Old photos, adoption and conformity

One thing you learn from housesitting is that people have a tremendous capacity for keeping mantlepieces/hearths horrendously cluttered. A few years back I decided that should I ever reside in a house or a flat that came with its very own MantlePiece 2000©,*  I would line it with books of poetry, and that the room in which it sat would be equipped for reading with a good armchair or possibly a futon since my finances would likely only permit bedsit living for quite some time.

As I am still hearthless, though, I must rely on is investigating how other people make use of their mantlepieces. The lovely old victorian in Hackney in which I am currently residing boasts a thin, plain mantle with a wide mirror ** and several black-and-white photographs. In one, which I’d guess to have been taken in the late 80s or early 90s, a child is grinning. The next, decades older, features a man, waist up, all in black, with a cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth. The next is a pale woman with short dark hair gazing upwards, and in another one is a family outside near a stone bridge, dressed in 50s attire, with the same pale woman standing behind a stroller.

Only one of these photos is labeled with a name. I have been trying to find traces of the house-owners’ faces in the faces of the family, but as I don’t know them well, the noses and eye angles and ears are all blurring together in my mind.  I have heard anecdotes of adults speaking to adopted children, unawares that their parents were not their biologial parents, and commenting on how much they looked like their mother and father. This inclines me to believe that as far as family goes, we see resemblance where we want to see it. I never thought I looked much like my father or mother, except that I have my father’s skin, mercifully normal and dry but ever so prone to sunburn.

Yet somewhat like how you can’t effectively know what your voice sounds like until you hear it recorded, § I don’t think you can see family resemblance until you see pictures of yourself and your family members side-by-side. And it’s not as if faces are static – we lose and gain weight, we age, we wear our hair more or less severely pulled back.  I thought I might try to make a graph of ‘moments in life in which a parent and child of the same sex will look identical.’ However, I suspect the dots on such a graph would probably cluster around the ages in which the parent and child are both very young or very old, or when one is old and one is young. §§

It got me thinking theologically, as most things do these days, about what adoption means in terms of the life of the church. In unfortunate reality, our adoption into Christ’s body sometimes has a tendency to blur all our features together until we become little monocultural pockets. People who have not elected for this adoption in their own lives and communities see resemblances which are artificial and have more to do with Christian jargon or maintenance of social mores than with faith. They see conformity, not transformation.

Adoption into faith in the triune God isn’t about conformity, despite how well-policed the norms of Christianity may be. That is not to say that nonconformity need be the bedrock of what Christians say and do. It is, however, to remind those who would tattoo themselves with Christian identity that they must seek out the different, the unsettling and the strange as they live out this identity.  And they must do it not with a motive of colonising evangelism, but with a desire to meet and point out God where she is already present.

I don’t do this enough, for all my strong words. I like my comforts & I hide behind introversion. Worse, I argue loudly for what I have said above and I don’t follow through. I criticise sameness and then seek out other types of sameness where I’d feel more at home. But it is becoming increasingly clear to me that to do this is to lie damnably about this Identity who has adopted me, cowardice, weirdnesses and all. It is to present a Christ who was only special in spite of his particularity as a Jew, a man, a member of the ancient near eastern world, and a carpenter – rather than to present a Christ who is special because of these things which constitute his individual humanity.

This is another mutt. Aren’t we loveable?

As a woman of mixed European heritage with dash of Native American blood here and there –  a proper mutt, really – I know I that a picture of me would bear no resemblance to a picture of an itinerant working-class Nazarene preacher from 2000 years ago. But I have not been adopted to be made any of these things (Sorry, not-such-Good-News of Thomas). I have been adopted into a group of people different to me, with whom I will argue, with whom I will cry, with whom I will widen the circle and welcome others, even when I know they will bring more arguing and crying.

It’s going to be a crowded mantlepiece.


* Not a real product – unlike the Nimbus 2000© which may or may not be real, but try producing and selling one and see if you don’t get sued by a horde of angry Rowlingites.

** Why always mirrors on mantles? Do you want to powder your nose whilst your skirts catch fire or your  shoes melt?

§ So many people hear recordings of themselves and say, “Is THAT what I sound like?”

§§ Because all babies look like old people, or aliens, or both.


No hattenschweiler (why I heart the ‘Hey Girl’ meme)

I wonder if it’s possible to derive equal enjoyment from the ‘hey girl’ meme if one does not find Ryan Gosling stunningly attractive. As Emma Stone’s character laments at the sight of his undraped torso in a surprisingly endearing scene in ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’ (and yes, I am secure enough in my feminism to admit watching that film): “It’s like you’re photo-shopped or something!” The far less idealized character portrait that he presents in ‘Blue Valentine‘ is much more my style.

