Friday, February 04, 2005


Nothing Tastes Like Chicken

Sunlight pours down from a sky that can't even entertain the thought of a
cloud. Mountains, green with early spring, wrap around to the north and
visible all the way out to Point Dume, 20 miles away. A sea-scented breeze
balances the sunlight. It's a perfect day for a walk. Ahead of me the sand
drops away to the ocean, two terraces and then a long evolute curve
reaching to the very low tide. The tail area has pools and ripples and
saturation streams flowing across it. Little clams make tiny humps in the
sand amid dark mussel shell fragments. The water has cleared up since the
last storm and runs in small sparkling ripples back and forth. Avocets
prospect for bugs in places between the people.
"It's just another beach," a woman says as I walk past.

We were talking about this at work one day. Canny was laughing because I'd
just tweaked Ray about misusing a word on the John study Blog page.
"You want 'reprove,' not 'reproof'."
"There's nothing wrong with that word, man."
"No, but it's the wrong one. You're using the noun form, and you need the
"Oh, man," Canny says. "The professor got you."

In a way this is rather odd. While I've always been reasonably facile with
words my native language was images. Nine years of psychotherapy
accomplished, if nothing else, turning me into a verbal thinker. Truth was
in the mental image but the therapist couldn't see that so I had to do a
running translation into words, and those seemed awfully clumsy and limited
bricks with which to build reality.

There are ways to approximate reality. I was finished with therapy in 1994
but the words remained. I learned that while you can't use 0.125 of a word
to achieve fine discrimination of meaning, you can write 3.75 and then
modify it by roughly 3.50 and get close. Combine enough tracks like that
and you fill in enough mental picture-building elements that any reader who
wants to do a bit of work can receive a surprisingly richly detailed
version of the image in my mind.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," Canny says.
"A picture is only worth a thousand words," I correct him.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that a picture only shows you what something looks like, flat. A
story can include smell, taste, temperature, many other things. For
example, I could take a picture of you and people would know you face, but
they wouldn't know you."
"Now, a movie," Ray says, "shows 30 frames. At a thousand...."
I just step on him. "If I write a 1000-word story about you, I could not
only tell people what you look like but how you act, what you do, how you
think. What you're like."
"I see," he says.
"Some things, of course, don't fit in words. I could try all day to
describe one of my sculptures and not come close to the reality. If I show
you one picture, however, you instantly know. You have to use the medium
that works. I'd like to do an illustrated story, but it's difficult. I can
do one or the other well."

"Our job is to simplify things so that others can understand." Ray has
given up trying to figure out how many words his movies are worth.
"No. My job is to tell the whole story. There are ways include everything
important and still make it readable."
"It's easy, man. 'Tastes like chicken.' No matter what it is."

Does he mean baked chicken, chicken stew, Chicken Nelsonique, Crockachicken
Deluxe, fried or rotisserie? Free range chicken or factory raised? Old or
young, chicken or rooster? Discrimination isn't a bad word. Knowing
differences adds richness to life and makes memory possible.

Our shared culture has reduced the available avenues of expression to the
most basic. Everything is defined in terms of what television can present
in 15 seconds and the rich aspects of life, the special bouquet of God's
wine available to anyone who will pause and open the senses, fall on the
cutting room floor. Arguments become uninformed polemics, us versus them,
all of it based on knee-jerk reaction to programmed buzzwords. The details
are gone and without them no one can do anything but repeat the same

Do Christians want to be culturally relevant? I'm not sure. Our culture is
so sick that by working within it we, I believe, perpetuate sickness. Only
by letting the Holy Spirit teach us detailed discrimination and an
enjoyment of the world's details will we show a lively alternative to
people who are seeking something more. If we dumb down the gospel to
cultural standards it comes out tasting like chicken.

Somehow we've come to expect this. McDonald's makes billions of hamburgers
because people want the same thing every time, preferring repeatability to
potential excellence.

My friend Norm told me about "Animals in Translation," by Temple Grandin.
The author, by observation, learned that her autistic perceptions are
similar to those of animals and has parlayed that into a business
redesigning environments intended for animals, such as feedlots and
abattoirs. The book is a fascinating look inside perception.

I've always wondered if I weren't at least partly autistic. What Grandin
writes about animals and autistic people noticing details supports this
idea; I can't stand having TV on in the Control Center where I work because
the rapid flickering of modern editing keeps drawing my attention from the
screens I'm trying to see. I tune the TV to a station that has more
old-fashioned editing and it's less distracting. Noise, too. Ray hardly
notices his radio and he's in the same room with it. I can hear it in my
office 50 feet away, and it's irritating.

It could be worse. I could work in a place with Musak, or in a video
editing place surrounded by jumping screens.

I wonder how much of modern culture's dependence on fast-moving pictures is
adaptation, sort of like the way a junkie needs a bigger hit each time.
People are designed to tune out details by abstracting them so the war
calls for endless escalation. I hate to think about what television will be
like 20 years.

God could, very easily, have made every human being the same size, color,
weight. He could have made everything else taste like chicken. Instead, he
made a world wherein whose very snowflakes are unique. Each one has its own
name, never to be repeated. If the God of the Universe cares that much
about snowflakes, can't we do better than reduce everything to boiled

2005 February 4 (idea February 3)

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