Mower

(This is an interesting piece I recently found. Apparently, I had some kind of love/hate thing going on with a former lawnmower).

My lawnmower hates me. And who could blame it? I don’t simply mistreat the miserable machine; I abuse it. I routinely ask it to do things it was not designed to do, then forcibly push it into precarious circumstances, well beyond both its capabilities and its horsepower. When it coughs and sputters under my grip, I tip the front wheels off the ground and allow it to momentarily catch its mechanical breath. Then I drop the wheels and watch it choke on dust and weeds and overly long grass.

Not long ago, I bought a riding mower and parked it next to the beleaguered walk-behind. I change the oil and filters and sparkplugs in the big machine. All I do for the little guy is fill it with gas, but even that’s begrudging. Sometimes I whisper small reminders that maybe it ought to be a little more grateful, that before the big rider came along, I used to bounce its rickety wheels across an entire acre of uneven field, usually once a week.

Regardless, my mower keeps on taking my abuse, then coming back for more. In one rather extreme act of defiance, it refused to shut off after I let go of the safety handle. Nowadays, when I want to kill the motor, I have to reach dangerously close to the little engine-that-obviously-can and manually close the throttle. Sometimes, it burns my fingers a little.

On our last outing, as I alternated between banging its already-dented frame into a fencepost and force-feeding it a row of small trees, it flung off its own floppy discharge guard. My mower gaped up at me, grinning. Then it proceeded to spray fresh mulch all over my face and clothing until I wired its mouth shut with a metal coil and a rusty bolt. I may have had the last word, but that round clearly went to the mower.

We’ve been together about four years now. And if I have anything to do with it, we’ll be together for many more to come.

No matter how much my lawnmower hates me, I will not reciprocate. It’s hard not to respect its sheer willpower, its tenacity, its threshold for pain and exploitation. I’ll admit my feelings for my little green mower veer toward the erratic. We got along famously when I brought it home and we shared our inaugural stroll. But over time, I grew to resent not just the machine, but what it represented as well—hot afternoons, buckets of sweat, soreness and blisters, ruined sneakers. Resentment eventually morphed into respect, and respect into an odd form of adoration. Recently, in a moment of weakness, I almost drained its black, chunky oil and replaced it with new. I considered tightening bolts, sharpening its blade, and swapping out filters and plugs and whatnot. But that sort of coddling would no doubt alter the crude balance we’ve been able to maintain these many summers.

Besides, for some strange reason it feels so good to love something that so thoroughly despises me.

What They Don’t Know

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courtesy of Aubrey Snyder

All of my kids are creative. Three of the four are creative in traditional ways people think about things…art, music, drama, dance, etc. (The other one is a stud football player, which obviously requires plenty of creativity!).

I could brag on their many accomplishments, but you’d likely click away from here, thinking: “Great more cyber home movies.” So you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that they come up with some truly amazing stuff…well beyond their years.

But here’s the point: they don’t know any better.

And because they don’t think it’s odd or unique or weird that they write novels, storyboard movies, spend countless hours attending to minute details of a single drawing (right), choreographing musicals, or writing elaborate soundtrack music…they don’t have to fall prey to expectations.

(Also see Luke’s first foray into claymation HERE)

They’re not worried if what they create is “good enough.” Or if it will ever “get published.” Or if they’ll ever “make it.” They simply create. And it’s a beautiful thing to behold. It’s the personification of childlike wonder.

And it’s something I think most creative adults should aspire to. I know I do.

Weekend Update

Music-wise, it was a slow week. I did a little reading and a lot of listening this week. Here is some of what I discovered…

Incendiary by Chris Cleave (novel, audio) – The back cover calls it “emotionally raw” and “alive with grief, compassion, and startling humor.” Not only that, the entire novel is a personal letter to Osama Bin Laden. This one is bold, haunting, and written extremely well.

Moonlight Mile by Dennis LeHane (novel, audio) – This guy can definitely craft a story. And most of the dialog is pitch perfect. However, some of the exchanges with bad guys come off sounding like tired movie dialog. The overall plot did test my capacity to suspend reality. But it was entertaining enough.

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins (novel) – The story feels a bit disjointed, but I’m only a third of the way in. The writing, however, is downright enviable in places. And the patches of dialog between man and machine are really starting to grow on me.

Etgar Keret (stories) – I would trade two of my favorite guitars for this guy’s imagination

October Baby (DVD) – It may not be fair, but I have to view these kinds of movies through two separate lenses. If I judge it on its own merits as a film, I’d have to give it an average score. The filmmakers did a lot of things right but the cast was unbalanced, there a few indulgent scenes, and they tried too hard to make sure we got the point. We did not need the scene with the priest telling our hero she needed to forgive everybody. It would have been much more effective (and less cheesy) to have her figure this out on her own, then act. And the obligatory turn-around-at-the-last-moment-and-run-back-for-another-weepy-hug scene was downright cringeworthy. However, as far as Christian films go, this is one of the best I’ve seen. The writing, cinematography, and storytelling was WAY better than anything else I’ve seen in the genre. And Rachel Hendrix was outstanding.

Here’s The Thing (podcast) – Andrew McCarthy – This one caught me by surprise. I’m neither fan nor foe of the former brat pack actor. But I was captivated for his 35-minute interview where he tells of his journey from punk kid to renowned travel writer and family man. Yet another excellent interview.

This American Life (podcast) – Overall, TAL is my favorite podcast ever. This week’s entry wasn’t so hot. But maybe that was my fault. The episode was all about the recent election and I think I’m just tired of hearing about it.

Decompose (blog) – I followed a rather heated discussion that ended up pitting progressive Christians against their more conservative brethren. And although it was no one’s fault in particular, the whole thing makes me sad. Like most online debates, the majority seek first to be understood, to make their point, or to lob some snarky grenade into the other team’s camp. Healthy discourse occurs when everyone makes a genuine effort to understand the other guy first, then offer a thoughtful reply. Too much assuming, stereotyping, and too much of a premium on winning the argument. And for the record, the comments I left in the thread were probably no mover helpful than the ones I’m critiquing here.

 

The Only 2 Questions

According to the inimitable Steve Almond, the only two questions readers care about are these:

1. Who do I care about?

2. What do they care about?

“It doesn’t especially matter what your heroine cares about. as long as she cares a lot. Love and death are the usual suspects, but a great novel just might arise from a nun’s thwarted effort to remove dental floss from between her teeth (to borrow an example from Kurt Vonnegut). As long as her passion places her in peril, you’re in business.”

Sure, style matters. As does voice and technique and talent and all sorts of other writerly stuff.

But I think there’s a boatload of wisdom in Almond’s distillation.

So, what do you think?

Interviewing Naked

My PR lady emailed and said that an east coast radio station wanted to have me back on air to talk about my third novel. This was particularly cool because I remembered the guy doing the interview had actually read my other novels prior to asking me questions about them on air.

We agreed on the time and date and I put it on my calendar.

The fateful morning arrived and I double-checked my email to make sure I had the time right. I did, but my very nice PR lady had forgotten to factor in the time zone difference.

That’s not me. Nor is it my shower.

So…I was just finishing up my shower when I heard my cell phone vibrating on the sink. I hurried out of the mist and checked the number. The unfamiliar area code sure seemed east coasty.

I debated for a second, but it’s not like they were going to call back at a more convenient time. So I answered it…au naturel.

At some point I think I did wrap myself in a towel. But for the most part, I spent the next five to ten minutes talking to thousands of people in the nude.

The takeaway here?

Conventional wisdom claims that if you’re nervous about talking in front of a crowd, you should picture your audience naked. I can now tell you from personal experience that having them picture you naked works too.

What about you? Any embarrassing situations you’d like to share? (For today at least, clothing is optional…)

Truth + Beauty = A Story Worth Reading

For me, an artful story consists of truth plus beauty plus…?

That’s it, really. Everything else should serve the truth and beauty of the stories we’re trying to tell. That’s not to say that all that craft we study and slave over isn’t important; it is.

But that stuff is nourishment. The rules are just first aid. Plot and structure provide clothing and shelter. Style is the result of our sitting down and transcribing truth and beauty, not the other way around. We cannot force it by trying to be clever or cute.

“Style is doomed, to the exact extent it implies a conscious effort to shape the language,” says Steve Almond. “There’s a simple reason for this: your artistic unconscious is about ten times more powerful as an imaginative tool than your conscious mind. But it only comes out to play when you forget yourself and focus on your people…Style, in other words, is the residue produced by the dogged pursuit of truth.”

We don’t get to create truth or beauty. They are ours to observe and enjoy. We get to borrow them, arrange them in new or interesting ways. On our best days, our experiments with light and shadow may reveal some new facet of truth or peel back the curtain to reveal some previously hidden beauty. But we’re not really creating anything new under the sun.

God provides the raw material. We simply curate.

So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Here’s The Thing

One of my very favorite celebrities to actively dislike has always been Alec Baldwin. My superficial disdain had very little to do with his politics, or even that scandalous phone message to his daughter that…let’s be honest, we had no business even hearing about. Actually, I always loved him as the steak-knife-wielding sales manager from Glengarry Glen Ross. Mainly because you were supposed to hate him in that role.

However, my contempt began to tenderize the first time I occasionally would catch a few minutes of 30 Rock. Baldwin, despite playing his normal unlikeable self, ended up being, well…really darn likeable. He plays Jack so honestly and with such vulnerability, it just works. Recently, his mostly silly portrayal of Mark Twain on a PBS tribute to Tina Fey made me laugh out loud—a few times.

And then I discovered Here’s The Thing, Alec Baldwin’s new(ish) podcast.

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He just might be one of the best interviewers I’ve ever heard. And he certainly knows how to pick guests.

Okay, sometimes he still sounds pretentious. And he is prone to interrupting his guests and finishing their sentences. But it’s because he cares about getting it right (or so it seems to me). If a point needs clarification, he asks for it. Not only that, he’s charming and insightful and self-deprecating and never runs out of interesting things to ask. Baldwin (or someone on his staff) does his homework, and it shows.

My newfound-yet-reluctant admiration crystallized during an exchange between Baldwin and Ed Rollins, a conservative political strategist. The two men were miles apart idealogically, but agreed to disagree with style and grace and a few good laughs. Television networks and talk radio wonks should take notice. Baldwin’s most recent interview with George Will is even better.

Maybe I’m just growing up. Maybe we both are? I just have less tolerance these days for judgmental attitudes and opinions—especially mine! And Baldwin seems settled, not the arrogant or obnoxious weenie I’d always imagined him being.

I have no plans to join Alec Baldwin’s fan club. I won’t “like” him on Facebook, nor will I follow his Tweets. But I will no longer dismiss his work or his opinions without first tuning in to see what (and how…and to whom) he has to say.

Of course, the timing of all this works out perfectly as I hear he’ll be starring in a new Woody Allen film!

So what about you? Any authors, musicians, politicians, sports figures, or any pop culture mavens that have grown on you?