Derek Johnson Muses

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Booking Road Notes: Back to Kansas

Watertower of Du Bois, Nebraska

Watertower of Du Bois, Nebraska

This past Monday, I took another delivery for my warehouse landlord, again sneaking into Kansas long enough to say I was there, this time to Seneca. I went off-the most beaten path, taking Nebraska Highways 41 and 50 respectively to get around Beatrice. Just north of Du Bois,the highway service had a sign up saying the road was closed, but since I’m no stranger to the dirt road, I decided to follow the highway as long as I could. Good thing-I would have gone forty miles out of my way just to avoid a single bridge that was out. Come on, Nebraska and Kansas-you can still just divert the traffic on paved roads.

This time, I told myself I wasn’t just going to make my time on the road matter, so I downloaded an audiobook to my Kindle to feed my cuturediness. Culturediness is my bad habit that I feed by buying stuff to feel high-minded. Books. A white end table. A rain barrel. A park bench. My 20-year old Chevy. Even my house to a point. And yes, listening to a biography of Charles Lindbergh and early aviation makes me feel better than if I were listening to KFRX.

Issues, Etc and other podcasts are great for filing the time when I’m entering numbers into the computer, scrambling eggs for lunch, or hanging a shelf. They work in the truck, but books give breadth and depth of knowledge podcasts can’t. Plus turn on some nice stories or history in the truck, and you get the a breadth to the rolling Wisconsin hills or twisting Illinois highway that you just can’t get with the Best of Mike and Mike. Okay, that was snobbish. But also true.

The Lindbergh biography took up two and a half hours of my drive time, with another eight left. I’ll need at least one trip to Illinois/Wisconsin to finish that puppy, and then I’ll have a free book to choose from the audiobooks iPhone ap. Won’t last the summer, but should go a long ways.



World War Z, Conservatism, and Christianity

“Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’” (Genesis 8:20-22 ESV)

I read World War Z last winter, after the film adaptation’s trailer came out, and enjoyed the book immensely. The idea of a zombie did get me thinking about how I should think about post-apocalyptic literature like WWZThe Walking Dead, or even the late TV show Jericho, from a Christian perspective. WWZ preached the token secularist point: surviving nations ruthlessly adapt the Redeker Plan that leaves people to die, and Theocratic Russia is plainly hiding something. But as I read the book, I couldn’t help but wonder why it seemed that liberal, isolationist culture would be the ultimate victim of a WWZ, if there was such a war.

Liberal social policies tend to rise in societies that can afford them. Should the resources disappear, society would have to adapt. Ask yourself this: who is better built to survive a zombie apocalypse, wealthy, urban social liberals who can pay for two or three divorces, or thrifty conservative families who have always bought their clothes at Goodwill? Birth rates always go up with the advent of war and fears of the end, and prospering in our modern society is bound in many ways to being socially liberally. Should the zombies rise, humanity would have to reproduce at much more rapid rate to replace those who died, and conservatives, in general, have more children than liberals

And consider how the notion of family would change. Without birth control abundantly available as it is now, people would have more children, and the sheer act of providing, even without emotional content, would be considered love. The ambitious people who today leave government for the private sector would have a stronger moral obligation to lead in government. And religion would become more of a cultural force, and not the religion of self. If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, “give us this day our daily bread” is your favorite prayer, and you would want a God who is greater than this world.

I’m not saying that every liberal/leftist principal would get swept away in a sea of zombies, but what I am saying is that a lot of liberal principals require the vast prosperity that America (certain parts of the world) currently provides. Liberalism wouldn’t die (although modern capitalism as we know it might), but some of it we would see in a different light.

It makes me wonder why Hollywood, the liberal center of western culture, is greenlighting so many destroy-the-world epics when destroying the world would likely cause them to loose a place for the liberal values they enjoy. Of course, the Hollywood version usually features the “death of God” in some capacity, and the end of the world is caused by a greedy businessman or general (think Terminator 3, where the ambitious military is responsible for Skynet, or , as I’m given to understand, The Day After.) But it would be curious to see one where the liberals get the shorter end of the stick. 

So, conservatives, let’s write a novel that will show a world crisis that eradicates radical secularism and liberalism from America after a cataclysmic event. Hey, maybe I should get on that.

