Saturday, June 30, 2007

Return (v.)

Since the last entry, I have become a married man and enjoyed a four day honeymoon in San Antonio. There is so much to tell about these experiences that I won't even attempt to collect it all under one word. I'll string that out over numerous subsequent entries.

For now, I'll say it is good to be home. After every trip and vacation, there is the inevitability of coming back. And no matter how good of a time I'm having, I always look forward to it. There is no place I'd rather be than the place where I read, sleep, and fry potatoes for breakfast. I don't mind vacations. I like vacations. But I like being at home as well.

Some people look at leaving for a trip as unplugging from life. Returning, then, is plugging back in. I think that vacationing is just as much of an act of living as working is, though, so I don't subscribe to that. A honeymoon isn't an escape or a temporary fantasy-land in which newlyweds can enjoy themselves before plunging head-first back into the grind. It is an adventure, and just as much an act of living as working and paying taxes. There is no inevitable doom in returning back to "the real world," whatever that is. I expect life to continue to be great and bountiful, with many more comings, goings, and returnings.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Twenty-First (n.)

On the twenty-first of November, the year of our lord two thousand and four, Kerry Elise Wilkins and I ate dinner at Texas Land and Cattle Steakhouse and embarked on a solitary journey down a deserted San Antonio riverwalk. Two years and seven months ago, we took each other's hand and shared our first kiss. It almost didn't happen. Kerry was a Rhodes Scholar semi-finalist, and if she had made it any further down that road she would have been gone to an interview that day. I wasn't slated to go until the last minute, and only considered to trip due to the coercion of Kerry and Amanda Allen (then Dougherty).

But as fate had it, we both took Travel Abroad Grants from the University of Central Arkansas Honors College to attend the joint conventions of the American Academy of Religions and the Society of Biblical Literature. The twenty-first of that November was a day I'll never forget, involving ducks, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, note-writing, pen-poking, and lectures about Satanic influences on the math behind musical theory. Following that were conversations about how stupid it would be for a liberal arts sophomore and a medical-school bound junior to date. Following that, thank the gods, was a margarita.

We've since commemorated the twenty-first (when we've remembered it). This one also happens to be the summer solstice. The day after tomorrow, I'll marry this Kerry Elise Wilkins (turning her into a Kerry Elise Snook). The day after that, we'll be bound for San Antonio to enjoy our honeymoon on the riverwalk and search out the landmarks of our first epic journey there. We won't be back until the twenty-eighth, exactly one week from today, so don't expect any more definitions until then or soon after.

Undercut (v.)--and the Deathly Hallows

The upcoming seventh book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is predicted to be the fastest selling book in history. Harry Potter has taken in readers around the world, infecting nearly every niche where there is (and sometimes isn't) a reading community. I went to a fund-raiser sponsored by the Bradford Missionary Baptist Church a few weeks back where the adults discussed their anticipation for the book while eating pizza and giving their kids generous tips to support them in some summer fervor fortification program. But, irony of ironies, no one is predicting to make any money off the book according to Justin Grant. The reason? Undercutting.

Most bookstores are expecting to sell Harry Potter 7 at somewhere near a 40% discount or not at all. Why? Corporate undercutting. I'm not sure where it started, but the book's own publisher is selling it at 30% off retail, effectively undercutting many of its own customers! Amazon is taking the price down an additional 19%, bringing the price tag for the world's most anticipated book down to a paltry $17.00 (plus free shipping and handling!). Major book chains like Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, etc. are all jumping on the bandwagon and selling the book at a loss in hopes that customers will come in and buy something else. And Walmart will probably undercut them all as hordes of shoppers absent-mindedly pick the books off of discount racks on their way to the discount vegetables and discount meats.

I'm a shopper and I like discounts, but the bookselling industry is already facing a crisis of decline. I'm sure this won't help. I've heard that many independent bookstores survive solely on big title releases, and that this could single-handedly drive many of them out of business. As a respecter of sneaking and conniving strategies, I'm tempted to look at this situation with respect. But this isn't about being sneaking and conniving. It is more akin to Ug the caveman being so strong and having so many clubs that he can haphazardly slug them in Gug's general direction until Gug falls dead--even if Gug has a 9 Iron. It is quintessentially ridiculous, but painfully true.

Again--I'm a shopper, not a bookseller. There is nothing in this situation that hurts me, and it is certainly good for the author. Rowling's royalties are going to bury her. But Park Plaza isn't the same without Brentano's, nor Searcy without the Book Nook. Why can't big chains all be like Starbucks and sell a more expensive product?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

First Impressions Shift (n.)

Yesterday, put in my first three and a half hours of work time at the Starbucks on Markham and University in Little Rock. Overall, the experience reminded me of my entrance interview with the Honors College. In that instance, I went in expecting to get grilled, pounced upon, and picked clean of my performance record, competence, and thoughts concerning the college. Instead, Donna overwhelmed my senses like a siren with sweet-talk and allure to the point that I couldn't resist the prospect of moving into Baridon and getting my Core I reader--all I did was just sit there and take it all in.* That was like my first impressions shift.

They made me a lot of drinks on my first impressions shift. They made me taste and discuss the drinks. They made me eat three pastries and some chocolate-covered graham crackers. They laughed and joked with me. They gave me a tour, asked about my life, smiled at me (except one girl who looked like she might have been having a bad day), talked to me, probed my tastes in music, and gave me the biggest sugar rush I've had in a very long time. All I did was read some material, fill out paperwork, and help carry a box to the dumpster.^ I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to make any coffee, but my very kind shift manager told me to be patient. I got my aprons at least.

