Compost evolution…

Below I’ve attached a series of time lapse pictures displaying the progress of a large compost pile.  This post I called compost “evolution” because it’s a demonstration plot of the things I’ve been learning as I’ve worked on the pile.  Along the way, for example, you’ll notice the pile look less like a hill and more like a box; a reflection of learning from Grow Biointensive that in order to retain heat and maximize the process, the square is better than the “wasted” space of a hill that spreads out the heat.  Instructional videos one and two linked.  Several pictures show random PVC pipe and heating ductwork in the pile.  As I turn the pile (once weekly), I stick the pipes in on the bottom of the pile, then build the pile around the pipes, and finally pull the pipes out when I’m done stacking.  This makes vents in the pile, which gives greater aeration to the pile and enables the transfer of heat more readily across the pile, which keeps everything “cooking” more evenly.

This pile is an important element in my life of applied learning; theory leading to action, and action leading to theory on a loop of growth.  Thinking and action lead to real wisdom and knowledge that offers real solutions to important questions of life.

This pile is, in a number of ways (billions of them, micro-organisms that is) a legacy project.  It is an investment in the future of Norwood that I will never reap the full benefits of; and that is good for my soul.

The pictures show about two months of more intensive management of the pile to move it from passive composting to hot composting (temperature consistently at or around 165 degrees, primarily because I’ve got some animal poo in there with some pathogens to kill off).  I also include some up close pictures for the viewer to see how leaves, grass, horse-dog-cat poo, snica, and water get together and make awesomeness.


An ode to Half Nelson

Half Nelson is one of the most important movies in my life.

I have to skip over a couple parts for the sake of my integrity as a husband and a man,
but nothing rivals Half Nelson.

Social justice,
desire for change,
lack of change,
empty liberalism,
burnt-out hippies,
surface rallies that change nothing (but help white people feel good),
Ryan Gosling’s excellence,
a little bit of change.

Half Nelson is one of the most important movies in my life.

SI = Baseball journalistic hegemony


I laughed at loud this morning when I read an article by the above-pictured Tom Verducci in my Sports Illustrated magazine (who knows why I still keep the subscription when I can read it online) about the Boston Red Sox championship.

SI journalists are SO TALENTED and well-read and able-to-make-analogies-from-any-walk-of-life incredible, and that makes their stories so rich and (I’m not overstating this); life-giving. The power of good journalism is the ability to draw the reader out of their life into the world of the story the journalist is trying to convey, and that almost cannot take place in the ten-second soundbites of our modern newspapers and magazines; unless the publication makes a commitment to an extended story. Whereas SI is kind of schizophrenic with this because the magazine is chock-full of little snippets to pander to our felt-needs, they seem to carry a significant commitment to articles long enough to develop a story that pulls the reader into its world. They did this for me with their Randy Shannon article a bit ago, they did it with the at-the-time mystifying-yet-awesome National Geographic-like article on great white sharks in the Farallon Islands (I found out later, the book was written by a former SI Women editor…classic case of throwing a friend a bone), and they did it with this simple article. And by they, I mean Tom Verducci.

Here’s some CLASSIC quotes from the article;

“The world championship is all of it: the commitment to player development, the obsessive devotion to detail, the fluorescent-bathed nerds who break down statistics and video as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls, the small army of scouts, the bad dudes — yes, especially the bad dudes — who wear the Boston uniform and strip the will from their opponents one grueling at bat after another. The entire thing is a giant Jenga game; remove any one of the interlaced blocks and the whole damn tower might topple.”

“The Red Sox expected to win? Talk about putting a Bucky Bleepin’ Dent in conventional wisdom. These are not your father’s Red Sox.”

This one’s great;
“But its most amazing achievement is this: It has supplanted the Calvinistic, multigenerational dread of Red Sox fans with the sunshine of optimists. Boston, which once made a gruesome art of losing, now almost always wins the Big One.”

“When the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, church bells rang out across New England and people rushed under a full moon to the gravestones of their deceased loved ones to pass word of the championship. The Nation enjoyed one big cathartic cry. Funeral parlors braced for a boom in business, the now-I-can-die-in-peace crowd suddenly mortally tranquil. This championship carried a lightness of being, a baggage-free, hedonistic escape. Behold the sated, if spoiled, Red Sox fan, a species not seen on the planet since Babe Ruth wore the Sox uniform in 1918, the last time Boston won a world title so close to a previous one.”

“Ellsbury batted .438 in the World Series, and in Game 3 he joined Joe Garagiola (1946) and Fred Lindstrom (1924) as the only rookies to get four hits in a World Series game. He and Pedroia, a 2004 second-round draft pick, combined to reach base 16 times in the four games. They are emblematic not only of a generation of Red Sox players that knows nothing about an 86-year curse, but one that also treats hitting as a kind of a martial art, employing a wicked combination of Zen-like patience and blunt-force trauma.

This is journalism as art, folks, even if some journalists at times fall flat on their face in trying to be too pithy (*cough* Gennaro Filice *cough* example quote in first paragraph in article here). And art is what our mechanistic, utility-driven, sound-bite society needs. Spaces to take a breath (or lose our breath) in encountering beauty and depth. Don’t give up, SI. And thank you, Tom, for helping me take a breath from the humdrum with your gift.

Art vs. Entertainment

I haven’t posted anything for awhile now…life has been busy. I’m still struggling to balance my schedule, work hard for my local church, love people, be honest with God and the folks I come into contact with about as much as possible, and struggle with issues I should be struggling with; that and dedicating myself to growing in what has become a beautiful relationship with Bethany that is better than I ever could have imagined. And that takes investment too!

Anyways, some events over the last week and half or so have come together to create some interesting thoughts in my head that hold the potential to transform some things for me, so I thought I’d write them out.

Things started a week ago when I listened to the Ryan Sharp interview from The Nick and Josh podcast, and they got into an interesting conversation about the difference between art and entertainment. I’ll quote Ryan’s thoughts in full on this subject…I tried to transcribe perfectly, but I know I didn’t;

I think that art can lose quite a bit of its value when it gets universalized. Most great art is great art because it exists within a certain context, so there’s real meaning around the symbols that shaped the ideas. Very seldom is it artists just painting what they see; it usually comes from a series of conversations or inspirations they’ve had from a certain community.

Sometimes with art, whether it be a film or music or fine arts, when they go mainstream, they lose something…for example, say I’m going to watch an independent art film like Paradise Nowif I’m watching it as an art piece, I could say, “Wow, they’re really flipping some things on their heads about terrorism, maybe I’ll appreciate the cinematography as well or something. But if I view it as entertainment, (I might think) “Eh, it really didn’t hold my attention…if they would’ve written it so it would’ve been more exciting, then I would’ve enjoyed it more. So there’s a different relationship between entertainment and art. Too often, art is domesticated and placed under this entertainment umbrella, and when it is under that umbrella, people are able to distance themselves from it; they don’t have to work through some of the issues that it’s showing because it might just be too uncomfortable in the beginning and say, “Eh, yeah, I don’t like what’s going on here. It’s not really my thing.

Basically, Ryan is addressing a culture-wide phenomenon in our country where nearly everything we do is judged by the criteria of how “entertaining” it is; and our spending habits reflect that reality. In this situation, marketers and movie producers and musicians aren’t stupid, they give us what we’re paying for, which is quite often “art” that is short on substance and long on persistent action and explosions and color and movement to keep us engaged and entertained. Some counter-cultural persons continue to give us movies and music, etc that is meant to draw us into the larger questios of life, but these are few and far between. We are enculturated from a young age to buy into the entertainment reality.

Just as a simple example, I’ll use the movie Over the Hedge as support for this suggestion.

Over the Hedge was, by most accounts, a light, fun animated movie that follows the story of a group of forest animals who wake up from a winter-long hibernation to find themselves in a small patch of undeveloped land in the midst of a suburban subdivision that popped up overnight. Since their land to roam and gather food in is gone, the movie follows their hilarious adventures to try to find food from the suburban homes to fill up their log for their hibernation. The action keeps moving, certain characters keep the laughter going, and the animals end up banding together to have success. That’s the entertainment value of Over the Hedge.

