Fun With Stats 1: Lessons on Growth from 5 Years of Blogging

discover-badge-rectangleOne of the critical advantages of WordPress is that it offers the blogger tools for calculating their impact. It is also one of its critical weaknesses as the analytics are limited to daily visitor and hit counts, as well as a sense
of where readers are coming from and what links they click as they read. It could be the pro-suite is better, but in for the average WordPress amateur, you basically get a bar graph and some lists. They don’t even allow you to export to Excel.

Still, I love bar graphs and lists. I love data and spreadsheets and trying to read the digital tea leaves. As last month was the busiest month ever on A Pilgrim in Narnia, I thought it would be fun to talk about some lessons I’ve learned from more than 5 years of blogging. Today I’m going to talk about growth; on Monday I’m talking about connectivity.

First, the basic stats. Here are the numbers for the last 5 years (and a bit) on WordPress.

blog-hits-yearly

A great chart is worth a thousand words, but spelling out some of these words is helpful. I am what the young folk are calling a 100,000 Hit Blogger, averaging 8,000-11,000 each month for a little more than two years. I’m going to mention some reasons below and on Monday why this sounds more impressive than it is, but for now it is important to note that this does not tell me how many people actually read anything I wrote. It is a Google-type analytic, trawling for any connection with the site. 100,000 hits a year sounds amazing for a quasi-intellectual blog, but a lot of that is snow.

The trendline is interesting. Year 1 isn’t that helpful to tell us much; they were pretty lonely months. Years 2, 3, 4 and 5 all has huge growth patterns (50-95% year-over-year growth). Then we suddenly level off in Year 5. Here’s how that data looks in a monthly chart:

stats-chart

Here are some of the trends that pop out:

  • It was nine months before the blog hit its stride at 1,000 hits/month.
  • There are freezing and cooling periods, where the numbers move up, settle a bit, and stabilize at a new level. We see this in the summer of 2012, where the 1,000 hits/mo blog suddenly pops forward and it is looking like a 5,000 hits/mo blog. It settles in at 3,000-4,000 for a few months, then 4,500-6,000 for a few months, and then accelerates up to nearly 11,000 hits in Feb 2015. Then the blog settles again, twice moving up to 10k/mo and twice settling back down.
  • The monthly stats don’t even show the story of normal activity. Usually blog hits go up or down by less than 10% a month. Weekly, though, the range is up to +/- 30%. There is much more variability during the month than looking long range.
  • Each of the big loss months—Feb 2013, Jun 2013, and Jun 2016—were months where my posting became suddenly lighter after a strong growth period. The biggest lesson for bloggers: if you want to build your blog readership, blog regularly and never break the pattern.
  • However, there are critical trends beyond our control. Look at the monthly trends: it is clear that blog readership goes down in the summer, begins to recover in September, and reaches its height in January or February. The 3 biggest months were all February, and the 6-month growth trends all come after a summer lull.

blog-hits-monthly-bar-graph

  • This chart may capture that trend even a little better, where I trim off the partial years:

blog-stats-monthly-bar-graph

  • Based on the data, there are three kinds of growth trends:
    1. Catapult Growth: a 30% increase in a single month (much of 2011-12 up to Oct 2012, Jan 2013, and Feb 2015).
    2. Seasonal Growth: a 50% increase over 5-6 months (the months leading up to Oct 2012, Jan 2013, Nov 2013, Dec 2014, Feb 2015, Nov 2016).
    3. Slow and Steady Growth: moderate growth over longer periods (especially 2014 and 2015-16).
  • Catapult Growth is a factor in half of these Seasonal Growth periods.
  • Catapult Growth and strong upward movement is triggered by three key factors:
    1. The Big Share: this is when a post is shared by someone moderately famous or a part of a strong network. This is usually on Twitter or Facebook, but can be rooted to other blogs or websites. For example, Terry Chimes from The Clash shared my post about him—“A Clash of Faith”—catapulting it forward. A New York Times editor shared my link to “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” and it kicked off. I often don’t know where the share comes from, but in the world I play in that Big Share can be a scholar whose own university President may have no idea what they do. Sometimes this is organic, such as “The Real Order to Read Narnia: A Third Way” from Feb 3, 2015, which was shared hundreds of times on Facebook and Twitter by normal folks.
    2. The Popular Post: this is when a blog catches on and moves quickly. For example, the post I hate most, “50 Shades of Bad Writing,” was published on Sep 21, 2012, leading to four months of growth. There were other points in there, including NaNoWriMo, which created a lot of traffic and some popular Christmas posts. Still, that post drove growth of the blog into a new level.
    3. Zombie Posts: this is where a post comes back from the dead. This happened with my “50 Shades” post when everyone decided such a great work of literature needed a film. Feb 2015 became a hot month, especially when added to “The Real Order to Read Narnia: A Third Way.” Recently, my Screwtape and George Orwell posts have been hot, even though they are fairly old. There is probably a cultural reason for that.
  • While Seasonal Growth is affected by Catapult Growth phenomenon, it emerges naturally in certain kinds of environments:
    1. In The Flesh: I saw long-term growth after each conference I attended (Jun 2012, Nov 2013, Sep 2014, and Jun 2016). Teaching and connecting with scholars is a big part of my blog development.
    2. Netvents: online events and intentional networking are essential keys to growing a blogging community. For example, I had blogged each of the Hobbit films, getting a bit of fan mail and some internet hate (because I didn’t think Peter Jackson was the filmmaking version of Sauron, the Dark Lord of the Lens). However, when I hosted “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Blogs” with other bloggers, it opened up new possibilities.
    3. The Sticky Post: this includes posts that remain quietly popular for months or years on end. This includes “Screwtape on Pleasure and Distraction” and “Between Mars and Malacandra, Fantasy and Real Life,” both from Jan 2012 but more popular now than they were then.
  • Often growth is a combination of factors. My Jan 18, 2013 post “Reconsidering Apologetics” was shared by The Poached Egg and a few other apologetics groups. The combination of the Big Share and The Popular Post made for a big Jan 2013.

