Friday, January 25, 2013

Some Beautiful Things

Part of a series of Lists of Cool Things.

Up here in the crow's nest I am swimming through the breeze
One last memory from the sun as it is sinking by degrees
And, high above, the albatross is following its light,
And I will sing to her as she flies by 
On this beautiful night.

Some weeks when Friday rolls around, I'm feeling really creative and want to express myself. This week, I'm worn out from work. Instead of self-expression, I thought I would post some things I encountered in the last week that I thought were very beautiful.

Janelle Monae's "The ArchAndroid" is an album that tells the story of a messianic android who, among other things, falls in love with a human named Sir Greendown. This song is her love song to him, and while I can't say I understand the full depth of meaning in lines like "Here the dolphins walk like men/here the cyborgs have a plan," I find the really lush and strange sonic landscape the artist creates, not to mention her plaintive and stirring voice, achingly beautiful. This is the song I listen to when I can't work anymore and need a moment of peace.


The next beautiful thing is from my current attempt to read the Bible cover to cover; it is from the first book of the Bible, Genesis. In this story, there are two twin brothers. The younger brother, Jacob (whose name means "supplanter," that is, someone who takes someone else's place) has just deceived his old blind father, Isaac, into thinking that he is the older brother, Esau, and giving him (Jacob) the blessing that should belong to the firstborn:
As soon as Issac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of his father Isaac, his brother Esau came in from his hunting. He also prepared savory food, and brought it to his father.
And he said to his father, "Let my father sit up and eat of his son's game, so that you may bless me."
His father Isaac said to him, "Who are you?"
He answered, "I am your firstborn son, Esau."
Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, "Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him?—yes, and blessed shall he be!"
When Esau heard his father's words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, "Bless me also, father!" 
But he said, "Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing." 
Esau said, "Is he not rightly named Jacob [Supplanter]? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has take away my blessing."
The Bible's language can take a little getting used to, but I find its depiction of this incredibly fraught familial episode to be beautiful in its cuttingly bare-bones and barefaced expression of anger and grief.


The last beautiful thing is a paragraph from Gilead, a favorite book of mine. In this section, a boy goes with his father into the drought-ridden Kansas hinterlands of 1892, looking for his grandfather's grave, to tend to it, as he had passed away while working as an itinerant preacher. Just before the paragraph starts, they finish tending to the weed-grown, dusty dry graveyard, and the boy's father says a prayer:
Every prayer seemed long to me at that age, and I was truly bone tired. I tried to keep my eyes closed, but after a while I had to look around a little. And this is something I remember very well. At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where the east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realize that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them. I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I'd have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it. And then I said, "Look at the moon." And he did. We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up. They seemed to float on the horizon quite a long time, I suppose because they were both so bright you couldn't get a clear look at them. And that grave, and my father and I, were exactly between them, which seemed amazing to me at the time, since I hadn't given much thought to the nature of the horizon.
My father said, "I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I'm glad to know that."
What I love about this passage is the startling joy of finding unexpected beauty in the wild, dreary, death-filled country graveyard; it is the narrator's joy, and also the reader's.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

On Hating Design Choices

But can I once taste Northern waters, then forsake them for the South...
To feel California's ashes in my mouth?

—"California," Stan Rogers

Last week, when I wrote about getting a new Bible to read the whole way through, I mentioned that my only objection to my choice, the Access Bible, was that it had a font I didn't care for. I noted that I was relieved that it was at least not Papyrus, the typeface I (and many others) love to hate.

But rereading that line this week as I tried to jump-start the creative process (reading old blog entries is one of the two main methods I have for coming up with an idea for a new blog post—the other is asking my girlfriend for ideas), brought to mind something I'd heard recently. It is an argument against my holding such an opinion, given in an excellent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast, a compelling and fun weekly radio show about "design, architecture, and the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world." The episode is about a controversy surrounding the introduction of a new visual brand identity in the University of California system. The University designed a new logo to supplement the more formal seal that had long been the University's main branding. They wanted something more workaday than the thing that gives gravitas to official letters and diplomas, something that could go on baseball caps and more general-use items. The seal is on the left, and on the right is what they came up with for the new logo (source):