The general sensitivity of Gosling’s characters was one day in the genesis of the ‘Hey Girl’ meme, which you can check out here or better yet, here, in case you live under a rock. Pairing a distracting pout and sad-puppy eyes with a complete non-sequitur (even an educational & empowering non sequitur, sometimes!) has kept many a Tumblr a-churning. By far, one of their best assets is the fact that almost none of these little maelstroms of creativity contain the dreaded Hattenschweiler or Impact fonts, both of which drive me absolutely batty. If I wanted slightly deranged cats to shout at me and use too much punctuation, I would…oh, wait, I don’t want to be shouted at by cats, or dogs or any other small domesticated animals. Especially not when the shouted is accompanied by intentionally bad spelling and way too much punctuation.

You’re missing an ‘e,’ you dratted feline nuisance.

Next up for reasons to love this meme is the giant joke that it makes of celebrity cults e.g. that which has grown up around Gosling. When a picture can be made to say whatever you want it to say, you can no longer take pictures of that sort seriously anymore. The pouting photo shoots, the fashion rag covers, the ‘Oh, this old thing? I just threw it on!’ hipster-tastic moments: because this meme doesn’t discriminate on photos, it becomes a great equalizer of sorts. The arbitrary choices of individuals that find themselves in a tizzy over a tanned, stubbled young white dude with a nasal voice are shown for what they really are: arbitrary choices. They are both fickle (based on good looks) and infinitely variable (a photo can be given any caption). It’s western celebrity-obsession in a nutshell.

If you know what he means.

So though this meme may be a vehicle for continuing celebrity obsession, I think that it actually does more to undermine it. Look at that! Love it when culture subverts itself, especially by making use of America’s Favorite Sensitive Movie Dude.

‘The Woman in Black’ review

[Spoiler Alert! This is a film review, and will contain spoilers throughout.]

Well there, Daniel Radcliffe. I knew you had it in you. Granted, playing an Angsty Intrepid Protagonist Who Has Dealings With The Otherworldly And Dies (told ya there were spoilers) is nothing new for you, but you do it looking acceptably older than Pottersville.com.

A few random thoughts:

1. Ciaran Hinds stole the show. I don’t know what it is about this guy! Everything he is in, I either (a) love or (b) endure just to see him kick copious ass in every single scene he is in. The man can act. He’s got this slightly crazy look that would remind me of Jack Black a little if he weren’t British and so well-respected as an actor (feel free to debate your love and/or respect for JB in the comments). Anywho, in TWIB, Hinds brought the awesome to the point where I was much more worried about him in the scene where Harry – er, Arthur – is attempting to ‘return’ the drowned boy to his mother/ghost and Hinds is downstairs.

2. Atmosphere, check. Eel Marsh House – the name really does half the work here, points to Susan Hill, the author of the original novel. Plenty of dark shades, piles of documents, everyone looking dour and afraid. I was actually quite pleased that the filmmakers didn’t over-play the “it’s a dark and stormy night” card – yes, there was rain, even some thunder and lightning, but not all the damn time as in some horror flicks.

3. Scares. If there was one thing I expected coming into this film, it was that I would probably give at least a few suspenseful shrieks when something (someone?) jumped out of the corner at Harry – er, Arthur. But, in keeping with the play, the woman in black rarely moves very quickly, and she looks more like an actual, bodily presence than a shade. That, I think, is one of the scariest things about this ‘ghost story,’ – the corporeal nature of the ghost. Sure, she apparently possesses people and inanimate objects (plot hole, there – see below), but she is also just THERE. Definitely the scariest point is one where Arthur sees her looking out the window at him and goes upstairs to the room where that window is. The next shot is one of his face in the window, only to be joined by…

4. The woman herself! Yes, she merits a comment. Oddly I found myself hoping that she would turn out to be played by the same actress as Arthur’s dead wife, but perhaps that would have created too many plot loops to tie up in the course of a film. In her shrieking form, and indeed also as the last shot of the film she was unimpressive, feeling more like a amusement park ride fright in the first instance and suffering from bad animation in the second. But I feel that is so often the case with horror films – the baddie is really only scary when s/he’s lurking half-glimpsed in the shadows. As previously mentioned I was impressed with how bodily she seemed to be even throughout all that shady lurking.

