Kate Bowler: Everything Happens. Period.

June 22, 2018 § Leave a comment

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My wife, Karen, has been reading Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. She’d heard about Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, when I showed her some short videos that introduced the author.

Bowler previously wrote Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, but her focus changed when, in 2015, at the age of 35, she was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer.

“Why don’t you put those videos on your blog,” Karen asked me. I reminded her that Clearing Customs is about cross-cultural issues, and though I’ve stretched that definition at times, I need some kind of hook to pull an idea into the boundaries of this site. Bowler hasn’t been a missionary (that I know of), and though cross-cultural workers face struggles and loss, they aren’t usually of the terminal-cancer-diagnosis kind.

But . . . I’ve decided to post the videos anyway. Why? Because Bowler’s message resonates with Karen, a Christian who’s served overseas, who’s dealt with grief, who’s survived cancer, and who’s talked with many former and current cross-cultural workers who need Bowler’s kind of thoughtful encouragement and empathy instead of trite phrases, even those that come “from such a good place.”

So that’s my hook.

And here they are.

Kate Bowler:

I think everything happens. Period. . . . I do think things just happen and some things come apart and some things come together. If I could pick one thing it would be that everyone simmers down on the explanations for other people’s suffering and just step in with love.

I realized . . . that I’m not special. And like, yes, I’m special to my parents and I am a beloved child of God, but like, I’m not—I’m not special insofar as, like, I am not the exception to the rule that sometimes bad things just happen.

. . . the tyranny of prescriptive joy . . .

[photo: “All Tied Up,” by Janet Bland, used under a Creative Commons license]

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If Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Global Tongue-Twisters

June 10, 2018 § 2 Comments

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As if learning a new language weren’t hard enough . . . here are some tongue twisters from around the world to remind you that talking isn’t always easy even for native speakers:

Need more ways to twist your polylingual tongue? Then go to the “1st International Collection of Tongue Twisters,” which boasts 3,660 entries in 118 languages.

Even American Sign Language (ASL) has it’s own tongue. . . uh . . . finger twis- . . . uh . . . “finger fumblers.” Here’s an example:

If you’re wondering what the hardest tongue twister in the world is, Google will point you to several articles claiming that the top spot belongs to “pad kid poured curd pulled cod.” (Try it for yourself.) That list of words was put together by researchers at MIT, while using tongue twisters to study the “brain’s speech-planning processes.”

But is “pad kid poured curd pulled cod” really the toughest thing to say on the planet? That’s a pretty bold claim to make. First of all, choosing a phrase in English would seem pretty lingo-centric. And second, even Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel, the psycholinguist at MIT who presented the study’s results, says no such thing/ “I make no claims,” she tells NPR’s Ira Flatow, “to have found the hardest, the mother of all difficult tongue twisters.”

Maybe you’re not into tongue twisters at all (though, in that case, I’m not sure why you’re still reading this). Maybe you don’t like making things more difficult than they have to be. Maybe, you agree with the comedian Brian Regan, who thinks it’s enough of an accomplishment to speak English—by itself without any added challenges. Here’s what he has to say on the topic in his show “Standing Up”:

Can you imagine being bilingual? Would that be . . .  Or even knowing anybody that was? I’m not even unilingual. Actually, I shouldn’t say that. I don’t give myself enough credit. I know . . . I know enough English to, like, you know, get by, you know. No, like, like, I can order in restaurants and stuff, you know. “I want ham. One ham, please, to eating the ham. Bring ham to eating the ham, please.” I can do that. You know, just not fluent, I guess.

(American Institute of Physics, “Tripped Tongues Teach Speech Secrets,” EurekaAlert!, December 4, 2013; Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel, et al., “A Comparison of Speech Errors Elicited by Sentences and Alternating Repetitive Tongue Twisters,” The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, December 2013; “Speech Science: Tongue Twisters and Valley Girls,” Science Friday, NPR, December 6, 2018; Brian Regan, “Standing Up,” 2007)

[photo: “Terribly Tongue Tied,” by Brian, used under a Creative Commons license]

Risk and the Cross-Cultural Worker: An Interview with Anna Hampton, Author of “Facing Danger” [at A Life Overseas]

May 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

Warning

Dr. Anna Hampton, along with her husband, Neal, have lived and worked for nearly 20 years in war-torn Islamic countries. This includes almost 10 years in Afghanistan, where they started raising their three children. Their experiences led Anna to write Facing Danger: A Guide through Risk (Zendagi, 2016), which is based on her doctoral dissertation at Trinity Theological Seminary. 

Many cross-cultural workers recognize the need to develop a theology of suffering, but you write that a theology of risk is also necessary for resilience on the field. You cover this in depth in Facing Danger, but could you give a short elevator speech on how the two are different?

