Summer of the Low Achiever

Aug 22, 2015

We have arrived at that late-summer turning point when we take stock of what we have or have not accomplished since Memorial Day, back when the broad expanse of summer days ahead seemed to glow with promise: anything is possible! Build a deck! Clean out the basement! Organize the file cabinets! Write a book!

Time to admit—for another year—that it was all an optimistic fantasy.

I sat in a meeting with two esteemed colleagues the other day, both of them accomplished scholars. “So what did you do this summer?” I asked them, expecting them to mention academic articles completed, conferences planned, syllabi overhauled. “Not much,” they both shrugged. Obviously, I will not reveal their identities in case the Provost is reading this.

These good colleagues made me feel better about my own status as a low-achiever this summer, at least in terms of activities that could enhance my CV. Still, in an effort to provide some lame and minimal justification for how I’ve stewarded my time since May, I offer these bite-size reviews of books, movies, TV shows, and random activities, mostly in the spirit of “Hey, you should try this, too!”

Ordinary Light, by Tracy K. Smith (Knopf, 2015)
ordinary light
Let’s begin with a serious, literary book. This lovely memoir by poet Tracy K. Smith reflects on growing up in a lively, devout African-American family in Northern California. The opening chapter movingly recounts the death of her mother from cancer just after Smith graduated college (she’s now 43). The narrative then shifts back to Smith’s early childhood and works through teenage rebellions and secrets, then transitions to Smith’s undergraduate years at Harvard and beyond. In this coming-of-age story, Smith grapples with the role of faith in her life as well as her growing racial consciousness, casting it all in light of a primary, close relationship with her mother. I found Smith’s prose not only poetic, but elegant and discreet, not surprising for a writer whose 2011 volume, Life on Mars, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by how much I could connect with Smith’s story, particularly with her family’s embeddedness in church life and her empathy with her parents’ deepest desire—not always fulfilled—that their children would persevere in the faith.

Feed, by MT Anderson (Candlewick, 2002)
feed
Many weeks after reading this young adult novel, I find myself still thinking about it—and shuddering. The premise: not too many years in the future, about three-quarters of the U.S. population sport a cranial implant that feeds the internet (essentially) directly into the mind. So if you think it’s creepy that searching for a vacuum at Sears.com makes vacuum ads appear for you on Weather Underground, and that amazon.com knows your preferences before you do, well, this novel will convince you: it could get a lot worse. In this story, a teenager and his friends spend their days seeking shallow pleasures and responding to personalized advertisements that appear in their minds, prompting them to follow consumer trends that change practically daily. The protagonist does not quite perceive how shallow and meaningless his life is, nor can he comprehend the environmental devastation occasionally glimpsed beneath the surface of his shiny lifestyle. But we see it, and so does his girlfriend, who tries to resist the feed with disastrous results. The most impressive aspect of this novel for me is that Anderson thought carefully about what this kind of world would do to people’s language skills. The flattened, affect-less, vocabulary-poor language in which characters think, speak, and “m-chat” (i.e., mind-text—not kidding) vividly conveys their diminished capacity to be human. I’ve arrived late to the party on this one: Feed is over a decade old and already a classic in high school classrooms. And rightly so; the book seems to me as important a critique of where we are and where we’re headed in the early 21st century as Brave New World was in the early 20th.

Between You and Me, by Mary Norris (Norton, 2015)
between you and me
Written by a veteran copy editor at The New Yorker, this memoir is organized into chapters on puzzling grammatical quandaries: comma usage, gendered pronouns, hyphens, apostrophes, etc. I’m not sure people who struggle with, say, the objective and subjective cases will emerge from this book with eyes suddenly opened and fog lifted. And naturally, none of the grammatical wisdom here was new to me (ahem). But never mind, because Norris is an incisive and witty story-teller whether she’s dishing on personalities at the office or serving up amusing examples for her grammar lessons. In my favorite section, Norris digresses from the trickiness of hyphen usage in order to solve the mystery of the hyphen in the title of Moby-Dick. One has to be at least a bit of a grammar geek to love this book, but even non-geeks will gain an appreciation for the complexity and subtlety—and necessity—of good copy editing. And yes, the book is impeccably copy-edited.

Two Steps Forward, by Sharon Brown (Intervarsity, 2015)
two steps
Full disclosure: the author is a good friend of mine. But I do sincerely recommend this novel about four women friends seeking to deepen their relationship with God while navigating the upheavals and challenges they each face. Two Steps Forward is the sequel to Sensible Shoes, Brown’s breakout debut, in which she pretty much invented the genre of “spiritual formation fiction.” The intertwined narrative of Meg, Mara, Charissa, and Hannah in this sequel stands on its own, but the book is designed to prompt reflection on the reader’s own spiritual practices. Highly recommended for church groups to read together. Two Steps Forward will be released in a few weeks (I read an advance copy).

Inside Out
So much for books. On to movies. I admit I thought the trailer for this movie looked dumb, but the actual movie had me swooning. Scott Hoezee already offered a fine review on The Twelve, so here I’ll simply ditto his assessment and urge you to see it if you haven’t already. My spouse and I went with our two teenage boys. All of us loved the movie, and afterwards we had a great discussion about which emotions we each thought most dominated our own “headquarters.” One should heed, however, the warning appended to the New York Times review by A. O. Scott: Young children may be mildly alarmed in places, especially at the sight of their parents weeping through the last 20 minutes.”

