Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Need to Relax? Take the Train

After a busy week—including three days attending a conference at a nearby Christian college—followed by a busy weekend—with a 5K and “afterparty” Friday night, three festival events downtown on Saturday, church, and two trips to the grocery store—I was ready to chill.

We found a soporific ending to our Sabbath with a dose of something soothing on Netflix: the Norwegian “Slow TV” program that takes viewers on the lovely train trip of more than seven hours from Bergen to Oslo. Although, just as I might on a real train, I indulged in a little multi-tasking (the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle), I couldn’t keep my eyes open past Voss.

See How a 7-hour train ride started a Norwegian TV revolution (CBC).

Interested? Take a look, or pull it up in higher resolution on Netflix. If you don't fancy the all-black portions from when the train went through long tunnels, find the edited version on YouTube as well.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

When Life Goes Off-Script

One of the things that seems to really increase post-traumatic stress (says Hubs who studies these things) is that the traumas we experience break our narratives. They don’t fit in with what we tell ourselves and what we tell others about ourselves… the definitive stories of who we are and what are lives are about and how the world is supposed to work. And many of us really want to think of ourselves as mature and healthy people, good people living good lives in a basically good world. But then bad stuff happens and it doesn’t fit.

Trauma shakes us and messes up our stories and with them our sense of self. Our sense of justice or truth is violated. It's hard to accept. Sometimes we can’t find a redemptive thread in the experience to reconcile it with the whole.

We may not be able or willing to let go of or loosen our hold on our narratives and let them develop another direction that fits better in with reality rather than wishful thinking.

We may not know where to find a story worth telling, one that’s not so bright and shiny that it doesn’t ring true, nor so dark and hopeless that it deflates us and leaves us living lives devoid of purpose and meaning.

If we can’t change the narratives we started out with when trauma comes or find a way to make sense of that trauma and see how it’s part of the story, we may get stuck.

I wrote about this some years back, quoting a friend who explained that most definitions of health include an organism’s ability to make continuous adjustments to the stresses of its environment: resilience. A healthy person is able to change with life’s circumstances and recover from difficult situations. We can let go of an inadequate narrative and let the story of our lives and our understanding of what has happened to us change.

“People who walk closely with God know this kind of healthy. They know that God is the source of their ability to adjust,” she added. The gospel can provide a narrative that recognizes and acknowledges the power of evil at work in our world and in our lives, but also providing answers, strength, the promise of God’s presence and redemptive power, and an affirmation of our sense of and longing for what is good, right, and true. I know I have found it a much stronger, resilient narrative than what I started with.


All this came to mind while reading an interesting book this week.

In A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, author Joseph Loconte explores what two young men suffered during World War I and its aftermath, living through terrors that cost them many of their closest friends and trying to find something to hold onto in the years of disillusionment that followed.

While hundreds of “war novels” in the 1920s and 1930s characterize all war as savage and absurd, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis wrote epic tales that tell a different story, a story influenced by their experiences in the trenches but ultimately validating the possibility of things like a good death and the hope of a new world beyond this one. And Loconte makes the case that this is exactly what they were trying to do.

Though (like Lewis and Tolkien) Loconte often leaves readers to draw their own parallels, it seems clear that the normlessness that characterizes our society today is not unlike what Europe experienced in the twenties and thirties. People who still hold onto a sense of right and wrong and purpose, who believe in sin and sacrifice and judgment, may be mocked and dismissed now, but no worse than they were then. Consider what Virginia Woolf said in a letter quoted by Loconte, after a fellow intellectual, T.S. Elliot, was baptized and confirmed in the Church of England in 1927:
“I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would seem to be more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”

Sunday, September 11, 2016

What if everyone had an ocean?

For a big chunk of my childhood we lived on an island. The waterfront was never far away; any drive around Vashon was punctuated by glimpses of Puget Sound. An easy bike ride would take me to the beach or fishing pier (though riding back home might be too much for little legs). Seattle, where we lived next, was much the same.

Soon, though, life took me further inland, first to college a vexing hour-long drive from the Pacific (but at least surrounded by broad, beautiful rivers heading that direction), and then to Colorado, where the nearest beach was 1000 miles distant and nearly every body of water was a man-made reservoir.

I pouted. No water? "We should flood Nebraska and put in an ocean!" I quipped, privately pondering whether I'd preferring having one to the east of me, for sunrises, or west (so long, Utah), where it would have to be on the other side of the mountains, but better suited for sunsets.

Never did I really think that, short of massive climate change, such a thing might happen.

Turns out that half a dozen US development companies have been been formed around the idea of inland seas. Well, something like that: a chain of surf parks. 

It's not about strolling on the beach, soothed by rhythms of waves on the pebbles and changing tides, or birds, bonfires, and boats. Such things, though widely appreciated, might not be able to provide the financial drive to support this move.

But competitive sports might. With surfing set to become an Olympic sport at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, the appeal of acres and acres of perfectly designed waves may find its audience.    

To learn more, see For Developers, the Surf Is Always Up (New York Times, via Eugene Register Guard) or visit Inland Surfer.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Ways to Keep from Keeping up with the Times

Meet 13-year old Morgan Pozgar, 2007 winner
of the LG National Texting Championship.
It may be part of why so many beginning writers try their hand at memoirs about their early days (as vulnerable as that can make you feel) or historical fiction (which require a ton or research, or leaves you open to a great deal of criticism). Writing about contemporary life is harder than it seems. That's because the world has changed so very much, and it doesn't seem to stop!

How do you keep the language or behavior in your young adult novel from sounding like they came from 20, 30 years ago, when you were a young adult yourself? How do you write a kid's book that reflects the world today's kids actually live in? And if you do happen to get the contemporary references right, is your book going to sound out-of-date before it gets out of its first printing?

Movie making would be even harder in this respect. Pour millions of dollars into a piece that before you know it, attracts jeers from viewers or would-be viewers who make fun of the clothes, hair, language .... and the technology.

Novelist Ann Patchett doesn't like technology. And especially she doesn't like the way the ubiquity of technology screws up her intended plot lines. She doesn't want readers or reviewers exclaiming, "Why didn't she just Google that?" "Why didn't he text her and tell her where he was?" Because it would kill the suspense, wouldn't it?

So she writes the story the way she wants to, but has people's cell phones lost or stolen, their batteries and computers die... whatever it takes to get magic techno solutions out of the way. Patchett is a Luddite herself, perhaps unsurprisingly. On the side, she owns and helps run a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Nashville, TN (and refuses to upgrade her flip phone).

I just read and enjoyed her book State of Wonder, carefully set off the grid in the Amazon jungle. That isolation factor itself plays a significant role in creating the novel's tension. I read it from the glowing rectangle of my iPad, of course, though characters in the book pass around carefully plastic-wrapped hardback copies of a set of Dickens.

See Author Ann Patchett Talks about How She Avoids Modern Tech in State of Wonder (Washington Post).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


I recently re-read Madeleine L'Engle's book A Circle of Quiet. This volume has been a companion of mine for more than 30 years. Some books stick with you, don't they? Not everything has such staying power. L'Engle tells a story about Henry David Thoreau:

"In 1853 Thoreau was informed by his publishers that A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers had sold 219 copies since its publication four years before, so they send him the remainder. He wrote, 'I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.'
In a small way I can relate. A few weeks ago I heard from InterVarsity Press that sales of Through Her Eyes, published a dozen years ago in 2004, had finally slowed enough to make some changes in their marketing and distribution of this book. Unlike Thoreau's publisher, IVP is sending a modest bill to cover the cost and shipping of my "remainders."

But because a few other things have changed since Thoreau's day, they're still going to keep the book in print. Paper copies may not be worth the warehouse space, but it costs the publisher nothing to keep selling it as an ebook. For those who do want paper copies, "Print on Demand" (POD) volumes will be produced; that's more reasonable than ever before. So even though it's been remaindered, the book will remain in print. Nice.

The publisher told me they still had 210 copies. I spoke for 160. I'm having a case of 40 sent to me and have asked colleagues at Pioneers to stash several cases more so I can pick them up as needed. I'll keep schlepping copies along when I speak or teach, as I've been doing for years. But now I can cut the price in half to $5/each with no qualms about giving them away for free when that seems appropriate.

A year or two ago I had the dwindling royalties redirected to Pioneers as well. The cost of having Turbo Tax submit the paperwork to pay the government its share had exceeded the royalty income.

Staying in print for twelve years is pretty good for a book of this sort. I'm happy that there's still some audience for it and that the publisher has found a way to keep it available.

Thoreau might find it some consolation that these and other dynamics have returned Concord and Merrimack to print, too. 

By the way, I would love to give away copies of Through Her Eyes for free to anyone who would be willing to review it on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. When it came out, that was less of a "thing," but now it looks rather pathetic to have none. Well, one. But it would help the book find new audiences if there were more.

(Made friends with one of our neighbors who wrote a book published just a year and a half ago. He has 74 customer reviews. Impressive!)

Sunday, August 07, 2016

My Pioneers Project and the Parada Coca-Cola

It took me years to start saying I'm a "writer." At least that's what I sometimes say when people want to know what I do. More precise would be to say I'm a copywriter and copyeditor. That would tell people who understand the profession that I play with words (often other people's) to communicate messages (often not my own). It's easier to get a job that pays the bills doing that than being a poet or a novelist or an author of memoirs. I dare say it takes less talent and/or chutzpah. But I like it. I also like that most everything that gets past my own internal filters is published.

These days my words don't get out on paper, not often anyway. I mostly curate and work on content for electronic newsletters, websites, and social media.

My latest project is a bit different. It's concrete and three dimensional. It's going to have to be interactive and visual, using images and experiences to communicate instead of words, whenever possible. This is stretching me; I've been alternately inclined to procrastinate about the project, afraid to fail, and excited to try something unlike anything I've done before. This week I'm driving down to Orlando to spend a couple days working with a team there to see how much of the planning we can knock out and nail down. I've been working up possible copy on and off for weeks with little confidence that it's the kind of stuff that in the end we will want to use. Now I'll find out.

The commission is to build a museum-style display to explain what our organization is all about. It's going to take up a good chunk of the lobby of Pioneers' new building in Orlando. The audience? The many who come through as missionary candidates and appointees, Pioneers supporters, partner church leaders, allies and colleagues, and those who may just be passing through the lobby because they're part of a group that asks to meet in our space (theoretically possible given the new facility). We can also expect the occasional group of mission-agency-beat tourists, because believe it or not, that's a thing.

We don't expect to compete with the Wycliffe Discovery Center. They're the main mission agency attraction in Orlando. And the JESUS Film guys offer a well-crafted visitors experience as well, or so I hear. We aren't going to staff this, or charge a fee. But we wouldn't mind being another stop on the tour. In a town that's home to so many "world class attractions," it may take some doing. 

The whole exhibit may also play a part in pulling staff and friends of the ministry together around the mission we've been given. That would be good. But the brainstorming process made it clear people have rather different ideas of what should be included, and we can't do it all. We also  have to get the tone right; if not, there could be a lot of criticism. It should inspire and encourage, without being self-glorifying or manipulative. A tall order.

Even as the project is challenging and stretching me, I'm glad the leadership is not in my hands. I'm just an extra copywriter, on hand to put in the extra time the overextended Communications Team doesn't have to give. I don't have to deal with building contractors and the budget process.

Surely the budget is anywhere near the one Collin Brum has to work with on his latest project. Collin is my stepmom's nephew; a sort-of much-younger cousin. Colin works for Coca-Cola. He's a marketing "events" guy. I think he started with pop-up tents and free Cokes on the beach, but he  has a lot more on his shoulders now. Still, if you'd "like to give the world a Coke," you should have a job like Collin's... he has managed promotional efforts at the Olympics since the 2010 games in Vancouver. I wonder if there's anything I could learn from him for my project with Pioneers?

See below for a video in which Collin gives a tour of Coca-Cola Station in Rio

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Cultural Training for 21st Century Mission

I don't think I ever posted this here, but the the Intercultural Studies team at my school published my Master's thesis on their website. (Their title for it is better than mine, too.) Don't worry, I'm not going to let this honor go to my head. The school has a strong history of commitment to educating current and future international workers, but the actual ICS department is pretty small. The option of completing one's Master's by writing a thesis (rather than completing a practicum) is a new, not available to all, and not what most are choosing to do. Only three of us wrote a thesis this year.

Get the highlights in my previous post, Equipping New Cross-Cultural Workers.

The school was only asking for a 15,000-25,000-word doc (60-100 pages) and recommended, for “case study research,” focusing on no more than 5-10 agencies.

I was concerned that the sample size would be too small or that more of the agencies I approached would say no, so I started with a list of 20 and ended up profiling 12.

Only later did I realize that processing the data in the time I had to do it would keep me from the additional steps I’d hoped for (follow-up interviews going deeper on key statements, and surveys testing patterns)… and the whole thing was quickly getting too long.

So I think the case study descriptions themselves are more helpful than my chapters on correlations and conclusions. I learned a lot and want to share that with anyone interested, but in terms of original research, it all feels more tentative than I’d like. I’m not making any plans to publish my findings elsewhere at this point.

Enough disclaimers? I'd still be thrilled if you read it or shared it with someone you know!

»  Read about Cultural Training for 21st Century Mission.