Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sky Lamp 2

Once upon a time there was sky lamp 1. Meanwhile, in another part of the city, a more primitive sky lamp lived alone, far from the parking lot, enduring the elements as best it could without the benefits of human companionship.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

What Can Iron Man Teach Us About Great Writing?

This is not precisely in line with what I usually post here, but I couldn't pass this post up: 6 Freelancing Lessons from Tony Stark, aka "Iron Man."

First, let me encourage you to see the film--it's fantastic. Superb special effects, good character development, and witty dialog, with enough gutsy one-liners to make most guys want to run outside and fight the forces of evil with improvised weapons RIGHT NOW. Of course, it is a superhero movie, so if you're not ever so slightly a nerd at heart, you may not like it. Hey, your loss.

Second, as a freelance copywriter, this post is spot on for me. But truth to be told, you could make it pertain to accounting, composing, acting, church planting, you name it. So for an enjoyable reading experience, simply insert the pursuit of your choice in the appropriate places. Great imaginative perspective on what it takes to do something bravely and well.


Embrace Publicity

"The truth is…I am Iron Man."

Tony Stark knows who he is and he isn’t afraid to tell a room full of reporters. If you want to be successful as a freelance writer, don’t be afraid to tell anyone and everyone what you do for a living. Carry business cards. Call potential clients. Send out query letters and proposals. Create your own web site and blog. Advertise in the local paper. Do whatever it takes to make sure that the people you want to do business with know who you are. Read the whole thing.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Hobbit Movie News

Rumor has it that James McAvoy could be cast as Bilbo Baggins in the upcoming Hobbit movies. That's cool with me--McAvoy is a good actor, and can carry off that long-haired look that is prerequisite for all these Tolkien films. He did a superb job as Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which convinces me he has what it takes to be a convincing Bilbo. The Tolkien-Lewis connection isn't bad either.

Another rumor is that Jack Black is in the running for the Baggins part. Please tell me no. No way does Black have the nuance or charm to pull off this part.

Also, if you haven't seen the transcripts of Peter Jackson's and Guillermo del Toro's recent chat with the media, they're pretty eye-opening.

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Portishead's Third Gets Mixed Review

...From Lindsay. She gave the album an initial listen, and diagnosed it as "bad and trippy, weird and annoying." From where I'm standing, that sounds like a mixed review for Third, the first new album from Portishead in ten years.

"Weird" and "trippy" could be understood as denoting something uniquely compelling. The other half of the review, not so much. I haven't listened to this Portishead album yet, but I'll let you know when I do.

Anyone else want to weigh in?

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Culturally Savvy Christian by Dick Staub (Book Review)

This review is long overdue, and the best I can do by way of penance is to cut to the chase and point to the best features of The Culturally Savvy Christian. Dick Staub's title is potentially pretentious, but he proves to be his own man, and elaborates on a very popular topic with a conversational voice that's original and very well-informed. Here's a quote that's a good summary of Staub's perspective:

I've spent a lot of time observing today's Christian enterprise. I see people obsessed with evangelism and discipleship, or passionate about the intellectual and artistic restoration of culture, or committed to engaging the culture politically. But for culturally savvy Christians, there is only one worthy obsession: God. Only God's deep spiritual, intelligent, creative presence in us will draw people to him. Only the presence of deeply well people will transform popular culture, and only by going deep in God can we be restored to deep wellness. - Dick Staub

The scope of The Culturally Savvy Christian was wider than I expected, as Straub's argument is that every serious believer should be "culturally savvy"--and that this entails much, much more than hipster cred. I was expecting something clever and stylishly trite, ala Relevant Magazine, but to my relief, Dick Staub surprised me. (An endorsement by N.T. Wright should probably have tipped me off.)

Staub goes beyond mere commentary to critique, integrate, and envision--and his vision is sweeping and compelling. Staub's perspective provides a deep spiritual grounding for cultural engagement and service. It's also loaded with the intriguing cultural references and insight you'd expect from a book with this title.

Staub effortlessly quotes the prophets and spokesmen of American culture, citing George Clooney, Orson Welles, Paris Hilton, Andy Warhol, Neil Postman, Carl Sandburg, Bruce Springsteen, Frederick Buechner, Napoleon Dynamite, Zero 7, Tom Cruise, Homer Simpson, David Kinnaman, Blaise Pascal, Francis Schaeffer, Alan Bloom, Leslie Newbigin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alan Wolfe, Maxim...and this is just in the first 40-some pages. (Some of my personal favorites like Bob Dylan, Wilco, C.S. Lewis, and Fyodor Dostoevsky appear later.)

Name-dropping does not an expert make, but Dick Staub's ability to synthesize the wildly diverse American zeitgeist is laudable. He uses his expertise to critique Christianity Lite, diagnose the sources of cultural vacuity, and convey a vision for strong, healthy, creative living--not knee-jerk consumption. Ultimately, The Culturally Savvy Christian is a good entry-level work for anyone wondering how the church should interact with culture today. But the book transcends its title, dealing with spiritual vitality and the way Jesus' character forms our stories and can heal us all.

** Staub brings together cultural and theological savvy, and the marriage is blissful. I award The Culturally Savvy Christian two of three stars--well worth your time.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Celebration at the Station 2008 Pictures

We're just now getting back up to normal life speed after a long weekend that involved a graduation bash, volleyball, multiple relatives visiting, and, of course, Kansas City's renowned Celebration at the Station.

Last I heard, there was an estimated 45,000 people there, sitting on the hill in front of the historic Union Station, and listening to the KC Symphony play patriotic melodies with the help of cannon and, eventually, fireworks.

We went with our friends Matt & Jessica. Aidan stayed home with his grandparents because large crowds give him the inexplicable desire to run like a manic soccer player screaming BALL! BALL! BALL! and asking strangers for licks of their ice cream cones. Asher accompanied us, however, and was absolutely unimpressed by the cannon fire and large explosions in the sky. I'm not even sure he blinked.

Watching fireworks with a symphonic soundtrack made us feel really sophisticated. You know, even more than usual.

