Reaching that age

I thought of an analogy. Adolescence is like walking through a tunnel made of one-way mirrors. All you can see is yourself reflected on every wall, but meanwhile every one else is outside the tunnel watching you, awkward, only seeing yourself, lumbering through this lanky confused period to appear on the other end, relieved, sane, clear and thankful.

Such a conflicted time. But as a father of rapidly departing children, I think that the memories are the most painful part of life. While you are experiencing the picnics, the vacations on the beach, the nights playing basketball in the dark, the Christmas mornings, the days on a lake in a boat, the poverty, the struggling, the days before they all had cell phones—life was full and rich. And they are leaving the nest in rapid fire, just like they entered the nest, rapid fire, like little grenades into our family, changing everything, demanding much, but bringing incalculable happiness and meaning and beauty. What a life, and it’s not even over.

On death by drug overdose

Philip-Seymour-HoffmanLike many people, I was deeply saddened by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He had some great lead roles (Synecdoche New York, The Master, Doubt, and of course his Oscar-winning performance in Capote which I wasn’t crazy about). But we also remember him for many minor roles in which he showed he could steal the show (The Big Lebowski, Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia).

I wonder if he knew how strong the love is that many of us feel toward him. he wasn’t Brad Pitt or George Clooney. He was never the “most sexy man in Hollywood.” But we love him more than a lot actors and feel his loss especially. I suppose it is a very common experience to love an actor so much that you feel like you are friends even if you’ve never met. We feel that way, but we have to remind ourselves that the feeling is not mutual. He or she doesn’t know us, hasn’t seen us in hours and hours of emotional situations, does not have heroic associations with us, has not wept at our suffering etc.

He died young (only 46) from a heroin overdose. Now, I’m just speculating here. Don’t freak out over what I’m about to say. In fact, if you disagree, feel free to leave a comment and explain where I’m off base. But if someone is going to die, is there any better way to go than by a heroin overdose?

Yes, I’m sad. I wish he were still alive. I admired his talent and he was a great actor. Dying is a cause for grief, especially when we feel like the life was cut short, that he could have had many more years of life, continuing to bring delight and reflection to millions of people in his movies.

And of course I do not want to suggest that heroin or any drug is anything but dangerous. And the dangers of drugs runs from a little to extremely dangerous, with heroin being probably the most extremely dangerous because of the risk of addiction and self-destruction. So I’m not saying drugs are okay.

Nor do I think I am being insensitive. I’m just trying to nail something down. I am trying to separate the fact of death from the cause of death.

We should hate heroin for taking Hoffman and many other human beings away from us prematurely, unnecessarily. That part is truly sad.

But he died, most likely, in a state of euphoria that you and I have never even come close to, if the descriptions are accurate.Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-Magnolia

He was not mauled by a bear, or from complications due to being hit by a car. He was not in 15 to 20 minutes of terror waiting for his crippled plane to hit the ground. He did not die a long painful death of tuberculosis or flesh-eating bacteria.

Not only did he apparently not suffer in death, but he died pursuing what each of us must admit we also would like very much to attain—escape from the pain of this world. I think we should be more understanding toward drug addicts. We shouldn’t think they are scum or degenerates. We all, you, me, and the drug addicts, want the same thing: escape from the pain of the world.

We should not think they are weaker than us. We shouldn’t be quick to think that their particular weakness is beneath OUR particular weakness. On the contrary, we should admit that, if heroin were completely free of any harmful or addictive aspect, we would all be using it on a regular basis. Instead of watching a TV show in the evenings, we would come home and get high. Then get up in the morning and go to work, because, in my hypothetical situation, it has no harmful effects accompanying the indescribable good feeling it gives.

Listen to someone describe the feeling of being on heroin and I defy anyone to say you are not just a little bit envious.

Sex is similar. When you were young and a virgin and heard how good sex was, didn’t you want to try it? Yes, you did. And were you wrong for wanting to experience pleasure? No. And sex can be destructive; it can be addicting. But very often it can be enjoyed in a healthy, proper, constructive way. It is like a little drug trip.

Other forms of pleasure can work the same way. Alcohol can be dangerous, but it can also be enjoyed in a healthy, proper, constructive way. This goes for anything: hamburgers and fries, chocolate, food of any kind, although admittedly the “high” is different in some major ways. What other things do people derive pleasure from? Football. NASCAR. Horse races. Music. Words with Friends. And each of these things can take on an addiction-like quality in our lives.

So drug addicts deserve our sympathy, not our disgust. And we should realize we all pursue some degree of pleasure, which is a nice word for “relief from the pain of the world.” Drug addicts just reached for extreme pleasure, extreme escape from the world. And they pay for it.