stats-chart

I don’t have the data to support it, but after doing this for five years, I suspect that long-term sustainable blogging growth happens when a Big Share or Zombie Post–each of these are viral events–happens to a blogger that has this combination of these factors:

  1. Regular Posts
  2. Relevant Topics
  3. Strong Writing
  4. Readable Design
  5. Meaningful Networks
  6. Good Readership
  • Still—and this will be sad for a lot of people—Google is king (or queen, or duchess, or a President offering to make the Internet great again). This is more a message for Monday, but these trends are guided by Google’s algorithms. More traffic found me in Nov 2013 because C.S. Lewis was in the media (the 50th anniversary of his death). So even when I was blogging on a non-Lewis topic, Google drove traffic to my site. I would bet you that if I hadn’t blogged on A Bridge to Terabithia just as Josh Hutcherson was launching The Hunger Games, I would still be a 10,000 hits a year blogger. An early Googlicious event led to the next one, and the one after that, and so on. I have had enough pop culture content, regular readership, and Big Shares that Google drives traffic to my site. It’s not my fault, mostly—and it probably isn’t your fault if you are still at 1,000 hits a month.
  • And … goodness, lots of sites have better content, conversations, and connectivity than mine with far less traffic. Fun with stats may be informative, but it is only ever fun. It is never a measure of self-worth, a gauge of writing ability, or a metric for most kinds of meaningful success.

lewis-essay-chartKnowing all this, I want to echo what I said in the fall: I write what I want. I write because I love blogging, so why would I have it any other way?

And, honestly, it all seems pretty random sometimes. One of the most popular posts of the last year is “How to Read All of C.S. Lewis’ Essays”—an unusually boring and practical post. I did a good job, but it was mostly a post for research geeks.

On the other side, a lot of great posts (in my mind) have gotten the internet equivalent of a shrug. I am not driven to write based on popularity. Good Tolkien posts will always draw twice as many readers, but I only post what I find fascinating myself. Who would want it any other way?

I am not completely un-shaped by reader trends. Over the last two years I have added some resource posts—not because they get a lot of hits, but because they attract the right kind of reader. My posts on hell brought mostly awkward silence, so I let the topic drop. In the long-run, readers appreciate C.S. Lewis resource posts. Because I am a C.S. Lewis resourcer, I have used reader feedback as an opportunity to play to my strengths.

I also break my own rules whenever I want. Although intensely interested in politics, I tend to avoid the topic. A lot of my readers are conservative Americans. I felt compelled to do some posting about Donald Trump even though I knew I would alienate readers I love. They were mostly light and not terribly negative posts, but some people committed to the left or right are not able to believe that someone with whom they disagree has anything meaningful to say. It was painful watching conservative Christian Americans ramp up to elect a person who wasn’t conservative, Christian, or of Presidential calibre. So I stepped out of my normal patterns to try to add perspective. I failed in this, and have been dropped by some blog lists rolls that equate Christian with conservative. But the posts were popular with readers who probably will never return. And Italians.

italian_screen_shotThere are also personal factors that affect growth. This has been my most uneven year—which probably explains why there hasn’t been rapid growth. I suspect A Pilgrim in Narnia has hit a Googlesque soft peak and has reached its potential in rapid growth. But this last year has been almost spastic, going from deep posts about my (or Tolkien’s) struggles, to distant or cold posts about teaching or academic matters, to shiny happy face humour blogs and political satire. Thanks to readers who have stuck around, but it really was a survival year for me.

Well, that’s Fun with Stats 1.0. I hope you pop back in on Monday and check out the lessons learned on connectivity. Meanwhile, here is a super spastic chart on blog hits. It also looks remarkably like childhood art.blog-stats-squiggles

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

“In and Out of the Moon” by Jeff McInnis

jeff-mcinnis-in-and-out-of-the-windAnyone who has spent any amount of time haunting coffee shops or pubs with academics knows that many scholars have a novel or two in their desk drawer. This is especially true of scholars who study imaginative writers or speculative fiction, and may even have been why we were drawn to our field of study in the first place. It is true of me, as it is of Jeff McInnis, author of Shadows and Chivalry: C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald on Suffering, Evil and Goodness (2012). In 2015, McInnis released In and Out of the Moon, the first volume of The Sword of Aucsanthium trilogy.

