Dear Adventures in Odyssey: I Love You, But It’s Complicated

“Did you know that Lizzie used to work for Focus on the Family?” he said, she said, with a gleam in their eyes.

It’s not a secret, my internship from last decade, but it doesn’t come up often. When it does, though, it’s a conversation starter, a newsworthy item for my friends to pass along. I don’t fit their picture of someone who once worked there, you see.

Even at the time, I didn’t really think of myself as working for Focus on the Family (FOTF). I was there for Adventures in Odyssey; nothing else at the organization held much appeal.

With the Odyssey crew
With the Odyssey crew at the end of my internship (2009).

Adventures in Odyssey (AIO or Odyssey for short), Focus on the Family’s seminal children’s radio drama, turns 30 this year – today, in fact. On this day in 1987, a 25-minute episode aired about a boy named Davey who feels like a failure until kindly shop owner John Avery Whittaker (“Whit”) helps him realize his worth as they invent something that goes wrong before it goes right. The story, set in the small, Midwestern town of Odyssey, is bookended by a skit with the show’s host, Chris, who tells a story about Abraham Lincoln to reinforce the theme. “Whit’s Flop,” that very first episode, aired one year and four days before I was born, and all my life the show and I have been moving in tandem toward our own milestones.

Can I say I like Odyssey but not Focus on the Family, as I would say I like Jesus but not Christianity?

No, I didn’t think so.

It’s a poor comparison anyway. Odyssey was birthed from Focus on the Family and, like it or not, is a product of its parent organization. Jesus, however, wasn’t always entangled in Christianity, especially not Christianity as we know it today. But that’s another topic for another time.

I do know that I’m not the only one who has been able to partition the two, approving the one and rejecting or ignoring the other. A college roommate was vocal about her dislike for Focus on the Family, but made an exception for AIO.

Even when I was jumping at the chance to be an intern for my beloved radio drama, back in the day when I believed what everyone I knew growing up believed, I was still taken aback by the interview question asking “what my opinions were on the five major issues most important to Focus on the Family.” I bumbled through the answers I knew they expected of me, without much thought as to whether they were really my answers.

Lately, it’s gotten harder to separate the AIO from the FOTF. But once upon a time, it was just Odyssey tapes, Odyssey at 4:30 on the radio, Odyssey before bed and on car rides, and, later, Odyssey on message boards and at events. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

From its earliest days, Adventures in Odyssey has employed some of the best and most versatile voice actors in the business. This is not hyperbole. The show’s main actors include (or have included) Hal Smith from the Andy Griffith Show, who also lent his voice to Beauty and the Beast and An American Tale; Alan Young, best known as Wilbur in Mister Ed and as Disney’s Scrooge McDuck; Will Ryan, featured on The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin; Katie Leigh of Totally Spies; Chris Anthony, the former voice of Barbie; and Jess Harnell with his hundreds of film credits, including Wakko Warner in Animaniacs. These actors and many others have or had extensive careers, spanning decades, and it still chokes me up how many of these people have passed away since I first “visited” Odyssey. I have met many of the actors as an adult, but I was too late for some of them.

Me and Will Ryan
Meeting Will Ryan, voice of Eugene Meltsner (and writer Paul McCusker, in the background), at the 20th anniversary live show (2008).
Me and Katie Leigh
Spending time with Katie Leigh, voice of Connie Kendall, when she came to speak at my college (2011). Photo by Cara Strickland.

I once joined a Facebook group that probably doesn’t exist anymore, about how “Adventures in Odyssey was the soundtrack of my childhood.” I didn’t grow up with Saturday morning cartoons or Boy Meets World or whatever else my peers were watching in the ‘90s. Odyssey was a cozy backdrop to my life, but it was just a backdrop in many ways, piping from the tape deck on the dining room windowsill while I would color and make lists and watch fat squirrels eat birdseed from the feeder in the backyard, filling my long-term memory and stealing my heart.

Later, I would discover Odyssey’s ability to keep me on the edge of my seat, I would get up early on Saturdays to catch the new shows, I would pull out my old cassettes with stronger feelings, I would catch the pop culture references that had once eluded me. Still later, on the verge of college and the verge of leaving Odyssey behind me, I found a fan message board, and everything dormant and untapped in me found its home and sprang to life.

