The Three Books I’m Going to Read Next

The medium is the message.
~ Marshall McLuhan

I toss that McLuhan quotation up there as if I understood what it means, but I’m no better off than the poor schlemiel in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall that receives a severe public drubbing from McLuhan himself. “You know nothing of my work,” McLuhan tells the pedantic blowhard, and I’m just as guilty.

Still, I’m going out on a limb to draw on McLuhan’s famous line nonetheless because it relates to the series of events I’m about to lay out here.

It all started back in March when I came across a MercatorNet essay by Philip Reed, a professor of philosophy at Buffalo’s Canisius College. “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Cellphone” was the title, and, if you’re like me, you can pretty much predict what follows – no? Flummoxed? Here’s a hint in Reed’s sub-title: “Why should I be tethered to the rest of the world 24/7?” Ah, yes, my thoughts exactly – indeed, my words exactly, since I’ve said virtually the same thing to my family and friends, students and colleagues for years. The convenience and wired capabilities that make cellphones so attractive to the whole planet are the very characteristics that make the infernal devices abhorrent to me. “The burden comes in the form of feeling an obligation to individuals and events that are physically elsewhere,” Reed writes, and I frankly enjoy being in one place at one time. Present realities are plenty for my fractious brain to deal with; I’ve no desire to be constantly pulled in a myriad cyber directions.

After finishing Reed’s online essay, I acclaimed “Hear, hear!” to my computer, and I immediately posted the article to my Facebook feed.

Wait – Facebook feed, you ask? Computer? “Ah, yes,” you might be thinking, “another pseudo-Luddite hypocrite.”

I don’t think so, because I have no objection to making use of the internet and high tech as tools. In fact, as a nurse and nursing instructor, I’m required to be familiar with electronic medical records, and I depend on email as a primary means of communication. That’s what I especially appreciate about Reed’s piece: He wasn’t eschewing technology as such, but extreme iMobility. With the advent of smart phones, our use of technology is swiftly morphing into a dependency, and universal Wi-Fi connectivity is essentially becoming a necessity for day to day existence.

The same day I was pondering Reed’s essay, I read a book review by Stefan Beck in the Wall Street Journal that offered an alternative perspective on technology. The book is The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel, and it traces the real-life story of one Christopher Knight who disappeared into the wilderness of Maine for some 30 years. He lived a jerry-rigged life of isolation – part recluse, part scavenger – and somehow he survived. Why, you ask? Here’s how Beck gets at the question: “For some, the temptation to cast off the strictures of civilization by fleeing indefinitely into the woods, the desert or the mountains is intoxicating.” Right – cast off the smart phones, tablet, and other assorted gizmos! Be free, be free! We have nothing to lose, as Marx and Co. might put it, but our electronic chains!

Later in Beck’s review, he notes that Christopher Knight’s story is also, “unexpectedly, a tribute to the joys of reading,” and that the de facto hermit “read everything he could get his hands on.” OK, I’m not ready to jettison all of Western civilization and decent brewed coffee, but I’m all about books and reading. I clicked on my local library’s website, found The Stranger in the Woods listing, and clicked the Reserve button. “Top of the ‘to read next’ pile,” I thought – check!

Then I noticed that my friend Shawn had responded to my Philip Reed anti-cellphone post with a follow-up: A New York Review of Books link to Bill McKibben’s review of David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. The title alone was enough to return to my library’s website and click that Reserve button again. (“This’ll be number two on the pile” – check, check!) Sax provides a guide to the throwback underbelly of our hyper-digitalized Zeitgeist, describing, for instance, the appeal of such quaint relics as vinyl LPs, old-fashioned board games, and actual paper-filled notebooks – the kind you write on with actual pens and pencils. He also talks about e-commerce vs. brick-and-mortar stores, e-learning vs. face-to-face instruction, and even virtual vs. manual labor.

Of course, Sax also addresses books in his book, along with bookstores, and he predicts a rosy future for the book trade. Plus, he delineates his own flirtation with e-books and his retreat back to a preference for the printed page. “I couldn’t annotate to the cloud as I read in print,” Sax writes, “but I could underline, write notes, fold down corners, and never get lost by accidentally tapping the page with my finger.” It’s the testimony of a rehabilitated tech enthusiast – just one of many scattered through Sax’s work. That’s why it’s so curious that McKibben’s review of The Revenge of Analog begins with this depressing avowal:

Our accelerating disappearance into the digital ether now defines us—we are the mediated people, whose contact with one another and the world around us is now mostly veiled by a screen. We threaten to rebel, just as we threaten to move to Canada after an election. But we don’t; the current is too fierce to swim to shore.

Nonsense, and that leads me to the third book atop my “to-read” pile (check, check, check!) which I spotted when I made my way to library to pick up the other two: Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Again, the title alone was enough for me to grab it, but Gavin Francis’s review in The Guardian confirmed my choice. “Alter teaches marketing and psychology at New York University,” Francis writes, “and wants to show us how smartphones, Netflix, and online games such as World of Warcraft are exquisitely and expensively engineered to hook us in.” All I could think of was Russell Crowe’s riveting portrayal of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand in the movie The Insider. Alter’s revelations won’t have nearly the same impact I’m afraid, but maybe they should.

Anyway, I scurried home from the library with my three books and plopped them in a pile next to my bed. I was anxious to read them in hopes they’d enhance and expand my outlook on their common theme: The modern dilemma of coping with the avalanche of digital information and stimulation. Yes, the medium is the message, and it’s a disembodying, anti-incarnational message these days, and that by design it seems.

Such were my thoughts as I tuned into WSND on our analog radio with its bobby pin replacement antenna. Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” came on. “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,” goes the dominant melody line toward the end, echoing the old Shaker hymn and its promotion of downward mobility, lower tech, and simpler ways. It was a heartening moment of serendipity – I couldn’t have planned it better; the felicity was almost divine. After a succession of dire digital deliberations, the music’s message was heartening. “To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”
___________________________

Easter Meditation on a Suicide Averted

Look, here’s a true story. It’s a bit raw, but maybe it’ll help.

I was living in Chicago when I got depressed. Not the bluesy kind of depressed, but the heavy, can’t-shake-it, “drenched wool blanket draped over your thoughts around the clock” kind of depressed.

Sure, I sought out counseling; sure, I attended group therapy sessions and read books for adult children of alcoholics. Nothing was helping, though, and I spent a lot of time going to movies.

By myself.

I was like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, but without the sexual dalliances, and without the admirable existential yearnings of Percy’s Kierkegaardian hero. I was a kid in his twenties from the Colorado burbs, newly Catholic, and living among do-gooders in gritty Uptown. In fact, the do-gooders were my heroes, and I was trying to become a do-gooder myself.

That’s why the depression was so bewildering. God, went my prayer, over and over again, God, why are you doing this to me?

Maybe you’ve prayed that prayer yourself, and maybe your prayer met with cosmic stonewalling like mine did – or at least that’s how it felt. Regardless, I prayed and prayed, and then I self-medicated by going to movies – lots of movies. Going to movies distracted me from the pain and the endless loops of irrational, self-destructive thoughts, and it was better than drinking – or worse.

One night, I ended up in Water Tower Place. There used to be theater there on the second or third floor – maybe it’s still there. I forget what the first show was, but I recall sticking around for a second because it was too early to go home – too early, that is, to land home and crash without feeling compelled to talk with my roommates. I do remember that second show: Gardens of Stone, Francis Ford Coppola’s other Vietnam film, a stateside gut-wrencher that revolves around the Arlington National Cemetery. It was probably not the best film for me to be watching at the time – hardly the diverting entertainment I was groping for. The film’s bleak fatalism accentuated my despair and underscored my emotional isolation.

After it ended, I trudged over to the Chicago subway stop on the CTA’s Red Line. It was late enough that the platform was sparsely populated – just as well. I didn’t want to talk with anybody; I didn’t want to interact. I was tired and miserable and anxious to get home to bed. My mind was racing with dark thoughts. Sleep, at least, offered the prospect of temporary mental relief.

Relief, I thought – and the thought morphed into a prayer: Please, God, grant me some relief. I was standing at the edge of the platform and looking down the tunnel for the ‘L’ train. There are no guardrails or barriers on the edge of subway platforms. There’s just air – just a drop-off to the rails and rats below. As I heard the rumble of the arriving train and saw its lights, I had another thought: If I just fall forward as the train arrives, I’ll get that relief. A pause – the lights got closer. Just a bit of courage, just a shift of weight, and I’ll fall forward, fall in, fall down. I vacillated at the last moment. No more pain…

Terrified, I wrenched myself away from the platform’s edge, and the train rolled in. I shuddered, backed up, and turned to the pay phone on the wall – no cell phones back then, no universal and immediate connectivity. Instead, my bridge back to safety was mediated by an anonymous operator. “Collect call,” I told her, and she punched in my parents’ Colorado number. One ring, two – then my mom’s voice. She accepted the charges and ventured, “Hello?”

“Mom, it’s me,” I said. “I need to come home. I need help and I need to come home.”

I did move home soon after, started regular counseling, and got on meds. The meds were like a temporary chemical brace for my wobbly thinking, and the counseling offered me long-term mental guardrails to lean on going forward – and here I am, decades later, guardrails in place, and alive.

That night on the subway platform I stared down death, stared it full in the face and slapped it away. In that split second, I was granted a choice – and a clear vision. With God’s grace, no doubt with God’s grace, I looked at self-annihilation straight on, considered it, toyed with it, and sent it packing. “Not tonight, you bastard,” my platform retreat declaimed. “Not tonight, you lousy bastard. Maybe tomorrow, but not tonight.” In that moment of crisis, I clung to the grace and gave in to its tidal sweep. It wasn’t the end of something, but a beginning. There’d be no quick cures, but only daily surrenders. Daily willful surrenders, with no guarantees, and yet each surrender meant living for another day.

And where’s there’s life, there’s hope – the Easter message in a nutshell. He is risen, dammit – risen! He’s alive, and where’s there’s life there’s hope. Hold onto life, no matter what – hold on to life, hold onto hope.

I’m telling you, when your platform moments come, you must back away. Your twisted thoughts will deny your infinite worth as a human being, your ineffable value to the world, to the universe, to those who love you – to us, to me. At those moments – if they come at all, God forbid, and if they do, let them be few – hear my words, let my words ring in your head: Your life is worth living; you will get through this; and don’t you dare, don’t you dare do anything to snuff it out. Don’t you dare.

Back away, and let the metal carnage pass. If I can do it, so can you. We can both refuse annihilation this day, this day! Alleluia.
_____________________

For immediate help, call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Discovering Good Friday on Queen Anne Hill

God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.
~ from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday

Read more…

______________________________________

Things Fall Apart: Of Aging, Angst, and Anticipating Holy Week

The liturgy must be understood.
For, day by day, it is our duty to live within it and by means of it.
~ Theodore Klauser

Read more…

__________________________

 

Nailed: The Outrage and Consolation of a Helpless God

If Christ was not of the very substance of omnipotence,
if becomes relatively pointless to point to the paradox of his impotence.
~ G.K. Chesterton

Read more…

___________________________

The Night I Read ‘Catcher in the Rye’

Glinting, the Flatirons caught the sunrise as I
Headed home to recline and recover….

Read more…

_______________________

Of Blinkers, Bakers, and Benevolence: A Lenten Lesson Along I-80

The quick slick confident judgments we are forever making are merely silly.
Who can read the chaos in another’s soul from which his actions proceed?
~ Frank Sheed

Read more…

_____________________________

Of Friendship, Faith, and Death: A Film Series for the Ages

Perhaps we’re most happy when we’re not aware of it, and enjoying a relaxed meal with some friends, just being with friends.
~ Neil Hughes

Read more…

____________________________

Alter Alter Christus: Of Lab Coats, Chasubles, and Playing Priest

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
~ St. Paul

Read more…

_____________________________

’71: The Best Violent Movie You’ve Never Seen

71-still

We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it.
~ C.S. Lewis

The whole purpose of this post is to prompt you to watch ’71 (2015), because I’m guessing you’ve never seen it. Heck, I’ll wager you’ve never even heard of it.

That’s no surprise, because it was a flash in the pan when it came out a few years ago. I don’t remember it ever showing up at the theaters around here, and, even if it had, I would’ve given it a pass. To begin with, the title itself is a marketing disaster. “1971?” I asked myself when I saw it come up in the Redbox queue last year. “What, a movie about hippies?” I was standing outside our Walgreens, on the prowl for a flick to watch with my teenage son. Since nothing else was even remotely appealing, I read the description of ’71 and decided to give it a shot.

It turned out to be a riveting experience – for both of us. Directed by Yann Demange, ’71 is the story of a young, naïve British recruit, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), whose regiment is assigned to provide security in Belfast during The Troubles. After a disastrous confrontation with rioting Irish nationalists and IRA sympathizers, the soldier gets separated from his unit and is effectively abandoned in a staunchly Catholic district. Forced to fend for himself, Hook relies on his wits and the good will of those he encounters to survive a night in enemy territory and make his way back to safety.

’71 is a whirlwind from beginning to end – we were rapt throughout: the action is constant; the violence (rarely gratuitous), abundant; the characters, three-dimensional and sympathetic – even the bad guys (mostly). In addition, the exquisite soundtrack by David Holmes, shifting between calm guitar and rumbling drums, subtly propels the action forward – very reminiscent of the pulsating Tangerine Dream soundtrack in Sorcerer (1977).

And while the story is hard to follow, there are plenty enough threads to keep you engaged. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on most the time – who’s on which side, who are the good guys, who are the bad – but there’s underlying urgency and pounding action that pins you down and demands your attention, beyond even the thrilling survival narrative of Private Hook. The urgency stems in large part from the confusion. In fact, I’d say the confusion is practically a lead character unto itself, and it’s introduced at the very beginning of the film.

As Hook and his comrades are called to attention, a commanding officer announces that they won’t be deployed to Germany as planned. “Because of the deteriorating security situation in Belfast, your regiment is now being deployed there on an emergency basis…. I take it you all know where Belfast is? Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom. Here. You are not leaving this country.” The disturbing reality of the Irish civil war was that the combatants not only professed the same creedal faith, but also the same nationality and/or heritage. It was worse than World War I, where Christians fought Christians across the trenches – French Catholics and Anglican Brits against Christian Germans of all stripes. The unraveling of the WWI Christmas Truce depicted in the film Joyeaux Noël (2005) was painful enough to watch, but not nearly as painful as seeing Irish Christians rip each other apart in ’71.

It’s also painful to watch the film’s depiction of how young Irishmen were conditioned and seduced into killing. Without giving away too much, one character in particular is a case study in homicidal inducement. He resists, despite all the encouragement from his elders to give way and get over the hump of the first kill. He hesitates, he stalls, a sign that he hasn’t completely lost touch with that inner voice telling him that murder is always, always wrong. At that point, it’s hard to tell how much of his reluctance to shoot is rooted in his Christian upbringing, no matter how nominal, and how much of it is some fundamental instinct against taking another human being’s life.

That there is such an instinct is unquestionable. “The history of warfare can be seen as a history of increasingly more effective mechanisms for enabling and conditioning men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human beings.” So writes West Point professor Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995). Grossman details the normalizing process that modern military machines utilize to suppress that resistance in men and women, and optimize both their willingness to kill and their efficiency in doing so. ’71 is practically a cinematic adaptation of Grossman’s Kübler-Ross-like stages of how we accustom ourselves to human slaughter. “The basic response stages to killing in combat are concern about killing, the actual kill, exhilaration, remorse, and rationalization and acceptance.” Prodding future combatants toward that rationalization and acceptance seems to be standard operating procedure for all kinds of armed organizations. Conscience, it seems, and morality have no place.

At the conclusion of the film, I shuddered and looked over at my son. He’s turning 18 next year, and will have to cope with signing up for the draft and all that entails. Maybe it was unnecessary, but I felt compelled to apologize to him for a world in which violence has become the default response to so many problems. In addition, I made a mental note to call my friend Shawn at Catholic Peace Fellowship to get him connected with Cris – to set up a meeting for the two of them to discuss what it means to sign on the dotted line with Selective Service.

Also, I decided to write this post to urge people to watch this underrated and neglected film – and watch it with your teens, especially your sons. As bleak as it is, ’71 contains a powerful undercurrent of confidence in our essential humaneness. “It is there,” Grossman insists, “it is strong, and it gives us cause to believe that there just may be hope for mankind after all.”
__________________________________

%d bloggers like this: