Thursday, September 21, 2017

Great Conversation

“There is nothing that makes me happier than sitting around the dinner table and talking until the candles are burned down.”  ― Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet 

I used to say that nothing makes me happier than a good, meaty conversation. 

As the years have gone by, though, I have felt less and less able to pull my own weight in conversation. 

I run out of things to say or ask the other person about. Maybe I'm just not interesting enough? Have I stopped reading, learning, and growing, so I have nothing to bring to the table?

Whatever it is, when I'm on the spot, I often can't think of a way to take the talk from "small talk" to at least "medium talk," if that's a thing.  

Part of the problem may be that the conversations that dash my hopes are often one on one. The ideal number of people for a discussion that is simultaneously relaxed and stimulating, I propose (or at least prefer), is four. In a group of three to five, no one need carry the conversational ball alone, yet there's space for everyone to have their say. My new team at work is a team of four, and that feels just right.

Do you have any strategies for stimulating great conversations? What works for you?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Fandom Fancies

Yesterday was game day, a fact well-advertised (at their own expense) by a good many of the residents of Columbia, South Carolina. As we went about our Saturday errands I noticed how many sported crimson gear demonstrating their allegiance to the South Carolina Gamecocks, especially when it comes to football, the sport currently in season.

The Need to Know

We didn’t watch the game, but felt we had to be in the know. As the evening progressed Hubs inquired about the score each time he asked Siri how the University of Oregon football team was doing in a simultaneous match against Wyoming. Though Oregon won 49-13, a sell-out crowd here in Columbia watched the Gamecocks lose 23-13. Had they won, the crowing would have continued throughout the city for another day. Instead, I suspect a hush has fallen over the topic for most fans, for now. Still, as Hubs connects with local guys he works with over Facebook or around the proverbial water cooler on Monday, he wants to have a basic grasp of what happened.

What's the Appeal?

It still catches me by surprise that so many people find their identity in the sports teams they cheer for, yet I have to admit enough interest to give a fair amount of my time to following my favorite teams. I’m not a “true fan” of any sport, I suppose; I use it primarily to establish or maintain common-ground with others, such as friends and family members back in the West, and to some extent, to those who aren’t.

Yes, I think that’s it. Showing allegiance to teams from the hometown or alma mater makes a statement of place both to those who share it and those who don’t. It’s part of my “I am from…” statement. Not as much as Puget Sound and Mount Rainier, blackberries and bookshelves, but a part.

Appealing to Allegiances

On a recent trip to the Northwest I went to an arts festival which featured Northwest icons in a prominent way. Not the sports things: as a juried art show, it did not have Huskies, Seahawks, or Mariners gear, at least not that I noticed. But it did feature more natural Northwest icons. I brought home a piece that managed to include Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, a Washington State ferry, and someone riding a bike down a hill during a sunset, all together in the form of a paper-cutting by a Japanese artist. All those points of appeal to my allegiances in one piece were hard to resist, and this one seemed made to fit in my suitcase and my frugal price range, too. So now it’s on my wall.

I suppose that makes the same kind of statement as the football jersey or baseball cap.

Now Consider the Funatics...

Attending the art festival meant skipping another Everett, WA event, the opening of a new headquarters for Funko, a Northwest company that got its start making bobble-head dolls and grew into what may be the world’s largest manufacturers of licensed toys and pop-culture collectibles. Who knew? They’ve made their new HQ into quite the interactive consumer experience, like a seamless blend of Disneyland and the Disney store. It features sections catering to fans of Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and more. They were expecting thousands of "Funatics" to attend the grand opening.

Sports and pop culture, all in one.

Taxonomy of Fandom: Justified or Unfair?

I find my own prejudices affect how I view the world of fandom. Picking up watercolors of Mt. Rainier and ferryboat knickknacks seems like healthy home-town-ism to me, while my-country-first rhetoric seems like dangerous patriotism. Why? What's the difference? Is it that Puget Sound is real and worth celebrating, not costing anyone else, whereas American Dream is a political philosophy or fiction with a high pricetag for other people and the planet?

Sports fans seem, to me, sometimes excessive, but ultimately more acceptable than pop-culture collectible collectors. Why? What’s the difference? In both cases we’re talking about commercializing on someone else’s achievement, licensing the work of a team of athletes or artists and selling overpriced “gear” so others can identify with it. Is it that a quarterback is a real person while a comic-book character is not?

In the end I think my taxonomy is little more than a ranking of prejudices... concluding that while I'm entitled to my opinions, so other people are entitled to theirs. Cheer for who you will and collect what you want; we all have our preferences and our own ideas about how far we'll go to proclaim or protect them.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Considering Cohousing

Until a few years ago, many of the grad students at the Christian college campus where we live made their homes in a community called The Village. This cluster of mobile homes out in the woods had been there a few decades. Many of them were pretty run down and plagued by mold and dry rot, but the married students and families who lived there loved the sense of community they shared.

