No Ifs, Ands, or Buts

Last Saturday evening, my husband received a cryptic text message from Stan, a friend and fellow trombonist. It was something straight out of The Matrix, an indecipherable garble of letters and numbers, and Wayne decided he’d have to tease Stan about it at church the next day.

He wasted no time and shouted across the orchestra room, “Stan, what are you doing butt dialing me in the middle of the night?”

The older man’s head whipped up, a deep furrow creasing his forehead, and he snapped, “Son, you ought not talk like that in the Lord’s house.”

Wayne looked at me, panicked—like a kid who’d forgotten his one and only line in the school play. He stammered and sheepishly asked, “What did I say? ‘Butt’?”

“Worse than that,” Stan replied. “I’m not mad, but you just shouldn’t use sex talk here.”

Then it clicked in my head, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I kept on even though my gut hurt and tears filled my eyes.

“Wayne,” I said, trying to catch my breath, “he thought you meant ‘booty call.’”

A few beats later, Wayne got the joke as well. Then the only one not snickering was Stan. It was then my rather unenviable job to explain the difference between “booty call” and “butt dial” to a man thirty years my senior. It was uncomfortable to say the least, like having to tell your teacher the meaning of a dirty word when she (and you) would be better off if she remained blissfully oblivious. But, thankfully, by the time I finished, he was shaking his head and laughing too—a deep, whole body chuckle that made his shoulders shake.

Several years ago, I taught ESL classes and enjoyed many zany moments like this. And if there’s one thing those amazingly determined students taught me it’s that words matter. Especially when they have different connotations. For example, when it comes to her body, a woman would much rather be described as “voluptuous” than “chubby.” The same holds true for someone who’s good with money; I’m willing to bet “thrifty” is much preferable to “stingy.” (I wouldn’t know as I’m as prodigal as they come.)

And vocabularies, unlike currency, don’t always convert well. Consider the word “fag.” Say it in England, and a Brit will go looking for his pack of smokes. However, it’s disrespectful on this side of the pond. And you better not call your bag a “fanny pack” when you’re looking for some bob to pay for your fish and chips. It will end with you being roundly mocked.

Words also morph over time, changing their colors as easily as a chameleon does. The word “awful” once meant “full of awe” (something wonderful and amazing.) Now, it’s the last word you’d use to describe the Mona Lisa. Same goes for “manufacture.” It’s original meaning was “made by hand.” Now that term only applies to mass produced junk coming from the bowels of a factory. That’s why the sentence, “The awful manufactured lamp made my house look bright and gay” means something radically different than it did a century or so ago.

Yeah, words matter—no ifs, ands, or “butts” about it.

To Be Worthy of Our Words

When I was working on my article for the September issue of In Touch Magazine, I stumbled across a lovely tome called Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior. Part memoir, part theological treatise, and part literary criticism–it is a marvelous explanation of why books should matter, especially to people of faith. So far, I agree with her. Rather than ban books, we should read every one we can get our hands on because it is one way we can do as the apostle Paul advises—“Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). She agrees with John Milton’s assertion that books should be “promiscuously read.” This has nothing to do with the sexual connotation we apply to the word today, but instead means that we should engage in, as she puts it, “indiscriminate, disorderly reading. And lots of it.”

I haven’t finished the book yet. In fact, I’m only three chapters in, but I’m loving her mix of memory, story, and application. If you’re a person of faith who loves to read everything you can get your hands on and books have helped shape you into the person you are today, I suggest picking this one up. You might not agree with everything she says, but like the pear on the cover, it’s juicy food…for thought.

One passage in particular caused me to stop, to re-read (at least five times), and to ponder. It reads:

“All words are names, for all words signify something. The power of naming is a subset of the power of all language. God spoke the universe into existence and, in giving us the gift of language, He gave us a lesser, but still magnificent, creative power in the ability to name: the power to communicate, to make order out of chaos, to tell stories, and to shape our own lives and the lives of others.

The Book of Proverbs says that death and life are in the power of words. To choose a good word, to assign the right name, to arrange proper words in the best order: these are no easy tasks. Such work requires the creative power, the brooding, the birth pangs of a mother. Names, words, and language: they shape and create our souls the way a mother’s body shapes and creates our bodies. We describe the country of our origin as our fatherland, but our language we call our mother tongue. Indeed the words that often wield the greatest power in and over our lives are those spoken by our mothers, from our names, to words of encouragement, to words that define and shape our characters, words of truth spoken in love. This power of words is akin to the creative nurturing role a mother plays in our lives.”

There are three separate yet equally important ideas here.

1. God values words. It’s how He made the world, and we can create using them, too. Words are an amazing gift from a God who loves us.

2. Writing is hard. It should be hard because it’s important. And that is a good thing.

3. Names are important.

**A fourth point I took away from it is that if/when I become a mother, I’d better be careful about what I say, but that’s fodder for another blog.**

My brother and his wife are having a baby girl later this year, so there has been much discussion of names in our family. Some have been quickly discarded, others have fallen in and out of favor, and a few–like bathing suits–have survived the horrendous “three way mirror examination.” Currently, the front-runner is Olivia, which was my suggestion. I have firm plans to call her Olive, buy her love with Disney Princess dolls, and school her in the ways of sarcasm.

Some of these look like good ones. Others….not so much.

After reading this passage, I sat back for a minute and thought about my name. For many years, I wasn’t fond of it, especially my first name. Jamie. It’s really a boy’s name, and I was often referred to as “Mr.” on the first day of classes when the roll was called. (Never a good thing when you’re the tall/fat/awkward girl.) However, the name itself has some meaning in my family. My great grandfather was named James, as was his eldest son, my great uncle. I was named for my great grandfather because he died just a few months before I was born. My mother said he was very excited to meet me, so much so he used to talk to me through her stomach. She attended his funeral while pregnant with me, and it was then that she decided to change my name to honor him. (Until then, she had planned to name me Allison.) I’ve always thought that the choice was rather cool on my mom’s part.

Uncle James, who died last year, was a pastor and served as the minister for my parents, my aunt and uncle, and Wayne and me. He was the spiritual rock of our family for many years, and I’m proud to share a name with him. He taught me what it meant to be a man after God’s heart, to be good and honest and loving. When we attended his funeral, I realized that I’m the last James. And the thought made me more than a little melancholy.

James signing his name to our wedding license.

My middle name, Anita, is one I share with my maternal aunt. However, she was not the first to have the moniker. That honor belongs to my great grandmother’s sister, so both of my names actually go back two generations. “Anita” means “graceful,” which is a term I don’t apply to myself. But I do so like the thought. It was the name I asked my teacher to call me in Spanish class because I liked the way it sounded when she said it– “Ah-knee-tah.” It was soft and round in the mouth. Much better than Jamie, which came out “Jai-may.”

Both names are of Hebrew origin, which is another plus in my book, and when I think about where they come from, I realize that each holds something of my family’s history. My mother’s side. The one I resemble both physically and with regards to attitude. I have my great great grandmother’s spunk. A great aunt’s long fingers. A distant second cousin’s sense of humor. And when I think about this, I can’t help but marvel about how talented God is—how He wove together a family and made us alike both in bone and brain, tendency as well as tendon. Each one of us is indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” by a master Artisan (Ps. 139:14).

Names matter. Words matter. And I’d love to hear yours. Tell me about your name in the comments section below. Do you like your name or hate it? Does your name tell a story? Please share it! Do you feel differently about names because of Ms. Swallow Prior’s quote?

Love Letters

For those of you who read my previous post about storytelling and how my first attempt at it went, I thought I’d show you what I can do with a little more time and a keyboard in front of me. I submitted that blog entry for my creative non-fiction workshop class to get feedback, and now it’s time to re-submit the new and improved version, written for readers rather than listeners. I’d love to know what you think!

***

Love Letters

Image from bikeacrossamerica.org.

I’m from Arkansas, which is something I don’t tell many people. Unlike other states with sexy selling points like Broadway, Hollywood, or Disneyworld, we’re best known for cotton, catfish, and the only diamond producing mine in the United States. We also grow half of the rice consumed in this country each year. Wahoo, right? Granted, being able to lay claim to Johnny Cash, John Grisham, and Maya Angelou is a bit of terrific, but it doesn’t make it any less painful that our state’s unofficial motto is “Thank God for Mississippi.”

Folks from “The Natural State,” we’re a little…different. One only need examine the teeming multitudes at a University of Arkansas Razorbacks football game to see why. It’s the only place in the South where grown men slap plastic Hog Hats on each Saturday and scream, “Woo pig sooie!” without thinking themselves the least bit odd. However, I can honestly say that none of those bleacher warriors can keep up with my great uncle Darrell when it comes to idiosyncrasies. My grandmother’s baby brother was the quintessential Qualls, even more so than his twin brother, Doug.

We Qualls, for those of you who’ve never been blessed to be in our presence, are some of the downright peskiest people on planet earth. I once watched my forty-year-old cousin, Lyndal, lock and unlock an automatic car door twenty times for no other reason than to irritate my great grandmother. He only stopped when she flipped him the bird and he couldn’t catch his breath because he was laughing so hard.

Image from fourfoolsdriving.blogspot.com

Darrell was a Qualls through and through. Tall, lanky, and long armed, he always made me think of Ichabod Crane, and like his literary look-alike, he took his food seriously. So much so that he brought his own onion to cookouts just to make sure he’d have enough. Always optimistic, he refused to let anything—even losing a finger to diabetes—get him down. “I can’t give you high fives no more, Jamers,” he once told me. “How’s about a high four?”

Though he never enrolled in college, he was highly intelligent and creative, which is a lethal combination in a super villain, but just borderline dangerous in regular folks. He was quick-witted and liked to tell stories he made up on the spot. For instance, I once saw him rubbing his bicep like it was sore and asked, “Uncle Darrell, does your arm hurt?” He replied, “Oh no, baby girl. I just love myself.” Another time, he actually was sick with a terrible case of the flu, and I asked him how he was feeling. His reply?—”Little Sister, I’ll tell you this. I’m not buying any green bananas.”

Like many men in the small town he called home, Darrell worked at the pulp mill. He was put on the night shift but wasn’t one of the men throwing wood chips into machines or hauling away the finished product. He sat up in the control tower watching lights blink and gauges move on a leviathan control panel. Unless there was a blockage somewhere in the machine, the water pressure got too high, or a possum got into the factory (which happened once), he had little to do. It was a job custom made for boredom, which was the last thing Darrell needed.

Image from (I’m not kidding) howtogetrideofpossom.blogspot.com

So he started writing letters to his first cousin, Leroy. Like many members of my family, Leroy was a veteran of a foreign war, but I couldn’t tell you exactly which one. It was likely Vietnam, but it could just have been the American Revolution. I honestly don’t know because the man never seemed to age. Many of my relatives, including Darrell, have gone on to their reward, but Leroy is still alive and bumping around. That’s why I’m convinced he made the same deal as Dick Clark, that or there’s a painting somewhere in his attic that shows his true age. My right hand to Jesus, the man looks the same as he did when I was nine and had a crush on Prince.

Leroy had a bad case of shell shock and was a little off in the head in a way that made him endearing to me when I was a kid. I remember he always wore tattered ball caps, their logos made indecipherable by sun and sweat, and he had small eyes, a large nose, and an overbite, which made him look like a rabbit. He never married and isn’t comfortable around a lot of people, but he had an imaginary friend named Oliver who was always after him for something. He turns the television off during the commercials to save energy and is always on the lookout for pieces of Styrofoam to add to his collection. But one of the oddest things he does happens whenever he comes around to eat a meal with us. He loads up his plate, grabs a napkin and fork, and proceeds to stand in a doorway to eat it.

“Leroy, you wanna sit down?” someone always asks, though we all know he’ll answer, “No’um, I’m just fine right here” and keep on eating. He comes back to refill his plate or glass and then returns to the doorway to continue chowing down. And he can put it away, perhaps because it can go straight down his leg.

One of Darrell’s chief delights was playing elaborate jokes on Leroy, some of which involved a bit of spontaneity. Once, he picked his unsuspecting cousin up at his house and said, “Let’s go for a ride.” Leroy assumed the jaunt might take them as far away as Memphis, less than two hours up the road. But when he saw the sign for Chattanooga, he knew he was doomed. They ended up driving all the way down to Florida to visit us.

Darrell repeated the gag years later and drove Leroy—who didn’t have more than ten bucks in his wallet or a change of underwear to his name—all the way to California. As they crossed the Great Basin and Mojave Deserts, Darrell got the bright idea to turn the on the car’s heater and laughed silently as Leroy tugged at his sweat drenched collar and repeatedly said, “I don’t recollect the desert being this hot.” When he told Doug about it, his brother could only ask, “Son, weren’t you a might bit hot, too?” Even Darrell’s answer was uniquely him—“Hammers, yes, I was hot!” I suppose, even for the prankster, great art is born of suffering, and Darrell was willing to do whatever it took in the practice of his craft.

A four-day practical joke is a fine thing, but Darrell was never one to settle. He once got this strange notion that he would pretend to be a salesman and write letters to Leroy to get him to purchase what he called “countless amazing and esoteric works of fiction and non-fiction written for the discerning reader.” In each handwritten epistle, he’d mention who he was and where he worked, chastise Leroy for not purchasing any of the books listed in the last letter, and proceed to offer him another fifteen or twenty titles. He also told him where to leave the cash and when, using a different drop point each time. Sometimes, it was as simple as leaving the cash under a rock on the corner of the porch, and other times, it involved hiding the money between cans of yams at the corner store.

He made up each and every one of the books that were on these lists. No self-help texts or works of classic fiction for Darrell. After all, his brain always needed something to do, especially at work, so he came up with titles like:

The Care and Maintenance of Your Dromedary Camel

Making Stockings for Lady Caterpillars

The Disagreements Between Longshoremen and Shortshoremen

Mouthwatering Recipes from Southern Ethiopia

How to Grow Yellow Blueberries

and (my personal favorite)— How to Fall from a Ladder with Dignity

Every four or five days, Darrell would write another letter and drop it in the mail, and he kept this up without fail for nearly seven years. Never once did Leroy order anything, and he never knew it was Darrell who was behind it all. Perhaps because it was harder to research a company without the Internet or Leroy wasn’t a naturally inquisitive person, but in all the years this went on, he asked very few questions about the letters. He just kept reading and tucking them away in drawers or throwing them away. Darrell also avoided the subject because he knew he’d burst out laughing if it came up—that and he knew he’d have to write any book Leroy ordered. And the secret sat undiscovered for years like the arrhythmia that would suddenly steal him from us in 2000.

Image from tasteofhome.com

At Darrell’s funeral, we were all sitting around the house after the graveside service. We’d done everything we were supposed to do. We’d read the twenty-third psalm. We’d sung “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We’d shaken hands with relatives we didn’t know and wedged smiles on our faces. We’d eaten lukewarm food on plastic plates. We’d spent an entire day sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs. But it still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t like Darrell at all. It was stiff, formal, and bland—like a rental house with its white walls and tan carpet.

At the end of a frustratingly long day, the ladies from the church packed up the legion of casseroles, pies, and salads that invariably show up where death comes to visit. As I picked petals off carnations, a flower I’ve long associated with death, we talked about how we’d rather just be chunked in a hole or cremated and scattered on the field at Busch Stadium. Finally, my aunt Nita asked, “What do you think Darrell would’ve said about all this?”

That question sparked a lengthy session of story swapping about the dearly departed over a fresh pot of coffee and slabs of Mary Katherine Schug’s homemade, three-layer coconut cake, the one that involved an entire bottle of Wesson Oil and reduced those who ate it to shameless plate licking. You can guess which story eventually came up. Mind you that up until this moment, Leroy still didn’t know. However, he looked at Doug and said, “Douglas, you mean to tell me it was Darrell Hunter Qualls who was behind them funny letters a way back yonder?”

When Doug (who, having lost a twin, was more heartbroken than he let on) nodded, Leroy did what might have been offensive to some. He laughed. Out loud. It was a joyful, full-bodied chortle replete with knee slapping and head shaking. It was an infectious kind of guffaw that caught us all up in it like a rip tide and pulled us briefly out of the quagmire of our grief.

It was just what we needed and what Darrell had been waiting for, but not because he would have felt he deserved anything special. There were actually two essential things to understand when it came to my great uncle—the sheer genius of his quirkiness and just how fiercely he loved. He could no more have left us brokenhearted than he could have turned down a plate full of fried catfish, and I think that was his reason for writing those letters all along.

You Can’t See Me? Oh, Good!

Image from mojo40.com

When we were kids, for some reason, most of us liked to play the “Invisible Game.” The goal was to get as many adults in your general vicinity as possible to walk around looking right through you as you stood in plain sight, all the while asking inane questions like, “Now, where is Little So-And-So? She was just right here a second ago!”

There was something fun about being invisible back then, some power to be gained from it, even if it was only in our own heads. However, that passes as we get older. As we age, most of us want to be noticed for the things we do—as early and as often as possible. If you do a spectacular job on a particularly difficult task at work, you’d like a little recognition, right? Even if it is just a pat on the back or the occasional “Atta girl.” Granted, a raise would be even better, but in this economy, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that score.

How about all the work you do at home? Wouldn’t it be nice if, once in awhile, folks noticed what you’d cooked, how tidy you kept the place, or what you’d sacrificed so someone else in the house could have what he or she needed? Yeah, it’s pretty fair to say we all like being praised for the many things we do well over the course of a day.

Image from images.nonexiste.net

However, is wanting a little credit wrong for believers, especially when it comes to kingdom work? After all, our goal is to “die daily” to ourselves. That’s why the apostle Paul said, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Colossians 3:23-24).

We each have a spiritual gift or three, and we are meant to put them to good use serving the brethren. Those gifted with teaching should teach. Those who are gifted with mercy should show it to others. Giving, exhortation, service, leadership, discernment—we all have at least one talent we should use to the best of our ability. We should never work halfheartedly for God.

But this is where the struggle between flesh and spirit comes in. If you’re using your gift skillfully and doing great things in the right spiritual frame of mind, you should never want to receive recognition for it. You heard me–a believer should do everything with excellence and not get a scrap of praise for it! Why? Two reasons:

1. The talent wasn’t yours to begin with. You didn’t earn it, and while you may have practiced and gotten more skilled at it, it is a gift from God you could never have acquired on your own.

2. As a Christian, “you have been bought with a price” and should “glorify God with your body” because it is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Every ounce of praise given for the works you perform belongs to Christ, not to you. His Spirit living within you is what makes you want to perform good works in the first place, and we should always want to give Him the glory for all good things.

Image from yourdictionary.com

As a writer and editor for a Christian ministry, I am privileged to be able to use my spiritual gifts to witness to and exhort those who read what I pen each month. I love what I do, and I know that all the credit goes to my heavenly Father. After all, it was He who gave me my talent and who perfectly placed me in the right position at the best possible moment to serve Him.

People who read my work tell me how wonderful and talented I am or how beautifully I write. And it’s hard for a person who puts a great deal of time and energy into a piece of writing to not say, “Yeah, buddy. Don’t I know it!” Because writing is John Brown hard! Anyone who does it will tell you the same thing. It’s lonely work sometimes, frustrating work. Wrestling with the best way to say something that’s in your heart—doing it clearly and using just the right words can be exhausting! But, oh! When it’s done correctly and people read and instantaneously get what you meant, there is nothing better than that. However, not an ounce of that credit should go to me, and I have to remind myself that, in a real sense, I’m just the “transcriptionist.” God only uses me as His scribe to tell the world what He wants them to know. I just type and try to keep up, and I don’t deserve an ounce of credit for taking notes. I should instead be, you guessed it, invisible.

Sometimes, I even want to praise myself when I hit on just the right phrase or finally unlock the puzzle that is a concluding paragraph or perfect first sentence. If the task at hand is difficult, I often wish I had longer arms just so I could pat myself more forcefully on the back. But God doesn’t just get the credit for the end result. The Holy Spirit is always there, providing illumination and inspiration while I work. My best words and phrases are His; my best ideas came from within His mind. That’s why I can’t even accept praise from my own lips or heart; even it should be credited directly to the Father.

I was romping through John the other day, and I noticed something interesting. One little word makes all the difference sometimes when it comes to understanding Scripture. For instance, check out the three passages below:

John 3:14“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

John 8:28“So Jesus said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.'”

John 12:32“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”

What difference do you notice among these three relatively similar verses? It’s a tiny variation to be sure. It’s a small word in John 12 that makes all the difference. It’s not “when” you lift up the Son of Man, but “if.”

Christ knew for certain that He would die and that His death would take place on the rough and ignominious arms of the cross. That’s what the first two passages say–“even so” and “when.” However, not all translations use “when” in the passage from John 12. All the translations I prefer (KJV, NKJV, and NASB) use “if” instead, and I find that interesting because of the marked difference between the two words. “If” implies choice or uncertainty, but in Jesus’ mind, there was no “if.” It was why He said, “Now My soul has become troubled, and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.” (John 12:26-28).

That’s why I read John 12:32 as “If my people lift me up all around the earth, I will draw people to the foot of the cross and unto salvation.” In short, our methods of presentation hardly matter when the Person we are sharing is so preeminent. That’s why I say we need to be invisible when we serve Christ and witness to others about Him. We have to make sure we consciously remember that it’s not about us, our talents, the attention we can get, or gaining the love of man. It’s about “lifting Him up,” not on the cross necessarily, but because of what He accomplished on it.

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And now for something completely different….”The Art of Not Being Seen.” (I couldn’t help myself!)

They Way They Do the Things They Do

Whether it comes in the form of film, television, graphic novels, short stories, or even epic poetry, I just can’t get enough of stories. Seriously, a well-executed yarn is to me what a bowl of crunchy kibble is to a hungry dog. Feed it to me, and I’ll hang around on your back porch forever.

But what exactly makes a story great? An engaging plot is a must of course—one that is believable, perfectly paced, and airtight. Also, the right scene has to be set through the use of accurate costuming, stage dressing, and dialogue. If I’m going to watch a film about the Civil War, I want to be able to imagine the feel of the canon’s boom rattle in my chest, and a film set in the English countryside better come with the aroma of a garden and some well-placed whithers and wheresoevers if you know what I’m sayin’.

However, I can sometimes forgive a lack of verisimilitude if the characters are engaging enough on their own, and their are actors out there who have compelled me to love whatever entertainment vehicle they’re currently driving despite my lack of overall interest or possible outright disgust. Envision Michael C. Hall on the hit show Dexter. The thought of a serial killer with a penchant for knives, sheet plastic, and screwdrivers makes my skin crawl, but he somehow makes the show’s title character…likeable. Heck, I found myself rooting for him not to get caught once they found his dumping ground in the ocean and wondered what kind of person that made me.

So, I sat down and thought about ten shows I watch and my favorite characters on each, and I discovered that those stand-out thespians all had something in common. They so fully inhabit their roles that they’ve created little tics for their alter egos, Lilliputian idiosyncrasies that might go unnoticed by ninety-five percent of the viewing audience but are as essential to the show as many of the larger moving pieces.

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Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins)—The hillbilly antihero of Justified has a style all his own. He’s as country as can be, but his dialogue is riddled with esoteric vocabulary, biblical allusions, and luscious sarcasm. A great example of how people from my neck of the woods play “country dumb,” Goggins delivers the lines with a perfect cadence and subtle style that draws me in. Sometimes, I’ll rewind just to hear him deliver a line again. However, the weird quirk he’s developed for Boyd is a penchant for keeping his hands in his pockets. Sitting, standing, walking–it doesn’t matter. Boyd’s hands are always firmly lodged at the waist of his well-fitted jackets. I suppose, on a show where most people come in armed for bear, that keeping one’s hands in one’s pockets is a sign of bravado. Also, not using his hands makes viewers look at his face, which is expressive in its understated style. Whatever the reason, it’s alluring, and I adore him.

Image from smartladieslovestuff.com
Image from smartladieslovestuff.com

Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce)—This is my nod to the shows of yesteryear. If you missed out on Frasier, do yourself a favor and find it somewhere in syndication or watch it on Netflix, Hulu, or one of the other umpteenth thousand avenues through which cable television is now readily available. Both brothers had his share of quirks, but Niles was Frasier magnified to the forty-seventh power. In fact, at once point in the show when he was in the midst of OCD compulsion–washing his hands, measuring the cinnamon sprinkled on his latte, and wiping his seat with a handkerchief–Frasier looks at his brother and says, “Compared to you, I’m a Teamster.” One of Niles’ greatest tics was his tendency to pass out whenever he saw blood–especially his own. Watch the clip and see the comedic genius of David Hyde Pierce on display.

Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perette) and Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon)—There are some crazy forums on the Internet that bemoan the fact that Gibbs and Abby from NCIS haven’t yet “hooked up,” which is both disgusting and utterly ignorant. Anyone with half a brain would know that Abby fills the role of daughter for Gibbs–the little, trusting girl he never got to raise. He dotes on her more than any other character on the show–bringing her Caff POW!, bragging on her work, and trusting her with his secrets. One of the many rituals they have is the kiss for a job well done. It doesn’t happen every episode, but more often than not, when she discovers some piece of vital information that gives Gibbs the facts he needs to go find and maim a bad guy, she’s rewarded with a quick smack on the cheek. It’s one of those moments of intimacy (and I’m not using that term sexually) for poor, widowed Gibbs that makes him less icy and foreboding. Always a sweet treat for me on Tuesday nights.

Image from slashfanatic22.livejournal.com

Joan Holloway-Harris (Christina Hendricks)—My husband chose to join me in watching Mad Men each week because of “Red,” the luscious femme fatale of the office secretary set. Joan, unlike the other girls who fall victim to their emotions or make stupid decisions and fall apart like cheap tissue paper, makes savvy choices. When chaos erupts around her (in the case of the man who had his foot om nommed by the lawn mower in season three) or in her own personal life (when her doctor-to-be hubby turns out to be a lemon of a lifetime investment), Joan is ready with a quippy line, which is often delivered with her left hip upthrust at a jaunty angle. Whenever she stands still, she shows off her curves by standing at nine or three instead of six o’clock, and it works to her advantage. Points to Ms. Hendricks for knowing how to rock her figure.

Image from writerangrywritersmash.blogspot.com/

John Bates (Brendan Coyle)Downton Abbey, and the adorable Mr. Bates, are recent obsessions of mine. Points to PBS for actually managing to snag a show that makes me want to donate to their efforts for another reason besides a free tote bag. (Though I am rather partial to the siren call of free tote bags, let me tell you.) It’s an amazing show. If you haven’t heard about it yet, you must be new to this planet because it’s only been the hottest thing around since the second season started this year. It’s left both the Brits and their bumpkin cousins over here in the States panting for more. Mr. Bates has a great many character traits I enjoy, but the best of them all is the half-upturned lip of amusement he uses with certain characters on the show (most notably his love interest, Anna Smith). That and the bowler just make me want to melt into a puddle on the floor.

Image from chrissywelsh.com

Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv)—I know I said I admired Walter Goggins because he could steal a scene without using his hands, but the exact opposite is true of Anna Torv on Fringe. In every scene she’s in (whether as Olivia or Fauxlivia), she’s interviewing suspects or victims or talking to another member of Fringe Division–her hands flying like Tippi Hedren’s in her PTSD flashback in The Birds. More often than not, she spins them in a circle one another, fingers splayed in an intricate display of digits, and ends with them either spread apart in jazz hands formation or gripped together demurely like a penitent nun. I couldn’t find a still or video clip to show exactly what I means, but one episode is enough to see Ms. Torv takes her own tendency and makes it purely her character’s.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston)—Oh, my word. I never thought I’d be as into Breaking Bad as I am now, but with this last season finale and the amazing assassination of Gus, I’m all in! (Seriously, death by wheelchair bomb. It was like the creme brulee of death scenes. So epic). His transformation from sanguine spirited scientist to meth manufacturing maniac has been an interesting (and sometimes heartbreaking) one to watch, and one thing that has marked the moment of change as consistently as a sore knee foretells the coming rain is something I call “the furrowed eyebrow scowl of fury” on the face of one Walter White. Really, Bryan Cranston has taken Walter from sissy to savage more than once, and it’s totally convincing. There’s something so flat in his delivery of his lines and the look on his face that make me more than a little terrified of him. He should have won an Emmy at least twice for his work on this show, and he would have done so, too, if it hadn’t been for that pesky boy in grey, Don Draper.

Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons)—As Templeton the Rat once said, “A fair is a veritable smorgasbord, orgasboard, dorgasboard after the crowds have ceased.” If characters were like special events, Jim Parson’s work as Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory would make him one funnel cake short of the county fair. Seriously, I’ve never seen a character with so many odd and quirky personality traits! I honestly don’t know how he keeps them all straight when he shoots a scene, but somehow, he does. Of them all, the gasping laugh is my favorite by far. Half gasp, half laugh—all sarcasm— it’s as much a part of the show as Howard’s vociferous, disembodied mother. Check out the video below and indulge in a moment of hilarity that only Sheldon’s laugh can provide. Bazinga!!

Rick Castle (Nathan Fillion)—Whether it’s horsing around with the guys, flirting with Beckett, or indulging in some true father/daughter time with Alexis, the central character in Castle always manages to find a way to have a good time. The overall impish attitude of Nathan Fillion is a wonder to behold. Whenever a murder happens in a way that could be something out of a story, he has a geek out moment of epic proportion, often using lines like, “This is SO TOTALLY cool!” Remember, he’s a professional fiction writer on the show, but he doesn’t describe his girlish glee using cleverly constructed sentences or high level diction. Instead, he reverts to the language of an eight-year-old because, in that moment, that’s exactly what he is. It’s like watching a pre-teen take over a man’s body. The puckish side comes out on some episodes more than others, but it’s one thing that makes Castle a fun watch on Monday nights.

Image from http://xfinity.comcast.net

Dwight Hendricks (Jason Lee)—When I first saw Jason Lee on Memphis Beat, I had trouble believing it was the same guy who starred in My Name Is Earl. Rather than his hair sitting atop his head like Heatmiser’s in The Year Without a Santa Claus, the stylists chose to slick it back and give him a set of wicked sideburns that would make the King proud. Loose flannel shirts and floppy work shoes have been replaced by well-cut jeans, shirts that are tucked in, and a suit jacket. With those and a few other changes, a man I saw as a goofy, goodhearted hero suddenly becomes a blues singing hunk. Seriously! He’s also amazingly good at lip syncing  because I didn’t know until I did a little research that he wasn’t actually performing the closing song of each episode. However, it’s the fact that he croons with his eyes closed that makes me like him. He throws himself into the faux performance, one hand raised like Elvis and the other cradling the old school microphone in front of him, and belts out gospels, blues, and rock and roll hits in one smoky Memphis bar or another. Whether it’s a ballad or a cause to boogie, Jason Lee’s performing with his eyes squeezed shut, lost in his own little world (which is where I’m guessing he came up with the name Pilot Inspektor Riesgraf-Lee for his poor son).

Image from 2.bp.blogspot.com

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So there you have it, ten characters on television whose weirdness makes me go wild. I’d love to hear about the characters you all like and why. Share your thoughts in the comments section below!!!

For an Unnecessary E, You Get an F

There’s a scene in The Birdcage where the son is trying, for lack of a better term, to “de-gayify” the house. Why? Because his fiance’s conservative parents are coming for a visit and (though he doesn’t know it) to discuss wedding plans. He is being assisted in this endeavor by drag queens from his father’s club, and while he’s busy hiding things in closets and cupboards, they keep putting out objects they think straight people would have in their homes. The chaos finally reaches its zenith when two helpers hang a moose head on the wall and ask, “Too butch?”

Val’s reply is terse utterance I’ve come to use when making editing decisions…

“Don’t add. Just subtract.”

More often than not, this little maxim has served me well. I’m often tempted to alter a document to a way I think sounds better, and while I can say I’m not batting .1000 in the “less is more” department, I do hit more than I strike out.

I wish the same could be said of then Sharpie-wielding clodpate who decided he had an ironclad grasp of English grammar and spelling rules and should “correct” one of the signs on the very nice walking trail in my neighborhood. Granted, this sign is the closest one to a bridge where several resident artists have chosen to make the world a brighter place one shaken can of Krylon at a time. For the record, many them espouse the merits of cannabis…the ones I could read at least. There was, however, one in thin black letters that simply said “Genuine Vandalism” I actually chuckled at.

Okay, the editor in me sees two problems right away.

1. The obvious kerning issue in “HABITAT.” Why in the world did they print a sign with that much space between two letters? Honestly, it’s so far apart, it looks like “HABIT AT.”

2. There are two periods missing. Both the sentences at the bottom are obviously complete and need end punctuation. I would have gone with periods for both, but a case could have been made for an exclamation point in the first one.

There’s also a clarity problem with the phrase “native creatures.” There was a veritable passel of dogs in the park today–all of them walking, playing ball and frisbee, and smelling and being smelled. Seriously, it looked like the party at the end of Go, Dog, Go!

But I digress. My point is that, according to that bossy sign, I could harm the dogs if I wished (and their owners weren’t looking). They aren’t covered by the decree because they are, in fact, not “native creatures.” Something like “Don’t harm the animals” would have been much more inclusive to any critter, creature, or varmint in the general area.

I know. I know….We all assume the prohibition on animal cruelty applies to all of them whether they be “native” or “foreign.” But some uncouth ne’er-do-well could take advantage of a loophole in the signage. I’m just saying.

And then there’s that “E.” Crooked. Awkward. Banal. And somehow comically obscene. It leans on the “M” like a truant child might against a convenience store wall, a pilfered Virginia Slim from his mother’s unguarded pack between his lips.

I have no clue why it’s there or who in the name of Strunk and White thought it would be wise to add an utterly superfluous vowel at the end of a word—one that your average second grader can spell correctly, even under pressure. (Okay, in a completely irrelevant aside, I was looking at the word “Harm” just now and started saying it like Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride. You know, Inigo Montoya, helping Fezzik with his rhymes? “Probably he means no..haaaarrrmmmm….” Now you’re doing it, too, aren’t you?)

I looked up “harme” in the dictionary, hoping for some reason that it would be a word that could serve as an acceptable synonym, but alas and alack! It isn’t a word at all. Nope, this is just another example of needless human error—like the haphazard use of apostrophes when forming plurals or the casual flinging about of commas—the grammatical equivalent of negligent homicide. Epic fail, good sir or madam. Epic fail indeed. 🙂

Tell It To My Face(book)

“If writers wrote as carelessly as some people talk, then adhasdh asdglaseuyt[bn[ pasdlgkhasdfasdf.” —Lemony Snicket

This morning, one of my co-workers came into my office where I was happily whittling away on a study guide my company is getting ready to publish. He revealed something to me that was majorly mortifying, altogether atrocious, downright disconcerting, mighty malodorous, and completely calamitous.

I, yes I, had an error on my Facebook page, a horrible (and wickedly ironic) one.

I misspelled my job title.

Not a bad thing if you’re a ornithologist, a sommelier, or a hermeneuticist. All those are incredibly difficult jobs requiring very specific (and I’m guessing non-interchangeable) skill sets. After all, you wouldn’t want a wine steward teaching you about birds, would you? How about a Bible scholar choosing the perfect Merlot to go with your Kobe beef?

I, however, do not hold one of these lofty positions. Oh no.

I’m an editor. Someone who has no excuse when it comes to being able to spell something…particularly the word “editor.” Seeing as I just added another “I” (making it “Editior”), I suppose I can blame it on the incredibly small font or the rapidity with which I double checked everything as I tried to beat the rush and swap over to the timeline format. Whatever the reason, I missed it.

But I digress. What I did isn’t as important as what my co-worker did…more specifically the manner in which he did it.

This guy, let’s call him Norbert to protect what little sliver of privacy he still possesses in this cyber crazy world of ours, who knows what I do for a living, chose not to call me out in the public sphere for my error. Never mind the fact that it was the orthographic equivalent of the Great Wall of China–one of the few man-made structures visible from outer space.

He did not gleefully point it out on my wall. Why? He said he didn’t want to embarrass me, particularly because it was late when he saw it, and he didn’t want it to sit out there all night gathering replies like random dust bunnies. Thanks to him, I didn’t wake up this morning to a self-esteem demolishing bunker buster of a post festooned with a string of LOLz.  Everyone I know—all the way from my former students to the adorable granny I used to take Zumba classes with—would have dog piled on me. Why? Think about it. If there’s something more fun for people than catching a word nerd in a verbal faux pas, I don’t know of it. Except perhaps geocaching; that looks like a fabulous way to spend your spare time.

Instead, dearest Norbert came by my office, messenger bag on shoulder and coffee in hand, looking rather bashful and remonstrating himself (albeit only slightly) for the doleful news he was about to deliver. He did it tactfully in a performance worthy of a Golden Globe for “Best Actor in a Truly Awkward Situation.”

I want to win one for curling…seriously.

He told me, and I performed an Olympic-worthy headdesk (one that merited a 7.5 difficulty level and earned me a 9.0 from the German judge). I then fixed the error and began to ponder not only my own fallibility but also what else there was to be taken from it…spiritually speaking. Because there was a time my pride might never have recovered from such as this.

To my ultimate surprise and delight, there was a lesson for me. I began thinking about his methodology and realized that it was a perfect example of how Christians should correct one another in love.

Matthew 18:15-16 reads:

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED.

Rather than tell two or three people (who might then tell two or three more), he came straight to me. Yes, it was in reference to an extraneous “I” in a word I should have spelled correctly, but the same principal holds true for everything from skipping church to cheating on a spouse or robbing the till. Matters only need to be escalated to those two or three witnesses–not the entire church–if (and only if) the mano-a-mano method fails to produce results.

The same thing holds for Matthew 7:1-5:

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Believe it or not, I never castigate people for poor grammar or spelling because I have plenty of “planks” in my own eye in this regard. Likewise, none of us are without sin, and we shouldn’t be overly eager to point out the shortcomings of others because we have more than enough of our own to work through with the Lord’s help.

Remember brothers and sisters, we’re here to aid one another rather than tear each other down. Life is hard enough, and we shouldn’t be putting rocks in each other’s spiritual knapsacks as it were. Instead, as the apostle Paul said, we should “encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11).

Gold medal for you, Norbert. Gold medal all the way. 🙂

Love Letters of God

Of all the servants of Jesus Christ, the one with whom I most easily identify is the apostle Paul. He struggled with many of the same issues I face—pride and illness being chief among them—as well as a list of trials as long as my left leg. He went through a series of painful deprivations and punishments I cannot even imagine enduring. However, Paul is the man who also said in Philippians 4:11-12:

I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.

I admire him because he both made statements like these and lived them out. Don’t believe me? Go read Acts 16:25, and you’ll find a man who has been beaten and chained to a wall who, instead of worrying or griping, is praying and singing to God. That is evidence of someone who is content in all circumstances!

Of all his amazing epistles, I believe 2 Corinthians is my favorite. The first reason is because my personal scripture, the one I use when I give my testimony, can be found there (12:7-10). It is the passage that helped me make sense of my disease, what purpose it served, and why God allowed it to happen to me. I feel a kinship with Paul for this reason because I know what it feels like when your body betrays you and you cannot live a “normal life” because of it.

Another reason I love studying this letter to the church is because of its personal nature. More of Paul’s heart is on display here than in any of his other writings. In everything he penned, his encyclopedic knowledge is made apparent, as are his rhetorical and philosophical skills. After all, this man, before being struck blind on the Damascus Road, was a Pharisee, a group of Jews who were highly respected for their learning and were considered to be the best and most accurate explicators of Jewish law.

In Galatians, he patiently and methodically explains why there is no longer a need to rely on the law for salvation, and his soaring language in books like Ephesians makes the spiritual inheritance all believers enjoy as clear and understandable as a one-bowl recipe. However, his work in Romans is his most masterful and still stands as the book of the Bible that Christians use to share the truth of salvation with non-believers (a technique commonly referred to as walking the Romans Road.) However, only in 2 Corinthians does Paul “get personal” and share his feelings and emotions as well as his thoughts.

I must throw a in caveat here. All scripture is inspired by God and given to men like Paul to compose and share with us; however, there is something of the scribes He chose in those works as well. Their diction, the ways they turn a phrase, and other little affectations show that while the truths are certainly God’s, there are flashes of the humans who served as His amanuenses as well.

Finally, Paul was a man who wrote beautifully but was less than impressive when it came to speaking in public, and that’s another reason I identify with him. I, too, am good with a pen and terrible behind a podium (especially when the speaking is extemporaneous!)

Because it is my favorite, I return to 2 Corinthians often for comfort,  to re-read familiar passages when the world seems to be out of whack. While studying it, I am reminded of why I trusted Jesus as my Savior and why I can stand firm on His promises no matter how unsettling my circumstances. Today, I was reading and came across a few verses I’ve read many times before. However, for some reason, it jumped off the page at me. It is 2 Corinthians 3:1-6, the passage in which Paul defends his authority as an apostle and a messenger of Jesus. it reads:

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

What struck me was the beautiful metaphor in this passage—“You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men.” A letter of commendation was a form of communication written by one individual to another “vouching for” a third person who was unknown to the letter’s recipient. (Yo hear them mentioned often in an Austen novel as “a letter of introduction.”) Essentially, it was a document in which one friend told another, “I know you don’t know this person, but I do. He’s okay; you can trust him.”

Paul is telling the believers at Corinth, “You are proof of my authority. You are a changed people because of the God who I serve. The fact that your hearts were renewed by the Holy Spirit is the only evidence you need to know what I say is right and from God.”

He then goes on and creates an extended metaphor from this original comparison:

  • “You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men”–You are my letter, and all men can look at (“read”) you. They know you have been changed because of the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • “being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us”–You are, in truth, a “letter written by Christ.” It is He who has wrought such a change in your lives, and I, Paul, am but a steward. I care for you, but I am not your author.
  • “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God”–The change in you was not written in permanent ink but with the Holy Spirit. It is His indelible mark on you for all time as a child of God.
  • “not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”–You are His writing surface, and He marks you as permanently and definitively as He once wrote the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone.

That is simply amazing text! However, Paul follows it up with the best part of all. After explaining that his “adequacy is from God,” he explains the difference between the writing surfaces (the stone versus the human heart). When he states, “As servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit,” Paul is indicating we are not bound by the laws he knew so well. None of us is forever a slave to over six hundred laws that could never be perfectly followed and always required sacrifices for atonement. The covenant Jesus established at the Last Supper is the New Covenant, the one for which He was the atoning sacrifice that covered all our sins. This is why he states, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Think about what this means. As Christians, we are walking, talking, breathing, living love letters of God. Each one of us is evidence, a letter of commendation others can read to learn more about Him. That is why our actions and our attitudes are so essential; we represent the Lord in all our daily dealings with the world. That is why one of the last things Jesus taught His disciples is important for us to remember; it is the essential rule we must follow in our role as His missives. In John 15:35-36, Jesus states, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Emphasis mine).

Friends, we are truly the love letters of God, ones who must always strive to be accurate representations of their Author.

The Devil Is in the Details

As a lover of language, I am endlessly fascinated by words. For instance, I love the way some of them feel as they roll around inside my mouth (effluvium) and how they sound when finally uttered (chicanery). I relish words with multiple meanings, hermaphroditic words that are both noun and verb (foil) or noun and adjective (novel). The there are even words that are trinities unto themselves; take the word “fawn” for instance. It can refer to a baby deer (noun), a shade of yellowish-brown (adjective), or a way in which a person seeks attention by a servile demeanor (verb).

Image from realcolorwheel.com

Connotations and denotations are an even more attractive area of study for a lexicographical pilgrim. I’ve always believed that words are like a color wheel with hundreds of different shades of meaning. For instance, would you rather be described as “dogmatic” or “principled”? “Gallant” or “cocksure”? “Frugal” or “parsimonious”?

Do you see the slight differences between each set of words? In each pairing, one word has a positive connotation while the other is negative. However, when you look them up in the dictionary or thesaurus, they have nearly the same denotation (definition). That slight difference is why words matter; we must be careful which ones we choose, depending on our purpose for using them. They should never be apathetically tossed around like discarded coats. I’ve been down this rabbit hole before if you care to read about it.

There is even a difference between “hearing” and “listening,” which I discovered yesterday. At their cores, the two words are different because of their definitions. For instance, “hearing” is defined as “the faculty or sense by which sound is perceived” or “the act of perceiving sound.” “Listening,” on the other hand, means, “to give attention with the ear; attend closely for the purpose of hearing; give ear” or “to pay attention; heed; obey.”

Image from games.com

Now, as you once did on your kid’s menu at a restaurant, find the differences between these two seemingly similar, if not identical, things.

“Hearing” is the simple act of perceiving sounds. I can hear the television playing in another room without being distracted by it because I’m not “listening” to it intently. I might register that a movie I know is playing or if anything of great consequence is going in a baseball or football game. However, it is not my sole focus. Listening, however, implies that there is a purpose for my hearing. I am trying to discern something or benefit in some what from what I hear. You know there is a subtle difference—especially when you’re only hearing when you are expected to be listening. Anyone who has been called on in class while staring out the window at a slice of pristine blue sky knows the panic that can ensue because of this tiny difference. Most men can as well. 🙂 By the way, the same dichotomy is apparent between the concept of “looking and “seeing.”

My learning experience involving these two words is actually two-fold. At work yesterday, I was looking through the book of Proverbs and trying to break down the meaning of the eight one. My computer had gone to screensaver, and a sea of pastel waves swam across its surface. However, my Pandora account (set to Mellow Mix) was playing softly through the speakers to give some texture to the silence and help me concentrate. I was hearing that music rather than the absolute quiet that surrounds me. Listening? Eh, not so much.

If you use Pandora’s free service, you know that roughly every ten to twelve minutes you are subjected to a commercial. I’ve heard/watched ones for everything from cars to razors as well as travel sites like Expedia and even services like Groupon. By and large, these ads don’t bother me because I understand that forty free hours of music every month must come with a price. They have to make a profit to continue letting me enjoy their site. The only time I’ve ever gotten sick of it was when the same add for State Farm came on repeatedly over the course of one week. However, for the most part, the ads are innocuous and easily ignorable.

Imagine my surprise when this ad came on yesterday. Remember, I’m studying the Word of God in a hallway that was dark and otherwise silent. I heard the 911 call of this trailer and then a short description of the movie. Watch the whole clip if you’d like, but the first twenty seconds are enough for you to get the idea.

The film is called The Devil Inside and is supposedly a true story about a woman who killed three people trying to perform an exorcism on her. I do not watch any movies like this because, well, life is terrifying enough. I’m not sure why people pay $12 to have the poop scared out of them on purpose and call it “having a good time.” Needless to say, I stopped reading and clicked the keyboard to wake the computer up to make sure it, too, wasn’t possessed by some evil minion of darkness. I saw the image on the playlist, which was the movie poster below.

Yeah, this is exactly what I want to look at before 8:00 AM…

After my heart quit racing, I tried to get back to work, but something was gnawing at me. I am not a complainer by nature and will usually go out of my way to make a situation tolerable rather than asking someone else to acquiesce. For instance, for awhile, Pandora played a video advertisement for Friends With Benefits. Believe it or not, I find movies like this highly distasteful and offensive. I know it’s a love story of sorts, but I think it is crass to glorify having sex as a form of entertainment, as if it were something for sport, something without consequence. Intimacy like that is meant to be between a man and a woman who are in mutual partnership and who have committed their lives to one another. I’m not trying to preach (well, maybe I am a little), but we wonder why our society no longer values life and love the way we once did while going out to see movies that give us the very answer we seek. Every time that ad came on, I rolled my eyes, let it play, and went on with my day. I know that Pandora has to make its money, and the producers of that film were ready to supply it in order to get their product out there. Trying to stop it from playing would be like attempting to nail Jello to a wall—entertaining for awhile, but utterly pointless in the end.

However, this time, I felt led to say something. It wasn’t that the ad offended me though I don’t like the subject matter. I just thought it odd that they would use such a terrifying advertisement without warning on a platform many people use at work. Imagine if this had gone over an intercom at an office or while someone was trying to sleep.

Well, suffice it to say I thought long and hard about how I wanted to approach this email, and I decided humor was the best route. Here’s what I wrote the advertising team at Pandora:

Hello Pandora Folks, I wanted to let you know that I enjoy your service very much and make good use of it. Normally, your ads don’t bother me, but the recent one for The Devil Inside  scared the living crap out of me and sent me scrabbling for holy water. It’s just creepy to have that come across the radio when you’re working. In fact, it was somewhat unnerving and ruined the Sting/Peter Gabriel/Annie Lennox buzz I had going on this morning. Please know I understand that you are in the business of making money and that the film company wants to advertise that movie. However, is there a way to play a commercial for it that doesn’t sound like Satan himself is in my Mac? Just wondering. Thanks!

Notice what I did. I praised their service and thanked them for it. I explained that I had a problem with it and for what reason. I didn’t vituperate them for promoting satanic movies or demand they take it down. I simply asked if they could tone that ad down in the future. Well, here is the reply I got. I know they can’t respond to each person’s email personally, but if you are going to use a form letter, could you at least try to see it from the other person’s point of view?

Hi Jamie, Thanks for writing and for the feedback. You are a valuable part of our listening audience, and we do respect your opinion.

We understand that certain material can be sensitive ground. In fact, a good majority of our campaigns elicit some level of protest from listeners. Everything from credit cards and alcohol to fast food and political candidates offend certain listeners’ sensibilities or beliefs. While we of course respect the perspective of each individual, we ask ourselves one central question when deciding whether to accept a campaign: Does this, or would this, advertisement appear on mainstream broadcast media (TV and/or radio)? If the answer is yes, we accept the ad.

We recognize that this standard evolves over time. But while there are occasional judgment calls still required, we feel strongly that we should not be in the business of censoring.

I have a couple suggestions that might be helpful for you. The first is to consider subscribing to Pandora One. This is our premium, advertising-free version. It’s only $36/year and has no advertising at all. It also streams at a higher quality and comes with a number of other benefits that you might find attractive.

You might also consider restricting Pandora from playing songs with explicit content. When you do that, you not only remove songs with explicit lyrical content, you will also remove some ads that happen to be targeted “away” from people who have demonstrated an aversion to explicit content, which will remove some of the ads that offend you. I hope this is helpful, and I hope you understand the approach we have taken.

Thanks so much for listening!

Kindest regards, Jeff

Jeff, I didn’t say the movie “offended by sensibilities or beliefs.” I said it “scared the living crap out of me.” I didn’t even ask them to fully censor it and take it down, just to create a version that wasn’t so unnerving for folks who aren’t expecting it. (Maybe that qualifies as censorship. I’ll let you make the call.) They do, however, have a way to censor it yourself, which is a nice option except that it is such a blanket protocol. If I blocked ads like this one, would it also keep me from hearing one about a new film version of The Crucible? That’s about witches and “satanic” elements as well, but I wouldn’t find it at all offensive. In fact, I would want to know about it because I admire Miller’s work and enjoy films based on literature.

The long and short of it is this. I took the time to make my request personal and non-abrasive. However, the reply I got back was pedantic, and I felt as if it was upbraiding me for stepping on the first amendment rights of both Pandora and the listening pleasure of others. I suppose if they field emails from people who find credit cards offensive (which is still a mystery to me), they have to put a certain distance between themselves and their customers. Still, to have one’s claim heard but not truly listened to, lumped in with the rest of the poorly worded and overly dogmatic complaints, despite the care and attention put into it, is a bit dispiriting. Oh well. As the sage Charlie Brown once said, “I’m not going to let this commercial dog ruin my Christmas.”

Your turn! I’m interested on your thoughts on this subject because I’m still making up my mind. Are there any advertisements you find offensive? Have you ever written to a company about them? What about your thoughts on communication and being truly listened to? Please share your ideas with me!

 

Pinching Myself Until I’m Purple…

Ernest Hemingway closes his masterwork, The Sun Also Rises, with a scene between Jake and Brett, the doomed lovers. She states that it’s a shame the two of them can’t be together, and Jake closes the book with the the classic line, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Such an odd line from a character who loves drinking, bullfighting, and all other manner of manly occupations. I’ve often used this line when discussing things I wish I had done or thought might be beneficial to me. For example:

Imaginary Friend—“Wouldn’t it be amazing to study abroad in England for a year?”

Me—“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

It has been my “pretty to think so” dream for the last twelve years or so to be a published author. Granted, what I have wanted to write has changed from academic articles and texts to fiction and poetry to non-fiction essays and discourses, but the why has always been the same. I have a lot to say, and I express it better with a pen between my fingers or a keyboard beneath them. Also, I’m crap at math and could never manage a career in something practical like accounting or engineering.

For a decade, I was a teacher, the closest thing I could get to writing for a living. I was teaching others about the great literature of the world and helping them to think for and express themselves more succinctly. It was a rewarding decade to be sure, and I still miss it though I have to say that I haven’t graded a paper in almost six months, which is supercallafragalisticexpialidociously awesome. Really, it’s better than, “Hey, I just found a $100 bill in my coat pocket!”

As a content and copy editor, I still “grade” papers, but people actually thank me for marking them up. I’m asked on a regular basis to hunt out and kill mistakes with heartless and laser accurate precision. I’m also asked to take a text and make it better, to assist another author with a particularly troubling paragraph or concept. Also, as a content editor, one of my jobs is to do research, to make sure references and citations are accurate and attributed to the correct person and publisher. These are all things that a Type-A writer/nerd/scholar/perfectionist like myself enjoys doing in her spare time. And they actually pay me for it. Suckers. 🙂

In a place where materials are printed, I’ve gained a great deal of new wrinkles in my brain. For example, I’ve learned that widows and orphans need caring for both in real life and on the typewritten page. I’m mastering the art of kerning and leading and how a document should be flowed to transform it from plain black and white text to a beautifully designed page. I’ve been allowed to work on press releases, syndication articles, web page landing copy and e-newsletters, ads, letters, and even the In Touch Magazine itself. Most importantly, everything I read over teaches me something wonderful about the amazing God I serve, and it does my heart as much good as my mind as it builds me up—both in my new skill set and my spirit.

What I didn’t expect when I started this gig was that writing would be part of the bargain. There is a staff of amazing writers here who do great work for the magazine and the ministry as a whole, and they crank out so much copy each and every month that I’m often staggered by it. What’s amazed me the most, however, is the fact that they’ve asked me to come alongside them in this effort! Seriously, I’ve been afforded the privilege to contribute to the magazine as a writer.

When they first offered me a writing assignment, I had to pinch myself. Hard and often. After doing so to the point my husband thought I might need an intervention, it was still true, so I decided to trust in God and go for it. My first writing assignment was for the December 2011 magazine. The editorial staff wanted to do a six-part feature on the Person of Christ. They are described in the opening paragraph as “brief meditations on six aspects of Jesus’ personhood: Christ as Witness, Prophet, Intercessor, Warrior, Priest, and King.” If you are interested in reading the entire piece (which is both thought-provoking and gorgeously designed), In Touch Magazine is  available in print (subscriptions are free), on the ministry’s homepage, and on our free app for either Android or iPhone. My contribution to the piece, an exploration of Christ as Prophet, is below.

I don’t want to regale you with the story of my life, but just let me say that the last seven or so years have been…rough. Losing my first teaching job due to budget cuts, learning I had a lifelong illness to face (MS), financial struggles, having to move…the list goes on and on. However, when this job came my way, I realized that all the things I’d been through had served a purpose. They were what taught me to rely upon God for everything, to turn to Him instead of looking inside myself for answers or working in my own strength. In short, I would never have been prepared for this job had I not undergone the things I did. That is why I praise Him in both good times and bad because even the things that cause me pain and discomfort are for my ultimate good.

Think about it! The Father has made it possible for me to use my skills in a place where I am permitted to grow and thrive. I have wonderful friends who also happen to be my co-workers, and I am edified and strengthened by God each and every day. I feel so overwhelmingly blessed that I can hardly find the words to express it. I can only praise God for His goodness and mercy, His willingness to involve Himself in the lives of His children, and His omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent power. I do indeed serve an amazing God, the Alpha and Omega, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!