A Time to Quit – new article on Catapult

“Quitting for me wasn’t just a weekend fling, a lack of endurance, a fit of boredom or a childish sulk sparked by a temper tantrum. When it came time for me to quit pastoral ministry, it was as if I had quit myself, my goals, my calling and the self-understanding that had identified me since I was 18…” read the rest of the article published at Catapult.

All Things Vile and Vicious

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

An interesting thing happens to many writers the first time they write a story with foul language, erotic scenes, butcher knives dripping with blood, or characters with twisted psychologies: they have to show their story to their mothers.

Family and friends have expressed all varieties of horror and revulsion at some of my stories. The sex was too explicit, the obscenities too strong, the imagery too grotesque. Upon reading my novel, my mother speculated that I was in a state of depression. (She’s since changed her mind.)

It may be a question that primarily conservative Christian writers struggle with: is it OK to include these things in fiction? I want to suggest a way forward, and God himself is our example.

kittenWhat do we make of the fact that the God, whose grace is amazing, whose love is like a fountain, and whose mercies are new every morning, also created tigers—majestic and spectacularly-engineered killing machines, shockingly efficient at ripping up other creatures?

Consider that the God who made bunnies and kittens also made jackals and warthogs. He who rejoices over his people with singing, who we call “Abba, Father” also called forth, in the splendor of his creative expression, vultures, tapeworms and cobra venom.

The Bible says to imitate God. Can artists imitate God’s audacity in their creative expression?

Imagine for a moment that you set out to create a bunch of new animal life by the word of your power. You create thousands of species. You are yourself: a normal, churchgoer in muted earth tones and sandals. You try to love your neighbor. You attend a D-group (or whatever) almost fifty percent of the time. You make hard ethical decisions in your workplace. You are washed in the blood.


Australian Mouse Spider

You are also an omnipotent creator of animal life, and you want to make creatures that you think will honor God, the way any Christian artist thinks about his art.

Would you, in the highest outpouring of your sanctified artistic muse, ever create an animal with the eyes and hair and fangs of an Australian mouse spider? Or the panic-inducing horror of a death stalker scorpion? Or one of those freakish, toothy deep-sea fishes?

More to the point, would you artfully fashion hideous and deadly beasts to offer up as the work of your hands before the throne of grace, tokens of your love and gratitude?

dogIt’s easy to see God’s nature mirrored in our dogs and cats. I have reflected many times on the symmetry between my relationship to my dogs Beans and Miller, and God’s relationship to me.

But when I see those close-up photos of a fly or a wasp, those eyes like huge, convex screens of red Kevlar, the mechanical segmented body, thorny legs, a tubular, organic proboscis, I realize: If God made this, then I don’t know God as well as I thought I did.

It’s a common experience for writers to fear that writing shocking or scandalous material will cause their friends and family to worry about them. “Oh, come on, Jeffrey. Do you really need to drag us through that? Why can’t your story be more uplifting? Life is ugly enough.”

But our own theology of creation helps us here. Which of us is honest enough to look at a shark, its multiple rows of serrated teeth perfect for obliterating just about any creature under the sea, and then say, “Gee, Lord. That’s not very loving. What happened to the grace, man?” Which of us would say to God, “Come on now, Lord. Life is ugly enough without creating such creatures. Don’t you want us to be happy and joyful? Why put us on the same planet with venomous biting things?”

I have heard people appeal that predatory behavior is the result of The Fall in Genesis 3. Meat-eating, they say, is part of God’s curse on the earth. Lions and hyenas and vultures were herbivores before The Fall.DeepSeaFish

But I don’t buy it. That’s not what the Bible says. Plus it’s totally lame. God made ferocious animals as they are, claws, teeth, stingers and all, and Psalm 19 is clear. Sharks and fire ants declare the glory of the Lord.

Most of Christian devotional culture today focuses on the loving, forgiving, passionate-lover, mighty-healer, cuddly-father side. But I think a little reflection on some of these decidedly non-cuddly animals may reveal a certain lack of depth of this vision of God. Is this the same God who made such vicious and revolting creatures?

So, artists and writers…

this gives us boldness to explore the hideous, the erotic, and even the blasphemous in us own work. The Biblical itself contains blasphemy coming from the mouth of Job. I’m not saying a latrine on the wall is art, but I am saying that a song about drug addiction or fantastic sex might be. And as a viewer of art, the diversity of God’s own creative palette teaches me to engage and appreciate expressions of culture that are not necessarily to my taste. Perhaps that’s very postmodern of me. But hey, God made naked mole rats and monkfish as well as arabian horses and bald eagles. And he said it was all “very good.”