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Best Blogging Extensions for Firefox

From Praval Singh comes this great post on the best Firefox extensions for blogging. I use quite a few of the extensions on this list, and discovered some new ones too. As Praval points out with graphs and data, Firefox is hands-down the browser you should be using if you read blogs or blog frequently yourself.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

More Jayhawk Basketball Recruiting News

You have to love the opening line of this KU recruiting article from

The top four basketball players in the recruiting Class of 2009 — who all have Kansas University on their list of prospective schools — traveled to various AAU tournaments over the Memorial Day weekend. (emphasis mine) have to love it if you're a Jayhawk basketball fan, that is. With blue-chippers everywhere putting Kansas on their top ten lists, the future is bright in Lawrence.

Pop quiz. Name the biggest event in this list: Winning a national NCAA championship, eating Kansas City bar-b-q, or playing a close football game with your border rival. What's that? Winning the national trophy, you say? Congrats, you are saner that the KC Star's Blair Kerkhoff!

As demonstrated in this article, Kerkhoff can't tell the difference between an interstate rivalry and a national title. With depth perception this bad, how does the man to get around town? When Kerkhoff wants to travel to the West coast, does he set off down State Line Road?

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Jayhawks Land #2 Recruiting Class for 2008-2009

According to, the Kansas Jayhawks have inked the nation's 2nd-best recruiting class (best in the Big 12) for the upcoming season.

Kansas University’s seven-man basketball recruiting class of 2008 has been ranked No. 2 in the country by

Rivals on Friday tapped UCLA’s class No. 1 following the Bruins’ end-of-the-week commitment from Dallas South Oak Cliff High center J’Mison Morgan.

KU’s class of Marcus and Markieff Morris, Travis Releford, Tyshawn Taylor, Quintrell Thomas, Mario Little and Tyrone Appleton was followed, in order, by Wake Forest, Louisville, Memphis, Ohio State, UConn, Florida State, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgetown, Alabama, Arizona, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Oregon, West Virginia, Washington, USC, Kentucky, Michigan State, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Xavier, Nevada, Duke, Georgia, Washington State and Cincinnati...

“Kansas might not have a marquee five-star recruit, but the Jayhawks are reloading after a national championship run with an impressively deep class and intriguingly diverse class,” analyst Jerry Meyer said.

Marcus Morris is ranked No. 29 overall and brother Markieff 50, followed by Releford (70), Taylor (77) and Thomas (150). Little is the No. 1-rated juco player and Appleton No. 3.

Watching the Jayhawks' enigmatic, seven-man class figure out their roles is going to be a major storyline this fall. With three post players and four perimeter players coming in, the current roster will have to compete for their minutes too, which will only help the team.

Bill Self has repeatedly said the incoming players are winners, and "better than people think," and I'm pretty convinced of Self's ability to recruit skill and toughness at this point. That said, other than a few proven starters (Cole Aldrich, Sherron Collins) I have no idea what we'll see on the court in Allen Field House come November.

UCLA should be feeling good, though. With the addition of some blue-chip players, maybe in 2009 the 'Ruins will make it to the Final Four showdown against KU that everyone was expecting this year.

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Book Reviews & Theology Qs

Thought I'd pimp some recent posts from my theology & church planting blog, including a couple book reviews, which will continue to proliferate over there:

A book review of Tim Challies' Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, guest post from Matt Maestas.
A book review of Intuitive Leadership by Tim Keel, guest post from Robbie Phillips.
My post on the church's relation to the creative arts and social activism.

In the near future, I'll start posting blow-by-blow church planting updates over there as well.

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Asher Returns to the Surface

Originally uploaded by AjVan
Spelunking, in its urban form, includes exploring dark recesses under chairs. If you look closely, you can see the blue crystal football artifact that Asher unearthed in the background.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Kansas City Urban Explorers

From the Urban Explorers site:

We like to explore abandoned or unused buildings, structures, caves, tunnels, etc. Sometimes, we infiltrate occupied spaces which are ordinarily off-limits to the public.

Wherever we go, we take nothing and we break nothing. Sometimes we may move something, but then we replace it. We leave a site in the same condition that we found it.

Our motto is: "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints."

Some locations are dangerous. There can be pollution or physical hazards. You could be injured. If you go on someone else's property without permission, you could be cited by the police or arrested. Nobody connected with this web site is advising you to do anything illegal or dangerous. If you do so, it is your choice, and you agree to take responsibility for your own actions.

Are you kidding me? A grown-up Mark Twain adventure club in my own back yard, and it's taken me this long to discover it? Anytime "explore," "infiltrate," "pictures," "hazards," "arrested," "illegal," and "dangerous" appear in the same job description, that objective really doesn't have a chance. It'll just have to resign itself to being a freaking great hobby.

Aidan and Asher have been tugging on my pants leg all morning with knives between their teeth, begging me to take them on the next Urban Explorers expedition. I wonder if there's a recommended minimum height...

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Ben Harper, Radiohead, Nail Younger Demographic

"Poohbishaw" and "The Boom Song" Emerge as Favorites

Aidan loves music and acts as a critic here; he's previously tagged acts like Feist, Innocence Mission, and Ben Folds in his acclaimed Fall 2007 list. Now I'm happy to report that his tastes have evolved somewhat to include artists with more range and emotional timbre.

"Poohbishaw" has been a hot topic around here for months, as Aidan would use it like a rev-your-engine exclamation when he was, for example, climbing over the back of the futon using minuscule holds he discovered with his fingertips or throwing blocks over our 2/3-height wall into the utility closet so that they banged against the hot water tank. Poohbishaw, Poohbishaw, Poohbishaw!

This was all the more intriguing because Lindsay and I didn't know which song Poohbishaw was a direct quotation from. Not until this morning, anyway, when Ben Harper's latest album, Lifeline was playing, and Aidan remarked coolly, "Man sing Poohbishaw song." Lindsay and I were ecstatic, WE'VE DISCOVERED THE POOHBISHAW SONG, YES! while Aidan just looked at us with a humorous, long-suffering expression, like, Your powers of comprehension are sadly limited, but then, you don't understand the joy of rubbing peanut butter in your hair either, so I have ceased to be surprised.