AIO live show
At the 20th anniversary live show (2008). Pictured from left to right (on the stage): Chuck Bolte, Will Ryan, Katie Leigh, Dave Madden, and Jess Harnell.

In 2008, my first visit to Colorado for the 20th anniversary live show became one of the best weekends of my life. I met the actors, the writers, and fellow fans, many of whom I’m still in touch with. In 2009, I spent my summer interning for Odyssey and administrating the above-mentioned message board, and then returned to college and promptly started a club for fellow fans. We made video reenactments and went on a road trip to Colorado and even brought one of the main actors to our Indiana campus to speak in chapel.

This was the zenith of my love for the show, and my nostalgia for that time of my life is matched only by my nostalgia for the show itself.

I was never on fire for Jesus, not really, but I was on fire for Adventures in Odyssey.

Life seems a simpler place when you know what you love and you have ways of expressing that love.

I wouldn’t go by “Lizzie” now if it weren’t for the show, and I might not be living in Colorado. I might not have changed my major to media communication or worked in radio or spent three months in China or done a whole host of other things. Adventures in Odyssey helped me keep my head above water in times of deep depression. It brought about friendships that never would’ve formed otherwise, leadership roles I never would’ve accepted. Directly and indirectly, I have Odyssey to thank for so much joy in my young adult life. I will never forget this. To me, Adventures in Odyssey is much more than the sum of its dialogue.

Adventures in Odyssey Club party
The Adventures in Odyssey Club at our first Christmas party (2009).
Club with AIO showrunners
The AIO Club meeting showrunners Dave Arnold and Paul McCusker (2011).

And it was a dream come true to meet the people behind the voices and the people who wrote and directed and made magic with sound, to work with them in some cases, to go behind the scenes, to know and be known. They are lovely people, thoughtful and professional and funny.

As for the episodes themselves, the writing quality ebbs and flows, as it does in any long-running production, but I’ve found a lot to appreciate: How to craft a story arc, how to tell a story with sound, how to move forward when the actor who plays the main character dies suddenly.

I haven’t listened to any new episodes for a few years. This is partly because the aura of nostalgia is missing with the newer shows. Every semi-reboot has sawed off more of the glue binding my fate to the fate of the show, which I suppose is only natural when the child grows up but the show does not. I am also skeptical about any program’s ability to carry on indefinitely and still remain a high-quality production. The longer I listen, the more déjà vu I experience.

When I was younger, I hoped Odyssey would still be producing new episodes if and when I had kids. Now, if I ever have kids, I would want them to listen to some episodes but not others.

You see, I am not only out of the target age range, I am also out of the target ideology range. The segment of Christianity that AIO is a spokesperson for is one I am no longer a spokesperson for. I used to think Odyssey was good at avoiding denominational squabbles and sticking to the basics of the faith. However, because this show and its parent organization focus on conservative evangelicals and conservative evangelicals focus on them, it’s a narrow list of squabbles that are avoided, a narrow list of “basics” that are adhered to. Christianity has many different expressions, interpretations, and practices, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to the show.

In this make-believe world, the conservative Christian worldview and its applications have no baggage, no side effects, and no viable alternatives. All the characters are so nice and well-meaning, their faith clean and tidy and straightforward. There are some episodes that show a cognizance of the things we do not know and that hold certainty loosely, but the farther I get from my “on fire” days, the fewer stories I see, past or present, that do a good job managing that tension. More often than not, it’s oversimplifications and assumptions, and even though I find it’s usually lines here and there that trouble me rather than whole storylines or episodes, those lines add up.

This is not an “open letter” or a rant. I am not going line by line through episodes to point out everything that makes me cringe now. I know everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. Odyssey has gotten better over the years at portraying more diverse characters, more diverse families, but I still see room for improvement.

I have deeper problems with Focus on the Family as a whole, of the choices they make politically and the ways they choose to engage culture and the world. Their pictures of the ideal world or family or culture are not my pictures. When I listen to AIO now, I notice things I didn’t notice before.

Sometimes, though, I am noticing good things. I recognize how a three-part mystery from the mid-90s is all about championing differently-abled people. I am moved by unflinching stories about the Underground Railroad and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. I appreciate the nuanced handling of subjects such as forgiveness, doubt, and grief. I go on everyday adventures with the characters as they take vacations and learn how to drive and fall in love. I go on extraordinary adventures with them as they solve decades-old mysteries and foil the bad guys who want to take over the world. And the best of the Bible story adaptations capture a glimmer of why Jesus is so appealing to so many people.

I can’t help it. I will always love Adventures in Odyssey, even when I have trouble liking it. Whit and Connie and Eugene, Tom and Bernard, Jack and Jason, Jimmy and Donna and George and Mary, they all feel like real people, real friends and family members, even when they fight, or maybe especially when they fight. I’ve seen the same warmth and camaraderie in the recording studios as I see in what comes out of those studios, that sense of connection that we all long for, and this is perhaps the epicenter of my nostalgia.

I would like to think that if these characters became living and breathing people, they would not fall prey to the us-versus-them polarization rampant in our country today. I would like to think that I could have a conversation with Whit or Jack, that, despite our differences, we could sit down over milkshakes for a heart-to-heart, and they would really listen, and by understanding more of the Other with our heads and our hearts, we could change the world a little at a time.

Happy birthday, Adventures in Odyssey.

 

All my Odyssey possessions
Posing with all of my Adventures in Odyssey gear for a contest (2008).

Life on autopilot: it’s time for a change

Wednesday was one of those days where I felt everything, and I’m so grateful.

I sat in my swivel chair, shut tight in the little studio while instrumental Christmas carols filled the room and the waveforms rose and fell right along with them. In between pushing record and stop and occasionally adjusting the volume, I was reading Liz Curtis Higgs’ book The Women of Christmas.

Somehow, we received quite a few copies of that book here at the station, and so one day a couple weeks ago, I found that shiny red hardback in my box. A new resource! I thought, admiring the Christmassy cover.

There are many Advent resources, I’ve found.

Perfect for this girl who’s bringing Advent to the late-night hours of a small Christian radio station.

So there I was, reading The Women of Christmas while the music played, and I felt it, all of it.

The Christmas story was alive in my heart, and I wasn’t reading it just so I could pull out a few quotes for my radio show.

The night before, I had been reading another book, and I was having trouble getting into it. At the back of my mind were thoughts like maybe I can pull something out of this for my blog and how can I use this in my writing/teaching/speaking?

This is why I’m not a fan of writing book reviews. The knowledge that the book review is waiting for me just past the last page, and demanding a solid analysis and arguments, distracts me from being able to fully enjoy, immerse, be. That tendency to turn everything into a performance is already there; why exacerbate it?

So there I was, reading this book, Grace for the Good Girl, and I finally gave myself grace. I finally let go and let myself read without the pressure of having to remember everything or be able to regurgitate it later. It was wonderful.

My days of being are few and far between.

I’m too much about lists and tasks and getting five things done at once. And usually, those five things can all be done with the help of a mouse and a keyboard. I’m convinced that all of this, all the lists and the task orientation and the spending all my free time in front of the computer, dulls my mind and heart.

And honestly, I’m already tempted to believe my life right now is dull.

I am 25 years old, and I live at home with my parents, and even though I have a job and a blog and a group of youth group kids I love, my life is safe, easy and predictable.

And what do I do? I dull it still further.

I want my life to count, even now in the in-between and the over-familiar.

I’m on autopilot right now, and autopilot is easy. But autopilot steals my humanity, one hour at a time. It steals my ability to feel and think deeply, to empathize, to truly live life.

Wednesday was one of those days where I felt everything — the Liz Curtis Higgs book, the words and Scriptures and thoughts I spoke into the microphone — was fully present, and felt like a person, not a robot.

This brings me to today, and this weekend.

I’ll be spending a good part of this weekend in a car, and after two and a half hours of sitting in the dark thinking, I already feel emotionally and spiritually rejuvenated. This is going to be a healing weekend, I can tell.

It’s too soon to decide which attitudes and activities need to be replaced in the long-term, but I think it’s time to take a break from this blog. I was already going to take two weeks off for Christmas, since I’ll be on vacation in England, but I think it would be healthy for me to start my blog vacation early.

Blogging has become more about lists and tasks and social networking, more about trying to turn barely processed thoughts into polished writing, more about analyzing my life while I’m living it than it is about the sheer joy of writing. I need time to think and pray and be. I need time to rediscover my love of writing, and to decide what role blogging should play in it right now. Does the activity need to change, or just the attitude, or both? I don’t know, but I need to turn off the autopilot to find out.

Thank you to all of you who have supported me in this journey. I hope that this time off is the start of something new.

Share-a-thon and Letting Go of Control

microphone

I can’t make things happen. At least, not in an honest, relationships-driven environment.

I don’t think I’ve ever realized this more acutely than during our Share-a-thon fundraisers here at the radio station (we’re just finishing up our fall Share-a-thon today). We ask people to call in, we say the phone numbers every few minutes, we remind them that any amount helps. We encourage, we invite, we repeat, we sound as interesting and persuasive as we can.

Yet even with all this, sometimes nobody calls.

It’s humbling to realize that I can’t control the pace and progress of Share-a-thon as much as I would like to think I can. I can say what I think are “all the right words” in “all the right ways,” but they don’t always bring about the desired results.

And then I had an epiphany. I realized that I enjoy Share-a-thons much more when I let go of this semblance of control. Sure, I would prefer it if people called more often and Share-a-thon wasn’t a two-weeks-long endeavor. However, I don’t want it to be all about the numbers.

It’s so easy to make it all about the numbers, though — to get excited about the matching challenges and the ringing phones and the changing numbers on the screen when we’re gliding effortlessly to the next milestone … and to get discouraged about the silent phones and the unchanging numbers when the next milestone seems stubbornly elusive.

Certainly we can’t forget about the numbers in a fundraiser. But we’re a ministry, and being people-focused means more than just saying all the right words when the microphones are on. I’m more interested in saying the real words.

That’s why I want to focus on being myself and having good conversations. I want to laugh and reminisce and learn more about my co-hosts and our in-studio guests (many of whom are involved in local ministries). I want to be more people-driven than results-driven. I want to be real and not just speak in cheery cliches and “right answers.” When callers do join us on the air, I want to really listen to what they have to say. Yes, I will say the phone numbers often and update you on the stats and invite you to call to “help us out financially” or “share your story.” But I will try not to define the success or failure of my airtime by the numbers. It’s a conversation, not a performance or a sales pitch.

This isn’t so easy. Especially when you’re tired and Share-a-thon is overstaying its welcome and you’re running out of words and starting to feel disingenuous. Combining fundraising and ministry isn’t easy.

But I’ve committed to showing up and sitting in front of the microphone and talking for three or four hours every day. It’s not up to me to make things happen, but I can be there and share from my heart and create a space where you can share from your heart too, and that’s what really matters.

It’s up to God for the rest.

(photo credit)

10 Things I Learned in August

Hello! Today I’m linking up with one of the bloggers I follow, Emily P. Freeman, and others to share with you ten things I learned in August. Some of them are silly, some of them are serious, some of them are informative, but all of them are true. Enjoy!

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1. Playing the License Plate Game around my town all month taught me about living life as an adventure right where I am.

It started out as just a fun experiment: How many different license plates would I see in my own area? (quite a few, it turns out!). Through that experience, I learned that “wherever you’re doing life can be a place of adventure, if you let it.”

2. This proud INFJ/P finally found out the Myers-Briggs personality types of the rest of her family.

Upon my request, they all took (a free online version of) the test. This was a wonderful sight to see:

Family taking Myers-Briggs test

3. A good time to read magazines is while brushing my teeth.

And by “brushing,” I mean brushing, flossing, rubber-tipping, and tooth-picking. I obey my dentist scrupulously. At least, I do now that I’ve invited all my mostly unread Relevant magazines to the party.

4. Joining Goodreads reminded me that I’m insecure about my opinions of books, afraid that my lack of well-reasoned opinions means that I’m not smart (and if I’m not smart, then what?).

I wrote a blog about this recently that resonated with a few people.

“Do I really think that book deserved 5 stars? So-and-so gave it a 3, and, knowing her, she probably had good reasons for doing so. I just click indiscriminately based on half-remembered impressions and loyalties, hardly a proper analysis at all! I can’t even tell you why I gave it 5 stars. What does this say about my tastes? etc., etc.”

5. It’s possible to talk to and pray “with” people who aren’t there and still sound conversational.

This sounds very schizophrenic, I know, but I have a reasonable explanation: I’m a radio host for a small Christian station. I talk between songs during the night, but it’s all prerecorded. So not only am I sitting in a room by myself talking into a microphone, but no one’s even listening on the other end of the radio at the time I’m recording. Still, though, I’ve been working on getting past my plan-out-everything-I’m-going-to-say tendencies and doing more paraphrasing, improvising, and overall just talking-like-I-would-to-anyone else. Some days it works better than others.

On a more serious note, it can be easy to get into a habit of just saying all the right, Christian-y cliches, but I don’t want that. I want the words I speak and the prayers I pray to come from a place of authenticity as much as possible for a radio show with this much on-air time. What good is sounding conversational if I’m just going through the motions?

6. How to get better gas mileage (and not get speeding tickets)

I have a tendency to do whimsical things (other people call them weird things) to save money, test my endurance, or otherwise conserve resources. Since I have to drive 30 miles (each way) to work, finding a way to spend less money on gas became my new mission.

  • Attempt #1: I didn’t use air-conditioning for two weeks, even though the temperature was usually pushing 100 (°F). Internet research, however, informed me that driving sans air-conditioning doesn’t make that big of a difference.
  • Attempt #2: I focused on driving slowly, accelerating slowly, turning slowly, slowing down, uh, slowly, and overall treating my sturdy car, Yipo, like he’s made of glass. Noticeable improvement, though not the best way to win friends and influence people on the road.
  • Solution: In order not to irritate other drivers, I no longer drive like a turtle. More like a squirrel (but one that doesn’t stop every five seconds). I still do everything slowly, but I don’t drive slower than the speed limit. Usually. When no cars are behind me or there’s a passing lane or a very steep uphill grade, I tend to revert to my newfound turtle-like ways.

7. If you actually want to remember what you read and enjoy the reading process, it’s probably not a good idea to catch up on 60+ blog posts in one day.

8. There is one youth group game, and one alone, that makes me incredibly sore for days afterward.

Picture this: empty plastic cups scattered purposefully around a room. Half are face-up, half are face-down. A motley group of people is divided in half and commissioned to turn the cups one way or the other. One minute on the clock, and … GO! And then sixty seconds of run-crouch-stand-run-crouch-stand. Three or four minutes of this is enough to remind me how out of shape I am. I still feel it in my legs, and youth group was on Sunday.

9. Carcassonne is a wonderful game.

Carcassonne
photo by Riebart on creative commons (flickr)

I’ll admit, this one’s more of a July discovery than an August one, but since I missed July’s link-up and I can’t not talk about this game, it gets a mention here. If you love Settlers of Catan, you’ll love Carcassonne too. And if you only moderately like Settlers, there’s still a good chance you’ll really like Carcassonne. Like Settlers, Carcassonne is a strategy game. Like Settlers, Carcassonne has a changeable board and involves building cities. But that’s where the similarities end. Carcassonne has less of a learning curve and is easier to jump into and actually understand most of what’s happening on the first go-around, but it’s no less strategic. Plus, there are many expansion packs out there to double the fun!

10. What the Rosary Belt is, why the Israelites started being called Jews, what the results of the Second Vatican Council were, and many other facts about the Bible, Christian history, and other countries.

This is because I decided to not only read standard devotionals for my radio show, but also paraphrases and excerpts from books on all these subjects (In case you’re interested: Christian History Made Easy, The One Year Christian History, What the Bible is All About, and Operation World: The Definitive Prayer Guide to Every Nation).

Oh, and the Israelites started being called “Jews” after they returned from the Babylonian exile because most of those who returned were from the tribe of Judah. The 10 tribes carried away by the Assyrians never returned.

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What did you learn this month?