Reading: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis

I recently re-read the Space Trilogy (aka Cosmic Trilogy) by C. S. Lewis, consisting of Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra, and That Hideous Strength.

My rather vague memories of my last reading some years back consisted mainly of the following.

  • Out of the Silent Planet is notable for its coherent sci-fi account of a world in which there are multiple intelligent alien species, all ruled by the Christian God, and yet Jesus still incarnated as a human on Earth, not any of the other intelligent species on other planets.
  • Perelandra is a deep exploration of the temptation of Eve (though in the book it’s a parallel situation Lewis specifically distinguishes from Eve’s temptation on Earth). What I found most notable was how much groundwork the tempter has to lay before the idea of disobedience is even a concept she can conceive enough to discuss and consider it.
  • That Hideous Strength — Beyond the rather brilliant concept of ‘macrobes’ (a humanist/scientific term for newly-theorized organisms that are, in the end, just demons), I mainly remember this as containing some of the downright creepiest scenes I’ve ever read. I hate horror and some of the final scenes were honestly too much for me back when I read them. It’s extremely skillful—Lewis’s insight into the nature of evil is on masterful display as those who have given themselves over to pride, anti-truth, lust for power, etc. experience their endgame—but this is a subject where the mastery makes it even harder to take. I was determined (and curious) to revisit those half-remembered scenes on this re-read, but I was definitely reading the book like a kid watching a scary movie between his fingers.

Some highlights on this read-through:

  • Out of the Silent Planet I was impressed with how thoroughly Lewis “humanized” (person-ized?) the aliens, to the extent that the human antagonists start feeling alien—certainly monstrous—when they come back on the scene. Also sets up a solid start to what you might call the hyper-objectivity the eldila and oyeresu (analogous to or maybe synonymous with ruling angelic powers) carry with them. Every time they appear, there’s a strong sense of a deeper reality that casts an unflinching light on the humans’ perceptions and narratives, and fundamentally and inescapably reframes the situation.
  • Perelandra — One thing that stood out this time was the way Lewis highlights the strange reality that individual callings matter. I was deeply struck by the scene(s) where Ransom wrestles with the absurdity of the fact that he, just a regular guy, has been chosen to battle the tempter in this new Eden. On the one hand it feels inevitable to him that he must win by some kind of divine intervention, because how could something this big actually depend on his puny efforts? On the other hand, he has to face with mounting dread the reality that maybe he is the divine intervention, and if he doesn’t step up and win the struggle, it won’t be won. It’s a stark reality to sit with, and reminded me sharply of an article I love called Shut Up and Do The Impossible.
  • That Hideous Strength — The scary scenes at the end are still highly disturbing, but didn’t hit me quite as hard this time around. What surprised me, though, was how much creepier I found the whole book. The insidious (and ultimately demonic) organization NICE is so freaking unsettling. Maybe at this point in my life I’m more attuned to the subtler threats of toxic bureaucracy and organizational maneuvering. It’s amazing how incisive Lewis is in this portrayal. Every single person in NICE, each in their own distinct way, continuously offloads responsibility while fighting for status and undercutting everyone around them, including their allies. Logres, the small band of  people resisting NICE, is exactly the opposite. The members are just as distinct, but they’re each willing in their own ways to question their own motives, trust one another’s, and take on sacrificial risks. It was particularly striking how NICE members are perpetually keeping things vague and subtextual, while their make things more specific. It’s a masterful study of authority handled rightly and wrongly. Authority is a subject near to my heart, but I’ll have to write about that one another time.

Basically 40

I turned 39 yesterday, but for maybe a few months now I’ve been practicing thinking of myself as “basically 40.”

I find that every age has its own benefits, and I’ve genuinely enjoyed every stage of life so far, but I can’t deny that 40 is still a milestone that looms large. I know it’s arbitrary, but it feels like a point at which I should definitely have something to show for myself, or know what I’m doing, or something.

So a part of that practice is definitely preemptive and self-protective. Getting used to the shock so it’s not as much of a shock when it actually comes.

