December 30, 2010

Tone deaf to poetry

I'm clearly an idiot.

I tried reading some of the poems and literary fiction in the Florida Review's Native Issue, but I just…don't…get it.

Reading literary journals feels, at times, like listening to the atonal or dissonant symphonic music of the early-to-mid 20th century. I feel as if I ought to do it, because it's Art. But I don't really enjoy it.

Story becomes subordinate to words that seem strung together not to evoke emotion or meaning, but just because no one ever put them in that order before. As if one took a bunch of vocabulary cards, threw them in the air, and wrote them down without concern for which words are which part of speech.

I started to put an excerpt for you, but I have two concerns. First, and foremost, excerpting a poem runs the risk of violating copyright because even a few lines is a large percentage of the whole.

Second, I'm not sure what this poem is actually about. It might be naughty. Or maybe it's just about yoga. I can't be sure. Clearly, I am an idiot.

But then, I'm not real fond of Stravinsky, either.

December 23, 2010

Candy confusion

I once received an e-mail message that went something like this:
Photo by Gary Scott |
“A candymaker in Indiana wanted to make a candy that would be a witness, so he made the Christmas candy cane. He incorporated several symbols from the birth, ministry and death of Jesus Christ.
“ … a stick of pure white, hard candy. White to symbolize the virgin birth and the sinless nature of Jesus, and hard to symbolize the solid rock, the foundation of the church …
“The candymaker made the candy in the form of a ‘J’ to represent the precious name of Jesus … it could also represent the staff of the ‘Good Shepherd’ …
“The candymaker stained it with red stripes … three small stripes to show the stripes of the scourging Jesus received … the large red stripe was for the blood shed by Christ on the cross.
“Unfortunately, the candy became known as a candy cane — a meaningless decoration … but the meaning is still there for those who ‘have eyes to see and ears to hear.’ ”

There are even several children’s books that tell something like this story, calling it the “true” origin of the candy cane. The problem is, the “true” story changes with each retelling.

In some versions, the candy cane is said to have been a secret sign among persecuted Christians — although the persecution of Christians in Europe ended long before the invention of stick candy.

Straight white candy sticks have been around for centuries. According to the National Confectioners Association, the first cane-shaped candies in America appeared in Ohio, where, in 1847, a German-Swedish immigrant named August Imgard decorated his tree with them. The shape is meant to evoke not the letter J, but the shepherd's crook -- still religiously symbolic, if you think about it. Besides, you can hang a crook on a branch. Doesn't work so well in the "J" orientation.

The truth may seem boring in comparison to a fanciful story. Gracious, I'm in the business of telling fanciful stories. But we must be clear when we are using fairy tales to share our witness, and not pretend that fables are fact.

December 17, 2010

Yes, I love Jesus. Now can I get back to work?

I suppose they mean well, the people who craft those e-mails that go on for pages and amount to, "If you love Jesus you'll send this to X more people." I suppose the people who forward them mean well, as do the ones who forward the forward.

By Carl Dwyer | stock.xchng
But I doubt this is how God keeps score. When Paul said we'd be held to account, I don't think he meant God will scold us at the end of days for not forwarding e-mails.

I think He'll ask whether we made good use of our time and talents or wasted them on trifles. I think He'll ask whether we shared knowledge or kept it to ourselves. Did we nourish His sheep or stuff them with junk food?

One such message challenged whether we make time for God at work. Why yes, I do, thanks for asking. Here are my tips for staying close to God while you work:
All of these help keep my mind on things that are above. Or at least help me re-focus when I drift.

I know senders mean well, but messages that imply we're unfaithful if we don't forward them just create false guilt, which can be a stumbling block. Perhaps, instead of forwarding messages that demand "proof" actions from recipients, we should just give words of encouragement and expect nothing in return. We might be surprised by the response.

December 9, 2010

Mad Cow conquers a classic

When I asked my patient other half, "If I buy tickets to this play, will you come with me?" his only question was "when?"

It seems to me that few modern men are interested in classical theater, and the audience at the theater reinforced the idea. I believe the women outnumbered the men two to one. Almost as bad a ratio as at a figure skating show.

Well, the absent fellas don't know what they're missing. The Mad Cow Theatre Company's production of She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith is brilliant.

Mad Cow Theater Company photo of
Elizabeth Takacs as Constance Neville
and Melanie Whipple as Kate Hardcastle
Mad Cow Theatre is tucked into the ground floor of a downtown office building. The cast and crew make excellent use of a quirky space: The theater is L-shaped, with the stage in the corner and the seats in each branch. It's a cozy house -- seating about 220-250 people, I guesstimate -- so the performance really is intimate. When characters break into soliloquy, they really are talking to you.

The cast is fabulous. Brian Brightman as Marlow and Melanie Whipple as Kate are especially charming in their repartee. Engaging, star-quality performances.

In an article about Oliver Goldsmith published in 1935, Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates wrote: "this play sounded the keynote of Goldsmith's 'mission' . . . to render more natural the comedy of his time and to strike a decisive blow at the 'genteel' or 'sentimental' comedy of his contemporaries." She Stoops to Conquer may not be considered natural by modern standards, but it is nevertheless fresh and delightful.

It's a shame that such a small house was not sold out on a Saturday night. It was nearly full, but still, I had thought a play this clever and funny, performed by such outstanding actors, could fill even a large auditorium.

Perhaps it's because not many people have other halves who enjoy theater as much as mine does. Or maybe it's that not many people offer to buy the tickets.

She Stoops to Conquer is playing at the Mad Cow Theatre through Dec. 19. If you enjoy comedy, buy the tickets. You'll love it.

December 3, 2010

Inspirational anecdotes don't need to be faked

Motivational speakers often use true-life anecdotes to illustrate a topic, and this is a great tool. But of course it’s better if the true-life anecdotes really are true. Too often, speakers (and, dare I say it, writers) don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

One plum people pull out to show you shouldn’t be discouraged by failure is the one about how the inventors of the Post-it Note were supposedly trying to make a super-strong glue but failed—the glue turned out weak. They then converted their biggest failure into their biggest success.
Silver and Fry are featured on the Post-it anniversary page

A good story, but not true. The truth is less dramatic, but no less inspirational: Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M, discovered a low-tack glue in 1968, but because he and his colleagues couldn’t come up with any marketable applications, it was shelved. A few years later, one of those colleagues—Art Fry—realized Silver’s temporary adhesive would hold bookmarks in place. After some brainstorming, the company came up with Post-it notes and other products using the glue.

Silver’s original project was only a “failure” in that initially they couldn’t think of a market for it. Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras include the story in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. They emphasize that Silver wasn’t looking for anything in particular. He was “following the principle of ‘experimental doodling,’” something 3M encourages. He was playing around to see what he could find.

The Post-it story is a good one. But, as Collins and Porras make clear, what it illustrates is the need for companies to foster creativity and allow risk-taking.

The “super-strong glue” story isn’t the only falsehood I’ve heard propagated by people seeking to inspire. In the future, I’ll tackle some of the others, and any more you care to bring to my attention. Because I believe if you're going to use a true-life anecdote to make your point, it really should be true.