The story is centred on Kabe, a blind preteen boy who is growing up in a family that began strongly but is now failing. The grandfather that has been both tutor and translator is ill, the brother that used to be a playmate is disappearing into a world of gadgetry and distraction, and a loving father is losing his family to the remedies for grief. Kabe’s younger sister, Meg, can hardly remember her mother, who was the moral strength of the family and taken from them far too soon. On the eve of their grandfather’s operation, the children find a wand that begins the adventure that draws the children out of this world to another, and from the mundane worries of a faltering family to a rich moment of history in a splintering world. Each of the children find their stories in this new land, but it is Kabe who has the deepest transformation and the strongest responsibilities in the great quest of Aucsanthium.

jeff-mcinnis-shadows-and-chivalry-cs-lewis-george-macdonaldI picked up In and Out of the Moon–actually, it was an audiobook read by the author–because I was curious to see how McInnis would integrate his scholarship into his fiction. In my reading quest I was not disappointed. While I am less familiar with George MacDonald and so didn’t see the influences as clearly, In and Out of the Moon is a reflection of the thought of C.S. Lewis. None of this is sitting at the front of the story. Aucsanthium is not Narnia, or even particularly Narnia-like. The world of In and Out of the Moon is an older, darker world with its own textures and colours. But the spiritual and philosophical principles of Lewis are soaked through the work. Reading this book is a reflection on Lewis’ short story “Light,” a meditation of “Meditation in a Toolshed,” and a working out of Lewis’ theology of the small–and all this done by a scholar who thinks Christianly about themes of good and evil, suffering and hope, and the role of the imagination.

None of this influence is obvious: McInnis hasn’t bent a homespun tale into a Lewisian frame. Rather, some of Lewis’ most deeply resonant worldview features are built into the framework of the entire Aucsanthium world. It is a well-written story, imaginative and evocative. The sensual matter and the way that Kabe engages with his world is particularly poignant, making me sad that the grandfather was not a greater feature of this book. In particular, the Ragman servant-king is, like Harry Potter or Strider, a compelling Christ figure whose presence communicates the core principles of the author without simply serving as a parable.

There are some weaknesses in the book. It is a bit long, and could use the severe editorial hand of a large publishing firm. Folks who aren’t in a hurry won’t mind this feature as it is a good read, but I struggle to understand what market McInnis is writing for. My twelve year old would enjoy the book, but it is not one that a child the age of the protagonist could read independently. It is a dark tale with deep lessons. And it is weighty. Provided volumes two and three were about the same size, the book of Aucsanthium would be more than 1000 fairly full pages. It is a perfect teen book, but I don’t know if teens today will read a book about little kids as the heroes. It’s too bad, too: many teens could use the resources that Kabe and his siblings discover in this world beyond the world.

Aside from marketing–which is not a problem I care about as a reader–the critical issue is that the series isn’t finished yet. The audiobook ends with a personal appeal to share the story of this story, in case there is a publisher or patron peaking in. This is my role in that appeal: to share a good book with lovers of good books, hoping that this will prod Jeff McInnis to finish the tale.

Though incomplete, I loved reading In and Out of the Moon. Fans of Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis will enjoy the tale, as well as readers of adventure stories of the old type (they used to be called Romances, but that word is pretty much ruined). It is also intriguing to watch how scholarship soaks its way into works of fiction. As Lewis’ love for myth and the medieval imagination found its way into all his fiction, In and Out of the Moon benefits from being rooted in the well-watered soils of worldview-infused mythopoeia.

jeff-mcinnis-in-and-out-of-the-wind-audioAmazon Book Description:

A mysterious dark wand that keeps getting darker, an ancient song of hope, and a winged visitor from beyond the moon – they all lead Kabe, Troy, and Meg to magical, daring adventures far away from their troubled home. The MacCaw family has struggled since losing their mother and wife when things went wrong at the hospital years ago, and now their grandfather is in the hospital too. But just before visiting his ill grandfather, young Kabe MacCaw, blind since birth, discovers a mysterious dark wand while trying to teach his dog to fetch. After struggling to discover the secrets of the wand, the MacCaw children find themselves in the middle of a dangerous conflict in a beautiful but threatened other world. The wand grows darker by the hour, and the fate of a world and a family hangs in the balance.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

George Watson’s Provocative Comments on C.S. Lewis as Literary Critic

george-watson-cs-lewis-critical-essaysOne of the advantages of finding new libraries is that the librarian’s skill of book-buying is more art than science. The librarians I know, despite their adept use of analytics, have as much curator or architect in them as they have of business person or technologist. Each library, then, has its own little oddities. I can guarantee that in some library in the world there is a book you didn’t know about in the area where you are the expert. Each library is an adventure.