Briefly, we wondered where exactly "Poohbishaw" appeared in the lyrics of "Fight Outta You," then Aidan identified the line in question, and all became bright and shiningly crystal clear:

"I would rather take your punch than not give you a shot." So "Poohbishaw" is an unorthodox portmanteau--an entire line condensed into one word. "Smoke" and "fog" yield "smog," so Ben Harper's line here gives us "Poohbishaw," obviously. The consonants from "punch" and "shot" can be easily identified. So now that's cleared up. Here's the song. When you listen to it all this linguistic wrangling will become plain as day, I promise...

The other half of this post, which will only run a few sentences, involves "15 Step" from Radionhead's latest album, In Rainbows. "15 Step" has been identified as "The Boom Song," thanks to its ice-cold-cool, understated, ever-evolving rhythm section. Aidan likes his percussion, and has given Radiohead his stamp of approval based on the one song. Warning: Thom Yorke's dancing in this clip is borderline catatonic, so I wouldn't recommend watching if you're on strong pain meds or, you know, prone to react with panic to sudden, unpredictable movements. OK, ready, set...

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Proof of Graduation

Sorta. After I finish my summer class in five weeks, we'll be able to celebrate with even more conviction.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Paul Pierce Rocks, Celtics Roll

Everyone remembers that Paul Pierce starred as a Kansas Jayhawk, right? I'll never forget his baseline game, which he showcased even as a freshman: Paralyze the defender with a jab step and a deceptively little head nod--like you're thinking about tossing up a shot right there--then explode for the thunder dunk, frequently over a couple players. Go Boston. And go former Kansas All-Stars. Once a winner, always a winner!

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Prince Caspian Movie Reviews: More Swordfights, Less Lewis?

Lindsay and I went to see Iron Man as a graduation celebration thing, and that movie was spectacular. It was a classic case of having no expectations and being very well rewarded for not having them. As a study in contrasts, what I've been hearing about Prince Caspian makes me apprehensive about seeing the film.

As I geared up for the release, I knew the second Narnia film would be darker and more martial--as is C.S. Lewis' book. What I wasn't expecting was a sequel to the Lord of the Rings movies featuring talking animals... Here's some of the chatter I'm hearing.

Andrew Adamson is finally making the big epic fantasy battle movie that he really wanted to make the first time around, and his devotion to that vision holds Prince Caspian together and makes it a more consistent, and consistently entertaining, sort of film than Wardrobe was. But in steering the film closer to his own vision, Adamson steers it away from Lewis's, and so it loses some of the book's core spiritual themes. - Peter Chattaway

Prince Caspian
, by the reasoning of Walden executives, no doubt needed to be a more mature movie or else run the risk of losing the newly-blossoming teenagers who saw the first one. Enter Prince Caspian—no longer the boy he is in the book, but now Ben Barnes, a one-dimensional, chiseled emblem of masculinity (also 27 years old in real life...) who speaks in a supposedly sexy Mediterranean accent—and we have something for the teenage girls. Now take Susan Pevensie (Anna Popplewell, 19 years old), make her look like she just beat Amy Winehouse in an eyeliner duel, and we have something for the teenage boys. - Timothy Zila

This Aslan was an absent, passive, weak figure who did not belong to the story. It seems that the Disney/Walden people, without the clear death-and-resurrection myth around which to center the plot, simply didn’t know what to do with Him. So they decided to write a new story, one about doubt and distance and only dreaming your faith is true. That story, they must have reasoned, is more relevant to today’s society. - Sørina Higgins

The film version of Narnia does Lewis justice to not try to capture his literary genius on film. It does better to focus on its own form (spectacularized summer blockbuster) and wow the audience with cinematic wonder, in the way Lewis wows us with his poetic literary whimsy. One might complain, for example, that the film transforms Susan into a Tarantino-esque killing machine, wielding a bow-and-arrow with Legolas-like tenacity. But this is a film, built around action, so it’s much better to have our heroine Susan smack-dab in the middle of it all rather than cheering from the off-camera sidelines. - Brett McCracken

All this is kind of disquieting. Then we have a few people saying that Prince Caspian, the movie, is better than Prince Caspian, the book--but I guess there are a handful of crackpots willing to jump on every bandwagon.

Seriously, I know Caspian wasn't Lewis' strongest Narnia book, but the idea of Andrew Adamson, WETA, and a boy-band Caspian outdoing Lewis is like a tag-team of midgets taking on the Incredible Hulk. On his worst day, Lewis is a better storyteller than anyone in Hollywood at this moment. But wait, am I being overly biased? Am I failing to give this very talented production crew a fair shake, or being snidely dismissive as I imply that the following two writers were on drugs when they wrote their reviews? Naaw. Anyway, here's the counter-perspective.
Prince Caspian was the second to be written in the series, and it’s rushed and thin... most of the book is occupied with the Pevensies’ struggle to cross mountains and rivers to get to him... When they finally meet Caspian there is a brief battle and a happy ending, and before you know it you’re running into the opening pages of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (a much better book). Prince Caspian, the movie, fixes all this. It knits a whole lot more story around that spare frame, and the plot gains traction while the characters gain complexity. The movie is just plain better than the book. - Frederica Matthews-Green

This is a splendid family film and a reminder that movie making is not a second class artistic cousin to literature. The acting is solid throughout. Peter in particular is much better in this film than the first. He is given a greater emotional range and handles it well. Caspian earned cries of delight from our nearly sixteen daughter . . . and the touch of romance in the film was welcome. We are all glad we will get to see Caspian more in the next film. - John Mark Reynolds

Any other opinions out there? When we make it to the theater, I'll post my take.

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Aidan Tries a Coffee Coup

Ever since he was about a year old, Aidan and I have performed morning coffee ceremonies together. A coffee ceremony is similar to a tea ceremony, except that it is less formal, more manly, involves getting ground coffee in your hair, and is frequently performed in your underwear. The last is due to the urgent nature of the coffee ceremony and the fact that it often takes place around 6 a.m.

Contrary to what I portray on the blog, Aidan is not allowed to drink coffee yet, because that would increase his already-remarkable powers of levitation to the point where he would not only steal bananas off the top of the frig, but would create murals with crayons on our ten-foot ceilings.

