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A new Thing


I’ve kinda sucked as a blogger the last year.

Life has been complicated. I will explain in detail later, but for now what I’ll say is that the Barretts have stayed in Boston, the Barretts have broadened our brood with a baby girl, and the rest… well, it’s still up for negotiation. I’ve been writing, and I’ve continued to contribute pieces elsewhere, but a lot of other things I’ve wanted to work on, like this blog, have rather sat collecting dust since May of last year.

I’m trying to pull my mojo back together. I’m still planning on finishing my dissertation. I’m also still planning on doing the Boston series (I’ve even written a large chunk of a draft of the first segment, it’s just that — to repeat myself — life has been complicated).

I will be honest and say that I’m very intentionally looking for ways to make some amount of money from the blogging effort; I’ve historically found this very challenging (I’ve always teetered between laughing hysterically and sobbing at the moment in Julie and Julia where Julie’s friends tell her, “Oh, you know, you can just put a PayPal button on your site and everybody will start sending you money”), but I’d like to crack it if I can.

(As an aside, I’ll mention a very weird conversation I had a couple of months ago with somebody who does make a living as a blogger. We were put in touch by a mutual friend who thought that he might be able to be of some help to me; we kind of sat there in awkward silence for a few minutes until he said, essentially, I really hope you aren’t waiting for me to talk, because I’m not interested in telling you anything helpful. We don’t stay in business by telling everybody else how it’s done, sorry.)

Anyway, as part of this undertaking of mojo reconstitution, I have started a Patreon, and I think I may have also coined I appear to have appropriated the term “jotcasting”.

Ideally, this will feed into the ongoing effort here. Please, if you can, support the Patreon; I’ve structured it as a monthly subscription starting at $1, and for that $1, you get daily posts of jokes, weekly rough drafts of essays, and monthly random other things. Some of that stuff may get polished and repurposed here and elsewhere; some of it may become still other stuff entirely. In any event, I’m shooting for it to be interesting if nothing else, and hopefully interesting enough for you to be willing to ante up a dollar a month for it.

Okay. More soon, promise.

Last call — books for sale

still books for saleUpdate — slight reprieve, because most of these aren’t going in the moving sale on Saturday. It has been recommended that I take them to an academic book buyer here in town, and I will do so Monday. So, you’ve got until then to get in touch with me about particular items. Contact me at rrbarret AT indiana DOT edu.

Original post — Tomorrow’s our last garage sale, and then whatever doesn’t sell there is going to Half-Price Books, so if I’ve got anything you want, now’s the time to tell me.

Besides what I’ve got here, here, and here, I have a complete set of the English translation of Apostolos Makrakis’ The Logos and Holy Spirit in the Unity of Christian Thought (as well as his The Political Philosophy of the Orthodox Church), lots of language resources for Arabic, Italian, French, German, Russian, and Latin, and various and sundry language and medieval history textbooks (inquire if there’s something that you’re looking for). I also have a few DVDs: Alien, Bridget Jones’ Diary, The Fountain, The Grifters, Heat, and The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition Box Set; Green Lantern: Emerald Knights on Blu-Ray; and Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World on VHS (the only commercial home video release it has gotten stateside, sadly).

– Applebaum (ed.), The Oxford Book of Prayer

– Belloc, Essays of a Catholic

– Bernard of Clairvaux, Cistercians and Cluniacs: St. Bernard’s Apologia to Abbot William

– Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs III

– Bernard of Clairvaux, The Steps of Humility

– Calian, Icon and Pulpit

– Cunningham, Faith in the Byzantine World

– Duffy, Faith of Our Fathers

– Dvornik, Byzantium and the Roman Primacy

– Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion

– Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy

– Goodrick/Kohlenberger, The NIV Exhaustive Concordance

– Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Source Book, 3rd Edition, Vol. I

– Kadloubovsky/Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia

– Kimball, Song: A Guide to Style and Literature (1st Edition)

– Martin, Sacred Doorways

– Martindale, Gothic Art

– McNeill, History of Western Civilization: A Handbook (6th ed.)

