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October 2012

Inventing the Truth

Does a snippet of an author's personal story really help you understand and interpret the author's words?  Does it make you more interested in what the author writes?  Apparently publishers think so, for they keep pumping out nonfiction books that, whatever the ostensible subject, are light on serious research and heavy on Me.  This is a regrettable trend on two accounts.  It conflates experience with understanding, as if dropping by for a visit or meeting a local were all it took to become an expert.  And it produces book as ephemeral as magazine articles, hardly worth keeping on the shelf.

(Marc Levinson, in "Casting Copper As Victim," in The Wall Street Journal, October 13-14, 2012)

Levinson's comment about a book he was reviewing echoes with a sentiment expressed several years ago by Garrison Keillor.  Asked to be a poetry judge, and after reading piles of bad poetry about mostly bad experiences, Keillor concludes that "Experience becomes literature when it no longer matters to the reader whether it's true or not."  That is to say, the story is told so well that no one cares if it's really true.  Unfortunately, the same can't be said of a work of nonfiction, as we expect nonfiction to be true.  At least we ought to.

And yet the lines are increasingly blurred in a world that has lost the sense of a truth that is true, of True Truth, that is, of a truth that corresponds to reality.  People believe everything, and nothing at all, and even have no difficulty holding logically inconsistent positions.

Take memoir, what you might call perspectival truth.  Reading it we understand its limitations, that we are hearing one perspective on a situation, on a life.  And yet as much as I enjoy the genre I often have the sense that I am being deceived for the sake of a good story, that the details of a life are embellished.  I feel cheated, as I want it to be true.  Given that there are some notable examples of bestsellers that turned out to be blatant falsehoods spun well, I am suspicious.  I want the truth.  It may be a truth limited by the author's limited experience, yet still I want the truth as far as the author knows it.  

But that's not the only problem.  The greater problem is when people no longer care if the memoir is really true, when it doesn't really matter.  Memoir becomes fiction, and we don't care because maybe we want it to be true or need it to be true.

 The best memoirs are the synoptic gospels.  In them, Hebrew men tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, a truth superintended by the Holy Spirit and yet not dictated, a truth shaped perspectivally by their own unique personalities and yet nonetheless true.  The Spirit tells the story of Jesus --- gives a memoir of His life, death, and resurrection --- and uses mere men in the telling, condescends in a fashion to their own limitations of perspective, and yet makes sure that the message is true.

While our own memoirs are not so perfect, that is, God is not so involved in creating an authoritative, inerrant account of our lives, allowing our imperfections to affect the telling, we can pray we tell it straight, that God will inhabit our telling so the truth we tell is True Truth.

The fact is, I want to get it straight, but I love a good story.  When I'm tempted to slant the truth, to write the memoir I think I wish I had, I pray God would help me write the one I in fact have, the one He gave me.  It can't get any better than that.

"Jesus wept," says John, because he saw it.

Cleopas saw a resurrected Jesus on the Road to Emmaus and said "did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road," because he saw Him and Luke set it down.

I'm glad that's really, really true.  Because if He can weep over a world gone wrong, then so can we. And if Cleopas can see a resurrected Christ, then He lives and so do we who can rejoice in our tears.

Pray God we tell it straight.

A Paragraph In a Story In a Book On a Bookshelf By the Sea

“Everything in this world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stars, they are all hieroglyphics. When you see them you do not understand them. You think they are really men, animals, trees, stars. It is only years later that you understand.”

(Niko Kazantzakias)

Sometimes it is valuable to take a figurative step back and ponder the things with which we surround ourselves. Objects aren't just objects, after all. Take this seaside bookshelf, for instance, one we live around but rarely notice each time we visit a family home by the coast.

I can't nor would I claim, for example, one bookend here, Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook, rank chic-lit. It begins unremarkably with "Who am I? And how, I wonder will this story end?" I can tell you. I flip over and catch the last line of a man writing "I am alone on the pier and I do care what others think as I bow my head and cry and cry and cry." Oh my. I'm glad I did not read that.

