lenten journal: mob and masterpiece


    Here’s what I learned yesterday: f you want to fill up your restaurant on St. Patrick’s day – at least in the Boston area – serve corned beef and cabbage (we threw in some roasted potatoes, carrot ribbons, and diced turnips) at a bargain price (all for $9.95, with dessert) and the joint will fill up.

    How do we do it? Three words: volume, volume, volume.

    Though I will admit to liking the taste of corned beef, I don’t really get the attraction of a boiled dinner, as they call it around here. Dropping anything, other than pasta, to cook in boiling water is my least favorite form of cooking. It’s easy, yes. As Robert said last night, you don’t really have to worry about anyone sending the plate back to see if you could boil it a little longer. Any other day of the year, we could put it on the menu and sell about two orders, but on St. Patrick’s Day that’s what everyone wants — that and a pint o’ Guinness or green beer, answering the question: if everyone was eating a plate of boiled stuff would you do it.


    I woke up before Ginger this morning and came downstairs to feed pups and read something to wake my mind up so I could come back up to my computer and write before I go back to the restaurant for a day that will involve far less water in our cooking. While the pooches were having breakfast, I picked up this month’s copy of Harper’s Magazine, one of my favorites, and turned to an article by Bill Wasik entitled, “My Crowd Or, Phase 5: A report from the inventor of the flash mob.”

    A flash mob, according to the OED, is “a public gathering of complete strangers, organized via the Internet or mobile phone, who perform a pointless act and then disperse again.” By the time the dictionary had come up with a definition, the concept was passé, at least according to Wasik. For him it was a “vacuous fad . . . intended as a metaphor for the hollow hipster culture that spawned it.”

    In the short life of the Flash Mob, they did some fun things in New York. My favorite was the word went out to descend on the lobby of the FAO Schwartz toy store in Times Square and – at a designated moment – everyone was to fall to their knees before the giant Tyrannosaurus, cowering and moaning as if they were the road company for King Kong. They did if for exactly six minutes and then all got up and left the store.

    I hate to tell Wasik, but my brother was way ahead of him. In 1972 or 1973, when Miller was a student at Fondren Jr. High, he organized a locker slam during passing period. The school had those old clocks where the minute had jumped from one to the next. At lunch one day, he and his friends wondered if they could organize something by word of mouth. So they started telling people to slam their lockers at 1:32, the minute in the center of the passing period. He said, at 1:31 he noticed how many people were standing at their lockers. When the clock jumped, the halls reverberated with the mob action and everyone quickly moved to class.

    Miller was never particularly philosophical about the incident; Wasik is talking about these kinds of human actions as artistic in some sense. He talks about seeing his actions as being connected to the experiments of Stanley Milgram, who did sociological experiments deindividuation (people’s inhibitions melt away when we don’t stand out) in the fifties; he also talks about Milgram’s work as art:

    The Milgramite tradition in art would be defined, I think, by the following premise: that man, whom we now know to respond predictably to social forces, is therefore himself the ultimate artistic medium.

    When he begins to think as an artist, Wasik makes an interesting claim:

    It is precisely here that we who would make Milgramite art must keep vigilant: in resisting simple story lines and embracing, instead, the ambiguities in our data.

    Thursday night we had a dinner at church – an unboiled one – to look at data from the US Congregational Life Survey we took back in November. We have more numbers and graphs than we know what to do with. The suggested interpretation is one of appreciate inquiry, which means starting with our strengths as a way of looking at how we can grow. I was surprised to see not everyone appreciates that approach. Our default setting, it seems – at least for groups that gather as church – is to focus on what we are doing wrong and try to fix it.

    That’s not the way to make art.

    I got a note from a friend this week talking about her aversion to organized religion. Though I have spent a lifetime in church, I share the same aversion. Organized religion, to me, has little to do with the creative and artistic expression that comes out of a shared expression of faith as we seek to learn together how to tell our story and embrace our ambiguities. Organized anything is designed to erase, or at least ignore, anything that is the least bit ambiguous. Organized religion is not church in its truest and most creative sense.

    When asked why they come to church, I have never heard anyone say, “I just love the way it’s organized.”

    I’m preaching tomorrow and the story I’m telling is Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, which is his own encounter with a flash mob. The crowd kept growing and following, until he realized he needed to do something about feeding them. The disciples couldn’t see beyond organizing a meal as a logistical nightmare, as well as a budgetary crisis. Jesus saw it as a creative relational opportunity: here was a chance for everyone to see how our faith leads us to feed one another.

    There were even leftovers.

    At the end of “Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie finishes his wonderful subversive story by encouraging a flash mob of his own:

    And the only reason I’m singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if your in a situation like that there’s only one thing you can do and that’s walk into the shrink wherever you are ,just walk in say “Shrink, You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.” And walk out. You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both nuts and they won’t take either of them. And three people do it, three — can you imagine — three people walking in singing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day — I said fifty people a day — walking in singing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends, they may thinks it’s a movement.

    I don’t want to be a part of an organization; I want to be a part of a movement, a creation, a work of art. Maybe I need to make a substitution for the first hymn in the morning. Come on, sing with me:

    “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant.”



    1. Nothing like a little Arlo in the morning. Thank you for that. My favorite Alice’s Restaurant quote, which I have used more than once, as an email signature or an epigram for an article or short story, is this one:

      You wanna end war and stuff, you gotta sing loud.

      Keep singing loud, Milton.

    2. Thanks yet again for this Milton. I really like the guys over at ‘www.improveverywhere.com’ so I was interested in the idea of Flash Mob (which was new to me).

      ‘That’s not the way to do art (or Church)’ was very apt.

      I so enjoy sharing your lenton journey.

    3. Yeah, this is just getting funner and funner. This journal is bursting with love and hope.

      Thanks for the article on appreciative inquiry, there is a wonderful organization called World Neighbors (wn.org) that uses an approach toward working with marginalized communities in rural Asia, Africa and Latin America that strikes me as very similar. World Neighbors begins work in the very poorest of communities by making an inventory of the strenghts and skills that community members possess.

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