Friday, June 29, 2012

What I Want

If my children are blessed with children, I want those children to have grandparents who jump into the household at birth-time. I want my grandchildren to have Grandpas and Grandmas who will drop everything else for two weeks on either side of the due date, ready to drive at a moment's notice. I want those grandparents to weave seamlessly into the chores and mealtime routines of my children's homes: helping with meals, doing laundry, and of course taking care of the newly arrived grandchild so the parents can get some rest.

I want my grandchildren to have grandparents who are thrilled to pay attention to the older grandchildren, even though they're no longer Center Stage in the family drama. I want those grandparents to be present, remembering with seasoned grace the Great Fog of bringing a new child into the world, but without insisting that the way it was for them must be the way it is now.

I want those grandparents to consider their greatest calling to be good parents, and the greatest part of that calling to be good grandparents. I want them to view their children and grandchildren as strange and wonderful gifts from a strange and wonderful God who is mysteriously present in every life.

I want my grandchildren to have these kind of grandparents, because my children have them, and I see the blessing therein. May the Lord make it so for us.

~ emrys

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Breaking the Camel's Back

In the summer of 2005 I graduated seminary. As a graduation gift, and in preparation for world travels that would include the writing of papers and the posting of blogs, Sara bought me a Toshiba Tablet PC. It did all the things a laptop ought to do, plus it allowed me to write on the screen with a stylus. It even translated my handwriting into typed text, with great accuracy.

Seven years later, the Toshiba has been on three continents, two archipelagos, and to innumerable committee meetings. The battery has been replaced twice, the power cord once. The hard drive has been reformatted three times and repartitioned once to accommodate both Linux and Windows operating systems. Since I don't game on it or do work that requires the processing of extreme graphics or computational work, it continued to serve well in every capacity I desired.

Then the hinge cracked. Seven years of use had finally taken its toll on the weakest structural link.

Since the wireless receiver runs through the hinge and around the screen, once the hinge started to deteriorate, the wireless connection became spotty, even when I sat next to the router. And a cracked hinge made portability a real issue.

I had an inkling, however, that I was going to need a new laptop soon anyway because I found that I had to pop over to Linux any time I wanted to read and edit documents created in MS Office 2010 software. The cracked hinge was just the proverbial straw. Down went the old camel.

We're pretty sold on Toshiba for reliability and cost, so I now have a sleek wide-screen version. I can't write on the screen, but I had been using that feature much less anyway. The resolution is better and so far the speed is better, too.

Now, if I can just get past the learning curve for the Office 2010 software, I'll be all set.

~ emrys

Itty-Bitty Number Two

On Sunday, June 24th, Sara decided she had had enough of being pregnant. She wanted to have a baby. So we trundled down to Our Lady of Lourdes in Binghamton and got assigned our room in the Birthing Center. We were in by 11:00am. Then we waited.

After much labor but no delivery, our physician decided that it was safer to have the delivery by C-section. So Sara went under the knife, and out came Itty-Bitty Number Two, who is by the time of this posting officially Micah Ambrose Tyler:

(9:28pm, June 24th; 8lb, 3oz, 21.5in, Apgar 8.5-9)

He's got the Tyler face (if you ask the Tylers), and the Wheat face (if you ask the Wheats), but no matter whom you ask, he's got Emrys' long toes and cold feet:
And he's a snuggler.
We thank God for the safe arrival of Micah Ambrose; for the phenomenal staff in the Lourdes Birthing Center; for friends and family who shower us with support; and for the Life of Christ which makes all life possible. L'chaim!

~ emrys

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Fauna by Our Front Door

Gwendolyn and I came in from watering one morning to discover this motley crew hanging out by our porch light.

~ emrys

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Spoils of War

I approach Young Adult Fiction with relish. I appreciate the fact that most YAF is not salted with an abundance of profanities. I enjoy the early growth of characters' humanity: coming of age, struggling out of the cocoon, defining good over against evil. The best stories, of course, twist the course of growth with ambiguity: discovering the impurity of human goodness, darkness in one's own soul, virtue in the blackest of characters. In the end, however, redemption is the order of the day. Small or large, clear or foggy, I wait for The Greatest Story Ever Told to shine through somehow.

Even after seeing the film adaptation (out of order, I admit), it was not until I read the front jacket of The Hunger Games that I realized Suzanne Collins' trilogy would not stay the course of YAF. The three books--The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay (2010)--are a progressive meditation on war. The meditation happens to be through the eyes of an adolescent.

The premise of The Hunger Games is the unthinkable atrocity of a culture which forces selected youths to kill each other in a game show. When Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark beat the system with their feigned narrative of star-crossed lovers, the plot of the trilogy thickens. An alternate society appears, waiting in the wings, ready to topple the horrific culture of the Capitol with a brave new beginning.

In a way, we readers can see it coming. The twists resemble a wooden roller coaster, whose complete course we have seen from a distance but whose particular jolts and drops we still queue up to experience. There is even a note of fatalism in the final twist of the trilogy, which took me by surprise while I knew it had to happen.

The master stroke of Collins' words is not the course of the plot. Her narrative mastery comes through in her development of Katniss Everdeen--or, to be more accurate, Everdeen's non-development. Since the entire trilogy comes to us through the first-person lens of Everdeen's experience, my hope was less for the redemption of the Thirteen Districts and more for the redemption of Katniss. Would she emerge from the cocoon of war, the grave-wrappings of despair, and find--joy? love? peace? self-determination?

The Katniss Everdeen I found at the end of Mockingjay resembled--like a washed-out wraith who can only find a faded high-schooler in the mirror--an even harder version of the youth on page one of The Hunger Games. Love has been lost, peace has proven elusive, and joy has flown the coop. And as for self-determination: Katniss Everdeen only made one honest-to-goodness choice in her narrated life, and it was a choice forced upon her by circumstances beyond her control.

The depth of Everdeen's circumstances is plumbed only by the conscious recognition, voiced in a one-line paragraph near the end of Mockingjay, that she is completely alone. Her family, whether they intended it or not, has left her alone. Her friends, if she ever really had any, have left her alone. The world, we cannot help but believe intentionally, has left her alone. The Games, the war, and all of her betrayals become particular expressions of this broader, despairing reality from which there is no escape. With the honorable Romeo and Juliet option deprived of her at the end of book one, Everdeen is left to drift into the numb fog of solitude.

If I had paid for these books, I might have fretted that I could not get my money back. As Young Adult Fiction the series left me cold. Collins' dust jacket forces me to reassess, however. As a meditation on war--for a reader whose nation sends droves of adolescents off to fight battles broadcast on the airwaves for rewards more crippling than glorious--perhaps the value of The Hunger Games is not its echo of The Greatest Story. Perhaps its value is in revealing the need for The Greatest Story.

Katniss Everdeen becomes the youth who can survive through anything. But that survival results in a calcification of the soul, a numbness which even the best-trained cynic cannot relish. Her story begs the question: are young warriors--whatever their battles--doomed to this end? Or is there redemption for them?

~ emrys

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mazda: the Super Car

Twelve years ago a Gal was getting ready to graduate from college and head out into the big, wide world.  At the beginning of her last semester of college she bought a car.  She really wanted a truck, but ended up with a "practical" car instead.  Little did she know that it would be The SuperCar.  Five months later, she loaded that car up and moved to Colorado where she met a Guy with a motorcycle.

When they dated, the Guy thought it would be funny to pull a prank on the Gal while she was out of town and filled the Car with shredded paper.  If you look closely in the window wells of the Car, to this day you can see remnants of that little prank.

 Two years later when they got married, the Car brought them home from their wedding.  Less than a year after that the Guy and Gal moved to California. While the Gal said "no motorcycles on the LA freeways", the Car was loaded up again and moved the Guy and Gal off to Pasadena. And then moved them back to Colorado.  The Car took them to Camp for the summer, and chauffeured the Gal to and from chemo and radiation treatments.  The Car moved them up into the mountains for a season.  Between all the big moves, the Car was a reliable member of their little family that got them around for trips near and far.

The Car got a break when the Guy and Gal went to travel the world, but then it was time to get back to work as the Guy and Gal loaded up to move again.  This time to New York.  The car brought the first load of stuff to the first house the Guy and Girl bought and continued to trundle them around central New York.  A couple years later, the Car got to carry the most precious cargo when the Guy and Gal brought Little Girl home from the hospital.  When the Car kept going and going, we said that Little Girl may actually learn to drive on the Car.  Well, you have to start somewhere:

The Car has earned its SuperCar status and has been more than reliable- never had to be towed, never in an accident (even though big mean trucks dinged it a couple times while it was parked and minding it's own business).  But the time has come to move on, for cars don't last forever.  The family is growing again and the Car is getting tired. The Guy and the Gal searched among the Car's younger cousins and they found one that would fit their growing family nicely.  Today the SuperCar is getting traded in at 194,000 miles-yup, a lovely used car dealership gave us trade-in for it!

Mazda - you were a SuperCar, may Cinco serve us just as well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Conscience of an Emperor

Constantine the Great, by Michael Grant (1993) sets out to tackle the challenge of the Roman Emperor who legitimated Christianity. The book pursues the lofty goal of providing an objective historical perspective on the man Constantine and his reign.

The rear cover lauds Grant as "perhaps the foremost living classicist." Within the first few chapters the book verifies this description with thorough knowledge of the Greek and Latin sources from the first four centuries AD. It makes piercing observations that cut through many of the generalizations offered in the cursory education many of us receive about this epoch.

The text exposes Constantine as a complex person--infinitely more varied and human than images of marble busts and gold coinage icons suggest. It persistently follows the wide-swinging pendulum of a ruler who could at once seek unification of the Christian Church and have his own wife and son killed. The book wrestles magnificently with the bugbear of historicity, straining to reach into the depths of ancient writers' biases to draw out gleaming gems of certainty.

Yet I sensed that the Holy Grail of objectivity proved too great a burden for the book to bear. Even as it works exhaustively through every document that hints at the character of Constantine, the writing cracks under the effort. In spite of the book's outspoken defiance of bias, sweeping statements about Constantine's motives appear: jarring chords of unfounded certainty in a symphony of erudite qualifications. Take, for instance, the motives behind the killing of the emperor's wife, Fausta. After noting carefully the inadequate source material, our text concludes that Constantine killed her because of her violation of his "puritanical" sense of sexual morality.

This "puritanism"--itself an anachronism for the era under examination--Constantine's Christian faith, and the killings of family members seem to pose the greatest difficulty for the book. The temptation either to render judgment or explain the tension proves too much to resist. The text seems haunted by the need somehow to answer clearly the conundrum of a Christian ruler who took cruel and--by our standards--unjust measures. The fissures in an objective picture of Constantine grow wide by the end of the book: so wide, in fact, that statements slip out like, "There are, and remain, certain absolute standards, and by his death-dealing Constantine offended signally against them."

Herein Grant's writing may come closest to the life of Constantine. Just as Constantine's life seems torn between the ruthless nature of imperial politics and the confession of Christianity, Grant's writing appears torn between the twin desires of today's historian: the desire for objectivity and the desire for some non-random evaluation of the past. Perhaps, like Constantine the Great, whose motivations and morals remain an enigma buried in seventeen hundred years of history, the book about his life is both child and victim of its time.

~ emrys

Sunday, June 10, 2012

It's the Destination, Not the Journey

I went to England last week to attend my Aunt Betsy's funeral. The adventure to get to Charlbury began with the procurement of a passport on short notice. My mantra became, from the moment the document arrived in the mail, Do I have my passport? Check the pockets, confirm its presence.

Pack the bags, be ready to leave at 12:30pm. Photocopy credit cards and driver's license in case wallet gets nicked overseas. Check for passport in bag. Hugs and kisses to my wife and daughter. Three-and-a-half hours to Jersey City. One hour to visit with friends in Jersey City. Leave for Newark International at 5:00. Plenty of time before 7:35 flight.

5:15: turn into sticky maelstrom of Newark airport. Follow signs for Terminal C parking. Pull into lot and take ticket. Glance at the price schedule: "Short Term." Experience sticker shock. Drive through lot and got to exit booths. Ask attendant where to find long-term parking.

"Exit airport, follow signs for P6."

Follow exit signs, leave airport, see no signs for P6. Begin to breathe more rapidly. Re-enter airport vortex and search for P6 signs. Pass Terminal C. Sign for P6: "bear left." Bear left. Next sign: "bear right." Bear right. Signs vanish. Gone. Heartbeat accelerates. Exit airport again. Re-enter, bear left, bear right. Signs vanish again. Curse not-so-under-breath. Exit airport. Look at clock: 5:30.

Re-enter airport, rip short-term parking ticket out of dispenser. Park in C lot. Check passport in pocket. Mentally prepare to put large fee on credit card on way home. Hustle for check-in. Experience no line for check-in or security. Remember that today is middle of Memorial Day weekend. Thank God for easy travel. Find gate and confirm flight number to London Heathrow.

Feel peckish. Go to airport burger joint and order greasy supper. Hear clerk ask for payment. Pull out wallet. Open wallet to find no credit cards, no driver's license.

Experience tunnel vision and cold sweat. Check cash: American dollars and British pounds still there. Not theft. Suddenly realize that I cannot remember taking credit cards off the copier glass.

Clerk repeats request for funds. Hand her cash. Wait for burger, pacing back and forth, studying ramifications of stupidity. Wonder how much to skimp in order to have cash to get home. Check for passport in pocket. Pray that cash I have will stretch.

Board flight and take off one hour late. Get three hours of fitful sleep from seven hour flight. Compose eulogy. Land in Heathrow at 8:35am local time. Board bus to Oxford. Arrive in Oxford, hustle to train station. Board train, arrive at Charlbury. Walk to St. Mary's Church at 11:45, forty-five minutes into aunt's service. Attend last twenty minutes.

Be welcomed by distant cousins and uncle. Give eulogy at crematorium service. Hang out with family for afternoon. Talk, eat, drink, enjoy. Let head hit pillow at 10:00. Pass out.

Wake up at 4:30. Check for passport. Walk to train station. Catch 6:00 train. Switch to bus at Oxford. Bus departs on time. Twenty minutes into bus ride, learn that an accident on the M40 will require a detour. Spend hour on back roads looking at watch to see how rapidly flight time approaches. Arrive at Heathrow one hour late.

Hear from check-in clerk that I will miss flight. Break out in cold sweat again, fearing ticket clerk will ask for credit card to get new flight. Prepare to explain my unlikely story. Give passport to ticket clerk. "You're on the 12:05 flight." No questions asked. Heave sigh of relief, remind myself to thank brother for Premier Class air miles ticket.

Wait two hours, board flight. Arrive on time in Newark. Exchange remainder of British pounds for greenbacks. Spend moment stunned at how good the rate treats me. Get to car, prepare to tell lot attendant unlikely story of credit cards and convince her to enter numbers manually. Drive to exit booths. Hear "sixty-six dollars," highway robbery. See eighty dollars in wallet. Praise the Lord. Pay parking ticket with cash. Use remainder to fill tank with enough gas to get home.

Arrive at home. Kiss and hug wife and daughter. Go upstairs and put credit cards and driver's license back in wallet. Stash passport. Resolve to add "check wallet and money" to my travelling mantra.

~ emrys

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Have More Faith

One of the reasons I do what I do is that I find people's stories fascinating. In even the smallest gathering, thousands of stories lie below the surface, waiting to be unearthed: stories of trial, success, hardship, redemption, darkness and joy.

In his 2009 book have a little faith, Mitch Albom has captured like jewels, with the eye of a gem-cutter, two stories of human life.

Albom narrates the stories of two "men of God," one a rabbi and the other a pastor. What begins as a story about death—the composition of a eulogy—becomes two braided cords of life. Albom, present in the book as a ghostly first person narrator, unfolds the beatific texture of humanity and divinity expressed. By the middle of the book, I was turning pages not so much to learn what would happen next as to know more about these two wonderful characters.

Albom's style, both straightforward and depth-plumbing, makes for easy reading that conceals the beautiful poignant barbs which will hook the reader. He is sufficiently self-revelatory that we could imagine ourselves in Albom's shoes, walking through this same life, meeting these same wondrous personalities.

Which, I think, is a chief aim of the book: to remind us that individuals like Lewis Albert and Henry Covington are in fact all around us, if we will only listen to their stories. If only each of us could be asked sometime in our lives, "Would you write my eulogy?" then we would gain so much greater understanding of ourselves, of humanity, and of God.

This last part, the understanding of God, is the only place in which I felt Albom's work falter.  In spite of his task, to narrate the lives of two "men of God," Albom concludes that the real object of faith is "the human spirit." The great song of the world is "one same, wonderful, human song." Albom may have been caught in the bind of having to affirm both Jewish rabbi and a Christian pastor in one line—and could not reconcile their differing conceptions of God. But I think it is unfair to both of his subjects to reduce their inspiration to the human level.

The book implies that we should "have a little faith" in the human spirit. From Lewis' and Covington's stories, however, I think it's fair to say we should have more than a little faith in God.

~ emrys

Monday, June 04, 2012

Learning From the Masters

One of the best ways to learn an art form is to copy the masters. It is said that the famous painters of the Renaissance had students who simply copied what the master did until they understood what was going on and could strike off on their own. I suppose that even painting a still life is simply copying what the Master made.

I participate in many different kinds of prayer, by virtue of my work and my personal habit. When I am praying with a group, I usually prefer to let the words and experience of the group form my prayer. Some call this "extemporaneous" prayer, but often what seems to come out of thin air for the hearer has been formulated over some time by the speaker.

Praying out of my own experience, however, has its limitations. So often I will turn to words that others have composed and pray them. I do so not because God hears my words or their words any more, less, better, or worse. However, prayer is an exercise that both speaks to God and stretches the soul. I find that using someone else's words to pray stretches my soul in ways I could not anticipate but richly value.

Somewhere along the line I picked up Michel Quoist's Prayers, a thin book copyrighted in the 1960s and translated from French. Abbe Quoist was a priest and abbot in French communities both urban and rural, serving in a decade that dealt with social situations very different from my own.

But I prayed his prayers.

Prayers is a collection of almost-poetry that both speaks and listens to God. The prayers, each less than four pages long, arise from the fertile crumbling soil of human experience. Those on whose behalf the prayers rise include farmers and fascists, addicts and adolescents, the normal and the neglected. It was a joy to savor the words on my lips, but also to hear the soul-strains echoing with something divine. Praying them opened my heart more widely to the joys and sorrows of human experience, even as I lifted up people I know to be in those very joys and sorrows.

Sometimes I would pray—always out loud and standing—listening to hear myself in the prayer.

The work is thoroughly Roman Catholic, shot through with the ache of sin's guilt and culminating with a set of prayers formatted for the stations of the cross. The exclusivity of the masculine pronoun for humanity chafed against my training. Nonetheless, a full vision both of humanity's sufferings and God's love for it rises up out of the prayers.

There is no masterpiece of prayer any more than there is a perfect conversation. But like many skills, prayer withers with lack of practice and deepens with variety. To anyone seeking to learn greater vocabulary of prayer—and perhaps to hear more deeply the human heart—I recommend Michel Quoist's work.

You will have to get your own copy, however. I'm keeping mine.

~ emrys

Irish Roots

In order to get to my aunt's funeral last week, I required a new passport. In order to procure a passport for travel in fewer than fourteen days, one must appear in person at a federal passport issue office. The nearest (or fastest) one for us is in Philadelphia. Thus on Monday, May 21st, I took a one-day trip to Philadelphia.

After finishing business at the passport office, I had occasion to chat for a few minutes on the phone. While I did so, I wandered around the intersection of Chestnut and Front streets by the Phila waterfront, and came across a gorgeous little park introduced with this plaque:

 I have not studied to any degree the immigration patterns of the Irish or any other people group. But it appears from this memorial that Penn's Landing in Phila must have been a major point of influx for the Irish. This monument--some ten feet tall and twenty long--artfully combined what must have been a great mix of hope and despair experienced by nineteenth century immigrants to the U.S.

 Next time I have occasion to wander around downtown Phila, I look forward to giving this park a closer look.
~ emrys

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Keeping Track

About three months ago, a few media outlets predicted that by Memorial Day, gas prices would have reached $4.80 per gallon.

I filled up yesterday for $3.79 per gallon.

~ emrys

Media Bias

I grow tired of the assessment that "the book was better than the film." My fatigue comes in part from the fact that I usually agree with the sentiment; there is little surprise to me that a 90-minute visual adaptation of a five-hundred-page novel will be thinner and more shallow. But I also tire of the underlying assumption that works written may be usefully compared to works filmed.

Words on the page require a different kind of translation or imagination than images and voice in the theater. When our brains decode the complex array of characters on the page, and when our minds assign power and meaning to the decrypted results, we are in a different world than that of sight and sound.

A text is, by nature, more flexible and demands a certain work from the reader. When we have done this work, the results will vary by the individual and will likely be infused with a broader flavor and significance mined from the reader's experience. This happens, too, with film, but in my experience less so. When we read, we must climb full-body into another world.

I experienced this diversity of media pointedly when I first watched the film The Hunger Games, then read the book. The film (my full review is here) kept me on the edge of my seat. It depicted with expert precision a world of stark contrasts, grave injustice, and desperate tension. I watched Katniss Everdeen navigate the horrendous choices implicit in the challenge of teenage mortal combat.

This last bit is key: I watched Katniss Everdeen.

Collins' trilogy about Panem is narrated in the first person. The reader receives only Katniss' perspective. The fullness of her adolescence is thereby revealed; the horror of her situation is also thereby clearer than the film can make it. To read The Hunger Games is to do more than watch our heroine succeed and fail. To read it is to be Katniss Everdeen, to feel genuinely caught in a world which squeezes bitter from sweet.

When I watched the film, I felt the tension of being hunted. I felt the fear of being caught. I felt the shock of watching adolescents slain. But I did not feel hunger.

To read The Hunger Games is to feel hunger. The words printed on the page can conjure what goes on inside the soul when the stomach gnaws at itself. They can wither the spirit with the fatigue of which cinematography only hears rumors. They can draw the whole person into a world.

It is different than watching a film.

More could be said about the differences between flashbacks on the screen and single-sentence memories brought up in a written scene. Or about metaphors which cannot be literalized for the camera ("He looked like a dog that had been whipped").

I will not tell you that the books are better than the film (and, I'm confident soon in this case, films). To compare them is to compare apples and oranges—or perhaps better, apples and apple pie: something essentially the same in each, but ultimately a different experience. If we like apples, we eat apples. If we enjoy apple pie, we will eat apple pie. And if we like both—well, then we may have the best of both worlds.

~ emrys