The next step will be to call them as soon as I get back from San Antonio to set up an official training schedule. On one hand, it seems like a daunting obstacle course to overcome. On the other hand, it seems like a good way to gradually introduce me into the strange new world of Starbucks. I can see how one could get overwhelmed. I have to memorize all the recipes, markings, calls, safety procedures, temperatures, computer processes, names... When it comes to the coffees and teas, I have to be able to taste and distinguish between them in terms of geography, wash, aroma, roast, acidity, heaviness, where it excites the tongue, etc. And my first tasting had to be thrown out because it was allowed to steep in the press for two minutes too long. I've never even considered this kind of seriousness in my approach to brewing. Intimidation!

I believe that it will all work out well, though, as long as I can keep everything straight in my head and pick up the extra hours I need to keep the bills at bay. This seems like a lot of fun, and I am still excited. Once I am a full-fledged, certified barista, people will have to come and be awed by my new and improved coffee-making abilities.


*Coincidentally, the lady on the Starbucks logo is a siren. According to my shift manager, her aim is to lure people in with the irresistible call of lattes. That shift manager is a very kind and patient person, who tolerated my tangential and unrelated questions about the store. I was able to find out that Starbucks is indeed named after Captain Ahab's first mate in Moby Dick, Phil, although the reason for the association with a dead, fictional Nantucket whaler who died under the captainship of a madman remains obscure...

^I also cleaned the bathroom a little at one point. Somebody decided to throw their paper towels in the floor instead of in the trash can. I hate that. I also might have wiped off the condiment bar once or twice when no one was looking. I think I straightened up some papers next to the computer console. I definitely put the newspaper back in order.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Excited (adj.)

My apprehension has given way to excitement this morning, which is all in all very exciting. I say I'm excited a lot, especially right before I know I am going to get some good food. Excitement, for me, is a very visceral feeling that resembles being on a relatively harmless roller-coaster. My stomach wrenches a little, but in a good way. I am more conscious of the blood flowing through my arms and face, making them warmer and a little tingly. And excitement just makes life seem better in general.

I am excited about wearing my cool new Starbucks garb today and getting my foot in the door at my first extra-familial job atmosphere (the Honors College was family). I'm excited about moving into an apartment again, and moving into it newly wed to Kerry Elise Wilkins--the cutest future doctor who is interested in nearly all the things I am (music, books, BSG, religious history, manga, coffee & tea, me), has great thoughts, empathizes, tries to live a better live, and is now done with the Step 1 exam. I'm excited about going to San Antonio to relive our coming-together memories and make new ones. I'm excited about getting a kitty.

I hope I can hold on to the excitement, so that this upcoming kairotic period will seem fun, no matter what obstacles hurl themselves my way--like the black gravel I ordered to fill our centerpiece vases still not shipping yet from Pennsylvania. I'll hope for a refund and have fun looking for a replacement. It'll be exciting.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Apprehensive (adj.)

I'll be the first to say that it is silly to worry about things we can't control, but I might be a great hypocrite. Tomorrow, from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m., I have a "first impressions" work cycle at the Starbucks on Markham and University. It has me a little worrisome, stressed, apprehensive.

Life isn't school anymore, with the constant safety net of brand new semesters and academic years. When I screw up, the consequences will be much more acute and lasting. The gracious state of Arkansas is no longer providing my food and shelter. I am out of the frying pan of education and into the fire of performance. And right now I have performance apprehension.

Whether or not I am permanently hired tomorrow at my first choice of workplaces will be contingent on whether or not I screw up. I somehow have to keep from messing up a recipe, making a customer unhappy, coming off as too tight-assed or too nonchalant, making a mess, licking my fingers, making a bad impression, wrecking my truck, poking out my eyeball, losing any limbs, or fainting before thirty minutes past this time tomorrow. I consider myself competent, but so much could go wrong.

And there is moving the final vestiges of my stuff to Little Rock, relatives and friends flying in, getting married, flying to and back from San Antonio, moving into the smaller apartment, and getting a kitty to be apprehensive about besides. I like things to be laid back and easy-going, but I guess the trifle tsunami (yes, I just made that up) can't be avoided at times as pivotal as these.

Death (n.)

Kerry made a post yesterday that prompts this one. Before I begin, let me echo her sentiments that The Fountain is a quintessentially beautiful movie. I love how Aronofsky treats human relationships on film. Great stuff, that.

Death is a thing in which I have trouble empathizing with other people. Letting go has always come easily for me. For those who have suffered and died, I've felt glad their suffering was over. For those who have died suddenly and unexpectedly, I've felt glad that they were saved the suffering. I've been sad, of course, but I don't think I've ever come close to the sorrow I see nearly everyone else struggle through with death.

Even when I was a wee little missionary baptist, my thinking concerning death was different from my family and peers. They would always console themselves that their loved one was waiting for them in heaven, and that everyone would meet again and be happy--just like old times. I never bought this, because under any other circumstances the people of my church claimed that we would all be such changed beings that we might not even be able to recognize each other; and if we could, we would be too busy worshiping God to interact in old worldly fashions anyway. Those doctrines didn't jive with the image of kind faces peeking down from the clouds in loving patience for me to join them. I would have been an afterthought, if not totally forgotten.

I suppose then, as now, I just drive death out of mind. I focus on memories and histories, think about the times where vitality reigned and life was steaming on full-speed. Death is an inevitable change that we all have to deal with once, and most of us have to deal with repeatedly through others. I wouldn't go so far as to call it mundane, because it only happens to us all once, but it is one thing that everyone shares in common. Nearly all the religious traditions around the world have evolved mechanisms that allow people to hold on to life after death--as spirits, shades, ghosts, new beings in other places, reborn stuff and things, ghostly ancestors who continue to rule the family, or gods. Some are more beneficial than others. The tradition held by my family is, I'm afraid, terribly unbeneficial.

