Friday, July 26, 2013

To Build Porches and Live on Them

Last night was impossibly gorgeous, as a day that seemed more like Washington in late April than Washington in late July wafted cool and lovely over the stress-shimmer panic of endlessly moving DC.

After working on my novel for a while in the library, I stepped outside to talk a long walk.  It was a little after eight o'clock, on the kind of evening that makes you think of YHWH walking baretoed and joyful in the garden.  The veritable Platonic form of the cool of the day, it was.  The sky was lit with clouds still catching the last rays of the setting sun, set salmon against the clear darking blue of the sky, and the air was crisping up nicely.


I walked through the neighborhoods of Vienna, Virginia , which when I first moved to DC was an outer suburb.   As part of that first tide of tract development, Vienna filled with humble brick ramblers and ranch homes, which quickly filled with mid-level federal workers and army officers.

But the tide of development has swept on, and Vienna is now part of the inner ring of suburbs.  Better yet, it's served by a Metrorail station.  That makes it highly desirable for those humans who prefer not to spend two-to-three hours of their waking day stuck in the endless columns of traffic leading to the exurbs.  As Dante wrote, the worst thing about the deepest layers of hell is that you have to commute through all the others to get there.  That was the point of the chapter in the Inferno on commuting, if I'm remembering correctly, although it's been a few years since I read it.

Now that Vienna is a place where people want to live, it has begun to change.  Walking through the neighborhoods shows a sea change in the homes.  Those old tract ranch houses are being snapped up and razed to the ground, and replaced with much larger homes.

I'd call them McMansions, but that would be...well...not true.  They're as big as McMansions, but the people buying into Vienna are folks of wealth and taste.  No giant ticky-tacky slabs for them.  These are homes for folks who know the meaning of the word bespoke.  Almost without exception, they are lovely.  They are big and gracious, with elegant columns and careful detail work.   They evoke the nicest house in the nicest neighborhood of a large Southern town, the one the president of the bank lived in, only updated.

And because they harken to that bygone era, they all have porches.  Some are wraparound.  Some are front porches.  All are deep enough for a small party and most seem to be furnished with the most gracious be-pillowed wicker offerings from Frontgate.

What struck me as I walked, past home after beautiful home, were two things.  Although it was after eight thirty at night, and dark was falling, most homes appeared empty.  The windows were dark. There were only sporadic signs of life.  A walker here.  A jogger there.   But most people were still working, or kid-shuttling.  Occasionally, a late model Mercedes would pull into a driveway and slink elegantly back to a tasteful garage.  In one lit window, a man in his late fifties sat in a beautiful home office, the huge screen of his iMac open to email, talking intently on his iPhone.

What hit me harder still was that of the fifty porches I passed, gorgeous, elegantly decorated porches on the most beautiful evening we've had in months, not a single one was occupied.   If ever there was a night for a porch, this was it, appearing like a miracle in what should be the soup and swamp of DC July.

But they were all empty.  No one was gazing out at the fireflies.  No one was rocking slowly in a wicker chair and nursing a mint julep, shooting the breeze with a friend.

And the prophet Isaiah whispered in my ear, as he so often does, "..many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant."

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Whole Foods Market Faith

With the little guy in his drum lesson, I found meself wandering through the aisles at a nearby Whole Foods the other afternoon.  I'll typically stop in for a moment or three to pick up organic milk, locally sourced eggs, and non-factory-farmed meat for my boys.  And maybe a baguette.  The baguettes are fresh baked and authentic, and warm baguettes and brie are un cadeau from Dieu.  But the price point for pretty much everything else is just out of reach.

As I meandered, I noticed a display that I'd somehow missed before.  It was near the section that smells like lotion and incense, where they keep the alternative medicine and supplement supplies.

There, on a little display table, were a panoply of faith tchotchkes.  Here, a little ceramic Buddha statuette.  There, a Krishna, in a classic multi-armed Karate Kid crane stance.  Next to the pocket-sized bronze Krishna was a bitty little bronze elephantine Ganesha disappointingly sporting only two arms, but with a cool rune on the forehead.  Above them, a sign saying  "Spirituality, Life Balance, and Something Something."  I honestly don't remember.  Around them, boxes of incense, all more than a little bit overpriced.

