Friday, April 29, 2005

Lazy days of pre-summer

It's a pretty slow time for finding Transformers in stores at the moment. Hasbro seems to have decided that the repaint "Universe" line isn't doing as well as they'd like, and the rumors are that no new "Universe" toys are forthcoming. The main "Energon" line is in limbo, awaiting the beginning of the new "Cybertron" line in a couple of months. And the "Alternators" line, while assumed to be ongoing, has not been replenished in the Toys R Uses, Targets or Wal-Marts I've been to in months now, despite rumors of new toy sightings elsewhere in the country throughout most of that time.

Conventional wisdom is that this is a slow time for toys. The Christmas rush is long past, and the kids aren't yet on summer vacation, so stores see little point in investing in new stuff. For those of us who are adult collectors, this can be most infuriating.

This isn't to say that the dedicated TF fan can do nothing but wait on the whims of big chain marketing. I've already shown off these bits that I created this past week to house some old Happy Meal toys, as well as this package that I'd done several months ago. I've also been interested in the occasional custom TF, such as these Action Masters done by another TF fan, or these repaints that I created myself some time ago.

Taking old scrap toys and repainting them is certainly cheaper than buying new toys (and MUCH cheaper than buying a decent custom from another fan, who not only deserves to be paid for their talent and skill, but also has to ship the custom), but there's still something special about being able to walk to a store and see the new TF packages on the shelves. Even if don't buy any (which is often the case, given my budget), it nice to see some variety once in a while. Unfortunately, it seems as though I may have to wait for July....

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Color Blind?

Having spoken yesterday about what happens when certain professors who have worked here a long time are honored, it occurs to me today to reflect on our seminary's process for hiring new professors. For reasons that are obvious to anyone who's been involved in a job search, much of this process is confidential. So much so that I don't dare go very deep even in a blog that's intended to be reasonably anonymous and location-neutral. However, I believe it's safe to say that one of the factors that our school is very concerned about is diversity. This is a subject that has meant many different things, depending on what background one comes from. If anyone wishes to comment, I'm confident that this fact will be borne out even here.

Suffice it to say that, for us, it's not enough to say that (as an institution I was connected to several years ago said) if two people of roughly equal ability present themselves, and one happens to be a minority (for us, that means a woman or an ethnic minority), we should hire the minority. While this goal is well-intentioned, it fails to acknowledge the potential contributions a candidate would make specifically because that candidate happens to be a minority. We, therefore, have decided that we need to be intentional about looking for minority candidates.

This raises the valid problem of hiring a less qualified candidate "to fill a quota," which is also something we'd like to avoid. It does not do any respect to the minority candidate, nor the ethnic group or gender the minority represents, to suggest to that candidate that we had to "lower the bar" in order to hire them. Indeed, to suggest such would be the vilest of insults.

Nor does our institution desire to hire no white males. However, we acknowledge that, in a society where white males make up only about 35-40% (an educated guess, not a hard statistic) of the population, to have a faculty made up of about 90% (also an educated guess-I didn't bother looking it up partly out of a desire to retain that vague sense of anonymity) white males would indicate that there is a systemic problem with our hiring process. Theoretically, the proportion of white males should be comparable to the proportion of white males in the surrounding population.

This is a problem that many institutions have to deal with, and while we're working on a system to address it, I doubt that there are any easy answers. But comments and suggestions are definitely welcome.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Pomp and Circumstance

One of the benefits of my job is that, from time to time, I get to be a "fly on the wall" when one of our professors is honored or promoted. We recently promoted a professor, and we had the requisite luncheon in his honor, where friends and collegues had the opportunity to talk about what a great guy he is, and on occasion to engage in some good natured roasting. These are always very enjoyable events, and I consider it a rare privilege to have been able to sit in on so many of them in the past five years.

In the midst of all the ceremony, the fact shines through that these theologians, these professors who've studied far more than I'll ever study, can speak more languages than I can name, and have written more books than I'm likely to write, are still, at the core of it all, people. These are men and women who I've had to opportunity to get to know over a period of time, many of whom I can begin to call friends. It is truly a pleasure not only to see them honored at these times, but also to see a little deeper into just what kind of people God has made them to be. It's truly been a blessing.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Prayer request

It's mid-term season around here. For most folks, that means stress levels just shot way up. If you're a praying person, please keep students and professors in mind during this time.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Working inside the box

Been trying to think of something creative to do with some old Happy Meal Transformers from a few years back. Finally decided that creating custom boxes for them was the way to go. Here's a picture (click on the thumbnail for a larger view).

