Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Dominoes of Life -- Writer's Poke #407

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes, “why should fiction have profluence – our sense, as we read, that we’re ‘getting somewhere’?” Gardner’s use of the word “profluence” is peculiar, but the idea of fiction needing to get somewhere – beginning, middle, and end – is as old as Aristotle.

The postmodernists rejected the idea, but who still reads most of their stuff? Yet, if profluence is true for fiction, is it also true for life? While it’s possible to dissect a human life into its “beginning, middle, and end," the person living that life does not always have the luxury of knowing how his life is segmented. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, for example, cut his life short, as we say, suggesting that his life stopped before the final chapters were written.

It may be true that a feeling of profluence compels people to get on about the business of living. Think of the pressures people feel to check off specific milestones by certain ages. Some of these pressures may or may not be as prominent as they once were, but don’t most people still feel obligated to marry, to have children, etc.? To fail to do so can cause some people to feel a sense of discontentment. To succeed in checking off the milestones can likewise cause some people to feel a sense of discontentment if these goals are forced upon them by family or society – and yet, individuals may willingly go through with checking off x, y, or z simply because they think they need to – after all, at least they’re getting somewhere.

What life-stage do you think you’re in now? How strong is your perceived need to "get somewhere" in your life?

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Happiness Covered in Coal Dust -- Writer's Poke #406

A layer of pollution visible from space covers the most populated country on planet Earth. 

China uses more coal than the rest of the world combined. Not surprisingly, it is dealing with an incredible amount of pollution. The driving force behind China’s energy consumption? Not just China’s billion-plus population, but also the rise of the demand for “stuff” and the conveniences we in the United States have taken for granted for many years now.

A sheep farmer in China, for example, may live in a mud hut. Today, though, he has access to satellite TV. He may not have indoor plumbing, but he dreams of the day when he will be able to purchase the items he sees on that TV.

It’s not wrong for a Chinese farmer to want air conditioning and a refrigerator and a car and all of the material goods we take for granted. It’s probably not even appropriate for us to complain about China’s willingness to rape its land for coal and kill its citizens with pollution. After all, the United States and the rest of the industrialized world was probably doing the same thing not so long ago. 

Nevertheless, the price of happiness comes at a cost, and one reason to question China’s willingness to go through a baptize of fire – a fire generated by gigantic coal burning plants – is simply this: Why haven’t they learned from the mistakes of Western Industrialization? 

What price would you be willing to pay to be happy?

“It’s pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness. Poverty and wealth have both failed.” – Kin Hubbard

All the Devils Are Here -- Writer's Poke #405

Let me give you a statement, and you tell me how profound it is:

“We met for a reason. Either you’re a blessing or a lesson.” When I first ran across this quote on Pinterest, I thought it was interesting enough to pin to one of my virtual boards. I have to admit that I was a little bit shocked when it was “liked” over 80 times and “repined” over 170 times in less than two weeks.

Needless to say, something in this quote resonated with folks – or at least folks that happened upon the quote in my part of the Pinterest universe. Is it a common experience to meet people that are blessings in our lives? On first reflection, I probably have met more “lessons” than “blessings,” but the odd part of the statement is the suggestion, at least, that we don’t always know which the person is going to be. Don't we generally know almost instantaneously? Even if we have that knowledge, it's not enough to save us the trouble we sometimes end up in?

The other part of the statement that makes me stop and pause is the ”either/or” part of the equation. Why can’t a blessing also be a lesson? Why can’t a lesson also be a blessing? I know I could be accused of overthinking this statement, but I do so only because so many people seemed to accept it as “true” so quickly. That, to me, is enough reason to stop and give some additional thought to its validity – not only to how the statement resonates “truth” when we first read it, but also whether or not that first feeling is enough for it to be claimed as true.  Can the statement only appear to be true, but upon further reflection, turn out to be a meaningless quote not worth the time it would take to read on a bumper sticker? Why are so many people willing to accept truth based on a feeling?

Think of your most meaningful relationships. Is it appropriate to categorize them into “blessings” and “lessons”? If not, what method of categorizing meaningful relationship could you develop?

“Every burden is a blessing.” – Robert Schuller

Monday, January 28, 2013

You're the Devil in Disguise -- Writer's Poke #404

Is some music morally “good” and some music morally “bad”? Dr. Frank Garlock says, “of course.” In fact, he argued that ours is the first generation which has attempted to claim that music is amoral. 

I just finished listening to a sermon Dr. Garlock gave at Bob Jones University a few years ago, and I was surprised that he didn’t focus on music lyrics. Rather, he focused on the sound of the music itself. Although he noted that the Bible refers to music over 500 times, he based most of his message on 1 Corinthians 14:7-11. These verses, he claimed, showed that one can tell whether or not the music is good by its language

In the examples he provided, he suggested that we instinctively know what to do when we hear a specific sort of music. We know how we’re supposed to feel when we hear “Taps,” for example. I suppose this is the same logic some people use to explain why only “traditional organ hymns” are appropriate for Christian services. 

