Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Duncan's Finest

"The big thing I've noticed about political assassinations is how my older brothers admired a politician named Lincoln and somebody shot him and one named Gandhi and somebody shot him and two named Kennedy and somebody shot them both and one named Martin Luther King and somebody shot him too. Then I noticed how first President Johnson and now President Nixon pretty much talk gibberish and lie like rugs and all my older brothers except Irwin hate them. But nobody shoots them. So creeps survive. That's my main political theory. Satan takes care of his own is what I believe, whereas look what God did to His only Son." - David James Duncan, "The Brothers K"

Taken at face value, living a righteous life devoted to truth, love and peace-making is a perilous decision. It is not unusual to see the person who stands up for the right cause overwhelmed by the mass of people dedicated to mediocrity, injustice or even brutality. It is as if the world we live in is radically determined to prohibit progress ... as if there is a great centripetral force pulling all benevolent persons back into the status quo.

It's sad, but it's also not that surprising to me. The reality is that a righteous person automatically confronts all of society with a dillema. By taking a step towards righteousness, they take a step away from mediocrity and present another alternative. Individual, righteous actions present a crisis for all others.

I saw a great example of this recently on the new tv show, "My Name is Earl." The story is about Earl's decision to turn his life around - do something positive, right his wrongs, make peace with those he has injured. One of his very first acts of reformation was to pick up trash and thereby eliminate his guilt from years of littering. Earl's intentions were truly virtuous. Unfortunately, they were also threatening. Earl happened to be picking up trash at a hotel, and a housekeeper quickly took offense to Earl's actions. Not only was Earl doing her job, he was also raising the expectations of her manager. He was threatening her job security and indirectly pushing her to raise her own behavior and standards.

Now just imagine someone trying to right a serious wrong, such as racial prejudice or political corruption. The voices of dissent and objection would be many. The resistance would be tremendous. It is like the many images of horror movies which show demons or otherwise evil forces seeking to "take hold," "grasp," or "seize" women and children. These are not merely fictional themes, but spiritual realities which Dante choose to highlight in "Inferno"; diabolical forces are intent on keeping people restrained and confined (just as the devil perpetually holds himself back). Perhaps that is why the devil tempted Adam and Eve in the garden: if he knew that he was already fallen, why not seek others to keep him company. For misery does love company, just as there is no hell like the one you have to suffer alone. Consequently, it's terrible to say, but often true: it's much easier to kill the godly than follow them. That's what Duncan's quote above illustrates and what history teaches us.

But, the challenge to live a godly life will not go away. Virtuous behavior is still required by God, which leaves us with the unending, persistent task of walking the difficult road. Contrary to the hellish images of a frozen, atrophied existence, the godly actions of liberating people, creating beauty and seeking excellence must go on. And I think the greatest way to get there is to follow in the footsteps of those who died dreaming of another way of life, not by following the rules and codes of fearful leaders who spend more time addressing the evil in the world than the good that's left to be done.


Monday, September 26, 2005

1,000 of words in images

Well, we do live in the 21st century and all, so woe be it to me if I simply make this blog an archaic "text" only page ...

Pictures are now available for viewing: just click the links on the sidebar, and be sure to check out "The Fish." It comes courtesy of my dad, who generously took me up to Michigan for a fishing trip. It was a great couple of days - enjoying nature's finest, catching up with my dad, and making a few memories along the way.

I'll be back with more in a bit,


Friday, September 23, 2005

The Webs They Weave

"That he did not finish his studies is true, but to say that he was stupid or dull would be a great injustice. He entered upon this path only because, at the time, it alone struck his imagination and seemed to offer ... a means of escape for his soul from darkness to light ... He was to some extent a youth of our past generation - that is, honest in nature, desiring the truth ... believing in it, and seeking to serve it at once with all the strength of his soul, seeking for immediate action, and ready to sacrifice everything, even life itself. These young men unhappily fail to understand that the sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest sacrifice of all." - Fyodor Dostoevsky, "The Brothers Karamazov"

Say what you want about Dostoevsky - he is verbose, complicated, rambling, etc. - but I have always loved his ability to spin some of the most eloquent, intriguing and profound sentences in any literature I have ever read. I use the above quote as a classic example. You almost have to read it three or four times and even then you can't really be sure if it is speaking jibberish or speaking the most hidden secrets that may very well give you life or at least prolong your death. The point is good sentences and good writers are generally able to move you forward - into the story - and make every word, every sentence completely believable and engaging. So what I gain from actually reading such quotes is usually irrelevant because more often than not Dostoevsky is capable of convincing me he is writing something profound if not prophetic. And, as in the quote above, he leaves me asking, "So you say, but why is the sacrifice of a life an easy alternative for a young man?" Right there, the author has me hooked; the writer is begging me to contradict him or at least read a little further and see if his theory holds true. And the truly great stories are able to keep leading the reader on and on - continually pulling with bold assertions, stunning events and unresolved conflicts.

These past two weeks I have been immersed in two "stories," which are doing this cat-and-mouse game with me ... and doing it very well! The first is a book by a splendidly talented author named David James Duncan - someone Brad Smith had recommended to me over two years ago. The book is titled "The Brothers K," and is essentially Dostoevsky's 19th Century novel edited and updated to address the social realities of 1960's America and how these realities play out in one specific family. Duncan's novel shows how social unrest in greater America manifests itself uniquely and tragically in the Chance family. And like Dostoevsky, Duncan uses any subject to keep his story going - from baseball to religion (all of them), Vietnam to Oregon, sex to prayers. And somehow, he manages to weave many events which would otherwise seem ridiculous into the perfect connection. It makes you - the reader - believe entirely that the place a certain character is at on page 374 is completely genuine and appropriate given what happened on page 34. Seemless. As I said, Duncan is talented; he is brilliant, and I highly recommend his stuff. (however, be advised that he does not shy away from using vulgarities, which I read more as an artistic tool to enhance his characters than as senseless. I haven't finished the book yet, but I'm guessing Duncan's overall stance is that the sacred and profance are often found closer than we'd care to imagine. Thus, it is not too surprising to find a saint right alongside a sinner, or a great truth buried in very crass language.)

Anyhow the second story that is keeping me begging for more is the television show "Lost." Anna and I recently bought season 1, and we also watched the opening episode of season 2 last night. Hey, there's a lot of junk on television these days, but "Lost" is just plain good drama. Here's to J. J. Abrams and all the other writers who have pieced together an impossibly addictive show out of random events and characters! Of course, the Calvinist that I am cannot help but love the character Lock, but really all of it is great. And I attribute much of its success to its ability to (a) create mystery and tension in the drama which all but forces you to watch and (b) gives enough assurance and answers that it is not simply a wild goose chase. Overall good drama is able to create intrigue through suspense or creativity and also to provide some return on the reader's or viewer's investment. Like life overall, everyone wants to know deep down that a story is both intriguing enough to pursue and meaningful enough to enjoy. Let's just call it the yin and yang of mystery and purpose - the passive female principle being pursued by the active male principle of the universe if you will. Whatever it is, it seems to be an absolute must for good stories.

I'm just tremendously thankful I'm being pulled into two of these webs nowadays. Great stories seem to enrich everything else in my life, and the further I chase the rabbit into the hole, the deeper and richer the world appears.



Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Saturated Streets

Ah, the sounds outside my window are exotic for Southern California: raindrops slap onto the pavement and trickle down the side of the Madison Lanai. The occasional car rushes by and creates a temporary rush of water. Los Angeles is being saturated by water, a rare, enjoyable event. But what makes a Los Angeles storm fascinating to me is that the rain seems to fall efforstlessly from a wet pool somewhere far above. Even more surprising, there seems to be little or no wind with this storm. So, rather than the rain coming in at an angle like the storm that blows across the midwest during August, this rain just descends. It is also rhythmically persistent and allows my soul and thoughts to relax. It gives a healthy cessation to the flurry of activities that so frequently dominate this landscape and culture - a naturally produced sabbath break.

Against such a backdrop, I offer a friendly, casual hello. I'll leave it at that for now.