Friday, June 29, 2012

Premature Adventures in Dating

Steal their Seoul in South Korea, make Antarctica cry "Uncle!"
From the Red Sea to Greenland, they'll be singing the blues
Well they never Arkansas her steal the Mekong from the jungle
Tell me, where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

"Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" Rockapella

I'm nine, and I like my first girl.

This is a little strange for me. Up until now in my life, girls have basically been "other" and largely to be avoided. My sisters are girls, and that's fine, but they're about the only girls I really interact with regularly. And even they, and especially their friends, are to be messed with whenever possible. Usually by standing very still around the corner, sometimes for a good long while, just to jump out and yell BOO! at the top of my lungs at the exact right moment and then roll around in laughter at how high they jump, ignoring their angry shouting and arm slapping. (I don't do this anymore, but I think I've really just needed an opportunity. I think I kept it up all the way through high school.) My best friend Mark and I spend much of our time at his house plotting to bother our little sisters. We hatch harebrained schemes, come up with devious ways to annoy and surprise, andmaybe twice, everwe put them into action, to our sisters' very, very mild annoyance. Truly, we were rock stars who had gone to Mars, and girls had all gone to Jupiter to get even stupider, if that were possible.

But now there's Allison. She has long brown hair, big pretty eyes. When she talks in class, my heart flutters. I'm nervous when she's around, but nervous in a good way. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before; it's a little like suddenly having a disease that you're embarrassed to talk to anyone about. "Cooties," maybe. I don't have anyone I can really go to for advice on this matter; not my sisters, certainly, and it doesn't even occur to me to ask my parents. And Mark is out of the pictureI'm fairly certain this represents a fundamental betrayal of the boy-centric nature of our friendship. No, I'm on my own if I'm going to deal with this.

I have no plan. No end goal. I just know I need to impress Allison. Somehow. I don't know anything about Allison, really, apart from the way she looks. She has black nail polish, so I figure: she must like music.

As an adult, I'm genuinely unsure how this mental connection came about, but there it was: black nail polish = likes music. So I have to find some music to give Allison. I think about it for a while, and eventually figure I will just give her my favorite tape, and hope that she thinks it is as cool as it totally is.

Which is how I end up going up to a girl I've never spoken to before, saying, "Hey, you should listen to this" and handing her a tape of Rockapella music.

Allison, if you're out there: I'm sorry for the confusion this incident must have caused you. I was young and in love, and I had no idea what to do.

Photo source:

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Apocalypse and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This is part of a series of Essays from a Christian Perspective.

So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
and Music shall untune the sky!
—"A Song for St. Cecilia's Day," John Dryden*

"The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live."
 —Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It's hard to deny that the apocalypse is a current cultural obsession. It's in the movies and tv shows we watch and the novels or comics we read. And it's been on my mind recently. 

Let me back up, briefly and define my term. When I say "apocalypse," I'm talking about an event that sweeps away the old order of things and replaces it with something new. Often, this involves the deaths of many, many people, and typically, the thing that replaces the old order is simple dis-order: a lack of society of any kind. There are plenty of exceptions; there's a whole sub-genre of post-apocalypse dystopias, where some horrible sweeping event like nuclear war or a sudden drop in birth rates leads to a dramatic change in the organization of society for the worse. At all events, the apocalypse is arguably real, real bad. Like, the worst thing ever, or close.

Yet we appear to be thinking about it, in one form or another, a great deal. On the surface, this seems healthy: it's important to be concerned about the possibility of the end of things, to consider that possibility and seek to avert it or at least confront what it might mean. And it's possible that this is what some apocalypse-focused culture is about: I would hold up, say, Soylent Green or The Road as at least partly if not primarily about warning people about the end of things as they are and getting them to face that possibility.