The art value of Over the Hedge came with often subtle critiques of individualism, suburban life and the whole mindset of suburban sprawl, SUV’s, etc. Some deeper themes running throughout the movie include the value of family, the trouble of blind trust, the consequences of stealing, and the shallowness of much of our society’s life. In one section, though, the point is slammed home very explicitly when RJ the raccoon introduces the other animals to suburban life;

One character asks, “What is that?” as they pass an SUV. RJ responds, “THAT is an SUV. Humans ride around in it because they’re slowly losing their ability to walk.” “Jeepers, it’s big,” another says, “how many humans fit in there?” And RJ remarks back, “Usually? One.”

“They eat to live…these guys live to eat. Let me show you what I’m talking about. The human mouth is called a piehole. The human being is called a couch potato. That (pointing to the telephone) is the device to summon food. That (the delivery man ringing the doorbell) is one of the many voices of food. That (the door) is the portal for the passing of the food. That (the delivery man’s scooter) is one of the many transportation vehicles for food. Humans bring the food, take the food, ship the food, they drive the food, they wear the food! That (match) gets the food hot, that (cooler) gets the food cold, that (the table with a family praying) is the altar where they worship food, that (alka seltzer) is what they eat when they’ve eaten too much food, that (treadmill) gets rid of the guilt so they can eat MORE food! Food, food, food, food, FOOD!!!!! So you think they have enough? Well, they don’t! For humans, enough is NEVER enough!”

And the real kicker is in the song Ben Folds sings as the credits roll which is an adaptation of his earlier song “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” Check out the lyrics; biting!

But you know what the sad thing is? A vast majority of folks came out of the theater, gave the movie a one-word judgment; either “good” or “bad” (according to its entertainment value, of course), and went back to their lives that often included the very things the movie producers were critiquing without a shred of their conscience being affected. Why? Because they’ve been trained to exist on the surface level of the desire to be entertained and were oblivious to the deeper issues the movie placed before them.

And I know by using “them” language here it seems I am trying to exclude myself from being among that group. I am not. I write about this phenomenon because I am still deeply enmeshed in it, and have only recently become aware of how pervasive it really is in our society. It so thoroughly saturates our society that everything, and I mean everything is shifting to reflect this commitment to surface entertainment.

Governments love this, because a populace that is perpetually entertained no longer holds its leaders accountable for their actions and policies; they no longer have time nor the desire to do so. I mean, why would someone dive into the complexity of policy making and long-term decisions (an area of frustration that requires depth of conversation and vision) when you can watch the newest Die Hard movie or stare at a female celebrity’s body and sense that all is right in the universe? In fact governments can encourage this entertainment industry, especially when the movies provide simple categories of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong so that when the government labels someone as evil, the people channel some Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood and eradicate the evil infestation. Honestly, once one has killed several million evil villains on Halo or Medal of Honor, what’s a few thousand Iraqis killed for God and country?

And I dare say (some of my friends will sigh at this point that I’ve gone here) Satan loves this move to entertainment as well. Even those who make the move to be involved in church come expecting to be entertained, and so instead of an institution that has the guts and courage to challenge the status quo, the church becomes another provider of religious goods and services for the entertainment of the individual.

One quickly finds if you are in the leadership of a church in our society if your message/presentation is more or less entertaining than the act down the road by how long folks stay at your church. If they leave relatively quickly, it might be because you’re unhealthy and unfaithful, but more likely it’s because you’re not ministering to their felt needs quite the way they’d like, and so because their “feeling” is central to their understanding of what is “right,” they leave for the spot down the road or, even worse, they’re so crushed by the drive to be entertained that they stay paralyzed in their LA-Z-Boy in front of their 62″ plasma with 3,000 channels with a Bose surround sound system, remote in hand, and with one click of the thumb can delude themselves to think all is right in the universe; or, at the very least even if they recognize the world is F-ed up, they have neither the time nor the energy to be involved in the complexity of saving it, so they settle for the pseudo-world in front of them.

There was a book written near the beginning of the twentieth-century that prophetically saw this coming called “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. Read it. Then pick up “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neal Postman and read it. Then check out “The Saturated Self” by Kenneth Gergen and see if these suggestions about the nature of our society aren’t dead on.

Then you’ll find yourself where I am. Knowing the system exists, that I am compelled to battle the urge to be entertained as the goal of life, yet only sporadically engaging the fight. To be sure, it is frustrating to be able to see how deeply my life has been enmeshed in the desire to be entertained, whether we’re speaking of movie after movie or song after song or book after book that keep me moving enough in my life to avoid my own hungering for something more and disquieting thoughts about how I’m living a false life vicariously through celebrities and characters in books. I am finding that the more aware I am of this impulse and the more I subject it to Christ in favor of real life, the more free I am. I can watch movies and hear them making an argument about the nature of reality and human existence much more now; I can read a book that challenges me (like Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” right now) and take some time to think about what he’s saying rather than hop to another one because I want to hear something “new” and “exciting”; I am recognizing the importance of consistency in direction in life that provides a deep satisfaction (sometimes in spite of circumstances) instead of hopping from thrill to thrill to “feel good” about myself. This is recognizing the beauty and challenge of art rather than the drive to be entertained.

This awareness impacts so much, and I’ll have some more thoughts on this soon, as well as another glimpse at a movie much deeper in meaning than Over the Hedge that reveals a little further my perspective on the entertainment vs. art divide.

The impact of Half Nelson on my life…

I saw the movie “Half Nelson” on Friday evening, Oct 27th, at Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg (which by the way is a sweet place), and I walked out of the theater with strong emotions. I’ve been trying to get a handle on those emotions since then, and in the process found two things:

1)It’s not often (in this age of relatively shallow Hollywood movies that have resulted from our relatively shallow culture and our willingness to chuck out large amounts of cash over a long period of time to find something (anything!) to take our minds off reality) that I walk out of a movie feeling intense emotions, and
2)I often don’t pay attention to tracing the emotions to their root, or at the very least spend some time thinking about why I was so affected, and thus walk right back into my life as if the movie and the time spent in it never existed. Given time and other priorities, the movie is often reduced to “good” or “bad” or “mediocre.” And so I place it in the unofficial movie pecking order of my life and move on.

As a result of this awareness, I am going to try to slog through what I thought I saw in this movie, how it moved me, what it exposed in me (honestly!), and how I’ll respond with my life. If there’s one thing I’m tired of in my life, it’s mediocrity and simply occupying a place in the long line of humans who have lived and died on this earth…sucking in my oxygen, exhaling my contribution to global warming, and living a life centered on Nate.

So what did Half Nelson have to say to me?

It’s the story of a middle school history teacher who carries an ideal that he wants to affect at least one person in his life for the better. That’s his goal, and in that mix he carries an unorthodox teaching style where he seeks to have his kids look deeper than just memorizing and regurgitating fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice answers that don’t help his students comprehend and make sense out of reality.

The trouble is, Teacher Dan (Gosling) doesn’t know how to make sense of reality himself. His life is full of mountains and valleys, and he copes with this unpredictable reality with cocaine, crack, and some quick booty without relational attachments. His drug problem exacerbates rather than evens out his bumpy life, and he makes the mistake of smoking crack in a spot where one of his seventh grade basketball players finds him. Instead of ratting him out, though, this girl becomes a positive influence in his life. Maybe she can be the one he impacts for the better? She seems engaged in his class, eager to learn…but in taking her home several times, he sees the lure of the drug trade and urban decay threatening to suck her in.

He tries to be the hero, and fails…continuing to exhibit a hopelessly broken life. But this girl, instead of packing it in and giving up, continues to care about and for him (maybe that’s because she’s got a teacher crush on him…very possible given the nature of emotional attraction for ignoring reality…or maybe she just genuinely cares and wants to be an influence for good in his life). In the mix of things, Dan spends some time at home, where his parents, once Vietnam agitators who had a compelling vision for their lives, have fallen into middle-class numb existence, thinking they’re living out their ideals (while their ideals carry no practical reality) and ignoring reality by medicating themselves with perpetual drunkenness.

This has to be a commentary on the sad state of the American left; pretending to care about problems like poverty and social inequity in general while doing little to nothing about it other than punching a ballot, intellectually claiming to believe that liberalism is the answer for the world’s problems, with no life-altering commitment to either. (this is where I insert my belief that the opposite extreme of conservatism is just as insidious and incompetent and elitist and sad as its polar opposite).

The movie didn’t resolve. No, “I’ve been waiting for you,” or “I’m drug-free and happy for life,” or some heart-warming basketball championship for the girl and the teacher that enables both of them to exorcize their personal demons. And I’m glad.

Running with my idea of the status quo in our society mentioned above, I wasn’t surprised in walking out of the movie theater to see all the endorsing blurbs on the movie poster having nothing to do with the substance of the movie…I don’t know if they’ll be big enough for you to read in the above picture, but the blurbs say, “Ryan Gosling gives an astonishing performance!” and “Powerful. Gosling is among the most exciting actors of his generation!” and “A near-perfect film. The acting is flat-out amazing. Epps is a major find.” Are you kidding me? A movie like this, and all you can talk about is the careers (realized or potential) of the individuals? For my money, I don’t go see a movie because you tell me the actor or actress has an “astonishing performance.” Maybe I’m supposed to; that way I can maintain some degree of separation from the raw reality that this individual movie portrayed, and deny the fact that I see strong parallels in the weaknesses of humanity I share with the teacher. If I maintain that separation, I can walk out of the theater, plunge right back into my life, and forget that I ever felt uncomfortable at certain points as the story got close to MY struggles.

My thought upon seeing the movie poster was, “Finally, a solid movie that doesn’t buy into the movie peer pressure to resolve a big problem with a neat little bow in an hour-and-a-half or less, and I gotta come out of the theater to this?”

And maybe my next thought illustrates how much my ADD mind flits around from idea to idea and situation to situation, but I immediately thought about how this applies to the church. How often, on average, would you say a pastor hears one of two things from the congregation?

1) That sermon was good. Well-delivered.
2) Thank you for what you said. Hearing it that way made me think about (this or that aspect of my life…or this or that weakness…or this or that calling)

I’d guess the average pastor hears the first 97% of the time. Because you and I are enculturated to be surface people…because we’re enculturated to be consumers…and because we’re enculturated not to pay attention to the cries of our hearts; just hop around from entertaining thing to entertaining thing; rate each thing on the 1 to 10 scale of the excitement it offered for you, and refuse to go deeper.

If there’s anything I bring away from Half Nelson, it’s two awarenesses:
1) The system is broken. We are broken. Irretrievably.
2) We need to admit we are powerless to effect any long-term change in the system by ourselves. (because the change will be short-term, and our problems cyclical)

In response to what I consider to be two truth statements, I need to be willing to ask myself and others some questions…deep, searching questions…about how that raw awareness impacts my life. Do I need to alter my life in response to this movie? What did it uncover in my heart? Will I seek to separate myself from the teacher but pointing a finger at his drug habit without pointing a finger at my weaknesses that are crippling me? Does it jog me out of the semi-numb state I exist in much of the time to be deeply invested in something?

The prevailing message screams at me daily, “Stay busy. Forget about the layers. Don’t think about or listen to your heart. Just perpetuate the status quo.” And more often than not, because I’m weak, I give in. I let myself be mediocre. But because God entered the picture, turned my life upside-down, and called me to follow Him, I don’t want to be mediocre any more; I’m tired of being an object for others to manipulate and extract resources from; I want my life to matter.

The question that remains now is if my want will turn into a physical reality. My life will give the answer.