Just a few days ago, I had a talk with Mom--one of those many "last" chats about this or that before I marry off. She was earnestly searching, as hard as she could, for any inkling that I might not be bound for hell. She knows I'm a good person, but her views on the afterlife come down to the simple formula: one way, one gate, one prayer to determine an afterlife in eternal glory or torture, all other factor's excluded. I did that once...no twice, because I had to be sure so that the nightmares of hell would go away, but we all know that I don't think that way anymore. As the conversation closed, she expressed hope that I am safe because of the "eternal security of the believer" rule (once-saved, always-saved) or that I am saved without knowing it by some technicality or another--that I am a Christian without realizing it. It breaks my heart that she worries so much, and over something so grave, on my account. But what is a mother or a son to do?

What did I tell her? I told her that I can accept a very loose definition of God, but not A or The God. That I don't concern myself with technicalities that are ultimately based on other peoples' assumptions or my own. That I take a very bare-bones approach to creating the structure for my mental life, assuming as little as possible and being happy with a stripped-down, functional worldview that is enough to give me a sense of direction but not so much that I have to reject anyone else's (for the most part). That I guide my actions by my conscience and by a rule that what is good for others and the world at large is good for me, and vice versa. That I pray more than I ever have in my life, but that I am not concerned about who or what is listening--it feels right (not good, there's a difference), it seems to work, and that is well enough for me. That I make my spiritual decisions not out of a desire to be a rebellious apostate, but because they are the only ones I can make. My training, experiences, and knowledge oppressively guide me in certain directions and I can't throw all that out the window to make a non-sincere confession of faith. That because of all this, I am doing exactly what God--whatever God is--intends me to do. My moral compass, my golden rule, my thoughts and feelings, and my life are all in sync--and if God intends me to go to hell for that, than I think it is unfair, but there is nothing I can really do about it. (Notice that it came out in this conversation, to my surprise, that I am mostly a determinist who believes in something like unshakable fate or destiny.)

Dad says that my views on death will change as it becomes more of a reality to me. I have yet to lose a parent, a sibling, or face death myself. If that is so, then so be it. But for now, and for all my life I can recall up to this point, I've been more of a liver than a dyer. I don't think there is any disrespect to the living person of the past to smooth over death in the present. I remember singing for Uncle Harry, learning the Bible under Bro. Roach, standing in awe of Aunt Judy's (Dunham, not Snook) strangely (and scarily) decorated house, fighting and making up with Christy, making up futures where the Confederacy and Union fight in space with Jesse, relishing the moments where Charles let slip acidic criticism of republicans in front of Mom and Dad, petting Marshmallow, and spending my childhood being shaped and guided in all things paramount and mundane by the greatest peacemaker, counselor, confidant, and cook the Snook family has ever seen. I don't visit their graves or grieve that they are gone except for the positive impact they could have were they still here. The stories of their lives are over, abut I'm not going to develop a monomania for their last words while the epilogues of their rippling effects brim with new, exciting text.

What Grandma has been up to for the past six years, where she is at, or whether she is anywhere at all is beyond my reckoning and anyone or anything else's. Maybe I'll find out one day, maybe I won't, but there are a lot better things I can do in the meantime besides speculating over what is impossible to know.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Birthday (n.) & Father's day (n.)

Today is my 22nd birthday. I suppose all the landmark years with positive connotations (16, 18, & 21) are finished. All that remain are hypothetical 40, 80, and 100 milestones. But I've never put much stock in what other people say about occasions. They seem so jaded--telling me that I'm inching closer to death and that my wedding is a time to mourn my loss of liberty and all. Getting older is a good thing, as is getting married. It's all a matter of perspective.

Yesterday, Kerry met me in Searcy. We sat out at Midnight Oil nearly all day, she studying and I reading. She gifted me that last two volumes of Love Hina, by Ken Akamatsu, which may be my favorite manga series that we collect. It made me a little sad to finish off the series for good, but I have plans to read them all again for blogging purposes. It wasn't too much of a letdown, since the ending was apparent halfway through. She also got me the second volume of Osamu Tezuka's Buddha, but it was really a pseudo-present. She wanted to read it herself, so she used me as an excuse...not that there is anything wrong with that. The most surprising gift she got me was a bottle of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps. I anticipate a post dedicated to said item soon, so I will leave Dr. Bronner for be for the moment. Suffice it to say that it is really freakin' neat.

This morning, I received from Loren The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy. I look forward to giving it a try. Mom gave me a gift card to one of the restaurants Kerry and I will be sampling once we arrive in San Antonio next Sunday as well as a black stainless steel watch. I was in desperate need of a watch. She also got me a pot and a money tree, which will play a role in the upcoming wedding. Dad gave me the very first bowie knife he ever made. It is an extremely valuable blade to begin with, but the associations are priceless. I need to get a display for the knifes I'm accumulating, and finish the ones I've been stuck on for the past two years.

Ever so often, my birthday coincides with Father's Day. The last time it happened, it wasn't a good day. Today, though, has been fun. One of the ways my family has invented to keep from having to wrap gifts is to hide them and direct the recipient to them by saying "hot" or "cold." I thought I would have Dad vexed by folding one of his presents up in the curtains and putting the other in one of the winter coat pockets, but he ended up using the cell-phone to direct me around outdoors.

