Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thoughts on Children's Fiction

This week's post is copied from the wonderful Mockingbird Blog, to which I am a sometime contributor. The original post can be found HERE, and it is written by my friend Sarah Richey:

I was reminded recently of the wonderful children's book, The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. For those of you who haven't read it in a while, it's about a little bunny who decides to run away.

He tells his mother, "I am running away," and she replies, "If you run away, I will run after you. For you are my little bunny." So the little bunny schemes, "If you run after me, I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you." And the mother never hesitates, "If you become a fish... I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you." And it goes on, and the little bunny becomes a bird, and a crocus, and a sailboat...and the mother becomes a tree, and a gardener, and the wind, and so on, always finding her little bunny. In short, it's brilliant! I'm no connoisseur of children's books, but I can't think of one that better describes our relationship to God. We run away, and he becomes like us to bring us back to him.

So, reading the Runaway Bunny reminded me of another favorite and classic children's book, The Little Engine That Could. Just thinking about it makes me feel nostalgic; the little bright blue engine, the colorful vintage pictures of the dolls, toys, the clown, the candy!

But flipping through it, I realized that now its message is lost on me. "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can..." conjured up uneasy memories of self-esteem workshops in middle school and a stressful feeling that I should ditch this post and get back to studying for an exam. It seems that life is just a little too real for the Little Engine for the thoughts occupying my head are less often "I think I can, I think I can" and more "Why didn't I?" or "No, I guess I couldn't". The pictures are fun, but I fear that I may have read the Little Engine a few too many times, and the Runaway Bunny not enough.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Thoughts on Kobe and Sex Demons

I saw Kobe Bryant on Conan the other night. I've never really liked the 4-time NBA Champion...and I've never been quite sure why. However, in his push up to this year's Finals, several NBA writers hit the nail on the head: Kobe seems to have invented himself as a person; he doesn't seem real. He can't just be. Some have suggested that this is due to the fact that Kobe was groomed for superstardom from a very young age, tagging along with his NBA father (Joe "Jellybean" Bryant) and living in Italy as Bryant, Sr. played there for much of Kobe's childhood. He knew he would play in the NBA as a pre-adolescent, never considered going to college, and had to have his parents co-sign his first multi-million dollar contract (he was just 17 at the time).

Then, in the Western Conference finals, Kobe debuted the "Gosh I'm so intense" face (above left), and the Kobe critiquing hit a new high. Where was this face for the first eight years of his career? Did he practice it in the mirror? Why was he all-of-a-sudden trying to convince us that he was an intense champion? Couldn't his legendary work ethic speak for itself? What was he trying to prove?

And then I saw him on Conan. The musical guest guessed it, Incubus. Well, you only guessed it if you knew that an incubus is a sex god that "lies" with women whilst they sleep. In any event, I thought it was funny that Kobe and Incubus would appear together. Incubus' breakout album is called "Make Yourself." Released in 1999, this excellent album's title track includes the lyrics:

If I hadn't made me, I would've been made somehow...
If I hadn't assembled myself, I'd have fallen apart by now.

If I hadn't made me, I'd be more inclined to bow.

Powers that be, Would have swallowed me up

But that's more than I can allow.

If you let them make you, they'll make you Papier-Mache.
At a distance you're strong, until the wind comes

Then you'll crumble and blow away.

As you can see, Incubus is advocating the exact behavior that got Kobe into trouble. This "making yourself" is always a transparent excersise that leads to suspicion and distrust. The truth is that we ARE papier-mache, and when the wind comes, we DO "crumble and blow away." It's also ridiculous to think that "if [we] hadn't assembled ourselves, [we'd] have fallen apart by now." Who among us HASN'T fallen apart, and cursed our "assembler?"

Kobe is a great champion and a wonderful athlete. He must be mentioned amongst the greatest basketball players in the history of the game. And yet, he seems to have few friends. He seems to always be working so hard on "making himself" that he makes those of us who recognize that we are papier-mache uncomfortable. We would rather root for someone who is "like us": ready to crumble and blow away at the coming of the wind.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thoughts on The Weather Man

The Weather Man is a 2005 film from Gore Verbinski (perpetrator of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) about Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage) a Chicago weatherman desperate to get his life together. He lives under the weight of his Pulitzer Prize-winning father (Michael Caine). He aches for the "Hello America with Bryant Gumbel" job, which he is sure will fix everything for him. He has two kids, each with plenty of problems of their own, products of his terminated marriage with his wife (Hope Davis). To add insult to emotional injury, he regularly has fast food thrown at him on the street. He suspects it might be because of the easy-ness of his job and the annoying-ness of his name.

They key element to the story that I want to mention here, though, is Dave's internal insistence that everything will be ok if he can just get the Hello America job. The night before his audition, he finds out his father has only months to live and that his son has been arrested. He auditions, and, several days later, is offered the job. He runs to tell his wife the wonderful news ("It's $1.2 million, all in...think of what that could do for us...") only to discover that she is planning to marry her new boyfriend. His major success, built upon the foundation of previous failure, is not enough to woo her. She doesn't love him. Money won't change that. He goes outside, and, through a series of circumstances you'll have to see the movie to appreciate, he is brought to the brink of actual, physical murder. He seems ready to throw it all away in the aftermath of being offered the very thing he thought he wanted; the very thing that he thought would make everything ok.

Dave ends the film with this stirring speech: "I remember once imagining what my life would be like, what I'd be like. I pictured having all these qualities, strong positive qualities that people could pick up on from across the room. But as time passed, few ever became any qualities that I actually had. And all the possibilities I faced and the sorts of people I could be, all of them got reduced every year to fewer and fewer. Until finally they got reduced to one, to who I am. And that's who I am, the weather man." Dave realizes that who is he is who he is, and getting a new job, a bigger house, or writing the great American novel can't change it.

The Christian analogy is this: we think we ought to be who we ought to be: a.k.a. What would Jesus do? In reality, however, all we can do is come to terms with who we actually are, and be thankful that Jesus loves us.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Thoughts on Frank T.J. Mackey and Magnolia

In the wonderful movie Magnolia (my favorite movie, for those wondering), Tom Cruise plays the incredibly distasteful Frank T.J. Mackey, creator of "Seduce and Destroy," a system for men to manipulate women into having sex with them. During one of his seminars, he sits down for an interview with a female reporter. She systematically tears down the carefully constructed facade he has created for himself, and, in response, he retreats into anger and silence, claiming only to "silently judging" her.

Later, he is confronted with the evil man who has created the monstrous Mackey, and he is reduced to tears despite his oath: "I won't cry for you." I was reminded as I watched of the last meeting of the Gospel According to The Office, which dealt with reality. Mackey created a reality that he bought into, and wanted everyone else to do the same. When confronted with the REAL reality, he self-destructed. It was only through this self-destruction that he was brought anything like redemption.

This week's "This Week at Grace" cartoon is a down-and-out cockroach bemoaning the fact that he once owned his own company, until someone yelled, "Hey! He's just a big cockroach!" The faux reality comes crashing down, and the truth reigns supreme. This interplay between realities, the ones we create for ourselves and "the real" (See The Matrix) is a hallmark of what it means to be human. What happens when one takes over? When we begin to believe we are the thing we have created? Is it the crash that allows redemption to come in, as it did for Frank T.J. Mackey? Is it, in fact, "always darkest before the dawn?"
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