On Writing

“Writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.” — John Gregory Dunne

(From the April 23, 2006 NYTBR review of Erica Jong’s “Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life,” by Ron Powers)

5 Reasons I Like “Laguna Beach”

(In honor of D-Nice on his graduation)

By “Laguna Beach,” I mean the MTV “reality” series, not the town itself.

1. The show is very easy to watch! There is only about 10 minutes of content per half hour show, none of which is at all significant.

2. The show is not only heavily edited, it is obviously staged as well. For example, when Stephen picks up LC at the airport and then drives her to San Francisco, they show them on the Golden Gate Bridge. You do not take the GGB into The City from the airport! Or when Kristin is getting out of the hot tub talking on the phone, she has sunglasses on, but then they cut to a different camera angle and she has her sunglasses off (OK, you have to watch this scene in slow motion to notice this gaff, but I’m willing to do this as an aspiring TV critic).

3. It shows that spoiled rich kids are insecure just like everyone else. Of course, their insecurity doesn’t have anything to do with having enough food, shelter, or clothing, but can you really hold that against them?

4. Kids call their friends parents by their first names because, after all, the parents are their kids’ friends, not authority figures for God’s sake!

5. LC can, without any hint of irony, call someone else “dumb as dirt” despite the fact that she is “in jail” for not getting C’s in her high school classes. Her best friend, Lo, is rejected from USC, Morgan is rejected from BYU, and Trey is rejected from NYU. Of course, Stephen and Dieter succeed at getting into the California state university system (practically an open admission policy), and Christina is going to SMU. So, Stephen, Dieter, and Christina are the intellectual pacesetters of this crew!? That’s a dreamworld for the intellectually challenged.

Bonus: Like the students at my university, the “cast” of Laguna Beach complain about not liking “the bubble,” but they don’t do anything about it – because they actually like living in a bubble! (Witness LC, Season 2)

Shopping for Faith in the American Spiritual Marketplace

Much has been made in recent years about the phenomenon of American religion as a “spiritual marketplace” in which individuals are consumers out “shopping for faith” that suits their religious or spiritual tastes. But how do we reconcile this image of a large and diverse marketplace of producers and consumers with the considerable conventionality we also see in American religion? Sure we have Scientologists, Wiccans, UFO cultists, Zen Buddhists, and other religions from outside the dominant Judeo-Christian tradition, but they are a tiny fraction of the market, especially compared to conventional faiths like Roman Catholicism and the major brands of Protestant Christianity. So, how do the spiritual marketplace and religious conventionality relate to one another? They are like cornflakes and milk.

When I think about how consumers behave in the marketplace generally, this is not at all surprising. When I offer to take students out for a meal, I usually allow them to pick the restaurant. What do they choose? TGIFridays, Outback Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Texas Roadhouse, Panera. Chain, chain, chain, chain, chain. Standardization. Standardization. Standardization. Conventionality.

The American marketplace provides us with all sort of interesting, quirky choices in terms of products, stores, and restaurants. And yet everyone wants to buy Dockers, shop at Wal-Mart, and eat a Applebee’s. Why? Not only is shopping costly in terms of time and energy, but buying something that we are unfamiliar with is very risky.

So, it’s not at all surprising that when Americans “shop for faith” they often end up buying at the most well-established stores.