As I was haunting section 823.912 at the University of Chester, as I love to do, I saw a book in the stacks that I did not know. Edited by George Watson, it is a plain Scolar Press academic print of Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis (1992). Honestly, I expected to find a dozen essays gathered from some 1990s conference—and probably pale works by readers still basking in the warm glow of Narnia. I was wrong. Instead, to my delight, this book gathers together 46 reviews, critiques, letters, and memorials of Lewis’ work, written by some of the 20th century’s most important literary scholars and critics. This was a real treat to find.

george_watson_obituaryI could not read the whole book, and spent most of my time looking at genius critic William Empson’s comments about Lewis. Rather than a review, then, I will begin a conversation with Watson from his Introduction, where he is thinking primarily of C.S. Lewis as a critic. George Watson was an Australian student at Trinity College in the late 1940s, and was drawn in by Lewis the teacher through the Socratic Club. Watson went on to become a politically engaged colleague of Lewis at Cambridge, an important translator, editor, and critic. His most famous student (in my circles, anyway) was Douglas Adams. Watson

Here are George Watson’s first evaluative words of Lewis: “Like F.R. Leavis, he was an offensive critic” (1). Awesome. I think it is an evaluation that would have made Lewis chuckle, particularly in his positive comparison with Leavis, the closest thing Lewis ever got to having a Sherlockian arch-nemesis. However, Watson (note the name) is careful to remind us that Lewis “reveled in diversity as much as Leavis detested it” (5). That diversity in Lewis is one of the features that (I believe) most draws and repels readers today.

OHEL-English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama-CS LewisWatson goes on to make some descriptions of Lewis’ work. The Oxford History of English Language (OHEL) volume on English Literature in the 16th Century “caused a learned body in the United States to set up a committee to refute its teachings as dangerous to the study of Elizabethan poetry, and treatises were written against it” (1). Another highly admirable trait, making Lewis “a conservative iconoclast” (1) worthy of attention.

Lewis’ lectures on the medieval worldview, The Discarded Image, “is a daring summary of his life as an intellectual historian, a taxonomy of ancient and medieval myths and the dogmas that underlie them, disarmingly subtitled in dull, textbook fashion ‘an introduction to Medieval and Renaissance literature.’ (2).

As Lewis was an anti-Modernist writing during the most effective Modernist period (1930s-1950s), what many don’t notice is that he is, according to Watson, a modernist. “His mingling of formalism and fantasy—a critical and analytical interest in the forms that fantasy takes—was something which, when he died in 1963, was on the point of becoming fashionable, and it will never be known what he would have made of that sudden change of mood” (4). Indeed, Watson saw Lewis as prophetic, predicting—and I agree—the French critical turn in the 1960s. Watson reminds us that we probably don’t want to point that out: “A French avant-garde, in any case, does not wish to be told that an Englishman has been saying it all for years” (4).

Personal Heresy by CS Lewis 60sYet, Watson is cautious about direct parallels between Lewis and the French critics: “any resemblance between his views and those of Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida is patchy and highly coincidental” (5) They all distrusted realism and loved fantasy, but on different grounds. Lewis would have resisted the return to Hegel (and its extreme, solipsism). Lewis was a skeptic, but not an extreme or radical skeptic, as in the French school. His love for romance came from a belief that the best stories were Myth Retold, and that we do not get lost in the poet, but what the poet is lost in (beautifully played out in The Personal Heresy).

Watson rightly notes that An Experiment in Criticism predicts critical theory and reader-response theory, that The Personal Heresy predicts Wimsatt & Beardsley’s “The intentional fallacy” (4), and that his essay/lecture “On Stories” predicts narratology—as we have noted before. Watson believes that Studies in Words was the most important OED book since Empson’s, but it completely ignored as contemporary theory and was coolly received.

george-watson_3105865bWatson is right that for C.S. Lewis, literary criticism was “a shared enthusiasm” (3). The Inklings were remote and Lewis loved that remoteness. “The Inklings were anti-Modernist, anti-modern, backward-looking, and deliberately unfashionable.” (6). I had already been attempting to situate Lewis in Johnson, but Watson is further on in that journey: “Like Samuel Johnson, whom he greatly admired and whose antithetical syntax he often echoed, Lewis could be teasing and contradictious, and his fondness for arguing both sides of a question led, in some quarters, to a reputation for sophistry. All that, and his worldly success, could make for a certain tension in debate” (6).

Watson’s view of Lewis is humorous, but not uncritical. Indeed, Watson has a kind of Lewisian and Johnsonian “antithetical syntax” when considering Lewis:

“It is fortunate, in the end, that he was not unfailingly loyal to his own theories, any more than more recent theorists have been, and that he frequently committed the personal heresy when he wrote of himself and others. He was a critic whose views are supremely bound up with the course of his life, an abiding instance among authors of the importance of intention” (7).

Nicely said. Scholars of Lewis have been commiting the personal heresy all these many years, and it is important to put those early thoughts of Lewis in context with the whole.

Allegory of Love CS Lewis 1976 reprintYet Watson does not have the fullest possible reading of Lewis. For example, he says that “theology is only an episode in his literary career” (2)—I’m not sure this quite covers it, though perhaps I misunderstand what Watson means. I don’t know that there was anything Lewis wrote that was not theologically tinged—even in that “OED book,” Studies in Words. He does offer a good caution about reading too much into Lewis’ biography from The Allegory of Love , but says that “Lewis was a bachelor critic” (3). I think he underestimates Joy Davidman’s personal and literary impact, which in my mind commands the better part of the last decade of his life. Davidman was certainly an influence on Lewis’ finest literary fiction, Till We Have Faces, and provided energy and focus for Lewis to publish books of essays and lectures—the very books that Watson praises the most. This idea of the “bachelor critic” was true, though, before the mid-50s, and Watson presses the point of Lewis’ Oxford outsiderness in a clever way:

“He was also a happy bachelor, and the fact was sometimes felt to be damaging. Bachelors, like critics, are not supposed to be happy.” (3).