A theology of suffering asks a different question than a theology of risk asks. When I was a young mom facing daily threats of all kinds but especially kidnapping and murder, I needed to be able to evaluate what God was calling me and my children to that day. We hadn’t suffered the reality of kidnapping, but we were facing the risk of it. So how was I to think, to process my emotions, hear God’s voice, and then make a decision on what I was to do?

While risk and suffering are closely related and really go hand in hand, they are not the same thing. A theology of suffering does not answer the challenges of how to think, feel, and make decisions in risk. Instead, a theology of suffering answers how I am to respond to God in suffering, how I am to think, feel, and view God’s heart once I am in suffering. Suffering in many ways is more of a “static” scenario, whereas risk is inherently dynamic—one is moving toward or away from risk and danger, and the situation is often unstable and confusing. A theology of risk answers how I am to act on the opportunities presenting themselves in risk: Risk equals opportunity for both great loss and great gain.

For the rest of the interview, go to A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Warning!” by Ray Sadler, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Airbag Bike Helmet: Now You Don’t See It, Now You Do (Except Not in the US)

May 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Nöden är uppfinningarnas moder.

That’s Swedish for “Necessity is the mother of invention” (unless I’m just completely mistaken).

For Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, industrial design students at Sweden’s Lund University in 2005, the necessity was a new law that required children under the age of 15 to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. They understood that many people, including kids, don’t like wearing traditional bike helmet’s, so they wanted to create something that people would enjoy wearing and that would still keep them safe. The result was a collar worn around the neck that uses an accelerometer to detect a crash and instantly inflates an airbag to surround the head when needed.

In 2011 the Hövding (or “Chieftain”) passed required safety testing in Europe, receiving CE certification, and is now sold in 17 European countries—as far east as Istanbul—and in Japan. So, to readers in the US, when will you see one on a street near you? Probably not soon.

At first I assumed that the major issue was that Americans just aren’t sold on the idea, so I was hoping for some brave early adopters here to get the ball rolling. (I have the same hope for the Ostrich Pillow, another headgear innovation that I’d like to be the second or third on my block to own.) Or maybe it’s the cost: about $350—and it has to be replaced after deploying. But no, that’s not what’s holding it back, at least not yet. Right now, it’s nearly impossible to get one here.

First of all, according to the company’s website, the Hövding hasn’t met American testing standards for bicycle helmets. Second, it can’t be mailed outside of Europe (Japan has them because the airbags are made there). And third—because I know you’re thinking you’ll take your next vacation to Sweden and bring one back with you—TSA won’t allow one on your flight because of its CO2 cartridge.

As for the safety-standards factor in the States, a 2016 Stanford study shows the product’s potential. Mehmet Kurt, part of the Stanford research team, states that “air bag helmets, with the right initial pressure, can reduce head accelerations five to six times compared to a traditional bicycle helmet.” But the kicker is that “right initial pressure.” If the airbag doesn’t inflate with the maximum amount of air, then a forceful impact could cause the helmet to “bottom out,” and the head would strike the ground (or other obstacle) through the cushioning.

But maybe someday . . . here. The Stanford group calls for a general updating of US helmet standards and testing, which, they say, “are very far behind.” And then they want a more in-depth look at several aspects of the Hövding: how it protects against rotational accelerations and forces, how it performs when dropped from greater heights, what can be done to eliminate bottoming-out issues, and how to make it “smarter.”

Here’s hoping all that can get worked out and the Hövding, or something like it, can make it to our shores. Not only would having “invisible helmets” in the US prevent injuries, but it would also increase my odds of getting to not see one firsthand.

(Taylor Kubota, “Stanford Researchers Show Air Bag Bike Helmets Have Promise,” Stanford News, October 3, 2016)

[photo: “Bike PDX,” by sama093, used under a Creative Commons license]

Ac•knowl•edge

May 20, 2018 § Leave a comment

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I’ve added another entry to my list of good-listening words from six years ago. It’s in the post “Conversation: noun, ‘a turning with.'” Here’s the addition:

acknowledge: “to admit understanding or knowing”
from Old English on, “into,” and cnawan, “recognize,” blended with Middle English knowlechen “admit”

How wonderful it is when someone hears honesty from your heart and acknowledges—with words or with the lack of words—the reality, the truth, the significance of what you are feeling.

[For a reminder on the importance of listening for those who cross cultures, go here to connect the dots.]

[photo: “Listen,” by Britt Reints, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Legacy of Jenny Lind, P. T. Barnum’s “Angel”

May 6, 2018 § 3 Comments

Jenny Lind.

For me, the most powerful moment in the movie The Greatest Showman is when the curtain rises on Jenny Lind and the “Swedish Nightingale” belts out “Never Enough” with joyful ferocity, while P. T. Barnum, who hadn’t before heard her sing, watches from the wings, simply amazed. His expression is what I think gobsmacked looks like.

(I have to include here, that the “Never Enough” performance was a team effort. Rebecca Ferguson, the actress who portrayed Lind didn’t actually sing “Never Enough” for the film. Instead, the words of the song were dubbed over by Loren Allred.)

But that name . . . Jenny Lind. Where had I heard it before? Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. Something to do with the NBA? No, that’s Jeremy Lin Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. It wasn’t that I was familiar with her as a singer, even though no less than the German composer Felix Mendelssohn said of Lind, “She is as great an artist as ever lived; and the greatest I have known.” It wasn’t that I’d heard of how she took Europe by storm and sang for Queen Victoria. No, that wasn’t it, either.

And then as I looked into her story, I realized what it was: the Jenny Lind bed—with it’s turned spindles and simple design. I’ve never owned one and can’t say for sure that I’ve seen one in person. I just remember hearing about Jenny Lind furniture, which is only one example from the cottage industry of items using her name to take advantage of Lind-sanity, including Jenny Lind soup, dolls, melons, bread, tobacco, and even a locomotive.

Lind certainly became a global phenomenon, helped in no small part by Barnum. So before I continue on with her story, it will help to backfill a little with the beginnings of Mr. Barnum’s career. (It’s not quite the same as what’s portrayed in the film.)

Well before being labeled “The Greatest Showman,” Barnum began his entertainment career in 1835, at the age of 25, and would have been hard pressed to call himself a good person, much less a great one. As detailed by Becky Little in Biography, Barnum’s first money-making show exploited a blind, ill, enslaved black woman named Joice Heth. Billing her as the 161-year-old former nursemaid of George Washington and “The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World,” Barnum had entered into an agreement with an R. W. Lindsay of Kentucky, who “bargained, sold, transferred and delivered” her for the purpose of “possession” and “exhibition” for 12 months (the handwritten contract is shown at The Lost Museum Archive). Lind was actually no more than 80 years old, a fact that was revealed through an autopsy after her death, for which Barnum charged admission.

Several years later, Barnum’s exhibition, as described in the Charlotte Courier, included a platypus, an orangutan, a glass blower, automatons, and a combination ventriloquist and magician. But the main attraction was “the most wonderful curiosity in the world,” the “Feejee mermaid,” which turned out to be the torso of a monkey sewn on to the tail of a fish.

As Barnum’s fame grew and ticket sales rose, he was still seen not as a serious entertainer but as a huckster, and he looked for a way to gain respectability. Enter, in 1950, Jenny Lind.

2491865635_ba613b43c9_zLind was born in 1820 to an unmarried schoolteacher in Stockholm, Sweden. Her singing talent was discovered when she was nine and she began performing at the age of ten. Before meeting Barnum, the soprano had already become a hit in Europe with her unmatched abilities, but she’d also retired, at the young age of 29. Four years before stepping away from the stage, Lind had spoken with her friend Harriet Grote about her dissatisfaction with performing. As recorded by Henry Scott Holland in Jenny Lind the Artist, 1820-1851, Grote writes,

I manifested some surprise at hearing her speak of her profession with such dislike. She went on to say that it was the Theatre, and the sort of entourage it involved, that was distasteful to her: that at the Opera she was liable to be continually intruded upon by curious idlers and exposed to many indescribable ennuis: that the combined fatigue of acting and singing was exhausting: that the exposure to cold coulisses, after exertions on the stage in a heated atmosphere, was trying to the chest: the labour of rehearsals, tiresome to a degree: and that, altogether, she longed for the time to arrive when she would be rich enough to do without the Theatre—adding, “My wants are few—my tastes simple—a small income would content me.” She would sing occasionally, she said, both for charity and for her friends, as well as for the undying love she felt for the musical Art; but not act, if she could help it.

While Lind planned to be content to “sing occasionally” for charity and friends, it was her devotion to charity that brought her out of retirement. She saw in the American tour that Barnum offered her an opportunity to make money to provide for others. And in the end, she was greatly successful in that, giving 133 performances in the US—93 with Barnum and 40 independently—and earning an amount that is said to be the equivalent of more than $10 million today (Barnum’s profits were even greater). She gave the vast bulk of this money away to causes such as hospitals, churches, scholarships for poor college students, and pension funds, keeping for herself, writes Holland, only enough money to purchase a cottage in the mountains to serve as her home.

Barnum was eager to showcase not only Lind’s talents but her virtue, as well. As he writes in his autobiography, Barnum’s pre-tour promotion included the following in New York papers:

Perhaps I may not make any money by this enterprise; but I assure you that if I knew I should not make a farthing profit, I would ratify the engagement, so anxious am I that the United States should be visited by a lady whose vocal powers have never been approached by any other human being, and whose character is charity, simplicity, and goodness personified.

And according to The Literary World, at the end of Lind’s first concert in the US, Barnum gave her the title “that Angel” and made sure the audience knew that the proceeds from the evening would go to the fire department.

In the film The Greatest Showman, Lind is smitten by Barnum and tries to manipulate him with a kiss in front of reporters. In real life, though, there is no reason to think that she had such feelings for him and would certainly not have treated him in that way. Neither did she fall in love with Mendelssohn or the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, even though both of them have been reported to have fallen in love with her. It is thought that Andersen used her as the inspiration for his story “The Nightingale.” Of her, he writes,

With the perfect feeling of a brother I prize her; I feel myself happy that I know and understand such a soul. May God send her peace, that quiet happiness which she desires for herself! Through Jenny Lind did I first know the holiness of art; through her did I first learn that one must forget one’s self in the service of the Supreme. No books, no men have worked on me as a poet in a better or more ennobling manner than Jenny Lind. . . .

Lind eventually married the German composer Otto Goldschmidt, with whom she lived until her death in 1887.

With the tour of Jenny Lind, Barnum gained at least some of the respect in the entertainment world that he had hoped for, and he found respect in other realms as well, earning election to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1865. By the time the Civil War ended, Barnum’s views on racial equality had evolved, and in a speech he gave to the legislature in support of voting rights for African-Americans, he said,

Let the educated free negro feel that he is a man; let him be trained in New England churches, schools and workshops; let him support himself, pay his taxes, and cast his vote, like other men, and he will put to everlasting shame the champions of modern democracy, by the overwhelming evidence he will give in his own person of the great Scripture truth, that “God has made of one blood all the nations of men.” A human soul, “that God has created and Christ died for,” is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot—it is still an immortal spirit; and amid all assumptions of caste, it will in due time vindicate the great fact that, without regard to color or condition, all men are equally children of the common Father.

I will not say that all of Barnum’s opinions, and vocabulary, in his speech would play well today (read the above quotation in context to see what I mean), but he had come a long way from his mistreatment of Joice Heth. Just as Barnum had used his promotional skills to help Lind raise money for charity, maybe, by her example of grace and benevolence, Lind played a part in reforming his views about humanity.

That is the kind of legacy that is much more important than a furniture style—or even a locomotive.

(Becky Little, “The Greatest Showman’ Sidesteps P.T. Barnum’s Most Controversial ActBiography, December 22, 2017; “Joice Heth Contract,” The Lost Museum, American Social History Productions; “The Feejee Mermaid,” The Museum of Hoaxes; Henry Scott Holland, Jenny Lind the Artist, 1820-1851 : A Memoir of Madame Jenny Lind Goldschmidt, Her Art-Life and Dramatic Career, from Original Documents, Letters, MS. Diaries, &c., Collected by Mr. Otto Goldschmidt, Scribner, 1893; Phineas Tayler Barnum, The Life of P. T. Barnum: Written by Himself, Redfield, 1855; Evert Augustus Duyckinck and George Long Duyckinck, eds., “Illustrations of Humbug,” The Literary World, September 17, 1853; Hans Christian Andersen, The Story of My Life and In Sweden, Routledge, 1852; P. T. Barnum’s Speech on Negro Suffrage, May 26, 1865 (excerpts)The Lost Museum, American Social History Productions)

[photo: “Jenny Lind,” by Boston Public Library, used under a Creative Commons license]

Balloons, 2, 3, 4

April 20, 2018 § Leave a comment

 

“The Big Read: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Classic Science Fiction”

After the Montgolfier Brothers made their first balloon flight in 1783, balloons became all the rage and for the next half century almost all lunar flights [portrayed in science fiction] were by balloon. The first was Le Char Volant [The Flying Chariot] written the same year by the Belgian Baroness de Vasse. When her travellers reached the Moon they discovered it was a utopia, ruled by women, unlike the hell of Earth, ruled by men.

It had been speculated that space was a vacuum since the 1640s but no one could quite believe it, and hardy space travellers took little precaution. Edgar Allan Poe was more practical. When his hero went to the Moon by balloon in “Hans Phaall” in 1835 he took the precaution of placing him in a sealed basket with an air condenser.

Poe’s planned sequel to “Hans Phaall” was frustrated when just weeks after it was published his thunder was stolen by a several articles in the New York Sun newspaper claiming that the great astronomer, Sir John Herschel, had discovered life on the moon. They described trees, seas and a host of creatures including bat-winged humans. Englishman Richard Adams Locke, then living in New York, later admitted writing the pieces as a hoax. But it convinced many around the world, finding a particularly gullible readership in France. It has been known as the Great Moon Hoax ever since, and triggered people’s interests in the possibility of life beyond Earth.

The Sunday Herald, April 7, 2018

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