If that's all that we were doing by obsessing over the apocalypse, I would wipe my hands and declare everything to be okay, or at least acceptable. It's not all we're doing, though. It's certainly not why I saw, say Zombieland, or why I liked Y: the Last Man. I think we obsess over the apocalypse because (1) we're worried about the state of things as they are; things are clearly changing all around us, and it's unlikely they are changing for the better, and (2) we want to know that things will be okay anyway. When I see that Jesse Eisenberg survived the zombie apocalypse by being slightly neurotic and having a gun, I'm not thinking about how to keep the world from getting terrible; instead, I'm helping myself feel like everything's going to be okay: if this guy made it through something that awful, then I can too. I don't need to do anything about the state of things as they are.


I have a theory about where this impulse comes from. The U.S. is either a Christian society or a post-Christian one, depending where you are and who you ask. Either way, the impulses of Christians, positive and otherwise, are our society's impulses, or the ancestors of them. And one huge impulse in Christian history (related, in fact, to a similar impulse in many religions) has been to hope for a capital-A Apocalypse in bad times.

The classic, and probably earliest, example is the Book of Revelation in the Bible. When this book was written, Christians were the direct target of some very serious persecution. To be a Christian anywhere in the Roman Empire was a capital offense. So Christians in the Roman Empire needed some comfort; one way they received it was from this book, Revelation, that said that someday there would come a time when God would wipe away the old order of things and establish a new one, where everything would be great and you wouldn't have to worry about someone cutting your head off for thinking Jesus=God or drawing a fish in the sand.

And Christians have been returning to that hope, and to Revelation specifically, ever since, especially when things look rough. The question I want to raise is: is that a healthy thing to do? Is it really okay to say, "everything's going to be okay someday" in response to trying times? If so, is it okay to pair that with, "so we don't need to do anything about the way things are now"?


I want to answer by offering an alternative example. It's arguable that there have been few times or places worse than Germany under the Nazis. A series of changes over the course of a few short years led to a severe restriction of personal freedoms, imprisonment and death for dissenters and minorities, and compulsory participation for many in a war of aggression, earning the ire of the rest of the world. It was a bad time. 

Enter Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor and theologian born and raised in Germany before the rise of Nazism. I am not an expert on his life or theological writings, so I will try to be brief in my descriptions of his life and actions.†

Basically, as a pastor, Bonhoeffer had several options when the Nazis came to power. He could go along with the German Lutheran Church, which was taken over by the Nazis, expelled non-Aryans from the church and looked to Hitler as its leader. But he could also, I want to point out, have taken a traditional Christian route: preaching that the Apocalypse was near or that death and martyrdom were the best way to confront Nazism.

Instead of doing either, Bonhoeffer addressed the situation as a problem that he and his fellow Christians could address through active, open resistance and, failing that, subterfuge. During the Nazi years, Bonhoeffer helped start a Christian movement called the Confessing Church, which opposed the corrupt theology and policies of the German Lutheran Church at the time. He founded illegal underground seminaries, instructing students in them and traveling to encourage his fellow believers to resist and not give up hope. And in the end, Bonhoeffer joined a group that attempted to assassinate Hitler, for which he was later executed. 

Bonhoeffer's martyrdom is beside the point, though; what I want to say is that he had the opportunity to retreat into an apocalypse end-of-everything mindset and to encourage others to do so. But instead, he looked for ways to resist what was happening around him and to build something good in contrast to it. He was not concerned with his own well-being, but with "how the coming generation shall continue to live." 


I think that our impulse to consume and enjoy apocalypse-oriented culture is one sign among many that we have not learned from Bonhoeffer's example and that of people like him. And I wonder where that failure to learn will lead us.

*I first encountered this poem in a book (The Thirteen-Gun Salute) from one of my favorite book series, the Aubrey-Maturin novels (Master and Commander is the first; a pretty great movie was made in 2003 with this title, based on the novels). In it, the song is quoted to describe an unbelievably powerful storm's approach:
'Brother,' said Stephen, when the clerk had staggered off with the files clutched to his bosom, 'what is afoot?'
'I am not sure,' said Jack, 'but it may be your St Cecilia:

And when that last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky.