– Meyendorff, The Orthodox Church

– Michalopulos/Ham, The American Orthodox Church: A History of its Beginnings

– Murray, Losing Ground

– Nichols (Ed.), The Marvels of Rome

– Pearce, Literary Giants/Literary Catholics

– Pearce, Small is Still Beautiful

– Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (2 copies)

– Platt, The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England

– Pokrovsky, The Way of the Pilgrim (Annotated and Explained)

– Raboteau, A Sorrowful Joy

– Ramsay/Bell, The Thousand and One Churches

– Rex, Henry VIII and the English Reformation

– Savin (trans.), The Way of a Pilgrim

– SBL Handook of Style

– Stavropoulos, Partakers of Divine Nature

– Taushev/Rose, The Apocalypse

– Temple, Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity

– Thomson, The Western Church in the Middle Ages

– Veronis, Missionaries, Monks, and Martyrs: Making Disciples of All Nations

– Velimirovich/Popov, The Struggle for Faith (A Treasury of Serbian Orthodox Spirituality, Vol. IV)

– Whelton, Two Paths: Papal Monarchy/Collegial Tradition

– Wilson, The Blood and the Shroud

– Wybrew, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship (1st Edition)

Books for sale

books for saleYesterday I posted some “special-interest” things I have for sale; I’d also like to give everybody a heads up on the highlights of some more books I’m still trying to sell. E-mail with offers; I don’t necessarily have a set price in mind for anything, but serious offers are of course preferred. If you see anything in the picture that you can’t find below, drop me a line. E-mail address is rrbarret AT indiana DOT edu.

In alphabetical order by author’s last name (or by title if that’s more appropriate):

– Benz, The Eastern Orthodox Church: Its Thought and Life

– Berkowitz/Squitier, Thesaurus Linguae Graecae: Canon of Greek Authors and Works, Third Edition (cloth)

– Bouyer, Rite and Man

– Braga, On the Way of Our Faith: Faith, Freedom, and Love

– Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome

– Constantelos, Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church: Its Faith, History, and Practice

– Cormack, Painting the Soul

– Crane, Prose and Poetry

– Deuchler, Gothic (Universe History of Art and Architecture)

– Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground (Katz translation)

– Dyck, A Commentary on Cicero, De Officiis

– Grant, Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times

– Grant, Roman Myths

– Griffen, Names from the Dawn of British Legend

– Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (paperback)

– Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire

– Herrin, Byzantium (cloth)

– Herrin, The Formation of Christendom (cloth, mylar sleeve)

– Hoare, The Western Fathers (cloth with mylar sleeve)

– Met. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition

– Kaczynski, Greek in the Carolingian Age

– Kenworthy, The Heart of Russia: Trinity-Sergius, Monasticism, and Society after 1825

– Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Seventh Revised Edition, paperback)

– Küng, Truthfulness: The Future of the Church (ex-library copy, cloth)

– McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy (paperback)

– Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography

– Nasr, Resource Book for Mission and Evangelism

– Newell, Celtic Prayers from Iona

– Nicene/Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume IX: Hilary of Poitiers and John of Damascus

– Norris, McTeague

– Oakley, The Western Church in the Later Middle Ages

– Ousterhout, Master Builders of Byzantium (paperback)

– Palmer/Sherrard/Ware, The Philokalia, Volume One (paperback)

– Payne, The Holy Fire: The Story of the Early Centuries of the Christian Church in the Near East

– Pelikan, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism

– Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy

– Rose, The Place of the Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church

– Russell, The Sparrow

– Schmemann, Liturgy and Life: Christian Development through Liturgical Experience

– Temple, Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity

– Vasileios, Hymn of Entry

– White, Introduction to Christian Worship (Revised Edition)

Liturgical/Prayer books/Devotional

– Baz, The Book of the Epistles (Antiochian Archdiocese, 2010)

– A Book of Personal Prayer, Bideaux, Upper Room Books.

– The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, bi-lingual service book, Byzantine Design Works (Bouras/Tomaras, 2003)

– Orthodox Daily Prayers, St. Tikhon’s Press. Comb bound with laminated covers.

– Orthodox Prayers of Old England, St. Hilarion Press.

– Papadas, Holy Week & Easter, bi-lingual service book, Patmos Press (1990 edition)

– A Pocket Orthodox Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians, Antiochian Archdiocese.