Kids are Okay. In Fact, They’re Good.

Recently, I finished reading a book called What to Expect When No One’s Expecting by Jonathan V. Last, a statistical analysis of America’s (and the world’s) falling birthrate. Personally, I reflected a lot on this book, because it taps into feuding movements in my mind: one, having babies is a good thing, and two, I personally lack skills necessary to raise a child.

Last’s book, short and to the point, is definitely conservative but ends with a reasonable goal: we need to help people who want to have babies have babies, and there is only so much that we can do politically to increase the birth rate up. He simply lays out the trends, like the rising costs of raising a child, the decline in religion and family structure, and even social security, all adding to possibility that social unrest could accompany population shrinkage. And once momentum is heading one way, it’s hard to get going the other way.

While there may not be immediate problems with population decline, we should be aware of it and know the possible difficulties that way may face, like economic downturn and too many elderly citizens to support. Of all the points Last raises, the growth of movements like the child-free movement is particularly disturbing. Some (not all, of course) in this movement mock people with children and complain about how the world is set up for people who have children. I find the most extreme attitude of the people in this movement appalling. Yes, I’m in the same boat, but I’m not here to mock anyone who needs more resources and support to raise their kids. Personally, I have no idea what to say to a child, or how to raise one. People with my attitude shouldn’t be telling people who have kids how to raise them.

My perspective from the book: you can’t have a kid as an act of self-fulfillment. Two people have children because they see something beyond this life that is greater than it, and they want to give it to their . I can’t help but wonder as I look at the secularist countries and the secularist parts of the U.S., who have such low birthrates, what it is about this life that they don’t want to pass on to another generation.

I’m inspired by those of you who are raising God’s gifts to you, and doing it without a second thought. You’ll end up being a more self-less person than I’ll ever be. Yes, I mind it when your kids act up, but only for a second.

Epilogue: Pastor Mark Preus, has written a paper on rethinking birth control, which you can read here. His wife, Becky, was in my college class at CUW, and the way he connects naturally having kids with God’s plan for the humanity.  Preus’ paper got me thinking about kids in general, and it’s really a great example of how belief in God is essential to raising the birth rate. If you view kids as a commodity, you won’t want one. If you view children as a gift from God, you see those sacrifices in a different light. Thanks again, Pastor.

In the Light

Too many empty chairs?

Reading Happens Between Empty and Full

“I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.” -Stephen King, On Writing

My Passenger’s Seat…

When I go to fields, I drive an F-150 with a twenty gallon tank (like every good farm business, Blue River Hybrids has a hand-me-down pickup). It takes roughly two-and-a-minutes to fill that tank and on my recent trips, I found that I could read four to five pages of Body Surfing by Anita Shreve. It was an ideal book for waiting-in-line reading, as it was divided into three or four sections on each page. I can’t get that kind of reading time in when I’m filling my own Pontiac Sunfire eight gallons at a time.

Throughout my life, I’ve been obsessed with filling the time that I wait. My chemistry teacher in high school suggested flipping through flash cards of the periodic table while we were in line at the cafeteria. This lead to me spending my college career doing my Hebrew and Greek flashcards whenever I was waiting on something, or on break from work. Post-college, books came to replace flashcards, and I would often read when I eat or when I was waiting in the drive through. Oh, how modern American literature is so suited to be consumed two paragraphs at a time.

It is really a mark of impatience. We get so much so fast, even e-mail has become antiquated form of communication (recently, I met an older man who chose Facebook communication over e-mail). Now, we get e-mail on our phones, and we download our favorite radio voices on-demand. Why not read a book five pages at a time, while the doctor pours over his chart?

Even though I’m a slow read, I can’t leave the house without taking at least two books, one of which I’m not even reading. If it’s a long trip, good luck getting me to take less than five. I leave books in my car, by my bed, even by the toilet (yes, there). It is as if I can’t stand the fact I will get stranded someplace without reading material and fear I won’t make progress on the gigantic bookshelf filed with books I haven’t read.

The aforementioned book case

But more often than not, what I do is take books along for the sake of taking books along. It as if I want to fancy myself as smart and sophisticated by reading the latest Grisham or Crichton novel (may the later rest in peace) but I really just want to think while I’m there. I’m a slow reader. Even when I devote an entire afternoon and evening to a book, I seldom get through more than a hundred pages a day. TV has rotted out my brain.