After gift exchanges and a wonderful breakfast prepared by my Mom and Sister, we went to church. Never a fun thing, but afterwards we took Grandpa out for catfish and had a good time. Now, it is time to settle down, finish this post, and start reading a book. I think I might take a break from Crime and Punishment to skip through The Amulet of Samarkand.

So...happy Father's Day to Dad and Grandpa and happy Birthday to me!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Stuff (n.) & Things (n.)

I keep returning to stuff and things in my posts. They appeal to me in a number of ways. Definitively, I suppose they could mean about anything. But precisely because of that vagueness and obscurity, I love them. Loose words like stuff and things, especially used together, can have great effects.

A) Stuff and things are a very convenient linguistic tools. Much of what I say is meant to be applied over a broad range of...well...stuff and things. It is a lot easier to simply say that instead of trying to list the entirety of applicable existence. It may be the lazy way out, and I know some people enjoy reading obscenely long lists. But I don't enjoy writing them. "Stuff and things" suffices.

B) They are noncommittal. I like to be noncommittal in my language a lot of the time. Not all the time, because I like having some hardcore debates as well, but more often than not I like to lace my speech with qualifiers. There is always a "just in case" factor that I don't like to take for granted, so I like to add an escape route. That way, I'm covered if something goes wrong. When I mention stuff and things, I allow people to make their own connections instead of inserting my own. There is a lot less of a chance of disagreement that way.

C) Stuff and things are funny. In one day, I saw a bumber sticker that read, "Prayer Changes Stuff," and a plaque that read, "Prayer Changes Things." Aside from the irony, I found each individual phrase hilarious. If they had referred to prayer changing life, me, or the world, they would have been sappy and annoying. But what isn't funny about "Prayer Changes Stuff?"

Three reasons is enough. Stuff and things are awesome.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Deactivate (v.)

Today I took a great leap in decision-making. I wrote a kind but expressive note to the staff and clicked the deactivate button on my facebook account. Facebook has changed a lot since I became a user two years ago. It has went from being a relatively benign communication tool isolated to colleges to becoming a pervasive panopticon that makes everyone involved the subject and object of irrational levels of voyeurism.

When I began using facebook, there was one page devoted to my tastes in books, movies, hobbies, etc. Now, there is the feed that allows everyone to see every minute action within their social groups, and every day I get (or got) more and more request to join networks that would keep updated tabs on what I was watching, what I was hungry for, etc. The kicker was when I received a request to add an anonymous secret-sharing module onto my page. At that point, I decided to deactivate.

I haven't had a great love of the facebook features for some time. People join usergroups in such droves that it ceases to matter. Most of the people who can't come to an event will click maybe instead of no, negating the value of that function as well. I really liked the notes feature, but it was simply a duplicate of my blog. I harbor no resentment toward the system, but it just isn't for me anymore. I'm far from antisocial, but there are boundaries I am uncomfortable stepping over. Facebook has stretched them, and that has been good, but I'm still just a tad too much of a private person to be comfortable with the direction in which it is going.

Last semester, I had conversations with Jeremy Lusk about being over-accessible and over-reliant on being accessible. I had conversations with Phillip Melton about Foucault, objectification, and the drive to be objectified. I had conversations with Donna Bowman about voyeurism from the perspective of the viewed and the viewer. And I had conversations with Anthony Simmons about the sheer pointlessness of spending obscene amounts of time getting to know every aspect of another's online persona. These people deserve credit for fortifying my decision to deactivate.

I have a mailing address, and email account, an HCOL inbox, a cell-phone, a blog, and--God forbid!--a front door. Enough is enough, thank you. I bear no ill-will to you, Ashlyn Shellito, for persuading me to try facebook out. I enjoyed it for a long time. But the axe has fallen, and I am rebuilding a small portion of the wall between me and everyone else who uses the internet.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Drawn-Out (adj.)

When things take a lot of time, we apply to them a spatial adjective that we have adapted to have chronological use: long. Some things aren't only long, but tedious as well. We give these things a compound adjective (in both senses): drawn-out. When stuff is drawn-out, we typically don't like it. It means we have to struggle through it or bear with it. We may anticipate what will be accomplished at the culmination of long stuff, but with drawn-out things we generally anticipate the the simple end more than any creative possibility.

When I go to work in the morning at the metal polishing shop, I may actually enjoy it at first and take pride in my handiwork. Before lunch break, though, the monotony will start to make it feel like a long day. During lunch break, I dread going back to the tedium of the lathe. By 1:30 or so, I realize it is going to be a drawn-out afternoon. Every part becomes an obstacle, every motion a painstaking effort to get me that many more seconds closer to 5:00.

And in the worst twist of irony, it often becomes impossible to consider anything else once as process has become drawn-out. Before it seems like a drawn-out day, I can let my mind wander and be content in the worst of circumstances. But as soon as I become conscious of how drawn-out my work has become, all I can think about is every tedious action. That just makes it seem more drawn-out.

So before I make this post too drawn-out, allow me to quickly express that Crime and Punishment is a very drawn-out book. I continue reading, but will the end ever be in sight?

Daemon (n.)

The Golden Compass is coming out December 7. I'm excited. Part of their promo is a daemon quiz. A daemon is, in brevity, the soul of a human being detached and manifested externally as a talking animal. Children start out with morphing daemons, but they become rigid and fixed into adulthood.

According to the short daemon quiz, mine is Onthia, a tigress. She epitomizes an assertive, modest, dependable, passive, and social soul. In a neat online quiz development, though, there is a 12-day period in which other people can take the test to determine whether or not my self-perceptions are accurate. Anyone care to test my self-perceptions? If you take the quiz, be sure to inform me what your daemons are.

