Friday, July 27, 2012

Bias: Yours, mine, and everyone's we know

This space is usually one I reserve for poetry, or when it comes to it, arguments in an uphill battle against Amazon. However, if you’ve read the news in the last week, or have simply breathed U.S. air, you know that fists are flying between marriage advocates and Chick-Fil-A and marriage opponents and Amazon (or Starbucks or Target or Google), so this is my jumping-off point.

That politically, we are charged enough to boycott or malign a company for its donations (read: philanthropy; read: charity -- a virtue, mind you) might be a better barometer for our moral code as a society than, say, if I wanted to marry my boyfriend eventually. That instinctive, reactionary kneejerk that sounds the boxing ring bell and gives us cause to spring upon one another. That we love money so damn much that we are appalled by the organizations others will give their finances to. That money speaks so loudly in what we would all hope is a civilized society. These are reasons I take pause in this election year.

I pause over a Christian culture that does not recognize its own slander and hypocrisy against its brothers and sisters. One that springs upon Disney or the Muppets or Oreo with knives drawn for their “seeking to indoctrinate” children (or something of similar insidious nature), only to turn around and play martyr when Chick-Fil-A executives receive the same treatment from their opposition for their politick. One that discounts the faith of more "liberal" or "progressive" or "insert snide label" denominations. One that points to the Bible and says, “I’m not telling you you’re going to hell; God is,” or proclaim unfounded and ominous “prophecies” about the future of a nation that allows same-sex couples the same dues afforded opposite-sex couples, as though Christianity Today or Fox & Friends or The 700 Club were divinely appointed as the mouthpiece of God. 

Or the haughty chuckles and hollow confidence in "history being on one's side" from the other side of the aisle. For making prophets of politicians. For making houses of prayer into dens of militiamen. Only when God's intangibility, invisibility, and interminibility lends himself to our profound uncertainty do we wholly and necessarily rely on him. Thus, certainty from any direction strikes me as anathema to a life of faith.

My point is this: Compassion, people. One does not maintain any moral high ground in public discourse when history (read: the Bible) proves the sickle swings both ways.

I’ve read that same Book. Cover to cover, cover to cover. Enough to know that I’ve never found solid, clear, or concise instruction in its pages. Anywhere. At least not the type that's cut-and-dried enough for laws written outside of a theocracy. Instead, what I’ve found are a bunch of sad-sack motherfuckers who continuously sought to craft a god in their own image only to discover One who obliterated their notions of righteousness. And grace. Time and time again.

And you know what? I like it that way. Because I’m a sad-sack motherfucker who secretly hopes God hates all the same people I do and will underwrite all the causes I wish to succeed; instead, I’m profoundly amazed (often on a daily basis) by the grace God extends to me, my family, my friends, often in spite of my expectations. I’m amazed by his love. I’m dumbstruck by the compassion Jesus showed Samaritans, lepers, and other outcasts who never asked did a thing wrong except be born of the wrong heritage, on the wrong side of the tracks, with the wrong skin, and directly into inequality and indignity. And that is enough to give me an inkling -- an inkling that God is bigger than even this squabble, a squabble I am deeply, deeply invested in.

An inkling that suggests that when all is said and done, when history comes to pass, and eternity is upon us, we may all stand surprised by how little God conforms to our expectations.

This is where I find hope, where I find faith, and where I find love. And are these not the greatest?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

In Defense of the Bookstore: Bill Petrocelli, via Shelf Awareness

For those of you playing along at home, the Department of Justice has filed suit against Apple and a handful of major publishers who worked together to set an agency pricing model for e-books, in order to combat the predatory pricing, vertical integration, and generally monopolistic practices Amazon has been employing to effectively drive booksellers, publishers, authors, and, yes, even readers into the ground. A few have already settled; others are taking this all the way to court.

The hearings begin June 3, 2013.

If you haven't read Shelf Awareness's article concerning the open letter to the DOJ by Bill Petrocelli, who owns Book Passage (San Francisco, CA) and is a lawyer, I highly recommend you do. They also provide a link to the letter's full-text.

Monday, December 26, 2011


The Lord is our shepherd
The flock has found wanting
And so put out to pasture.
We now lead thirsting to water;
We now restore souls.

Though we walk through
The Valley as the Shadow of Death,
Fearsome and evil, we say
“Thou art with me.”
With rod and staff
We comfort.

And prepare a table before others
As though they were enemies;
Anoint our own heads with oil;
Run bitter cups over and serve.