– The Saint Ambrose Prayerbook, Lancelot Andrewes Press, 2009.

– Service Book (“the 2 Pounder”), Antiochian Archdiocese.

– Service Books of the Orthodox Church, Volume 1, The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, St. Tikhon’s Press.

Thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Blogging is quite obviously not the humongous priority for me it once could be. I’ve got my dissertation, I have a 13-month old, I’ve been in an intensive Arabic course this summer, I have a longer commute to church than I once did, and so on. It’s just hard to find the time. I have things that I’ve wanted to blog about for months, I have multi-part posts I need to finish, I have books I’ve been sent review copies of, I’ve got other responsibilities, and so on. The blog isn’t dead by any means, but it’s just harder than I’d like to make the time.

Sometimes, though, things rise to the surface and require dealing with. Such is the case with Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I’ve been a Neil Gaiman fan since 1997 when my friend Bjorn Townsend insisted I read the Sandman graphic novels, which ultimately I read aloud to Flesh of My Flesh starting about 11 years ago, and at the ending of which she cried, surprising herself at how moved she was by a “comic book”. Coraline we also read aloud, and of course American Gods, and some of his other children’s books and graphic novels were devoured. I was going to review The Graveyard Book when it came out but I never quite got around to it, and writing an essay on Make Good Art from the perspective of somebody who at least strives to be better than mediocre in the practice of an Orthodox liturgical craft is something I want to get to sooner than later.

Ocean I pre-ordered months ago, it arrived in June, and I’ve had to basically wait until Arabic was over to even think about reading it. Well, I started it two nights ago and finished it this morning — it really only took about two and a half hours to get through its 178 pages — and I wanted to get some thoughts up about it while they were still fresh. There are thematic spoilers here, I suppose, but I’m not going to talk about plot specifics beyond the general setup.

If you were to ask me what my worst memories of childhood are, there are a handful of things I might say. I might tell you about the memory I have, from when I was 3 or 4, of having my lip stitched up in the doctor’s office after… well, I’m still not exactly sure after what. I think my best friend at the time punched me in the face and knocked me down for some reason, and I have a very vague notion that it had to do with a toy crane truck, but all I really remember is crying while the needle was poking in and out of my bottom lip. Or I could say it was the time when I was eight, and there was this five or six hour stretch where my mom had left, she was going to separate from my dad, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, and it was just my dad and I in our huge, brand-new, custom-built house, awkwardly not talking. But then my mom came home around midnight, and they patched things up, for awhile, anyway. Or, possibly, I could talk about the time when I was ten, during the time when we were trying to sell our big custom-built house (and it ultimately took us a year to do so, and then at a huge loss), when my parents caught me lighting pieces of paper and bits of thread on fire in the kitchen sink and all the stresses combined meant they absolutely lost it on me in their rage (the one time in my childhood I can honestly talk about having trouble sitting down for awhile, if you understand what I mean). The latest incident that might come to mind could be when I was 13 or so, and there was a sudden, explosive outburst from my dad, initially directed at me for reasons I didn’t at all understand, which then instantly turned into a confrontation between both of my parents that got so bad so fast that all I could do was run out of the house and keep going for two and a half miles through town to get to a friend’s house, the only safe place I could come up with at that particular moment.

Past that point chronologically, we get out of the “childhood memory” territory, where there are a lot of things going on around us we aren’t even aware of, or even if we are aware we don’t comprehend, and into a period where probably we usually understand things pretty well. Even 13 is a little old for that category, maybe, but that event was (and still is, all these years later) beyond my comprehension. Anyway, those are the main incidental things that come to mind; there are other systematic things I could talk about, like the way I was constantly shamed at home over my weight, or how it seemed like I was so often a target for bullies in elementary school, or this, or that. I should say that all of these things, while representing traumatic memories, are not the worst things I could say about my childhood by any means, nor are they intended to paint anybody as bad people; they’re simply what I remember of what happened.

So, here’s the thing — obviously the raw images that I remember don’t take into account things I didn’t or couldn’t know, but there is clearly a context that emerges, however skeletally, from some of the details (like the custom-built house that we’re newly in when I’m eight and then having to sell when I’m ten, or having a next-door neighbor best friend when I’m four but having to run two and a half miles away to get to a friend’s house when I’m 13), and then the way I recount those memories does in fact start to shade them with historical argument, like me contextualizing the playing with fire business by locating it in the year we had so much trouble selling our house and were all stressed out beyond belief. As an adult talking about those things, I can add details to justify, to explain, to excuse — but I wouldn’t have been sophisticated enough as a 10 year old to be able to do that. It’s an adult’s game to rationalize via historicity, and we don’t even know that we’re doing it sometimes because it’s just how you have to navigate the world and organize information as an adult, as I’ve written about before. Little kids, though, don’t — can’t — do that. They may well make sense of things by coming up with a story that explains them, and it may even be a story they decide they believe, but it’s not the same thing as what an adult does. An adult is trying to lie to himself with the truth; a little kid is trying to understand the true things he knows, filling in necessary gaps strictly as a matter of utility and without awareness that the gaps represent more than what he actually knows.

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, we are given an account by a nameless first-person narrator, a not-entirely unknown device of Gaiman’s (Murder MysteriesViolent CasesMr. Punch), a narrator about whom we know very little except that he “makes art” for a living and who is having to go home as a middle-aged adult for a funeral. He does not tell us whose funeral, but it is hard to not connect it with Gaiman’s own blog posts about his father’s funeral from a few years ago. While visiting the location of his childhood home (now a block of flats), he stops in on a neighboring farmhouse that he vaguely remembers as the home of an old friend who moved away. The old friend’s… well, maybe she’s her mother, maybe her grandmother, but in any event, she welcomes him in. The visit brings back a flood of memories, which introduces us to the main thread of the narrative, about a series of events happening when he was seven years old.

That’s all I’ll really say about plot mechanics, but there’s plenty more I can say without having to spoil things. There seem to be a number of plot and thematic parallels to earlier Gaiman books like the aforementioned Coraline, Violent Cases, and Mr. Punch, but there is also a very strong Madeleine L’Engle vibe running through the book (there are characters who can’t but remind me of Mrs. Who, Whatsit, and Which, and the key image of the little boy and slightly older girl walking hand in hand through a menacing field kept making me think that a Cherubim was going to show up), and it is decidedly not a kid’s book in the way Coraline was marketed as (I chose my words carefully there), even though it’s told from the point of view of a child.

Although, even there, Gaiman tricks you a little bit, because it isn’t told from the point of view of a child. As with Violent Cases and Mr. Punch, it’s told from the point of view of an adult’s memories of childhood. But even there, is that exactly what’s going on? There are self-conscious present-day intrusions in the narrative, and then there are times when what he remembers himself saying as a child comes off as an adult dodgily trying to imagine what a child might say — Gaiman writes excellent children’s dialogue as a rule, so is this a choice he’s making deliberately, perhaps as a way of telling us that this isn’t “actually” what happened, but rather it’s how the narrator is trying to convince himself that something else didn’t happen? There’s a moment in the story that provides an internal mechanism for the alteration of a terrible memory — so is that maybe what’s going on throughout the whole book? That the whole narrative is just the protagonist’s cover story for the far more awful truth?

The way I’m inclined to read it is this. As I talked about, when we’re kids, terrible things can happen that we don’t understand. Maybe they’re just random occurrences, maybe they’re systematic problems. In any case, we rationalize them in ways that make sense to our little kid brains. I had somebody close to me once, for example, whose way of rationalizing a particular kind of abuse they had experienced was to reconceive of their identity so that they no longer thought of themselves as part of the human species.

And the thing is, adults will probably rationalize these same traumatic experiences, but they’ll do so in very different ways. They’ll justify, they’ll forget, they’ll historicize, and they’ll outright lie to themselves in order to rewrite history. As I said earlier, little kids aren’t really sophisticated enough to lie to themselves, but they can make up stories that they will themselves find convincing on some level.

But then, when we grow up, those stories don’t work, and the trauma still leaves wounds, so we either have to be honest with ourselves about what we experienced, or we have to find comfort in the “adult” forms of rationalizing. Both of these tactics might well require the adult self to remember the stories they told themselves as a child to explain what had happened, identify what really happened, and then make a choice about how to deal with it.