Look out to the east, will you?' They gazed through the stern window, where deep purple was massing beneath the coppery glare.
†To those with further interest in Bonhoeffer's life, I recommend this volume, which I'm in the middle of. It's written with a great deal of clarity and insight, and it will give you a much better picture of the man's life than I have.
Photo notes: 
Photo 1 source:
Photo 2 source:
Photo 2 translation: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, resistance worker and pastor, preached and confirmed believers in this church in 1932. Born February 2, 1906, killed April 9, 1949 in Flossenbr├╝ck concentration camp.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Fishing Trip of the Single Fish

File:Pose lake Minnesota.jpg 

Oh, the water,
Oh, the water,
So clear, and blue, and free.
"Captain," Abigail Washburn

It was summer, and I was in high school, so it was time for a men's family fishing trip to the Boundary Waters. The year in question, we abandoned the wimpy accommodations of motor boats and cabins used on fishing trips of previous years, and instead opted to use only canoes and tents. We would portage our canoes over several miles of trail from our cars to the water line, and then paddle out several miles to a remote island, where we would set up camp and live together for a week.

If that sounds like a set up for a story about a really terrible fishing trip, then too bad: this fishing trip was rad.

Few things are as beautiful as a wilderness undisturbed by human noise. Out where we were, there were no cabins, no roads, not even boats with motors. Just a few men and their canoes. And we reveled in it, waking early each day to a simple breakfast of, well not much (we hoped to do a lot of fish catching and fish eating this trip, but we managed to catch almost nothing for most of it; I think the adults were at least moderately concerned, but I sure didn't notice) and heading out on the water to fish and seek nature's unseen loveliness in glorious, glorious quiet.

We'd head out in a group to some location and then spread our various canoes around to see what could be seen and fish what could be fished (in the latter case: very little). At one point, Dad and I decided to pull our canoe up to some rocks and fish from shore. Though we'd both been canoeing a fair amount in our lives, this day we made the classic rookie canoeing mistake: as we approached the shore, we both leaned over at the same time to grab the rock and bring ourselves closer. Now, a canoe will not tolerate both riders leaning hard in the same direction, and ours was no exception. It rolled right over with me still in it. Dad, ever nimble, hopped on shore just in time. For whatever reason, I remember being less concerned that I had gotten wet and more annoyed that Dad had made a clean getaway. Didn't seem fair.

At any rate, we had a great time that week. The Boundary Waters were incredible. We were there in a week of perfect weather: no rain, few clouds, and often not even any wind. There were evenings when we took our canoes out after dinner, just to ride and to see, and the lakes were so smooth because of the lack of wind, you saw the exact reflection of the sky and tree line, undisturbed. It was like canoeing on the sky, Dad said. One night, my uncle and cousin paddled out across the lake from us, several hundred yards distant and just visible from the camp site. I went down to the shore to get some water, and I heard them speaking to each other, as if they were right next to me. The water was so smooth, and the evening so still, that the sound of a voice traveled much, much farther than it ought to have. I called down the other guys from the camp, and we had a conversation with these two men across almost a mile of water. I've never done anything like it, before or since.

We continued to catch few fish throughout the week, and as the end of the trip approached, I still hadn't caught a single fish. I went out for my last bout of fishing with Ray, a friend of my uncle's, who paddled the canoe around the island while I trawled with a big lure. It was kind of Ray to set out just to help me catch something, but I didn't have high hopes. I've never been much of a fisherman, at least, I've never been a fisherman who catches many fish, which is not all fishing is, mind. But if you don't catch something every once in a while, fishing is just sitting. And I'm primarily good at the sitting part of fishing.

So I was surprised to suddenly catch a fish. It was a monster, the biggest I've ever caught by far, and I think the biggest on the trip. It was a spectacular, big, pretty muskellunge, almost three feet long. We let it go afterwards--muskies aren't great eating--but I was very proud. I don't think I've bothered trying to catch a fish since that one.