A Review of “The Space Between”

Cover of the The Space Between by Eric JacobsenIt’s funny…or perhaps sad….how the academic sorts of reading that I pushed through in grad school is now attractive to me as reading in my spare time. I suppose that, by the time I was reaching the end of my master’s program, I was sort of just realizing my true passions. Around that time is when I became fascinated by theological examinations of culture. I’ve also always been attracted to more urban lifestyles, so a theological examination of urbanism….or, more precisely, new urbanism…was bound to pique my interest.

The Space Between, while a dense read and obviously an academic text, is engaging from every angle. Jacobsen begins with detailed examinations and explanations of the disciplines of city planning, urbanism, and new urbanism, taking the reader into an exploration of how sidewalks fall into the design of a city, how sight-lines should terminate on an urban horizon (particularly fascinating if you have any background in theatre), and other minutiae of the process of laying out an urban environment that will bring enjoyment to most readers simply by exposing them to the knowledge of a field of which most of us know nothing. Then, with a firm understanding in place, we dive into the theological examination of urban spaces.

A foundational premise of Jacobsen’s work is that public spaces are intended for use, but are activated by use. He is intentional about defining his subject as the “built environment,” separate from the natural environment but existing alongside. This is the environment with which we engage and that is more than just buildings and streets and shops, but includes the in-between places…alleyways, the spaces between buildings, and parking lots…all of which have an effect on our lives. Interestingly, as I read this, I remembered several foundational events in my life that took place against the backdrop of parking lots.

Another of the author’s primary assertions is that the industrialized transition from a pedestrian society to an automobile society de-humanized our interactions. Streets no longer accounted for walking after the industrial revolution, but were built to accommodate automobiles, instead. This pushed our interactions out, away from homes that we previously could walk by as we traversed our environment and potentially interact with neighbors, yet now we are all walled off in our vehicles, not only limited in our interactions with one another, but tending to view each other as less than human as we are encased by steel.

Zoning laws (something that the author is firmly against) then moved homes and businesses apart, disadvantaging many because a vehicle is now required to do even the most mundane of tasks in many places in our country. Public transit is generally not a priority. A by-product of this, the author describes, is the “safe haven” philosophy, a relatively recent evolution in Western thought. In this philosophy, we view our homes as safe havens within which we can isolate ourselves from interaction with the world. The practical upshot of this is that Christian influence in our communities and the public sphere (or, at least, meaningful Christian influence) has diminished. We no longer have to engage with our neighborhoods, and often don’t. Our children don’t learn how to do so as a result.

The way to effect change in the polis, Jacobsen argues, is to engage the neighborhoods in which we live. When problems arise, engaging with other and working them out, instead of immediately calling the police, for example. I can’t help but think, as well, that this reduces the need for excessive law enforcement in our communities, and just may, were it to become a common practice, divert us away from our march toward a police state, as well.

Jacobsen goes on to describe a church liturgical interface with the built environment, which I won’t outline here as it is lengthy, but it is compelling.

For all of the author’s excellent points, he is absolutist in his framing of his theological engagement from the standpoint that human dignity is only affirmed and protected when in a well-functioning urban environment. I find this to be strikingly short-sighted, as it ignores a large portion of our country that lives in rural environments. In these rural environments, not having an automobile (a state in which Jacobsen implies is closer to Godliness….I don’t entirely disagree, but…) is not an option. There is a sense that the author views rural environments as somehow lesser, which, for all of his thought-provoking points, is a perception that we can scarcely afford given today’s culture wars.

Still, The Space Between will change the way you view your engagement with your neighborhoods, working space, and others around you for the better. If your academic interests lean at all in this direction, or if this sounds at all interesting to you, then this is certainly a worthwhile read.

Non-Social Networking

Photo of a conference keynote presentationI usually go to two professional conferences per year. One is a smaller weekend conference here in Boston that requires no travel on my part. As with most tech conferences, all of the talks are posted on YouTube within about a week, so that conference attendees can catch the talks they couldn’t get to at the event (you frequently end up with good ones overlapping each other), but also to make the information available for everyone else. There’s always great presentations at these conferences, accompanied by the belief that everyone should be able to benefit by it being available to the world. So, the real value that you get for the admission price is the networking.