This morning, he made his latest attempt to rip off my cappuccino. I frothed some extra milk into microfoam on our Solis SL-70 espresso machine (SOLIS SL-70, SOLIS SL-70--don't you wish you had an espresso machine named after a lethal fighter jet?) and gave it to him in his dedicated "coffee" cup. He picked it up in both hands, slowly upended it like a frat boy draining a pint, and slammed it down on the coffee table. Then he started circling me, chanting, "More coffee in cup, more coffee in cup, more coffee in cup."

This was eerie and surreal for several reasons, not the least because Aidan was a spitting image of me, the way I usually behave anytime before 10 in the morning. I was like, OK, you really captured me there, how did you do that? Did your mom coach you? It was cool and scary to see a miniature of myself, circling at knee level, perfectly willing to present himself as a child beggar in order to procure more coffee.

And the funny thing is, he's not even on the juice yet, but he has grasped the fundamental importance of the entity, COFFEE, nonetheless. I am very, very proud.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Narrow Stairs Reviews (Death Cab for Cutie)

Reviews for Death Cab for Cutie's new album, Narrow Stairs, have begun to appear. They're solid, if not glowing. Here are a couple from Pitchfork and Patrol. Pitchfork:

Narrow Stairs, Death Cab's second album for Atlantic and sixth proper LP overall, is one of the darkest and most muscular in the band's discography, but they're still aiming for the same place: your heart. It's an album about growing and changing and becoming resigned to the fact that you'll never be truly content-- not even if you quit that day job, achieve your rock'n'roll dreams, and find yourself in a loving marriage. At times, the maturation feels forced; the more adventurous moments here are experimental only for such a high-profile group, and they don't play to Gibbard's sentimental, word-weighing strengths.

With the release of 2008’s Narrow Stairs DCFC flips the dial away from sugar pop, away from mainstream melodies, but unfortunately still fails to deliver a product that could be considered brilliant. You wouldn’t know that from the start of the album as the nearly 14-minute super-jam “Bixby Canyon Bridge”/“I Will Possess Your Heart” provides a harder, darker edge to anything that you’ve heard from Death Cab so far. Gibbard chants “you can’t see a dream” over swirling distortion that finally resolves into a screaming finale that closes with the whispered “No closer to any kind of truth/as I assume was the case with you.” This song provides the context for the pregnant introduction to “I Will Possess Your Heart” that puzzled/frustrated so many early listeners. You need the intro to recover from the finale and by the time that the song builds back up, you’re ready for another trip.

Life in the public eye isn't necessarily easy for a former indie darling, as proved by the latest grade cards (6 and 6.8 out of 10). But will that stop me from grabbing Narrow Stairs? Absolutely not. I think "sentimental, word-weighing strengths" (Pitchfork) is the best encapsulation of Ben Gibbard's abilities I've come across, and the band has that rare knack for creating melodies that are catchy/haunting.

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While Aidan mugs for the camera, Asher moves in for the takeover

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Ten Things I'll Miss About Grad School

That's Right, I'm Graduating Getting Out!

On Tuesday I took my last final for the semester, and this morning I missed the rehearsal for my graduation ceremony and spent an hour cruising up and down Kansas City's I-29 and US-71 and I-435 due to subtly deceptive directions. So it looks like things are pretty much on schedule for me to walk out of all this with a Masters degree tomorrow morning.

I'll take this moment to clarify something that people keep asking me about. My degree, the Master of Divinity, is an utterly comprehensive course of study that has prepared me for anything that life can throw at me. It also equips me to explain the sorry state of the world, and, if I feel like it, entitles me to tell you what to do with your life IN A HIGH DECIBEL VOICE! Ha ha!

In reality, it's a three-year theology degree, covering topics like Old & New Testament, Hebrew, Greek, Theology, Leadership, etc.--but to finish it in three years time you'd have to take 15.7 upper-level hours a semester, which would be a sign of mental neurosis, not enhanced intelligence. Just so you know, it took me four years, which means I'm fairly healthy, although a five year plan would have been an even better indicator. I walk tomorrow, but I won't officially graduate until I finish off one summer class, coming up in a week.

My experiences at Midwestern Baptist Seminary have been celebrated and satirized on the blog, and my classes have given me lots of theological brainfood. No educational experience is perfect, and getting my degree has felt like a bare-knuckle fistfight on an uphill, snow-covered road at times, but I'm happy I've invested these years. Therefore, now seems an appropriate time to introduce my latest Top Ten list...

Ten Things I'll Miss About Grad School

  1. The awesome privilege of training my gray cells on the best ology of them all, in my opinion: the study of God himself. That's still a Wow.
  2. Professors who went out of their way to make things work for me--like class schedules and make-up exams.
  3. Professors who responded to my naive questions with humor and patience.
  4. Drinking coffee and talking shop with other guys who like theology. We're kind of a rare breed.
  5. Sitting down in the classroom with the possibility of meeting someone you'll still call a friend ten years down the road.
  6. Writing essays on topics that intrigue me, like C.S. Lewis & the Atonement: Penal or Magical, Final or Gradual?
  7. Meeting pastors and theologians who are worth emulating.
  8. Meeting dead pastors and theologians who are worth emulating.
  9. Getting a bigger picture of the world, the way Jesus is working in it, and the intricate networks of people that I'm privileged to tap into.
  10. Gaining greater insight into my personality and character so I can grow.
  11. Bonus: Getting a vision for doing good, hard things I've never done before.
Of course, there are things I won't miss too, like fluff essays, bubble living, bad books, patronizing lectures, and people who always suspect you're trying to get away with something (I promise, we didn't intentionally have the baby during midterms). Seminary has been rough but good for me, shown me tough love. I don't want to paint too rosy a picture. But ultimately, graduation is a time to consolidate your triumphs, right?

I've worked hard, played hurt, learned a lot, kept my family off the streets, and it's time to celebrate! Aside from the larger cranium, I'm coming out of school with a bunch of friends I would never have otherwise known and a substantially altered vision of the world.

Now it's time to move on into new territory, adopt that "Further up and further in" adage from C.S. Lewis, and get on with our physical-spiritual lives. School is almost out.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

First Prince Caspian Movie Reviews

Copious Notes tracks down some of the early Prince Caspian reviews. The movie opens tomorrow, so decide whether you want to be forewarned now or form your own, uninfluenced opinion.