For all its wit and interest, this essay could use the tightening that a critical look at C.S. Lewis’ biography would provide. But it was a refreshing read from a younger colleague of the Oxford don who walked in heady circles. This essay also fills out some of the context behind the brief correspondence between Watson and Lewis in 1962 (in volume 3 of The Collected Letters).

Mostly, it is an invigorating essay about C.S. Lewis as literary critic and theorist, written by an expert who knew the field intimately and knew Lewis as colleague and friend. Watson’s critical Lewis emerges as an anti-Modernist largely in step with modernity, as a rare conservative iconoclast and controversialist in the tradition of Samuel Johnson and G.K. Chesterton, and as a lover of stories. Watson concluded that “His age … needed him” (7). I tend to agree.


George Watson, ed,, Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis (Scolar Press, 1992). Watson died suddenly in 2013. You can read his obituary here.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

In Memory of Stuart McLean (Friday Feature)

vinylcafe-headerMy family was saddened to learn of the passing of Stuart McLean. You probably don’t know him. Canadian actors and comedians do well in New York and Hollywood. We, like the Brits, enjoy dry wit and satire, but our radio is more like the American NPR. And this is where Stuart McLean lived, on a stage most of us never saw, drawing the stories out of his neighbours. For he was every Canadian’s neighbour–not simply because he toured every little renovated theatre and church hall in every little town he could get to. He was our neighbour because, with grace and humour, he told Canada’s story.

Our favourite show was The Vinyl Cafe. Stuart featured Canadian musicians–often as they were emerging from their little local scene–but also allowed Canadians to share their art and hearts through letters and a write-in feature storytime. But it was the Dave and Morley story that was our favourite part of the week. Kerry and I saw Stuart in Vancouver a dozen or so years ago. It was our dream to take Nicolas when he was old enough, but that will never happen.

So I was touched to see Nicolas’ post yesterday, which he wrote after listening to a CBC tribute. He blogs at Comic City, writing in a genre that didn’t exist when I was 12. I thought his tribute was better than anything I could say. I hope you discover Stuart in these words. You can find a one-hour tribute to Stuart here. I’ve left a CBC tribute, an interview, and a Dave & Morley teaser below.


If you live in Canada, you will most likely know about the CanImage result for stuart mcleanadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). There are many hilarious shows, many sentimental show, many educational shows, but one of my favorite shows of all time is Vinyl Cafe. I’ve been listening to Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe for most of my life, my parents have been listening to it years before me. The Vinyl Cafe is a part of our Sunday mornings on our way back from church. We would turn on our radio and listen to the stories of Dave and Morley, their kids and their small record shop, while listening to Canadian music. Whether the stories are sentimental, sad, or down right hilarious, they are always good.

Stuart McLean has been fighting with the life taking enemy, cancer. As my Grandmother was taken away from cancer last year, I know a little bit of what it can do to people. Stuart McLean was a Canadian radio icon who has been telling stories, both true or made up, for years. He’s done music shows, radio documentaries and comedy shows. As my mother said, and I completely agree with her, he is the best story-teller I’ve ever heard. Everything he wrote was an unfinished spell, and the spell was complete as he read it out loud. Magic. Everything he read out loud turned to gold. He was the Midas in the story telling world.

My family just came to my living room and huddled around the radio, listening to a beautiful memoir of Stuart, replaying memories from the past, both ones that I’ve heard before and more.

I know I will miss his Sunday afternoon Vinyl Cafe stories, I know that my family will miss it and I know that there will be 35 million more people in Canada will miss his unique, funny stories and his distinctive voice. Those we love never go away, the memories will be cherished for years to come. So I encourage all of you who were impacted even a little bit, huddle up in your living room and remember the Canadian icon who changed lives. We love you Stuart!

Posted in Feature Friday, Guest Blogs, News & Links | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Spiritual Dynamics in The OA

One of the hottest new shows on Netflix is The OA. A genre-bending serial of 8 rough-hewn episodes, it has the transdimensional framework and Scoobie gang dynamics of Stranger Things, but a much more adult narrative. While Stranger Things uses 1980s pop culture to create a home of the viewer—and then turns that home inside out—The OA is playing with a blend of spiritual and technological elements that bend the viewer’s expectations to the point of breaking.