Next to it stands a classic, Beryl Markham's West With the Night. A contemporary of Isak Denison (also known as Karen Blixen), Markham wrote a memoir of her three loves: horses, airplanes, and Africa. (As my wife used to say, "How much more could a girl want - a horse, an airplane, and a life in Africa?" to which, I answer, "Me!") I cannot quote the entire opening paragraph (which I almost have memorized), one of the great book beginnings, but I listen once again to the music of these first words: "How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at her loom. I should like to say, 'This is the place to start; there is none other.'" I wish I could continue. It's like singing part of the first verse of a beautiful song, only to leave off. Go read that book. I catch it in the corner of my eye and I remember sitting in a tent in Africa reading it, serenaded by the sounds of lions and hyenas, with the low musical voices of our African friends. You may not be able to read it in Africa, but read it in a place you want to remember, because you will not forget where you read it.

Over a bit, letting my eyes float past The Encyclopedia of Boating (a book which has done my attempts to dock the boat no good), there is a small volume of very short stories called Asking Father, which, along with Father Calling, is dog-eared with use. These true stories of men and women were rousing 10-15 minute tales of people who encountered some difficulty which drove them to asking God for help. Prayers are answered, often in miraculous ways. Like the church that floated down the main street of a town, coming to rest at just the place which the congregation had sought to originally build it. What I liked was how these stories make real what scripture promises: that God listens to our prayers and answers them, that He listens to the smallest and weakest and least important of us as well as the big and strong and important. He listens to children. The books are timeless, really; I need them now as much as I thought my children needed them then.

There's more here, of course, than just books. There are games that make you work, like Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit and Bananagrams, and games that let you rest, like Sorry or Uno. They summon up laughter as well as pouts, children stomping off to rooms after losing, arguments about words ("Get the Websters"), and the smell of popcorn still, I imagine, hanging onto lettered tiles.

Farther up the shelves, there are lots of sea shells in glass jars. Some people spend an enormous amount of time at the beach stooped over picking through shells. Not me. My wife likes to do that. I pretend like I'm doing that too, even rifle through a few at times, as I don't want to rush her, but mostly I'm daydreaming, traveling down some corridor in my mind, or several, until I hear "Look at this one" and mumble "Hmmm. . . nice. Unusual." Something like that. Living in my head. I need to get out more.

On the top shelf are a couple of dusty case books from the mid-1800s, cases decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court. When I tire of the beach and sun, I pull down a volume and read cases --- arguments over slaves, for example, or cartways (rights of way), contract disputes, and so on, a reminder that human nature has remained fairly constant. Sinful, that is. Lawyers live off our flawed nature. I should know. These cases give perspective, remind me that though the particulars of our lives may change, the universals of virtue and vice remain. On the one hand, pride, selfishness, and greed; on the other; humility, selflessness, and generosity.

That's just one bookcase. If we went room to room here, there would be stories to tell, objects that carry the past with them, that summon up memories and people and suggest connections. I understand hoarders a bit: They can't let go, maybe because some memory or some person is attached to an object, and they fear that if the object leaves so will the memory. If so, many of my memories have left. And yet I think all the good in them will be preserved and brought to fruition one day.

Reading this, you might say to me that "This is all very interesting (meaning, probably, that it's not), but what's the point?" Just this: Don't neglect the objects around you. From time to time, ponder them. Christians are called to meditate (ponder) both Word and World. Yet sometimes the World is just too big to think about. We can think better when we slow down and focus on just a few objects. On a bookcase, perhaps. On a book.  On a story in a book. On a paragraph in a story in a book on a bookshelf by the sea. You never know where that will take you.

Out and Back Again: Andrew Osenga's "Leonard, The Lonely Astronaut"

LeonardWhen I first heard of Andrew Osenga's new release, Leonard, The Lonely Astronaut, I thought it sounded like a clunky, overwrought concept album.  It's not.  While Leonard's trajectory is one of self-imposed loneliness, the space metaphor is not overworked nor prominent.  It becomes quickly apparent that these songs record the journey of an everyman from fierce independence to loneliness to a recognition of the cost of freedom and, finally, a rebirth and renewal that allows a reentry into relationship.  If you hear in that the vocabulary of flight, it's mine, not Osenga's.  Blame me.

