Archive for November, 2011

Did the Catholics Ruin Christmas?

It’s official. The Crystal Cathedral of Garden Grove, California, home of “The Glory of Christmas,”  has been sold to the Catholic Archdiocese of Orange County, after several years of drama involving an aging founder and pastor, church and family infighting, and financial insolvency.

According to the Crystal Cathedral’s website, http://www.crystalcathedral.org, the Rev. Robert Schuller and his wife Arvulla began the church in 1955 at the Orange Drive-in Theatre, where he would preach from atop the snack bar, and she would play electric organ. This was the beginning of their vision, their dream. The church’s catchphrase was, “Come As You Are in the Family Car.” The first permanent home for the church, built in 1968, was a building that you could walk into, but which also had a wall that could roll up to reveal the parking lot, where, yes, you could still “come as you are, etc.”

By 1970, Schuller was a TV preacher, on Hour of Power, and by the mid-seventies, work began on what is now known as the Crystal Cathedral. The word from the church website is that Schuller missed the open sky of his drive-in movie theater church, and so he told the architect to “…make it all glass.” The Hour of Power broadcasts continued, and for many years, the Crystal Cathedral produced a lavish Christmas pageant entitled “The Glory of Christmas,” which included actors (angels) on wires flying high above the congregation, and live camels, cattle, and other manger-ish animals. This pageant was heavily advertised on local TV, and ran for almost thirty years. I believe its last performance was in 2009.

2005 photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I have never set foot in the Chrystal Cathedral, I am not in sympathy with it as a religion, and have distaste for its social positions, but its passing as an institution moves me nonetheless. It was so SoCal, what with the drive-in origins, the feel good positivity, the never-ending happy ending shared from its pulpit, and its utterly corny excess. For all its trappings, I sensed sincerity. What is it with places like this, and why do so many people care? Why am I interested? What would Jesus think?

Travel with me now back to 1997. I was on vacation in England. One Friday night, I found myself in a pub in Brighton, in a gathering of editors and writers from the science fiction magazine Interzone. I spent time talking with editorial staff member Paul Brazier, who told me he was going to guest-edit the upcoming Christmas issue. He suffered, I think, a mini-moment of social awkwardness for not having invited me to submit (the deadline at that point was only about a week away), but I said, oh don’t worry, because “… I don’t do holiday stories.”

The moment I say I don’t do something, I start thinking of ways I might actually do it. It just happens. That’s why I don’t make claims of not doing stuff very often. It’s a reckless thing to do.

On the way back to my hotel that night, I ignored my chatty-cathy taxi driver and wondered what my story of Christmas would be, were I the sort of person who did that sort of thing. It occurred to me that Jesus, if He were to return to our time, would have more than a few problems with how modern-day humans celebrate His birth. So there was a title: “When Jesus Ruined Christmas.”

But how would He ruin it? What actions would He take? I took Him on a mental tour of shopping malls and dysfunctional family gatherings, but nothing seemed to click. Then, just at the end of my taxi ride in Brighton, my mental tour took Him to the Crystal Cathedral, and to a performance of “The Glory of Christmas.

I named my fictional house of worship the Emerald Cathedral, in part as a Wizard of Oz reference, but also because the all-glass architecture gives the interior the look of a greenhouse in photos and on television. I named my pastor Rev. Howard Givens. As for Jesus, He did not appear as he does on Sunday school illustrations, but was bodily reincarnated in the body of an unemployed alcoholic man by the name of Jesus Olivo.

Jesus/Jesus goes to the Emerald Cathedral, applies to work on their Christmas pageant, and is cast in the role of Joseph. From that vantage point, He wreaks havoc on the grandiosity of the church, and of the pageant, fulfilling a mission He  is committed to, but does not understand. Some of the time, He seems to think what happens is merely a personal test of faith for Reverend Givens, and the rest of the time, He thinks maybe God is just messing with His head, making Him do all this weird stuff.

In the case of the Crystal Cathedral, no supernatural act of God brought it down, only the very normal and mundane acts of human beings. The size of the organization. The advancing age and deteriorating health of Schuller. The mismanagement of money; perhaps, the greed for money and power as well. Being unable to pay debts. The camels can’t keep coming unless the camel-wrangler has been paid for the previous year.

Nonetheless, the fate of the Crystal Cathedral and the fate of my fictional Emerald Cathedral are similar. I am not happy about that; in fact, a small part of me wishes those corny Christmas shows were still going on, even if I’m not interested in going myself. I’m left with a mix of feelings, touched by events that have nothing to do with me.

The mere thought of attending a mega-church makes my blood curdle. I do not care at all for the social conservatism large churches in our area tend to preach. There is a certain smugness about these institutions, a smugness purchased with donations of the faithful. It is simply not necessary to have an all-glass church, flying angels, and real camels to celebrate Christmas or any other holiday. It is perhaps not even desirable. On the other hand, I have affection for anyone with a dream who makes that dream real, and Rev. Schuller did that, with a vision of a church that everyone could come to, that they didn’t even have to get dressed up for. I never sensed smugness in him.