But a big part of it is also getting a head start. If it’s arbitrary, why not figure out what I’m doing now? Why not just go ahead and work toward whatever level of accomplishment or responsibility or stability I think I’m supposed to achieve by 40?

I’ve decided to take being basically 40 as a golden opportunity. Instead of letting it sneak up on me with whatever big heavy societal expectations it’s going to hit me with, I’m going to pounce on it instead.

I call the shots around here.

After all, I’m basically 40.

Big Unified Index Card Productivity System #1: Nouns vs. Verbs

So I’m working on my latest Big Unified System and I ran into a theoretical question. In trying to ask some friends the question, I ended up talking myself through it instead and, in the process, finding the next interesting question.

Broadly, I’m working on organizing my life on index cards with each card representing a (big or small) goal state, broken down into a list of (big or small) steps to get there. As appropriate, each step can then get its own card and get broken down further, until the steps it’s broken down into are concrete things I can just go do.

I was initially going to put values as the top level cards, broken down into more specific target states/quality of life statements (CONNECTION > Healthy marriage / I play with my kids regularly / etc.)

But a target state like that can definitely help fulfill multiple values. (And, similarly, a single project could move me toward multiple target states.)

I was hoping to design a system where all the cards have the same fundamental design, essentially working recursively all the way up or down, but now I’m wondering if I need to distinguish between two kinds of cards, roughly target states and projects/tasks (or, you could say, nouns and verbs). 

Except I typically state my projects as a verifiable end state as well (monthly reporting completed, kitchen clean, firstborn displays willingness to come to me with problems, etc.). So I’m realizing nouns and verbs are not different kinds of cards. It’s more that the title of each card is a noun and then the items listed below that are either the verbs that would move me toward it or additional (intermediate) nouns that should then (recursively) get their own cards. 

Which means the real problem is not fundamentally different types of cards, but the many-to-many relationships that can exist between cards (and which screw up my default hierarchical/tree way of organizing this).

That’s mainly a problem because I was hoping to only ever have one pointer back up to a parent project at a time, but the more I think about it the more I’m not sure that’s accomplishing what I intended (which gets into the fiddly technicalities of implementing the system).

Anyway, turns out the real question is how to cleanly represent (and track progress in) many-to-many relationships. 

Which should be an interesting one, because a big paradigm shift earlier was when I realized that instead of picking my “top priority“ value or quality of life statement and then picking the “top priority“ project within that, it’s wiser to look at all of my goal states (at a similar level) together and creatively brainstorm to find a project that can move me closer to the collective goal state. So there’s probably some more juicy insight to be discovered in that vein.

Pizza Discovery

I just discovered (because I am highly innovative and also a garbage person) my new favorite snack. Take a slice of leftover pizza. Slice equatorially, as if you’re going to make a triangular sandwich out of it. Add gravy. Heat as usual.

Garbage person? Maybe. Loving life? No question.

Sleep vs. Productivity

Yesterday I got up around 4:30 in the morning because of…we’ll just say a combination of parenting and entrepreneurial passion (expressed, respectively, in a baby squawk around 3 a.m. and an ensuing mental swirl of irrepressible goals and ideas).

Oddly, I found myself rather enjoying it. I listened to a great talk or two I’d been meaning to get to, showered, made myself a pot of tea, and then spent an hour or two working on Frobisher. I made the last couple connections that solved my months-long stuckness on the ending—picture me dancing with glee in my fuzzy slippers in my basement at 5 a.m. I got a jump on the day.

A few days ago, after a similarly sleepless night, I still ended up staying up until 1 a.m. plugging away at Clickworks tasks. It was one of the highest-impact productive time I’ve spent lately. In short order I hammered out two medium-sized projects that have been nagging at me for months. In addition to the quiet and solitude, I think the sleepiness took the edge off my perfectionism and helped me just plow ahead.

For all that, the sleepless nights have also pummeled my mental acuity. I drifted rather a lot. I poked around at Facebook for way too long even though I had no real interest in it. That night after a group meeting I wandered the darkening streets for 45 minutes, trying to remember where I’d parked, and berating myself for not thinking to wear more than a t-shirt. The following morning I searched the house unsuccessfully before realizing I had worn my hoodie, but forgotten it at the meeting. Irony. Then my wife found my hoodie in the stroller.