I don’t have a full understanding of how the speculative universe of The OA works yet. For the most part, I think this is a feature of the storytelling. We do not know in Stranger Things whether or Eleven is the beast, or has taken the beast inside herself, or whether it is the Christ motif of self-sacrifice at work. The last, rushed few minutes of Stranger Things lays some groundwork for season 2, desperately expected but still a ways away. Rather than a summer repeat it will be a Halloween special, which is cool in its own way.

the-oa-friendshipThe OA also leaves things intentionally open. Part of this is an unusual technique of serial filmmaking. The episodes are radically different in length (ranging from 30 to 70 minutes). The opening credits of the first episode don’t even roll until 45 minutes in. Yet that first 45 minutes is not a prelude, but the baseline reality that serves as host to the story-within-a-story. It is one of the more obvious story-within-a-story set ups I have seen in recent history, where we literally have a storytelling circle. More than a technique, it is the power dynamic both of the unusual Scoobie gang—a Breakfast Club collective, each with his, or her, or their own competing tensions—and of the speculative framework as a whole. To the extent that we can believe the speculative world that is presented to us—more of that in a moment—the story itself is about power: either spiritual power, or a new technology, or both.

Like Stranger Things and some other new film, much of the beauty of the filmmaking is in a kind of ugliness—what a Japanese poet might call wabi sabi. You have to give yourself in to the protagonist’s tale or you will be in danger of laughing at the wrong moment or rolling your eyes and going to do your taxes or something useful. Everything hinges on our belief in the protagonist. We must surrender to the story, which is the very choice the central characters are given in both the story and the story-within-a-story.

It is this dynamic that I think is the most brilliant feature of The OA. This film is a perfect context for dealing with the way that we assess the claims of faith. As their reasons for abandoning loyalty increase, the motley crew of heroes—including the people that they are surrogates for in the story-within-a-story—must decide whether or not they believe the tale. The story is grand, coherent, almost irresistible and completely unbelievable. People who have grown up in church (or synagogue, or mosque) cannot understand how disorienting the story of God really is. Like the heroes of The OA—indeed, like every person viewing the film—when the story of faith comes our way, we must in the end choose against all cultural improbability the too-good-to-be true gospel with all its seeming impossibilities.

One scene captures the cultural incongruity of faith perfectly. There is a moment where the protagonist and her listeners are lost in her story and a neighbourhood search party walks in. To those in the circle it has been a compelling and heartbreaking tale, and each one feels the betrayal and abandonment, the hopelessness and the miracle that seemed to come just when it was too late. They all felt the intimacy of love’s first and last touch, and that not every death has a resurrection.

There, in that moment of full faith and trust, the perspective suddenly shifts. To the townsfolk who stumble in on this spiritual circle, they see a severely mentally ill woman shredding her clothes with a knife, weeping in her underwear in an abandoned house in the presence of gender-confused and socially isolated minors while a schoolteacher watched on in wide-eyed fascination.

brit-marling-in-the-oaThe audience suddenly sees: the beauty of this group is really quite horrifying when viewed by those who have not shared a bond of trust. We had forgotten the horror as we lost ourselves in the story. For the people on the outside it is clearly about molestation, abuse, and a betrayal of the faith and hope of youth. At best, it is a victimized women now preying on the lonely, confused, isolated, and vulnerable.

For those on the inside it is a tragic exposure. It is like having our phone hacked, our intimate journal shared online, our prayer life broadcast on the radio, our bed turned into a weapon by a lover.

This brilliant moment highlights that difficult inside-outside relationship of faith and culture in a parable on the psychology of religion with a richness I have rarely seen before. More than the parable, the film itself enacts the central spiritual dynamic of Christian faith: that we must surrender all, die to self, give ourselves over to that which we cannot fully understand. To those who, in C.S. Lewis’ terms in An Experiment in Criticism, surrender to the text, The OA is a compelling and troubling tale. To those who do not or cannot surrender—to those who cannot buy in to the film—I cannot see how it can be anything but silly. This is the folly of faith.

the-oa-netflix-brit-marlingThis shocking idea of the faith choice is not the only spiritual dynamic, and it is probably not the one that most would think of. Other spiritual dynamics sit at the front of the visual storytelling, including one of the brilliant examples of a Christ motif I’ve seen in contemporary film. We don’t know yet if Stranger Things is a Christ tale, but The OA is soaked through with Christian imagery repackaged in non-Christian spiritual forms—a dynamic that we saw in Doctor Strange. Questions of sin and liberation, betrayal and trust, doubt and hope are all centred around the image of the cross and the discovery of new life in the morning.

All of this is set within a storytelling machine that is not Christian, but the spiritual-technological transdimensional framework that is still unclear (to me at least). This obscuring of mythic core is probably not the intentional embedding of worldview—sneaking past watchful dragons of culture—but is more likely instinctive, a product of culture rather than design. I doubt the writers are trying to retell the story of the cross or Buddhism or any rooted faith perspective. I’m not sure the writers of The OA themselves even understand the speculative world they have built/are in the midst of building. They are, however, deeply aware of the central theme and core messages. It is a “teleological” film: The OA is going somewhere. The lines converge, though not all of them, and I don’t think the spiritual dynamics are entirely accidental.

brit-marling-in-the-oa-captureThere are critical weaknesses in the show that sit awkwardly with its fascinating elements. The last two episodes have gaps—core spaces that are unexplained not because we don’t have the full truth about the elements of that fictional world, but careless missing links after 6 episodes of intensely careful storytelling. There are two nudity scenes that sit awkwardly in the 6 hours of film. These scenes—both playing on sexist tropes—each have a core moral lesson that works well in either plot or character dynamic. A sex scene in each case is the right choice. Because of how they are filmed they become unnecessary to the whole and part of a series of moments that make the series feel amateurish. Similarly, the use of a gypsy wagon decorated green screen stage for the “elsewhere” shots seemed liked they were trying too hard.