I discovered all this from Donna's blog. She happens to be Calanon, a spontaneous, solitary, humble, assertive, and modest snow-leopard.

Brief (adj.)

Sometimes, it is appropriate to exercise restraint in my expressions so as not to impose on others, myself, or just time in general. When what I have to say becomes unimportant in comparison to something else, when a friend has somewhere else to be or something else to do, or when one of those moods is present in which silence is a treasure, brevity is a good thing. When I have had a long, busy day and am too tired to write anything but a token entry, brevity is a great thing.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Dirty (adj.)

Learning to deal with being dirty is a part of life. We are biological things living in a biological world that is full of icky stuff. Don't get me wrong, I am a firm believer in the virtuosity of cleanliness, but we have to come to terms with dirt.

I can think of two types of dirty. One is the noble dirtiness that comes from work. Most of the time, this kind of of dirty has more to do with things that get on you rather than your own secretions. Buffing black, sawdust, motor oil, mud, hay--these things are testaments to hard work and, please don't hurt me ladies, manliness. If I feel especially manly after a filthy day's work, I might go to the bank to cash in my checks before I clean up just to show off. This is a good kind of dirty that I can enjoy, although I still look forward to a cold shower or a hot bath.

There is another kind of dirty, though, that absolutely disgusts me, and that is when people don't maintain themselves and become dirty with their own secretions. Like a chimney that is never swept, an oil filter that is never changed, or a trash can that is never emptied, these people become unnecessarily filthy. Sweat initially doesn't smell that bad, in my opinion. A little sweat after a hard day's work is nothing to be ashamed of. But let it sit for a day and it becomes quite another matter. And that is not a symbol of hard work, but quite the opposite.

Of course, there are various mixes and exceptions within this dichotomy. People who work with pig-swill or sewage or formaldehyde all day aren't letting themselves go, but they'll still be repulsive until they clean up. No fault to them. Thank you for doing things that my nose would never let me, pig-swill, sewage, and formaldehyde people.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Secret Agent of Satan (n.)

This morning at Bradford Baptist Church, Pastor Tom Lewis got a little too excited while preaching about Jude. Before the sermon, I was feeling sorry for him. The church is in decline, there is hardly any real enthusiasm among the congregation, and people are starting to point their disenchanted fingers at him. Despite the bad blood between us, I know he doesn't deserve most of the heat for the congregation's lack of interest in its own religion.

I was thinking about writing him a letter. I wanted to express how I think the church could be slightly reformed for the better and encourage him to take positive steps toward improvement. I wanted to express that people need to feel invested in an institution for it to thrive--they need their voices and opinions heard, they need a sense of community, they need to share meals with each other, etc. rather than going through the formality of the same old evangelical script every service. That was designed for mostly illiterate, uneducated people who needed constant teaching. What people need nowadays is something more lively, collaborative, and interest-gripping, democratic as a compliment to the same-old same-old.

But all that aside, my sympathy melted away. Because apparently, since I don't share the exact faith but go to the church for the benefit of my family, I and others like me are--and I quote--"Secret Agents of Satan" who are destroying the church from the inside. It would make way too much sense for the church to introspectively think about ways it can improve itself, so there must be infiltrators. There must be some sort of evil hiding away in the balcony whose very presence is decimating God's ability to touch his people. There must be--and again I quote--"Gnostics!" who are hell-bent on "defying the gospel of truth and corrupting everything they touch." Arharr! Because Gnostics believe that Jesus gave up his divinity to become man (wtf?), and so anyone who tries to be theological but denies Christ is a Gnostic (again, wtf?) and a false prophet!

Seriously, I don't know how to take this. I want to be offended, but it is just too hilarious. Secret Agents of Satan! Surely, there should be a club.

Map (n.)

You may have noticed that I inserted a map widget to the left underneath my references. When I started this blog, the first thing I did was sign up for Google Analytics, because Google Analytics had a map feature. I could see little dots everywhere in the world where people viewed my site. They changed their map format, though, and now you can only see one state or nation at a time--no more big picture. And so I discovered Clustrmaps, which not only gives me a better map of my blog's imperious progress throughout this planet, but even allows me to put a thumbnail of said map in the blog layout so that everyone can glory in the might of the 1-Eyed Empire.

Seriously, though, I have always loved maps. If it were practical, I would cover every square inch of my house walls in maps of Earth, the galaxy, the universe, and fantastical realms. From early elementary until the week before I graduated from the University of Central Arkansas, I always drew maps in the margins when I got bored. I would often fill them in with pencil or ink to denote the steady expansion of some hegemonic power--imagining how I would manage an invasion or defense campaign in these imaginary lands. I would always draw out detailed geographic and chronological maps for the worlds I fantasized about before going to bed (sometime terrestrial, sometimes in space). Before I invested my thoughts to these places, I wanted to flesh them out so that I could see where things were and how stuff related.

I got my fist globe before I went to school, and got really angry when the U.S.S.R. wasn't really there anymore. I loved Terraserver, and then Google Earth for all the power they gave me to look at places. I've always considered myself a big picture person. I would rather barely understand the whole of a thing than understand just one component of it well. Maybe that is one reason I love maps so much. Maybe it is because I am a spacial-oriented thinker. I could never remember the number on any of my P.O. Boxes, but I never had any trouble finding them. I can never think of the numbers of the Little Rock interstates (which is pathetic, I know), but I don't have trouble finding places. Maybe that is why I stink with musical theory. As long as I can figure out where and how to put my fingers on such-and-such an instrument, I can discover how to play things on it well enough. I could care less about what letter is associated with what sound or what scientific principles make such-and-such notes jive or whether or not I'm playing it in the same key as so-and-so.