So now I’ve got a debate going in my head. Up too early (or, as the case may be, too late) yields solitude, extra time, and generally a good flow state. Lack of sleep apparently breaks my brain, which is about what you’d expect. Worth it? What say you?

Take that, brunch!

I have a constant urge to go out for fancy brunches, especially at the place next door to our church that has a bottomless (and, more to the point, highly customizable) mimosa and Bloody Mary bar. 

I rarely manage it, though, between kids and frugality (well, bits of frugality, here and there) and not really needing bottomless booze at 10 a.m. 

And turns out we do pretty well for ourselves at home, when we want to. 

Coffee and a magnificent sticky bun.

A Bloody Mary. (That’s right. With half a dill pickle in it. That’s how I roll.) 

And get this: Chili. Cheese. Omelet. Chili-cheese omelet! 

Figure $2.50/adult. No car seats required. No noise. Delectable leisure. 

I think we can pretty confidently call this one a win. 

On Stuckness

I’m really excited about my next novel, The Unaccountable Death of Derelict Frobisher. It’s my best work to date—very funny, very deep, very me—and friends who have heard bits are figuratively hounding me for more. The draft is probably 85% complete. Problem is, I’ve got no idea what words to write next.

It’s a complex and multi-layered problem, made worse in some ways by the fact that I don’t really put much stock in writer’s block. I’ve always been of the mindset that plumbers plumb, coders code, and writers write, and if you’re so precious about your writing that you’re willing to let a little thing like not knowing what words to write next stop you, you’re at best an amateur, at worst a self-indulgent dilettante.1

So I guess I’m an amateur or, as the case may be, a dilettante, because I’ve been largely putting this problem off for months now, busying myself with other jobs that are definitely very important and not an excuse to avoid Frobisher.

Some of the reasons I’m stuck include:

  • I wrote all the fun easy parts first, which means all I’ve got left are the tricky complicated bits
  • Most of what remains is the brilliant climax where everything comes together, all the threads get resolved, and the clever twists and solutions occur, and that’s all really tricky to figure out
  • In my absorption with the aforementioned fun easy bits, I never really exactly figured out who the villains are or what they did when or why. Turns out this is a useful thing to know as you wrap up a story.
  • Existing draft is very complex—lots of scenes in various states of incompleteness, of which an as-yet-undetermined subset won’t be in the final draft—so it’s often tricky to figure out quite concretely which bits to start putting more words onto

Here are some things I’ve been doing to start getting unstuck:

  • Actually sit and think about it.
    • Turns out I overestimate the value of vaguely letting my subconsciously allegedly brood on an issue. You could say I’m mentally leaving the dishes to soak for four months. Focused thought and effort move things forward way more quickly. (Surprise!)
  • The kitchen timer method, in which you do nothing but write your work-in-progress or write in your journal for a set time. I wrote more about it here.
    • So far I’ve spent almost all of the time in my journal, and it’s starting to lead to productive breakthroughs. I think it’s useful to give myself permission to spend writing time on productive journaling instead of just adding manuscript word count.
  • Asking “What’s the next question I need answered?”
    • For example, in the final climactic showdown, I knew Hastily Dobbs and his people would thwart the Society for Entrepreneurial Insurgency using some sort of genius inter-planar cleverness. But I wasn’t sure what the cleverness was.
    • On further digging, though, I realized I wasn’t even sure what they were thwarting.
    • That led me to ask what the SEI is actually doing in this scene.
    • That led me to ask why they’re doing…whatever they’re doing. What’s their overarching goal? Once I answered that question, the knot began to unravel.

In summary: Trying to intuit my way through four layers of ignorance at once is ineffective. Not even trying is even more ineffective. Put differently, work works.

As it happens, this neatly resolves my impending dilettantism. The key to not being an uncommitted amateur is to commit and do the work, even if, in a periodic tight spot, the work consists of figuring out what words to write instead of writing more words.


1 From the German Dillentante, or “pickle-aunt,” an insult common among the 18th century pickle barons of the Weimar, implying that the insultee’s pickle-making was of a caliber comparable to a doddering aunt who, having canned some gherkins for pickling, quickly forgot which jars had been put up in what years, resulting in pickles of highly inconsistent quality and, in many cases, unacceptable mushiness.

My experimental new rules of blogging

1. Post most days.
2. Don’t spend more than half an hour on a post.
3. Don’t go meta and write about how you’re going to blog or what you’re going to say or what new blogging approach you’re about to try. Just do it.*
4. Pick a title after you write the post.
5. Don’t make a dumb clickbaity title.
6. For the love of God, don’t post about yet another system you’re trying until you’ve actually stuck with it for a couple weeks at the very least.
7. You can break any rule about 10% of the time.

 


Note from past Ben, circa 2/20/17:

Rule 6 also says this post should never have existed.

The best I could do to get around my compulsive need to share this dumb new thing–which my smart brain objectively knows to be a dumb new thing that has a 7% chance of lasting more than two days, but my dumb brain absolutely has to share with the world right now omgz–was to schedule the post to go up two weeks in the future.

The issue with this workaround is that if, as I fear and partly expect, I have merrily forgotten all about this Glorious New System by Thursday, you’ll all still see this ill-conceived nonsense in two weeks. If, on the other hand, I’m still touching my blog most days two weeks from now, I may at that point actually remember to take down this post which, however, will at that point have a much more legitimate reason to exist.

Sigh. Brains. Can’t live with ’em. Can’t live without ’em.


 

* Regarding this post, see Rule 7.

My instant kombucha recipe for non-health-nut non-hipsters

(Skip to the recipe.)

Ok, so I’m once again in the throes of my pseudennial kombucha cravings, but I have a major problem, which is my brain. I have the kind of brain that latches onto something as the-omg-best-thing-evar-maybe-the-only-thing-I’ll-ever-want-again-omg-omg! for, say, three days, and then forgets about it.

img_4064

Worst. Shepherds. Ever.

I’m also frugal enough, if not wanting to pay three to four dollars per bottle for multiple bottles a day counts as frugal, to–well, not want to pay $3-4/bottle for…you get it. It adds up.

So I decide (again) to start brewing my own kombucha. Luckily I have some infrastructure (in the form of seventy dozen bajillion Mason jars) from previous episodes. But the issue is that from the moment I brew a huge jar of sweet tea and dump a disgusting object into it, it’s going to be two weeks or so before I get that first sip of sweet, sweet (by which I mean sour, fizzy, wretched, yet curiously compelling) kombucha. I expect you’ve spotted the problem. Two weeks, in brain years, is several lifetimes. In two weeks I will momentarily look up from my new all-consuming obsession with, say, fold-expressions in Vim, and wonder why my basement lair is swamped in jars full of floaty things.

So I’m holding out hope (because I always do) that this time the desire will still be with me in two weeks, and I’m taking specific steps to establish a more sustainable kombucha-production pipeline, which will help, but in the meantime I have discovered a hack that gets me the kombuchonic goodness I want without making me wait. It is, in that sense, a sour and slightly gingery version of the American Dream.

This hack is only for people who actually just like kombucha and want to drink a lot of it. I have no idea what health benefits (or detriments) it may entail, and it will give you the opposite of purist/hipster cred. But it hits the spot while you’re waiting out your two weeks for the real stuff.

Instant (Mock?) Kombucha Recipe

  1. Brew black tea.
  2. Add sugar in a roughly 1:8 ratio (sugar:tea, not vice versa).
  3. Add kombucha SCOBY and a splash of kombucha from the starter batch.
  4. Whenever you want, pour yourself a glass of the partially-brewed results.
  5. To that glass, add a splash of apple cider vinegar.
  6. Add a few drops of lime juice.
  7. Add crushed ginger to taste.
  8. Optionally add sweetener, depending on how sour the original stuff was. And how sweet you like it, if any. (I happen to have some elderflower syrup at the moment, which I used because it’s fancy.)
  9. Drink.