Being an introvert, networking has never come easily for me. In fact, I had to be taught how to do it while I was in school. That thing that extroverts do when they work the room and exchange cards and handshakes, making professional connections that will benefit them later in their careers? That’s completely alien to me. And, honestly, it’s completely alien to most writers and programmers. Both fields tend to be largely dominated by introverts, in my experience. Still, though, we have to network because the world is built to work the extrovert way, so….we suffer and move forward.

It’s not that we don’t like people. I love meeting new people. The concept of being in a crowd or group of people that I don’t know, however, and needing to interact with them at any sort of meaningful level, is completely exhausting. Like most introverts, I need hours of quiet time after to recharge my batteries.

This weekend, two things struck me about my conference attendance. One was that, by lunch, which is the prime networking opportunity, I was already drained. I retreated to an outside park bench on the school campus at which the conference was being held, on a beautiful Boston afternoon, and ate alone. I even saw some colleagues across the way that I hadn’t seen in a year, but I just couldn’t get into the head space of talking to them.

Honestly, though, those sorts of moments just happen when you’re an introvert. Even though you might gear up for one of these events as an athlete would for a game (which is required when we’re to have a lot of people contact), sometimes you still just can’t pull it off. It happens.

There was another moment, however, that struck me as particularly apropos of our time in a bad way. Another conference-goer and presenter followed me on Twitter after liking something that I had tweeted.

This happens a lot. For tech conferences especially, it’s another way of networking. The conference always has it’s own hashtag, and developers especially tend to hang on out on Twitter, so you end up connecting with people there. This one grabbed my attention because this person’s profile claimed a lot of geographical similarities to me. So, the confluence was sort of cool. What was telling, though, is that I passed this person later in the vendor area. We looked at each other, but exchanged no verbal greeting at all. We just kept moving.

Now, some of this could be that awkward moment when you’re not certain if that is who you think it is based on a profile photo. In fact, I could have been completely wrong that it was who I thought, but I doubt it. I also don’t think that acquaintances that begin virtually are always shallow or nonexistent in this way. I’ve experienced quite the opposite, and, lest we forget, I met my wife on Facebook. I just think that, from a professional networking standpoint, it’s telling that these sorts of things happen. Perhaps networking professionally and social networking are alike in that they are both shallow events? The goal of professional networking, in my experience, is ultimately to advance one’s own career, after all. Rarely do I intuit the motivation to be selflessly giving back.

Perhaps I’m being curmudgeonly on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Perhaps this was just an awkward introvert moment. Perhaps, though, our networking should be less about connections made than relationships entered. There would be exponentially fewer of them, but the relationships that existed would be much less virtual and much more substantive.

Or, perhaps that’s just an introverted way to look at things.

On Immaturity and Language

Wisdom comes with age.

I’m not just saying this because I feel…well, older…of late, but rather because we’ve already discovered this. There’s not only a time-honored tradition of, but a natural order to, learning from those older than us, those with more experience in life. That, after all, is the promise of apprenticeships, still required in many professions.

We’ve stopped rewarding this, though. Education has replaced experience and deference to elders as the point of recognition in the professional world, and post-modern philosophical relativism has replaced listening to experience in the personal realm. Thus, we have people in their 20’s with MBAs managing people in their 50’s who have been in their profession since they were 18, and a perspective that there can be no higher truth than what one sees in the moment.

The end result, I’ve come to see, is an immature culture, and this is nowhere more evident than our politics. A mature person displays careful use of language, but we use our language instead to incite conflict, resentment, and hate for personal gain. Instead of finding common ground, we paint those with diverging opinions from our own as the enemy. We take no care with our words, and thus our words consume us.

“for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body…And consider ships: though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies; it pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.” James 3:2, 4-6, HCSB

I think that we don’t have to look around much to see the course of our lives set on fire at this point. There is power in words, but we don’t recognize that power, because we are immature.  Our immaturity breeds a disrespect for our language, and the cycle continues. Language is so much more powerful than military force or laws, because language brings both of these into being.

“War is what happens when language fails.” Margaret Atwood

Our language as a culture is the result of our maturity, or rather lack thereof. We would do well to grow up a bit before we continue speaking.

Inspiration in Print

During one of my first journalism classes in college, I read a story about a new reporter who was working with obituaries. The story went that the reporter found a small detail in one of the obituaries that was about to go to print, and followed up with the family, ending up with a hugely influential piece.

This far removed from reading that (my adventures in journalism were a long time ago, and my college career even longer), I don’t recall the small detail that the reporter found. I remember the point of the story: that the smallest detail could uncover important news.

The town in which Karen and I live has a weekly paper. It’s tax-funded….delivered to every resident each Thursday. In the years since my byline appeared on a few front pages, I’ve honestly largely assumed the extinction of the newspaper, but have found since we’ve moved back to New England that I enjoy making the time to read this small paper each week. It’s a distinct point in the week. It marks time. I know what’s happening in the town. I feel more connected in a way that local broadcast news can’t provide, being mostly good only for weather and traffic. There’s some substance to print journalism, here complete even with local op-ed writers. It’s….refreshing.

This last week, I found myself wandering into the obituary section. I read the story of a local artist who had worked for Disney, then lived nearby and who had recently passed. This man’s life made for a compelling story to me. There’s an art to telling someone’s story, and I felt as though I knew this man after reading his obituary. I wasn’t struck so much by any specific aspect of the story, as I was by the totality of the story.

This will sound morbid, which isn’t my intention, so as earnestly as I can write this: I wonder how my obituary will read? As old as I sometimes feel (having a two-year old ages one prematurely, I’m convinced), I still have a lot of life left in front of me. I have no way of knowing what that will entail, and I’ve read enough dystopian science fiction to know that I don’t want to know. I hope, though, that an otherwise unremarkable life lived might inspire someone at an earlier point in their own life when it is read. I hope that I will leave a legacy of a good life lived to my children.

In short, there’s much that I gained from reading this stranger’s story, much that I will carry forward.

I miss newspapers.

 

A Review of “Avengers: Infinity War”

Photo Avengers Infinity War Poster. Used under Creative Commons.All of the build-up for this film was that it would be big. Even huge. It is, after all, the culmination of 10 years of Marvel faithfully adapting its characters to the big screen. It’s also big in the sense of how we are seeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe stretch, recently bringing in paranormal and extra-terrestrial elements. Just as in the source material, Marvel has explored every genre, from science fiction to YA, high fantasy to spy thrillers to space opera.

There’s a trick to bringing so many characters, and their native genres, together into a “team.” This is the challenge with writing any super-hero team, and the challenge becomes greater as it scales. The Defenders, for example, is easier to pull off than the Avengers. Now, however, we’re going a step beyond. Now we are seeing teams brought together with teams, along with solo adventurers. The Avengers were big. This is bigger than big.

So, however, is the threat. Thanos is a Titan. We’ve seen him coming with a sense of dread attached to the foreshadowing, but even those of us steeped in the comics literature forget that he is more dangerous than all of our heroes’ rogues galleries combined. Now he is acquiring the Infinity Stones, making him all but impossible to defeat.

So, this is the biggest. This is the film’s strength, and also it’s weakness.

It’s too big.

In fact, it’s almost numbing.

We see some fantastic heroic moments here, don’t get me wrong. Some characters, particularly Wanda Maximoff and Dr. Strange, really have an opportunity to shine. Others though, while their presence and actions are critical, are cheated of very important moments. One that stands out is when Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanof encounter each other again for the first time since Ultron’s defeat, and we get barely a five second close-up before we’ve moved on. This is understandable in a way, given the sheer volume of characters and the scope of the story that this movie is telling. There simply isn’t time to explore everything. Still, having been spoiled by Marvel’s Netflix series making time (such as devoting an entire episode to the conversation that results from Foggy Nelson discovering Matt Murdock’s identity), this is a bit hard to swallow, especially given how we’ve grown to know and love these characters. In the case of Banner and Romanof specifically, I gladly would have spent another 10 minutes in the theatre to have some kind of conversation take place.

Also, there isn’t any time to fully explore the fallout from Civil War. These loose ends are either left hanging, or tied off too neatly. Not that this is really critical when the universe is about to end, but, again, an extra few minutes here and there would have been nice.

What was nice was the inventive combinations of characters working together. The pairings were thoughtful, very deliberate and well-crafted on the part of the writers. This also led to some beautifully-written dialogue, and well-timed comic relief to alleviate some of the weight of this story as it progresses.

There is no happy ending here, and some of the prominent deaths will shock you. This doesn’t resolve until a year from now with part 2. What will be fascinating is how other stories, specifically Ant-Man and the Wasp, will be told during the interim, having to deal with the aftermath of the ending of Infinity War.

Fascinating, and a welcome relief, because they will be smaller.

And we could use a little of that right now.

Image attribution: Brickset under Creative Commons.