To quote my friend at Berkeley: "It looks like a flushing toilet." I can't say that it strikes me as particularly great, but I don't necessarily share the profoundly negative reaction of so many. At all events, two people interviewed in the podcast feel that these reactions are unwarranted, not only because they were misguided (many thought the logo was replacing the seal, which it was not going to do), but also because they were not the opinions of experts:
"I think the role of an to see the world through a different lens. So, for example, when we had our kitchen renovated here: I don't know anything about architecture, I don't know anything about engineering, I don't know anything, really, about interior design. I have my opinions, but that's all they are. And so, when a[n interior] designer tells me 'Well, I think this would work best,' I defer to that opinion; when a mechanic tells me that a thing needs to be fixed on my car, I trust that he or she is accurate with that; when I go to my doctor, they're telling me how to understand my own body, and I don't know how to interpret what's happening to my body, so I allow them to do that for me. When it comes to design, we don't seem culturally to have that same trust." 
Christopher Simmons, Principle of MINE, a San Fransisco design office

"We live in a time when everyone thinks their opinion matters, but the reality is that not all opinions matter...When it comes to, for example, physics, my voice is not the same as Stephen Hawking's...Aesthetics is a very easy target, because no one understands how aesthetics works, and they feel that subjective opinion is the rule of the day: I don't like it, therefore it must not be good."
Vanessa Correa, Creative Director of the UC Office of the President
These feel like sound arguments to me. There are people trained in design, people with great expertise and knowledge in this field, who make daily decisions about it, and yet, unlike experts in other fields, their work is profoundly open to criticism from non-experts. I feel entitled to say that an artist's work is poor, unworthy of being displayed in public, even though I have a single art history class years ago forming the whole of my artistic training.

The counterpoint is that, while we, the public, are not invited to sit in Stephen Hawking's chair, designing logos and public art is about communicating with people. When a piece of public art, like Chicago's "Go Do Good" installation, fails utterly to reach people's hearts and minds, those people are right to speak up and say so. Indeed, without the audience speaking its mind, the designers cannot easily measure the success of their work, can end up blundering further into creating designs that are inappropriate, displeasing, or useless.

I feel that both are valid points; there are probably many cases where it is simply foolish to criticize an expert designer's work without knowing the thought and purpose behind it, and many others where the expert has simply failed to properly communicate with her audience. To end with the issue I began with, then: is the choice of this typeface something I, a non-expert, can legitimately criticize:

(It's the second, lower font choice I object to.) It's a font that is designed to look spontaneous and handwritten, like each letter is the unique product of a person working on the fly. The trouble is, as soon as  you repeat any of the letters, you can tell that it's just a typeface and not a spontaneous production at all; no one's "d" looks exactly the same every single time they write it, but there it is, the same exact shape all six times it occurs. It is also the only informal-looking font in the whole book; all others give the book a straightforward, somewhat academic and scholarly air, with this font occasionally sprinkled in looking like it was pulled from a Zondervan teen study Bible, filled with notes on dating and praying for celebrities.

In short, whatever my intellectual reaction, my emotional one is that this falls on the side of poor design that is open to criticism from non-experts like me.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Reading the Bible—All of It

Part of a series on Reading the Whole Bible.

Books of Moses, bringing stone news,
Wet in the water, weeping in the sun,
Books of Moses, got some splinters, didn't you?
Books of Moses, brought me right here back to you.

—"Books of Moses," Tom Waits

On January 1st, 2013, I was dispiritingly unable to announce any New Year's resolutions to rival last year's set. While some might argue that my life just doesn't need any major improvements, I think the reality is that the kind of improving it needs is in places that New Year's resolutions cannot readily or easily address: be more productive, worry about the future less, get out and have adventures more often. Having a structure ("write an entry every Friday") was what made the resolution to start this blog successful, and having a well-defined goal ("don't eat meat, ever") was what made vegetarianism possible. With no structure or goal, resolutions fail fast: e.g., my resolution a couple years ago to get in shape, which ended after I discovered that jogging in public is painful (my knees/feet aren't built for it) and embarrassing (my running shorts are too large and have to be periodically pulled up, or just held in place with one hand), and a lack of a defined end goal or rigid schedule made it all the easier to quit, quickly.

It was not till several days after New Year's 2013 that I came up with my resolution. Instead of trying to improve the way I live my life, I've decided to set a single, straightforward goal: read the Bible. All of it.

I fielded the question "Have you read the whole Bible?" a number of times in 2012, and it was frustrating to be a person who takes his faith seriously and still has to answer "no." Especially as a Protestant, a member of the portion of the Church that views the Bible as the only resource necessary for salvation and holiness, I feel like something of a sham for never having even glanced at whole books (I'm looking at you, Obadiah) and never having read significant portions of certain key works (like Isaiah). It's also a been little embarrassing to have a running argument with a fundamentalist friend about our divergent views of Scripture without, you know, having actually looked at all of it.

