Tuesday, April 17, 2007


For most of my life people have been telling me how good a writer I am. I'm not saying that in an arrogant way, although it has been a struggle over the years to keep from getting too proud or too self important over my abilities. People seem to like what I have to say and the words seem to come together relatively effortlessly. For a while now, I've been identifying myself as "a writer." For example, if I hear a particularly well worded piece of prose, be it in a book or a paper, I'll tell someone, "I'm a writer, so I appreciate how good this is." You're right, that does come off as arrogant. Guilty as charged.

Several years ago I was first exposed to a fantastic movie called Wonder Boys. I won't go into the whole plot synopsis, but it is essentially about the craft of writing, but the true genius of the movie is not in the plot or the acting or the story itself, although all of those elements are fantastic, the true genius of Wonder Boys is the screenplay. The writing is so masterfully crafted that the mere words coming out of the actors' mouths are a joy to the ear. Nothing seems so wonderful to me as a well crafted sentence and this movie is chock full of them. While I haven't read the book that inspired the movie, much credit can be given to the screenwriter (Steven Kloves) who parlayed this movie into a sweet gig adapting the Harry Potter series for the big screen.

During the course of Wonder Boys, there is a scene where a fictional best-selling author addresses a writer's convention with the simple line "I am (pause for dramatic effect) a writer," and is met with uproarious applause. That always puzzled me. It seemed too simple, too indulgent. Perhaps I wasn't a writer after all. I can't resonate with a ridiculous statement like that.

All of this has come to mind as I process the slow demise of our Saturday Evening Worship service. For the past eight or so months, I have been working with a small group of people to lead a rather non-traditional, traditional service at our church on Saturday evenings. Part of this responsibility required me to preach a sermon each week. (Before you all tune me out here, yes, I am a preacher, but every single negative thing that comes to your mind right now, is probably also something I hate about preachers. So hear me out.)

This service kind of arrived at a unique juncture in my life. I was given a chance to explore what I believe to be the call on my life, that is to preach. At the same time I am given this opportunity, I am also enrolled in my first "preaching" class. The combination of these two things has allowed me to explore vast corners of my life that would otherwise be left cluttered. I was able to use the non-traditional atmosphere of the service to expand my creative outlook on preaching and put into practice the theoretical elements of preaching I picked up in class.

Each week the sermon became a writing assignment. It fit far more naturally than anything else I had ever tried. You can ask Carl Winderl how well my foray into short fiction went (luckily I took the class pass/fail and he was gracious). I write poetry, but even I, in my arrogant haze, know it's more for therapy than show; and novels have always seemed so long and scary to me. I needed a creative outlet to express my usually non-fiction premises in a way that would impact people without bogging down the message.

Low and behold: the sermon.

Our service ended last week. In the vacuum of that time and effort commitment, I have been reflecting on its lost place in my life. While I am relieved to have the stress and pressure of the weekly service lifted for a time, I cannot help but desperately miss that outlet in my life. As the Rev. Dr. Larry Lott said recently, "Preaching is the hardest thing you'll ever do...but you love it!"

So as I reflect on this time in my life, the writing talent I have developed and the lack of belonging within the writing community, I have come to a stark, but satisfying realization. I can identify with that character (played admirably by Rip Torn, by the way; perhaps one of the greatest stage names ever conceived) in his statement. While I am not a writer, I am a preacher; it defines who I am. It is a big enough and comfortable enough role with me that it can define me, yet it is large enough and spacious enough that it will allow room for growth in all aspects of my life. I'm not sure if this is what people talk about when they find a sense of purpose, but it certainly gives me confidence. I am... a preacher.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Goodbye, Mr. Vonnegut

Well, it's happened. My favorite living author is no longer eligible for the category. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died overnight from complications of a brain injury that resulted from a fall a few weeks back. He was the most influential author in my past and an idiosyncratic visionary the likes of which we will never see again.

Vonnegut was a member of "The Greatest Generation," but one that bucked the trends. He was, at times, a socialist, an iconoclast, a visionary, and a prophet. He was unafraid to speak out and challenge the status quo, even when he was in total agreement with it. He wrote about the value and the vagueries of the human spirit in prose that embodied the hopelessness of a future in chaos.

Sort of a Marxist Jules Verne on acid, Vonnegut was never happy with anything and yet seemed cautiously joyful at all times. He made a mark, in his later years, giving brilliant commencement speeches at some of the finest universities in the land. As he grew older, it became tougher and tougher to fictionalize his thoughts (as if his fiction was ever all that fictional).

I remember Vonnegut from my first encounter with his first work, Player Piano. Here was an author, well, at the time he was just an average guy putting pen to paper, who just seemed to ramble on and stumble over plot in such a haphazard, yet consistently humorous, entertaining and engaging way. His books read like my thoughts; they gave hope to the lunatic fringe in all of us. He was Ernest Hemmingway for the non-machismo set.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. has been my literary hero and my teacher. I will forever be indebted for the example of freedom and bravery he blazed across the literary landscape. There's more length and depth and breadth to Vonnegut than I can subsume here. I'd ask, in the memory of this great writer, that you explore the world of Kurt Vonnegut. You will not be disappointed.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Call Ahead

I've never had much problem with the call ahead, you know, the practice than many restaurants have where people are allowed to call ahead and get their name on the waiting list for a table. However recent events have led to a seismic shift in my thinking on this matter. Let me explain...

Friday evening the wife and I decided to take our near weekly trip to local dining establishment, Jose Pepper's. We enjoy this place often because the ridiculously large portions allow us to share an entree and still feel sufficiently gorged. An added bonus: they send out coupons for free spinach and cheese dip so often we never run out. It's like 25 dollars worth of food for $9.50 plus tip.

We're not the only one who understand the value of said restaurant, so weekends are usually quite busy at Jose Pepper's. We arrived at 6:00pm (early for those of you on the East Coast, but smack in the middle of prime dinner real estate for those of us in the "mighty" Midwest). We were told that our wait would be 30-40 minutes, which is not altogether unreasonable. We took our flashy restaurant-style pager and retreated to a nearby bench to wait. The wife, with unusual astuteness, noticed that one of the hostesses spent the whole evening answering the phone and taking call aheads; literally the whole evening. As soon as the phone would land in the cradle it would be ringing again.

Initially I was disappointed. I felt somewhat inadequate that I had neither known nor taken advantage of the call ahead program at Jose Pepper's. As time progressed and more and more new arrivals showed up and walked right into the dining room for a table, I became more perplexed. The wife went up to ask how much time we had remaining and heard "you've only been waiting thirty minutes, so it should be five to ten." We'd been waiting 38 minutes.

Now my passive aggressive tactics ruptured into full swing. I commenced standing directly in front of the hostess station, facing them in an attempt to block access to the station for any potential table thieves. Much to my chagrin, some diners made it through my makeshift gauntlet. While this was initially a setback, eavesdropping on their conversation afforded me some valuable insight. One man was told that they were behind in their seating "because of all the call aheads." And from further observation I could see why. Instead of giving the callers a time that their table would be ready, the hostess simply put the person's name on a list and when they arrived at the restaurant, they went into the queue with everyone else, except they got a 10-15 minute wait time.

So, to recap. If you show up at the restaurant in bodily form (presumably with the purchasing power to actually pay for your meal) you wait. If you call ahead and then show up (which requires a whole lot less commitment, mind you) you get right in (relatively speaking).

The absolute boiling point came when a woman walked up and announced she had called ahead. The hostess went through the list three times without finding the name. She cross checked the approximate time the woman called along with the person she had spoken with (the woman didn't know; how convenient). So what happens? The woman (now obviously exposed as a cheat) is given a pager with the promise "we'll have a table for you in ten to fifteen minutes. My God! I thought we lived in a society; a society with rules!

We did get a table, a fantastic waitress (go Kate) and a free dessert, so all is well. However, the whole situation got me to thinking.

The Call Ahead should be banned. This is like "calling it" when you were younger. If you wanted the last piece of cake, you "called it" and no one questioned your rights. I think there's several comedians who do routines around this point. It's an adolescent universal standard. I'm sure there are heavily armed child soldiers in Chad right now in the midst of unnatural chaos, suffering abuse and trauma beyond any of our imagination, who are successfully using the "called it" system with little or no trouble.

Perhaps the ultimate example of the "called it" system is shotgun, whereby one member of a traveling group claims right to sit in the front, passenger seat of said traveling vehicle. This extends beyond adolescence and is in wide use among the of-age populace. However, we didn't just arrive at this system willy-nilly. There is a specific set of rules that govern shotgun, some of which change with geographic location, but with some basic tenets. 1) You've got to be in reasonable proximity to the driving event to call shotgun. My friends and I used the simple "outside the door" rule, while others say "in sight of the vehicle." There is no one out there granting shotgun to someone who calls it an hour ahead of time. It's not happening. It's unnatural. 2) You absolutely have to be present to call shotgun. You can't have a proxy or do it over the phone (or, I guess, by text message, if that is your thing). Perhaps (and this is a longshot here) perhaps if every other passenger fails to call shotgun in a timely manner, a proxy call could be accepted, but that would only be because of the vast ineptitude of the other passengers.

This all brings me back to the call ahead. It's not right. I am asking for a ban on the call ahead; at the very least there needs to be some standard of rules adopted on an international level to govern the call ahead. I'm not sure my heart can take another torturous adventure like the one I had on Friday. For the love of God, for the sake of all that's good and holy in the world, we need action.