Tuesday, April 25, 2006

TV Turnoff Week

This week is TV Turnoff Week, and we're trying to figure out if this applies only to new programming on broadcast TV or if it includes using the TV to watch DVDs and videos. We rarely watch TV as it is, though Josiah will watch educational kids' shows occasionally. (He wrote "PBS Kids" on his MagnaDoodle a few weeks ago. Brand awareness and loyalty sets in early.) The average American watches three or four hours of TV every day, and many households have the TV on each day for seven or more cumulative hours.

I realized a few years ago that the main reason I don't watch much TV is that it's so much more obviously a commercial/consumer medium than things like movies or books. I'm glad that novels aren't interrupted by pages of ads between chapters. Almost twenty minutes of an hour of TV now consists of commercials, which is double the amount that it was a few decades ago. Commercial sponsorship of TV is nothing new, but it just feels increasingly intrusive, as advertisers try to circumvent TiVo with product placement during the actual programming.

I'm also annoyed by the neverending nature of TV programming, especially when teasers for the next show entice Josiah to sit through the next half hour, and the next. We think he's a J on the Myers-Briggs, so he will (sometimes, not always) turn off the TV on his own when the closing credits roll if we have told him ahead of time to do so. But woe to us if we try to get him to leave a show in the middle of the episode! He likes closure.

We've also never been able to follow more than a couple of TV shows at a time; it's like we only have a capacity to build relationships with so many characters and storylines before we max out. We used to watch Friends and ER back in the 90s, and occasionally dipped into The X-Files, but tried to avoid falling into the weekly routine with an indefinite number of shows. The only way we watch TV shows now is via DVD, which allows us linear, sequential completion and the autonomy to watch as much or little as we want when we want (or whenever the discs come in from the library).

We are currently on season 3 of both Alias and Smallville, and Josiah and I recently watched season 2 of the original 80s Transformers cartoons. Part of me is thrilled that Josiah is enjoying the shows that I loved as a kid, but I'm also a bit conflicted over the fact that they're essentially half-hour long commercials for the toys. Thus far Josiah has just played with my old Transformers (and broken several) and not clamored to buy new ones, but I know I need to beware of the synergy between television and consumption. We already own way more Blue's Clues items than I ever thought imaginable.

But at least Josiah seems to understand the concept behind TV Turnoff Week. This morning he said, "It's a TV-off day?" That's right, no TV today. "Okay. No TV." Whew.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

As I mentioned in my previous post, these days we get basically all our movies and DVDs from the library. One that just came our way via interlibrary loan that we watched last night was the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. This film surveys the economic and environmental impact of Wal-Mart on local communities, the lived realities of Wal-Mart's employees and factory workers, and much more. It reinforced my understanding of Wal-Mart as perhaps the ultimate expression of the law of unintended consequences - initially good principles of thrift and cost-saving, taken to global extremes, results in exploitation and harm to workers.

One segment featured a coalition of local community residents and activists that worked together to keep Wal-Mart from building in their area. Interestingly enough, this had the most directly Christian critique of Wal-Mart. Local pastors and church leaders studied Wal-Mart's impact on communities and concluded that for them as Christians, social justice and care for the poor meant lobbying against Wal-Mart. They saw Christian responsibility not in terms of free market capitalism or economic bargain-hunting, but in terms of protecting the least of these by opposing Wal-Mart.

After reading an article in Christianity Today a while back about Wal-Mart, I've mitigated my position somewhat from a knee-jerk "Wal-Mart is evil" stance to more of a "Wal-Mart is a fallen institution." There is certainly much about Wal-Mart that is well-intentioned, but ultimately, the effects of their business practices seem beyond redemption. And I'm sure it's not just Wal-Mart - virtually every discount retailer probably has some business practices that profiteer on low-wage employees and factory workers. But Wal-Mart's sheer size and legendary ruthlessness makes them far more damaging in their impact than basically all other discount retailers combined.

Anyway, all this to say - see this movie. Like Super Size Me or The Corporation, it's a documentary that has the potential to change how you participate in consumer culture. (And the spoof commercials are hilarious!)

Monday, April 17, 2006

In praise of public libraries

I’m an editor/author/former church librarian/all-around book geek, so one of the most gratifying things for me as a parent is when my four-year-old son says, “Let’s go to the library. We can check out lots of books.” We typically go to the library at least once a week, and we always come home with stacks of stuff. Right now Josiah is in a Curious George phase, and his bedtime routine last night included ten Curious George books.

Our local public library has been ranked one of the top ten public libraries in the nation for its size. A few years ago, we decided to move just two blocks from our old house not only because we wanted to stay in the local community, but also because we wanted to keep the same home library.

Why do I love our library? Let me count the ways. Online catalog access, which lets us check due dates, reserve books and renew items. Interlibrary loan, through which we can get nearly any book or DVD available in the state of Illinois at no cost. A fantastic children’s department that includes a train table and all sorts of educational toys. Computers where kids can play educational games, with adjacent computers for parents so I can check the status of eBay auctions while Josiah is playing Bob the Builder. A large collection of DVDs, CDs, periodicals and comic books/graphic novels. We can even check out LeapPad books and cartridges.

Libraries are kind of a mind-boggling concept, if you think about it – I can’t think of any other industry or category of items that has library equivalents. It’s not like you can go somewhere and borrow dress shirts or khakis, or check out a set of dishes or silverware for a few weeks. Just about everything else in our economy is based on commodity exchange, the buying and selling of goods and products. Libraries stand alone in sharing resources with a community. A library’s books and resources are the communally owned property of the community around it. That’s a countercultural concept in our privatistic consumer culture that says that all of us need to buy everything individually for ourselves.

The library helps hold my consumerism in check. Whereas my default setting was to buy every book that ever caught my fancy, in recent years I’ve learned that I do not need to personally own everything I want to read. Nor do I necessarily need to have everything right away. Our library essentially works like Netflix for free; a book or DVD might arrive months after I reserve it, and that’s okay. We haven’t rented a movie in years.

In addition, the library is one of the few civic meeting spaces where the local community gathers and interacts. Besides hosting numerous reading groups, workshops, seminars and toddler story times, the library is also a meeting place for community issues. Our suburb, like many in the area, has had increasing numbers of housing teardowns in recent years, and the library hosted forums where people could hear the pros and cons of teardowns and their impact on our community. The library is one of the few remaining noncommercial public square “third places” where people can connect and build social capital.

I am a beneficiary of a suburban community that has had a history of strong support for the local library. I overheard someone saying that a resident donated $25,000 to jumpstart the library’s DVD holdings. In a recent local election, an item on the ballot would have changed how the village makes its budgetary decisions, and one of the main reasons it was voted down was that it might have significantly reduced funding for the library. We love our library. It’s a matter of civic pride.

But I know that not every community has a library like ours. Libraries have varying amounts of resources available to them, depending on local population and funding and whatnot. Many municipalities have needed to cut library budgets to provide for schools and other public priorities. As a result, bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble have in many ways become library alternatives, often intentionally replicating and replacing some of the civic functions that libraries used to provide.

As a book publishing professional, I’m happy to have people encounter books anywhere, whether in the commercial environment of a bookstore or in the public space of a library. Indeed, our public library is adjacent to a local bookshop, and they even share the same parking lot. Even as I encourage people to support their local bookstore, I also encourage them to support their local library. If you haven’t stopped by your library for a while, drop in and browse. Pick up a book by an author you’ve never heard of before, or a genre that you rarely read. Look at the community notices on the bulletin boards. And thank a librarian on your way out. Not only do they help individuals think and grow, they provide civic health to the whole community.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Suburban Q & A (Part 2)

Here's the second part of the interview about my forthcoming book. (Yes, I broke it up into two posts not only because it was long but also so I could have an easy thing to post in case I couldn't think of anything else this week.)

Is it selfish for Christians to live in suburbia?

Hsu: Well, God needs Christians in suburbia just like he needs Christians everywhere. There's a difference between a self-centered suburbanism that gets sucked into all the materialism and consumerism, and an other-centered Christian suburbanism that focuses on how to herald the kingdom of God in the suburbs. Christians shouldn't abandon the suburbs; they should redeem them and make them better places to live.

Does ministry to suburbs mean that we don't care about cities?

Hsu: Some people pit the suburbs against the cities, but I don't think it's an either/or. It's a both-and. Suburban Christians need to see their suburb as part of a metropolitan whole. In Jeremiah, God calls us to seek the welfare of the city we live in. That means not just caring for our local suburbs but also the larger urban metropolis. Care for the suburbs means care for the city, and vice versa.

How can suburban Christians seek the welfare of the city?

Hsu: I think suburban Christians and churches need to have three spheres of ministry focus--suburban, urban and global. Start with your local suburban community and meet needs there. But also look to the larger urban metropolis that your suburb is a part of and partner with ministries to the larger city. And then you have international, global missions. A lot of suburban churches do the local and the global but skip the urban in between; they might support missionaries in Africa or Asia but not ministries in Chicago or Toronto. A balanced church ministers to all three--suburban, urban and global.

How can suburban churches minister to their communities?

Hsu: Sociologists have said that America needs a "third place," outside of the first two places of home and work. We've lost the civic gathering places and public squares where people used to meet and connect. That's why coffeehouses like Starbucks did so well in the 90s--they filled that vacuum with places for people to meet. But really, the third place should be the church! Suburban churches can be civic places that are open to their communities. You don't have to have a food court or espresso bar to do this. Any church with Sunday school classrooms can open themselves to other organizations to meet in their buildings, Girl Scouts, Al-Anon, whatever.

What does it mean to be a suburban Christian?

Hsu: Being a suburban Christian means that even though suburbia can be an anonymous, materialistic, consumerist environment, we intentionally live in ways that promote community, generosity, simplicity and civic good. It means that we look for ways to love our suburban neighbor as ourselves. It's the same thing that Christians are called to do wherever they live, and that we see suburbia as a place where we can exhibit God's grace and mercy to all who live here.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Suburban community - for a price

Someone gave me a copy of the article "Backlash in the Burbs," by Sarah Elizabeth Richards, from the September/October 2005 issue of Psychology Today. It's a profile of Ladera Ranch, a new suburban development in Orange County, California, that's an intelligently designed mixed-use suburban community based on the principles of the Congress for New Urbanism. The physical geography of the community is designed to maximize neighborly interaction and civic involvement. Houses are close to each other and have porches in front and garages in the back. Interconnected streets and broad sidewalks are designed to be walkable and facilitate use of parks and green space.

Six salaried event planners organize community functions - holiday parties and decorating contests, movies in the park, block parties and barbecues. A community services organization provides "event in a box" resources to help residents plan activities. Lareda has over 75 resident-organized clubs and activities, from book clubs and scrapbooking to groups for computer junkies or divorced moms. Residents describe their experience like living on a stationary cruise ship, or college dorm life - "Leisure World for thirtysomethings," says one resident. Neighbors go on walks together and invite each other over to dinner, even if they just met at the park. There's always something going on.

Sounds great! What's the catch? Well, a four-bedroom colonial house in Lareda starts at nearly $1 million. It only goes up from there. Essentially, if you can pay, you can play. Suburbia is a commercial environment, and all the more so when you are paying for the amenities of a cruise-ship-like community. Southern California is different from much of the country in terms of housing costs, but even so, the financial investment needed to live in this kind of community is prohibitive for many.

Of course, there are plenty of people who spend that much money for suburban housing but live their lives in privacy and seclusion from their neighbors. Despite the price tag, Ladera's vision of a socially connective suburban community is commendable in that it encourages people to look beyond themselves and their own nuclear families. I suspect the next step, then, would be to extend that vision beyond their subdivision's boundaries. I would hope that residents would not only make their community a happy enclave for those who can afford to live there, but turn their focus outward as well. Not just community for themselves, but community service and development for others.

Richards's article also points out that by no means is fun civic housing a cure-all for personal issues. One researcher says that people are drawn to new developments because they are marketed as a way to start fresh. "They move to solve their problems but that doesn't happen." Richards writes, "Marriages don't automatically get better, and isolated people may still feel lonely. Disillusionment sets in when residents slowly realize that 'a development is in fact just a collection of houses and not a magic salve.'" In other words, a friendly civic environment can facilitate community interaction and social neighborliness, but it won't necessarily fix you. Christians living in affluent communities like Ladera have the opportunity to minister to neighbors with deep spiritual needs unfulfilled by activities and events.

While only a small percentage of the population can afford to live in New Urbanist communities like Ladera, all of us can work toward community involvement and social interaction wherever we live. Certainly it's not just communities that can afford event planners that can have interactive community spirit. The larger challenge, I think, is for Christians in ordinary suburban communities to find ways to foster community and social interaction in their neighborhoods. It could be that my neighborhood's geography or infrastructure hinders me from getting to know my neighbors. Or I might just need to get off my duff and attend our neighborhood association meetings.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Suburban Q & A (Part 1 - commuter culture, etc.)

An interview with me about my forthcoming book has now been posted on IVP's website. It's a little long, so here's half of it:

Why a book on suburbia?

Albert Hsu: Over half the population lives in suburbia. Our country used to be half urban and half rural, but suburbia has expanded so much that just about a quarter still live in big cities and less than that in small towns. Suburbia may be one of the most significant mission fields of the twenty-first century.

You say that the suburban life is a spiritual quest. What do you mean by this?

Hsu: When people describe suburbia, they always say that it's a good place to have kids and raise a family. In other words, it's the place of their hopes and dreams for their futures. These are spiritual longings. People come to suburbia looking for a fresh start, for new jobs or relationships or communities. Even if they're in suburbia for the wrong reasons, like materialism or fear of racial diversity, these still point to spiritual needs.

So is suburbia a good thing or a bad thing?

Hsu: It's both. Back during the industrial revolution, people lived in overcrowded urban slums in the shadow of factory smokestacks, and it was dangerous. It was a public health hazard. People were at risk at home and at work. When suburbs were developed, people were able to live away from industrial areas and have better living conditions. But an unintended consequence of suburban living is that people no longer lived in the same area that they worked in. It created a commuter culture.

You write that suburbia shapes us for good and for bad. Can you give an example?

Hsu: Suburbs are designed with cars in mind. That's how the geographic land-use patterns are designed. You can't really get anywhere in suburbia by walking--things are spread too far out. Many areas don't even have sidewalks. This suburban commuter culture fragments us--we live in one suburb and work half an hour away in a different suburb and go to church in yet another suburb. So our lives are fragmented into different communities that don't overlap.

What can we do to counter commuter culture?

Hsu: Besides walking more and biking more, we can recover a parish concept. People used to think in terms of neighborhood parishes, with work, school, church, the corner store all within walking distance, and you'd see the same people in the same community. It's harder to do that now in suburbia, but try to focus on a five-mile radius of your house. Try to work near your home and go to a church near your home. Consolidate your life so you live, work, shop and worship all in the same area. You'll spend less time commuting and have more opportunities to invest in the local community.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Alternatives to “What did you do this weekend?”

It’s Monday morning, which means that my coworkers and I go through our usual informal ritual of asking each other, “So what did you do this weekend?” Kind of like folks checking in at the beginning of a small group. This particular weekend was rather full. Friday night Ellen and I went out for a dinner-and-a-movie date for the first time in two months (yes, since before Valentine’s Day!). We tried out a local cafe that had great bread, and we were late to the theatre so instead of seeing Syriana as we had planned, we caught Nanny McPhee, a surprisingly delightful family/romantic comedy starring Emma Thompson and Colin Firth.

Then Saturday morning we went to Elijah’s two-and-under playgroup at Gigi’s Playhouse Too, and then that afternoon went to church early to rehearse because Ellen and I were leading worship. (Our church meets on Saturday evenings.) After the service we had dinner with a church dinner group, which went until about ten, when someone remembered Daylight Saving Time, instantly making it an even later night than we had thought. And on Sunday we had another dinner group, this one with three other families with children with Down syndrome. It was our first gathering, and great fun was had by kids and adults alike. Except when we were taking pictures of the kids, Elijah thwocked Abby in the face, and she started to cry, which set off Matthew . . . anyway, Josiah and Elijah both fell asleep on the way home, earlier than usual bedtimes, which meant that Ellen and I could watch the DVD of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which was okay but not as good as the book nor movies two and three.

As I recount all this, it seems that having a packed, busy weekend schedule is something of a badge of honor. We feel better about having lots of stuff to say when asked, “What did you do this weekend?” Of course, this Monday morning recapitulation just reaffirms our frenetic busyness. Now I’m wondering if there are alternative questions that wouldn’t reinforce this emphasis on doing.

I can’t remember where I read this now, but I came across something about how people in some area of the country, perhaps Colorado or somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, rarely ask, “What did you do this weekend?” For them, the usual question instead is “So where did you go this weekend?” They live in a region where the cultural norm is that everybody goes off to a mountain or park to ski or hike or climb. There’s so much to explore that it’s assumed that everybody gets out of town. Of course, this is still a variation on the doing question, but I like the emphasis on physical geography. It’s probably much more interesting a question for that context – around here, the answer would be, “Let’s see. Friday we went to Naperville. Saturday we went to Plainfield, West Chicago and Winfield. Sunday we went to Woodridge. Wahoo!”

More interesting questions for our suburban context might be:

· “What did you think about this weekend?”
· “What communities were you a part of this weekend?”
· “What relationships did you cultivate this weekend?”
· “What did you read this weekend?”
· “What did you observe about your kids/friends/etc. this weekend?”
· “What was spiritually significant about your weekend?”
· “What was most restful about your weekend?”
· “How did you experience sabbath this weekend?”

If we asked each other these kinds of questions on Monday mornings, our answers would be quite different. I might realize that the most important thing about my weekend was the two-hour nap I took Sunday afternoon. Or that my highlight was when Josiah, after worship, on his own initiative and all by himself, moved the piano bench across the sanctuary to where it was supposed to go and said, “I’m a good helper.” Maybe I’ll try to phrase my Monday morning check-in questions in such a way that allow for the answers to be less about doing and more about being, reflecting, connecting and resting.