According to Dr. Garlock, people today choose where to go to church more based on the music they play rather than the teachings they preach. Music, he argued, closely aligns to a person’s values and identity. The implication is, I guess, that people who listen to Hard Rock music have different values than people who listen exclusively to traditional organ hymns. 

So, what if you used the same lyrics from a traditional organ hymn and set them to Hard Rock? According to Dr. Garlock, that doesn’t work, because Hard Rock music has its own “language,” remember? So the “bad language” of the Hard Rock music contradicts whatever “good message” might come from the lyrics? That seems to be Dr. Garlock’s point.

But how does one determine whether the language of a particular music style is morally good or bad? Dr. Garlock never directly answered this question, although he did warn that rock music 1) is as addictive as alcohol and drugs, 2) can alter your state of consciousness, 3) has the power to possess your spirit, 4) hooks into your life, 5) and causes serious withdrawal symptoms if you try to quit listening to it.

Why, I thought, Dr. Garlock isn’t holding back here. All this from 1 Corinthians 14:7-11? I have to admit that I read these four verses, but I didn’t understand them in nearly the same way. First off, I agree that music is a language, but I disagree that some music is  automatically morally good while some is automatically morally bad. Like any language, it depends on how the music is used. Hard Rock isn’t a “bad language”; rather, it would be more accurate to think of Hard Rock as “English” and traditional organ hymns as “Spanish.” In other words, they are two distinct and separate languages. Nobody would ever try to claim that English is somehow better than Spanish, right? (Yes, as I type this, I imagine the Catholic Church's fondness for Latin, and the Muslim's preference for Arabic, but anyway...)

It has long interested me that some people promote traditional organ hymns as the only sort of music appropriate to God. The organ has been around for a long time – over two thousand years – but it 1) is distinctively Western, and 2) does not have its origins in church music. So, people who claim that a church should only use the organ to accompany singing in church are 1) consciously or unconsciously demonstrating a Western music bias, and 2) probably unaware that organ music accompanied gladiatorial combat before it was ever used in church services.

Did Paul know that organ music was used in gladiatorial combat? Whether he was aware of this or not, how does this fact change our understanding of the verses in 1 Corinthians 14? My point is, it would be rather silly to throw out organ music just because it used to be played while gladiators killed each other, right?

If people want to argue that Ke$ha’s lyrics aren’t good for impressionable young girls to hear, that’s one thing. If people want to suggest that certain music videos are inappropriate, fine. However, I find it to be quite silly for anyone to try to make a blanket statement that certain music styles are inherently “bad" or "evil," and that certain musical instruments are somehow automatically “good” or “holy.” To me, it’s a classic case of people reading too much into a few sentences.

What are your thoughts on the power and influence of music?

“Music is my religion.” – Jimi Hendrix

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Recreating Art -- Writer's Poke #403

Leonid Afremov is an artist that has only just entered my radar. He has a style – use of vibrant colors and so forth – that immediately connected to me. After taking some time to look at his body of work, I quickly noticed that most of his paintings have a similar look, similar themes. That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself, but it made me wonder: Is he capable of doing anything more than what he does? Or, is he simply content to do what he does?

Thomas Kincade is another artist known for a distinctive style. I don’t particularly like Kincade’s style, but a lot of people do. When you see a Kincade picture, you know what to expect. Afremov’s work, which I do like, is sort of like Kincade’s in that regard. Some artists just seem to play it safe. They’re not interested in challenging themselves or doing anything different. 

Of course if it’s not broke, why fix it, right? But if you don’t ever try to improve on what you can do, one thing is certain: you will never improve on what you can do.

Art has a business side to it as well. Artists need to eat, and not everyone can afford to buy an original piece of art. Some of Afremov’s originals run as high as $25,000. Interestingly enough, though, Afremov is willing to paint “original recreations,” and you can buy one for as little as $99. This is a real painting made by the original artist. It’s just a “recreation” of a painting that Afremov has already painted.

I’m sure he’s not the only artist that does this. In fact, I know he’s not. My wife and I have a “recreation” from another artist. It has sat over our fireplace for the past five years, and we like it just fine. In the back of my head, though, I still find myself thinking: “Someone else has the original, and I just have the recreation.” On the other hand, this recreation sits right next to an “original” by the same artist, and it’s really hard to tell the difference – at least from a distance. I have to admit that the “recreation” looks a little bit like it was done in haste, however, and not given the same amount of care. That said, I still like know that the original artist completed the painting just for us. And it’s nice having a real painting rather than a print. 

What do you think about artists recreating their own original paintings? Is it no different than a musician singer their original album songs in concert?

“The great thing about being a writer is that you are always recreating yourself.” – Martin C. Smith