When a complex of new, modern apartments was complete, The Village was closed down and the rotted-out trailers sold, given or hauled away.

The apartments, no longer limited to the same population, include not only graduate and seminary student families, but also older single students, faculty and staff, and alumni like me. They are clean, well designed, and a big step up in luxury.

But no longer do all the residents know one another. Sometimes nearest neighbors still share meals and families with young kids still get their kids together to play, but it isn’t the kind of place you can easily meet people or shoo your little ones out the door and know they will be looked after. In fact, we have policies against that which help protect the children. I was glad those policies were in place when a young daredevil crashed a scooter and broke her arm coming down the hill outside our building not long ago. No, we don’t want the kids running wild. But in The Village, I think they pretty much could. It was a tight community.

What keeps the apartments from creating that same sense of community? In part it’s the architecture. American housing is set up to protect values like luxury, convenience, and privacy. It’s not like The Village, where everyone would see each other coming and going and know who lives where. I imagine some would put up a cute wooden sign with their name in front of their trailer. I suppose I could still put a sign on my door, but with few shared stairwells, who would see it? So, physically, we can't create that atmosphere. We don't have balconies or patios; most can't see each other come and go. While there is a good amount of shared space, many avoid it.

We do have a nice community center which hosts events, formally and informally. There's coffee, and a printer, and some places to study, play games, or hang out. Staff and residents do what they can to foster relationships. The laws and ethics placed on apartment managers require them to protect the safety and privacy of their residents, though. They feel that their hands are tied. No nametags at community events, for example, and they are rather cautious about introductions, though they love to see us meet one another. We also have a Facebook group now. That may help. Our shared faith and values certainly help.

But most who become friends know each other more from taking classes together or working together in a campus office, not from being neighbors. Counseling students, bonded by the forced intimacy of their small classes, stick together. MDiv students meet to study Greek. People form alliances according to their sense of direction or stage of life, along, of course, with their level of interest in forming connections with others.

There are people who never show up at events; they want to go their own way. So that points to another reason we don't have as much community as we might: a lot of people don't want it. That's not necessarily what they are looking for, here.

On the other hand, some of the moms and single students seem to have hoped for more community and find themselves lonely or isolated. We have a lot of international student families. I think it's pretty tough on them, maybe especially if they come from more communal settings. Last year I heard one of the Chinese students say his wife cried every day. She was at home with little children and didn't speak much English. Ouch. I need to try harder to connect with my other Chinese neighbors!

Then there's the size of the place. There are too many of us, too spread out. I'm glad they stretch the net wide enough to include people like me. But the size of the group? You can't be friends with that many people. It’s a lot to overcome.

No, I don't want to move into a trailer park. "The Village" is gone and even if it weren't, I'd find my clean, new apartment a better choice. Yet I wish we could have the sense of community that from all accounts they seem to have enjoyed.

Meanwhile, my dad and stepmom, as they get older they are looking at joining or starting a co-housing community. It’s a trend that has spread to the US from Denmark, in part, where a large percentage of people live in some kind of intentional community. Some buy up houses, tear down the fences, and put up shared kitchens, dining halls, laundry facilities, and gathering spaces. Others take over small apartment buildings and remodel them to overcome that American push for privacy. They plan social events and work parties, plant gardens and hold community meetings. Apparently, in the US, it’s illegal to require residents to commit to volunteer a certain number of hours in serving others, but that kind of thing is encouraged or understood.

A key distinctive of co-housing, it seems, is intentionality. It's there in the architecture, in the number of units, in the way the place is managed, and in the expectations people have in choosing to live there. These things don't tend to come together accidentally through a few people trying to create them, not when others are pushing for privacy. It works best if everyone knows this is what they are opting into from the beginning.

On the other side of my family tree, my mom and stepdad have moved into a retirement community that offers many of the same benefits as co-housing, plus services needed more by the elderly, including multiple levels of nursing care and help with transportation and shopping. On visiting, I thought the amount of interaction one could have was great. Everybody has dinner together every night. You don't have to come every night, but you're paying a lot of money for them to make you dinner every night, so most people are there most of the time. Other services and activities are purely optional, but diverse and appealing enough that people can easily form friendships through them.

Every person or couple has their name on their door, and there are shared hallways. It's easy to run into someone in the elevator or on the way to the dining room, bistro, meeting room, or post office. It's easy to make friends. A newsletter uses people's names and apartment numbers freely, and many wear their name tags to dinner and activities. I like that.