San Andreas
sanandreas
We are moving quickly down the taste scale here. My spouse talked me into going to this movie on a day when I was drooping with fatigue and ennui. The description intrigued me—Carleton Cuse of Lost wrote the screenplay—but the Rotten Tomatoes score was 50% “fresh” among critics, and 59% “fresh” among audiences. Well, turns out that must be my sweet spot, because I loved this movie. It stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a rescue-chopper pilot whose family struggles to survive when the San Andreas fault cracks open wide enough to swallow entire traffic patterns and most of the West Coast snaps right off the continent. Fun! As the buildings collapse with splendid galumphs and every car, truck, plane, and boat in sight is smashed to smithereens, personal drama ensues: an estranged marriage is patched up, a jerky potential stepfather is soundly crushed, a youthful romance blossoms, an adorable younger brother gains his courage, and an underappreciated scientist gets to say a big fat “I told you so.” Is it predictable? Of course! That’s why I emerged from the dark theater feeling cheerful and satisfied. That and the fantabulous special effects. Would see again.

Ant Man
I got talked into this one, too. It was good fun, but you could live a rich and full life without ever experiencing this movie’s pleasures. Poor Evangeline Lilly had to wear a severely ridiculous wig and her talents were mostly wasted. At least this most unpromising of all superhero premises (a shrinking man! he can talk to ants!) was worked up with a sense of humor about itself. The final conflict between Ant Man and the big villain dude (who can also shrink!) takes place on a children’s train set, and the perspective alternates between their point of view, in which the train roars menacingly through the frame, and a normal human point of view, in which the cute little train clatters adorably about and—oops!—pops off the track.

Slings and Arrows, Season 1
slingsarrows
And now we move to the couch, too lazy even to get in the car and drive to the cineplex. A professional theater couple recommended this series to me, assuring me that it depicts with some accuracy what it’s like to be in a repertory company. The Canadian series first aired in 2003, and the show is now available in the U.S. on Hulu. With all its critical acclaim I can’t figure out how I’ve missed it before because: it’s about Shakespeare! That is, it takes us behind the scenes at the fictional New Burbage Festival (based on the Stratford Festival in Canada), following the drama behind the drama as the company attempts to stage a production of Hamlet. The fun comes from all the oblique references to the play in the “real life” of the actors and staff: an artistic director with a history of mental illness keeps seeing a ghost, the guy playing Hamlet (a Hollywood star hired to boost ticket sales) ends up in a romance with the gal playing Ophelia, a conniving board member attempts a coup, and Gertrude wonders if she’s all washed up. And that’s just season 1! Season 2, of which I’ve only seen a couple episodes, will feature a production of Macbeth, and Season 3, Lear. I am eating this up like a big, Shakespeare-shaped chocolate bar. Warning though: this is not an educational show to be watched with children, unless you want them to learn that the theater world involves a lot of drinking and sex.

Stitchers
stitchers
Switch the TV settings to Hulu? Oof, too much effort. Let’s just see what’s on cable. Ah, here we go: a show requiring minimal mental effort to enjoy a lot of eye candy. We are definitely nearing the bottom of the taste ladder here. Variety describes Stitchers as “tired and predictable,” and Rotten Tomatoes sums up reviews with this terse assessment: “Confusing and tonally inconsistent, Stitchers is neither campy enough to be fun nor intelligent enough to be compelling.” Oh but it is compelling. The premise is that a secret government program is experimenting with the ability to “stitch” into the minds of recently deceased people in order to solve murders and other mysteries—as in, find out what the victims remember about who killed them. One particular woman, Kirsten (played by Emma Ishta), is really good at this. But it could be that the whole stitchers program is a cover for something something oh who cares it doesn’t really matter. The point of the show is to watch the four main characters on the stitchers tech team, all of them gorgeous young people, move about the set and rib each other for 42 minutes (definitely necessary to record this hour-long broadcast and fast-forward through the many, many ads on ABC Family). The various grownups who supposedly run the stitchers program are also impossibly beautiful, but all nondescript and unimportant. Season 1 ended with a cliffhanger, but fortunately the show requires minimal emotional investment, so I’ll be fine until Season 2 airs.

Japanese Garden at Meijer Gardens
On days when I was feeling ambitious enough for non-couch-oriented activities, I visited both the Chicago Botanic Gardens and the brand new Japanese garden at the Frederick Meijer Gardens here in Grand Rapids. I’m sorry, Chicago. Your Japanese garden is nice enough, but it does not measure up to ours. And Huntington Gardens in San Marino? I remember you from my California sojourn ten years ago, and you are approaching heaven on earth. But even your Japanese garden falls short of this new wonder. Honestly, it’s exquisite. All the boasting in the promo materials about its beauty and serenity is absolutely true. Where this garden surpasses the others, I think, is in its scale: one can view the whole garden from several vistas, and yet it features “rooms” and passages, each of them unique, offering a variety of settings for close-scale contemplation of carefully pruned trees, water features, artfully arranged rocks, and other fine displays of Japanese aesthetics.

So that’s about it for my summer “accomplishments.” It’s also true that I married off a daughter, had a whole border of trees and shrubs planted, and made small headway in an effort to learn to rest and celebrate. That dratted front door, however, remains unpainted.

Here’s wishing us all grace and blessing as we turn to a new season.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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