More than this frustration and embarrassment, though, I'm motivated by the kind of curiosity that David Plotz describes at the beginning of his "Blogging the Bible" series; speaking of the (surprising, unsettling) story of Dinah and Shechem, Plotz writes: "If this story was strutting cheerfully through the back half of Genesis, what else had I forgotten or never learned?" (I'll admit I'm also compelled by his conclusion: absolutely everybody, religious or not, should read the Bible, for cultural and intellectual reasons.) I wish I could say I was reading for pure spiritual edification, but while I do care about that, it is not chief among my reasons (to be honest: I don't expect to be spiritually edified by large swathes of it).

The next step after choosing to read the whole Bible was choosing which one to read. There are lots of translations out there; the King James Version, while beautiful and influential, is also strange enough (and, academically/critically speaking, out-of-date enough) that I set it aside. There are any number of more modern translations, but I chose the NRSV as a reputable translation with a focus on word-for-word accuracy, rather than general sense translation.

Also, I knew I would need something extra to help me along in reading the Bible cover to cover. I find the Bible fascinating in short chunks, but without some more modern prose alongside to engage my interest and direct my understanding, I tend to get tired fast. (This is why I've had great success at reading, say, Robert Alter's Genesis translation and commentary, but I've never made it all the way through Hebrews.) So I wanted a study Bible, something like the Oxford Annotated Bible that was a required text for many students in college. But I'm also planning on carrying it around with me all over, so I wanted something more portable.

A truly portable study Bible turned out to be a mythical beast, but I found a close enough approximation in the Access Bible, which my father dug up (and, very helpfully, purchased for me—thanks, Dad!) after I asked him for help. It's a bit on the heavy side, but it's more compact than any other study Bible I've come across (about the size of a hymnal, but thicker), and a paperback to boot. The only flaw I've spotted so far is a exceedingly poor font choice for certain sub-headings, but at least it's not Papyrus.

A couple of things will make this particular resolution to read the Bible unusual. First, I'm planning on reading the Apocrypha, the books that Protestants do not think of as part of the Bible, but that other branches of the Church do. I'm expecting this to be the most fun part, actually, since I have next to no experience with these books. The other thing: I'm not following a schedule. There are lots of scheduled whole-Bible reading experiences out there; the most popular ones last a year. I have no intention of spending a whole year reading a book, not (mainly) because I think I'm too awesome a reader to take that long, but because I know at that rate that I will certainly get off schedule sometime and give up in despair. In fact, any schedule is going to make me more likely to give up, because I hate having to catch up on reading and tend to not do it (see: my core classes in college). So far, with no schedule, I'm 31 pages in—and still reading the introduction.

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Friday, January 4, 2013

A 2012 Retrospective

It felt like four in the morning.
What sounded like fireworks
Turned out to be just what it was.
—"New Year's Eve," Tom Waits

A year ago, I made two new year's resolutions. One was to become a vegetarian: I succeeded, in my opinion, given that I can count the number of times I ate meat this year (intentionally or otherwise) on one hand. I also resolved to write one blog post a week, at which I also largely succeeded. I have decided to keep both as regular parts of my life for the foreseeable future.

This week, all I have the time and stamina for (after a long holiday season, full of travel and visits with various family and friend scions, I'm just starting to not feel generally worn out) is a short bullet-point recap of 2012. These things all happened to me:
  • Found and started dating an awesome girl through the magic of online dating
  • Met and taught kids at a military high school and a CPS magnet school
  • Discovered and explored (through the awesome girl mentioned above) the world of the Church of the Brethren, the Mennonites, and the Amish (and their fantastic doughnuts)
  • Got hired full time at my freelance jobmy first full-time employment ever (not counting AmeriCorps)
  • Entered the Chicago storytelling scene and had a blast learning to tell my stories to an audience
  • Went to lots of weddings, including the one for my cousin, the catchiest catch of all
  • Watched tons of movies, read a royal succession of books, and discovered and devoured lots of awesome comics
  • Visited such diverse locales as Ithaca, NY; Terre Haute and Goshen, IN; and Minneapolis, MN (and returned, after an absence of nearly two decades, to the Mall of America) 
  • Rang out the year with games, friends, and videos of pangolins
By and large, it's been a good year. I hope 2013 will be as good and better. 

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