“When Jesus Ruined Christmas” was eventually published in the August 1999 issue of Tales of the Unanticipated, (issue #20), which can still be found at http://www.totu-ink.com. This is a very fine semiprozine, one that’s been around since the mid-eighties. If you want to compare the fate of the Crystal Cathedral with that of the Emerald Cathedral, check it out.

The Catholics did not ruin Christmas by purchasing the Crystal Cathedral. In fact, they kind of started Christmas by superimposing it upon pagan solstice celebrations. Jesus did not ruin Christmas; it happened after He’d left the scene. “The Glory of Christmas” didn’t ruin Christmas; it scarcely made it gaudier. Christmas, in the end, is whatever you care to make of it; nothing more, nothing less.

On Christmas Eve, I plan to do as I usually do–spend half an hour or so watching the delayed broadcast of services at the Vatican. (Talk about your gaudy pageants.) Then I’ll go to sleep, and wait for Santa to arrive.

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Too Automatic? (Herding Apple Users)

What would she have thought?

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a young man of about twenty-two. We were working side-by-side on two turn-of-the-century Macs (the blue ones), entering data, some of which came from the previous turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th) into the database of UCI Arboretum’s herbarium. It’s quite a heady experience, but a difficult one as well. Some of the source material is barely legible. I do a lot of searching when I’m trying to decipher the correct place or plant name.

So, on this one specimen, I threw a guesstimate of the spelling on an obscure location into Google and pushed enter. Safari promptly crashed. It has been doing this lately. It will successfully load a full web address, but will crash a Google search.

I sighed and commented to the student working next to me, “I think Steve Jobs must be haunting us.”

Well, I thought it was clever, but he looked confused. He asked, “What was the big deal about that guy, anyway?”

I had heard that response before from younger people. They didn’t grow up expecting or considering the personal computer. We older folks grew up thinking we would be waited on by robots, and would drive flying cars. Instead, we got the personal computer and all its babies–cell phones, digital music players, etc. We had to learn computers at a later age. We remember what frightening and intimidating objects the first personal computers were. Some of us, including me, became increasingly frustrated by how difficult they could be to use. Quite a few of us found Apple products so much easier to use. I came to see Steve Jobs as the person with the vision to make computers, cell phones, and music players better than I ever dreamed they could be. He insisted they not only work well, but be beautiful, effortless machines that a person would enjoy using. What a concept.

My life and environment are messy, but when I use my computer or one of my devices, I feel free and easy. I feel I have stepped into a House of the Future.

Except for the iPad. And this Cloud business.

The iPad is populated by Apps, short for applications. We’ve always had applications. Word, iPhoto, iTunes, et cetera. An application is supposed to perform a specific task, and these three are excellent at what they do. When I open Word, I don’t think about anything but writing. In iTunes, I can perform a bunch of functions, buying and downloading music, playing it, ripping it, and organizing it. I can also download podcasts (what a great invention), and also movies and TV, if I want. More importantly, I can find things on iTunes–not everything, but a lot–including some fairly obscure musical items. When I use iTunes, I don’t think about anything but being entertained. iPhoto gives me a central location to load my photos, old and new, and a way to organize them. This is a bigger deal than it seemed at first, because I find I look at my photos more often in digital form than I did when they were in albums, and certainly more than when they were in a shoebox at the top of my closet.

The lock screen of my iPad shows a turn-of-the-20th-century formal portrait of my grandmother in full Gibson Girl style. I never expected to have such a thing as this. And yes, that’s the photo at the top.

When I use all these applications, I feel free. I don’t run up against many roadblocks that limit me. I don’t have to choose between 5 fonts; I have hundreds to use. I can upload photos from any source, not just one or two; ditto music.

When I open iBooks on my iPad and go to the store, I am offered a display of featured books and best sellers, a display that reminds me, in its content, of one of those soulless chain bookstores I groaned about a couple posts ago. If I go to “Categories” and browse the list of authors, many of my favorites appear to be absent. Sometimes, however, if I search the author’s name, I find he/she indeed does have books for sale on iBooks. Practically, this means that if an author whom I like but who has slipped my mind has a new book out, I will not see it. Psychologically, being aware of this problem gives me unease, the same kind of despair I feel when I step into a bookstore featuring nothing but celebrity bios and the like. “Yes, but where is the real stuff?” I want to say.

In iBooks, I feel the real stuff is being hidden from me, as if the app is herding me and my fellow readers into the little app icon-box. Yesterday I listened to a radio interview with Ann Beattie on her new book, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines A Life. It was there, but you had to know a writer with the name Ann Beattie existed to find it. Amazon is faster and better at finding books, and of course, gives you more options as to the format. If, however, I want the digital equivalent of bookstore browsing, I need to go to an online bookseller of non-digital books.

And then there’s this Cloud thing.

I love the idea as a backup, as another layer of security, so that I don’t lose my photos and libraries, but I do not want Apple to take away my computer (i.e. my hard drive) or the CD slot on the side, and just access everything “in the cloud.” I have a reasonable amount of trust in Apple. Whenever I have had an issue with any device or content, like content that disappears, or gets garbled, or fails to download, they have been nice and quick to put things right. A book or e-zine I’m only likely to read once is fine in the Cloud. The rest of it is not.

But the latest Apple ads and promotions seem to be preparing us for a future without our own large hard drive, and without the CD drive (or the CD). We won’t have to “worry” anymore about synching or carrying around fat, heavy laptops. When anybody tells me not to worry, I worry about exactly the thing they tell me not to worry about. That’s only common sense.

I worry that Apple, leader in telling us what we want before we want it, may be going too far. It’s as if I am looking at a Cat Carrier App. They are trying to put me into it. I, limbs splayed, am resisting. They may be taking me somewhere I want to go, but somehow, I don’t think so.

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Home Is Where My Spaceship Is

Last time I posted, WordPress congratulated me and offered me a prompt for my next one. It was, “What does home mean to you?”

I consulted Maya Angelou for my answer. To quote, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

That’s good enough for me, definitely how I want to live. Cook a decent meal, do the dishes, see what’s on TV. Ask if either of my family wish to watch with me. If nothing’s on, curl up on the couch with a book. My daughter will go watch something on her computer; my husband might open his iPad and immediately fall asleep. We relax.

But if we’re watching or reading science fiction, we will more likely than not be enjoying tales of the mostly not-at-home, have-no-home, and left-home-never-to-return.

Science fiction protagonists can have disastrous or nonexistent home lives. Home, when it exists, is something to be invaded by aliens, zombies, Big Brother, or a rival galactic empire. Alternatively, home is a place escaped from long ago, or too boring to mention much. Or perhaps it was destroyed, and can’t be gone back to.

One partial exception that comes to mind is Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. There our heroes live inside monastery/university-like concents, which are pretty cool places, and we are allowed to spend some time there before the cozy, cocoon-like atmosphere is ripped apart by political and social upheaval. A truer exception to science fiction homelessness might be found in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which is three volumes of turning the red/green/blue planet into a home. Granted, there are parts of the trilogy which, much as I admire it, I find a bit tedious, mainly where they are discussing what sort of government the new Martian nation will have. And that is the point. Good government is boring. Even only semi-ok government. Non-boring government is never any good.

Good homes are boring and tedious as well. There is a lack of drama between those who live there. No one screams at each other. They are generally glad to see each other. Bickering, moodiness, and grumpiness are okay, in moderation, of course. There are negotiations, to keep the peace. There is the upkeep, the cleaning, the laundry, and the rent or mortgage to do. There is a modicum of fun picking out paint colors and furniture. There is the delight of one’s stuff, which one gets to use and enjoy, and one hopes other family members haven’t messed with or moved. There are the ordinary troubles, but danger is not something we seek at home.

If you’re a science fiction protagonist then, you’d best not be a homebody. If you stayed home all comfy and cozy, you’d be out of a job, and possibly dead, having been invaded or destroyed as described above. No one would want to read about you or watch you.  Let us therefore raise a glass (or just drink directly out of the milk carton, I don’t care) to our SF protagonists. Let’s thank them for entertaining us, for giving up the comforts we enjoy, so that we can have vicarious adventures through them.

On occasion, I may grow tired of being a homebody; I may want to pack my bags and exchange my land-based abode for a spaceship. In that case, here are some options I might consider:

1) The Enterprise looks nice in its mid-century futuristic fashion–all whites, grays, whooshing doors and blinking lights, but it’s all a bit too antiseptic. I’d never make it through the five-year mission without missing my cluttered, mismatched, homely decor.

2) Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels have a seductively strange ambience in their sentient ships. Who wouldn’t want to take a ride on something named Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, or Sense Amidst Madness; Wit Against Folly, or even Kiss My Ass? The personalities of these ships, however, are overwhelming, and I would feel quite exposed. Ships of the Culture universe can be a bit like the overattentive waiter or bus-person who keeps interrupting table conversation filling water glasses and asking if everything’s okay.

The only ship I could stay on for a long period is the Tardis. Huge inside, sentient but discreet, and with cheerful retro-techy decor. The series has implied from time to time that in between dangerous adventures and looming arcs of The End of Everything, the Doctor and his companion(s) have a some non-eventful sightseeing trips that don’t make it to the screen. This, I would like. Also, the Doctor can drop me off at home moments after I left.

That way, I don’t have to miss anything or anybody. It’s a cheat, but I think it’s a necessary one.

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