To me, this is isn’t a fantasy novel, although it could be taken as such. Ultimately — and this is where I guess I will mention certain other plot specifics — I take as the key “real world” events of the book the failed birthday party (bad for a seven year old boy), the death of the kitten (worse) and then the opal miner (terrible), then the nanny’s affair with the father (incomprehensible), and the scene in the bathroom between the narrator and his father (devastating). (The “Does it make you feel big to make a little boy cry?” confrontation sounds too much like wish-fulfillment, something that the adult self wished the child could have said, for me to take entirely literally.) The Hempstocks, then, are an image of what the women in his life would have looked like had they not been complicit (as he saw it) in these events. To me, it’s a book about what the narrator experienced as the worst trauma of his childhood, how he rationalized the very adult pain he experienced from death, betrayal, and violence at the hands of people who were supposed to care about him, how everybody ultimately covered it up and explained it away, and how as an adult he’s still covering it up to himself. In a way, while there are certainly similarities to Coraline et al., the Gaiman work it seems to be most like is Murder Mysteries, with the protagonist ultimately left unable, or perhaps unwilling, to admit what they’re carrying around on the inside, unwilling to put the pieces together because it would mean acknowledging that the whole is in fact a hole. The other work it reminds me of isn’t by Gaiman, but it certainly seems to me that Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth deals with many of the same issues (and, come to think of it, so does Twin Peaks, particularly Fire Walk With Me).

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a great book, no question, but it is very uncomfortable to read, particularly when one starts to suspect what Gaiman might be up to. It is not a children’s book (and it isn’t being marketed as such), even though it has some superficial characteristics of one and probably could be read and enjoyed by children. It’s the kind of thing I would have read it at nine or ten and enjoyed, but I would have gotten something very different out of it than what I get out of it as a reader in his mid-30s. As an adult reader, the pain at the core of the narrative is evident and catching, and the menace under the surface of the narrative that isn’t spelled out explicitly is a lot more frightening than stuff you’re told outright. What’s scarier — that you’re being abused by somebody who’s being manipulated into doing it by externalities, or by somebody who simply does it as part of their nature?

How do we get there from here? What would that even mean?

When I was maybe 9, I spent 10 days at a summer camp, and one of the friends I made there was a kid named Aziz. We hung out a lot, we talked about Run-DMC (this was 1986, so Raising Hell had just come out), and in general just did a lot of things 9-11 year olds do at summer camp together.

Camp ended, and the bus was dropping us off in a big parking lot where there were lots of parents waiting for us. I wanted Aziz to meet my parents; as soon as I even mentioned the possibility, he disappeared, and I never saw him again. I didn’t understand what happened, and I’m still not sure I do.

Obviously, given the generation I’m in, I grew up hearing stories from a lot of adults who lived through the ’60s and ’70s. By no means were all the adults who had formative presences in my life people who talked about the social developments of those decades in a positive manner; on the contrary, I got very different messages about that period from a number of people. Certainly, I heard from my public school teachers in particular about how amazing and wonderful and liberating everything was, and how during the ’60s America had finally started to take seriously the idea that it should provide liberty and justice for all, not merely the privileged few, and I heard about how much of a monster Nixon was, and how terrible Vietnam was, and how Reagan was running the country into the ground, and so on.

At the same time, I also heard from other adults in my life things like, “You can’t legislate love'”, variations on “the soft bigotry of low expectations”, how awesome Barry Goldwater and Nixon were, how Donna’s dad in La Bamba was being perfectly reasonable in not wanting her to go out with Ritchie Valens, and “If I didn’t hate black people before the Civil Rights Act, I sure as heck hated them afterward,” and that MLKjr was a “rabble-rouser”, and how the Kennedys were the real villains of the ’60s and ’70s, etc. There was one adult in particular who, as a small business owner, was adamant that nobody was ever going to tell him whom he was required to hire or what allowances he was going to make for them. “As a business owner, I will do what I judge to be in my best interests according to the market forces that already regulate my business. If I judge it’s in my best interests to hire minorities because they’re actually the best people for the job, I will do that. If I don’t, I won’t. How can it possibly be otherwise?” This person also tended to have a low opinion of whomever he judged to be “not following the law”. Things like civil disobedience, aggressive actions on the part of organized labor, and the like, were usually labeled in terms of “legitimized criminality”.