Thus, I’ve developed a new strategy toward reading. Read five to ten pages of important or heavier books at a time until my head starts to freeze up (or until I feel inspired to write about something). Then indulge in some cheap novel like a Shreve or a Nick Hornby or Ben Mezrich that I read faster. At least that way I get some reading done every day, or when I’m on the road.

The Hunger Games Upon Further Reflection

Upon further reflection of The Hunger Games (part 1 and part 2), I have realized what could have taken the books’ great potential to great heights. Getting the great premise was the easy part, but pushing that premise to its limits would have required some bolder choices.

Suzanne Collins claims that the tributes from the lower districts don’t have as much success as the “career” tributes, better off-districts. One would think this analogy is pretty straight forward, but I would say: look at high school and college football. For thirty years, the lion’s share of the top college football stars come from poor backgrounds, where football becomes their ticket to education and hopefully, to support their famialy. While the career’s training may help to set them apart, the lesser districts would fight harder to support their own families (again, Collins seems to be writing in a culture that has disowned the value of the family as a natural unit of provision). Once every eight or ten years, you’d get physically imposing tributes from Districts 9, 10, 11, and 12 who’d win. Katniss, in her pessimistic narrative, rarely looks at the winners of the games and hopes against hope she’ll provide for her mother and Prim, like she always does.

That leads me to one of my specific criticism of the book, mainly, the lack of payoff for two of the big accomplishments in the book. One, Katniss’ sabotage of the careers food supply isn’t directly paid off, and two, Katniss doesn’t seem to suffer from not killing Foxface, who dies in unceremonious fashion from eating the poisoned berries. My solution: have Cato die from eating the berries instead, and set up a finale between Thresh, Foxface, and Peeta and Katniss.

Consider it: Cato isn’t prone to hunting, and without a food supply, he’d probably be more apt to take someone else’s food rather than hunt for himself. And Foxface likely would have known which berries where poisonous and which ones weren’t

So much wasted potential….

The point of putting a bunch of teenagers in an arena in a fight to the death doesn’t just have to be about muscle. It can also be about choice, and what young people would do if they were pushed to the breaking point. When Katniss and Peeta face Cato, it’s not hard for them to kill him because he’s an obviously villian. But what if Katniss had to face Thresh, who spared her life? If Foxface was the one holding Peeta up at the top of the horn, threatening to drop, wouldn’t all the moments where Katniss had spared her flashed before her eyes?  When push comes to shove, would Katniss have even killed Rue if it meant providing for her family? The Hunger Games doesn’t give us that answer.

Part 2 on The Hunger Games: A Social Analogy

Since I first heard the premise of The Hunger Games, I debated whether or not I would want to see it, or if I had kids, whether I would let them see it. Teenagers killing each other? That itself sounds squeamish enough to make you wonder if it’s appropriate at all, let alone young people. Unfortunately, neither the book nor film is tell us how sadistic does a society have to be to put children in an area and tell them to fight to the death. All we know about the motivation of the Capitol for staging the games is that it demonstrates their control, but for what purpose?

In many ways, Collins seems intent on satirizing the manufactured love the entertainment industry gives America, and pro sports leagues for the way they manipulate violence and game play (NBA reffing, NFL rules that benefit passing). But as screwed-up as those industries may be at times, killing young Billy from down the street seems to be taking it too far? We don’t need to be told how schmaltzy the game-makers must be, just make them as cruel as possible.

This is where Katniss’ perspective as the narrator is limited: on the one hand, she, with the ninety-nine percent, observes hopelessness up the obliviously rich people with lavish hair, but she doesn’t give any insight how the Capitol has maintained day-to-day control on the districts for the last seventy-four years, other than their cruel tournament. Granted, many young people in poverty may, though no fault of their own, lack perspective, but that doesn’t help me as a reader trying to understand the world of The Hunger Games. This is why Jonathan Frazen says that if a character narrates a work, then that character has to add something insightful to it.

