The A-Words

a-word2They’re the two fall-back adjectives of the moment: awesome and amazing. I think of them as the new A-words. And if the world were full of people in a state of awe and amazement, I’d be fine with them. But it’s not.

I risk being totally ungracious here, since both words have been used on occasion with reference to me. I am grateful for the compliments, but really, I hardly inspire awe – at least I hope I don’t, since awe is as much terror as exhilaration. And I see nothing amazing in what I do, which consists of reading, thinking, writing, and speaking out. My problem is that however well-intended such compliments may be, both “awesome” and “amazing” have been so corrupted by over-use that there’s next to nothing either awesome or amazing left in them.

“Awesome” has spread so far up the age range from its origins in teen-speech that I find it hard to understand why newly minted teens still revert to it. When a freshly purchased pair of sandals or a new ice-cream flavor is called awesome, the word is worth about as much as the price of the cone the ice-cream’s served in. It has nothing to do with real awe — a state of being the speaker has clearly never experienced.

As for “amazing,” consider the way it’s said — in a tone of voice that no longer contains any hint of amazement, and with a downward inflection so that the speaker might just as well be saying “depressing.” This fake amazement has become an automatic response, in much the same realm as “Have a good day.”

I tested it not long ago at a gathering of well-connected millennials who prided themselves on what they took to be unconventional thinking, and whose standard conversation-starter was the utterly conventional “Where are you from?” At first I said Seattle, and this was deemed amazing, as though it were a surprise that anyone could possibly live in such a place. Then, just to check, I began to give other answers. Des Moines, I said. Or Detroit. Or – why not push it? – Dubai. And each answer got the same glassy-eyed response: that un-amazed “amazing.”

Scroll through the click-bait headlines of such sites as Gawker or Buzzfeed or The Huffington Post and you’ll find the A-words used ad nauseam (note to self: does ad nauseam count as an A-word?).  Playful bear cubs and science breakthroughs, inspirational talks and dumb pratfalls, see-through dresses and stars exploding in outer space — all are mashed together in a mini-tsunami of awesomeness, amazement, astonishment, astoundingness. The A-list, I guess.

In the face of so much amazement and awe, I find myself gasping for space in which to breathe, let alone think. I’d say let’s avoid the meaningless use of such words, but the go-to impulse remains strong, and I’m sure I’ll keep using them just like everyone else.

But I hope to stay faithful to my favorite A-word: absurd. And – how could I forget? – accidental.

Lightning Louie

It’s weird how a single scene from a movie can stay with you. Like this piece of American noir:

A fedora-hatted gumshoe walks into a Chinese eatery. He heads for the back booth where an over-sized guy with a bowl in one hand and chopsticks in the other is steadily shoveling food into his mouth. The gumshoe wants information, and tosses a banknote on the table. The other guy delicately picks up the banknote with his chopsticks, tucks it into his vest pocket, and keeps right on eating.

I so envied that nonchalant chopstick deftness. A mere thirty seconds of screen time, but it stayed with me even though nothing else of the movie did. I had no idea what it was called, or where I’d seen it (late-night TV?), or who was in it (Bogart?). So for years – decades – I recounted the scene over Japanese or Chinese or Thai food in the hope that someone would recognize it. And finally, a month ago, someone did. A New York friend who’d been on a noir binge in preparation for a course he was teaching sent an email titled “That movie.”

pickuponsouthstreetPickup on South Street. 1953. Directed by Sam Fuller.   Starring Richard Widmark.

Yay! I found a copy, and I was right, it was a great scene. It was a wonderful damn scene. Yet while it was exactly as I remembered it, it was also not at all as I remembered it.

The chopstick magic was there – not once, but twice, as more money was tossed on the table until the overweight guy (going by the irresistible moniker of Lightning Louie) was persuaded to talk. But where the scene played in my memory with the camera full front on him, he was shown the whole time in profile, from the side. The camera was fronted on the gumshoe, seated not across from him in a booth, but cater-corner at a table.

And there was no fedora.  In fact there was no gumshoe. ‘He’ was she – Jean Peters, the female lead, playing the ballsy yet vulnerable dame trying to find a bad-on-the-surface/good-at-heart guy in trouble (that’d be Widmark, of course).

I watched the rest of Pickup on South Street as though for the first time. I had no memory of it, despite the great camera angles and a terrific cast of characters. Only that one cherished scene was familiar, told so many times to friends and drastically re-created in the process. In essence, I’d re-shot the scene, usurping Sam Fuller’s role as director.

I like to think I’m a good observer. As a psychologist, I should surely have a clear eye. I know how malleable memory is, how it has a way of adapting itself to desired narrative, to what we think should have or could have been. But here was proof positive that I’m no more immune than anyone else. I wanted the gumshoe. I wanted the fedora. And because I was entranced by Lightning Louie’s ability to pick up banknotes with chopsticks, I wanted him head on.

As a wise friend said, “we all write our own scripts.”

Caution: Theologist At Work!

Yes, it’s a hard hat — flotsam picked up after a storm on one of the wilder shores of the Pacific Northwest.

We were fooling around after doing the author’s photo for the inside flap of the agnostic manifesto, and it occurred to me that this shot — the opposite of a regular author photo — expresses the spirit of the book quite perfectly!

I’ll start posting again here very soon.  Words, I mean.  For now, it’s as though after writing 40,000 of them, they seem to have gone on vacation.  Since it’s way hot by Seattle standards, that  might be wise of them.

Soul Food

sureya2The luxury of finishing a book: you can meet a friend for lunch. That’s what I did last week at a homey Turkish restaurant near where I live. It began life as a rug shop, but since Sureya, the proprietor, loves to cook, she started serving food among the rugs. People turned out to love her cooking in return — I’ve taken Turkish friends from out of town there, and they practically wept with home-sickness – so the rugs retreated to a small pile at the back of the room. Plain wooden tables and chairs multiplied, and the news spread.

Last week was a normal mix for this place: a pink-haired student with Gothic script tattooed on her bare shoulders; a couple of hijabi mothers with babies; plaid-shirt-and-chinos software types; even a suit or two.

My friend and I ordered lentil soup and some eggplant dishes, and when Sureya brought them over she told us about her plans to move to a larger space nearby. The color scheme would have lots of turquoise, she said, and she was already haunting eBay in search of beautiful plates to replace the plain white ones we were using.

Maybe there’s something about Sureya that calls forth truth, or maybe I was still light-headed with having finished the book, but I said “Um, Sureya, you know, people tend to get light-fingered around beautiful plates…” And I found myself telling her about the time, many years ago, when I was out with a few friends in New York, at an Italian restaurant that the waiter told us was due to close soon. I don’t remember how many bottles of wine we’d drunk, but it must have been a few, because by the end of the evening, it seemed an awful pity that this restaurant’s hand-painted ceramic plates were to disappear along with the place itself, which is why several of them were somehow transferred into purses, jackets, and trousers — including those of an assistant district attorney from a major American city I won’t name here.

My friend looked on in bemusement at anyone so foolish as to tell such a story to a restaurant owner even as she was eating in her restaurant.

“So maybe stick with the plain plates?” I concluded.

Sureya seemed puzzled, as though I’d suggested the most peculiar thing. She thought about it a moment, and then her response knocked me for a loop.

sureya3“Why?” she said. “Let people take if that’s what’s important to them. Why even worry about that?” And I realized she was right. Who would even dream of stealing from a woman like this? That would be to invite such bad karma…

She was smiling as she reached behind her for a blue glass dish, and held it up in both hands. She moved it around in front of her to catch the light, swaying as she did so, almost dancing with it. “Look,” she said, “how could I not use this? isn’t it beautiful?”

It was. And so was the eggplant. And so is she.


So this morning, I pressed ‘Send’ and the last chapter of the new book went winging its way to my editor in New York.

There was a brief glow of accomplishment.  A full-body glow, all shiny and radiant.  “Finished!” I thought, even as I knew this was untrue.  Books are never really finished.

There’s a final edit to be done, and then copy-editing, and then the dreaded “author’s questionnaire” will arrive from the marketing department, and as on just about any questionnaire I’ve ever encountered, I just won’t fit.  Among other things, it’ll ask me (in slightly different language) to “please describe in 200 words what just took you a whole book to say.”  I’ll agonize over these 200 words, and never manage to get them right.

And then I’ll wait, heart in mouth, for the pre-publication reviews, which will determine whether ‘Agnostic: a Spirited Manifesto’ — yes, that’s the working title — will thrive in the big wide world.  And then for the post-publication reviews, in early 2016, which will determine if it survives at all.

Yet since there’s probably a certain masochistic element to being a writer, I’m looking forward to it all.  In the immediate future, though, what I’m looking forward to is getting back to posting here on The Accidental Theologist.  Some people manage to write short and long (post and book) at the same time, but I’m not one of them.  That’s why I’ve been relatively silent over the last several months, restricting myself to brief squibs on Facebook and Twitter.  It’ll probably take a while to get back into the rhythm of blogging (some of you will be able to tell I’m not back into it since I just mistakenly pressed Publish instead of Save), but with months of thinking stored up, who knows what might happen…

Muhammad’s Tears

The cover of this week’s Charlie Hebdo leaves me speechless, in a good way.  And in tears too.  (And yes, it is indeed deeply Islamic in spirit.)


My Inner Sergeant-Major

Less than three months to go before I hand the new book to my publisher, and I recognize the signs.  This afternoon I drove through Christmas traffic to the market, filled up a shopping cart, got to the checkout counter, and discovered I’d left my wallet at home.  (The next stage is finding that I’ve locked myself out of the house, which is why spare keys are judiciously distributed among my neighbors.)  My head is not quite in this world.  Close friends tell me this is how I always am near the end of a book.  “It seems worse this time,” I say, only to have them remind me that this is what I say every time.  I reluctantly acknowledge that they may be right.

The checkout guy knows me, so he let me put the cart to one side and hold onto the freshly-made warm frites I’d bought, or would have bought if I’d had any money on me, reminding me to save the price tag for when I got back with credit card in hand.  The frites were perfect, thin-cut and salted just right, and I dealt with the traffic by devouring them as I drove home, where I gulped down a glass of water (the salt!), grabbed my wallet, and set off back to the market, only to realize that the car now stank mightily of frying oil, and so, therefore, did I.  The glamor of the writing life continually amazes me.

Since I’ve been tussling with big, undefinable things like God, consciousness, and infinity, I guess it was a bit much to expect that I be a normally functioning member of society at this point.  It should certainly have come as no surprise that even as words accumulated in presumably satisfactory numbers, they turned out to be slippery, slithery creatures.

I’d already done all the right writerly things.  Per the admonition to “kill your darlings” (Hemingway? Woolf? — it’s one of those “variously attributed” sayings), passages waiting to be lauded as beautiful writing had been duly slain, a process that left virtual blood all over the keyboard since I find it far harder to delete than to add.  But the surviving words still displayed an alarming tendency to slide around from page to page.  Stubbornly refusing to stay in place, they were acting like a pack of unruly schoolkids.  I could practically hear them shoving and poking each other:  “Here’s where I want to be!”  “No, here!”  “That’s my place.”  “Tis not.”  “Tis too.”

By last week, I’d had enough of it.  “Take charge of the words!” I wrote on an index card, in all caps, and pinned it over my desk.  Forget “being a writer” — I’d become a sergeant-major, and order these green recruits into shape.

I printed out the most troublesome chapter, pushed the computer monitor aside, shoved the office chair out of the way, and stood over the desk, leaning in like a commander about to ream out a subordinate.  I set to, marking up the pages with slashes and arrows, dictating what went where, giving insubordinate words what for.  And though it took a few days, they caved.  They fell into place.  Lined up for inspection.  Reader, it worked!

william jamesAt least I think it did.  I can’t be sure of it.  How could I be?  This is an agnostic manifesto I’m writing, and it hinges on imperfect knowledge, on the importance of doubt, the inhumanity of certainty.  As William James put it (he of The Varieties of Religious Experience):  “So far as man stands for anything, and is productive or originative at all, his entire vital function may be said to have to deal with maybes.  Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe.”

I love James despite his peculiarly Victorian assumption that only men “stand for anything,” and this quote from him survived the slashing.  But there are still times when the writer in me needs that inner sergeant-major to let me know in no uncertain terms exactly what I can do with my maybes.  I suspect James had one too.



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