As a grown-up academic, obviously I’m exposed to a lot of critical theory about how race, gender, sexuality, economics, class, and any number of other categories are what drive our society’s current set of circumstances. As I’ve said before, I don’t really buy it; that’s not to discount them entirely as forces, but as was stressed to me last Wednesday during my dissertation proposal defense, forces and things aren’t agents. People are agents; they’re the ones who actually do things. And, much as Cleolinda Jones talks about her “People in Dracula don’t know they’re in Dracula” problem, I have a “People in real life don’t know they’re in a poststructuralist theoretical treatise” problem. Somehow you have to balance how you talk about people making choices and the forces that are involved when people make those choices. Otherwise, all critical theory does is take you out of an ostensibly Christian Calvinism and put you in a secular version, where your actions are largely predetermined by your race, your socio-economic status, what have you. How do you balance that? I don’t know. I remember a conversation I had with a friend once who said, “Conservatives place too much import on personal responsibility; liberals don’t give it enough.” This was a pretty liberal friend, so if even he had that dilemma, I don’t know how I can possibly answer the question.

That said, as a person (since it’s people who do things), I’m horrified by a lot of what I see. I’m horrified by how I see people treat each other, by our quickness to categorize another person as the enemy (usually because this person is perceived as having been equally quick to categorize somebody as the enemy), by our willingness to be ignorant, by our readiness to struggle to the death for the winning narrative — with each other. There’s a Syriac idiom whereby one expresses the idea of slander as “eating somebody’s pieces” — that is, the image seems to be of a carrion bird pecking away at somebody’s flesh. We all eat each other’s pieces on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Where the death of Trayvon Martin is concerned, I can’t help but think about my friend from camp who was off like a shot as soon as I said, “Hey, you should meet my parents.” Clearly there was a situation there that he perceived, or assumptions he was making, even at age 9 or 10, that I had no way of understanding. Some adults I grew up with might say, “Well, his parents taught him to hate white people.” But is that the only way to see it? Were there signals I was sending unawares that he somehow figured would be amplified with the next generation back? I don’t know. In the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, Mr. Zimmerman seems to have made a number of assumptions about a person he knew nothing about — but can you disentangle those assumptions from race? Zimmerman himself is half-Jewish and half-Latino — is he “white”, per se, or is that simply that he’s “not black” and therefore functionally “white” for the purposes of evaluating the scenario?

I keep reading about how the Zimmerman verdict is the result of systemic racism in our legal system, that it’s evidence that our system fails to be impartial and in fact actively works against any notion of impartiality. Okay; let’s say that’s true. What, then, is the systemic fix? What are the things that people, since they’re the agents, need to do to fix the system? Or can it be fixed? What would that even mean or look like? Has the narrative of America’s corrupt, evil foundations ultimately won the day, here’s the proof, and the only real fix is demolishing what we have and starting over?

I have a lot more I could say, and maybe someday I will, but I’ll wrap this up for now by saying that in the end, even if certain aspects of the case don’t have the same kind of clarity for me that they do for others, my sympathies have to go to Trayvon Martin and his family, not Mr. Zimmerman. There’s a young man, a person made in the image of God, who will never make it home and his family will never know for certain why. That’s a tragedy that I must find completely unacceptable; memory eternal. What hopefully can do as a person, as an agent, as a parent, is to teach my son to first and foremost see the image of God in every single other person, and to treat all people accordingly as precious. It’s ham-handed and corny-sounding, maybe, but I don’t have another way. Lord have mercy on all of us.

More thoughts on crowdfunding

Almost three months ago I posted my thoughts on Amanda Palmer’s TED talk, and I hinted at the end that The Saint John of Damascus Society would be trying its own hand at crowdfunding. We unveiled the project on 16 April, and I’m happy to be able to say that when the clock ran out at 11:23am on 16 May, this is how things looked:

sjds kickstarter final tallyMany thanks to all who pledged; there is much more to come where this project is concerned, so if you want to support us as we go forward, you most certainly can — just click here for SJDS’s PayPal button. If you don’t want to do it electronically, that’s fine too; send a note via this form and we’ll work something out.

To share some observations about the campaign that hopefully others might find helpful —

We really learned a lot by just muddling through on this one. The original thought was, hey, let’s make pledging as economically accessible as possible. We want lots and lots of $1-$50 pledges, not a smaller number of $100-$1000 pledges, and we structured the pledging rewards along those lines. The first video was also basically just my disembodied voice presenting a Keynote slide deck as though I were doing a grant proposal. There were a lot of issues that I felt we had to overcome; we’re a new organization without any kind of a built-in audience or name recognition, so we’ve got to sell who we are, we’ve got to sell the project as a whole, and we’ve also got to explain the breakdown of the phases and exactly what is being paid for when. Also, we don’t have any rights to any musical excerpts ourselves, so we seemed limited to what we could do visually. Anyway, I made the snazziest slide deck I could, narrated it as clearly as I could, converted it to QuickTime, and hoped that it would speak for itself.

I got some criticism on the video; too long, too dry, no one’s going to watch it, you pause waaaaaaay too long in between composer names, you sound like Seth Rogen(!), etc. I also got some praise on the video; it’s really compelling how you lay it out, you say everything that needs to be said, etc. The lines seemed to be somewhat age-based; in the end, we went with it.

We launched the day after the Boston Marathon bombing. That was actually really tricky; we were ready to go by the end of March, but we had some administrative hurdles to clear. We decided to launch on 16 April so that we’d be going after tax season — then the bombing happened. We couldn’t really delay any longer because we need to start making arrangements for the fall, so we went with it, and we acknowledged the bombing in our launch blog post. Well, okay, but then the bishops in Syria got kidnapped, which has (appropriately) captured a particular segment of Orthodox social media. All we could do was do our thing, acknowledging that things were happening in the world as it was possible to do so, but I’d be lying if I said that I thought it didn’t hurt us; and, yes, I feel terrible for even acknowledging that. There are things far more important than Kickstarter campaigns.

Regardless, we had a good first few days. We passed $2k in a week, which was ahead of the clock. The trouble was, then we plateaued. We had a few days where we got barely $300 in pledges total. Uh oh, I thought to myself. What’s wrong here? Well, maybe a few things, a friend of mine suggested. The video needs music, the video also needs a face since people give money to a person and not an idea, and you need higher pledging reward levels. Yes, fine, having accessible pledging levels is good, but you don’t want people who want to give more to feel like you don’t want their money. Okay, points taken. With Holy Week coming up, I thought that perhaps we could come up with a new video to reinvigorate the campaign after Pascha; meanwhile, Cappella Romana was kind enough to grant us permission to use some musical excerpts, I restructured the pledging so that there were some higher reward levels, and I also happened to take this picture:

first kickstarter theo pictureWell, right then I knew what to do — promise on the Facebook page that every pledge would generate a new picture of a smiling Theodore.

The combination of the pictures and the higher pledging levels got us another $1,000 of the way there or so, then it was Holy Week. We announced a pause during Holy Week, and posted only links to hymns appropriate to the given day of Holy Week, in various musical styles.

Meanwhile, I was thinking, how do I make a new video? Like, physically and technically, how do I do it?

This turned out to be a question of knowing what I already had. Turns out you can get an attachment for under $20 that makes your iPhone tripod mountable, and the iPhone 5 isn’t a half-bad portable video camera. Also, I found out that iMovie is pretty easy to use, all things considered. So, I got some of my board members on camera at my Paschal lamb roast talking enthusiastically about the project, devised a Theodore-centric framing device, and on Bright Monday I put up the new video, with ten days left to go in the campaign. Within two or three days, the campaign had picked up considerable renewed steam.

There were other issues, though; we got some very puzzling reactions, as well as non-reactions, in certain circles. Some people really wanted to make sure their special interest would be represented before they pledged. “Promise me that one of your composers will include some prostopinije and I’ll pledge, otherwise no deal,” one person said; needless to say, there was no deal to be had, since that’s a creative decision that isn’t up to me, but rather to the composers. (I will say there were a couple of prostopinije partisans who asked very pointed questions; anybody who says Byz chant folks are myopic has never talked to these guys!) Some people didn’t understand that this is intended more as a concert piece than something for liturgical use; other people understood very well that this will be a concert piece and thought that Orthodox composers had no business being involved in such things (one particular jurisdictional music representative said to us, in a nutshell, that the very existence of this project violated most of everything that he had tried to tell people about sacred music over the years, and he saw no good reason to support it), others really didn’t understand why we would bother with the whole science-faith thing, etc. Then there were those who either just completely shrugged it off or who were broke and for whom even $1 was simply too much. It’s possible that we underestimated just how many people for whom this is true who might otherwise be interested in what we’re doing; I’m not sure. In any event, trying to raise awareness in two major avenues of contact for Orthodox musicians produced a certain amount of verbal goodwill (and even there less than perhaps might have been expected, given that the people involved in the Psalm 103 project are largely longtime friends of these groups) but relatively little in the way of pledging.

(Also, I got into a discussion with somebody who was formerly a mover and a shaker in one of the Orthodox music organizations that has been, shall we say, regrouping for a while; this person was in the main supportive, particularly once it was made clear that this work was intended paraliturgically, but did raise the issue that, if we had the resources to start the Saint John of Damascus Society, why couldn’t we have directed those resources to revitalizing an organization that already existed? Alas, as I explained to this person, we actually tried that route quite early on, only to get diddly squat in the way of any kind of interested response.)

What ultimately really worked was when all of our people figured out how to better leverage their own social networks; mine only got us so far, as I expected, but when our board members started directly engaging their own friends and family, it generated a lot of momentum. By the last couple of days in particular, it had become a real horse race, and the drama seemed to produce a number of pledges all on its own. We finished off the campaign with three $1,000 days in a row, and we still got another $400 in pledges in the 12 hours after we hit the goal. By that point, people wanted to back a winner.

So, what are the lessons here? I could make a number of observations, I suppose — for example, the people with a direct, active interest in your project are not necessarily the ones with the resources to support it, and even if they do have those resources, even minor philosophical divergences can be enough to keep them from giving. Thus, you need to be able to sell the idea to people with a more casual, indirect interest. To do that, you need, frankly, a gimmick, you need to not be boring, and you need routes through your social network to reach those people.

Also, acknowledgment goes a long way. In our higher pledging levels, very little of material value was promised as a reward; it was more a question of how far along in the life of the project will somebody continue to be recognized. While our topmost couple of reward levels got no pledges, we got a surprising number of $500 pledges, and that recognition is the main thing they’ll get.

Judging by the number of notes I got last Thursday saying “Wow, congratulations! I didn’t think you’d make it!”, we’ve gotten some attention as a result of successfully getting funded, and that attention is worth something. The thing is, the next couple of phases after this composition phase are going to be exponentially more expensive than this one. We perhaps could have raised the money through more conventional means, but what we wouldn’t necessarily have on the other side is the 143 people we have who now have an active, vested interest in seeing this project develop, progress, and succeed. Those people will be able to help us raise at least some of the money for the next phases, and we’ll be able to point to them as a built-in audience when we’re trying to sell the project to bigger donors and granting agencies.

Anyway — I’m glad it worked out one way or the other, and I’m glad to have a counterexample to my more pessimistic assessment of crowdfunding. If there’s a way what we learned during the campaign can help others launching these kinds of projects, so much the better.

Onward and upward; we’ve got a lot of work to do now. Thanks again to everybody who supported this!

happy theodore

An update on The Saint John of Damascus Society’s Psalm 103 project

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

If it’s not one thing it’s another — exams, grading for finals week, Holy Week, and then I’ve also been working on promotion for the Saint John of Damascus Society’s Kickstarter campaign for the Psalm 103 project.

The campaign is proceeding apace; we’re getting into the home stretch, and we still need everybody’s help we can get to get across the finish line. One very cool thing I can share is that during Holy Week, we got word that a public presentation of our work on this project had been accepted as part of Indiana University’s fall co-curricular program Themester.

Here’s an update video we just posted:

Thanks very much for your support!

Richard’s Twitter

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