I can say this: The concensus is that the film, as predicted here and elsewhere, has a darker, war-like feel to it, drawing comparisons to blockbusters like...well, that might give away too much. Follow the link if you want more.

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BitterSweetLife is 4 Years Old*

It's mid-May, and high time to celebrate this blog's mysterious origins. Let's take it from the top. [Photo, left: Blog Birthday Cakes can be identified by their spontaneous appearance and splashiness.]

The genesis of this blog is shrouded in chronological uncertainty, as I proved that we can, in fact, tamper with time and thereby affect the formation of the universe itself. What we know for sure is that this blog was started in roughly five minutes one day in a public library by a naive writer who had no idea that he had just signed over a significant chunk of his life for the next several years.

The exact moment at which this happened is less certain, but evidence leads us to believe that the blog started its life in early May 2004, a fact that was later obscured by frivolous tampering with Blogger's post date options.

Due to the ambiguity here, BitterSweetLife's birthday is celebrated each year sometime in May on a date when nothing else important is happening. So as of today, the blog is four years old, and since being a blog is about twice as hard as being a dog, that makes BitterSweetLife approximately 64 in human years. 2007-2008 was a good year. Here are few milestones:

  • An influx of "free" books to review, as I paid off several publicists to get my name on the right lists.

  • Some record-setting traffic during March Madness, as I picked the Jayhawks to win it all--like I do every year.

  • A spin-off blog, arieljvan, which is aimed like a telephoto lens at the topics of church planting and theology. As I get ready to graduate, I spend a lot of time thinking about church planting--the shape of the future.

  • Two spin-off blogs, if you count the marketing and portfolio site for my freelance copywriting business, Words w/ Verve.

  • Even more baby photos and juvenile captions, as we recruited a second baby, in October 2007, to help us fill our posting quotas and help with administrative functions like replying to emails and updating template code. Although they require frequent performance evaluations, these babies are hard workers! Good job so far, Asher. Keep up the humor, boyish good looks, and general air of efficiency.

If I had to pick out one distinguishing trait of the blog, I'd probably point to its stubborn commitment to eclecticism, best expressed in its book reviews, NCAA hoops explosions, baby photos with random captions, and invention of the genre, "creative theology."

In the months ahead, this blog may switch domains. It may get a newer and better-looking body (words being the blog's mind or spirit, if you will). It may become more punctual, and even work out a posting schedule. But have no fear, our commitment to writing about whatever the heck we want to will never change.

On a personal note, Lindsay, Aidan, Asher and I are looking forward with a bittersweet mixture of eagerness and trepidation to the next few months, as I'll finish up my "Master of Divinity" degree and make some major transitions, anticipating new freelance copywriter jobs, a new residence, and a new vocation. Big changes are ahead, and no doubt some of that craziness will be reflected here and at as we do our best to keep everyone posted.

In conclusion, thanks for reading and commenting and throwing tomatoes at your local incarnation of the blog in the past year! We enjoy each and every comment, even the ones we make fun of, and have a lot of fun getting to know the readers and bloggers who stop by. We're looking forward to more good discussions in the year ahead. Onward!

* I think.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

100 Essential Manly Books

This is an impressive list. As it should be. The Art of Manliness has compiled a list of 100 Must-Read Books, complete with photos, excerpts, and short blurbs. The list is biased toward classic literature, and I'm happy to say that I've read a slight majority of these books and heard of almost all of them.

Here are a couple of my favorite entries.

On Ulysses by James Joyce:

Just buy it and put it on your bookshelf and remember this from the book: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” We suspect that even those who have written their doctoral thesis on the book only pretend to have read every word, but a good friend of mine said not to question an academic on things of this nature, so if you encounter someone who has built a career around Joyce, don’t ask if they actually read it.

On The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka:

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin."

None of us want this to happen. Well, most of us don’t. Kafka employed terms from law and politics, and was always concerned about some vague, oppressive bureaucracy that sought his ruin, though seeming cool and detached. We can take something from the very approach of Kafka to his work and find a balance between reading too much meaning into an event and, on the contrary, caring too little and being completely disillusioned.

HT: The Preacher. Photo lifted from The Art of Manliness.

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The amps left something to be desired, but the concert was still a huge success

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Ampersand EP Review (Derek Webb & Sandra McCraken)

Derek Webb & Sandra McCraken Ampersand EP

A guest post by Timothy Zila


This is going to be a very simple review because the Ampersand EP is a very simple project. Derek Webb is an artist making music far beyond the boundaries of the two basic staples of Christian Music--a selection of Psalms re-written in plain English--and love songs to X girl re-written as love songs to Jesus. Sandra McCraken is a fairly unknown but respected country/pop crooner. They’re married . . . and we knew they were gonna make music of some sort together eventually. And, in this case, that music seems to be mostly McCraken’s--with Webb lending his voice.

The only screwball here is opening track “Valentine,” a song that (for few discernible reasons) sounds a little different than anything Webb or McCraken have done before and is notable if only for that fact. From there it’s all country/folk/pop B-sides. “When the Summer’s Gone,” “If Not for You,” and “My Finest Misfortune” (half of the EP) aren’t bad but they’re the kind of underwhelming filler that gets hidden away three-fourths of the way through an album or eventually ends up on some unnecessary B-side collection. (And is it even vaguely necessary for me to use the adjective “unnecessary” when talking about B-side and rarities albums?)

There are two gems here, however, that are enough to make you hope the EP will end up on iTunes. [Editor: It has.] “When the Lights Go Out” is a typical love song which quickly blossoms into the album’s most passionate piece. It’s also oddly dense and claustrophobic--a banjo and piano repeat their respective parts over and over again to the rhythmic loop of a woman (possibly McCraken) harmonizing somewhat ominously in the background.

The best song, though, is the previously unreleased Derek Web track “Watch Your Mouth.” “We could start again/We could let down our defenses/These days/I mostly watch your mouth/When I don’t know what you are saying . . . Oh a family isn’t family/That doesn’t know your name/That doesn’t want to stay with you/Until the very end,” Webb sings straining to make his voice reach high enough to match that of his wife, singing in the background.