And that left me in something of a quandary.  As a representative of a faith missing from that table, should I have felt troubled that Christianity wasn't represented when it comes to spirituality, life balance, and something something?     Doesn't Christian faith have any purchase with the sleek and upscale clientele that gets their organic free range living on at Whole Foods?  Are we missing out on that entire demographic?

On the other hand, I was a bit relieved.  If there'd been a couple of two inch tall brass Jesus figurines, with convenient holes in the hands and feet for mounting incense sticks, I think it would have bugged me more.

Faith and the marketplace just aren't two tastes that sit well together in my spirit.  Perhaps it's a Jesus thing.  I do wonder, for my non Abrahamic brothers and sisters, if they have the same reaction to faith baubles and trinkets that I do.

Yeah, I know Ganesh would be cool with pretty much anything, being the god of transactions and all.  Bobbleheads?  Bizarre Bollywood kid's movies?  You name it, he'll lend his brand to it.

But Krishna?  I think it'd cheese him off.  The Buddha, on the other hand, probably just wouldn't sweat it.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Coyotes, Title Lenders, and Other Varmints

In the last year or two, the coyotes have moved in.  Having grown up in and around the Northern Virginia area, I can say that this is a new thing.  There were raccoons, there was the occasional fox, but rangy, loping, mid-sized-dog predators?  Not so much.

In our neighborhood, they've taken down a couple of cats, and may have been responsible for tearing a young fox to pieces in my neighbor's back yard.  Nothing like finding a fox head in your lawn to give you the heebie jeebies.

Coyotes are smart enough to know to avoid us, but will on occasion go after domesticated dogs or small kids.

Meaning, they're not a welcome addition to the local ecosystem.

For some reason, their arrival coincides with the arrival of another creature in Annandale...the car title lender.  Over the last several years, as recession-blight has emptied out a series of Annandale storefronts, they've shown up on our doorstep.

First a TitleMax, replacing a failed Korean furniture store on Columbia Pike.  Then a LoanMax, on Little River Turnpike.  Then a "Fast Auto Loans" on Little River Turnpike.  Then another TitleMax on Little River Turnpike.

These businesses certainly look like legitimate enterprises, with bright signs, clear branding, and talk about service-provision to those who can't get loans.  It's all about meeting the needs of a particular population, their spokes-folk say.

But these are predators, pure and simple, and their arrival is a mark of blight on any community.  Sure, they offer up small loans to those who are desperate, with your car put up as collateral.  Don't have money to pay for an operation, or this month's rent?  You can get that cash quick.

Then, you have to pay them back, or lose your car.  And the interest rates?  At TitleMax, offering "the best rates in the industry," that means an annual percentage rate of just a tick under 300%.

Three hundred percent APR.  That's not a typo.

A recent report from the Center for Responsible Lending showed that the average recipient of a car title loan held that loan for half a year, and paid two dollars in interest for every dollar borrowed.

Interest rates that abusively high are banned in 28 states, and on the Federal level, car-title loans are explicitly prohibited for individuals in active military service, after a proliferation of such businesses around military bases began to have a crippling effect on the financial well-being of young enlisted personnel.

But in Virginia, where State Senate Leader Dick Saslaw has actively championed the interests of title lenders, things are different.  His support of these predatory businesses has allowed them to grow and expand their range, an action that was reinforced by a 2011 Bill...introduced by allow title lenders to prey on individuals holding out-of-state titles.

And as a pastor who lives and votes in Virginia but serves a flock in Maryland, that matters to me.

My own state representative voted for it, as did my state senator, which is beyond disappointing.  I expect more from folks who claim to be progressive, unless by "progress" you mean "making the world progressively worse for the poor."  Sometimes you need to go beyond the press of the party bosses and actually care about those in need.  Even if they happen to live across state lines.

These businesses explicitly prey on the vulnerable, the gullible, and the struggling.  That is their entire business model in a nutshell.  Encouraging and supporting their presence in a community is like intentionally stocking your neighborhood with coyotes.   I mean, really, why not?  If your kids are too slow or too unwary to avoid them, well, that's the law of the jungle.  Right?

Having been preaching from Amos for the past couple of weeks, I find it amazing that such businesses thrive in a state where a substantial portion of our population claims to be "biblically based."  Preying on the poor and the struggling is one of those things for which every corner of scripture has little patience.  Unlike our endless arguments about abortion and homosexuality, which are at best marginal interests in the Bible, the defense of the poor and needy against predators is consistently front and center.   Wisdom teaching?  The prophets?    Oh, the prophets.  They have a special place in their hearts for "businesses" like this.

And Jesus?  Well, he started his whole Jesus-thing with an affirmation of God's concern for those oppressed and in need.  

Lord, but this sort of thing troubles me.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Cassini and Faith

Yesterday, the first of the raw pictures came back from the Cassini spacecraft, on its long trek to the gas giants in the outer reaches of our solar system.  Many were striking, but the one that got me was the one to the right.  There, in the deep blackness of space, a bright point of light, a featureless blue-white sparkle in the heavens.  Below it, a smaller, slightly dimmer speck.

Earth and the moon, those two dots are.  Here we are, seeing ourselves from a distance that renders all of human life and history to its actual place in the universe.  We're teeny tiny, so infinitesimal as to be just a speck in the vastness.

This is not a new observation, of course.  It was made wonderfully by Carl Sagan, years ago, as images of a distant earth first reached us.  That Pale Blue Dot is so precious, yet so ephemeral.  

What struck me in seeing those Cassini images was, unsurprisingly, the faith spin on all of that.  Unless a faith can take the reality of our place in the vastness into itself, it just isn't real.  So much of the way human beings have come to understand our faith casts all of existence in earthbound terms.  We often proclaim a great and cosmic struggle, and yet the scale and scope of that struggle never leave the bounds of the speck we inhabit.

If the most fevered yearnings of John of Patmos came true, and Revelation were fulfilled tomorrow, and the seas ran with blood and there were horsemen and beasts rose from the sea in a way that would give Guillermo del Toro what?

The view from Cassini would show that same binary planetary system.  Maybe the Earth would have a slightly redder hue.  

But the rest of the universe would trundle along oblivious. To be meaningful in an existence of this scale, faith has to be both larger and more intimate.

Larger, in that we have to understand all of our sacred stories in a radically different way than our forebears.  They need to speak into the reality of our place in a Creation that is more wondrous and humbling that we ever imagined.

More intimate, in that we need to see the defining existential purpose of faith...which gives meaning and purpose on a human scale.  What matters is our capacity to find that which gives life integrity and direction, and there, an open, gracious faith does so.

If we can do these things, our faith still has purchase, even if all we yet are remains on that tiny bright speck.

The slightly bigger one, that is. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Public Shaming and Social Media

It's surfaced a few times on my social media feeds in the last week.  Public Shaming, it's called, a progressive/lefty social media site (on tumblr, in this instance) that serves one purpose.

That purpose: to highlight racist/ignorant comments on social media, and then turn the ire of those who are outraged at such comments against the individual in question.  You're invited to google it...but it's a wee bit profane.  Well, actually, it swears like a sailor with Turettes.  Just so's ya know.

It was active around the Asiana airlines crash, publicly humiliating those insensitive enough to make that an opportunity for jokes about race.  And then I saw it again today, as it called out a half-dozen or so twitter users who made racist and ignorant assumptions about singer Marc Anthony as he sang at a baseball game.

The folks tweeting were...well...not bright, and not pleasant.  Being of Latino heritage and fluent in Spanish doth not make a person 1) Mexican or 2) Not American.   And what they posted, without exception, was shameful.  But as this site and others like it get more purchase, I found myself wondering what reaction it was stirring out there.

What does public humiliation look like in the social media era?   I went to the twitter feed of one @G_Lewis19 to find out.  He'd tweeted the following bit of nastiness to our collective consciousness:

"Why is some Spanish [fornicate] singing God Bless America at the All Star Game? That's just wrong"

Contemptible, without question.  And...well...stupid.  And racist.  All of those things.  So I searched for his account.

There, I observed the reaction, fueled by the shaming site.

Hundreds of responses, pages and pages of them.  I scrolled down for a while.

Some were measured.  Most were rather less so.  A sample, redacted as needed:

"Get educated dumb [fornicate]!" 
"You dumb white trash [fornicate]!!!!"  
"I hate dumb[fornicates] that talk [excrement] about r culture...Glewis beware!"  
"you ugly [fornicating] short white trash. He's American you dumb [fornicate.]" 
"[Fornicate] your apologies you said there is no coming back from being scum you hateful [genitalia]..." 
"so ur the moron who think latins can sing an american song guess what fagot puertorricans are as americans as anyone else."

And so on, and so forth. Hundreds of these.  From the comments, it was clear that the offender had attempted an apology, and then stopped as the tide of hatred continued, and then fled.  The account itself is no longer accessible, at least as of this writing.

Other accounts targeted for racist comments were still up, with various reactions.  One appeared to be an attention troll, the sort of web denizen who thrives on that sort of thing, and was continuing to blissfully spew out nastiness in a sea of vitriolic response.  But most shut down.

And I wonder...just what does this help, precisely?  What does using media as a lens to bring the outrage of hundreds or thousands onto an individual actually do?  Sure, there are ignorant people out there.  But connecting them with people who are filled with hatred for their stupidity seems unlikely to create ground for reconciliation or understanding.

Hatred has, in the long and blighted history of our species, never managed to do much of anything but engender more hatred.  And shaming, humiliation, and verbal abuse of a complete matter how much of an idiot/moron/knuckledragger they may in actuality be...also doesn't tend to improve things.

It's not particularly good for changing the blighted spirit of a racist, any more than beating a bad dog makes them a better dog.

But it's also not good for those who feel that surge of insta-media outrage and umbrage, vent at a stranger, and then move on through their day.   It stirs a sense of agitation that more likely than not does not actually mirror their reality.  It shifts and shapes us into holding an adversarial understanding of being.

And that seems like the last thing we need in our culture.  That, we already have aplenty.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Church, The Quick, and the Dead

On Sunday, as I nosed my way through the church mail, I found myself encountering the latest issue of Presbyterians Today.   It was the handy-dandy "Welcome to the PC(USA)" edition, one that Presbyterian churches can keep conveniently located near the entrance for distribution to visitors curious to learn more about the church.

But looking at the cover, I found myself going, "Huh."

I know the demographics of my denomination, know what it looks like, know what it feels like.  And what I saw on the cover just wasn't that.  You can see it yourself, a multiethnic klatch of smiling, pleasant, recently-graduated Hufflepuffs.  The crowd is young, almost without exception.  And there, I'm not even talking about the circle of folk in the foreground.

I'm talking about the whole room.  There's one slightly older guy, and maybe one blurry person who might conceivably have white hair in the far background.

This seems a nice enough gathering, one that was most likely Presbyterian through and through.  But if you encounter a Presbyterian church, is this what you are most likely to find?

Meaning: where are the old people?  You know who I'm talking about.  The geezers.  The codgers.  Old Man Jenkins.  Widow Prescott.

Because honeychild, we Presbyterians are not a young lot.  The 2011 Presbyterian Panel Study (Lord, how we loves us some data) found that the average age of a Presbyterian...that's median, kids...was sixty three.

Yes, Sixty Three.

I marveled at the unrepresentative cover, and wondered to myself...where's the church I know?  Where are the oldsters?  I flipped the magazine over, and...O Sweet Jesus.

On the back, an ad for columbariums.  

Which, in the event you've never encountered that term before, are places you stash human remains within a church.  Pretty much no twenty or thirty-somethings have a clue what that even is.  Lord knows I didn't at that age.

We're a young church, says the front.  Your Session may be interested in hearing a presentation about columbariums, whispers the back.  It was a peculiar tension, one that stirred several reflections.

I see columbariums as a peculiar thing.   What's wrong with a garden for ashes, or the foot of a beloved tree, or the sea, or a mountaintop?  Just remember to toss downwind, brothers and sisters.  

Then again, I also struggle even more deeply with the absence of age on the cover.  

Yes, we must be welcoming to the new generation of the church, and open to the new.  Period.  If not, all we are is a columbarium waiting to happen.  Our organizational survival strategy can't be to scare off property purchasers and potential developers by filling our sanctuaries with human remains.

But what our culture does to the old is both insane and a tiny bit monstrous.  Age is hidden away, ignored, useless.  And so we forget, and our forgetting leaves us weaker.

One of the things I've cherished about my time in the Presbyterian church, as I've gone from being a youngling into the comfortable roundness of middle age, is the encounters with the deeper spirituality of older souls.  Lifetimes of hard won experience, triumphs and losses, these things have a value that no amount of Googling can replace.  The wisdom of older pastors and Jesus folk who've walked in the Way for a lifetime have taught me as surely as Old Ben or Yoda.  

Some folks do lose themselves on that journey, I'll admit.  Their souls calcify as they age, and they hold on to the past with anxious hands.  But others remember, and delight in being where they are, and bear with them stories that are powerful and worth hearing.

Focusing on the young?  That's our culture.  Intermingling the generations and casting down the walls that have been erected around us?  That would be different.  Countercultural.  

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Faith of Corporate "Persons"

Corporations are people.

Increasingly, this seems to be where our jurisprudence is headed, and that's gotten a bump in the last week.  Hobby Lobby, a chain of stores selling arts and crafts, has been resisting mandates to provide emergency contraception/IUD coverage in its health care plan, on the grounds that it violates its religious freedom.  

Not the freedom of its owners, mind you.  Its religious freedom as a corporation.

According to the Hobby Lobby wiki, its operating principles involve "...honoring the Lord in a manner consistent with Biblical principles."

Whether or not one can make any meaningful case against interuterine devices from Biblical principles is another post for another time.

What struck me hardest about this issue was a quote from Appeals Court Judge Tim Tymkovich, writing in the opinion that affirmed Hobby Lobby's right to deny coverage:
"We see no reason the Supreme Court would recognize constitutional protection for a corporation's political expression but not its religious expression."
Obviously, this references Citizens United, the recent SCOTUS decision that affirmed constitutional protections for corporations as persons.  But as "persons of faith?"

Here, I'll admit to being a bit baffled.  Corporations, as faithful "persons?"  As religious "people?"

Can a corporation be baptized, or stand accountable before God as you or I stand before God?  Does TitleMax sneak into the back pew, and weep quietly when you preach about God's judgment on those who prey on the poor?  I don't think so.

And yet, as I think this, I consider other possibilities.  Like, say, that the Bible does make space for some degree of corporate and collective judgment. Lord knows Israel messes up collectively on repeated occasions throughout the Tanakh, and is judged for it.  I am also aware...particularly as a pastor...that groups do have their own peculiar form of spirituality.  Churches have their own characters, their internal zeitgeist, as do many other collective institutions.  And they can certainly worship together, and pray, and sing.

Then on the other hand, really?  A person?  If a board of directors or CEO decides to sell or dissolve or close a corporation, do we protect its integrity as a person, or do we view it as an object that can be sold or destroyed with no moral hazard?

And if a corporation commits a crime of negligence or predation, do we collectively punish it and all of those who participate in it?  We do not.  The LLC corporate structure exists primarily as a construct to avoid liability.  If so, how can it reflect moral agency?  How can it have a "soul?"

Ultimately, corporations are a human legal construct.  They have no reality outside of that which we give them.  They are not aware.  They are not sentient.  They are not made in the image of God.  They are objects of our own creation.

And when we confer personhood to an object made with our own hands, and allow that object to have power over us, standing as if it were another soul in our midst?  The Bible does have a word for that.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Guns, Robots, and the End of the Second Amendment

Last month, at the meeting of my Presbytery, we discussed guns.

It went as I would have expected, our Presbytery being a liberal one and all.  There was a presentation from an elder at a local progressive church, calling on the denomination to again affirm its longstanding position on sane gun safety measures in our culture.

Then, there were the rebuttals.  The first was a painful, multipage speech, prepared by an elder regrettably unaware of the core principles of rhetoric.  If you want to sway a crowd, you need to establish connection.  If you establish that sense of shared ethos, a gathering will listen.

Using a laundry list of talking points from your silo, none of which have any purchase?  That's as useless as if the Apostle Paul had stood up on the Areopagus in Athens and started speaking in Hebrew.  You're speaking the wrong language.

Just because it sounded good in your car when Rush Limbaugh said it doesn't mean it's the right thing to say.  By the time we reached the inevitable reference to the Holocaust, the room was actively groaning.

The second individual who rose to speak against the motion was more measured.  He'd been a senior navy officer, and he almost...almost...registered with what was by then an impatient crowd.  He was focused and disciplined, but when he made his point about the need for citizens to bear arms as a ward against tyranny it again fell flat.  In a room full of liberals and leftists, arguing that you might need to know how to use an automatic weapon in the event a despot seizes power works only under two conditions.

Those conditions involve 1) referencing Leon Trotsky's argument against a disarmed proletariat in his anti-Stalinist screed "The Revolution Betrayed," and 2) Using the words "President Cuccinelli."

But honestly?  That Red Dawn fantasy is dead.  The idea that small arms are a meaningful ward against tyrants may have made sense in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but now?

Things are different.  I've argued this before, but just how different was reinforced yesterday.  On the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, an Unmanned Combat Air System was successfully launched from the flight deck.  That's not that big a deal.  It had been done before.

What was a big deal was that the same UCAS then successfully pulled off a carrier landing twice in a row, although on the third attempt, it aborted.  Why does that matter?  Carrier landings are one of the most complex and demanding skills required of military personnel.  And now, robots can do it.

This isn't a Waldoed machine, like some big fancy remote-controlled helicopter.  This is an entirely autonomous system.  And it can 1) land on a carrier and 2) determine that its approach is wrong, and make the decision to abort...with no human intervention.

Watching the F-18 Super Hornet escorting the UCAS in reminded me of that scene in Michael Moore's Roger and Me, the one where an animatronic worker and robot sing a song together in a failed GM theme park exhibit.  That human being?  The expensive, highly-trained fighter jockey flying that plane?  They're escorting in their replacement.

For those who imagine the Second Amendment still provides protection against the power of a tyrant, this is worth noting as well.  That Walther P90, Remington 1100 Tac 4, and Ruger SR-556 Carbine you've got in your responsibly locked gun case?

When it comes to resisting a despot armed with the next generation of robotic combat systems that we're so blithely and eagerly producing, you might as well own a collection of Nerf Guns.

What's the point of a right if it's functionally meaningless?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Houses No One Can Live In

It was a decent outing, as my wife and I and our boys sat down for a pleasant dinner with another couple and their boys, folks we've known since the pups were small.

We dined and chatted in a restaurant ensconced in a sparkly new insta-city, one of the many quick-build high-density developments that have sprung up in recent years around DC's public transit hubs.  It was still mostly empty, but the colorful architecture was clearly primed to be filled with the Ikea furniture of young, childless Booz Allen Hamilton employees.

After the dinner, we walked, all of us, over to another new entertainment complex, shiny and sparkly new and occupying the space that once held a multiplex theater.  They'd torn down a drive-in to build the multiplex, and then torn down the multiplex to build an entertainment district.  There, a new townhouse development was springing up just outside of the complex.  Though the townhomes were modern and interestingly designed, they were still surrounded by old warehouses and storage lots.

A sign proudly announced that "construction sale" costs were in effect, with the town houses starting from "the low $600s."  "Where fashion meets flavor and comfort meets cool," purrs the developer website, pitching out pictures of sleek multiethnic couples who shop and then drink appletinis and then shop some more.

When I read financial and economy-oriented news, I see such things presented as a sign that the economy is getting better.  New housing starts up, we hear.  Home prices on the rebound, we hear.  Investors are sweeping in and snatching up homes to resell, we hear.

But let me suggest that townhouses bordering an industrial park starting at somewhere north of six hundred thousand dollars?  That is not actually good news.

Beyond the entry cost, which would require a downpayment a tick over six figures, you'd be looking at a monthly payment of a little over three thousand bucks.  Factor in utilities and maintenance costs, and you're looking at a monthly outlay of close to four thousand dollars for housing.   Well over forty thousand dollars a year, and likely closer to fifty thousand, for a three bedroom townhome.  Let's call it forty eight thousand, 'cause that's likely where it'd land.  If it's the cheapest model.  Most go for between $750-850,000.

If you're a cop in Fairfax County, and you're midway through the pay scale, that would be every single penny you make.  If you're a teacher in Fairfax County, with a Masters Degree and ten years of experience, that would consume 78% of your salary.  If you're a firefighter/EMT with ten years in?  Same deal.

If you're the assistant manager in one of the upscale retail stores that populate those new insta-cities?  Fuggeddaboutit.  Not even in the ballpark.

For all of the sparkly pictures and luxe pretensions of the developer, what's being created here are homes for imaginary people and the absurdly well-off.  What is not being built, not anywhere, are homes for the rest of us.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Asiana Airlines, and What Media Does to Our Souls

It was undeniably tragic, and tragically avoidable.  The recent crash of an Asiana Airlines 777 at San Francisco Airport left me, briefly, worried over whether anyone I might know from the Korean American community might be involved.  At my old church, folks would shuttle back and forth to visit family during the summer.  Hearing that a flight from Seoul had gone down, I immediately thought of those I know who might have been on that flight.  Some were, in fact, returning from Korea that very day through SFO...but were on other flights.

Though the loss of those two lives and all of those injuries was tragic, I confess I'm relieved so few among the passengers were killed.  Thank God for the gifts of the engineers who designed that airframe.

What's also been striking, though, is how our focus on new media has shaped some responses to this.  On Twitter, of course, there were those who took the opportunity to make jokes about "Asians and their driving," utterly oblivious to the fact that they were doing so publicly and in the potential presence of, you know, human beings.

Among my plugged in Asian friends and acquaintances, both Korean-American and otherwise, there was horror at the callousness of these strangely blighted souls.  Human beings died in a tragic, frightening accident...and you think it's time to be stupidly snarky and racially belittling?  Lord have mercy.  New media can do that do us, allowing us to be blind to all but ourselves and our own self-interested belching into the electronic void.  We've always been that way, particularly if we're isolated in our own communities, but that human predilection seems only deepened by our cybernetic self-siloing.

But there was something else that caught the ear of my spirit, something that was not racist at all, but felt strangely telling.

It was in the video of the accident, caught by an aviation enthusiast who watched in horror as the plane hit.  His reaction, caught in the audio, was first casually noting that the plane's attitude as it came in was off, and then clear and mounting horror as the aircraft tumbles wildly on impact.

But there was another voice on the audio, a woman's voice.  The plane hits, and the videographer exclaims that it's crashing, and the voice comes:

"Oh you're filming it too."  And again, a second or two later, "Oh my God you're filming it."

This is, of course, true.  He was filming it.  But that this is the thought that rose to be vocalized at that moment seems interesting.  Here in front of you hundreds of people may be dying.  The crash did look horrible, bad enough that it seems miraculous that so few were killed.

And yet the reaction is to note that it is being recorded.

It is not, I will note, an alien response.  In this distributed media age, "catching" a moment like that is a big deal.  It is a significant part of how we now think, and how we orient ourselves.  I know that feeling myself, so I understand her reaction.

Yet it leads me to wonder, again, whether media can in some ways distance us from the reality of others more than it connects us.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

O'er the Smartphones We Watched

It was, by all measures, a pleasant Fourth of July.

The day was filled with summer sweetness, as we whiled away pleasant hours down at our neighborhood pool.  It was hot, just hot enough to feel like summer without being overly oppressive.  Though the air was thick with sultry Southern wetness, the skies were clear, and cool breezes passed now and again.

The pool was crowded, as it is on the Fourth.  There were greased watermelon games, pie eating contests, candy hunts, relay races, and an agonizingly epic belly flop contest.  There was also a "beer dive contest," which basically entails lifeguards throwing several cases worth of ice cold beer..cans, of course...into the water, and then the grownups dive for it.  What you get, you get to keep.

It's an entertaining pool.

After tennis, and swimming, and contests, and more tennis, we recovered for a bit, snagged a quick dinner, and then went to my parents house.  From there, we went to the nearby high school, where for the last decade or so we've consistently gone to watch fireworks.  When we first went, the boys were tiny, and hid.  Now?  Now they aren't so much, but the ritual remains a vital touchstone of summer.

Only it's different now, different even than it was five years ago.

I noticed this after dark fell, and the surprisingly good Beatles cover band ratcheted down.  The national anthem was sung by the crowd of many thousands, ten to fifteen thousand at least, all gathered on the football field before us.  It was a wildly diverse gathering, reflecting the deep cultural richness of the DC area.

And then, right on cue, the fireworks began.

It was a big start, as it often is, to catch your attention.   What caught my attention, though, was not the light in the sky.  It was the flickering brightness from the field.

I had noticed it a bit last year, but this year, it was inescapable.  The darkened field was a sea of light, thousands and thousands of smartphones, all held aloft to the sky.  Each was recording video, and so with every burst from the air, there'd be an infinitesimal lag, and the field would pulse back, as thousands of little bright rectangles echoed the moment that had just occurred.

Through the entire opening display, the sky stuttered and spit with light, and the thousands of screens pulsed with it.

It felt...strange.  There was a peculiar sameness to it, to this compulsion to view and record and share, every screen an echo of every other, magnified by the thousands.  Thousands upon thousands, not in the moment fully, the celebration of fire in the sky filtered through a screen and the expectation of sharing data.

It seems worth marking.  Worth taking note.