Wednesday, March 31, 2010

When life is a layover

My husband and I flew to Vegas a week ago for business. While we waited out our three-hour layover in Salt Lake City I yearned for the days of direct flights--especially when a young woman sat down across from us at the gate, plugged something into her ear, flipped open her laptop, and began reporting at full volume to her colleague on the line about the youth conference she had just left.

Once on the plane, the layover got still longer. With high winds in Vegas, we needed to wait an hour before heading that way.

Now it strikes me that much of my life feels like a layover: time I spend not doing anything particularly pleasant or productive. That does not mean I'm idle. But maybe you feel that way, too, when making your son's millionth peanut-butter-no-jelly sandwich, or holding for the IRS (again), or waiting for the doctor to look at your daughter's third ear infection in as many months, or driving to a dull job while wondering what you're really supposed to be doing with your talents.

Father Lasance wrote this comfort and warning to us:

"It is worthwhile now for me, --now while the brief occasion lasts--to overcome one temptation, to do one small kindness, to improve my mind by one half-hour of study, to wait in patience when there is nothing else to be done, to bear a headache, or sleeplessness, or some small pain. Life can not be filled with great deeds, nor deeds of manifest profit and advantage to oneself and mankind."*

Daily I need to remind myself that life is not like a novel or a movie, where the writer has crammed all the highlights into two hours or three hundred pages. In the span of one's life, you might get twenty good pages out of the whole thing. If you are unusually dynamic, a hundred. Even at that, though, in the day-to-day crawl, it probably won't feel like much is happening. But if we keep in mind Father Lasance's words, our spirit can be growing seven days a week, even--or especially--during the layovers.
*My Prayer Book by Father Lasance, 1908.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Another hazard from Japan

While Toyota's top brass are getting grilled by Congress on how they could let us drive around in cars with "sudden unanticipated acceleration," we have another product from that island nation that carries its own unanticipated hazard.

Comic books. They're called manga, which is comics or cartoons in Japanese. And while some analysts point to ancient, illustrated scrolls for manga's origins, the most obvious birth of these cartoons followed the U.S. occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952. The Japanese saw the GI's comic books and decided to made them their own.

The first ones were innocuous enough, largely aimed at children. In the fifties and sixties, they branched off into darker styles. In the 1990s, as Japan relaxed their censorship laws, they got wilder, with several lines of manga offering harshly violent story lines and explicit sexuality, especially in the class of manga aimed at adults.

Okay, but that's in Japan. And people can buy manga here if they want, but they can buy lots of other p*rn too. But here's where the unanticipated part comes in.

As I searched my local library's collection of books on CD yesterday, I wandered a few aisles over to see if they had more there. To my surprise, I found a shelf of manga books. Having heard from my college-age daughter that manga could be pretty rough, I pulled one out and started thumbing through. The innocent, wide-eyed girls in the illustrations were being led through sexual paces that made me lean against a book rack in shock. There was language to match.

So I took this piece of literature to the assistant branch manager and asked why it was on the shelf. "Well, it's in the adult section," she countered. But manga has a huge youth following, I protested. And my tax money is paying for this thing? She gave me a form to submit, detailing my objections, which I filled out and gave back. We'll see what happens.

So moms, beware: The childish look of manga can belie its chilling contents. And understand that your public library has these (and other) disturbing materials in easy reach of your adolescent and teen, with no restrictions on viewing or borrowing.

And they wonder why our teens are in such trouble . . .

UPDATE from my last column: I am doing fine without my Clean House friends and have let them go with surprising ease. Same goes for the viewing of DVDs. Reading is up.
Image from Manga history from Wikipedia.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Giving up Clean House

Once again it's Lent. I like Lent. We get help paying attention to our faith, the season is sprinkled with reminders about that, and we get to do something differently for 40 days. We are invited to give up something or take on something.

This year the choice was obvious. I had to stop watching Clean House and anything else on the Style channel. There's nothing much wrong with Clean House. I love looking into other people's chaotic rooms full of "mayhem and foolishness" and then, with a glance around my interior, getting to say, "Gee, I'm doing a good job here." But the ads on the Style channel have bothered me for some time--they are either lecturing me on how much better I could look or they're promoting new and improved morning-after pills for careless and confused young women.

So Niecy and her rescue crew had to go. Now, I know that come Wednesday evening, when I realize I could be watching a brand new episode (rather than the reruns they show the rest of the week), my husband will probably have to tie me down. Still, it didn't seem like enough sacrifice for Lent.

Then I heard a man on the radio say he was giving up DVDs for the season. He would spend that time reading and meditating instead. I'm not much good at meditating, but the reading part struck me. Every day I look at the books I mean to read, still sitting untouched, their covers firmly shut, and I think "where does the time go?" So I decided that, for a few weeks, I won't be stopping in at the library to pick up a half-dozen movies, most of which prove a disappointment anyway.

I'll let you know how it goes. Best wishes for a good Lenten season.
Photo of Niecy Nash from

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The person behind the painting

To my surprise, I bought a book the other day all about Thomas Kinkade and his work. I thought I knew all I needed to about him, this unavoidable artist, but leafing through the book at the store, glancing at the introduction by Wendy Katz, told me different. So I took the book home.*

Kinkade spurned the teachings of his Berkeley art professors, who taught students to ignore the audience and address instead their inner reality. Kinkade understood nonsense when he heard it, apparently, and changed schools, continuing to paint pictures that would communicate with and please the viewer.

His innumerable depictions of cottages and grand old houses and small town streets have won the hearts of millions. They hang in people's homes, embellish calendars, and lie scattered across tables as jigsaw puzzles. The secret seems to lie in the fact, as the book noted, that Kinkade knew how to anticipate the viewer's wishes and satisfy them.

What are those wishes? Katz calls them a "continued desire for a home with roots in a particular place, a home shaped by a particular landscape, . . . always waiting with lights on."

They include the wish for things hand made; for objects with knicks and dents and stories behind them; for results born of time, labor, and love.

I wonder, in this self-assertive, adrenalin-charged world, how can these wishes be fulfilled? Somewhere inside, the part that is fully human in us longs for the comfort and stability that such things bring. But for this, someone must be home to turn on the lights, to bake the bread, to weed the garden, to make up the guest bed. Someone to perform the slow and unexciting and repetitive tasks required to sustain that place we can come back to or that way station where we might rest along the way.

I must remind myself of this as I dust the mantel and boil the water and turn on lamps as the day grows dark, countering that old feeling that again I have accomplished nothing to brag about or take to the bank. Maybe it's okay to remain, like Kinkade's endearing subjects, humble and domestic. Maybe it's even essential to be, in effect, the person behind the painting.
*Thomas Kinkade: Masterworks of Light, Introduction & Essays by Wendy J. Katz, 2000.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Why I turned my back on the stock market

You can find lots of stories by people who decided to bail out of the stock market in the last year or so. They just had enough of the uncertainty and the ugly sensation of losing money they had worked to earn. These would be a good enough reasons by themselves.

Indeed, I got hit hard with the hideous fall that bottomed out in March 2009. Having received a small annuity after my mother's death, I was able to delay returning to the workforce in favor of finishing my first novel. The monthly payments were crucial to this plan. Of course, they came from money Dad had put into a retirement fund, and most was in stock. Thinking the allocations were set in stone, I listened in some distress to reports on the sliding market, but it wasn't until it hit bottom that, on a phone call about something else to the managing fund, I learned that I could have moved the money out of stock at any time. I'm sure I must have groaned out the words "Are you serious?" to the rep on the line.

With AIG headed for complete collapse and dire predictions afloat, I pushed all the money into a static money market account, where it earned nothing but could not lose more. A couple of days later, the graph began to climb. I didn't trust it. It's a blip and will crash downward any day.

For several months I watched the market, checking The Wall Street Journal, my fund's website, and even the Dow Jones page every day. Up in the morning, down in the afternoon. Up on Monday, down by Wednesday. I asked advice of people who knew things (they didn't). Finally, the uptrend seemed to be holding. I moved some money back into stock, hoping to regain some of my loss. After all, I was trying to live on this dough.

The numbers teetered. Up a bit, then down. Oh no, I was losing even more. Every day I checked the numbers before bedtime, when the closing price was posted. I thought about it when I woke up. What inscrutable forces will drive prices today? Will I win or lose?

After eight months of this torment, I pulled all the remaining money out of stock and put it into a guaranteed account. Sure, the interest was lousy, but it was something. But the biggest benefit was that I did not have to think any more about what the market was doing to my money.

In short, the desperate hope for a bit of profit had taken over a large section of my brain. Was this what the good Lord wanted me to sink my energy into? How could I ever stay calm watching these multicolored graphs every day? I couldn't. "Peace be with you" didn't stand a chance.

I have been much better since I made the last move. Whatever the fund pays me, I'll manage. If I have to do something extra this year for money, that's the way it goes. Whatever I need to do, it will sure beat biting my nails over what conglomerate might go bankrupt tomorrow and send the market into a dive.

The stock market is the world's biggest casino, and I don't have the nerves for those either. I don't believe God intended us to.