If the rest of the album was half as full of emotion and earnestness as those two tracks, then Ampersand would be what fans of both artists should hope for: a passionate project from a husband and wife singing songs they care about together. As it is, the Ampersand EP is pretty much what you probably expected--B-sides with a few worthy songs placed, perhaps, only to justify the project’s existence.

[Timothy Zila is a critic for Patrol Magazine. One day he’s gonna capitalize on all the great blog urls he’s stolen from more worthy individuals. wasn’t taken before I got it?!? Come on people!]

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Church Planters Should Pray More

Over at I wrote a post on prayer that some of you might like.

I'm still figuring out the working relationship between this blog and that blog (they like each other, which complicates the office environment), but I'll probably mention stuff over there from time to time. Excerpt:

I am trying to work prayer into my life more, similar to the way you work chalk into your palms to get a better grip on your climbing surface, or spray Stickum Grip Spray on your hands so that you can throw down a really sick dunk. Prayer has a great deal to do with our ability to navigate reality accurately and find traction–conversing with God has this calming, gracious, strengthening effect.

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So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger (Book Review)

Anytime you’re a Rookie of the Year, a Platinum debut artist, or a Best-Selling first-time author, your sophomore season is bound to be a doozie.

Leif Enger’s first published book, Peace Like a River, became a surprise best-seller with a headlong chase plot, strong but endearing characters, a modern-day western motif, and a surprise ending that was both haunting and satisfying. He proved himself as a master of language and a maker of legends and earned your trust as an author.

So Brave, Young, and Handsome (a phrase from a cowboy song), Leif Enger’s second book, is a solid novel with a meandering chase plot, weak but somewhat endearing characters, a modern-day western motif, and an ending that you see coming a mile away and hope you mistake. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable read, and Enger has lost none of the pure writer’s knack that shone through in his first book.

So Brave, Young, and Handsome struck me as a typical second novel in the sense that the characters are sketched with more whimsy and a lighter touch. The book is filled with fledgling desperados, beautiful women and ruthless lawmen, but their stories make them self-effacing. Instead of being carried along by the speed of their passage, you’re prodded to contemplate the foibles of their personalities—sometimes damning, sometimes redeemable. It’s as if Leif Enger backed off a little after scribbling, with fierce creative intensity, his first novel. And why not? Authors need rests too.

Nothing I’ve mentioned so far qualifies as a serious flaw, but I believe the book does have one, an absolutely critical plot point that occurs about halfway through. I read the scenario, wincing, No, that wouldn’t really happen, not with the characters he’s created, and when I compared notes later with Lindsay, her reaction was the same. The repercussions from this interaction control the rest of the novel—but the pivotal sequence of events is unbelievable, based on the way that Enger frames the characters up until that point. As a result, you read the rest of the novel with a feeling of suspended disbelief.

I’m being intentionally vague in my descriptions because, while So Brave, Young, and Handsome fails to measure up to its older brother, Peace Like a River, I still encourage you to read it. Enger is a superb writer with a colorful imagination, and even when he’s not at the top of his game, you experience vivid landscapes, adversarial cat-and-mouse games, adventurous journeys, and portrayals of law and grace that feel and smell like real life.

** Enger has the enviable predicament that only the best of authors encounter—writing to be better than himself. I award So Brave, Young, and Handsome two stars--Well worth your time. Especially if you've already read Peace Like a River and are ready for more. Oh yeah, this one is on the Master Book List.

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What, you've never seen a trained monkey before?

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, Goodbye School, What's Up Dalgliesh?

Every once in awhile, circumstances align themselves in such a way that you realize that circumstances definitely aren't smart enough align themselves in such a way. If you know what I mean. Moments of remarkable correspondence and well-timed resolution point beyond mechanistic randomness to a God who keeps an eye on Blogger and cares about whether I get my degree.

Three very important narrative strands collide today, to the point that I need to comment. Years from now, you'll be able to say that you were here, reading the blog, at the very moment this historical juncture took place. Ready?

Here's what just happens to be going down this week:

  1. BitterSweetLife is four years old.
  2. I'm finishing grad school.
  3. I'm experiencing the storied Dalgliesh Point for the last time.
Doesn't that list make you want to stand up applaud? Isn't this occasion incredible? No? You have very little idea what I'm talking about?

Good, that was the intended reaction. I started out intending to whirl these three topics together into a post of unmitigated goodness, but that mutated swiftly into a post of unreadable lengthiness, so I'll be filling you in with 1, 2, 3 installments--at which point you can jump up on your hind legs and yell, You're out, sucka!

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If you pay us, we'll let you babysit him

You know, after we perform background checks to make sure you're literate, a fast crawler, and a Jayhawk fan.

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Here we engage in a moment of pure masculine sentimentality

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

You Touch My Car, I Shoot Your Head

From Goodmanson comes this gem of a photo. If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you might recall me expressing similar sentiments back when our car was stolen.

Of course, I didn't resort to firepower--I just broke the guy's knees.

Just kidding.

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He has recruited nature to aid in achieving his aims

We were driving west across the state line from Missouri into Kansas, which involves crossing the Missouri River and driving alongside it for a couple miles.

Aidan: The river is hungry. The river wants lunch.
Me: Personifying nature
at his age, that's impressive.
Lindsay: I think he's making a point. Aidan,
are you hungry?
Aidan: Yes. I am 'tarving.
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Friday, May 09, 2008

Kansas City Bloggers - Now We Have the Tattoo

As reported by Spyder, the Kansas City bloggers' gathering happened last night. Lindsay and I left the kiddos at home with The Incredibles on TV and a large lemon meringue pie in the middle of the carpet, and headed over to Rincon Columbiano, a cleverly concealed Columbian restaurant not too far from us. Excellent food, and good conversation too. We had a fun time.

One humorously weird thing that I absolutely should have been prepared for was the way that people went by the names of their blogs--so Sponge would carry on a conversation with Banky, before chatting with Toast for awhile--at least, I think that's how it worked. In the next few days, you may notice the title of this blog changing to something along the lines of Stud, President Boss Man or Your Awesomeness...

Lindsay and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, even the stretch where we sat back like spectators at a high-speed tennis game while a discussion about politics ran up and down our table like wildfire. I may have to get my political groove back, since I haven't debated politics much for the last decade... Then again, the neck exercise doesn't hurt.