Friday, April 22, 2005

Failing to see the trees for the forest

Practically every day, I hear some news report or other talking about how shaky the economy is. This has been true for at least the past four or five years now. Any positive turn is balanced out by some cautionary message that the future remains uncertain. OK, guys. Life is hard. I get it.

It's especially hard to "make ends meet" in the part of the country in which I live, where rent for a two-bedroom apartment under $1000 a month is considered a "great deal." Where I grew up in the midwest, rent that went for more than half that would be considered "high end." It's positively depressing. To make matters worse, working in a seminary is hardly a well-paying job. Between my wife's part-time salary (she's also taking classes) and my full-time one, it's still pretty much all we can do to keep from going further into the red.

It's not a matter of needing to "work harder." My wife's job is one of the most intense part-time jobs I've ever heard of. The amount of work that needs to be done should really be done by two or three people, or at least one full-time person with a part-time assistant. My wife is the only person in the entire organization that does what she does. And she's good at it. Very good. She's been complimented by some very influential people, not just within her organization, but also from people in the organizations they work with. But her organization (and mine) are in the same trap of so many groups these days. They don't have the resources to pay better, or to hire enough workers to do the jobs that need to be done. Benefits are being cut, and yearly raises can't even keep pace with the cost of living. People everywhere are working harder and harder, and seeing less and less benefit from it all.

Both my wife and I work for Christian organizations. While we both have always understood that such organizations often work with limited resources, and neither one of us went into these positions expecting to be "financial successes," we're finding ourselves increasingly stressed out and overtired at the end of each day, while still struggling just to pay the monthly bills. Our quality of life is suffering. We believe in what our employers seek to do, or we wouldn't be working for them, but this "good work" is happening increasingly on the backs of people who aren't able to give much more, and I foresee a crisis looming, as employees find they simply cannot continue under these circumstances, and seek work elsewhere. If organizations lose dedicated staff help, they will have to hire and train new people. This costs money, and besides the moral issue of treating workers this way, I'm convinced that our organizations will lose more resources by having to train new staff than they might have had simply by paying the existing workforce better and keeping their stress levels (i.e. workload) more managable. It is these dedicated staffworkers that make the lofty goals of our Christian organizations happen. Without them, these organizations themselves will suffer.

If this isn't a matter of "failing to see the trees for the forest" (to coin a phrase), I don't know what is.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Creative concepts

This has been the week of the Arts Festival at the seminary in which I work. I have some pretty close friends on the Arts Concerns Committee, and used to be the chair of the committee myself a few years ago, so I generally try make myself available to help out.

These events often give me some cause to ponder the nature of art. Not so much "what is art?" but "what is 'good' art?" Clearly, just because something is popular doesn't make it "good." On the other hand, I often find myself biting my tongue (or not) when so many artists around me seem to criticize art that happens to be popular for being "bad" or "cheesy." Often, I agree with the assessment, but other times, I wonder if the art is being criticized simply because it's popular. I don't claim to have any answers here. Besides the fact that what constitutes "good" art is subjective, I myself still struggle with this question.

For example, some of my friends would suggest that "good" art must cause the viewer to wrestle with the world in which we live. I certainly don't dispute that this is one valuable function that art fulfills, but is art that is simply nice to look at not good art simply because it does not challenge anyone's expectations, but is merely pretty?

Another question: is there a difference between being "creative" and creating "art?" I like to "create" things all the time. For example, I made this custom Transformers package recently for my brother's birthday (see picture at right). The figure inside, I hasten to add, was not created by me. Only the packaging, which I designed to look as if Hasbro (the toy company that produces the Transformers in America) had created it back when this kind of figure would have been created in 1990. Clearly, very few of the ideas here are mine. The aspect of my "creativity" was in bringing it all together in this way. Some might argue that this is the very definition of art. But is it? There's no deep meaning here. Just a gift I created for my brother with the hopes of it being a bit different and special. What if I created such a package (as I'm actually looking to do for other customs) with the intent of selling the custom on eBay (which I may or may not do)? Does that affect it's status as "art?" And if it is "art," is it "good," beyond being technically proficient?

Or, to look at the question of "good art" from a different angle, what makes certain art "cheesy?" This is an assessment I myself have made on occasion. For me, I'd probably call something "cheesy" that "takes the easy way out." That is to say, not just that it is "popular," but specifically that it caters to popular culture (or in the case of "Christian" art, the popular Christian sub-culture) in such a way as to be "safe" and "easy" and to not have any real meaning for the people who look at it. Especially in the case of "Christian" art, I see so much that Christians use to escape from the secular world. If anything, Christians more than most people need to be challenged. We need to know how to engage the secular world, rather than run from it by developing our own sub-set of "art" that allows us to avoid the aspects of the rest of the world we would just as soon not deal with. But for all of that, am I not still engaging in some form of "artistic snobbery?" Where is the line between something that is merely technically proficient and good art? Should I even make such a distinction? Or am I failing to be properly engaged in the world (artistic or otherwise) if I don't seek to make such a distinction?