I also saw how it could feel a little pushy. It's not as counter-cultural as full-on co-housing, but it's still a little weird. Mom and I went to visit a nearby church and I wondered if she would want to go back given how many of her neighbors noticed us there and remarked on it when we ran into them later. It's one thing to have dinner with the same people every night (as Mom has begun to do) and be missed if you aren't there or if you eat at a different time; no big deal. It might be annoying, though, if you just wanted to sleep in and people bugged you about missing church or a fitness class, as if you need to do this because it's good for you and why weren't you there?

What's accountability and inclusion, and what's just annoying? Intrusive neighbors could really restrict one's sense of independence. When it comes down to it, being independent is a much stronger value in America than being interconnected.

Would you want to live in co-housing? How far would you be willing to go to share life with others to whom you weren’t related? What things do you think you'd enjoy most about it, and what things would be hard for you? Intergenerational families living together assure me that each woman needs her own kitchen! What else?

To learn more, see The Cohousing Association of the United States.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Advertisers as Guides

“The American self characteristically chooses advertisers instead of apostles as guides,” says Eugene Peterson.

I recently felt the pressure myself as we were driving the ad-saturated route to the tourist town of Myrtle Beach. We decided to count the billboards advertising a single “attraction,” a dinner-and-show experience called Pirates Voyage (“The Most Fun Place to Eat! TM).”

We counted 57 billboards. Our hotel lobby also had brochures, and “Pirates” had provided the little sleeves for the hotel key cards.

Is it any wonder I picked up the message, “a trip to Myrtle Beach would not be complete without going to ‘Pirates’!”?

Nevertheless, we did not go there.

We also failed to visit almost all of the hundreds of beach supply stores, despite their loud fluorescent signage, as well as the many all-you-can-eat seafood buffets and pancake houses. We did not play a single round of miniature golf. We never made it to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. (Believe it or not.)

I don’t say this with an air of superiority, as if I am above such things, but one of acknowledgement. Though I am not a person interested in fun (per se) I still felt the strong tug to check them out.

Advertising. It's powerful stuff.

Image source

Monday, April 24, 2017

Songs, stories and poems

I once heard writer, teacher, and pastor Eugene Peterson point out that in our baby babbling, we sing before we talk and before we walk. Our parents sing to us, sometimes wordless hums like the way an animal will croon to its young. Soon moms and dads are reading or telling us stories, often sing-songy ones that give way to verse and full-fledged poems. I remember a lot of Dr. Seuss to start with, soon Shel Silverstein and A Child’s Garden of Verses and a much-thumbed volume we had called The Family Book of Best Loved Poems.

Maybe some outgrow all this at a fairly young age, but the bookworm I was, I gobbled up stories of young heroines like Anne of Green Gables who always seemed to be quoting poetry (when they weren't writing it) and performing recitations. I guess this must have been part of our culture back in the day their authors grew up or set their tales (and characters who love to read and write seem over-represented in fiction, for reasons that may be obvious).

Elementary school and later language arts teachers encouraged any bent I had in that direction. A sixth-grade math teacher would give us a break from equations by reading from his favorite poet, Robert W. Service; though this was usually the sort of behavior more expected from English teachers. Me, I learned Lewis Carroll, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Madeleine L’Engle poems by heart, memorized Shakespeare speeches, and even composed a few poems and stories of my own (though I am afraid they were pretty awful).

After a seventh grade assignment to choose a favorite topic and put together our own book of collected poems, I was hooked on curating. I started assembling scrapbooks of poems, songs, and quotations, starting with those I already loved and poems about the sea (my chosen topic for that seventh-grade project).

The older I've become, the sillier and more babyish this all looked. I tucked my scrapbooks away and added to them less and less often. I still copy scriptures and moving passages from books into my journals at times. Now and again I'll share something around the campfire, in the letter, or in an impromptu talent show. And on a long drive, I’ll sing songs and recite poetry from the treasure trove I’ve committed to memory over the years.

These days it’s very rare and only with trusted friends whom I hope understand and accept my quirks that I will share a short poem or part of a poem I know by heart... maybe Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, or Maggie and Milly and Molly and May, and hope people don't look at me weird.

I seldom go for long drives now, at least not alone. My husband would probably not appreciate me practicing poetry in the car for no particular reason. But now that I’m older I am more likely to wake in the night. Lying awake in the wee hours, well, it seems the perfect time to tell myself a Best Loved Poem.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Recently Written

Here's some of what I've been doing this week.

Pioneering Prayer - Trolling missionary newsletters to create an issue or two of this weekly email publication from Pioneers. (Scheming ways to tell longer versions of some of these stories)

Missions Catalyst News Briefs - Working with Pat, our news sleuth, to serve up stories from across the globe - including a report that Christianity is exploding in Bangladesh and how a prison guard in the Middle East had visions of Christ and was discipled by imprisoned pastors. Newsletter - Struggled to find something fresh to say about preparing for a mission trip, until I realized I could tap into a childhood experience for a useful metaphor.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Based on a True Story: Memoir, Truth, and Ethics

A beloved third-grade teacher introduced me to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, with her outrageous cures for children’s bad habits, and Nancy and Plum, orphaned sisters who fight to survive under the cruel Mrs. Monday. These stories (and others) nurtured a love of fiction for me and many other students in Mrs. E’s classes over the years. They helped make me the reader and writer I am today.