Violence on screen is a means of catharsis, whether it be the mid-aged man trapped in a separation from his wife (Die Hard), the terror of a senseless world we don’t understand (The Dark Knight, The Walking Dead) the unspeakable atrocities of war (Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down). For the violence of The Hunger Games to be cathartic enough to work, the world has to seem so cruel and arbitrary that the games seem strangely fair. Suzanne Collins only goes half-way there. If the Capitol was sadistic enough to enjoy the death of young people as entertainment, they wouldn’t have a problem of putting people to death arbitrarily on the street, which Katniss likely would have seen as a child.

But then I got to thinking: are the hunger games just an analogy for abortion? Are the teenagers being sacrificed in the arena just represented by the children the poor women sacrifice because our society has told them that they would just grow up to be criminals? Meanwhile, the rest of society just moves on and calls it a tough decision.

I digress. Would I let my kids see this movie? Frankly, I would have a hard time, at least until they were older and I could talk to them about it. I’m somewhat more disturbed by the fact that the film doesn’t know how to handle the violence then the violence itself.

Say One Thing, Do Another: Why The Hunger Games Narrative is Sorely Lacking

(Warning: the following post contains spoilers from both The Hunger Games book and film. Proceed at your own risk.)

Two years ago, I walked out of a theater having just seen Inception for the first time and was depressed because it was the best movie I had seen in about ten years, and I’d probably only see about eight or nine movies as good as it for the rest of my life. Few do what Christopher Nolan did with Inception:take a radically original premise and pushes it to its limits, all the while ignoring what any other film has done before it, all on a grand scale. But after reading The Hunger Games and seeing the movie, I was severely disappointed because I’d just watched a film that had an equal premise but took no such risks and offered a poor character.

Let me make a concession: The Hunger Games is commercially successful. There’s something in this movie that speaks to young people, and it is at some points pure spectacle, such as Rue’s death and the subsequent rioting in District 11, along with Katniss’ tears. Katniss’ voice, as she provides for her family, echoes the despair of the lower classes, and her character isn’t the spoiled brat Bella Swan is.  The whole idea of teenagers forced into a killing competitions breads the possibility to explore so many idea, and when you see the film half-explore them, it is maddening.

The Hunger Games frustrate as they seems to know what to do at times, and other times, they seem clueless, in virtually the same narrative situation. For example, director Gary Ross wisely keeps the violence off-screen in places where it’s needed: the bloodbath at the opening of the games, Cato’s mauling by the dogs, and death of the boy who rigged the mines after Katniss destroy the career’s food supply. But in other situations, the gratuitous material lingers, like when Glimmer’s mangled remains are overshown. Also, there’s the boneheaded move of showing the dogs in the control room before they’re unleashed on Katniss, Peeta, and Cato. The games control room itself is a nice addition to the film along with President Snow and the head gamesmaker, Seneca Crane. The all the capitol supporting players and Haymitch are well cast, although it’s not overtly to find an actor to play an over-the-top TV host.

Then there’s the film’s twist: a good plot twist is not just about the twist itself, it’s about the setup and fallout. Take Katniss’ decision to destroy the careers’ food supply. She mentions it right before she does it, in both the book and film. If I had been editing the manuscript, I would have told the author to have Haymitch suggest to Katniss to destroy the food supply before the games. Make his character look smarter; an action that important needs to be hinted at earlier in the work. And in spite of this action Katniss still seems to survive by dodging the action. Other plot misses: Katniss’ failure to kill Foxface not coming back to bite her (reading the book, I thought Foxface would find and kill Peeta when Katniss went to the feast) and Peeta never disclosing to Katniss why he joined the careers at the beginning of the games. If you’re smart enough to come up with the double attempt suicide to end the games, I expect you to figure the rest of it out.

Half-an-hour into the film, I wished the screenwriter would watch some episodes of 24 to understand how to pull off a good twist, only to see at the end of the film Billy Ray, who wrote a rejected screenplay for the 24 movie, was one of the writers. A yes-man writer if there ever was one.

But the real problem with The Hunger Games has to do with the central character and her arc, or more specifically, her lack of one. At the beginning of the story, Katniss doesn’t want to marry her friend Gale, and at the end of the story, she doesn’t want to be with Peeta. That isn’t a story arc. I don’t care if Katniss were to go being in love with Gale to denying love, or from not believing in love with Gale to believing in love with Peeta. Granted, I would prefer a view of marriage that respects the institution, but either way makes for a more interesting story that what I was subjugated to.


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