I think I’d rather poke myself in the eye than get up early to stand in the cold and the dark outside Target in order to get a great deal on a laptop computer, a Magic Bullet, or [insert name of this year’s must-have item here]. I understand some people leave their Thanksgiving table early to attend an amazing sale at Kohl’s or Best Buy or wherever.
No thanks. A Kitchen-Aid mixer is not worth dying for, and the “crass materialism” of the whole thing is rather offensive.
But sometimes I wonder: what if I’m missing some unbelievable price on something I actually need or a gift on someone’s list? Wouldn’t it be worth giving Black Friday a try?
Seth Godin put my groundless fears to rest in this brief essay the artificiality and hype of Black Friday sales:
Black Friday was a deliberate invention of the National Association of Retailers. It was not only the perfect way to promote stores during a super slow news day, but had the side benefit of creating a new cultural norm.
Any media outlet that talks about Black Friday as an actually important phenomenon is either ignorant or working hard to please their advertisers. Retailers offer very little in the way of actual discounts, they expose human panic and greed, and it’s all sort of ridiculous if not soul-robbing.
Sixteen years ago, my friend Jerry Shereshewsky helped invent ‘cyber Monday’ as a further expansion of the media/shopping complex mania. It was amazingly easy to find people eager to embrace and talk about the idea of developing yet another holiday devoted to buying stuff.
Here are some of the steps involved in creating a marketing phenomena like this:
- Find something that people are already interested in doing (in this case, shopping)
- Add scarcity, mob dynamics, a bit of fear
- Repeat the meme in the media. Press releases, B roll, clever statistics regardless of veracity
- Do it on a slow news day, and mix in famous names, famous brands and even some hand-wringing about the plight of workers
Apple does this with its product launches. The IRS does the opposite of #1 around tax day. Nike sold a billion dollars worth of sneakers this way.
People like doing what other people are doing. People don’t like being left out. The media likes both.
Remember Veggie Tales? Their Christmas special lampooned holiday consumerism with a talking toy that intoned,
“Christmas is when you get stuff.”
Most of us enjoy going out and getting some “stuff” for ourselves and our loved ones at this time of year, but how necessary is it, or wise, to risk death-by-trampling in a Walmart?
 “All of us experience firsthand the sad effects of…blind submission to pure consumerism: in the first place, a crass materialism, and at the same time, a radical dissatisfaction, because one quickly learns…that the more one possesses the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.” Pope John Paul II, On Social Concern (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis), December 30, 1987, no. 28
P.D. James, one of my favorite authors, died Thursday, November 27, 2014, at 94 years of age. The world has truly lost one of the greats—she was a master of the “classical detective story,” an accomplished author of a fine novel of dystopian speculative fiction, and, most recently, a beautifully written light mystery set in the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which, coincidentally, I finished reading the day before she died.
I also just finished teaching a class on Popular Fiction (as opposed to the other kind, that is, Literary Fiction). P.D. James was one of the few authors whom we discussed more than once, because of her ability to write in more than one genre.
I highly recommend her books, and when you read the detective novels pay particular attention to how she worked within the stringent confines of the genre. Her creative genius lay in her ability to be innovative and original even when adhering to the formulas and conventions of the classical detective novel.
These formulas and conventions include:
- The Hero — the detective — employs reason, logic, and ingenuity to solve the crime. He (or she) works by brain-power alone (unlike his counterpart in the Hard-boiled detective novel, who makes frequent use of brute force). Exceptions exist, of course, but the classical detective typically is neither physically attractive, nor sexually active. He may be weak or even disabled, and is often eccentric, fastidious or in some other way aloof from other people. Many classical detectives work independently of the official authorities of the law, solving cases for their own personal reasons. (examples of “classical” detectives: Sherlock Holmes, Adam Dalgliesh, Miss Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot).
- Even though the hero of the story is usually the detective—with whom the reader matches wits!—the story is frequently told from the point-of-view of the detective’s “sidekick,” — a close friend, relative, colleague or acquaintance of the detective. This character is never as smart as the detective. Indeed, his job is to ask the dumb questions and to say things like, “I don’t understand” and “I still don’t understand.” (examples: Dr. John Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s friend and roommate; Captain Arthur Hastings, Hercule Poirot’s colleague who has “a talent for pointing out the obvious;” Detective Inspector Neele, a professional cop who serves as the foil for Miss Jane Marple)
- The action of the story takes place on a small stage with distinct edges, such as a charming English village, a large manor house in the country, a remote island resort, a cruise ship, or a transcontinental passenger train. The setting represents a world and a social structure with clear, comprehensible boundaries, into which the murder intrudes like a distasteful aberration.
- The story ends with the detective cleverly unmasking the criminal and explaining how he solved the puzzle. Once the distasteful business is concluded, the remaining characters all return to their upper middle-class lives, confident in the knowledge that God is an Englishman and that all is right with the world. To the reader, the book (if well-written) has been a satisfying and diverting intellectual exercise.
Of course, there are more conventions and formula elements, but I’ll save all that for later. For now, I just want to acknowledge the passing of a great craftsman in one of the most entertaining genres of popular fiction:
The Rt. Hon. Phyllis Dorothy, Baroness James of Holland Park (Aug 3 1920—Nov 27 2014). May she rest in peace.
This article touches on several conventions of the classical detective story.
The official P.D. James website. Contains excerpts and a trailer from Death Comes to Pemberley, a biography of James, a complete list of all her books, and a page of “Mystery Writing Lessons.” (The mystery-writing page contains a link to James’s 2004 essay “Why Detection?”)
Includes an interesting quote from James about how crime fiction confirms a certain worldview about the universe. Those of you who took my class may recall that one of the functions of the classical detective story is to confirm this worldview.
Books by P.D. James:
Classical detective mysteries featuring Adam Dalgliesh
Cover Her Face, 1962
A Mind to Murder, 1963
Unnatural Causes, 1967
Shroud for a Nightingale, 1971
The Black Tower, 1975
Death of an Expert Witness, 1977
A Taste for Death, 1986
Devices and Desires, 1989
Original Sin, 1994
A Certain Justice, 1997
Death in Holy Orders, 2001
The Murder Room, 2003
The Lighthouse, 2005
The Private Patient, 2008
Classical detective mysteries featuring Cordelia Gray
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, 1972
The Skull Beneath the Skin, 1982
Innocent Blood, 1980
Children of Men, 1992
Death Comes to Pemberley, 2011
The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811, 1971 (true crime, co-authored with T.A. Critchley
Time to Be in Earnest, 2000 (autobiography)
Talking About Detective Fiction, 2009
 Highlights of James’s career in this genre include Cover Her Face (1962), Unnatural Causes (1967), An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972), A Taste for Death, 1986), Devices and Desires (1989).
 Children of Men (1992)
 Death Comes to Pemberley (2011)
Free writing is a time-honored writing exercise useful for writers and artists of all kinds: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, visual artists, designers, dancers, directors, actors…It’s a good way to jumpstart creativity and loosen up if you’re feeling creatively constipated. The names I’ve heard in connection with this technique are English professor Peter Elbow and authors Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg, but in my research I discovered writer/editor Dorothea Brande and learned that Jack Kerouac and William Butler Yeats are well-known for using free writing techniques.
Author and online writing instructor Holly Lisle published a good essay on free writing (excellent “how-to”) that includes a list of topics you can use as springboards:
I decided to do the exercise from the point-of-view of one of my fictional characters. I chose Dr. Doug Ellison, the main character in “Tooth and Nail” (part of a soon-to-be released story collection called Startling Figures.)
Here’s what I came up with:
timed freewriting – topic — the past
POV: Dr. Doug Ellison (my fictional character)
(myself/historical figure/other real person/my fictional character/other fictional character)
When I think about the past, I mostly get confused, because I don’t have a great memory for things. My brother Dave remembers our childhood a lot better than I do. And as for my own kids’ childhoods — they’re a blur. The other day Lyndsey got out some old photos because she wanted to put them into albums, and there were pictures where we were like, “Which kid is that?” Blonde, blue-eyed. They all look the same as babies. The clothing helps determine boy versus girl, but other than that they all look the same. It was really funny trying to figure it out. Eventually we figured it out based on the carpet, because we worked out that we had the old carpet — the real-estate beige — with Pete and Keith, and then changed it to the dark blue sometime before Gussie was born. I think. Might have been before Roxanne. How are you supposed to keep the past clear in your mind when you spend so much of your life doing the same thing over and over again? It’s really hard here in California because the weather doesn’t change enough to mark the seasons clearly. When I was growing up in Indiana we had four distinct seasons, and you could remember things by remembering that there was snow outside when that happened, or the leaves hadn’t been raked yet and I have a clear picture in my mind of what our front yard looked like when such and such a thing happened.
Recent past is something I wouldn’t mind forgetting. That thing with Jack Emery’s dog Tex was terrible. I swear I had a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder after that. I scared Lyndsey half to death a couple times at night, sitting bolt upright in bed with a shout.
Like all free writing, it’s pretty raw (i.e. bad) but free writing’s purpose is not to deftly craft brilliant prose. The point is to free up the mind, unstopper it, unblock it, stretch it out, limber it up. I’ve been busy lately (binge reading every genre of popular fiction for a class I’m teaching) and I’ve been out of the writing habit, so writing the above piece reminded me of sitting cross-legged on the floor for an hour and then getting up and trying to walk normally. (Youngsters, go ahead and laugh: when you’re 48 years old you’ll understand!)
Still, in 10 minutes I came up with 305 words. Not too bad: 250 words is one typed, double-spaced page.
For more info on this topic
- the piece by Holly Lisle (linked above but here it is again: “Timed Writing Workshop — Freeing Up the Subconscious Mind”)
- Natalie Goldberg’s classic book on writing: Writing Down the Bones
- Julia Cameron’s book on creativity: The Artist’s Way
- the Wikipedia entry on free writing has some other links and references you could follow (on Jack Kerouac, Peter Elbow, William Butler Yeats, etc).
The phrase “bus ride from hell” no doubt conjures up bad memories of trips to and from school on the big yellow bus, or perhaps visions of a cross-country journey you would rather forget. But in his 1946 book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis really means a bus ride from Hell. The book begins with the narrator boarding a bus in the mean streets of the netherworld and taking a trip that will determine his eternal destiny.
After the narrator boards the bus, it takes off into the sky. Before it reaches its destination, the narrator has endured the sob stories of two fellow passengers and witnessed an all-out brawl on board.
Their destination is a grassy plain on the summit of a high cliff. When the passengers disembark, they discover that they are all nearly transparent, like ghosts. Soon, however, a large crowd of “real” people—solid people—comes to meet them. The narrator witnesses a few encounters between ghosts and solid people before meeting his “own” solid person, a man named George Macdonald, named by Lewis after the 19th-century Scottish author of the same name. Macdonald serves as the narrator’s guide to the afterlife, similar to the way Virgil guided Dante in The Divine Comedy.
One of the things I love about C.S. Lewis is his uncanny understanding of human nature, especially the ways we deceive ourselves and rationalize our bad behavior, everything from run-of-the-mill pettiness, to desire to control others, to attachment to comforts and addictions, even to the murderous impulses that lead to the worst atrocities in human history. They’re all there, on that plateau, being given the opportunity to choose their fate once and for all. The solid people are glorified human beings sent from Heaven to counsel the ghosts and help them shed the things that are keeping them from God. Some of the ghosts, under the gentle encouragement of their solid guides, do indeed make the choice to surrender to God, at which point they transform into glorified beings themselves. Some of the ghosts refuse God’s love, continue in their stubborn self-will and eventually return to Hell by their own choice. As Lewis says, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it.”
Lewis’s masterpiece “theological fantasy” is a quick read (my paperback edition is only 128 pages long) but sobering: it’s hard not to see oneself in the self-absorbed Poet, or the Bishop who knew it all but rejected God, or the Woman With a Martyr Complex who wanted her deceased husband to leave Heaven so she could continue to “fix” him in Hell, or the Devoted Mother whose love for her son became a dismal obsession.
Like all Lewis’s books, this one could change your life. Highly recommended.
* * *
For more information on C.S. Lewis: the C.S. Lewis Wikipedia entry, “the official” C.S. Lewis website, and the C.S. Lewis entry on Biography.com. Lewis’s most well-known works include The Chronicles of Narnia, a trilogy of science fiction novels (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength), and several works of popular Christian apologetics (Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce).
For more information on George Macdonald: the George Macdonald Wikipedia entry, The Golden Key website, and a biography of him on The Literature Network. Macdonald’s most well-known works include Phantastes (1858), The Princess and the Goblin (1872), and Lilith (1895).
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God say, in the end, ‘thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” (C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce)
The world of popular fiction lost one of its best craftsman one year ago: on Wednesday, October 30th, 2013, Michael Palmer passed away. He was one of the innovators of the thriller genre: he wrote medical thrillers — intense, fast-paced mysteries featuring a medical doctor as the Everyman hero who gets caught up in a perilous adventure.
I read many of his novels as I was preparing and writing my own variation on the genre — a veterinary medical thriller, in which the medical Everyman is a small-town animal doctor who finds herself mixed up in a corporate whistle-blowing scheme against a big, bad pharmaceutical company.
Palmer was known for being an extraordinarily generous writer, so naturally helpful and encouraging that he included his own agent’s contact info on his website and invited aspiring authors to send in their work to the agency. His website also features excellent “how-to” tips for beginning and experienced writers alike, not just in the medical thriller genre but in all types of storytelling.
Books of his that I read and enjoyed include:
…with thanks to Chicago-area author Joelle Charbonneau for introducing me to Palmer’s novels.
Saw World War Z for the first time last week, on DVD. Watched it again last night and made the above sketchnote, some of it inspired by commentary on the movie by Fr. Robert Barron. Made with Foray colored-ink ballpoint pens and Paper Mate Flair markers.
From top to bottom:
Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994) by Leonard Koren
- I first read about the concept of wabi-sabi in Rework (2010) by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson).
Cooper: The Leatherstocking Tales, Volume II: The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer (James Fenimore Cooper)
- Reading these in preparation for teaching a class on popular fiction. J.F. Cooper’s novels about Natty Bumppo are considered to be Westerns in embryonic form. I’m hoping to cover Westerns, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Classic Detective, Hard-boiled Detective, Suspense Thrillers, and Romance, as well as discuss how popular fiction differs from literary fiction.
Architects of the Culture of Death (2004) by Donald de Marco and Benjamin Wiker
- In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II coined the terms “culture of death” and “culture of life.” Wiker and de Marco wrote fascinating biographies of people whose lives, writings, and activism shaped the framework upon which the culture of death is built.
The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium) an apostolic exhortation (2013) by Pope Francis
- Many people — not just Catholics — are following this Pope with interest.
I found this review on amazon.com and it is AWESOME. It’s an interactive review. First, you fill in the blanks, Mad Lib style:
Then you put your words into the numerically marked blanks in the template:
Thank you, “Jen” from amazon.com!!
Of course, I had to play. Here’s my Dan Brown Mad Lib, with artistic license:
ROBERT LANGDON, #67
Late one night in March, Robert Langdon finds himself drunkenly running through the streets of Copenhagen having recently been contacted by Professor Antonin Balustrade of the Daan Hofbren Academie de Hoog. Balustrade has contacted Langdon to decipher clues discovered in Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.
Before he has a chance to fully devote his attention to the task at hand, a fanatic from the United Way attacks Langdon and his host, revealing a conspiracy to violently end community mosquito abatement programs. Although Langdon has fallen victim to this same plot twist numerous times and by the same formulaic plot and characters, he once again naively follows a new sidekick who will ultimately betray Langdon and/or turn out to be the last descendent of Rube Goldberg.
In the process of saving everyone from pesticide poisoning, Langdon visits Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Nairobi, and Decatur, IL and views and comments verbosely on approximately 67 pieces of fabulous art, including La Mozzarella (a world-famous sculpture by Paulo Boyardee), Sashimi (a well-known woodcut by Japanese Budo Warrior Artist and Haiku Master Tempura Maguro), and Bruce’s Innards (an avant garde interactive art installation by Australian chef and artist Mack Wannacaster, in which patrons walk into the mouth of a life-size Great White Shark and travel the route taken by a typical seal, finally emerging on all fours from the installation’s anus. Langdon finds and pontificates knowingly upon many arcane stomach artifacts, such as a monocle worn by 9th century Antipope Hippodrome VIII at his first antipapal mass in 936, and the brass tuning peg of a 1613 lute played by Antonio Vivaldi.
Astute readers and Dan Brown detractors will point out that monocles didn’t exist in the 9th century, that the 9th century in fact refers to the years beginning with 8, not 9, and that Antonio Vivaldi wasn’t born until 1678, but Dan Brown’s fans will not care about any of this, insisting that dazzling displays of ignorance don’t matter because IT’S JUST FICTION, PEOPLE!!!
In less than 4 hours, Langdon manages to solve 72 riddles, be nearly killed by a hydrocephalic one-eyed hypochondriac Zen Buddhist horticulturist, and mentions his Mickey Mouse watch at least 189 times. Meanwhile, the reader has seen pretty much every plot twist or surprise thrown his/her way. And at no point does Langdon ever relieve himself, but readers of the book frequently find themselves on their knees in front of the toilet. In the end, Langdon returns to Harvard knowing that symbols are truly something that will make a talentless hack a lot of money.
Have fun! Post your responses in the comments! Jen’s review is here.
To live a more simple life, I make conscious, deliberate choices to eliminate excess. My goals: streamlined efficiency, peacefulness, freedom from clutter, chaos, and confusion. Zen-like tranquility and the tinging of little finger cymbals as I levitate from room to room in my house.
In 21st century America? Good luck with that! A so-called “simple life” can come off the rails pretty easily! Flashback to January 2009, the most complicated week ever. Well — maybe not ever, but this one stood out in my mind enough for me to write it down in my journal:
Sunday, our day of rest (ha!) began with driving my 6th-grader to an 8:30 am volleyball practice, returning home to drive my teenagers to church to sing in the choir at 9:30, getting myself ready for church, driving to pick up my 6th-grader from volleyball so she could get ready for church, then going to church with her at 11:30. Somewhere in there the teenagers reappeared, having apparently wheedled a ride home, so at least I didn’t have to go back to church a third time: all those trips back and forth were giving me highway hypnosis, and it wasn’t even noon yet.
Monday I got up at 5:30 am to go to a 6 am exercise class. Came home and got ready for work. Went to work all day until 6. Came home and was preparing to hurry the kids out the door for an evening of errands and dinner on the run when a friend called and begged me to play guitar for a church holy hour service later in the week because the other guitarist couldn’t make it and by the way the rehearsal is tonight and it starts in an hour. Sigh. So much for my errands. The store I had to go to would be closed by the time the rehearsal ended.
I knew I would have to put off my errands until Wednesday because on Tuesdays I also work until 6 and then have a prayer meeting at 7 that is supposed to end at 9 but always goes until 10 or 11. So Tuesday was a wash.
Wednesday I was too tired to get up for the 6 am exercise class, but I did manage to get to work on time, sort of. During my lunch hour, I ran the errand I had planned on doing Monday night: pick up my computer from the repair shop. Then I went back to work for the rest of my shift, returned home, fired up the computer, and discovered two emails of doom, the first telling me that my daughter was supposed to have been serving the 6:15 am Mass this whole week, and the second telling me that an article assignment was due yesterday. Couldn’t work on it right away though, because my daughter had volleyball practice again and my other daughter needed a ride to her friend’s house so she could get a ride from there to the thing she was going to. Aaargh.
The next day — Thursday — I dedicated my lunch hour, in the middle of another shift that ends at 6 pm, to yet more errands. After which I picked up my daughter from basketball practice, and then came home too frazzled to do anything but retire to the couch with a bag of M&Ms and a stack of Star Trek DVDs, even though we were no doubt out of milk or some other essential, and I had a stack of real mail to go through and several screens of new email to process and a car that needed gas and a driveway covered in snow and a bunch of school papers to look at, permission slips to sign and yet another field trip to pay for and a thousand other things on my to-do list hammering away at my psyche.
At the time, I consoled myself with the reminder that this was just a temporary anomaly: my daughter isn’t usually in two sports at once, writing deadlines will not always coincide with computer breakdowns, and once this cold snap was over the big kids could walk to church on Sunday if necessary.
Nevertheless, this maelstrom I found myself in proved that you have to fight to keep things simple. “Stuff” is always creeping in, piling up on my desk and on my bedside table, adding itself mysteriously to my schedule and my to-do list, insinuating its way almost imperceptibly into my life and into my family, until a week like that comes along and slaps me awake.
To paraphrase Wendell Phillips, the price of simplicity is, truly, eternal vigilance  because “entropy increases.” 
But what is simplicity, really, and why should we be concerned to seek and maintain it in our lives? Most people freely admit that they long for a simpler life. But how is it even possible in such a complicated world?
The purpose of striving for a simple life varies with each individual, but I believe the most universal reason is:
We would prefer to conserve our most precious personal resources—time, energy, attention—in a way that allows us to direct those resources toward things that are truly important, such as personal growth, important relationships, worship of God, service to our neighbor, and activities that give joy and meaning to our lives, rather than frittering them away on endless trivial errands, the minutiae of daily life, and the “tyranny of the urgent.” 
The hectic pace and materialistic focus of modern life in the technologically advanced regions of the world leads to dissipation of our energies and focus, and as a result, our “deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.” 
What are those deeper aspirations? According to author David Shi, they include “…purity of soul, the life of the mind, the cohesion of the family, [and] the good of society.”  I would add rewarding friendships and the pursuit of enjoyable creative endeavors.
Some of my favorite books on this subject:
Simplicity by John Michael Talbot
Make Room for God by Susan K. Rowland
Plain and Simple by Sue Bender
The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter by Elaine St. James
 “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) American abolitionist, orator, and writer. A contemporary of Henry David Thoreau.
 The Second Law of Thermodynamics
 Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) said, “Our lives are frittered away by detail…Simplify, simplify!”
 Pope John Paul II, On Social Concern (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis) December 30, 1987, no. 28
 David Shi, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p 3-4