Part of the appeal of was that the author, Betty MacDonald, had written these stories from our very own Vashon Island. Later I’d learn that she had also produced four adult memoirs. The Egg and I, the first and most famous of them, recounts her experiences on a chicken farm across the water on the Olympic Peninsula. In Anybody Can Do Anything, Betty writes about her family, particularly her sister Mary (who also authored both children’s books and memoirs); it focuses on the lengths to which they went to get and keep work during the Great Depression. I  read and enjoyed Onions in the Stew, which was about life on our island. My favorite Betty MacDonald memoir may be The Plague and I. This humorous look at a grim topic describes Betty’s year in a sanatorium near Seattle after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.

The books vary somewhat in tone and characterization. I didn’t realize how much until reading Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I, by Paula Becker and published last year by the University of Washington Press. Becker is not only a fan but also a careful researcher. In this book she explores the differences between the real Betty MacDonald and the fictionalized version of herself put forth in her books.

The Egg and I sold more than a million copies in its first year. It was made into a film starring some of Hollywood’s most popular stars and made Betty into a Hollywood celebrity herself. It’s based on Betty’s actual experiences, but they were originally reframed to entertain her friends and salvage her sense of self-worth as she recovered from the very painful period, then further adapted to attract and please a literary agent, publishers, and the public. If nothing else, Betty knew how to tell a story.
The Egg and I revealed Betty’s fundamental irreverence, a Bard family quality. Exaggeration was encouraged and expected. Telling a good story outranked following the Golden Rule” (Becker, p. 74).
In “Egg,” Betty glossed over the fact that her husband Bob was viciously abusive and that their life on the farm ended when she left him. She presents a version of herself that is more self-assured and less of a victim. And, although she changed names and identifying details of her location and other characters, when both the book and movie became hits, residents of the community where Betty had lived (decades before, at this point) were happy to direct people to the farm and other sites mentioned in the book, sometimes profiting from the connection. One neighbor family who recognized themselves in outrageous characters Betty hoped would be considered composites eventually took her to court for libel, and although the case was settled in her favor, it seems clear that their clan and the family ridiculed in Egg were one and the same.
“Caught in the truth in court, Betty had lied. More than one relative of Betty’s laughed at questions that tried to parse the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. ‘Nobody in this family ever let the truth get in the way of a good story!’ they explained” (Becker, p. 125).
Readers loved the book anyway. The timing of the 1945 publication had been perfect.
The Egg and I hit the war-numbed public as a comforting tale of survival: one woman’s successful effort to just keep getting up each morning in spite of challenges and discomfort.” (Becker, p. 73). 
Later cultural shifts also played a part in how Betty’s books presented their content and how they were received. Though Onions in the Stew describes events that took place between 1942 and 1945, it’s published in the conservative 1950s. As one of Betty’s editors wrote to her agent,
“Public taste has changed pretty radically in the nine years since The Egg and I was published. A sort of Puritanism has made great progress, and some things that would go without question in the late 1940s will now tend to alienate a large segment of the reading public” (quoted in Becker, p. 146).
Betty responded by toning down the language, cleaning the manuscript of bitterness and snarkiness, and presenting a more traditional patriarchal household than she actually had (and rather different from what we saw in the other books). Some modern readers consider this book the “bland” one.

The editor responsible for Onions also wanted to avoid more libel suits. He made a list of every character in the book who was not a member of Betty’s family and asked for assurance that their names and identities had been changed. Betty responded that many of the characters were entirely made up and most of the others were composites. “How true to life Betty’s nonfiction book really was seems to have mattered little,” remarks Becker (p. 146).

All this raises some questions about the whole genre of memoir, then and now. What does it mean to write one’s story in an ethical manner?

1. Is it more ethical to change your story than to tell it in such a way that others might be hurt? Readers may love tell-all stories, but publishers and their lawyers don't. At what point do stories about events involving other people become libel?

2. In fiction, if you use material from real life, you have to change it. But when you’re writing non-fiction, is there some kind of responsibility to your reader to uphold certain standards of accuracy? Is there a difference between what we can expect in a biography (like Becker's) and a memoir (like Betty's)?

Occasionally, these days, there is a big scandal about a blockbuster autobiography that succeeds on the basis of claims that turn out to be untrue. To what extent is fictionalizing one's life a normal and expected part of this genre? Or does an author defraud the public by making things up and calling it a memoir?

Image: Dust jacket from 1946 edition