Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Easter Bunny cometh on the heels of Tenebrae

We’ve always colored eggs for Easter, and of course the mythical bunny left a brimming basket of chocolates and filled plastic eggs for our daughters every year. My family says I’ll make a holiday at the drop of a hat, and I figure that has to do with my German-speaking ancestors who came from Switzerland, according to our family historian. Many customs I grew up with reach to a distant time and were handed down by way of oral histories as well as histories recorded in a family Bible that dates to the 1700s.

My daughters often asked where the Easter bunny came from, and I always told them he was magic so he came from a magical place no one knows. But the History channel offers an explanation dating to the Anglo-Saxon Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, Eastre, who was often depicted with a hare or rabbit. The channel credits German settlers for the holiday bunny. These settlers brought to America the myth of "Oschter Haws" who hopped around on Easter Eve leaving colored eggs for children.

Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ on Easter; ancient tribes celebrated similarly, marking the season of rebirth after a long cold winter. One of the most profound moments in my family’s Easter occurs when we attend Tenebrae on Good Friday. This is a somber service, with the church gradually fading to darkness. The altar is stripped, and the Holy Book is slammed shut. Members depart in silence. It is a service that above all others leads to an examination of the self and the soul. It is in sharp contrast to Easter Sunday when the theme is celebratory and members greet one another by saying, “The Lord is risen.” Those greeted respond, “He is risen, indeed.”

My faith is a blend of customs that date to pre-Christian times and customs that were born during our Catholic influenced period before the Reformation. I often tell others we Lutherans are renegade Catholics, but we are also renegade pagans. And of course, both Christians and Muslims can thank Jews for getting us going in the first place.

What’s important I think is that we continue our traditions, sharing oral history with our children, so that we are able to keep on going, hopefully to bring light into the world rather than darkness.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

What's wrong with Katie Couric?

I’ve tried to watch Katie Couric, sole female anchor on an evening news program. And despite my best intentions, I end up switching to CNN or Fox.

Funny thing is I want Couric to work because she’s female. I liked her okay when she did the peppy morning show with that other guy, the one who’s losing his hair. She seemed genuine then. She was a little perky, but I found that actually helped wake me up. I’m a slow-to-come-to type early in the morning.

I tuned into Katie a week or so ago and came to the conclusion she’s basically trying too hard. She seems to take herself as seriously as a pit in a peach (you know what’s in the peach pit, in small amounts, I hope).

She just seems stilted and not at all comfortable. Couric has a girl-next-door appeal, and I think she could make better use of it.

While I’m on the subject of network news, why do all these anchors dress up so much? The rest of us are usually coming down from the plane of work, looking for the nearest comfortable clothing to put on our bodies so we can coast on low.

I think some brave network news anchor should opt for denim. That at least would give us something different to look at.

Meanwhile, I still get most of my news from print media and the Net.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Spring fever throws a wrench into the writer’s handiwork

My beagle hound Shadow is in the same boat I'm in. He can afford to be lazy.

The gush of spring is strong enough
to play with the globe of earth like a ball on a fountain...

--from ‘Craving for Spring’ by D. H. Lawrence

Florida can be very challenging to productivity as spring comes on. I can’t really figure why. Here, there are no sharp definitions between seasons. A coral rose on my deck bloomed on Christmas Eve, an event that struck me as so amazing I wrote a poem about it. My reaction to that aromatic bloom was followed by the realization I was gauging winter here by upcountry Carolina standards, where snow always falls a few times each season and temperatures require a quilt on the bed most of the time.

I don’t think I’ve used a quilt since moving here four years ago.

Today I watched an assortment of cardinals, squirrels, and tiny sparrows take turns at the seed I scatter, and my restlessness made me want to turn away from work. I couldn’t do that. In the business of writing, especially if you’re an independent, spring is the go-crazy season.