Surely goodness and mercy
Have fled from us as days
Follow days, and we have dwelled
In the wilderness without God
Too long.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Amazon's Offense

All week I’ve been fuming. Nothing gets my goat like Amazon, and they’re at it with disgusting abandon. On Saturday, December 10, their new promotion goes live: price check an item in a retail store with the Amazon app for smart phones, then buy it from Amazon for an additional 5% off, up to $5. The promotion lasts only a day, but still, in the busiest season of the year, in the month on which many retailers rely heavily for future existence, and on what tends to be the biggest shopping day of the week, Amazon encourages consumers to flip the bird to store owners and employees who pay rent and taxes to be considered more than a free showroom, all for a measly five dollars.

Not only has Amazon been aggressively attacking books in short-sighted bursts of lunacy, but many consumers still go along with them. And the new campaign only capitalizes on a practice that already occurs frequently.

Now, maybe I’m getting ahead of my furious self. Dan Mitchell at CNN Money seems to think so, that my outrage is misguided because the Amazon campaign will deal most damage to other giants like Walmart and Barnes & Noble. He goes on to dismiss any concern that local stores will be affected because “those kinds of stores were mostly obliterated years ago” and the “victim is theoretical” in instances of Amazon’s greedy money grabs and sales sniping.

Tell Capitol Hill that Bailey/Coy Books was merely theoretical.

And, for the record, the Elliott Bay Book Company wasn't obliterated; it moved to a new location.

Other arguments pose that Amazon’s new campaign will bring foot traffic into stores. Once there, customer’s are positioned for impulse buys. It’s a funny thing, 5% is. It’s not enough to get people off their couch to try and get a deal. No, it’s a discount designed to entice shoppers who already bothered to leave the house. Then, in the store, that added discount (up to five measly bucks) is designed to tip a customer on the fence toward buying from Amazon, where prices are already gouged deeply, and shipping costs are nil. Impulse buys are never Nathan Myhrvold’s elaborate cookbook and food-porn masterpiece, Modernist Cuisine ($625, available at Elliott Bay Book Co.); they’re more likely to be chocolate bars, greeting cards, and Bananagrams. But those don't really pay the bills, do they.

It has never been a small irony to me that Amazon chose a Bradburian name like Kindle and Kindle Fire for their e-reader, as they continue to set fire to booksellers, publishers, and writers alike. Why Jeff Bezos and company hate books so much, I’ll never know. But I urge all readers to strike against Amazon and not buy into their underhanded ploys for business. You’re smarter than Amazon. Buying from them is like saying you don’t care what you’re buying, where it comes from, or who it’s for.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In Defense of the Bookstore: Eighth Day Books

Wichita, KS. At the intersection of N Erie St. and E Douglas Ave. sits a bookshop, since 1988, as a testament to renewal.

Eighth Day Books is heralded by Image Journal as the “Miracle of Wichita,” and for its owner, Warren Farha, there’s likely more truth in that single statement. The store’s inception was grown from Farha’s own love of books: “I remember lying on our living room floor with a book called The Real History of the Wild West when I was three or four years old, looking at the pictures and pretending I could read. Reading led me into other worlds as often as I wanted.”

That, and the 1987 car accident that took away his first wife. “A completely intimate and unspeakable event, yet to describe the store without saying anything about that would be, fundamentally, lying,” said Farha. “In the midst of the cataclysm, one of the things I knew was that I had to start my life over in certain deep ways. Part of that starting over was entering a new vocation, and my umbilical attachment to reading, and the influence of the circle of friends I had inhabited for the previous ten years, pointed, in my head, to a bookstore.”

So here it sits, across the street from a rug shop and a bed and bath gallery, Eighth Day Books, with a name suggesting there’s renewal beyond the end of the week. The eighth day is the first day of the new week, the day symbolic of Jesus’ resurrection.

Devoted to “classics in religion, literature, and history,” Farha is hesitant nonetheless about the store being pigeonholed as “religious.”

“It slices ultimate truths from the stuff of life, defines it as one category among others, and also repels those for whom ‘religion’ has a viscerally negative connotation.”

He takes the distinction farther. “We’re aiming here at an all-embracing universality… We believe, in our souls, that all truth is interconnected—if rightly considered, Beatrix Potter and Curious George and Fyodor Dostoevsky and Wendell Berry can be as religious as Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus Confessor and Augustine and Aquinas.”

In an atmosphere where bookstores in general are increasingly considered quaint specialty shops, it begs the question of specializing further, but Farha persists in his now twenty-three year commitment to bookselling, his way. “From the beginning, I knew our selection…could not be supported solely by the local community,” though the store boasts a wide clientele from varying denominations, traditions, and depths of belief.