Stories and smartphones dont mix

Compare the following props that might appear in a story:

  • a pearl-handled straight razor
  • an Egyptian broachrazor
  • a 1964 six-shooter pistol
  • a bag of marijuana
  • a faded polaroid photo of twin, pre-teen, strawberry blonde girls at a fishing trip cut in two with scissors, separating the twins

I was recently trying to come up with an idea for a story set in a realistic “here and now” context: with ordinary people, but without the use of any narrative device to make the setting surreal, dystopian, or magical as I like to use. And I realized any such realistic story would have to include people texting, using smartphones, using tablets or other new gadgetry. This is a problem.

Not because I’m a technophobe or Luddite. I own a smartphone. Tech gadgets could not be left out of a contemporary book because in the last 10 years tech gadgetry has become so ubiquitous that to leave them out would be a glaring omission; it would compromise the attempted realism, like leaving horses out of a western.

But to me, these props are so utterly clumsy and banal and fadish that they would be unusable in a serious writing effort. Of course, it’s all so new that there are not many books to refer to with people texting and looking stuff up on their new tablet. But if they did, I cannot imagine it being anything but clammy to the reader and cumbersome to the experience of reading the story.

Unless you’re Bridgetwriting the next Bridget Jones’s Diary. Then maybe. Or a satire conducted entirely in text messages. But I’m not talking about that kind of writing. Also remember, I’m not bashing gadgets. I’m only saying I do not believe they will work in good, serious fiction.

So what’s wrong with new tech? My hypothesis is that new tech has no story-ness about it, no sex appeal, no history, no cultural cachet. Also, the current national narrative about social media and hot new electronic gadgetry is that it is killing relationships, stifling conversations, turning kids into transfixed, sedentary addicted lumps. Much of the commentary about Facebook is that it substitutes real communication, authentic feelings and true community for an ersatz, pithy, sloganeering, avatar-ized, bogus circle of unheard, mostly unseen “friends.”

In my opinion, the appearance of the newest Samsung tablet with HD whatever is not merely hopelessly unliterary, but damning, an instant bomb. From my perspective, new tech in fiction is unwritable. I’m sure some writers attempt it—books to read on the beach, YA fiction, chic lit (although YA usually happens in an imaginary place where the absence of tech is not a problem: Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight).

And maybe some people like that story-set-in-MY-world feel. I don’t. There needs to be some distance, some escape from my boring world. I cannot imagine Cormac McCarthy doing it. Who wants to read a book about their own life and setting? You get that every day!


What’s your book about?

This is a question I get fairly often. Here is a synopsis.

The Former Hero, by Jeffrey Mays

An abusive, alcoholic, single mother goes into a frenzy when she learned her daughter, Penny, is abducted. City services have fallen into decay because of rampant corruption, and she is unable to reach the police. She sets out on her own to find the girl and solicits the aid of Angus, a surly profligate on a motorcycle. They learn of book1Lieutenant McCarthy, a detective and the only remaining good cop in the city. McCarthy has been sidelined for his refusal to join the new police union, and spends his days reading the ancient city records researching the early stories and characters of the city’s history.

Meanwhile, a man referring to himself as ‘John Common’ checks himself into a hospital seeking help to recover his superpowers. He tells doctors that until recently he was Omni-man, superhero of tremendous powers, and the only hope for overthrowing the villainous tyrants who have taken over the city, and their leader Mayor Robert Knox. Doctors keep Omni-man for several weeks under surveillance, assuming he is under a delusion rather than a deflowered superhero. Frustrated with their evasions, he overpowers a nurse and breaks out of the hospital.

Detective McCarthy, stewing over hard memories of his deceased father and wishing for new crime-fighting assignments, returns to the record storage room and discovers that a primeval villain, Lucy Burden a.k.a. The Minstrel, caused much heartache and mayhem in the years when the city was young. She was, he learns, the first villain and grandmother of the current crowd book2of real villains, and the lingering spirit that breeds corruption in the city. He bitterly questions why the comic book heroes are not real, but the villains are.

Through a series of adventures, McCarthy, Mary the mother of Penny, Angus the biker, and the Former Hero find themselves on a bus together with a clue to where Penny might be held. The surprise ending tells what happened to Penny, what the Former Hero’s true identity is, and how Mary comes to grips with her addictions and abusiveness toward Penny and her estranged husband.

What is it about heroes?

[Once upon a time, I had a blog called The Vale of Tears. I had to leave it behind. This is my new blog in which I contribute to the great conversation. You can get email updates by clicking "follow" out to the side. It wont hurt. It wont fill your inbox with spam or self-indulgent, adolescent tripe about the glory days or presidential candidates or what some celebrity did today.]

PowWhat is it about heroes? Long before Joseph Campbell’s analysis, before Bulfinch, before The Golden Bough, there were just the stories of heroes and their effect upon the imagination of the listener. Gilgamesh, Krishna, Achilles, Hercules, Anaeus, Beowulf, Arthur, Galahad, Sir Gawain, Pocahontas.

Of course, in the 20th century, comic lore exploded with literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of superheroes being invented along with their stories. Today, superhero movie franchises are some of the most lucrative (Avengers, Batman) and some of the worst stinkers (Fantastic Four). New ones arise from nowhere (Kick Ass, Hit Girl, Hancock, Scott Pilgrim).

What is it about heroes?

I can’t go into Campbell’s Hero with 1000 Faces right now. Too much material. But why are we so charmed by modern day heroes? Here are some possible answers:

  1. We are dazzled by explosions, flashing lights, and anyone with cool dialog like, “Billy, you and Dolores get back to headquarters. It’s time I paid a little visit to Dr. Vile.”
  2. They ennoble us and inspire us to our own deeds of valor.marvel_superheroes
  3. We secretly hate them and envy them and use them as a prop to our own vanity. We compare ourselves to them and wonder if we are more virtuous. What would we do if WE had superpowers? Or, if they succumb to some temptation and the ‘dark side’ we wonder would we have done the same?
  4. We sense that the world really IS inhabited by villains, that we are imperiled by them, and a fantasy hero gives us a momentary relief from the admittedly unromantic villains of our real world (Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Ladin, Bashar Al-Assad, the Koch Brothers). A corollary to this is the conviction we all have that there really is good and evil, but they are so confused by the heroes going sour and the villains occasionally making sense that who can really know what to make of it? And we revel in the grayness of the situation, incredulous toward any narrative of a oh-so pure superman of the 60′s, pretty well captured by Christopher Reeve in the 70′s.

Catapult article

Here’s an article I wrote that was published by Catapult Magazine. I did not choose the title – the editors made one up. Nevertheless, its up there in cyberspace for all to read.

Michael and I stood side-by-side panicking. We were in third grade. Sam was about six inches taller than I was and about a foot taller than Michael. He leaned in toward us with his shoulders back and his jaw stuck out in an affected under bite. Between us and him was my little red bike — banana seat, gooseneck handle bars, a pathetic barrier, not much better a line in the sand. As I recall, the dialogue was one-sided, and it ran like something from The Little Rascals. “This is my playground. I didn’t say you could be on it. So I’m gonna make you pay.” Sam had a pocketknife and he toyed with it and flashed it around like West Side Story. “What should I do to you? Hmm, let me think.” He tapped his chin with the flat of the blade… Click here to read the rest.

Blue Like Jazz, or Why Evangelicals Still Aren’t Good At Telling Stories

I saw Blue Like Jazz recently, and although I liked some aspects of the movie (the actors, some of the characters, parts of the plot), and while I admired its attempt to break out of the strict verbal and behavioral codes mandated by … Oh, wait, stop! Were you even aware there was a massive corporate media industry behind the flood of Evangelical films lately? I wasn’t either. Call it Holywood.

BLJ2And yes, there are simply some things that Holywood will not put into celluloid. Gossip is fine, greed is fine, gluttony is…well, not sure that’s even a sin. Kissing is allowed if it is between consenting, attractive married couples. But dirty language? A sympathetic lesbian? An unhappy ending!? No way. Holywood aggressively tried to sink the film before it ever came out for crossing these lines.

But I digress. I just started and I’m already digressing.

Most evangelical-produced media is failing these days. (“Fail” as measured not on a monetary but an artistic scale.) This has been going on for a while now and many have been talking about it. BLJ is not the worst example by far, but in the end it succumbs to particularly evangelical weaknesses. Here are some reasons why many attempts at storytelling are failing.

  1. Bad Craftsmanship. One reason is that the dialog and acting are frequently very bad. The plots are predictable and repetitive. The characters are plastic. The conflicts are little more than cleaned-up Sunday School problems. All questions have answers…in the Bible (chapter and verse provided). The soundtrack is made of thumping contemporary worship music which only Evangelicals like. The motivational soliloquies are thinly veiled sermons. Precious Moments, Thomas Kincade sentimentality. Lovers of good stories know this is bad art.
  2. Evangelicalism is an Unappealing, Foreign Culture. The second reason is that they feature evangelicals doing evangelical stuff, saying evangelical things. And evangelicals simply do not play well on the written page or on the screen. The various postures and insider vocabulary, raising hands and earnest group prayer sessions – only Evangelicals who like to watch movies about people just like themselves might appreciate this. But they are the hokey, somewhat familiar idiosyncrasies of the Religious Right to every one else.
  3. One Dimensional Faith. But the biggest problem is that Evangelical fiction, books or movies or whatever, usually have only one thing to say, one message, oBLJ3ne commentary for the world: Becoming A Christian Is The Solution To All Your Problems. Their story-telling fails because  they only have one story to tell. A guy or girl or family has problems, they get right with God, and the narrative resolves. Flannery O’Connor didn’t do this, nor Walker Percy, Graham Greene, T.S. Eliot, or many others. BLJ fails mostly on this point.

Interestingly, these things are not true for Catholic-based films. Consider the tough-talking, cigarette-smoking priests in Clint Eastwood movies like Gran Torino, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby. And another excellent Catholic film, Doubt. Black Gospel churchgoers fare pretty well (cf. Blues Brothers, Ladykillers), Sister Act notwithstanding. And movies about religious people insane or over-the-top can occasionally be good (cf. The Apostle, There Will Be Blood, Bernie).

But put an earnest good-looking evangelical in a movie and you have an instant schmaltz fest, even if they are pushing the boundaries of cool, sexual temptation, profanity, substance abuse struggling with doubts or whatever.

Full disclosure. I did not read the book. I saw the movie, along with two or three other movie trailers on the DVD that were painful to watch. Movies like the one where the Christian football team has troubles, until they really turn their lives over to Jesus.

Or the one with the fireman who has marriage troubles and can only love his wife well if he becomes a Christian. Or the one where the upper-class family has financial troubles until they turn their home budget over to Jesus. Or the Left Behind movie, soon to be remade staring the former actor known as Nicholas Cage.

Blue Like Jazz had a lot of edgy material: a college freshman rejecting his church background, his mother pregnant by the youth pastor(!) in his smarmy home church, abundant drug and alcohol use, profanity, a lesbian main character portrayed in a somewhat sympathetic light, women using the men’s restroom. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria! Or at least, campus-wide hysteria.

BLJ1Still, when it was all over, the main character is won over by the beautiful, blonde authentically Christian girl, and he is confessing his sins and obliquely discovering a hip new way to be a believer.

There are some good films being made by people who are either Christian or who speak the language better than Christians do: Wim Wenders, Terrence Malik, Paul Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Krzysztof Kieslowski and possibly Jill Sprecher (13 Conversations). These directors do not offer easy answers to hard questions.

Nor do they feel obliged to have happy endings, sorta like real life.

Nor, as in real life, are good and evil always easily distinguishable.

Nor are the characters always either good-looking young Anglo couples, or wise, heavyset, sassy Black women, or gruff, flannel-shirted, estranged fathers, or prescient blond children.

Nor do they have drug lords, infantry soldiers, pirates or stocky biker gangs saying things like “I’ll beat the heck out of you, gosh darn it.”

This is one of those occasions where “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” (Luke 16:8)

Great Expectations – perhaps little read anymore, but a great book

1981. My 9th grade English class. The assignment was Great Expectations.

It was a time when reading and literature was my enemy. Books were stuffy old furniture. Reading conflicted with my life goal of being a slacker. It threatened to tame the animal nature that was serving me quite well, thank you.

I remember this about my youth, that I did not know I was ignorant. I did not know I was missing out on anything. It was not intentionally thumbing my nose at intelligence, because I did not know any better. In the beastly nature of my youth, I did not have the adult perspective that I have now to look at myself and think, “You animal! Rise up out of the dust and use the brain God gave you.”

And reading required effort.

And it necessarily meant interrupting me from other things I would rather be doing.

What a difference 30 years makes.

Parents, I hope you will take heart from my story. It wasn’t until my mid twenties that I began to read any serious literature. I think I started with The Brothers Karamzov. It was a tough start.

From my 9th grade class, I only remember the scene where Pip is meeting Estella and Miss Havisham for the first time, in the dusty, cobwebby old house sitting there around the decrepit wedding cake. I doubt if I actually read much of the book then.

Now my book club, The Austin Athenaeum, is reading GE for its December meeting. I’ve barely started (I’m in chapter 4) but what a fantastic book! I have not laughed out loud at a book in a long time.

It reminds me of P. G. Wodehouse or G. K. Chesterton. The British humor is so delightful. It is not the absurd humor like Monty Python, but in those opening chapters where we are learning about Pip’s every day life living with his sister and her husband, his poverty and difficulties, which is other books are fairly heavy and black, in this book are side-splittingly funny.

I know the book goes on to more serious and dramatic themes, but so far it has been a page turner.

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