5. Plot holes. If the woman was so corporeal, why couldn’t she dig up the cab and her dead son? Why do people stay living in that town with their children? (Plot device, Mr Frodo, plot device). How do Harry – er, Arthur, and his son escape from becoming ghostly minions to the woman like the other children? And [though this is more a complaint about a change from the novel/play than a plot hole] what happened to Alice Drablow’s back story? Without it her malice seems just a tad extreme.


And that’s todo from yours truly. As all good, fairly shallow ghost stories are better left without Deep Metaphysical Interpretation and just told around spooky campfires, I’ll leave this alone and try to think of a good way to adapt it for my next round of campfire storytelling. Here’s hoping that Daniel R continues to grow in his acting career, even if becomes one of those actors who ends up dying in most of his films (like this guy).

Independence, or, a smattering of Fourth-of-July thoughts

A ‘horse pull’ in Hesperia

Ah, it’s that time of year again. Break out your stars-and-stripes t-shirts/earrings/steering wheel cover/panties, everybody, or just crack open a beer, grill some burgers & veg, and light some (preferably Indiana-made) fireworks off in the backyard. For as long as I can remember, the 4th of July was about going down the road to the little village of Hesperia (code names in high school sporting rivalries: Hysteria or Hespotucky) to go to the horse pulls, the tractor pulls, the craft fair, the yard sales, the Lions barbecue stand, the horrendous live music, maybe even the swimming hole. Then it was home for a good long nap outside, or a tubing trip down the river. Then back again in the evening to stake out a good spot on the hill next to the dam lake over which the fireworks show would be displayed after dusk. Once, a piece of a firework landed on the beach blanket I was sharing with my brother and two best friends. It was charred and cool and smelled like sulfur. It’s packed away somewhere at my parents’ house, waiting for my nostalgia towards it to fade to the point where I will throw it away. Now, in my chosen exile from the US, I suspect that my nostalgia is alive and well.

Inevitably this time of year also means that my Facebook feed clogs with all sorts of Military Tributes and patriotic statuses (stati?) on the one hand, and sarcastic comments about American cultural hegemony and neo-colonialism on the other.  Though as always I am tempted to pull a Bob Marley and just tell both sides “Let’s get together and feel all right,” I realize how naive – if attractive – such a position is. I told a friend once that I much preferred telling people that I met that I was from Michigan than that I was from the US, largely due to the fact that Michigan has less baggage: Eminem? Rust belt? G-Rap the Evangelical Ghetto? Escanaba in da Moonlight? These are topics I like to engage with people about. The decisions of politicians in Washington are a whole ‘nother ball game.

For a while I’ve been quite happy with the line that Derek Webb takes in his “King and a Kingdom:”

who’s your brother, who’s your sister
you just walked passed him, i think you missed her
as we’re all migrating to the place where our father lives
’cause we married in to a family of immigrants

my first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man
my first allegiance is not to democracy or blood
it’s to a king & a kingdom

there are two great lies that i’ve heard:
“the day you eat of the fruit of that tree, you will not surely die”
and that Jesus Christ was a white, middle-class republican
and if you wanna be saved you have to learn to be like him

but nothing unifies like a common enemy
and we’ve got one, sure as hell
but he may be living in your house
he may be raising up your kids
he may be sleeping with your wife
oh no, he may not look like you think

Webb’s critique of American society and politics is usually pretty spot-on, in my opinion, but I especially like this song because it manages both to comment on the uselessness of the ‘America: right or wrong’ mindset, especially for a Christian, and make a statement about what this strange community of faith is that we sign up for as Christians. It is at its heart nationless, unified by a common enemy that is in all of us, a motley crew of in-law emigrants who have married into a caravanserai which makes the audacious claim of being headed for the rule [or ‘basileia,’ if you want to get your Greek on] of God.

American exceptionalism be damned. We’re moving at the same pace as everybody else!

That is not to say that I don’t long for my country to be a place where justice does exist, where standards of care and education are the highest and fairest they can be, and where communities can flourish. On the contrary, I pray for these things with all my heart, and I know many other Americans do so without claiming competition or as their motivation. But I wonder: when competition drives our economic and political systems – when it is our prime mode of operation, business decision-making, and essentially our fundamental ethic, can we avoid thinking about doing well as a country without getting obsessed with doing better than everyone else simply because we are Americans? [or insert any other nationality, as you please.]

I’m still celebrating the 4th of July with American things. Still making “aren’t you sad you lost us?” to the Brits I chat to during the course of the day. Still nostalgic for a scrap of firework. Still blaring Bruce Springsteen. But I’m trying to do so with the knowledge that, at the end of the day, America is temporary, just like everything else. To some degree, that is what makes is so beautiful.