But now I'm getting into really tangential theoreticals. Before it goes any further, suffice it to say that I like maps. Let it be known, I am a map person. And despite how tacky it may be, I'm keeping the little map widget because it makes me happy. It's mine.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Thin Place (n.)

While surfing through various blogs, I stumbled upon the concept of thin places. The Sacred Page, which now appears in my references, contained a post about "thinness." In the author's own words:
Celtic Christians believed that there were certain physical locations where the boundaries between God and humans were much "thinner" and the chasm between the two more easily crossed.
She talks about birth and death as thin places in time. I began thinking about thunderstorms, subterranean waterfalls, and those rare, really deep late-night conversations. It occurred to me that the thin spaces are probably different for everyone. Many are thrust upon us by natural disposition. Some may be predisposed to see the infinite in peaceful ocean waters and others in the wrath of a raging sea. One may see infinite possibility in a microscope, another a telescope. A child may be raised to understand reality in terms of the Bible, the Koran, the Sutras, or Understanding Physics. Thus, receptivity to the divine, the connected, the infinite, the whatever is shaped not necessarily according to one's will.

But other affinities for thin places are consciously chosen. People desire divine connections, and decide how to seek them out by picking churches, ritual forms, reading material, vacations, who to talk to, etc. Some kairotic moments just happen, but we spend an awful lot of time trying to make them happen or trying to see them in all the stuff and things we can. Sometimes the conscious quest for thinness is successful, other times it isn't, and I think that most of the time we don't know the difference (hence evangelicals exist).

Maybe we're not supposed to be able to summon them at will. Perhaps it isn't good to see the divine in everything and everything as divine. It might be that the thin places are supposed to be special--something to appreciate at intervals to give our lives the shake-ups we commonly admit we need. If every moment were perceived with infinite possibility and appreciation, it would become mundane and we would lose all sense of awe. The alternative--constantly experiencing the poignancy of life in every moment--is even more terrible. When my sister was a toddler, and undergoing a phase of absolute fascination with the flower garden, Mom made a comment something like, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could see everything with that kind of wonder?" Dad replied, "No. Do you want to stare at the four-o'clocks for an hour every day?" The quest, then, to make thin places common occurrences could be dreadfully misguided.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Ex Libris Anonymous (n.)

Ex Libris Anonymous journals are some of the neatest things to be found on the web, and one of my personal favorite things. Donna introduced me to them by giving me one--and then another--as a gift for being her teaching assistant. I am using them religiously, which is appropriate since one is a Gideon Bible and the other a component in a multi-volume work: God's Chosen People.

What the Ex Libris Anonymous people do is take books at the end of their useful lives and cannibalize them. It sounds harsh so far, but keep reading. They cut the front and back covers off the spine and save a few random pages of the original content. They then put it back together on a spiral bind, making something like a small spiral notebook with a cover such as a Gideon Bible, a mechanical handbook, or So Quick with New Bisquick. Within these covers are inserted blank white sheets with the original pages of the books inserted at random intervals.

The result of this process is a completely one-of-a-kind (and covert!) notebook that one can use for whatever his or heart desires. The cover and the original pages keep a smattering of personality about the volumes that can speak to the owner's tastes in personal, humorous, and often ironic ways. Why else would they have Obstetric Management and Nursing? Thank you Donna, and thank you Ex Libris Anonymous people, for these really neat things. I can take the personalized journal idea to the extreme now, using these books in conjunction with my hand-made fountain pen.

Coca-Cola (n.)

There is no substitute for Coca-Cola. It is the original soda, and all others are imitators to some degree. It is the king of softdrinks. It is the generic term for all carbonated beverages: cokes. It's original flavor is strong, robust, sweet, and good. It is the only soda I would put on par with a good cup of coffee. Coca-Cola comes in by far the sexiest can, too. The bright, vivid red aluminum paint with the cursive white logo and the little swirly thing makes me so very, very happy.

Coca-Cola is iconic of bygone eras.
Coca-Cola packs a caffeine and sugar wallop that can keep me working strong all day.
Coca-Cola makes the only ice-cream floats that taste right.
Coca-Cola uses polar bears for Christmas advertising.

Come on, you can't beat the polar bears.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Fountain Pen (n.)

As a gift for graduating, Kerry's dad made me my very own custom fountain pen. I had seen James mess around with them before, but I had never owned or operated a fountain pen until receiving my John Wilkins creation. My pen is made out of a deep brown wood and shiny iridium--very classy. It uses ink cartridges, so refilling it with ink is easy. What is neatest about it, besides the fact that it is a fountain pen and just plain neat by nature, is the design. The pen itself is very short, but there are screw threads on the back of it. So once you unscrew the cap, you can screw it back onto the other end to extend the handle to normal length. When you are done, you unscrew the cap from the back and place it over the tip--making the fountain pen collapse into half the length of a normal pen. I was told this is called a "Little Havana" design because it looks like a small cigar.

So far, my fountain pen and I have had bit of a rocky relationship. It writes thick and precise, making very majestic, almost nostalgic script. The ink likes to run dry, though, so that I have to shake it around to make it flow again. My elation dampened after I ruined two shirts to this procedure, staining them with little black ink spots. I think I am getting the hang of fountain pen flipping, though. There is a fine art to flicking the pen hard enough to make the ink flow but not hard enough to make it release little droplets. I've also found that I have to write a bit slower than usual, because the ink can only flow so fast. Fountain pens certainly bring a new level of nuance and sophistication into scribbling.

We've survived the first ink refill, and I've continued to master using the little bugger. Kerry says that the oils from my hand will make it turn darker. At the rate I've been using it, it ought to end up black as hell. But then it won't look like a cigar anymore...

Porch Swing (n.)

Our house--soon to be my parents' house, as I am moving to Little Rock--is situated on the second to last ridge of the Ozark plateau as it dips down into the Mississippi plains. The last ridge is just a teeny mount of dirt, so we are on the last for all practical purpose. Outside our front door, the land drops about forty feet within a hundred yards and there is hardly so much as a bump until Crowley's ridge. When I was five, we put a porch swing on the front porch to take full advantage of the view. It was a grand and glorious vista, especially in the winter when the fields flooded and it was like looking at a smooth ocean. When there was a full moon to reflect off those waters, it made maybe the most beautiful sight I've ever seen. But alas, trees have since grown up and blocked off the view.

That hasn't changed my attachment to the porch swing, though. Many of my most pleasant memories of the house take place there. It is where the family periodically gathers for coffee on breezy evenings. It is where I've taken countless afternoon naps. It is where I did nearly all of my childhood pleasure reading. It is were I used to play my guitar at night, often to the resounding bass of the spring storms. It is where I've enjoyed the privacy that can only be attained outside to think, brood, pray, and do other stuff and things.

Most embedded in my memory, though, are the countless conversations I've had with my former girlfriends and lovers over the phone. Despite how much I hate cellphones, I usually like the people I talk to through them. And it is through those lengthy conversations late into the night that I got to know my teenage sweethearts. While I would oscillate back and forth, kicking the four-o'clocks on each forward swing, relationships were made. Depths of imagination were plumbed. Oceans of thought were plied. Clouds of questions were scattered away.

The thing is getting old now. While the wood is still sturdy, the nails are coming out and the paint is wearing off. Given my attachment to it, I suppose it is oddly appropriate that its degeneration should be most apparent when I am preparing to leave for a new home.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Into the Ground (phrase)

The way people use the phrase "into the ground" provides an excellent example of how different subcultures can take the same linguistic tool and apply it in different ways. I've encountered this phrase, and commonly used it myself, in two different environments: Conway and Bradford (or college and work).

In Conway, we would often say that something had been ___ into the ground once it had become boring. If a song had been overplayed, it had been played into the ground. If an argument had gone on too long, it had been run into the ground. If an idea had been talked about too many days in a row, it had been drug into the ground. If a game had gone on to long, it had been played into the ground. "Into the ground" always implied boredom, disinterest, and an eagerness to move on to something else.

Similarly, but not quite the same, the phrase is always used in Bradford to talk about exhaustion and tiredness. A truck can be driven into the ground and a person or animal can be worked into the ground. However, there is no boredom or energy once something has been driven into the ground. It is dead. A man worked into the ground isn't going to work any more until he has either had peanut butter sandwiches and espresso or a good night's sleep. Bradfordians often use the phrase as a challenge to competition: "I'll work you into the ground," means the same as "I'll work circles around you." Nobody ever uses the phrase to talk about boredom or disinterest, though, as the college people do.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Bradford (n.)

After Old Glaise, Bradford was the second Arkansas town that influenced my growth. Technically, my family lives a little closer to Possum Grape than Bradford, but Possum Grape isn't big enough to have its own address zone. Hence, we've always considered Bradford our home--in name, at least.

Bradford is located on the cusp of White County, which makes all the difference in the world. Old Glaise and Possum Grape are Jackson County cities, making them oriented toward the decrepit and dying cultural center of Newport. Bradford is oriented towards a much different county seat: the thriving city of Searcy. As a satellite town of one of the region's fastest growing populations, Bradford enjoys a certain deal of stability and prosperity that keeps its population from sinking below 800. I am interested to see if it can still supply Searcy with a captive market and workforce as gas prices rise, though...

I first attended elementary school at Trinity Christian, a private academy located on the outskirts of the town. I endured kindergarten and first grate at that hellish place, but eventually I was forced out because we weren't part of the church community, I wasn't popular, and my academic performance was making the administrator's children look like idiots. My real immersion in Bradford culture came in second grade, when I was enrolled in the city's public school. I got to know the other kids of the town and see what unsheltered life was like, although I still wasn't popular.

I hovered on the edge between being an outsider and an insider all through elementary, until my family moved its church membership to Bradford Baptist, the largest church in the surrounding community. Then, my parents started knowing the parents of people I knew, making our social insertion more complete. Bradford turned out to be a charming little town. Everyone is conservative, but a lot of people still vote democrat. The school system is just the right size to be relatively well-funded, attended, and staffed. There is a sense of commonwealth among the people, even if it isn't capable of fixing the crisis of a deteriorating water infrastructure.

Charming little town...but I wouldn't want to live there forever. Too many people think I am a person I used to be. Everyone wants me to play my guitar and sing specials at church. People congratulate me for being such a good, Christian person and wonder where I plan on going to church after I get married and move away. If they new the truth about me, let's just say I wouldn't belong. If I had to stay around here, it would be better to go out to Possum Grape where I could mind my own business and have easy access to the nearest liquor store--and with all the busybodies and do-gooders, I'd need the liquor store.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Need (v.)