“A year after we opened, we mailed our first catalog, a 24-page broadside of our favorite books and short appreciate reviews… Our infant website was launched in 1998, mirroring the titles contained in our ink-and-paper catalog. By 2009, our website became comprehensive, presenting all 27,000-plus titles we stocked on the shelves, both new and used.”

Almost from its inception, Eighth Day has also been the representative bookstore at many an Image Journal event, along with Touchstone, the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, the Baylor Institute of Faith and Learning. It all started when Madeleine L’Engle came to speak at a local university in 1988. “A month after that was an event called ‘Assisi in Wichita,’ a gathering of representatives of the major religions from all over the world.” Later, Image seized on the bookstore for all their conferences, the rest followed. “We just sort of fell into this kind of thing.”

Meanwhile, Eighth Day Press does what it can by extension to make available books that fit the store’s niche. “Eighth Day Press began only because we felt compelled that certain books, whether old books now out of print, or—in the case of our first book, an original publication, The Feast of Friendship by Fr. Paul O’Callaghan—deserved to see the light of day. We don’t have the resources to do all we’d like to do, but we’re proud of the books we’ve published or reprinted. It’s more of a personal commitment to the books themselves.”

As I continue—albeit infrequently as ever—to mount a defense of the bookstore, I’m heartened to find each one is more different than the last, fitting their communities by engaging on the level of need, desire, passion. And I’m inspired with words Warren Farha left with me:
I nurture the hope that our nature as human beings cries out for the physicality of the printed book, and the almost endless and surprising variety a bookstore uniquely offers. Without wishing to offend anyone, I believe digital books are a Gnosticizing technology, by contrast with real books sterile and ephemeral, offering only convenience and novelty in exchange for the more subtle and enduring genius and delightful corporeality of the codex…I have no Plan B. I’ll keep doing this, as much as it depends on me, until by last breath.

Monday, October 31, 2011

What to Do With a Corpse

“Oh...” The word dribbles down the tear in my friend’s mouth as she enters the parlor, where I seat her near the wicker basket full of this month’s newspapers. “So this is your place.”

Her eyes are on the mantel, but I direct her attention to the new floor rug I had shipped from London, special, three-day guarantee. “The weaver threads everything with unmatched attention to detail, on a loom that’s well over a hundred.”

“Is that so.”

“Do you notice the knot density?”

She’s still not looking when she asks, “The what?”

“The knot density. It’s how you know the quality of work, really. Nothing like this in stores. And it’s all done by hand.”

“Hand?” She jerks and kicks the basket of newspapers, which skitter behind her like mice, all claw against the hardwood. Her own hand is at her brooch before she knows it. Which gives her another jolt.

“Are you okay?” I wince.

This is the first she looks at me. The hand once at her breast gestures with timidity, and undue reproach, over my shoulder.

“Ah! The new mantelpiece.” I sigh into my teeth as a smile draws the drapes. “You noticed.”

Aghast, she nods.

“I thought about a clock, but these days, who has the time anyway?” I choke on my own wit. A brief moment regains my composure. “It’s hard to decorate sometimes. I get an idea in my mind of how things should look. A certain picture. Frames and pillows. Rugs. Mirrors? Do people decorate with mirrors still? Then there’s the ironwork, the woodwork, wicker, plastics—ugh! who can stand it? Marble. There’s the upholstery. I want it all to work, right? I mean all together. In harmony. But when I buy things and get them where I want them, I wonder if it’s really worth the effort. It’s never exactly right.”

I can see my friend is only half listening. Her eyes are glassy, but I’m almost certain she’s looking in mine by now. So I carry on.

“It’s like there’s something inside me that knows how a place is supposed to be, supposed to look.”

My friend stammers. I smile.

“Well—I can’t show everyone what’s inside me, now can I.” I turn and gaze again at the mantelpiece, cock my head to catch it in a different light, a different angle.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Day of Their Own Design

Heavy dusk fire casts the wedding party’s long shadows across a patio overlooking the harbor, a crowd of young men and women looking on at Bobby and Emily, and the couple’s families gathered along the perimeter. Considering I’ve attended about as many rehearsal dinners as Liz Taylor, you’d think the piano player serves a purpose before the actual ceremony. Considering the absence of any instrument tonight, and the complete dearth of music altogether – except the quiet lap of water on the rocks behind us – it’s clear just how important the wedding music is (not).