Some of these inelegant features may be surprises for season two, such as an unclear “call” dynamic, what appears to be a deus ex machina framework for the use of technology, and gaps here and there in character development. I am hopeful that that we will cross the threshold into a sustained, integrated world, but I think some of this is either production bungling, or making it up as you go along.

We’ll see. This is a largely untested crew—in fact the intriguing situation where some indie art producers, including the lead actress, have written a sophisticated SF series and kept the best risk elements we want in non-mainstream film. Netflix should be watching for this sort of thing, though it can (and will eventually) descend into hipsteristic mainstreamery, such as the fake 90s edge films that followed Reality Bites and Empire Records. So we have a window here where people like Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij can make The OA, or the Duffer Brothers can make Stranger Things. Another generation or two of copying will turn it into garbage. (By the way, is it just me or are those names—Marling, Batmanglij, and Duffer—almost too good to be true?)

Until then, I will mull the question: is Homer on the other side of dark?

Posted in Fictional Worlds, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Snow Day in Prince Edward Island

It’s Snow Day #2 on Prince Edward Island. Since yesterday at noon, PEI has been buffeted by a blizzard. While only a foot of snow came down, 40-60 mph winds make it a mess. Most of us are content to stay snug and warm in our homes and ignore the outside world until the snow stops falling and the winds die down.

Kerry and I have our alarm almost perfectly timed. Her radio goes off to CBC at 5:57, just in time to hear if school has been cancelled. She’s a teacher, so it matters. Just at that moment, our forced air furnace kicks in. We run a woodstove, and the furnace adds a rush of heat in the morning and then again at night. Below -15 Celsius, it runs sometimes during the day when it isn’t sunny. Below -30, at that point when Fahrenheit and Celsius merge for an unusual united nations of temperature, our furnace runs hourly.

We love the furnace. On mornings like these we are one snooze button away from a warm house. I remember as a child how we had to wait for the wood furnace to slowly heat the entire house. I remember pulling back the layers of quilts as a child, sometimes hearing the tinkle of ice crystals as they hit the old wood board floors. As kids we would hop out of bed and race to the kitchen. There we set one of our mismatched chairs in front of the old wood stove. Then we put our feet in the oven part of the woodstove, feeling our freezing feet grow toasty and warm as my dad meditated over coffee and as CBC played in the background.

It wasn’t until much later that I thought of the half hour before we woke up, the cold house and my father lumbering through the dark to make the house warm for us. I did know that when the coffee was drained, he would suit up and head to the barns. It is never a snow day on a dairy farm.

Today, at 5:57am, the furnace tried to come on, and failed. It tried again, and again, and again. Each time it failed. This is bad on a snow day.

snow-day-valentines-2017-bNow, I have the technical know-how of a chipmunk. I’m strong on opening nuts and weak on anything with a moving part. There is a reason I was never intended for the family farm. This is a real deficit when it is -14 with the wind chill and the furnace won’t start. The street is not ploughed, and there is no way we would see a technician for a day or two. One little woodstove in the basement is a comfort, but it is not enough against a PEI snow day.

I’m not even worrying yet about the technical problems. I suspect I know what the trouble is, and I groan in bed at the thought of it. But there is nothing else for it. I get dressed, light a fire, put on my jacket, hat, mitts, and the giant pair of snowpants I found in the ladies section at the thrift store. I put some grocery bags in my boots–Canadians will know what I mean by this–and head out into the cold, dark, windy morning.

I suspect that the air vent for the furnace is filled with snow and it can’t get enough oxygen to ignite. Now that I am outside, that’s what I hope the problem is, because it means we don’t need a repair person. I suspect that have to dig out the air vent so my furnace can breathe, so my family can be warm.

For those who are starting to do some calculations, no, I’m not going to the roof on a day like this. We have a side-vented furnace that is 36″ off the ground. I know in my head that besides being freezing cold, it has to be quite a storm that packed a (hot) vent with snow more than 3 feet off the ground. Because the entire west side of the house is painted with sticky snow, I couldn’t check the vent before going out in the storm. Windows are boarded up by winter, even on the top floor. I have to go outside.

Essayist Bookshelf 2013Walking to the side of the house was tough. At one point the drifting snow was up to my right nipple. That’s about 45″ (what we technically call “nipple height” in Canada, the way we measure horses by hands and wood by cord). As I suspected, the snow was packed in against the vent. Not fluffy, white, Valentines romantic snow, but a sticky, thick, abomination of winter jammed against the side of my house like a sand dune.

15 minutes later I’m back inside, setting the wet clothes by the fire–and feeling blessed for having a fire. Today is a research day. After a couple of hours of marking, I will dig into the books that are easy to neglect in the middle of the semester. Nicolas is doing his heritage fair project, digging into the villains in our family tree. And Kerry will do whatever it is teachers who teach kids to read for the first time do. I think it is a kind of magic, or interplanetary technology, or a miracle or something.

None of this adventure my son will know, except by story. He will tumble out of bed in an hour or two, wrap himself in a blanket, and stand in front of the woodstove, allowing the heat to warm his body through the glass of the stove. He will trust that the fire is lit and the furnace worked and that he can simply log on to his hand-me-down laptop and get to work.

It is intriguing how we echo our parents, despite the radical shifts of our urban, technological generation. I am no longer on the family farm, but I want the house warm for my family. And researchers find themselves at work on a snow day in the way that farmers never get a chance to be snowed in.

I hope, wherever you might be in the world, that you have a great snow day–even if it is an honourary one. Check your side vents and compressors to make sure you’re safe and warm. Check in on your little ones as they sleep, remembering the stories of those that have gone before and the stories that are growing right in front of you. And, if you can at all pull it off, dig into a book that’s easy to set aside when life is too busy. This is what a snow day is for.

narnia-snow-shoe-1

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

For My Mother

Mom Graduation

You may have noticed that my posting has hardly been personal over the past couple of weeks. It is a week of difficult anniversaries. February 4th is the day my father and little brother perished in a fire, and last year on February 12th, my mother was taken by cancer. Here is the note we wrote for her last year, a shorter version of which was printed in local papers. 

Best Wishes,
Brenton

Janet Norgrove (08/05/54-02/12/16)

If life is a journey, then Janet began by walking early.

Born in El Dorado, Saskatchewan as an only child, as a toddler she lived in Edmonton and Toronto, where her father was very ill. When he had learned to walk again after his illness, his job as a mining accountant took them across the country. She lived in Ontario, on the Prairies, in Newfoundland and in the North, where she summered on Great Bear Lake, in Echo Bay.

Janet attended a dozen schools in as many years, enjoying learning even if she never found it exceptionally challenging. Her father eventually died after a long decline when Janet was fifteen. After struggling with illness and the financial challenges that accompany them, Janet and her mother (Lucille, d. 2001) moved to Wilmington, Delaware.

For a moment Janet’s feet stilled and the journeys that opened up before her were of a different sort. She spent her high school years in Delaware, exploring ideas and developing her appetite for books—she was a voracious reader until the end. The late 1960s and early 1970s were exciting intellectual times and Janet cut her political teeth on the civil rights issues of the day. It cost her a bra or two in protest, but during this time Janet set a trajectory for the life of learning and public service that would define much of her work in the 1980s.

Wilmington was also where Janet began lifelong friendships. Guy and Dorothy Palandrani were at first neighbours, but their house soon became a second home. There, growing up with their children, Janet found new strengths—strengths that set her feet to journeying after an underwhelming semester at the University of Delaware. It was in the mildly Bohemian years that followed that she met Dana Dickieson in Hamilton, Ontario. He was the love of her life, and together they moved to his family farm in New Glasgow, Prince Edward Island.

Mom & Dad in field_editedJanet and Dana were married in 1974 and she took the world by storm. Janet began to get involved in the social issues in her community in creative ways. After attending the University of Prince Edward Island as a young mother (BBA, 1984), she turned to progressive politics. Janet was truly a trailblazer, helping to introduce the New Democratic Party to Islanders by running federally in 1984 and provincially in 1986. She was the first woman to run for the PEI NDP and was instrumental in changing the way Canadians understood their relationship with politics.

With the birth of William “Riel” Norgrove Dickieson in 1987, Janet turned from public life to a renewed engagement with the Island’s private sector. There was tragedy, then, that stilled all our feet. On a cold February day in 1990, with Tina and Brenton at each side, she buried her beloved Riel and Dana.

The road goes ever on, and after supporting her children through high school, Janet loaded up her little Dodge and went west. She finally settled in Calgary, where she spent much of the next decade as CEO of the Western Stock Growers. Her home in Calgary became a second space for both Tina and Brenton, who had made southern Alberta home for a little while.

The east called again. Brenton and his family returned to Charlottetown, PEI, and Janet settled in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Soon Tina found her way there too, establishing a family of her own. Janet managed a prominent university research project, and created a community of friends and family – most important of these her two grandsons, Nicolas (age 11) and Hunter (15 months). These were strong years for our family, and once again Janet’s little apartment was a sanctuary, and included Janet’s daughter-in-law (Kerry) and son-in-law (Jerry).

For us children, and for others, Janet was the first feminist in our lives, the first teacher, a great risk-taker, a committed activist in whatever she chose to do. She was fierce in love and debate and friendship, able to carry a great weight of pain through her life and to finish that journey in a way that was a powerful testimony to everyone in her life. She faltered at times. Somehow, though, she found strength to continue on, often leading others on a path she did not know.

Cancer is its own journey, and sometimes a destination. Eventually, it was cancer that brought us all to Janet’s bedside at St. Martha’s hospital. We were celebrating, as we often did on a night when we could gather. We sprang for the $18 wine, this time, and local beer, and take-out that filled the ward with smells of garlic and curry. We tilted beer bottles and lifted wine glasses and paper cups to Janet’s life. And while we were celebrating, she tried to slip out without us noticing, journeying on to whatever comes next. It was her way, after all.

We are sad that we will not be able to journey with Janet anymore, but glad that she made the trip worth it, and was with us when she could.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments