Where I spray-paint my thoughts…


The Kids May or May Not Be All Right, and it May or May Not Be the Fault of Their Phones

It’s rare, in this polarized world of ours, that voices on the left and on the right sound off on the same side of an issue. Rare enough that when it happens, it’s probably worth paying attention.

I noticed just such a phenomenon on Facebook last week, when one of my more politically right-leaning friends shared a blog post by Professional Angry Christian Person Matt Walsh, while at the same time one of my more leftward-tilted friends shared an article from that generally progressive-ish magazine, The Atlantic. Both articles were ranting about the same thing: the use of smartphones by children and youth is not simply affecting, not merely changing, but literally destroying a generation. Today’s tweens and teens are weak, passive, immobile, unable to cope with the outside world – because they spend all their time on their phones.

This wasn’t, it turned out, some rare confluence of independently-arrived-at opinions. Matt Walsh was responding directly to the Atlantic article, filtering author and psychologist Jean M. Twenge’s research and concerns through his own particular prisms. When we do find that rare agreement between people and parties who usually disagree – when Matt Walsh reads an article in The Atlantic and responds with agreement instead of venom – it’s either because the thing is so incontrovertibly true that it transcends our divisions, or because it agrees with some preconceived biases we hold (such as, Technology Is Evil or Everything Was Better in the Good Old Days).

On the surface of it, the agreement here seems to fall into the “incontrovertibly true” category. Kids today get smartphones at what seems to me ridiculously young ages (seriously, why would you put a $700 piece of electronics into the hands of the seven-year-old who just pulled off Barbie’s head??). They spend a lot of time on them, and this has changed both the kids and the culture. Our kids are having experiences online that those of us who grew up when there was no “online” cannot fully understand, and we don’t know what the consequences might be. We can see that change is happening quickly, and it scares us, regardless of whether we’re pre-programmed to think that change is usually a good thing or that change is the Devil’s calling card.

Probing a little more deeply into the original article, I began to question some of the panic it engendered. It starts, as such pieces always do, with an anecdote: Twenge talked to a 13-year-old girl and found that this young teenager is in the habit of going to the mall with her family, rather than hanging out there unsupervised with her friends; she’s more likely to spend time with her friends online than in real life. Twenge continues to pile anecdotal evidence alongside research, creating the impression that smartphone use has spawned a generation of children who spend all their time locked in their rooms staring at screens, unable to interact with the world outside in any meaningful way.

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“Why isn’t all your underwear good?” Or, the lesson I learned from Sofia Vergara

In one of my favourite lines ever from the sitcom Modern Family, Jay Pritchett, a salt-of-the-earth type of guy in his 60s, asks his attractive younger wife Gloria (played by Sofia Vergara) if she knows where his “good underwear” is. Her reply is a funny sitcom one-liner, but it’s also become sort of my guiding principle moving into what I presume is the last third of my life. (This line is funnier if you can hear it in Sofia/Gloria’s Latina accent, but I couldn’t find a clip of it).

“The question is, why isn’t all your underwear good, Jay? You make a nice living.”

This is the question that has cut to the heart of my approach to “midlife and beyond.” Why is not all my underwear good?

If you were hoping this post was going to be mainly about my underwear … well, that’s weird. Sorry to disappoint. I am taking the question literally, throwing out old underwear as soon as they get holes or the elastic starts to go and immediately buying new ones in my favourite colours and styles, which I wouldn’t have done a few years ago. But I’m not going to post pictures or anything. (Jockey for Her French Cut, though, if you really want to know).

No, I’m thinking about the broader implications. Why are not all my T-shirts comfortable T-shirts? Why are not all the books on my shelf books that I love? And so on.

Although so far, I’ve really only gotten around to dealing with the books and the T-shirts (and the underwear). But given how much I love both books and T-shirts and how many of each I have, that’s a good place to start.

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I Refuse to Call it a “Faceversary”

facebook_10One day late in April 2007, one of my students uttered four fateful words. “Are you on Facebook?”

I snorted my disdain. “No, because I’m an adult.”

I was pretty internet-savvy: I had had a personal website since 1995; I’d started this blog in 2006; I spent a good bit of my spare time back then on internet discussion boards (the late lamented ParentsPlace and Television Without Pity, and the still-going-strong Ship of Fools).

But Facebook? I’d heard of it, of course — heard that it was going to be the new MySpace and that all the college-aged kids and some of the high schoolers were hanging out there. It just didn’t seem like something I’d be interested in.

Just a couple of days after my snarky comeback to my student, I had coffee with a few other adults — my friends the Strident Women, also still going strong 10 years later — and found that a couple of them were on Facebook. And we agreed that if we all joined, and created a private discussion group, we could use Facebook to carry on the kind of snarky conversations we usually had over once-a-month Sunday coffee.

So I did it. I joined Facebook, and the rest, as they say, is history. So much history that yesterday, Facebook attempted to wish me a happy 10-year “Faceversary.”

No. Just no. I am not going to say that word.

But it’s probably worth a few moments’ reflection to think about the impact of a website that has played such a big part in my life, and the lives of others, over the past 10 years.

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Meanwhile, in Sweden …

It’s one of those days when an unhappy coincidence between the fiction I’m reading and the real world I’m living in has led to some troubling thoughts.

art-of-deathFor the last couple of days I’ve been reading Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, the first in a series of medieval murder mysteries. In this book, the heroine, a female doctor from Salerno who specializes in examining corpses (i.e., a coroner before that was a job description) is called upon to investigate the death of “Little Saint Peter” in Cambridge, England — the latest in a series of mysterious disappearances of young children. This being the 1140’s, the deaths have been blamed on the Jews of Cambridge, who are reputed to have crucified at least one Christian child, possibly more. While the novel is fictional, some of the details of Little Saint Peter’s death are based on the death of William of Norwich in 1144, one of the earliest examples of Jewish blood libel, of which there were many instances in medieval Europe. (The “blood libel” link above goes to the Wikipedia article which gives a good overview; as always with Wikipedia, there are several more specific links available in the reference list at the bottom of the page).sweden

I was interested in the character and the story, and not thinking particularly deeply about the blood libel aspect of the novel (which I knew about from history anyway), until I woke up this morning, finished the book, and went online to find that Swedish people were making fun of Donald Trump on the internet.

Not that Europeans, or anyone for that matter, making fun of Trump is particularly newsworthy. But this latest round of fun was based on something Trump said at a rally in Florida yesterday. Amid the usual round of incoherent ramblings aimed at assuring his supporters the world is a terrifying place and only he can protect them from Islamic terrorists disguised as refugees, he threw in the comment: 

“You look at what’s happening. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?”

As it turns out, nobody (except Trump supporters at a rally) would believe “this,” because there’s no “this” to believe. No terrorist attack, no act of violence at all, carried out by refugees, terrorists, or anyone else, occurred in Sweden on Friday. There has not been a terrorism-related crime in Sweden since 2010, although it seems the US President (who allegedly gets much of his information from watching TV) may have watched a Fox News piece linking crime in Sweden to the increased refugee population. Maybe. But nothing was “happening” in Sweden the night before Trump made that statement.

bowlinggreenIt’s telling, of course, that only us enraged liberal snowflakes and the “left-wing media” who Trump recently labelled enemies of the people (and, of course, the Swedes) got up in arms about this. I haven’t seen any Trump supporters calling him out on this, anymore than they were upset when Sean Spicer thrice referenced Atlanta as a site of a terror attack by immigrants, or Kellyanne Conway blamed refugees and immigrants for the non-existent “Bowling Green Massacre” and then claimed that she misspoke. (Here’s a tip: if your job is being a spokesperson for the most powerful man in the world, maybe be a little careful about words like “massacre,” as “massacres” are things people tend to get upset about).

For months, since long before he won the election, Trump has been grooming his supporters to ignore the line between facts and lies — by attacking the mainstream media, changing the definition of the term “fake news,” and making obviously false statements about things that only matter to his swollen ego. A case in point occurred at Thursday’s bizarre press conference, when Trump claimed he had won the biggest electoral college victory since Ronald Reagan. When it was pointed out that wasn’t true, his response was, “I don’t know, I was given that information.” (In fact, Trump’s electoral college victory was the third-lowest since Reagan; only George W. Bush managed to do worse — twice).

Does anyone (other than Trump) care, now that he’s president, how big his electoral college win was? Of course not. The only purpose of blatantly false claims like that is to destablize the entire notion of “facts,” to remind Trump’s base that the only thing that matters is what the President says, and the only source he needs is “something I heard somewhere.” Don’t trust the mainstream media; they’re all fake news. Truth is whatever the leader says it is.

Why does this matter? Any of us can google how many electoral college votes every president has won and confirm for ourselves that the US president made a false statement and didn’t care about it. We can also check and confirm that there was no terrorist attack (or indeed nothing unusual at all) in Sweden on Friday night, no terrorist attack in Atlanta since 1996 (by a white right-winger) and no massacre, ever, in either Bowling Green, Kentucky, or for that matter Bowling Green, Ohio.

bloodlibel2It matters because such false claims may be the modern equivalent of the medieval anti-semitic blood libel. It matters because twelfth-century English peasants could be led to believe that their Jewish neighbours were crucifying children, or mixing murdered children’s blood into Passover bread. In the same way modern, educated Westerners, surrounded by more sources of information than the world has ever imagined, can be led to believe that countless crimes are being committed by immigrants and refugees, even though almost no evidence of such crimes exists. And if someone comes forward with the evidence? It’s “fake news.” Or the mainstream media is not reporting all the attacks that are taking place. Or we misspoke, but the underlying idea is still true and shouldn’t be discounted just because we got some pesky little facts wrong.

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May the Force be with You (and also with you)

One weekend in the winter or spring of 1986, when I was a senior at Andrews University, my college boyfriend Rob spoke the words that college boyfriends have been saying to their girlfriends ever since:

“What? You’ve never seen any of the Star Wars movies?”

I had not. I didn’t think of myself as liking science fiction, back then. I liked fantasy — Narnia and Lord of the Rings — but I wouldn’t have gone to see a movie with spaceships and blasters and explosions in the outer reaches of the galaxy. However, when he proposed watching the videos to remedy this gap in my education, I was up for it.

This was 1986, and catching up with movies you hadn’t seen (apart from just randomly catching them when they aired on TV years later) was only beginning to be possible. It wasn’t yet easy. We had to find a friend (my cousin Jennifer) with an apartment and a TV, lug a borrowed or rented VCR over from someplace (actually, it may have been Rob’s own Betamax, brought over from his dorm —  yes, I think I originally watched Star Wars on a Betamax; how’s that for ancient?) We had to hook it all up and watch the movies, one casette at a time over three nights, if I recall correctly. And that was how I met Carrie Fisher, the iconic Princess Leia, who died today at age 60.

I loved her and I loved the movies. Yes, Luke Skywalker set off to “save the princess,” and along the way joined up with the roguish Han Solo (she loved him because he was a scoundrel) who became her love interest, but Princess Leia never passively sat around waiting for rescue. She was an active participant — in the Rebellion, in her own rescue, in every conflict that played out over those three movies. For many female movie-goers like me, unlike our boyfriends and brothers, the important thing was not that Return of the Jedi showed Leia in chains in a gold bikini; it was that while wearing that outfit, SHE FRICKIN’ STRANGLED JABBA THE HUTT.

As everybody has noticed by now, 2016 has been a bad year for celebrity deaths, and given that every year the stars of our youth get a year older, this trend may well continue into 2017. I was unpleasantly startled when I heard that Alan Rickman had died, having enjoyed many of his film roles. I wasn’t particularly moved by the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, or George Michael, as I wasn’t a fan of any of their music, though I recognized the impact they had on the culture and on the people who did love them. I loved Leonard Cohen’s songwriting, but at 82 I felt he had had a good long life and career. The 2016 celebrity death that actually hit me, that brought tears to my eyes, was the death of Carrie Fisher, just as the year is drawing to a close.

In the summer of 1977 — the same year the first Star Wars movie came out and I didn’t see it — I remember coming in from playing out on the street on a summer day and my mother saying, “Elvis Presley is dead.” I was only vaguely aware of who Elvis was, and I wouldn’t have considered my mother a fan of his — I’d never heard an Elvis record played in our house, and she didn’t really like pop music generally. But she was knocked back by Elvis’s untimely death, because they were the same age — forty-two that summer, which seems so young to me now. The celebrities of your own generation, especially those exactly your age (for me it’s Brooke Shields, a child star when I was just an ordinary child), hold up a weird mirror to your own life, and their deaths are a shock — I guess that’s why my mother grieved for Elvis.

The things is, celebrities, like ordinary people, are always dying. In 2016 and in every other year. Why do some celebrity deaths grab our attention, interrupt our own lives, so far distant from their star-studded sphere? Because something in them echoes our own lives, or shines a light on those lives. Poets and spiritual seekers recognized a kindred spirit in Leonard Cohen. People who refused to be crammed into the narrow boxes of gender norms celebrated the same refusal in Prince and Bowie. If a musician’s songs were playing, or an actor’s movie dominated the screen, at the crucial moments of your own life, you feel you’ve lost a piece of yourself, of your own history, when they go. We still have the music, the movies, the books, though there’s the loss of knowing they won’t make any more. But what makes us grieve is that kinship, that sense that their lives were somehow being lived parallel to, commenting on and illuminating, our own.

Young Carrie Fisher was Leia, the princess who didn’t need the guys to come rescue her, who wielded a blaster and weird hair-buns instead of a tiara and a sparkly dress. Post-Star-Wars Carrie was kind of a mess, with the drinking and drug use and failed relationships, along with real and good work — Postcards from the Edge, all the script doctoring we never knew about. And then middle-aged Carrie was mouthy and honest and real, talking about addiction and mental illness and the impossible, crazy demands that the entertainment industry makes on women. She was on stage and page playing her pain for laughs in Wishful Drinking, and then there she was doing the talk show circuit for The Force Awakens with her dog tucked under her arm and her hilarious willingness to say anything, especially the unvarnished truth. Then there she was as General Leia Organa on screen again, older and graying and luminous and beautiful, grieving in Han Solo’s arms for all they’d lost, and still a tough, no-nonsense, revolutionary leader.

There are a lot of things wrong with our culture’s obsession with entertainers-as-celebrities, but at their best we relate to them because they tell us something about our own lives. Women, particularly geeky women, I think, of my generation — we loved young Leia for her strength, and we loved aging Carrie for her vulnerability. Both touched and changed us; both are gone now.

May the Force be with her, and may she rest in peace. And may we all have a little of Leia’s courage and Carrie’s relentless honesty as we journey through this galaxy not so long ago, and not so far away.


Merry Recycled Christmas

Hi friends, family, and … foes? I hope I don’t have any foes reading my blog. Maybe a few fans (of my books, not of me). But mostly friends and family.

Almost every December, this season brings on some reflection, some deep thoughts about the meaning of Christmas, the culture wars at this time of year, or just what it means to be living in a family, raising kids, being a person at this time of year. Some years there’s no new brilliant thoughts so I just recycle the old ones. I’ve been blogging for ten years now, so here are some of the things I’ve reflected on in past Christmases, for your reading (or re-reading) pleasure:

fleshFrom 2004,  before I even started this blog, a piece I wrote (reprinted here in 2011), called “Flesh.” Something I’ve been thinking about for many, many years, about how Christmas is about Incarnation, and how God-in-Jesus meets us in the frailty of human flesh.

In 2007, I was a little less serious. “Eight Songs A-Sucking” was my most popular blog post ever in terms of number of comments, because everybody likes to rant about the Christmas songs they hate.

lightChristmas 2009 I was back to reflecting on the meaning of the Incarnation, with “Light.” Again, these are thoughts I’ve been turning over for years — I wrote an article similar to this back in the late 80s — about how we celebrate Christmas at the winter solstice, even though Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born then, and the symbolic significance of light-in-darkness at this time of year.santa-vs-jesus

In 2010, Santa met Jesus for a showdown! No, not really. I just used my Christmas blog space that year to explore the idea of Santa and how he fits (or doesn’t fit) into the Christian story of Jesus’ birth, and the celebration of Christmas for Christians today.

adventcandlesTragically, in 2012, one of the worst mass shootings in US history occurred just a couple of weeks before Christmas. Getting ready for a season of joy and celebration as we were confronted by news of the Sandy Hook massacre left me with some thoughts on “Advent Tragedies.” The season of light can be a dark time.

2013 was the year my mom passed away, and I reflected on how hard it is to be merry and bright when you’re still mourning a loss. My Christmas post that year was titled “Merry-ish.” It’s about my approach to handling grief and celebration at the same time.doctor_who_capaldi_3010171b

I think I was watching a lot of Doctor Who in 2014, because when I had another try at grappling with the mystery of the Incarnation, the post was titled “Time Lord of Gallifrey, Now in Flesh Appearing.” How is Jesus like, and not like, the Doctor?



Finally, last year in 2015, a lot of people could relate to my post “Broken,” in which I had an argument with my almost-grown son about the Christmas service at church, then went to church and reflected on how broken we all are.