And so the pondering continues....

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Another one bites the dust...

I'm a huge fan of game shows. Have been my whole life. Much to the chagrin of my father, who saw it as a waste of time, and fostering dreams of "getting something for nothing." I'm actually not entirely sure I disagree, but since the very definition of "grace" involves "getting something for nothing," I've never seen this as such a bad thing....

Anyone who's watched Jeopardy! in the past year probably knows about Ken Jennings. Ken broke virtually every record possible in his half-year-long run on Jeopardy! last year. (I've found one obscure exception.) To capitalize on Ken's popularity, the Jeopardy! producers have embarked on what they're calling "the Ultimate Tournament of Champions." This tournament is unprecedented in scale, showcasing about 150 former champions in a tournament that will run for several months. The two winners of the tournament will face off against Ken in a 3-day final round playoff, the winner of which to receive $2 million dollars. (In response to the "something for nothing" crowd, I should note that this will probably be the most minding-numbingly exhausting "nothing" these players will ever have done!)

Yesterday saw the return of my personal perennial favorite Jeopardy! player, Eric Newhouse. Eric was the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament champion in 1989 (he was 15 at the time). He since has made appearances in that year's Tournament of Champions, the 1990 Super Jeopardy! tournament, the 1998 "Teen Reunion" tournament (which he also won), and the 2002 "Million Dollar Masters" tournament (in which he won second place). This last was intended as a kind of "Ultimate" event, but the success of Ken Jennings dictated that the producers come up with something even bigger. (For that matter, "Super Jeopardy!" was supposed to be such an event, as well....) In any event, Eric has been dubbed "Powerhouse" by no less an authority than Alex Trebek himself, and being about the same age as myself, I have always looked forward to his appearances.

Sadly, yesterday was not Eric's day. He made two bold "Daily Double" bids (the latter of which would have been a "true Daily Double") and missed both, thereby decimating his score. He only managed to survive to even play the "Final Jeopardy!" round by getting the last two questions in a row correct, bringing his score out of a deficit.

Needless to say, he did not win the game. Ahh, well. I guess I can look forward to Ken Jennings' return in a couple of months....

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

We live in interesting times

To say that we live in a world of change would be a statement so obvious as to be akin to saying that stop signs are red octagons. There are always some who can find exceptions to the rule. Stop signs in some areas might not be red or octagonal. But most people know what a red octagon means even without the letters S-T-O-P written on them. Similarly, there are those who note not how much the world changes, but how much things stay the same. Or SHOULD stay the same. Or SHOULD go back to how they used to be....

I'm a seminary graduate who currently works in a seminary. I see this tension all the time. As a Christian, I often am with people who think about the "timeless truths" that our religion seeks to deal with. I also work with people who constantly struggle with how to take those truths to "an ever-changing world" (to paraphrase my seminary's mission statement). I interact with people of many different backgrounds within the Christian tradition all the time. Many who I disagree with very strongly. Some who it's difficult to maintain a veneer of civility with, despite my best efforts. And this is just within the Christian tradition, with it's many demoninations, and cultures, and ethnicities. As I look outside of Chrisitianity, the differences only become more visible. (Though not always more contentious, strangely enough.)

I personally often struggle with the need to maintain belief in certain "truths" while acknowledging the need to be flexible enough to address the needs of a world that is always in a state of change. Observers to the right of me would accuse me of being "relativistic," while observers to the left of me think I'm too "rigid." That's just life. But it still hurts to feel so misunderstood.

I've been a fan of the toy line known as "The Transformers" ever since the line started over 20 years ago. More than two-thirds of my life. I was very happy yesterday to learn of the arrival of my 20th Anniversary Optimus Prime figure, a toy which I had passed on purchasing when it was in stores a year ago because of the high $75 price, but for which I recently took advantage of an offer to get free if I joined up with both a DVD club and a CD club. Since my wife is a musician and a movie lover, it seemed a good way to go. I've often thought about the parallels between these toys that "transform" and my faith in a God who "transforms" human lives. It's a parallel that none of the toy designers intended, I'm quite sure. But I think it a useful analogy all the same. There is some sense in which we need to change. We not only cannot stay the same, but we are created for the purpose of change. This is not a statement ignoring the reality of some "timeless truths," but merely an honest observation of the changing nature of the world we live in. The trick for me continues to be finding out how to balance those two realities.

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