If any of you other KC bloggers are eying these meet-ups and thinking about taking the plunge, you should. Fun group of people, diverse opinions, and they're kind to newcomers (after they stopped beating us with wet noodles, we really had a good time). I understand these things happen about once a month, and you can keep an eye on the Kansas City Bloggers site for details.

Courtesy of Spyder, here's the list of sociable local bloggers who showed up: / BitterSweetLife and lovely wife Lindsay New to the group
Average Jane /Kansas City Kitty
Banky For President New to the group
Bea's Weblog
Beneath the Ginko-Kanga
Hip Suburban White Guy
Logtar's Blog
M.Toast Hivemind
Sponge Worthy

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Harvesting Coffee Beans in the Living Room--a Test of Dedication

I had just turned on my espresso machine when I heard a sound in the living room that sounded like someone was running back and forth very, very quickly through a hanging bead curtain. No such luck.

I entered the living room to see Aidan holding my bag of Broadway Cafe espresso beans upside down, carefully shaking the last few beans onto the carpet with a kind of quizzical expression on his face. As if, THIS is what happens when you upend a bag of the venerated coffee beans? What, no explosion? No flashing lights or wailing sirens?

As each coffee bean was picked up one at a time and dusted off tenderly, I knew exactly what it must feel like to be a South American coffee farmer--except they don't have to deal with cracker crumbs and carpet lint. Also, they don't brew everything they harvest.

When the last bean was dropped in the bag, I realized that I should have taken a picture of the scene--unfortunately, I was too distraught at the time. Besides, the sight of me cracking that whip over Aidan's head might have been disturbing to some people who weren't fully cognizant of the circumstances.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Iron Man Movie is Cleaning Up

In case you hadn't noticed, Iron Man is making a serious run at being the superhero movie of the year. Even Batman might be sweating a little. The Hulk is definitely a deeper shade of green.

Excerpt from a good review:

Perhaps the best thing about Iron Man is its show-stopping sequences of special effects. It’s almost passé to applaud special effects in blockbuster films anymore, but it is certainly appropriate here. The Jetsons-esque robots and gadgets and inventive weaponry displayed in the film make Transformers look cartoonish by comparison.

Of course Iron Man will never replace Spiderman as the greatest superhero of all time, but he's doing the best he can with what he's got--a cocky-but-improving alter ego and a lot of shiny robotics.

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Planet Narnia by Michael Ward (Book Review)

In the last several years, I've read my share of books that annotate and elucidate C.S. Lewis' work, and this cryptic title from previously-unknown Lewis scholar Michael Ward wins the "best of" trophy hands down.

Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis is fraught with overtones of medieval mystery and hidden meanings, and if you love the writing of Lewis, it reads like a page-turner. It's a testament to Michael Ward's audacity that he presents his findings in such a headlong way, and evidence of his persuasive scholarship that only a chapter or two in, you find yourself nodding in surprised agreement.

What has Ward done? I don't want to spoil Planet Narnia's air of mystery by spilling its secrets in a bullet list--but Ward effectively "cracks the code" of the Narnia books and gives high level insights into the entire corpus of C.S. Lewis' writing. This is an accomplishment, for Lewis-lovers, on par with a physicist unearthing the Unifying Theory of the universe.

We discover what made Lewis tick, at a deep imaginative level, and learn the rhyme and reason at work behind the scenes in Narnia. Lewis' stories--as have often been suggested--are enigmas on the level of authorial inspiration and over-arching theme (What holds the books together?), but Ward has pieced together the clues and discovered the "deep magic" of Lewis' creative ethos.

Michael Ward's gift for uncovering themes, tracing threads, and piecing together clues is unsurpassed. As a scholar, he's brilliant. But the brilliance extends to his writing as well, which contains a brightness, a lyrical buoyancy, and an incisive poeticism.

*** I award this one an enthusiastic three stars--don't miss it. Planet Narnia is a paradigm-shaping book and a high water mark in C.S. Lewis scholarship. I can't recommend it highly enough to the person looking for jaw-dropping insight into Lewis' writing.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Last Throes of the Semester

Today I’ve been battling a three-headed monster similar to the Chimera but with a different plan of attack—surround the victim, then bore him to death with your length and repetitive movement. The three essays/research projects that confronted me were persistent if not inspired in their onslaught, and it almost worked.

The last couple weeks of my semester have been murder, and it will take some serious, focused, abandonment to wash this blood off my hands. I’m thinking some hoops, a game of OhNoBall! with Aidan, frivolous reading material, several date nights, and a few rounds of creative writing would help remove these reddish flecks from the whorls of my fingers. And a graduation party would be cool…

Then again, some extended time doing absolutely nothing might fit the bill even better. Possibly that could be trumped by gratuitous gifts of cash, but it would be close. I'll get back to you on that.

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Bear Attack!

When you have this many bears living in the home, they are bound to get the drop on you occasionally.

In this case, Curly, Snowball and Pooh lay in wait on a heating pipe overlooking the path to the kitchen, which is the equivalent to Aidan's morning watering hole. Their attack, when it came, was swift and ferocious.

I pulled the bears off Aidan with the help of a flaming incense stick and a dining room chair.

This is a timely reminder that although these animals appear "cute" and "cuddly," we should never forget that they are ultimately wild and can never be trusted completely.

With the benefit of hindsight, there can be little doubt that this latest attack was precipitated by "harmless" interactions like the one below--instances where Aidan wrassled and body-slammed the bears as if they were domesticated animals--when in fact, they were only biding their time and planning their revenge.

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (Book Review)

Anne Lamott is the type of writer that people tend to either love or hate. For me, she was also one of those authors that I always meant to read but never got around to it. However, even the best procrastinators have a limit to their craft.

Now that I've finally read Lamott for myself, I get her lightning rod effect. I am also prepared to eschew* the extremes of love and hate and tell you why I was moderately impressed with Lamott's Bird by Bird.

This book is written with the intent to get the naked, shivering, neurotic person into the turbulent waters of writing--flailing around with a sense of joy and maybe direction. Lamott works from the gutsy but odds-on premise that if you have the burning desire to unburden your soul via the written word, you are probably, to some extent, emotionally unhinged. I can think of worse working assumptions.

