Humbug

Stuff. There’s an awful lot of it around here. Toys. Tools. Appliances. Gadgets. Clothes. Bric-a-brac. Implements of organization. Electronics. So much stuff. And now, apparently, we need more.

We need fun. We need beauty. We need distractions. We need proof that we love each other. We need pants. We need status. We need peace. We need order. We need power. We need newness. We need vintage. We need answers. We need Siri.

It’s Christmas time. The days when we can officially stop being thankful and start wanting more without shame or restraint. I’ll spare you the moralizing. I wasn’t that thankful. I’m not so satisfied that I don’t want more stuff. I don’t blame the media. I don’t blame companies who want to sell stuff. I don’t blame people who want deals. I’m just bored with the fact that our favorite stuff is crap, our perceived benefits are reconfigured problems, and our gifts suck.

Right now I’d be fine to go without presents. Give me none, expect none. Except that’s the real crappiest gift isn’t it? The gift of a condescending message? Oh, yeah, that’s brilliant and cheap.

This is probably the point of the post where it would be good to have . . . well, a point. I don’t know that I have one. I wish we didn’t feel the need for more stuff. I wish we gave gifts at Christmas out of an overflow of appreciation for each other instead of an insatiable lust for an easier, more presentable, more entertaining life.

Maybe the point is that it’s not a terrible idea to just work hard at satisfying each other. Make the people you love feel loved. Make the people you like feel loved. Make the people you don’t like feel loved. Try not to throw garbage at the people you hate. Oh, and give gifts that show how much you appreciate people. Gifts that mean something. Gifts that don’t come in plastic bubble packaging of death. Because that stuff is evil.

Investment Insurance = Crappy Health Care

If you want to read more than just my vast oversimplification of the national health care insurance crock, you can find an in depth look at the latest confession from within the health insurance industry at the Daily Kos. Here’s my take:
The health insurance industry is owned by investors. Investors will invest in only those insurance providers who can insure a low medical loss ratio (aka no more than 80% of health insurance premiums being used to, you know, pay actual medical bills). Insurance companies start covering too many of their customers, investors will find other suitors, stock prices go in the tank, and health care insurance providers that insure customer health instead of investor profits get penalized for being who they say they are.
I like to think of myself as a conservative, but if wanting to completely overhaul the corrupt health care system makes me a radical, so be it. Is it that radical to think any industry that lives or dies on its ability to satisfy the snakes on Wall Street is inherently evil and crippled and doomed to become a complete sham?
I guess it’s the fear of being viewed as a radical, socialist, communist that makes most people wary of national health insurance. So it’s pretty fascinating to hear someone from within the industry admit that the aforementioned fear is the industry’s only hope.
In the video below, former CIGNA PR head honcho Wendell Potter admits that Michael Moore (and Canada and a lot of Europe) was on to something. He knows it. The insurance giants know it. Government involvement in the health care system is a good idea for everyone except the people getting rich off of the current scheme.

Judge This


I have a love/hate relationship with gymnastics and figure skating. I love what they’re able to do. They’re definitely in the “shut your mouth, you can’t do anything like this business, okay?” category. With both those sports, you pretty much have to dedicate your entire life to that one thing and just decide you want nothing more than to be a freak of nature. Normal people, even extraordinary people, can’t jump up in the air, spin around three times, and pick which edge of a metal blade they want to land on. Humans can’t balance on a wooden beam, do a flip, and land on one foot without so much as a wobble. So anytime somebody enters that “nobody else in the history of time could ever do this” stratosphere in something other than, say, Dungeons & Dragons: the Animated Series trivia knowledge, you have to at least respect the accomplishment. I’m not ashamed to say that I love watching it.

I hate the commentary so much that I almost love it again. If Ed Wood’s movies could be turned into sportscasting, they would get behind the microphones of a gymnastics event and the result would be pretty much exactly what we have here except Bela Lugosi would be Bela Karolyi. It is so bad it’s good. If this telecast isn’t produced by Christopher Guest, I’d be a little surprised.

And it’s hard to know where the commentary ends and the judging begins. I mean, any sport that is determined exclusively by judges is ridiculous. You catch a touchdown, six points. They don’t let the ref deduct a tenth of a point because your legs came apart or you didn’t stick the landing. The Australian judge can’t award anybody seven tenths of a run for not being completely vertical when rounding third base. It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that someone’s whole life can be dedicated to a competition decided by incompetents and less than arbitrary arbiters.

Maybe I’m being unfair to the judges. I don’t know them. The only thing I know about gymnastics scoring is that there are five levels of deductions: Huge, not huge, not good, wow, and disastrous. But I don’t understand how someone can land on their knees (prompting a “wow” and a “disastrous”) on half of their vaults and still win a medal . . . in vaulting.

Part of it is that the new gymnastics scoring has turned into the new NBA All Star Game Dunk Contest. You know, it used to be that if you missed a dunk in the dunk contest, your score got cut in half and you lost all chance of winning. Now they’ll let you try the same nearly impossible dunk for five minutes until you finally prove it is semi-possible. What used to be a spectacle has become a lame parade of extremely difficult mediocrity. It’s the same thing in gymnastics. They fall. They step. They waver. They fail. They medal. Woo hoo. It’s still difficult, but it’s not pretty anymore.

Back to the love. I love the fact that the whole thing boils down to drama . . . that shockingly talented people who aren’t satisfied with being the best until they’re validated by people they think are idiots and awarded medals of the appropriate metal and podiums of the appropriate height can be reduced to tears by a hundredth of a point. I love the disdain, the chastising, the anguish, the incensed cries against international injustice. All sporting respect aside, it’s just so darn fitting.

So, no, sports should never be judged. But I like standing in judgment over the ones that are.

Should I Get You a Card?


What do I say, Earth? Do you want a Hallmark? Box of chocolates? Day off?

I’m sorry, I don’t like Earth Day (no offense, planet). It’s my least favorite fake holiday, right there below Sweetest Day and maybe neck and neck with Andrew Lloyd Weber day on AI. I love Earth, it’s totally the best planet I’ve ever lived on. But the holiday should be recycled into playground equipment.

It’s not that I don’t think Earth is worth the trouble. It’s kind of in the same vein as Mother’s Day – the whole point of the event is to give the honoree a break, but by the end of the day, you’ve burned the french toast, got crumbs in the bed, spent all day in line at Ponderosa, strewn wrapping paper and bad presents and sarcastic cards across the living room, and somehow still managed to leave a kitchen full of dishes for later that evening (cuz let’s face it, Mother’s Day ends at about 4:30 in the afternoon). I just don’t think we’re really helping.

There are plenty of valid environmental causes, I don’t mean to dismiss them all. In general, wasteful living, excessive consumerism, and general disregard for the world around you are all deplorable yet regrettably prevalent lifestyles. I think we use too much and reuse too little. I also think global warming is an absolute crock put upon us by the most arrogant pseudo-scientists in the entire history of planetary studies. Maybe that is what has ruined Earth Day for me.

Probably not, though. Another candidate for Earth-Day ruining champion has to be people who try to offset excessive energy use by making up for it in some other way. Somebody pimp slaps the Earth one second and then buys it flowers. “No, Earth. I love you, baby, come on.” Sorry. Not buying it. I’m not buying that and the whole day any more than I’m buying Jason Castro singing like a glamourpuss. Sorry.

Top Ten Myths the Church Loves to Believe

10. Your personal level of righteousness is directly proportionate to how nicely you are dressed.
9. Punctuality is commanded in the Bible.
8. Heaven will be a democracy.
7. Satan was a musician.
6. Dissent is the same as dissension.
5. There are seven things that please the Lord: the habits of highly effective people.
4. Perfection is possible.
3. Righteousness is impossible.
2. If your theology is correct, it’s okay to be a jerk.
1. Comfort is a virtue.

Bonus: Pastors should pee standing up.

Not Nice

I am not a morning person, but I appreciate 5:00. As much as I hate to roll out of bed (and I relive it with multiplicity each day, depending on how many times I go all Rick James on the snooze button) there’s something special about those first few moments of the day when I’m the only waking person in the house. It is that window of time when I have convicting thoughts. There is clarity in the morning, and clarity almost always reveals something I’ve been doing wrong for years. But unlike the regret that creeps in at nighttime, morning clarity has a certain positive spin . . . I think it’s equal doses of reality and hope.

Reality is the nerve-shredding buzz of the alarm that gets you out of bed, and hope is the hot shower that convinces you it’s worth it to try a little harder.

But this morning’s dose of reality was a little stronger than that of the typical day. I realized that most of the nice things I do for others come at absolutely no sacrifice to me. I get accused from time to time of being nice, but the more I thought about it this morning, the more convicted I became that I don’t do it enough . . . or at least, I’m not usually very selfless about it.

It’s like this. In life you have three different types of activities: things you’re supposed to do (responsibilities), things you want to do (desires), and things it would be really nice if you could do for other people (good deeds). I would guess most people’s lives are pretty full of responsibilities, and I tend to fill in the rest of the blanks with desires. As for me, when I decide to squeeze in time for good deeds, it’s not my desires that take the hit. When I do something nice, it’s usually at the expense of responsibilities. Not always, but . . . usually.

So that sucks. And it’s pretty obvious what the change for today needs to be. It won’t be easy. I think I know where to start. I know, I’m not the only one with this problem. And it could be worse. But, it’s gotta get better. I believe it will.

Anti-Sermonite

This probably makes me a bad Christian, but I don’t believe in sermons. I’ve been hearing them all my life. I’ve heard good ones, bad ones, long ones, and . . . less long ones. But I’m just not convinced they really have any place as a mainstay of the Sunday worship service.

Teaching is important. It is, it really is. But in its present form, I don’t see how it qualifies as worship. I know, I know, it looks nice. Spend 40 minutes or so talking about God, that’s worshipful, right? Well . . . let’s look at what I classify as the three kinds of sermons.

The Topical Sermon
This is the one where the preacher has a message he wants to tell about X subject, and then searches through the Bible for verses that support his ideas on said topic. The pastor will tell you this is worship because he’s exhorting his congregation to live worshipful lives. But topical preaching isn’t worship. Not really. It’s the pastor saying, “God is so great. His Word supports all my theories.” Kinda seems to elevate the pastor over God. The whole “I’ve got something to say, and I’m gonna use God to help me say it” thing is not my idea of worship.

Personal Showcase Sermon
This is the one a lot of televangelist types like to use, but even the most small-time preacher can fall into the trap. In the personal showcase sermon, a preacher basically talks about himself–his life, his funny anecdotes, his kids, his tales of faith and valor and all things holy. Sometimes he’ll even reference his spectacular sins, the ones he committed before he was converted in a shaft of sparkling gold light. He’ll usually mention God in there, too, but in the casual “God and I are buddies, and we hope you can learn from us and one day join us here on the Mount of Transfiguration . . . but I’m not holding my breath” kind of way. Uh . . . not worship.

Expository Preaching
Bible scholars like this one a lot, but I’m not a fan, even though the idea sounds nice. The biblical text is rich with meaning, so the expository preacher will spend upwards of an hour unpacking all the deep layers of context and meaning and applications found in just a few verses. It’s meant to be a testament to their heartfelt love for the Word of God and the infinite truth found therein. That’s worship, right? That’s helpful teaching, right? Ahem . . . no and no. With few exceptions, pastors that preach from a passage of Scripture tend to lose the forest for the trees. The typical expositional sermon starts with the pastor reading the passage in its entirety. Usually takes about a minute. They then spend the next 45 minutes trying to redefine everyone’s understanding of what was just read. I’m sorry, but if I spend a grand total of 90 seconds reading a Bible verse out loud and 45 minutes expositing my observations, interpretations, and applications of what I believe the text means, doesn’t it seem like just a bit too much of the focus is placed on my words? The underlying message is, “God, I love your Word. And I’m sure that if you had the time, you would have explained yourself a little more clearly. But don’t worry. I’ll take it from here.”

In my falsely humble opinion, the sermon is the undoing of the modern Christian mind. Rather than encouraging people to read and study the Bible under the influence of the Holy Spirit, pastors are unwittingly training their listeners to stop thinking for themselves. Regardless of the method, I think most sermons wind up being the reproduction of a preacher’s personal Bible study. The study was helpful for the pastor, but it can be harmful for the person who now thinks “There’s no need to study the passage because it’s just been done for me!” On top of that, the big-picture messages of the Bible get lost in the details. The simple truths get lost in complex extractions. The calls to humility get lost in our pride. The prophecies become obscured by small-minded agendas.

So what do I recommend pastors do? Cut your sermon time in half. Double the time you spend reading the Word of God aloud, free of commentary. Give your congregation a little credit. Trust the Holy Spirit.

. . . he said, longwindedly.

For a more reliable discussion on the topic, go here.

The Show Must Go On

Someone asked me what I thought of the writers’ strike in Hollywood. And the truth was, I hadn’t thought much about it. That surprised me, because I do think of myself as a writer. I tiptoe around that word as much as I can, because I hold the craft of writing in the highest esteem.

I understand that the writing industry is a multi-tiered fraternity that includes first-graders and Shakespeare, Howard Stern and Clive Staples Lewis, junk mail copywriters and Pulitzer Prize winners. When people hear the word writer, they often assume a certain requisite quality in the work of the craftsman bearing the name. Let me be clear about writing: to be called a writer, you don’t need to write well; you need only possess the bravery (or the brazen indifference to the effect your words will have upon your audience) to write at all. With tiny scraps of the former, and an unfortunately healthy dose of the parenthesized latter, I forge ahead and dare to write. So I call myself a writer.

Maybe that should make me biased in favor of the writers in this dispute, but it doesn’t really. I’m no expert in the nature of Labor Unions, other than to know that fear of their cumulative power drives me to capitalize the term. But strikes are, in general, very bad for business. I think parties on both sides need a good “snap out of it” slap across the face from Cher. Their inability to broker a deal is doing harm to them and them alone.

I believe Hollywood is positioning itself for a wake up call to a reality they don’t want to admit exists. People don’t need entertainment. Even if they did, they wouldn’t need to get it from the town of Hollywood. This strike comes at the worst possible time for writers, and the best possible time for an entertainment-starved country. Reality TV, a bulging sports industry, a pathetically easy-to-plunder music industry, and the exponentially exploding You Tube phenomenon all threaten to steal the admiration of the masses.

Give America a few more weeks, and we might just discover that we didn’t need TV as much as we thought we did.

There’s a reason for “The show must go on” axiom in showbiz. If there’s no show, there’s no biz. And even though the writer in me secretly loves to think that nothing in this world can be accomplished without writers, pride is little solace for the people who are without work.

As for the rest of us who are surviving on reruns, syndication, and alternate forms of amusement, we’re doing just fine, I think. Strike all you want. I’ll find something better to do. . . .

But please, please, don’t cancel Lost. Or The Office. Or 24. Or Boston Legal. And finish the last season of Scrubs. Other than that, I don’t need you. Oh, and House. How could I forget House? I am a tower of fortitude. Yes.

Who am I kidding? Please come back!