Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving.

This Thanksgiving, I am appreciative of my wife & kids. Who could guess my fate if my wife hadn't had a little faith in me back in 1999, and said yes when I asked her to marry me. We had only been dating for a couple of weeks, and were only eighteen!

It's hard to be a young couple, and it's hard to be a young parent. You are forced to grow, and forced to get over yourself. You're forced to surrender to something bigger, and it is terrifying and wonderful.

My wife is beautiful, smart, and encouraging. When Barack Obama thanked Michelle during his acceptance speech, referring to her as 'the rock of our family', I welled up, because that is what my wife is to our family.

And my kids are amazing little people. They're creative, compassionate, and inquisitive. There is no greater blessing than being here to watch them grow up, and to grow into themselves. I am honored by my responsibility to them. They have filled my life with a meaning I know I would never have found elsewhere.

I don't know anything about God, or the ultimate meaning of it all. I am bad at math, am overweight, and have a short attention span. These are only a few of my many shortcomings.

But I am one lucky son of a bitch, and am profoundly thankful for the people I have in my life.

Find something in your life to be thankful for!

(If Bill Frisell can't get into you, you're locked up tight.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

3 am Reflection On Suffering

I think that I am either becoming a writer or a farmer, because I cannot help getting up at three o clock in the morning. The keyboard starts calling me in my sleep, and when I wake up, I find that the voice is still there. The keyboard has always called me to get out of my bed with good ideas, but I’ve always said, yes, that is a good idea, and I’ll type it in the morning. And then I would go back to sleep. But not now. Now I say, yes that is a good idea, and I get up and type it. I don’t think that money making is the difference between a hobbyist and a professional. I think it is a willingness to sacrifice something for x that makes someone a professional. If you’re willing to sweat for it (or bleed for it), then you are a pro. Congratulations heroin users and sex addicts! You are the real deal!

The ideas don’t fight me as much when I get up early in the morning for them. You should see me typing now! I am really going. I’m hunched over my computer screen, drinking occasionally from a big glass of 2 percent milk, wearing only a pair of boxer briefs and wrapped up in a big brown blanket with stylized penguins on it. I’m flying. The words are pouring out of my fingers. The muse is rewarding my self deprivation. I’ll be tired in the morning, but it will be a good tired. I’ll be more productive. I’ll go to the gym, do some homework, do the dishes, and take a nap. I’ll feel good about it.

So I am either becoming a writer or a farmer, or maybe I am just getting older and shouldn’t drink so much grapefruit juice before bedtime.

Here is the idea that lulled me from my cozy bed:

I am training to become a grief counselor. It’s important to think about grief, suffering, and happiness when you would like to do this for a living. Since thinking about those things is important, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject, and the most recent book I have been reading is Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen To Good People. It’s a sympathetic book whose thesis is basically this: God is not all powerful, otherwise bad things would not happen to good people. To maintain our faith, we must choose between an all -powerful God who is not totally good, or a totally good God who is not all-powerful. That’s it in a nutshell, and it is the theology Kushner crafted for himself to save his faith after his son died tragically young from a condition he did not deserve. Kushner looks around at all of the others who suffer, and this is the worldview that comforts him in the face of the random cruelty of nature.

With Kushner’s theology in my mind, I set about my business this morning. I checked my grades for an important class online, and discovered that I had failed a test. I walked into the kitchen and saw a pile of dishes waiting to be done. I knew that I had to read all of King Lear for a class that night, and had not even begun it. A pile of laundry waited for me in the basement.

Times are tight for my family right now, so instead of going to our regular grocery store, I went to The Family Dollar to get some dish soap for the dishes. Let me tell you, it did nothing to elevate my mood.

The people in the store looked like zombies, and they made me sad. I was beating myself up over my failed test. The weight of all of the debt I’ve accrued to get the degree I am working on was coming down hard on me. Not only am I responsible for myself, but I’m responsible for my children’s happiness and development too. When I failed that test, I also failed them.

I was totally projecting at this point. I looked at a middle aged man stocking the shelves in the back of the store. He was pale, and moved lethargically. I became that man. Flash forward to the future: I didn’t get into grad school--I didn’t even get my bachelor’s degree--and I was forced to become a manager at The Family Dollar. Not only was I just a manager at Family Dollar, I was an assistant manager. Not even the top spot.

I felt ill. I drove back home, filled up the sink with soapy water, and called a friend who is also a psychology major. I told him about my existential frustrations, and he quietly listened. I asked him how he managed to be so happy, and he said that he thought his happiness was based on the fact that he didn’t allow himself to worry about the silly things that most other people worry about. He used Eastern philosophy to gird his loins (to quote Joe Biden). He quoted something from a manga book he liked that he thought might be helpful to me: “You’ve got a good pair of legs beneath you. Use them.” He told me he thought God was not helping or hurting us, and that life on the whole was mostly good. He employed metaphors and analogies to illustrate his uplifting view, and I responded with a darker vision.

‘Life is a challenge.’ he said. ‘You won’t always be moving up. Sometimes you’ll plateau. As long as you keep working, eventually you’ll get to the top of the mountain.’ I said that this presupposes some kind of ultimate justice in the world. ‘Tell a kid who is born with his lungs outside of his body that life is mostly good. Tell that to his parents.’ I said. ‘Your effort is not guaranteed to ever move you forward. Look at Job. People get worn down. Instead of climbing a mountain, maybe life is like war. You’re behind enemy lines, advancing with your men towards the bad guys' fox hole. You keep advancing towards your target, but the more you move, the more tired you become. Maybe you get injured. You’re efforts are wearing you down. When you finally make it to the fox hole, you turn around. All of your men have been killed. You find yourself surrounded by the enemy. They take you below and execute you. All of your work has been for nothing.’

‘That’s a cynical view.’ my friend said.

‘I was only demonstrating the way this kind of thinking works.’ I said. ‘You’re tossing around these platitudes and mantras that are not based on anything, trying to tell me that everything will be alright if I adopt your worldview, but that is not guaranteed.’ I was becoming irritated with my friend. Who did he think he was? He hasn't had my experiences. He doesn't have my responsibility. Who was he to say I was misled in my sense of hopelessness? Essentially my thought boiled down to this: my pain is bigger than your pain. There can be a very masturbatory element to despair.

My friend didn't deserve my misplaced hostility, so I tried to back down and smooth things over. I re-interpreted what he told me into the same little pep-talk I give myself whenever I feel like I'm hitting the wall: Even if nothing is guaranteed, I have to keep working towards something, and I have to be hopeful. Life isn’t like war, or a mountain climb. Life is like life. The only alternative to feeling miserable and giving up is to keep moving. Watch the clouds pass in the sky. Like a twelve-stepper, you only have to get through today. Make today count. It's true that to climb out of a hole is to risk falling back in, but what is the alternative? I'm not staying in this hole.

A bunch of stuff like that.

It was good of my friend to listen to me, but I realize it wasn’t his philosophy I was looking for, but his empathy. The feeling that he was reinforcing his own views as he spoke to me tainted how I received his counsel: That’s a cynical way to look at things. and I don’t get worried by the silly things that worry other people. and You’ve got a good pair of legs beneath you, use them. This kind of ‘counseling’ is the same kind of counseling that Kushner derides in his book. To protect God, or the counselor’s faith, the counselors lay the blame at the foot of the person who is suffering. They create meaningless cosmic scenarios that justifies your suffering to themselves, and reinforce their own worldview. It's like saying to someone, 'It's God's will', or 'Pull yourself up by your bootstraps'.

Maybe God had nothing to do with my pain. Maybe I don't have bootstraps.

It’s true that in the end, all that Kushner offers is a rationalization to maintain his own faith. It’s one we could use too, if it appealed to us. But a bigger message in his work is offered to those who would comfort than to those who grieve: You are not in the life of the grieving to philosophize. Their problems are not silly to them. They’re outlook--if it seems cynical--is validly cynical at that time. They need to be heard. They need to be allowed to construct a language specific to themselves and their specific scenario. Everyone grieves differently. The grieving don’t need a Wayne Dyer style lecture from their counselor, they just need attentive empathy and compassion.

Harold Kushner found a language for his suffering, and so has my friend. Both of these philosophies may be useful to someone at some time, but suffering is not a one size fits all endeavor. We can observe the tools that a person is constructing for themselves to create healing, and encourage their use. What we cannot do is assume that our personal tools will be useful to everyone, and must resist the impulse to use time that we are supposed listening to other people’s grief to work out our own issues, or to bolster our own beliefs.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I Know What I Know

“Give a man beans,
And he will fart for a day.
Teach a man to bean,
And he will fart for a lifetime.”

-Ancient wisdom from a formerly oppressed (but now exalted) minority group.

I’ve always been impressed by the male midlife crisis. This comes to me right now as Red Green is on in the living room at two-o-clock in the morning, and I am sitting on the toilet flipping through a copy of Robert Bly’s Iron John.

I don’t know where my fascination with this tumultuous period in the life of over-privileged (usually white) American males began. I’ve always been drawn to the writing of middle and late John Updike, middle and late John Cheever, and middle and late Saul Bellows. Garrison Keillor’s Wobegon Boy was a formative book in my early reading life. The Mia Farrow era films of Woody Allen are very effective to me, and everything Paul Simon has done from Graceland up ‘til now I have found nothing but engrossing. Denny Crane is the shadow id that Bly suggests most people drag around in a bag behind them most of their life, let loose.

Maybe it’s because I came of age during a period in history where our American president was famously going through a rather awkward and public mid-life crisis. Or maybe it’s because my own father was never self-indulgent enough to go through one. Consistent with our social class, he just seemed to plow on through the ripe crisis years. Maybe it’s because in high school I always seemed to be lucky enough to get jobs that were perfect for midlife men transitioning from their career into retirement, or possibly switching jobs so they could go back to school.

These men can seem wily. They seem to even surprise themselves with their impulsive ideology from time to time, and can be very convincing in the spirituality they discover as they re-evaluate their personal inventories, and try (sometimes desperately) to impart some newfound-- yet ‘ancient’--wisdom on the young men around them. Men in this period of their life often have a certain wild vibe about them. True, at no other point are they as likely to buy a Porsche or to date Scarlett Johansson. But it also seems to be at this age that a man may take a second deep breath in their life, the exhalation from which can be both life-saving from their perspective and inspirational from a third party perspective. I have learned a lot from such men.

If both the young earthers and the Mormons are right, the earth is only about 6,000 years old and our God is a relatively young one: maybe just now getting a touch of gray around the temples? What better time for a midlife crisis.

It would certainly explain the book of Job.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


I have two poems at the new online magazine Sir!, which is helmed by the lovely and talented Brian James Foley. It's good. Go see.

Friday, November 7, 2008


I've had Farewell To Sorrow for years now, but this particular song has never hit me quite the way it did today. I was driving my son & dog back from a little rainy day hike, listening to a mix cd I made awhile back and forgot about. This song came on (the studio version), and it just saturated me, heightening all of the little pleasures I was experiencing.

Music is amazing: it's the most persuasive argument for the existence of God that I can imagine.

"Carousing all the evening and the drinking of the wine,
The dancing and the winching and the ladies in line.
But we'll be lying idle in the morning of the day,
Carousing, carousing, carousing away!

And I love to see you angry, then I know you are alive.
And you're already rowdy when the flash girls arrive.
But we'll be lying idle in the morning of the day
Carousing, carousing, carousing away!

I feel the sickener run in my veins,
Holy pulse-quickener, easer of pains,
Knower of knowledge and namer of names,
Worker and shirker and player of games.
Oh holy pulse-quickener, how can this be
That that which unveileith doth also deceive?
Open the bottle and let the wine breathe,
Open the bottle and let the wine breathe."

-Carousing, by Alasdair Roberts

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Not Everything Went Well Last Night

California Appears Likely To Ban Gay Marriage

It's sad to me that married couples in California were forced to go door to door to ask their neighbors to allow them to remain married, and it's even sadder that their neighbors' resounding answer seems to have been 'Not on your life'.

I fail to see how two willing individuals entering into a marital contract has any negative impact on the economy, foreign relations, or democracy as a whole.

In fact, I would be willing to argue that allowing homosexuals to marry would actually have a positive impact on our society: It is good when families are formed, and families have a vested interest in the success of the society to which they belong. It would also be good for democracy, and would add credence to that often bandied about idea regarding 'Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'

Religious fundamentalism is the bottom line here. It shackles us, and makes us fearful and hateful of those who believe differently than we do. It encourages an arrogance that parades as humility while simultaneously looking for the blackness in the souls of those around us.

Until we stop making our decisions based upon the teachings of thousands-of-years-old fairy tales, there will always patches of darkness obscuring our potential.

Andrew Sullivan offers consolation for those hurt by this undemocratic vote.

The American Dream

This morning I was able to tell my seven year old son (the biggest Obama supporter out there) that his guy won. A big smile broke out on his face, and we hugged.

It was a great election contest, between two decent men. Watching the reactions of voters who felt newly enfranchised last night on T.V., I couldn't help but cry tears of joy for them, and for us all. I am hopeful for the country that my children will inherit.

Here's to that future.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For

I liked this little anecdote that Norm at One Good Move posted recently:

"I just had to share this with you. I was talking to a family member about the election tomorrow, and said that it looked like his candidate, John McCain, would probably lose. He agreed it didn't look good and then said, "be careful what you wish for, if Barack is elected the country will suffer." I said, "I can't see how it could be worse than the last eight years." "Oh yes," he said, "It could get much worse." I asked how, and he replied that we could end up like Sweden.

I laughed, I couldn't help myself. "Like Sweden," I said, "I'll take it."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Reading The Greats

I want to build something sturdy and wooden
like the desk you write on.
You built it on some weekend long ago,

and it is still so solid.

I could confidently jump up and down on its top
without fear of injury to me,
or fear of damage to it.

I want to build something like that.

And I will work on my car the way you work on yours,
and I will ignite glorious revolutions every day!
All while posing gallantly as the sun rises behind me.

And I will wear a careful beard.

And my eyes will squint, that old craftsman's wink:
born of a need to keep sawdust out of your eye,
but suggestive of so much more.

A man of grit will do what he has to do.

And hats! I want to wear hats unselfconsciously,
like they fit, like I belong in them. Same as you.
I will walk around town with my hat at an angle,

so everyone know's I'm game.

To watch you chop wood in the early morning is to behold
A rare art:

Your long, even strokes. The way you grunt as you dislodge
The blade from the stump...Masterful. It goes without saying
That you take your coffee black.

You belong to a better time, so I'm sending you back:

No hurry, but I've packed your bags. Feel free to write.
There’s some jerky in your coat pocket for the journey,
prepared by my wife.

It's not too far back to the bookshelf.

You should be able to make it by nightfall if you leave now.
At the very least, you'll make it to the bed stand:
It's been a long day. I wish you could've stayed longer,

but you were making me feel like a chump.