From the opening notes of "Brushstroke," we get a sense of who Leonard is: a man "making lots of dough," one who "still sort of [has] a couple friends" (which don't really sound like friends), his fierce independence proclaimed in a "brushstroke on the canvas of a perfect blue sky." Musically, it's a subdued beginning, yet quickly we are launched into the big guitar sound of "Only Man In the World," just the kind of rocker that a guy "disappointed in love" might write on launching out on his own. And yet there is a wistfulness, a longing reflected in the closer to the first set of songs: in the acoustic ballad, "Ever and Always," Leonard reflects on the love he once had, how "she brought the stars to a landlocked boy/ held my heart, taught me joy/ and I'm here completely/ forever and always."

Two brief instrumentals, both bearing the title of "Perihelion," separate the three movements of this song sequence.  If a perihelion is the point in orbit when a planet is nearest the sun, perhaps the suggestion here is that these are moments of epiphany or illumination, when Leonard awakes to some new insight about his life.  "Perihelion I" provides a segue-way into a second suite of songs that catalog the effects of independence and offer up confession and a recognition of the need for community.  "Tower of Babel" marks the albums first reference ot God, when Leonard says a broken relationship "finally brought me to my knees/ another ultimatum to a deity/ save this love or I won't believe/ (do you hear me?"  What follows is a request for forgiveness ("Hold On, Boy"), a plea for rescue, for deliverance ("Smoke Signals"), and a recognition that self-made men are lonely men: "God help the man who helps himself!/ He needs no other devil/ Give us the courage to say farewell/ to the fear and watch it crumble."

Yet the most beautiful moment in this set of songs comes with the creation hymn entitled "It Was Not Good For Man To Be Alone."  In what may be the lyrical center of the album, the writer puts words to the community that is at the heart of God: "He was looking for another just like him/ And the heart of God broke for his creation/ It was not good for man to be alone."  And so it isn't.  We come to "Perihelion II," and like a selah of the Psalms, have a moment to reflect on this great truth.

The final two songs of the album represent Leonard's rebirth and re-entry into community.  You hear it the buoyant sound of "Beat of My Heart," when he sings that "only God can hold what's dead and make it new," when Leonard emerges from the silence, darkness, and emptiness of a life alone.  His re-commitment echoes throughout "Shooting Star," the closer,  when he tells his love to "brace for the splashdown/ the grip of gravity and age/ we're going to find out/ if anything can really change."  

This is likely the richest album both lyrically and musically that Andrew Osenga has launched.  There is a quirkiness in his character, and yet there is profundity in what the man has to say. This record just might resonate more broadly than in just the CCM community, as it touches on many universals and eschews the hackneyed phrases that abound in CCM marketed music.  In fact, it strikes me as "acoustically-grounded, lyrically thoughtful, and spiritually provocative," just the kind of music I would have wanted to find and support in my Silent Planet Records days.  And yet who needs a record label anymore?  Leonard was funded by 365 fans via Kickstarter, and the set, a mock homemade spaceship, built by supporters.  That's a testament to community and a new, broader sense of the importance of patronage.

So take a trip.  Buy Leonard, the Lonely Astronaut.  Hopefully, it'll feed your soul longer than a mere "brushstroke on the canvas of a perfect blue sky."  It's gravity may even take you Home.


High School Trilogy

One of the most amazing things about Mr. Davids was his uncanny ability to instantly add three digit numbers to three digit numbers in his head, impromptu.  We figured he must lay (lie?) awake at night practicing.  Must not have a life.  But even that didn't make Trigonometry fun, or even tolerable.  He was cruel.

He was little man, a walking #2 pencil, with a crew cut head like an erasor.  Virtually any of the 11th grade guys in the class (and many of the girls) could have wrestled him to the ground and pinned him, and yet we were afraid of him.  If he called on you, any performance at the chalkboard or answer less than perfect would earn you his scorn and derision and your embarrassment.  He berated kids, talked down to them.  He seemed to take a pleasure in it.  He face was fixed in a smirk.

One day Denny Schultz was demonstrating to a gaggle of girls before the bell how he could swallow his tongue.  I kid you not.  He was orally double-jointed.  Davids came in and whacked him on the head with a ruler.  Hard.  Denny's face turned fire-engine red, but he didn't say a word.

He called one girl stupid.  She cried, and then he made fun of her for crying.  Another kid, a quiet guy, a regular subject of his taunts, had enough one day.  He just got up and walked out.  I kept my head down.  I survived without too many wounds.

One day I was in the grocery store with my mother.  I saw a vaguely familiar man, from the back, in the checkout line.  An older woman, smaller than him, was behind him, occasionally pushing him or smacking him on the back of the head.  He just hung his head and took it.  Sad, I thought.  Must be his mother.

Just then he turned my way.  Mr. Davids.  Our eyes met, and then he looked away.  He never called on me again.


i don't want to take the SAT.
before I'm even seated, I want to flee

i heard you get 200 points just for writing your name
no one's to blame --- geometry, algebra, vocabulary
is all the same
i'm not wired for math, a p p a r e n t l y
just write my name, write my name. 

georgia randall sat behind me:
figured she might be helpful
in the area of geography
or material for my essay full of bull 

later, it was apparent, that the SAT
also did not LIKE me
but it didn't matter, as
back then the university took in people like me

these days I'm laughing all the way
to the courthouse, that I get to play
with rules and cases and stautues, OK?

actually, i think they ought to give you one
question on the mighty SAT:
like, "What is life?" 
I better write my name. 


In high school I had a girlfriend.  Well, two, maybe.  Or was it three or four?  It depends on how you count it.  Do you go by mutual consent, or does unrequited love count?  And what about imagined love?  Add those in and the number might go up.  It's all hazy-like now, man.

I don't remember studying much.  I do remember writing.  For creative writing class I wrote a sonnet about my girlfriend.  The teacher made me read it to the class.  After that, I went sci-fi and mystery.  Safe stuff.  For another English class I wrote a research paper on ragtime pianist Scott Joplin.  He lost his mind.  I identified, as let me tell you girlfriends can mess your mind up good!  Scott, he wrote a ragtime opera called Treemonisha.  I never heard the opera, but nobody liked it back then, so he couldn't handle that.  I just liked the name of that opera.

My friend John and I watched Johnny Carson late into the night.  I saw him in the morning and said "Heeeeeereeeees Johnny!"  That got old real fast.  I had all these great one-liners I could never remember the next morning.  And the ones I could rememember (tame these days), my mother would not have liked. 

In drafting class, Mr. Darnell spent most of the period talking about Uri Geller.  What, you don't know Uri Geller?  Who does?  Yet his name is imprinted on my brain.  Geller could bend pencils with his mind, slept in a pyramid --- crazy out of this world stuff like that.  Mr. Darnell, a balding, bespectacled man, got excited about Geller, so excited his eyes seemed to pop out of his head. (Don't get me started on UFOs and extraterrestrials.

I never did drugs, but because I had hair to my shoulders and had adopted the lazy, laconic speech of the hippies (hey, this was 1974, and we sorely regretted that we were NOT the hippie generation), all the drugees thought I did drugs.  I was regularly offered weed, LSD (a "lid"), and even heroin.  I never partook.

I guess I wanted to be in the groove for the SAT.  Or maybe just afraid of Mr. Davids.  Or just plumb too busy with love.

Or maybe a kind Father walked those halls with me.

Varied Grace

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace. . . "

(1 Pet. 4:10)

I tripped over this verse today.  I don't know if I have just never noticed the language of this in the ESV --- "varied grace" --- or whether the idea of God dispensing grace in a different manner to each person made me recoil.  I don't think of God as giving differently, though I know it to be true.  Some have many gifts; some, one.  Some have ten talents; some, one.  From a purely human, limited perspective, this appears unfair.  Yet it's another opportunity to trust God, to defer to His wisdom in apportioning grace, to rest in the one grace given to us all: salvation, freedom, deliverance, redemption, sanctification, restoration, glorification --- a golden chain.  Put like that grace doesn't seem varied at all.

I have spent a great deal of my life wishing I had some other gift or gifts, some other dispensation of grace.  When I was a teenager, I wished I had athletic ability.  In college, I wished I was social.  In law school, I wished I wasn't (in law school, that is).  (That has nothing to do with the topic, but I couldn't help myself.)  I never got to be a rock and roll musician either. (My high school friend's father, who was a decent jazz musician, and who suffered my guitar chops, crushed me when he told me I should keep my day job.)  I fancied myself a record mogul for a time (a broke one).  I got to be a lawyer, yet some days, particularly when I stand in a courtroom before judges, I feel like a kid pretending to be a lawyer, that somehow I duped the Bar and everyone else into letting me practice law.  Oh, and I never got to be a superhero.  I  couldn't lift a car, stretch myself, throw web and swing from trees, or run fast enough in my P.F. Flyers to fly.

Yet, these days I soar on varied grace.  I am free from all the sin that would weigh me down, cut free from a ball and chain of regret, with no penance to pay.  I have learned the grace of community, the gift of introversion, the superhero grace it takes to be husband and a father, the blessed gift of long, persevering friendships.  A first Fall leaf that I once may have stepped on and crushed without thought I now kneel to and examine, full of wonder, take every created thing and look through it to God. The kid who dresses up as a lawyer is just growing young, that's all, dropping the husk of expectation and pretense and just playing through. 

So, varied grace.  It doesn't matter.  I have all I need.  Don't you?

God Be in My Head (A Prayer and Hope)

God be in my head and in my understanding.
God be in my eyes and in my looking.
God be in my mouth and in my speaking.
God be in my heart and in my thinking.
God be in my end and my departing.

I'm not sure anyone knows the author of this prayer, and yet I'm thankful for the saint that encompassed a God-full living in these five short lines.

At so many points in my day I recognize the absence of this Godward living.  Mostly the petty and trite and immediate are the things that fill my head.  Mostly God is not in my eyes, given as there are to distraction and wandering.  Mostly God is not in my mouth, but I am, speaking of myself.  Mostly I find myself thinking down broad avenues that may take me far afield of God.  God be in my heart.  So, I'm thankful for a prayer that calls me back, for a God that fills me even though ignored.  For grace and possession by Christ.

I have to end that intrusive Twitter feed that keeps popping up on my screen, falsely urgent, telling me all the latest.  I have to appreciate beauty but deny second looks.  God be in my eyes.  My friend across the lunch table is speaking to me of something important, and I am thinking of the next thing to say.  God be in my head (and hearing).  As I speak to co-workers, servers, janitorial staff, friends, family, grocery store checkers, and the homeless person walking toward me, with his need showing, God be in my speaking.  I have to give feet to the prayer, be deliberate about its askings, cooperate in God's plan and working.  So God be in my feet, in my walking.

God be all in all.  God be everywhere and in all.

God even be in my end, in my one day departing well. 

[The prayer is found in an addedum to Peter Kreeft's Prayer: The Great Conversation, a book I highly recommend.

Doing the Work of Love: An Afternoon with Jane Kenyon

260px-Jane_KenyonWhile I did not know of the poetry of the late Jane Kenyon until after her death in 1995, I am glad I found her when I did.  A kindred spirit to Mary Oliver, who is one of my favorite poets, her poetry also has a rich simplicity --- is accessible, delicate, and yet profound.  Images of home and nature abound, and a subtle faith and hope permeates the air of her poems, even if they often allude to her lifelong struggle with depression.

Take this one, for example, entitled "Afternoon in the House:"

It's quiet here. The cats
sprawl, each
in a favored place.
The geranium leans this way
to see if I'm writing about her:
head all petals, brown
stalks, and those green fans.
So you see,
I am writing about you.

I know that sprawl, those favored places, that quiet that settles on the house, that hyper-consciousness bred of aloneness that makes you sense that the very walls are listening, leaning in, waiting to hear.  It's all so ordinary, and yet under her economic pen, buffered by considerable white space, it becomes extraordinary, each word so carefully chosen.

She goes on:

I turn on the radio.  Wrong.
Let's not have any noise
in this room, except
the sound of a voice reading a poem.
The cats request
The Meadow Mouse, by Theodore Roethke.

And that makes me look up The Meadow Mouse since, after all, no poem about a cat can be bad, can it?  And yet I realize, in the reading, that the cats enjoyed it like we might anticipate a scrumptious meal, licking their chops.  Reading "Do I imagine he no longer trembles/ When I come close to him?/ He seems no longer to tremble," I fear it's not empathy they feel for the poor mouse but something more elemental, and base, and so my instinct about cats is confirmed: they are out for themselves, won't ever be accused of saving children from burning houses or lying down on their master's (if that word is ever accurate) graves.  And so I wonder if Kenyon granted the request.  I doubt it.  Rather, it demonstrates her sense perhaps that not only cats but her own species might not be generous.  And that, for Kenyon, might have fed her depression.

I was surprised to read the first line of the final stanza, where she says

The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze 

because, inexplicably, I just wrote a line nearly like that in a blog post just a couple days ago when, awake in the middle of the night, I said that the listening you do at that wee hour is "like you are hyper-attuned to the settling of the house, like some ancient creature sinking back down on its haunches long after its occupants have retired."  You know it's bad when you take to quoting yourself, and yet why did I channel a phrase uttered by Jane Kenyon when I had not read her poem in perhaps six years?

The ending of that stanza, and of the poem, is key to understanding her mental anguish in the midst of this idyllic setting of the familiar.  Cats dozing.  Plants leaning.  A settled home. She says

I know you are with me, plants,
and cats --- and even so, I'm frightened,
sitting in the middle of perfect

Are they with her?  For Kenyon even a good day held within it the seed of a bad one, a sense that the shoe had to fall at some point and the world would come crashing down.  Who knows what else frightened her, when even the cats are full of malevolent possibility?  I don't mean to be hard on cats.  They figure prominently in Kenyon's poems, often dozing, sometimes providing humor, and yet for her nothing could be taken at face value, the sinister lurking beyond the benign.

One phrase, repeated in her poem, "Otherwise," the title to a collection of her work, tells me of her commitment to live even when she felt otherwise: "All morning I did the work of love."  More than fear or sadness, her poems tell of hope and faith and love, and that trilogy is worth hearing about over and over and over.

Want to read Jane Kenyon?  Start with "Otherwise."  You'll find much to love in her descriptions of the ordinary.  You might even make your own poem.

[The photo of Kenyon at her typewriter is publicly available via her publisher's website.  Does anyone type anymore?  Yes.  It's good to see.]

How to Build a Booth

The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths, was intended as a reminder of the Jewish nation's 40-year pilgrimage in the wilderness and, to a larger extent, to their very pilgrimage on the earth, to their status as aliens and strangers.  When Nehemiah mentions this feast after leading the rebuilding of the walls and gates of Jerusalem (Neh. 8:13-18), surely he remembered the estrangement of his exile --- his and that of his people.  The feast had a visible, very tangible symbol: the Jews built fragile booths from tree boughs and such, and lived in them for a period of time.  Reading about this I sometimes wonder what visible reminder God's people can now construct to remind us of our exile, to help us hold lightly to the world while still putting down roots and building houses and living among Babylon.

In Craig Bartholomew's Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, one of the things he argues is that the Christian's obligation is to image heaven (our place of lasting, perfect placement) by working to build a home here that not only points to, but in some mysterious way is already a part of, the greater home to be realized in the fullness of time.  This doesn't conflict with our sense of estrangement, our exile.  Rather, to build a home, literally and figuratively, prefigures our heavenly home.  It posits hope --- some significant continuity between this world and the one to come.  The tension we feel between place-making and exile is a good one: we hold lightly to what the world offers, yet we take all that is good, true and beautiful and adopt it and build upon it.  We seek to make our homes, our cities, and our country prefigure the one to come, and yet we come to the task humbly, realizing that we cannot erect heaven on earth.

How does my home prefigure Heaven's home?  For one thing, it is bounded.  It is protected from the elements and yet lets in light.  For another, in and of itself it has differentiation: special corners, a favorite chair, a stairwell, a study.  It's not all the same, or shouldn't be, but fits the contour of the land and of the lives of the people who dwell in it.  And it has a spiritual and physical foundation: it is literally rooted in earth, built on Christ. Bartholomew says more and, if you have a mind for it, you can take it up, but I have to get on with life, and place, and loving the world the way Christ loves it.

Jesus said he would prepare a place for us.  I, for one, look forward to that.  In the meantime, I attend to my own place-making by listening to what is around me and taking up all that is virtuous. The first step is learning to see and listen --- and that's a good part of what Outwalking is all about.

Oh --- if I start building a booth in the backyard, don't judge me.  Join me.