the new world. Merton (writing in the 1960’s) discusses how the complete mapping of the earth has changed the face of spiritual pilgrimage and wandering. Searching for that special place has forever lost some of it’s potency. Nevertheless, we will pilgrim on because the thing that drives us inside of has not diminished one bit. We are still looking for our creator.

The protagonist in Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel The Nautical Chart wrestles with this same deep issue:

Because after so many novels, so many films, and so many songs, there weren’t even innocent drunks anymore. And Coy asked himself, envying him, what the first man felt the first time he went out to hunt a whale, a treasure, or a woman, without having read about it I a book.

I find that my fine generalities have dashed themselves to pieces against the six very concrete children that I have. I live surrounded by a mixture of violence and loveliness, of music and insensitivity. I take my meals with clods and poets, but I am seldom certain which is which. Nowhere is my life less reducible to logic than in my children; nowhere are my elegant attempts at system ground more violently to powder than under the stumbling stone of the next generation. Far from having advice to give you, I am dumbfounded by them and admit it. And yet I rejoice too, for nowhere is there so much to keep me sane. I apologize in advance but I know only one word to describe it: It is absurd.

– Robert Capon, Bed and Board

Anyone who has spent much time in introspection has probably realized that we are most critical of other people that are the most like us. We see something in ourselves that we hate – something we put a lot of effort into to overcome, and when we see this same thing in another person, we are quick to jump on it. It’s the thing about them that bothers us the most. We may be able to easily brush off other annoying or offensive things that person does, but if it’s one of our own issues too, rather than feel sympathetic, we are more likely to find fault.

In his book Simply Christian, N.T. Wright brings this up at points out how it can pollute our charity and good intentions:

I remember the shock when I saw an old “cowboys and Indians” movie and realized that when I was young, I – like most of my contemporaries – would have gone along unquestioningly with the assumption that cowboys where basically good and Indians basically bad. The world has woken up to the reality of racial prejudice since then; but getting rid of it is like squashing the air out of a balloon. You deal with one corner only to find it popping up somewhere else. The world got together over apartheid and said, “This won’t do”; but at least some of the moral energy came from what the psychologists call projection – that is, condemning someone else for something we are doing ourselves. Rebuking someone on the other side of the world (while ignoring the same problems back home) is very convenient, and it provides a deep but spurious sense of moral satisfaction. (p.7)

Robert Capon was an Episcopal priest and author, usually writing about theological matters. He also loved to cook, so he wrote a very unusual cookbook called The Supper of the Lamb. It does have recipes in it, but also many pages of steam-of-consciousness writing that ranges from kitchen techniques, natural beauty, theology, and so forth.

In the first chapter, he begins to tell us how to slice up an onion:

Next take one of the onions (preferably the best-looking), a paring knife, and a cutting board and sit down at the kitchen table. Do not attempt to stand at a counter through these opening measures. In fact, to do it justice, you should arrange to have sixty minutes or so free for this part of the exercise. Admittedly, spending an hour in the society of an onion may be something you have never done before. You feel, perhaps, a certain resistance to the project. Please don’t. As I shall show later, a number of highly profitable members of the race have undertaken it before you. Onions are excellent company.

And he goes on like this for 3-4 more pages before the onion is actually cut up and we can move along to the taters. Seriously. I guess that is why he says to set aside an entire hour for this the first time around.

A fascinating book, but you have to be in the right mood!

I’ve been enjoying our new kitchen quite a bit lately. There is enough counter space to actually work and our new Kitchen Aid mixer makes a task that used to seem complicated and messy into a pretty simple exercise. I’ve also been striving to throw less cash at the grocery store. So when in need of yummies, I’ve found I have most of the ingredients here at home! I’ve ended up baking three times already this week.

I started with some soft ginger cookies. I took some to the church picnic and also to the office and they were quickly devoured. Next, I tried something a little more unusual with these nutmeg currant butter cookies.

All growing up I never made anything but chocolate chip. It was fun to try something off the beaten path. I even ground the nutmeg fresh from a “nut” (or possibly “meg”) instead of using the stuff from the jar. I did have to procure some currants though, which thankfully only cost me $1.00 for plenty of them at the Co-op. My wife consulted the dictionary and informed me that I had been pronouncing currant incorrectly. It’s not cerr-ONT, but rather a homonym to current (as in up-to-date) and also current (of the ocean or river variety). If you’ve never had them before, they are like miniature raisins, though with not as strong of flavour.

I thought they were pretty good, though not something I would like to have that often. My son has munched through quite a few of the crumbs, since I keep handing them to him instead of (less healthy?) M&Ms when he comes into the kitchen snooping for goodies. My daughter on the other hand declared the nutmeg to be “spicy” and promptly spit out the bite a gave her. Oh well! These went not-as-quickly at the office.

Finally, last night I baked bread again. This time I used freshly-ground hard red flour from my own childhood farm in Oregon. My mother bought a bag of it to me while visiting last week. The taste of the loaf was incredible, but I still haven’t found a good recipe for whole wheat. I tried so hard to avoid a dense loaf this time that I overdid the rising and wetness of the dough. It was really light and fluffy, but fell apart when trying to slice it. I’ll keep trying.

I enjoy design work (web design, graphic design, page layout design, arranging furniture, etc.) but only when there are not too many people to please. One other person is good (like my wife). Two others starts to cause trouble. A committee of five meeting on what the new web site should look like is guaranteed to turn out something ugly, even if everyone on the team is perfectly competent in and of themselves, possessing reasonably good taste and design sensibility. And so, though I’m capable of navigating the social waters of such a meeting, the resulting product is often so disappointing, that I’d rather just butt out. I’ll let someone else have their way with the design. Even if I know of a way to improve upon it, to try and synthesize that with their ideas would actually make it worse.

The artist works best alone, or maybe with an assistant to bounce ideas of.

This is a another poem by Billy Collins called Instructions to the Artist.

It’s fun to imagine the evolving expression on the portrait painter’s face as his subject rattles off this list of parameters!

I wish my head to appear perfectly round
and since the canvas should be of epic dimensions,
please trace the circle with a dinner plate
rather than a button or a dime.

My face should be painted with an ant-like sense of detail;
pretend you are executing a street map
of Rome and that all the citizens
can lift thirty times their own weight.

The result should be a strained
but self-satisfied expression,
as if I am lifting a Volkswagen with one foot.

The body is no great matter;
just draw some straight lines
with a pencil and ruler.
I will not be around to hear the voice
of posterity calling me Stickman.

The background I leave up to you
but if there is to be a house,
lines of smoke rising from the chimney
should be mandatory.
Never be ashamed of kindergarten-
it is the alphabet’s only temple.

Also, have several kangaroos grazing
and hopping around in the distance,
an allusion to my world travels.

Some final recommendations:
I should like to appear hatless.
Kindly limit your palette to a single primary color, any one but red or blue.
Sign the painting on my upper lip
so your name will always be my mustache.

Though I fail to see how it is related to the rest of the poem, my favorite line is certainly:

Never be ashamed of kindergarten-it is the alphabet’s only temple.

There is a whole nother story wrapped up in that one.

Photo credit