People need stuff to be prosperous and happy. Beyond food and other people, human needs are drastically different depending on each individual. Some people need stability, others need freedom. Some need clothes, and others...well...don't. In the United States, most of us have become accustomed to a level of living at which we rarely ever are concerned about our needs. We have begun to equate wants with needs, and that tendency has been slowly evolving into my biggest pet peeve.

Nearly every day, I hear people say things such as, "We need matching curtains," "We need an SUV to haul around the kids," "We need a bigger house so that we can have more space for our stuff," "We need a new set of summer clothes," "We need newer and better computers," "We need cigarettes," "We need football," "We need the latest album," " We need more channels," "We need tacos from _____ restaurant," "We need fifty pairs of shoes..." Well, we don't. We want those things, but we don't need them.

And a lot of the time, we don't even want them. Most of us will spend incalculable sums of money on things we perceive a need for and really don't want at all. If someone thinks we need a new car, suit, watch, or book, then we think we need it too. It's a vicious cycle: people talking each other into believing they have to have all of these things about which they don't need a hoot, people sacrificing things they want to attain those "needs," and then finding out that they "need" even more things to make the things they originally "needed" to fit into their lives. It really is enough to make me almost want to move out into the mountains and be a hermit.

What we need to be doing is looking to a sustainable future, trying to make life mean something beyond buying and selling stuff, and keeping a clear focus of what really does and doesn't matter, not getting caught up in the mundane yet stressful trifles.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Left-handed Desk (n.)

I owe a great debt of gratitude to Sarah Elizabeth Pitman, henceforth referred to as Lizzie, for giving Kerry and me three pieces of furniture in exchange for help moving to her new apartment. One of said pieces of furniture is a sturdy, older, pre-loved desk with the drawers on the left-hand side instead of the right. Despite Lizzie's comments to the effect that it needs painting, I think it is one of the most charmingly beautiful things in our house...

...and also one of the most practically functional for me. Alas, I'm a leftie. I have suffered all throughout college having nothing on which to rest my elbow while writing away lecture notes (or rough drafts for blog entries if the professors were not so engaging). It got tiresome. The desks I have had at home have been little better, because the drawers are always on the right side. The place provided for me to sit is always on the extreme left of the desk so my elbow still hangs off the edge. For this reason, I've always given up on my desks and went to my bed for extended writing stints.

I can now look forward to scribbling away at letters, journals, and other stuff and things on Lizzie's desk. I've placed it right in front of the window with the best view in the house, overlooking the row of backyards behind rows of other peoples' townhouses. The desk may not be that exciting to Kerry, but she can lay claim to the near totality of the other desks in existence, geared for her writing comfort. Thanks, Lizzie, for my first left-handed desk.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Perspective (n.)

Since I'm biding my time until I get officially married and employed, I have quite a bit to think about. I like to think of myself as a relatively stable person with a positive outlook, but the mere act of thinking has been a roller coaster ride for the past couple of weeks. It is amazing how the shortest conversations or the most mundane events can cause my perspectives to shift entirely.

Right now, I can't make up my mind whether to be excited or nervous. I'm about marry Kerry, make a home, and earn lots of money doing productive things--exciting! But there is the possibility of things going wrong: Kerry could do poorly in school, I may not find a job that pays well enough, something could happen to us, etc. Even if things don't go wrong, balancing finances could turn out to be a hellish struggle. How do I look at all this? Of course it is wise to avoid the extremities of naive optimism and abject fear, but I don't know that keeping a stable, perfectly balance equilibrium is possible.

Yesterday, the first thing I did when I woke up was write the words, "This feels like a good day." I was determined to hold onto that good perspective, and things happened all day to reinforce it. I began to enjoy Crime and Punishment more. I got to take my first bath with the leaky faucet fixed. I grilled burgers for a big party in my cowboy hat. It all made me excited--this is life and there is better to come, a good perspective. Then, I had an intermittent conversation with Dad over twenty minutes or so and came away feeling as if Kerry and I are fated to struggle, go bankrupt anyway, hate each other, and die. Picking up on how much terror he had inadvertently instilled in me, the entire family took it as a cue to tease me mercilessly about my impending cancer, heart disease, meager welfare pension, homelessness, and infertility (all in good fun, mind you--such is expected).

Finally, I was able to regain some form of balance in my perspective by saying something to the effect of, "If I am doomed to be unsuccessful after all I have done so far--and everything I have done I think I have done quite well--then the world sucks and it would be better to roll over and die anyway." That made me feel happier. Graceful, no?

I used to think that there was an ideal "realistic" perspective between the stereotypically "good" and "bad" ones. But now I think that, like American political parties, the idea of perspectives needs two axes of comparison: naive vs. realistic and positive vs. negative. There is such a thing as naive pessimism. Turning a blind eye to the good is just as idealistic as doing so to the bad. The naive vs. realistic dichotomy is self-explanatory--the traditional model. The good-bad dichotomy doesn't have so much to do with how much good or bad one expects as much as how one is able to deal with it. It is how one deals with optimism and pessimism: stability vs. frenzy, determination vs. waffling, acceptance vs. agitation, love vs. hate, curiosity vs. disinterest, grace vs. contrariness, calculation vs. guesswork, and so on ad infinitum. What is appropriate may shift with each scenario, but there is an element of skill in dealing with reality that is totally apart with one's hopeful or not-so-hopeful expectations.

So let's raise our imaginary glasses (or tangible cups if you are sipping coffee as myself) to keeping our perspectives balanced between optimism and pessimism, and fine-tuned to confront each situation and possibility with appropriate mental and emotional finesse. While we're at it, let's raise them again to fortifying ourselves against fountain pens going dry, traffic being bad, power outages, bills, and teasing.