However, if you'd describe yourself as a stolid, steady-on, unruffled hombre without the slightest inclination to rail violently against the universe, this book is absolutely not for you.

Anne Lamott gives writers permission to upend their minds like a barrel of monkeys and later build the critters into messy, dangling chains of meaning that can be hung from plot points. She is that happily overwrought, slightly stereotypical character with dreadlocks who urges you to just find yourself, dear, and let your soul hang out. Lamott is born to dispense this kind of advice, and she does so in a raw, liberating fashion.

This approach works very well because Anne Lamott is perfectly willing to use herself as a datum, a messy point of reference. She writes with a salty, self-deprecating voice that exudes empathy and a loose, give-it-your-best-shot confidence. She has a disarming knack for capturing and distilling human nature at its best and worse, and she's no slouch at navigating the writing world either. Bird by Bird succeeds at being a useful, eye-opening Book About Writing--which is no small achievement.

I haven't read many Books About Writing because I have the cocky, lingering suspicion than I can learn more by writing my own stuff than by reading about someone else's. Now I've been proven wrong at least a couple times: Annie Dillard's The Writing Life (review) sets the standard for insight and inspiration, in my opinion, but Lamott is a close second.

Overall, I'm about to hand Bird by Bird a glowing recommendation, but with a few caveats. First, I don't care for the haphazard way Lamott characterizes God as he, she, it, whatever--but you'd be crazy to read Lamott for her theology. Second, this book will be helpful to some types of writers but not others. Donald Miller loves Lamott, and if you read them both, you'll see why: they both emphasize confessional, write-what-you-feel creativity. Finally, Lamott has a potty mouth and does what she can to preserve this fact for posterity.

** With that said, Bird by Bird gets two stars--well worth your time--and good for a place on the Master Book List. Lamott brings a vivid and earthy mind to the writing task, and assuming you have a creative bent, it's hard to see how her book could fail to strike some sparks.

*Any day when you can eschew something, that was a good day. I'll also utilize this asterisk to give credit to Amelia and Ruth, who made this review possible by getting on my case so I finally read Bird by Bird.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Why are these men smiling?

Aidan is smiling because he thinks he has conned me into posing with the smaller basketball.

I'm smiling because shooting on Aidan's Little Tikes' hoop (lying on my back 15 feet away) has helped my shooting form. No, really, just ask Aidan.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Free Coldplay Music: "Violet Hill"

If you're a die-hard fan, you already know. So for you more relaxed fans:

"Violet Hill" is the first single from the upcoming Coldplay album, Viva la Vida, and you can download the MP3 free through May 5.

It's hard to judge an album by one song. Case in point: the mixed reviews bubbling up over at Patrol Mag. David Sessions leads off, saying...

It’s still very Coldplay— still a lot of singing and a lot of piano block chords. But Martin has returned to his lower register (thank God), where he sounds darker, more muscular. This song is as big as some of the numbers on X&Y, but in the right way—loud, nervous energy (jagged, heavily distorted guitar riffs and frenetic drums) that rises and falls at just the right moments.

...then a a free for-all-debate erupts in the comments. What do you think about the new Coldplay single?

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Why Starbucks Doesn't Enter Barista Competitions

Espresso News & Reviews gives us the startling low-down:

The best baristas in the country are not lured to work for the big chains to prefect their craft and their love of coffee. And even if they were, Starbucks espresso delivery system™ would put their baristas behind equipment and supplies that place them at an extreme competitive disadvantage: no barista trained on a push-button Verismo or Mastrena machine, using pre-packaged beans purchased in bulk supply for chain consistency, would have a chance against the competition.

The truth is that Starbucks and Caribou don’t want an event to prove to the public how woefully inadequate their coffee standards are — especially when compared to the level of competition that comes to these championships. If millions of their customers realized how much coffee quality they were being cheated out of at $4 a pop, it would be a boon for many independent coffeeshops and it would scuttle corporate coffee with long-lasting damage. Big corporate coffee may not be that great, but they’re not so stupid as to give away their dirty secrets.

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Kansas City Bloggers

Thanks to Spyder, there's now a centralized list of Kansas City bloggers.


Admittedly more awesome if you live in Kansas City.

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Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Book Review)

Child 44 is the first serial killer/ spy novel set in Communist Russia that I've ever read. And, coincidentally, Child 44 is the first book (of any kind) that Tom Rob Smith has ever written. Both facts are somewhat amazing.

On the first count, I'm not a huge consumer of spy novels, but I've read enough of them that the odds of my having come this far without spending time in Communist Russia were pretty slim. On the second count, despite its dark and occasionally horrific subject matter, Child 44 is a remarkable first novel.

I say that with mixed feelings, because I probably wouldn't read the book a second time, given that the serial killer's victims are children (based loosely on historical events). Despite the fact that the book is plot-driven and not character-driven, thinking about murdered children isn't really something I choose to do in my leisure time. If you can put that awful element of the book aside, Child 44 has plenty to offer.

Heading the list of admirable qualities is the way that Tom Rob Smith seems to summon up a sometimes-forgotten history. Communist Russia comes alive as we're shown its inner workings and breath an atmosphere of frigid utilitarianism and bleak hopelessness. This evocation of atmosphere is powerful, troubling, and hard to forget.

Next is the unique plot mechanism that also serves as a central, paradoxical theme in Child 44: How does one go about pursuing justice in a country where crime does not officially exist? Before evil can be defeated, it's existence must be acknowledged. But in Communist Russia, to acknowledge the fact of insidious, deliberate sin was equivalent to accusing the system of failure--pointing out that Lenin was a nude emperor--itself a fatal transgression.

Finally, Smith's writing is effective if not eloquent. No one will mistake Child 44 for a masterpiece of prose literature or a keen character study. You'll remember the story's setting and plot, not the names of its protagonists. But Smith is a solid, if workmanlike, author.

* - ** I'm debating how to rate Child 44. Grisly detail about a serial killer who targets children will keep this from being a "wonderful" or "favorite" book for most people--which could warrant a single star: it has its points. But the book's concept, atmosphere, and pacing are deserving of two stars: well worth your time. Based on this review, I'll let you pick your own rating.

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Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife