Year: 2014

The Simba Life, Thrice

The third issue of my culture magazine The Simba Life is now live. Check out the full PDF, or peruse individual articles. There’s a listacular retrospective, an artistic rediscovery, a debate over which Relient K album is best, a coming-out story you probably have never heard before, and more.

Below is the briefing I wrote to set the stage for the issue’s theme, which was “what I learned this year.”

This year, I learned at least three things.

I learned (1) to be less skeptical of poetry, that sometimes writing a poem is the best and only way to embody a feeling, thought, or moment. I learned (2) that I love the little things at the library as much as the big ones: sharpening dull pencils at the desk; discovering stray receipts from 2012 in shelved books; picking up scraps with call numbers on them and wondering which book they led the patrons to; and returning abandoned books to the snug vacancy on the shelf they call home.

And I learned (3) that I could have died in fifth grade. I stood in my friend’s front yard in a sleepy suburb playing nonchalantly with a BB rifle as a police car pulled into the driveway, and the officer could have jumped out of his car and shot me dead because he felt threatened by the gun I had, however non-lethal it turned out to be. But I didn’t die. I received a stern warning, and I went home and cried about it when my mom got a call from my friend’s mom explaining what had happened. And then I forgot about it, until my sister reminded me of that incident after Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy playing with an airsoft gun in a Cleveland park, was gunned down on November 22 by an unqualified policeman responding to a call about someone pretending to shoot people driving by.

Did Tamir die because he was black? Because of the aptitude of the officer he encountered? Because the airsoft gun he wielded (stunningly similar to one I owned at that age) that a friend had just given him had its orange tip removed? All I know is Tamir is dead and I am not. The why is too sad to confront and too pressing to ignore.

There’s a fourth thing I learned this year, but it’s really the only thing: I know that I don’t know anything. What better time, then, here at the End of All Things 2014, to wrestle with the Simba Life creed—Run from it or learn from it—in the third issue of the Simba Life magazine, along with this issue’s contributors. What did we learn this year? Put on a pot of coffee and let’s find out together.

Jasper Adalmorn Maltby

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

“A friend of Grant’s is a friend of mine,” said Abraham Lincoln, probably. This quote (were it real) holds true today as we consider Jasper Maltby, an Ohio boy who like 99.9% of the Civil War upper echelon served in the Mexican War in the 1840s, and then moved to Galena, the stomping grounds of pre-glory Ulysses Grant. The Civil War erupted while working there as a gunsmith, leading him to join the 45th Illinois Volunteers, aka the “Washburn Lead Mine Regiment.” He was immediately bumped up from private to lieutenant colonel, which seems like a huge jump. Was Maltby really that awesome, or did they just throw out commissions like hardtack back then?

Regardless, Maltby fought with the 45th at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Vickburg, accumulating promotions and wounds concurrently. Also happening concurrently was the service of Jasper’s younger brother, William, who was a Confederate captain and prisoner of war. In one of those meta “civil war within the Civil War” situations, when Jasper found out his brother was imprisoned, he arranged for him to be brought to the newly conquered Vicksburg and placed under his charge. “Love you bro, so much so that I get to order you around again!”

Jasper served out the war in Vicksburg and remained there postbellum as the military mayor until he died in 1867 from yellow fever or cardiac arrest, or from having a too-massive beard. Seriously, look at that thing!

Up next on CCWN, the flip-flopping Amos T. Akerman.

(sources: 1, 2)

The Church of NaNoWriMo

My name is Chad Comello and I am a failed novelist.

I’m in the midst of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which issues a lofty goal for aspiring literary types: write 50,000 words in the span of 30 days, no matter what. Budding scribes of every stripe participate in this movement throughout the month of November, all with the goal of a first draft by December 1. The point is not to make it good, only to make it in time. Quantity over quality. Completion over perfection.

So, in late October, I formulated bullet points for a plot, roughly sketched out some characters and determined a setting that I thought would provide me ample room to flesh out a story over 50,000 words. On November 1, my excitement at starting a new adventure into the fictional unknown quickly devolved into existential gnashing of teeth. After writing for what felt like a long time, I’d only gotten down about 500 words and most of it was filler. Was this what writing a novel was like? I quickly fell behind the prescribed 1,667-words-per-day pace and despaired about my chances for achieving literary glory.

Despite the planning, good intentions and hope I had in my abilities, I failed to live up to the NaNoWriMo creed. But through this experience, I’ve noticed that the movement has, over its 15-year span, become a religious practice of sorts that churchgoers of all kinds would recognize. Like the liturgy of orthodox believers, NaNoWriMo writers commit to daily practice of a writing ritual no matter how tired or rote it seems on any given day. Mirroring Bible studies and church small groups, the “write-ins” that libraries and writing groups sponsor provide a place to foster community, pledge accountability and inspire others along the journey. And above all there exists an ultimate goal, a reason for all the fuss. For NaNoWriMo, it’s 50,000 words of something: a novel, a collection of short stories or maybe the first installment of the next big YA dystopian series. Whatever it is, it won’t be ready for bookstore displays on December 1, but it will be a start.

But what of the faith journey? If Christianity were reduced to a month’s worth of daily quotas to hit, would it still be Christianity? Certainly such dogmatic legalism exists within the faith (within any faith at that), but to me that misses the point. There is indeed a righteous purpose for the sacraments and spiritual practices that infuse a devout life. But in fiction as in faith, I believe the story reigns. Whether through the history of Israel in the Old Testament, the poetry of the Psalms or the parables of Jesus, Christianity values stories and storytelling for their artistic value and for their utility. The Christian story, which was crafted over a much longer time span than a month, continues in this vein when each of us writes the lessons of Jesus into our own narratives in the form of works of service as well as acts of faith.

My name is Chad Comello and I am a failed Christian. That’s my story thus far and that’s OK. Tomorrow I’ll come back to the table and try again. Though I quickly and easily fail to keep up with the ideal—in writing or in religion—I’m doing something every day to get better. I’ve stopped worrying about how many words I rack up or how many random acts of kindness I perform and instead focus on cherishing the opportunity to write, to create and to do life better than yesterday. Disciples of Jesus, go and do likewise.

Originally published at Think Christian.

Einterstellar

My new definition of cosmic irony: to be in the midst of Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe as I went to see Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a marvel of a film that directly references Einstein and his theory of relativity. I had a chuckle during the film when that moment arrived, not because I understand the theory of relativity in the least, but because the universe is mysterious and funny in that way.

Einstein would probably agree, according to Isaacson’s book. I picked it up on a whim. For being such a ubiquitous figure I knew nearly nothing about him, and since for the last few years I’ve grown increasingly interested in (and therefore increasingly perplexed by) astrophysics and the stuff of space, I thought a well-regarded biography of one of astrophysics greatest would be a good place to start. And indeed I’d recommend it to anyone, even, or especially, those who will have to skim over the arcane science passages as I did.

I think Einstein would have loved Interstellar.

Three Oatmeal Truths

Today at the library, I read Matthew “The Oatmeal” Inman’s The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, an extended version of his original web comic about ultra-running. It’s of a piece with his usual ardent and absurdist takes on varying topics. In the book he illustrates a few tips for becoming a runner, which I have decided to paraphrase into three core principles for life:

1. Shut up and run.
2. Running sucks.
3. Suck in the present.

(The first one is a direct quote from the book, but the latter two are my own condensations, which also happen to create a delightful anadiplosis.)

I am not much of a runner—though I’m certainly inspired to be after reading this book—but I quickly saw the wide-ranging value of these aphorisms. Replace “running” with any activity, but especially an arduous or creative one, and the phrases still work. For me, it’s writing.

The first step is the hardest, but everything hinges on it. Ignoring the compelling excuses our inner demons conjure is key to achieving even a modicum of success. Just doing the thing, whatever it is, is the beginning and end of it. It’s the permission-to-play value, the minimum qualification for entry.

If we accomplish the first step, then the second one gets real on the quick. The initial burst of enthusiasm fades and we’re left with the undeniable notion that we’ve made a mistake in starting at all, that our muscles ache and that life would be easier if we stopped. But this, damn those pesky demons, is a lie. On the contrary: “Life is difficult,” writes M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled. “This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

Running/writing/painting/cobbling/[insert activity here] sucks. It’s beautiful, and we love it, but it sucks to do. It definitely doesn’t suck to have done something, but getting to that point means getting through the suck.

Which brings us to the third great Oatmeal Truth™: be present in the suck. Whatever we’re doing we’re doing it for a reason, and that probably is because we want to, or even need to. It might feel terrible or wonderful, as the book’s title asserts, or somewhere in-between. Either way, it’s something important to us. To honor that, then, we need to give it our attention. We need to live with it as it lives in us, even when it sucks. Even if we just want to get it over with to make the pain or frustration stop.

I think I’ll put these up on my wall.

The Plutonium Plot: An Ode to Doc Brown

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
When Doc bumped his head and made it so tender;
He could not recall his singular sight:
Capacitors fluxing and time circuits alight.
Calvin the sailor with life jacket steady
Inquired, ‘Hey Doc, are you now ready
To freeze space-time in the tower-clock?
Banish the thought of paradox.
Not now, you see, but hither they come,
Your days on the continuum.

Composed on the occasion of November the 5th, not in honor of Guy Fawkes Day but for Doc Brown Day.

I Kill with the Earth

A poem in prose

I kill with the earth, that with which I line the walls of my room. With a paint brush choked with white diatomaceous earth-powder, I dab and fluff along the crack where the walls meet the floor to discourage the passage of bedbugs into my abode. The powder floats up and down through the sunrays that beam through the window. A Latvian choir sings vespers from my speakers and scores the moment. A lively moment, indeed, killing satanic creatures with the very earth they inhabit, or rather inhabited. I wear a white mask because microscopic charred rock isn’t great for one’s health or throat, at least as great as it is at killing them silently.

Here in late October, as an Indian summer day seizes, I’m in shorts when I should be figuring out layers. This interlude makes for curious thinking; I’m thinking about the weather and how strange it is when I really should be thinking about autumn in its usual path, from green to gold and red to dead—or so it seems. Then again when is weather ever not weird here? In Chicago, in the Midwest, things are best when they are on the move, the future blocked from view with today askew and only tomorrow the chance to weather things anew. The truth is, the world isn’t dead at the end of autumn when clouds set in and the cool air cocoons us for months; it’s only hibernating. All that dies die will be back again, if not exactly as it once was. It will be close enough, and hard for us humans to tell the difference. Can you tell one year’s sunflower patch from another?

I kill preemptively with the earth, diatomaceous powder that lies in wait, white and benign, until whatever crawls through the walls slides its thin belly over it. It doesn’t strike down its victim there, but in a moment, after the pitiful, pestilential creature’s exoskeleton has been thrashed through and exposed with the microscopic shards of ground-rock. It dies not of inhalation or poisoning, but of exposure. It bleeds out, bleeding the blood of its nocturnal victims. But this gruesome death that I cheer (good riddance) is not a death, only a hibernation. That bug is dead, but the others live. Those spared a diatomaceous death can live for years dormant, biding their time in verily anywhere, the vermin. The trap that I set in this interlude of an Indian summer is an interlude for them too. Whether they climb to my room or not, or whether they’re already here and laughing at my efforts, they will bide their time like the bushes and trees, who sleep the winter dormant but not dead, and wait to show their faces again, when they must. Dust to earth to dust, and again.

The dust of fallen leaves and rock ground into the ground floats in my air now as diatomaceous earth. It speckles the sunlight and makes it known. The choral vespers hover in the air too, a lullaby to a future-timely death of pests whose time has come. Say your prayers, parasites. The dust lying in repose waits for a bedbug to cross over it, not on this faux summery day but after, after the dust has settled and the winter has arrived for another hibernation. Will the living that die live again?

Come out, come out, wherever you crawl.

The Glass Cage

To never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation. If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are. —Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage

One time the internet went down at the library and it was like the Apocalypse. Patrons at the public computers and on their laptops saw their pages not loading and came to the desk to ask what was wrong. We told them the internet’s down, it’ll have to be restarted and it’ll be up again in a few minutes. Most were satisfied by this, if a bit peeved, but waited for order to be restored. But it was a serious outage and the wait was much longer than usual, so people at the computers just left. The lab, usually almost or completely full, was a ghost town.

Just as I was thinking (a bit judgmentally) how odd it was that people who temporarily didn’t have internet would just leave instead of using other parts of the library (like, you know, books ‘n’ stuff), I realized that the library catalog was down too. Without this mechanism that we use to search for items and get their call number for retrieval, I was librarianing in the dark. If someone came to the desk looking for a specific book, I had no way of a) knowing if we had it and it was on the shelf, or b) where it was among the thousands of books neatly lining the stacks before me. I knew generally where books on certain topics were—sports in the 790s, the 200s had religion, and so on—but without a specific call number I’d have to navigate the sea of spines book by book until by providence or luck I found the item within a reasonable amount of time.

The internet was restored, the computer lab filled again, and the catalog came back to life. No crises came to pass during this internet-less interlude, but I did wonder if I knew as much as I thought I did. Did I as a librarian rely too heavily on access to the online catalog to do my job? Without internet connectivity or hard-copy reference material, would we still be able to provide the information people ask for every day? Even looking up a phone number is much more easily done on Google than through a paper trail.

The times we’re not connected to the internet somehow are becoming less and less frequent, so existential crises like mine don’t have to last long. But the questions lingered as I read Nicholas Carr‘s new book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. It asks questions that apply not only to libraries but every facet of our lives: do humans rely too heavily on technology? And if so, what is that reliance doing to us? Well-versed in the effects of technology on human behavior, Carr, author of The Shallows and The Big Switch, posits that automated technology, though responsible for many improvements in industry, health care, transportation, and many other areas, can also degrade our natural skill-learning abilities and generate a false sense of security in technology that aims (yet often fails) to be perfect in an imperfect world.

Carr points to two phenomena that, taken separately or together, exacerbate our worst human tendencies and stunt the mental and physiological growth required for mastering complex tasks. Automation complacency, writes Carr, “takes hold when a computer lulls us into a false sense of security. We become so confident that the machine will work flawlessly, handling any challenge that may arise, that we allow our attention to drift.” Exhibit A: the opening library anecdote. Knowing that the online catalog will reliably provide the information I need when I ask for it, I’m much more liable not to retain useful knowledge despite the usefulness of retaining it and the pleasure I get from learning it.

The second phenomena is automation bias, which occurs “when people give undue weight to the information coming through their monitors. Even when the information is wrong or misleading, they believe it. Their trust in the software becomes so strong that they ignore or discount other sources of information, including their own senses.” I’ve experienced this too. One time a patron asked for the phone number of a business; because I was dealing with multiple things at once, I provided the first number that came up on Google without confirming its validity through another source, like the business’s website or the Yellow Pages. Turns out that number was outdated and the search engine hadn’t indexed the new one yet. But because I’d done that before with numbers that were accurate, to be expedient I trusted Google in that moment when I should have been more discerning.

Whichever technological tools Carr cites—airplane autopilot, assembly-line manufacturing, GPS—the theme that emerges is that after a certain point, the more automated technology takes away from humans the more we lose. This runs counter to the utopian belief that the iPhones and Google Glasses and self-driving cars of the world make our lives better by making them easier, that by ceding difficult tasks to machines we will be able to focus on more important things or use that extra time for leisure.

To some extent that is true, but there’s also a dark side to this bargain. By abdicating power over how we interact with the world, we stop being doers with agency over our skills and trades and become monitors of computer screens—supervisors of fast, mysterious, and smart machines that almost always seem to know more than us. This dynamic puts us at cross-purposes with the tools that should be working with us and for us, not in our stead. Humans’ greatest ability, writes Carr, is not to cull large amounts of data and make sense of complex patterns: “It’s our ability to make sense of things, to weave the knowledge we draw from observation and experience, from living, into a rich and fluid understanding of the world that we can then apply to any task or challenge.”

Automated tools like GPS, which we rely upon and follow without much question, take away that innate ability of sense-making and even dampen our desire to make our own observations based on first-hand experience. I should replace “we” with “I” here, because I struggle greatly with navigation and love being able to know where I am and get to where I’m going. But navigation is more than following the blue line directly from point A to point B as if A and B are the only data points that matter. The point of navigation is the map itself, the ability to make assessments based on acquired knowledge and turn that knowledge into informed action. When a computer does all that for us in a microsecond, then what’s the point of knowing anything?

Ominous implications like this are the star of The Glass Cage, which casts a discerning eye on the assumptions, implicit and explicit, that govern our relationship with technology. It’s a relationship that can be fruitful and healthy for everyone involved, but it also needs some work. Thankfully, Nicholas Carr has done the work for us in The Glass Cage. All we have to do is sit back and receive this knowledge.

Wait…

The Holy Sanctuary of Public Libraries

As a reference librarian at a suburban public library, I sit at the information desk, waiting to answer patrons’ many different questions. On Friday evenings, the foot traffic slows and a soothing silence descends on my area. Save the soft clattering of the keyboards in the computer lab, it is mercifully quiet. It’s in these moments I realize: I’m in a holy place.

As civil institutions funded mostly by taxes from the people they serve, public libraries are strictly secular. Patrons can use their space and resources for whatever cause, without regard for politics, religion, race or any other category. But, as we know, there’s no such thing as secular. Writing for Think Christian last year, Caryn Rivadeneira made a similar point about the beauty of art museums:

Perhaps it had something to do with the grandeur of the space. Certainly it had something to do with being surrounded by centuries’ worth of wondrous examples of image-bearing creativity. Definitively it had to do with being drawn into works that speak a mystical language, that communicate through brush-strokes or film or clay and yet speak from the artist’s heart to the viewer’s.

When I look around the library on quiet Friday nights, I see the place itself as holy. I see a cathedral of books, each one comprising a distinct identity and yet functioning as one small part of the larger body. I became much more aware of the library as a place after reading Robert Dawson’s The Public Library: An American Commons, a photographic essay documenting public library buildings all over America. The libraries in Dawson’s photographs range from a one-room wooden structure built by former slaves in California to the imposing, Romanesque Revival-style Carnegie Library in Pennsylvania to the sleek, futuristic Central Library in Seattle. Whether old or new, deserted or bustling, each of these buildings, like the books they contain, tells a unique story.

Considering the uncertain state of public libraries today, I can’t help but see their challenges running parallel with those of the American church. Both institutions, rooted in history but now confronted with modernity, are struggling to navigate the tenuous space between orthodoxy and innovation. They hear the same critical buzzwords thrown at them: outdated, unnecessary, old-fashioned, dull. They are debating internally how to attract young people and the unconverted, how to revitalize their diminishing influence amidst cultural and digital revolutions and how to make their missions feel essential in a world abounding with choices.

But above all, I see them both as sanctuaries—havens for world-weary patrons and all their baggage. I’m sure a pastor could sympathize with the variety of interpersonal issues public librarians navigate gracefully every day. I’ve had people approach me looking for books about divorce, STDs, Alcoholics Anonymous, and for ways to track down someone who wronged them. But I’ve also retrieved books on weddings, suggested new reads to eager patrons and even helped a woman find an image of, in her words, a “whimsical walrus.” Many people, some with mental disabilities, simply want to talk. This often requires an abundance of patience; when there are a dozen other things you could be doing, choosing to serve a patron in need suddenly becomes the most challenging one. But extending grace on the frontlines of humanity, whether in the pews or in the stacks, is a challenge worth taking.

As a librarian and a believer, I see the struggles of libraries and churches up close. I also see their beauty—as institutions attempting to serve the greater good; as places of study, searching and refuge; and as living archives of our shared cultural experiences. These places can transform us if we let them. All we have to do is walk through their doors and take a look around.

Originally posted at Think Christian.

Destiny of the Republic

In Assassination Vacation, one of my all-time favorite books, Sarah Vowell calls the circumstances surrounding the Garfield assassination “an opera of arrogance, a spectacle of greed, a galling, appalling epic of egomania dramatizing the lust for pure power, shameless and raw.” After reading Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which details said circumstances, Vowell’s characterization now almost seems like an understatement.

The things I did while reading Destiny ranged from yelling at Dr. Bliss’s casual (and admittedly good-faith) malpractice in his care of the wounded president, cringing at the horrific realities of nineteenth-century medicine, admiring Garfield’s resilience and character in general (as well as his beard), and considering how naturally New York senator Roscoe Conkling could have excelled as a cable-news talking head today.

Many factors influenced the outcome of this high drama, all of which Millard captures and deftly welds together in service of this strange, tragic, and largely forgotten pocket of U.S. history. Each subplot—Garfield’s rise to prominence, the perky madness of the assassin Charles Guiteau, Conkling’s political machinations, the dunderheaded care of Dr. Bliss—deserve its own book, but this one (wisely) keeps its focus on the assassination itself. Even the detours showing the involvement of Alexander Graham Bell, fresh off inventing the telegraph with a contraption he thinks will help locate the bullet still lodged inside Garfield, help serve the larger narrative of how disparate elements (science, politics, medicine) can combine into an extraordinary mezcla.

I sometimes wonder how historical events would have been colored differently if Twitter and other social media had been around. But it turns out coverage of a major news story in 2014 isn’t all that different from one in 1880. With the telegraph and newspapers churning out daily, even hourly, updates on Garfield’s health and prognoses from his chief doctor, the coverage seemed just as anxious and overheated then as it does now.

It’s worth reading Destiny of the Republic not just to get a detailed picture of this “opera of arrogance,” but also for an illuminating look at an oft-forgotten pocket of U.S. history.