Saturday, July 27, 2013

Imagine You Can Smell Bread Baking...

Because while I preached this communion sermon last January, I had bread baking in the kitchen for the congregation to smell. Get some Bridgeford's Bread from the supermarket from the store to cook while you listen to recreate the effect:

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Review of Jacob Tomsky's "Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hopitality" (Doubleday, 2012)

An important disclaimer, this book is dedicated to me. Right there in the acknowledgements, Tomsky thanks “every single hotel employee who ever clocked in.” See, I’ve clocked in and continue to clock in at a boutique, luxury hotel.
Therefore, much of this memoir of hotel life rang true for me, but not all. The primary dijfferences between my experience and his can be found in the size of our hotels. Tomsky has worked in New Orleans and New York in hotels with hundreds of rooms. I’ve worked in a motel with twelve rooms and my largest hotel had 56 rooms.

This leads to a variety of differences in our experiences. Tomsky has worked as a valet, front desk agent and housekeeping manager. He’s obviously worked with bellmen, doormen, security and concierges. The roles in a large hotel are all quite distinct. As night auditor in a small hotel, I’m often alone and have to fill all of the above roles in a single night. This makes the complex relationships between the roles above a little simpler, and I enjoyed reading about his evaluation of people in different jobs.

He describes bellmen as tip hunters, always looking to get cash in the palm. Can’t disagree greatly with that. Remember as a hotel guest that like waiters, bellmen work for tips. So smiles and verbal thanks are fine, but green is what they truly understand. (And we are talking paper money, an early story in the book tells of a bellman drop kicking quarters received for surfaces. He later retrieves the quarters.)

He describes concierges as snooty narcissists. Now again, it might be from working at smaller places and not in NYC, but the concierges I’ve worked with have been sweethearts.

He describes those who choose to work the through the night shift as strange creatures indeed. As someone who has worked night audit for years, I’d like to disagree with him. I’d like to, but I really can’t.

As for his experience with management, he admits it’s been a mixed bag. But his experience when his NYC hotel was bought out by a private equity group led to an adversarial relationship that provides some of the best stories in the book. Working in smaller places, I’ve always known the ownership and quite fortunately, liked them, so his tales of fighting big, bad bureaucracies differ greatly with what I’ve experienced. One can understand why he appreciates his union card. I’ve never worn the union label.

A couple of things he gets very right. Just because you wear a name tag, does not give the guest an immediate right to your name. And it’s great if you continue to use your cell phone while interacting with a desk agent, you are an oblivious jerk.

He gets a few things wrong, in my experience. He spreads the myth that hotels have a magic room hidden away for movie stars and you. It might be true that sold out doesn’t mean truly sold out when you have 1000+ rooms. But when you have 56 or 36 or 12, sold out means sold out. I do not have a room with two king beds, a hot tub and an ocean view hidden up my sleeve.

But many people will read the book for the odd stories of the scandalous and sordid aspects of hotel life – sex, drugs, celebrities behaving badly, ladies of the night, nakedness, etc. Yes, he has those stories; everyone who’s worked any time in hospitality has those stories. After I told some of my stories to a friend, he was quiet for a bit and said, “None of this stuff ever happens at my accounting office.” Good for Tomsky (not his real name) to find a way to get paid to tell them.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

One Other Western

I should have made more of a point in my top ten list that aside from my Top Ten Westerns, many other film makers continue to practice the form. In fact, one of my former youth group members (from Concord Bible Church) made a Western a few years ago. To make any feature length film takes Herculean effort, a period film like a Western all the more so. So kudos to Jared Isham and "Bounty".

Random Top Ten List: Best Westerns of the Last Decade

I haven’t see the new version of “The Lone Ranger” but it doesn’t look very good and from the box office reports to looks like it will lose the Disney Studios tens of millions of dollars (everybody “Whaaaah!”) It’s bringing out another chorus of “The Western is Dead” from critics. For decades some have claimed this to be the case. People were making the claim before “Dances with Wolves” won Best Picture in 1990 and since “Unforgiven” won Best Picture in 1992.
But if you look at the last decade, there have been a number of good Westerns, especially if your definition isn’t bound by time (“the Olde”) or place (geographic West rather than the Spirit of the West.) Here’s a list (alphabetical) of my favorite ten Westerns for the last decade:

“3:10 to Yuma” (2007) – This remake (with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale) might not be as good as the 1957 original (with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin), but it’s still very good. Both films present a good man with the temptation to choose a short cut to provide for his family. Crowe plays an excellent tempter to Bale’s good man. (Also fun to see Peter Fonda decades off his Harley on a horse.)

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007) – The film was longer than the title, but worth everyone of its 160 minutes. Cinematographer Roger Deakins filmed perhaps the most gorgeous Western ever made, and writer/director Andrew Dominik wrote one of the most thoughtful of Western scripts, with great insights on the danger of lusting for fame. Brad Pitt is good as James, but Casey Affleck is better as Ford.

“Django Unchained” (2012) – Yeah, the Western is dead when just last year a Western made a huge profit and was nominated for Best Picture. (Perhaps, technically, a “Southern”, but it’s a Western.) Quentin Tarantino’s salute to spaghetti westerns is very violent and goes more than a little over the top in the third act. But its righteous indignation at the evil’s of slavery is well earned. Christoph Waltz deserved his second Oscar under Tarantino’s direction.

“Meek’s Cutoff” (2010) - A rare Western that doesn’t focus on lawman or outlaws, cowboys or soldiers but rather ordinary settlers. In fact, rarer still, it focuses on the women settlers and was directed by a woman (Kelly Reichardt). A sad, and disturbing tale of the Oregon trail that won’t be wholly unfamiliar to fans of one of the first educational computer games.

“No Country for Old Men” (2007) – Ethan and Joel Coen are the only film makers today that will draw me to see a film, no questions asked. Though set in the present day, this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy novel is a Western tale of bad guys and outlaws and those that come between them. I love the film, and it did deserve its Best Picture Oscar, but I miss the sheriff’s theological musings from the novel.

“Open Range” (2003) – Perhaps I’m cheating on the time frame to include Kevin Costner’s very traditional Western, but I love it so I don’t care. Robert Duvall is a joy as is most everyone in the cast. The first R rated film I showed my teen and near teen aged kids, because I was thinking it was PG-13. (The rating was earned with one graphic gunshot wound.) I don’t regret it.

“The Proposition” (2005) – Now this violent Western really earns its R rating. Set in frontier days of Australia, Nick Cave’s screenplay sets up a nasty situation wherein a man (Guy Pearce, who managed to be in several of my favorite films of 00’s) must track down and kill his older brother…or his younger brother will be killed. Though not parallel, the situation has the feel of the proposal the disguised Joseph gave his brothers toward the end of the book of Genesis.

“Rango” (2011) – Some of the same people involved with new “Lone Ranger”, writer/director Gore Verbinski and actor Johnny Depp, made this deeply strange animated Western about a lizard who joins mammal townsfolks to confront an outlaw snake. (Tim Olyphant, star of “Justified”, the best “Western” currently on television, provides the Eastwoodesque “Voice of the West”.)

“Serenity” (2005) – Okay, it’s spaceships instead of horses, but this still is a great Western, a sequel to the great Western television show, “Firefly”, created by Joss Whedon. Arguably, much of the appeal of the Old West is the libertarian spirit of freedom, which is at the heart of this legend of outlaws (from the show’s theme song, “Take my love, take my land, Take me where I cannot stand, I don’t care, I’m still free, You can’t take the sky from me.”) Probably, you are advised to watch the entire run of the show (13 episodes) before viewing the film, but if you do that, it will make you laugh and it will make you cry.

“True Grit” (2010) – The list ends as it began with a remake of a traditional Western. But I think this film is even better than the 1969 original (which is pretty amazing since the original had an Oscar winning performance by the King of the Westerns, John Wayne.) This is also the second appearance on the list of writer/directors (producers/editors) Joel and Ethan Coen. They capture, even better than the original, the redemptive aspects of the Charles Portis novel. So, yeah, people will continue to say the Western is dead. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Coen’s still have another good Western hidden up each sleeve (which would be four more great Western, by my count.)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Review of "Where the Hell is God?" by Richard Leonard

The book is plugged as an unique blend of the personal and theological, but the personal aspect of it is not especially powerful.
Leonard does have some good things to say about the importance of free will and God's presence through suffering.

But chapter five in the book, an argument against the supplementary atonement of Christ's death and its purposeful nature is borderline heretical. To quote Matthew 16:21 - "21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life." Peter objected to what Jesus had to say, and I believe Jesus might have had a "Get thee behind me, Satan" for Leonard here as well.

Leonard's less than wholehearted affirmation of miracles is disappointing as well. He seems to lean toward the idea that "modern science" has ruled out the miraculous, but God can still do miracles "through us". He seems to believe that since a miracle didn't happen for his quadriplegic sister, it won't happen for anyone. Scripture teaches that God does indeed intervene in the world, even if rarely and not by human weems. Much better treatment of the miraculous can be found in C. S. Lewis' "Miracles" and Tim Stafford's recent book of the same name. (And while one is looking at Lewis, see also "The Problem of Pain" and "A Grief Observed" for the classics in dealing with these issues from first a theological and then a personal perspective.)

But Leonard does have some worthy arguments and is worth a look for people struggling with the problem of evil and pain.