I thought of Lawrence’s poem, ‘Craving for Spring,’ and realized the line that includes "play with the globe of earth like a ball on a fountain" perfectly describes what spring does to my brain.

Window-gazing fits most writers’ personalities—we are, after all, famous procrastinators. I must remind myself to take time to procrastinate soon.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah): a memoir that stays with you

The phrase “boy soldier” seems like an anachronism to an American. We know young boys were caught up in our own Revolutionary War and in the War Between the States. But those wars conjure another place and time long distant from the present.

Not so in many parts of the world today. Ishmael Beah recounts his journey to redemption in 'A Long Way Gone', beginning with the destruction of his village in Sierra Leone by rebel forces. The book opens with descriptions of his life in a village where many are employed by foreign companies but where families still cling to agrarian customs and practices. He plays soccer, he goes to collect firewood,he likes hip-hop but he still enjoys listening to elders tell time-honored fables about his culture. His parents parted when he was young; he lives with his father and stepmother. One day he leaves with several friends to take part in a talent show in a neighboring village. That day would be the end of normal life for the author.

Rebels assault Beah’s village; victims could choose life and support the rebels or risk death by fleeing. Beah describes the predicament:
“…the rebels began shooting their guns at people instead of shooting into the sky. They didn’t want people to abandon the town, because they needed to use civilians as a shield against the military. One of the main aims of the rebels when they took over a town was to force the civilians to stay with them, especially women and children. This way they could stay longer, as military intervention would be delayed.”

‘A Long Way Gone’ pulls the reader along as Beah becomes a child soldier, dependent on drugs, comrades and adrenalin to survive. He finds himself doing the very things that destroyed his own family—killing others as a product of being brainwashed by the government army that has conscripted him.

Beah’s journey from tormented soldier to accomplished Oberlin College graduate and New York writer plays like a video in the reader’s mind. The author witnessed and participated in horrible acts. That he made it out of a civil war alive and intact is a miracle.

There's a remarkable photo of the author on the back cover. He has a beautiful smile in his eyes and on his lips that despite all he's been through, suggests hope.

I’d highly recommend this memoir to any reader; it’s eloquent and memorable. It is a vivid reminder of the character of war, the assumption of pain by people who just want to live their lives but are unable to because political factions prize power over decency.

This is the second memoir I’ve read that really stays with me. I believe Ishmael Beah’s ‘A Long Way Gone’ and Jeannette Walls’s ‘The Glass Castle’ should be nominated for the National Book Award. We’ll see what happens.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Intellectual property rights: what a tangled Web we’re weaving

The Web is heating up with news of another copyright battle, Viacom’s $1 billion lawsuit against YouTube.

I predict lawsuits will continue to increase in the next few years because technology available on the Web creates gray areas in copyright and other intellectual property rights issues.

I don’t think disputes will be limited to sites owned by media conglomerates, and I think a number of disputes will transcend intellectual property rights, moving into areas like libel and slander.

Traditional media is suffering transition pains right now because there’s so much free content available on the Web. Who watches TV anymore?
For instance users at YouTube upload whatever they want, and if they do infringe on a copyright, it’s up to the owner of the property to flag YouTube to remove the content.

That process sounds like a good plan until you consider the numbers. Last month, according to BusinessWeek.com, Viacom spokesman Jeremy Zweig said Viacom demanded the removal of more than 100,000 “unauthorized clips” from YouTube. That request was followed by Viacom’s discovery of another 50,000 unauthorized clips.

I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. Right now there’s a move among print media as well as online media to take advantage of “citizen journalists”—partly because the content is free and partly because this approach involves the reader/guest in the publication’s development. Circulation declined for many traditional newspapers last year, and investors are running a little scared.

The approach sounds all well and fine until you consider the lack of standards. Who will make certain stories adhere to fact and not fiction? Who will make certain there’s no copyright infringement? Who will deal with libel threats that will surely ensue? And will quality suffer even more, considering the current quagmire engulfing the English language at the moment?

I interviewed best-selling author James Redfield (The Celestine Prophecy) for the St. John’s Sun not long ago, during his residency at Flagler College. He likened the Web to “Chicago in the ‘30s.”

We will certainly face interesting challenges as individuals with no professional background in media transform into content providers.

Here’s hoping the content they provide will be legal. But I wouldn’t always bet on it.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Talking James Dickey with Flagler's creative writers

On Tuesday I drove down Historic U.S. 1, heading for Flagler College in St. Augustine. This highway runs alongside the East coast of the United States, beginning in Key West and ending in Maine near Canada’s border. The stretch I’m on still bears vestiges of mom-and-pop tourist stops from an era before the nightmare that has become I-95. There are long stretches of green space.

You can follow U.S. 1 straight into St. Augustine where Flagler College is located. My mission for the trip involved talking with creative writing juniors and seniors—mostly English majors—about James Dickey, his poetry, and what it was like to study with him as a student and to maintain ties with him until his death.

Dr. Carl Horner, director of Creative Writing at the college, had arranged my visit. The comfortable room in the Flagler College Library located on Sevilla Street was perfect—large enough to offer ample seating but not so large that intellectual intimacy suffered.

The day was consummate Florida—bright sunshine, a nice breeze, and temperate. As I began talking about my former professor, thoughts of my own days at the University of South Carolina eased into my consciousness. If ever there were halcyon days, the early 70s at USC fit that descriptive for me.

I shared with the students how Dickey had remarkable recall of long passages of poetry and literature. I shared the opportunities our professor gave to us—poets like Richard Wilbur, Allen Tate and Yevgeny Yevtushenko visited our campus.

Dickey expected those of us accepted into his classes to work hard ourselves—to learn about literature, to seek our own particular paths, and to develop our own voices. I read several of his poems, among them, ‘The Sheep Child’ and ‘Adultery.’ Those are probably my two favorites of all his poems.

Dr. Horner had talked with the students about Dickey’s ability to slip into the personae of animals as subjects and motifs in his poems. ‘The Sheep Child’ has these haunting lines, speaking from the persona of a half-man/half-beast creature stored in a glass jar:
And, through my immortal waters,
I meet the sun's grains eye
To eye, and they fail at my closet of glass.

We moved on to subjects like the poetry of Horace, and his declaration to future readers—he knew he would be remembered—and now his voice carries across millennia.

I read three of my own poems and touched on my life as an independent journalist and poet.

Many of the students said they plan to teach; one young woman wants to be a freelancer. A young man told me one of his favorite poets is Ted Hughes, and he enjoys exploring the work of Hughes and Plath.

This was a remarkable group of young people—very vested in the time we spent together, very attentive. I sensed the same sort of inquisitive spirit nurtured by the professors at their college, much in the same way mine was nurtured by the incredible writers at my own college. The students projected an open-minded demeanor, unlike the attitudes of some who embrace a strident, narrow aesthetic, refusing to accept views and styles that differ from their own.

There was a young woman from Charleston--those of us from Carolina call it the "Holy City." It was nice to see someone from my home state.

The campus itself complements the artistic spirit. The Ponce de Leon hotel, now a mainstay on the 19-acre campus, is a work of art listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The college’s namesake Henry M. Flagler, a partner with John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company, hails from a historical period when buildings were akin to sculpture, made not only of brick and mortar but of inspiration and vision as well.

Dr. Horner and I, once the program concluded, strolled over to the market district, walking along Hipolyta street and ending up at The Bunnery for some very fine coffee and pastry. He spoke enthusiastically about all the poets he and the classes are studying, how important it is to him for his students to succeed. Dr. Horner is the sort of professor you could listen to all day long. His passion for writing and his knowledge of literature are amazing.

I thought how lucky they are, those bright young minds that have found such an academic haven small enough to nurture but resourceful enough to offer them many paths to a future of choice.

I thought how lucky I was to have experienced the same many years ago with a remarkable professor whose voice still whispers in my ear from time to time, whose encouragement still comforts me even in my darkest hours.

This week is Communication Week at Flagler College, with a number of authors and media professionals visiting the campus. (My visit was independent of these activities.)

Monday, March 5, 2007

The Jesus Family Tomb: exquisite marketing and MOB

I’ve followed the saga of the new book The Jesus Family Tomb and the related documentary produced by the Discovery Channel.

Headlines have been impressive—Jesus’s Tomb Found! The mystery of Christianity is now cracked!

And just in time for Easter, no less.

We have a book out, a documentary, and even a Discovery Channel Web site just for this topic, set up where visitors can quiz a high profile academic, Dr. James H. Charlesworth (A.B., B.D., Ph.D., ET, Litt.D. [hon]), Princeton’s George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature.

Visitors to the forum at the site are enjoying banter about topics like DNA, ancient languages spoken, and the vacuuming of certain bones from ancient ossuaries.

Simcha Jacobovici, one of the authors of the book, remarked in a Time Magazine interview (3-12-07) on the criticism he’s encountered since writing it. He cites mobilization of bias—“certain questions cannot even be asked, and certain answers are not conceivable.”

Americans are well acquainted with the thought processes producing what sociologists call mobilization of bias. We are the greatest myth-buyers in the world. After all, we pay ridiculous prices for water in little plastic bottles. And if a theory is cloaked in any kind of science, many of us bite down on it with the enthusiasm of a dog chewing on his very first bone. We may not be able to comprehend the science, but by Jove, we believe it.

The idea of matching anyone’s DNA when it is two millennia old is a little quirky, in my book. I’m no Bible thumper, but trying to locate the DNA of the Christian savior says it all. Where's your standard for comparison?

The book is at the moment #39 on amazon.com’s list.

Now what I’d like them to do is find the DNA of Beowulf and Grendel. If we come up with a match there, imagine the rewrites we’d have to do on the first Christian epic.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Zeitgeist: what people search for on the Net

I admit it. I’m a fan of Google™ . I discovered this search engine in its infancy and shortly thereafter, began to turn to it first. One reason Google stays on top is the focus on developing products that help users and customers. No one comes close, in my opinion.

I discovered this cool page, Zeitgeist: Search patterns, trends, and surprises. Part of the company’s press center, this page lists gaining search queries for the previous week. For the week ending Feb. 24, it came as no surprise to me that our conflicted celeb Britney Spears was a top search term, as were Lunar New Year and Tom Brady. Ash Wednesday was up there too, making the Internet community lean rather towards faith, what with Lent also in the mix. It’s helpful to anyone who maintains a site to know what surfers are looking for.

American Idol, not surprisingly was up there too, ranked in fifth place. It’s one of the few shows on a regular network I enjoy watching. I like it because it’s talent- based, and I love music. I’m always amazed. You can sing, people will love you. It’s a lot like poetry, where you sing with words.

I’m sitting in the office waiting on a source to call me for a newspaper story due Monday. Polished off a column this afternoon and set up questions for another. As usual, I ended up with more deadlines than expected over the next few days. No freelancer will complain about that. So I tuned into American Idol, just in time to see them cull out the singers who were voted off.

There was an amazing moment when a female contestant—I think it was Alaina Alexander, but I have problems with names (sorry)—was voted off. She tried to sing the Dixie Chicks song, ‘I’m not ready to make nice.’ Her voice absolutely left her. Then the other girls slipped onto the stage to help her sing it. Sundance (I know him; he’s distinctive) was even teary. Then the girls hugged her.

It was a stellar example of American sisterhood. It was a lovely moment for this viewer.

I figure Google is like American Idol. You do something better than everyone else you win.

Information about Google Zeitgeist is, of course, courtesy of Google, based on information from the Press Center.