Strictly speaking, steps 2-3 are probably optional. It seems weak tea with apple cider vinegar and whatever other flavors you feel like makes a decent flavoral substitute for kombucha, though I imagine you get better results by enhancing incomplete kombucha than by merely faking it altogether.

Experiment with other flavors. Let me know what you find. Please direct any hate mail to ben@bazinga.biz.

Some thoughts on prayer and if/when/why it works

My interaction with God has been a little anemic lately. On reflection, I’m finding some patterns that are probably at the root of this. Here’s what most of my conversation with God looks like lately:

  • vague spontaneous thanks for generally nice things
  • vague spontaneous requests for fairly specific (but unlikely) last-minute interventions, without much expectation or follow-up
  • vague requests for insight or guidance or help, without much time spent waiting/watching/listening for an answer
  • most critically, a tendency to ask for things that will get me out of having to care or engage

Now that I’m starting to pay attention, I’m remembering what I’ve learned in the past. God seems much more responsive, and more consciously present to me, when my communication with him is basically the opposite of those patterns. Specifically, I want to get back to communication with God that is:

  • Specific, not vague. My rule of thumb on this one: if God does what I’m asking, will I be able to tell? Similarly, when thanking God, I find it helpful to try to thank him for something I’ve never thanked him for before (even if it’s just a new phrasing/angle on a longstanding gratitude).
  • Intentional, not (just) spontaneous. Spontaneous is actually great, but it needs to be built on a history of real, focused communication. I tried this today by setting aside some time to talk with God about my to-do list, outstanding projects, daughters, wife, friends, and a few other issues that came to mind in the process. It was pretty abbreviated in form, but I’m already feeling the difference between proactively asking for God’s help with the things I care about and randomly winging a prayer his way if something looks like it’s about to go south.
  • Listening, not just asking. When I think about it, it’s so dumb when I ask God for guidance and then pay zero attention to what happens next. I’m trying to start acting like I think he might respond if I ask him something, and pause for a moment to see if I experience any noteworthy shifts in my attention and desires, new thoughts or ideas, or a new gut sense of what’s the wise or foolish way to proceed.
  • Willing to engage with pain, discomfort, effort, and sacrifice. This is the huge one. I typically haven’t been a fan of the aphorism that God helps those who help themselves (which, as far as I can tell, has no discernible connection to most actual Christian theology). That said, I’m realizing that there’s a profound difference between asking God to help me enter into beneficial sacrificial effort and asking God to help me dodge it.

To expand that last one a little, I’m realizing that a lot-a-lot of the times I ask God to help, it’s basically me trying to get out of having to do anything. Please calm my girls down (so that I don’t have to get up from my dumb phone game). Please make sure that panhandler gets something to eat (so that I don’t have to, because I really don’t feel like making eye contact this time). That sort of thing.

But that’s contrary to the whole heart of what I believe God’s doing in the world. The entire point is that Jesus (who was showing us exactly what God is like and how he works) entered straight into the center of the messy, dangerous, painful, complicated guts of the broken world, depending fiercely on God to give him everything he needed to get through it. He was the one who entered so deeply into the pain and depended so fully on God that he made it straight through death and out the other side, blazing the trail for the rest of us.

So if I’m following Jesus on the trail he has blazed, I should be walking straight into the heart of the pain and complication, exactly where I won’t be able to handle it, asking as I go that God keep giving me the strength to dig deeper in, the love I need for the people I meet there, the provision they (and I) still need even after I’ve given the shirt off my back, the forgiveness that lets me unjustly take the blame and stay quiet, the peace I need to enter the chaos without freaking out and giving up.

In sum, I should only be asking God to show up if I’m willing to be the body he shows up in.


PS – There’s a risk, after that glorious crescendo of self-sacrifice, to feel like you should go out and give everything you own and save everyone you see and take up every cause immediately all the way on the spot. Going back to the “listening” point, I’ve found great balance to this urge in the practice of asking God which people/needs/causes I should be serving and caring about at any given moment.

This lets me take on the ones that he directs me to and freely not worry about the rest, trusting that other people also serve him and he knows what will be the best, most beautiful, and most freeing way for each of us to join him.