Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Puzzlement

When I tell people I write a blog, they inevitably ask, “what is your blog about?” I suppose the answer is that Riddles on the Harp is about anything I find puzzling.  For that reason, I will never run out of things to blog about.

To my mind, a blog is a form of personal essay. Essayist Dinty W. Moore stews on this in Crafting the Personal Essay. He calls essay writing a gentle art where writers explore a topic from their own unique perspective.  They begin with questions rather than answers.

In an essay in the Atlantic’s 2011 special fiction issue, Bret Anthony Johnston says writers may enter stories through literal experience but that that fiction transcends the limitations of fact and history. “What matters is our characters, those constructions of imagination that can transcend our biases and agendas... “

Johnston is speaking of the characters we create in our writing, but this is also true of our moral character.  We reach greater heights when we approach a topic from a platform of integrity, courage, fortitude honesty and loyalty instead of an agenda that boxes us in with people who agree with us and shuts everyone else out.

 The joy of placing a riddle on your harp is in the process of discovery. In the course of forming words into patterns on a page, the writer listens for what rings true and hopes others will also hear a pleasing melody.

Riddles are often amusing and always engaging. That the image of a riddle on a harp comes from the Bible is not surprising.  The Bible is riddled with word play. What is a parable but a metaphor or allegory to ponder or a conundrum to try to resolve? The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:36) works on many levels.  When Jesus poses the question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” he expands the meaning of the word neighbor just by asking the question.

That God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1Cor:27) has always been a puzzle for me. What holds meaning for God’s people is undecipherable when we rely on our own resources of intelligence, wealth and power. Why, then, is my first instinct to reason, spend or manipulate my way out of a problem rather than to pray?  I have to ask myself.  

Monday, August 22, 2011

Of rhino pairs & bipolar bears

On a manmade field of ice, a bipolar bear takes three steps forward, three steps backward, bobbles her head to the left and to the right and repeats the process. She resembles a windup toy with a weak battery that is compelled to move in place, never forward.

Across campus, rooms with bulky equipment designed to entice a rhinoceros to charge large objects sit idle. The resident rhinos are napping near a pond out in front. It appears they are no more interested in staying fit than most of us. A sign cautions that rhinos have been overhunted and are now an endangered species.
Nearby, an expanse of grass labeled Bison Environs appears to be an exhibit of where bison would live if any inhabited this zoo.  At this moment, the Detroit zoo appears to be fresh out of buffalo.  Happily though, this regal animal has made a comeback since it flirted with extinction in the 1800s. (The food industry will dispute that buffalo were ever endangered. Perhaps that’s because they were part of the drive to replenish the American herds.)

The Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak provides luxury accommodations for damaged animals. It is evident that patient rights come first here, but visitors aren’t complaining about how few animals are actually in view today. Peacocks roam zoo paths looking like docents and that is what we are here to do this hot summer day just outside the motor city. We are just out for a walk in the most diverting of landscapes.
About the time that we think all the animals have gone to lunch, we spot a trio of giraffe strolling across the grass in front of a reproduction of an Egyptian palace.  Egypt was one of the first cultures to keep wild animals on display in royal compounds, a human docent tells us.

When you don’t demand to be entertained by nature, the simple curve of a giraffe’s neck is grace. The tiger’s repose is refreshment. Like so many regional zoos, the Detroit Zoo provides a safety net for God’s creatures. We exercise a God given right (Genesis 1:28) when we care for animals.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Platforms, personas and publishing

Devout Stout
 by Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
To distill what I learned at the FaithWriters conference is a challenge similar to describing the complex elements of a zesty brew.  To extend the metaphor, drawing an audience and attracting a publisher is an exacting process -- like pouring a Guinness with slow patience to preserve its head.  Appealing to particular tastes (bold flavor, coffee aroma, chocolate notes) requires knowing your audience and giving them what they expect. It also requires understanding the bitter reality of today’s publishing world. Determine if you can pass the acid test of excellence or be prepared to spend a lot of money for a disappointing harvest.

All writers want readers.  If you don’t know that you are expected to build your own audience you haven’t been paying attention.  Patty Wysong did a great job of connecting the dots on blogs, Facebook, and a myriad of ways to build a community of people (your platform) who might be willing to buy your book, a data point that will be of high interest to any publisher you approach.
Many writers are shy. In a brilliant display of “show, don’t tell,” self-described wallflower Patty shared how she overcame extreme shyness to offer value to the audience she built for her blog, and then for her business (helping others build blogs). She described how she created an alter-ego she could step into when she needed to step out of her comfort zone and speak before an audience.

Some of her tricks:  
  1. Try out what works for others
  2. Cultivate inner resources that are there but need encouragement to blossom
  3. Present yourself as the person you want to be
Most writers want to be published. Deb Porter, who runs the FaithWriters Weekly Word Challenge, shared the sobering statistics that the numbers of book titles in print have jumped about 4,000 percent recently! This is not good news.  It means readers have to wade through a lot of bad writing to find good stuff and writers are rushing to print with stuff that’s not ready.
 I’d summarize Deb’s perspective this way: 
  1. You can lead the market if you start from the platform of celebrity or have that rare combination of talent, timing and luck;
  2. You can follow the herd and pay someone to publish your book;
  3. Or, you can enter through the narrow gate. 
This third path requires writers to work really hard to hone their craft. Follow the process that leads to excellence. Seek feedback from people who will be honest with you and make the changes you need to make. Look for an agent who believes in your project and will take it to a small press when it is ready. The writer's life is for the stout of heart!
Thank you to all the wonderful presenters at this year's conference.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Dao of Connections

I look up to the mountains. Where can I find my help? Psalm 121 Song of Ascents

Worldviews collide and the Dow disapproves. Some media dub the U.S. drubbing as historic and others label it not unexpected, but a yawn. Whichever way you see it, living with the consequences will not be boring.

For that matter, spectrum itself is subject to argument – a utility that can remain regulated and underused or freed up for innovative uses that might create jobs and turn a profit. While we are mulling this over, I am reminded of a blue screen we recently experienced.

Popped a DVD into the blu-ray recorder and got the dreaded blue screen.  Uh oh.

“Didn’t we just retune the receiver to pick up some signals that were dropping?” says I.

“This is the recorder. We need to do a firmware update,” says he.

And, isn’t that just like life? I thought about that in Sunday service when pastor, preaching on Exodus, asked the question, “Who do you want to be influenced by?” Well, good question. The next question is, “And what am I doing to put myself in the sphere of influence of those people?”

From time to time, I also need a firmware update. What is fixed in my brain needs to be reset so I better understand. I need to retune my heart to pick up signals I’m missing.

I suspect the powers that govern our country are missing some signals.  As a result, we may be facing an economic blue screen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Zen of Wii Bowling

One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas a Kempis.

The more a man is united within himself, and becomes inwardly simple, the more and higher things he understands without labor, for he receives intellectual light from above.

To put it simply, don’t work too hard.

The more I apply the principle of not over thinking or overdoing a situation, the more I find myself “in the zone.” It’s exhilarating, it’s magic, and it has improved my Wii bowling score.

I belong to a Wii bowling league that involves sixteen people who bowl three sets in two shifts with a break for pizza and chit chat.  The logistics of scheduling, handicapping and scoring the bowlers is one of those high things I can’t understand without labor, so I don’t try. I just show up and try to break 100.

We’ve been at this for a couple of years and like baseball players, each bowler has developed a liturgy of tics that works for them. Wina hops up in the air on her left foot, swings her right foot ballet-like across her meridian and lets ‘er fly. Mike sits in a chair with his shoulder braced against the wall and flicks his wrist at the screen. They both get amazing results.

Paul bowls an S curve that is truly impressive and Agnes basks in the intellectual light from above, swinging her arm with a mathematical precision that causes the pins to fall all over themselves in awe.

Cheryl positions the controller, pulls her arm back, does a three step run- up, lunges, pulls her right foot behind her left heel like a pro and releases the ball. Score! Ron dispenses with the drama and goes for the hard and fast hook. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Then there is me.  Traditionally, I bowl like I walk. I start out knowing where I’m headed and then veer off into the gutter. It’s a pretty sharp turn to the dark side. But tonight, I channeled the Zen master and it worked!  I squared my feet, pressed A, lifted a wine glass in my right hand, and floated my left hand forward without effort. The pins were mesmerized. They swooned at the sight of my ball spinning slowly toward them.

I think the wine glass gave me the balance I needed to correct my wicked curve ball, which I suspect mirrors the scoliosis in my spine. But, I don’t want to over think this.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The resort of my dreams

We are planning a December getaway. In the planning stage it is useful to know what you are trying to get away from. Expectations, holiday stress and worn out routines top my list.

We begin our trip in Barbados, sweep through seven islands on a sailing ship, come back through Orlando and end up Bentonville, Arkansas. I imagine that moving from the trade winds that cool Bathsheba on the east shore – where green monkeys play in palm trees above our hammock pillowed heads below – to wintry Arkansas will be a trip in itself. But we want to take grandma on a holiday, so we are taking her to see the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
After we set the dates and made the airline reservations I had an “uh –oh” moment. We had decided hang out in Barbados for a few days after our cruise.  I researched hotels, inns, guest houses and resorts, avoiding phrases such as raucous night life, good place to shop for trinkets or beach activity (euphemism for crowded). The west shore seemed ideal. When you visit Barbados, don’t you owe it to yourself to check out the resorts?

That’s when I discovered that Yuletide rates would be in effect.  We are talking $1,500 a night, at the low end! Despite those lovely beaches, do we really want to be in surroundings that make us blink twice in the morning before we remember where we are -- and what we spent?

If I read People magazine at the beauty shop instead of short stories by Raymond Carver, I would know that this is where the rich and famous spend their holidays. Will sighting celebrities enhance my island experience? More likely it will focus my attention on where I can find a knock off of that darling resort wear thingy some Sex in the City sultress is wearing.

Loathe to letting go of the idea of staying at a resort, I want more to rub elbows with history, smell the rainforest and experience the real instead of the real estate.  

This morning I read in my devotions:
“Where he is to be found, there make thy resort.”
If I look for a place where I can open my heart to God, I will find the resort of my dreams.

I powered up my computer, looked on the more remote Atlantic side of the island and discovered the Sea-U Guest House.  It features charming colonial style rooms, reasonable rates, rocky tide pools where we can wade with brilliantly colored fish, porches high above the ocean where we will sit, sip our rum punches and watch the local surfers.  Ah, yes.
Quote by Charles Spurgeon