Thursday, May 28, 2015

Faith and Flannery

“Writing is dead.”
“The intellect is empty.”
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
“You have to show the rot.”

Flannery O’Connor, the lupus-addled queen of “Southern Gothic” literature, either wrote, said or inspired these quotes, all of which were mentioned during a fascinating hour-long exploration of "A Prayer Journal," O’Connor’s diary of sorts during her time as a graduate student in Iowa.

A panel of three -- an English professor, a theology professor, and an up-and-coming controversial Southern female author and critic -- regaled a crowd of some 200+ people at a downtown Chattanooga event by doing nothing more than sharing their insights and opinions about the intersection of faith and Flannery.
"At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily." - FO'C
Having read only one FO’C short story in my life, my motive for attending was not as a fan of hers, but as someone hungering for something spiritual, and knowing that I am often most spiritually engaged when my intellect is put to work. Intellectual challenge is increasingly difficult to find in churches, which have fallen victim to the same challenge of “lowest common denominator” approaches to group structures (think: education, television) focused more on growth in numbers than on the meaningful edification of those present.

I’ve long resigned myself to believing that my church, and most churches, are not interested in (or perhaps capable of) offering the kind of experiences that feed my spirit: rigor, discussion, debate. Wrestling with difficult subjects not for the purpose of being injected with marching orders, but for the purpose of determining for ourselves what our marching orders should be.

But the Flannery O’Connor event gave me pause. Here was an intensely intellectual exploration of a faith-based topic, presented with zero flashy entertaining spectacle, and over 200 people were packed into the space to be a part of it.

The evening began by focused on O’Connor’s younger hangups. Her sense of inferiority to other writers… or was it mock humility as she developed a public “personae” of herself? Her fear and distrust of intellectualism and psychology. Her struggle with the fear that her talents as a writer clashed with her responsibilities as a Christian.

The most meaningful part of the night was arguably the most controversial. Author Jamie Quatro expressed her frustration over the existence of Christian book publishers, the notion that publishers would seek to categorize and “predestine” books to be deemed Christian in nature. Her frustration -- one I share -- is that segregating books in such a way is a lazy way to feed your faith.

In the real world, the challenge for a mindful Christian is to actively seek out the divine, or the lack of it, in our everyday lives. In the people we encounter, the events we witness, the conflicts which arise. If we expect God to plaster PostIt notes on these moments as shorthand shortcuts that tell us where He exists and where He doesn’t, then we are asking to be lazy at best, and drones at worst.

If we want a prefab shortcut to the divine, it’s called the Bible, not the fiction section in LifeWay.

No book of the past decade has moved me or challenged me more, spiritually, than “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. I’m not sure whether the guy is a Christian, nor should it entirely matter. I only know that, when I experienced that book, I felt the presence of God amongst a fallen people… even if sometimes it was barely a pinprick of light in an auditorium of pitch dark.

One popular criticism of O’Connnor called her writing “technically excellent, but spiritually empty.” I couldn’t help but wonder what “spiritually full” looks like, exactly. Would it look like Dante’s “Inferno”? Would it look like “Paradise Lost”? Both of these are epic consequences of spiritual emptiness or rejections of the divine, written by devoutly religious men.

Because few things preoccupy a believer more than the consequences of disbelief or disobedience. Elsewise why wouldn’t Jesus focus the parable of the Prodigal Son on the boring life of the well-behaved son rather than share the details of the bratty jerk who went astray? Elsewise why would we rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints?

You can’t truly value the concepts of grace or redemption if you spend your life dancing with Care Bears on rainbows.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ina

There are those people in our culture who are so iconic that we need only hear their first name to know exactly we are talking about--politicians like Barack, Mitt, or Hillary, musicians like Neil or Bruce, Jimi or Joni, movie stars like Leonardo or Angelina, chefs like Emeril or Mario or Julia.

Or Ina.

If there is a true American hero in the kitchen, I would argue that hero is Ina Garten.  Some know her as "The Barefoot Contessa."  But if you use professional cookbooks and recipes at all, and someone says, "I'm making Ina's recipe for ________, " then everyone will know who you are talking about.

I don't know that much about Ina.  The conceit of her show, which I have watched perhaps about a dozen times, is that she is always cooking for some guest who is coming over, whet here it is her husband, Jeffery, home from work, or Eli Zabar, or her agent or a group of girlfriends.  Because Ina does what most of us who cook like to do--cook for others.  And for her, that means coming over to her house in the Hamptons, where the kitchen is always sunny and clean.

I also have one of her cookbooks, which I don't use all that often, even though it is a terrific book.

I have no idea if Ina is a chef.  I kind of don't think so.  She doesn't act like one.  Instead, she seems to be that "hostess with the mostest," the woman whose invite you crave because you know the food will be great, the drinks fresh and plentiful, and the entertaining so confident that everyone will be at ease.

She also doesn't strike me as a chef because her dishes are never that complicated.  And that's why I encounter her most on the Internet.  You see, Ina's name and recipes come up when you want to make a dish that is pretty well known--brownies, say, or potato salad, or boeuf Bourginon ( beef with wine).  When homes cooks like me search for ideas on dishes that are staples, at least, of our entertaining culture, a Google search may yield dozens or hundreds of hits.  My point, indeed the whole point of this blogpost, is that when that happens, you want to find Ina's version.

Here's what Ina Garten brings to the table (pun intended):

1.  She has an exquisite sense of taste, meaning her take on the dish will taste really good.
2.  Her ingredients and techniques are typically not difficult, exotic, or precious.
3.  She will offer some technique or tweak that makes the dish better than other versions of the recipes.

Case in point: I served her potato salad the other night to my friend who makes the best local potato salad I know.  He said, praising mine, "The key to great potato salad is getting the consistency of the potatoes just right."

I responded, "I made Ina Garten's version.  She boiled the potatoes until they are just tender, then drains them in a colander,chick she covers and lets steam for 15-20 minutes."

Now who thinks of that?  Not me.  I try to get the exact perfect potato while boiling and usually come up short (or overlooked and more like mashed).

The other great thing about Ina is that she goes "all in."  Sure, she has plenty of healthier meals, but if she is going to make a batch of brownies, they are going to have all of the fat, sugar, and calories to make hem the best brownies you've made.

America is full of celebrity chefs trying to dumb themselves down and connect with everyday cooks like you and me.  No thanks.  I'll take Ina's version any day of the week.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Didn't Know Or Didn't Care?

Yeah, this is one of my reductive philosophy posts, wherein I attempt to prove all of the world by reducing it to a single Either/Or proposition.  Which is a logical fallacy, by the way.

Still, during my recent wanderings through life, it strikes me that most of what befuddles us about the actions of others does indeed reduce to the single question (and, because I am male, I am using the male pronoun): Did he just not know or did he just not care?

Whether we are questioning our president or our waiter, ultimately, most of us will revert to one of these two positions.

Marie Antoinette's apocryphal response to being told that the French people "had no bread" and were starving, "Let them eat cake," conveniently covers both options.  In her bored world of privilege, if the story were true, she had absolutely no awareness of the living conditions of French peasants.  At the same time, the substance and diction of her response clearly indicates that she had no particular interest in their plight either.  She was beheaded.

There are a few things to clarify here.  First, the underlying implication of my question is that Man can be perfectly good, that all of his actions are not based on evil and sin, though they can be.

"Did he just not know?" is a question that assesses a person's ignorance.  But it does not excuse that ignorance?  Oh, no.  There's a subtle dose of "how clueless is this person" contained in the language of the question.  He should have known, shouldn't he?  And yet, coming as the first of the two questions, "Did he just not know?" also does allow for a way out.  Sometimes we just get bad advice.  Sometimes people were supposed to tell us something, but, for whatever reason, didn't.  Sometimes we don't know where to look.  In the dichotomy, I see this as the lesser of the two concerns, but maybe not by much.

"Did he just not care?"  Now, that's an interesting question because once you stare at it a bit, it breaks down in at least two ways.  First, was he just indifferent in a couldn't-be-bothered kind of way?  He didn't have time, it was beneath his pay grade, there were more pressing concerns, or, perhaps, was any sort of emotional involvement likely to get in the way of a decision that he thought he had to make.

But not caring can also imply callousness or even cruelty--the entire range from "what happens to other people is no concern of mine" to "they must be sacrificed."

What are we referring to?  These days, it might be the poor, it might be the third world, it might be the future generations who will suffer the effects of global warming.  It might be the guy who swung into your lane on the interstate or the family member who ate the piece of pie that you were saving in the fridge.

But probably not the latter two examples.  Most of us live in some greater or lesser degree of powerlessness which means that there is more power above us, and the people who are making decisions that affect us are making decisions that likely have long-lasting impacts.  In a pure, tangible sense, it is less likely that those decisions are made for our betterment.

If a decision is made that impacts a group of people, we can be pretty certain that before that decision was made, that bill was passed, that policy was instituted, that compromise was reached, that trade-off became acceptable, more powerful voices, interest groups, and egos got first considerations, which is why we are surprised, but should not be, when our leadership, national or otherwise, lets us down and leaves us questioning their motivation.

For as I suggested at the start, though, the idea that something is either/or, black or white, right or wrong is usually fallacious.  There are too many shades in between.  Did he not know or not care?  Well, both.  Probably.  Sadly.

Monday, May 25, 2015

I Want to See Dead People

"M. Night Shyamalan."

I'm ashamed that my first reaction to those words are to wince. I hear this guy's name, and these are my first thoughts:
  • "The Village" based itself around a surprise that surprised no one.
  • "The Lady in the Water" was one of fewer than two dozen movies I stopped before it was over.
  • "After Earth"... well, c'mon. I mean, just "After. Earth."
I wonder if M. Night will leave a film legacy the sports equivalent of Tom Brady or Pete Rose, where we'll one day get past the distractions of their failures -- not forget them, necessarily -- and smile at their achievements.

We can, as a cultural collective, see past Roman Polanski and Woody Allen as deeply flawed -- nay, arguably criminal -- characters to the creative genius that paints masterpieces on the movie screen. But can we see past a guy whose worst movies are as bad as his best movies are great?

I hope so. We've done it for Michael Caine, so why not M. Night?

Wrestling with a virus over the weekend and caged in my bedroom, "The Sixth Sense" called out to me on Netflix. Every year or so, I ask myself if M. Night's masterful trilogy of "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," and "Signs" holds up a decade later, or if they get flimsier over time. His stinkers ain't improving, but are these three regressing to the mean?

[NOTE: Many critics and fans didn't like Shaymalan's movies from the get-go, but all three were box office hits and earned 70% or higher "approval ratings" on Rotten Tomatoes.]

It seems like even those who think fondly of Saymalan's three movies think mostly of his gift with the Gotcha factor, his ability in those three movies to keep a plot-essential secret from the average viewer more often than not. Unfortunately, that overshadows other strengths.

The families at the center of these films are broken. By divorce, by separation, by death. Shaymalan's films look unflinchingly at a cruel world that, worse than indifference, often pushes against us. There's a dark, Stephen King-esque attempt to show the troubles of this world through the supernatural. And struggling against these forces is a family unit that is always breaking or broken. It's sort of an us-against-the-world, against-the-odds sort of thing going on, but the ghosts and arch-enemies and aliens are the fun wrinkle in the timeless tale.

What I most love about Shaymalan's trilogy is that, while Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson are the stars and, technically speaking, the protagonists, the children in the movies are the heart. They are the reasons the movies were written, the reasons the movies are so moving.

Struggles with belief are central to all the films, but it's not the belief in ghosts, or in superpowers, or in aliens. It's the struggle to believe in parents. If you wish to connect that to the supernatural, you could add it's about a heavenly father (or some variant), but even that distracts from the flesh and blood, parent and child internal war to remain connected, to believe in one another, to cling to that relationship above all other things.

When Cole confesses to his mother that he's been in communication with his grandmother's ghost, as they all wrestle to accept that there are complexities to love they will never fully grasp.

When Joseph points the loaded pistol at his father, desperate to believe his father is more than he seems, as the mother stands horrified and beyond awareness of the dramatic irony that her husband might well survive the shot.

When Rev. Hess, disconnected from his heavenly father, attempts to enjoy a "last supper" with his trapped family who are likewise disconnected from him, who need nothing from him so much as to know he believes enough in them to protect them, to help them survive.

Or when his son lies gasping for air in his arms, asthma stealing his lungs , as his father is powerless but for the soothe in his voice and the stroking of his son's hair.

These scenes, and these themes, are commonly mined, but rarely with the kind of genuine and deep optimism Shaymalan manages, a hope that requires trial, tribulation, doubt, and ugliness. His is an optimism that reminds us that the darkness shall not overcome it.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Bad Day Good

I look back over the mundane activities of the day with some satisfaction:

--sat with my father, as always on Sunday's, in Panera, talking of politics

--made potato salad for Memorial Day

--peeled the heads off of shrimp a friend brought me from the Gulf; froze the heads for stock and froze the shrimp for many uses

--cleared a lot of broken junk out of my car into a dumpster

--planted two lavender plants that have been sitting in store pots for weeks

--made quick dill pickles for the refrigerator

--pulled all of the lettuce that had bolted out of the garden

--watered the herbs that are struggling to grow in the drought that may already be upon us

--read In Style magazine with Mindy Kaling on the cover

--did not take a nap; instead loaded the dishwasher and went to the store to get things for a simple supper

--sat with my dog in a chair, playing a silly computer game

--prepared pork tenderloin for tomorrow's grilling

--took the slow road to the Fresh Market so that I could listen to Whiskeytown

--researched BBQ joints in Kentucky and Alabama

--put off Game Of Thrones to write this blogpost

All of these actions, like everything, have to do with time--tomorrow, next week, the summer ahead, now.

For the day began with the surprise news that a friend died yesterday while fishing, a friend only 63 years old, a good, spiritual man who had been spoken well of by another friend just last night.  And in the light of that, a friend and I sat tonight in the kitchen, talking of daily activities, and the ways that children were sad but already moving on, the ways that plans in place were still plans that were expected to happen, and the ways that even the two of us found ourselves referencing our own petty actions--the temptation of a sandwich, the caring for a sick grandchild, our summer plans, the ways that the days ahead would be changed by death.

"There is nothing that we can do," I texted later, "except to try to make the bad day good.  We have no other choice."


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Baked Beans Ain't Sexy

Put on a party where you make the main, or you are grilling out, or it is summer and there is meat, and ask people to bring some sides to go with it, and, well, there is one thing that I guarantee you won't get: baked beans.

Baked beans just ain't sexy.  People will bring their signature dessert, their potato salad or potato casserole, fruit, or a salad, bread or beer, long before they will commit to baked beans.  Even cole slaw, one of the most polarizing barbecue dishes of all time (I love it!) will get takers before those darned beans.

Here's the irony, though.  People eat them.  Even kids.  I was serving high school boys as part of an outdoor lunch a few weeks ago, with BBQ and chips and the like, and when the boys saw the beans, they were like, "Yeah, put some beans on my plate."  They just go with grilled or smoked meat, and even picky eaters know it.

That doesn't mean that your Aunt Edna has a recipe that she brags about or that you are willing to walk into a party with the "best beans in the world."  Instead, it seems like everyone hopes that someone else takes charge of the beans.

Maybe that's why a Southern chain like Sticky Fingers just opens a can of premade baked beans, heats them up, and serves them as if they are Sticky Finger's own, special beans.  At least that's what a server told me one time.  People just don't care.  They just want some beans or think that they should have some with their ribs.

Which doesn't mean that there aren't great baked bean recipes out there.  There are.  They probably have bacon layered on top or barbecue meat in them, a special "what is that ingredient" like pickle juice or dry mustard or, maybe, raspberry jam.  People who actually make baked beans, make them at home, tend to add all kinds of extras that really do make them special.

I used to simply add sliced hot dogs to mine and my kids, when they were young, would go crazy.  A hot dog is tasty, a slice of hot dog simmered in baked bean sauce can be transcendent.

Maybe it's the farting issue.  Beans make us fart, so if we bring beans to an event, then we are associated with that eventual farting, and that is not sexy.  But black beans, for example, can be kind of sexy, especially if you are dating a vegan.  Even pinto beans enjoy a certain elevated status, especially if they are refried in a Mexican restaurant or standing in for baked beans in a BBQ joint as "cowboy beans," soupy and laden with onion and cilantro.

Probably, it is more of a "throwback" issue that makes bringing baked beans somewhere a pariah's choice.  Baked beans were around long before blacks or pintos insinuated themselves onto the American bean palate.  Baked beans make us think of the Depression and they make us think of the casserole, and neither of those are in vogue these days.  It isn't cool to be impoverished (ask the ranks of the American poor), nor is it cool to cook a dish based on ingredients that come out of cans, like the 1950s.

Still, I'm serving barbecue tomorrow night in all its glory--pulled pork, smoked brisket, roasted chicken-- and you can be damn sure that I'm going to have baked beans to go with those offerings.  I'll leave the kiwi slices and the "Mom's famous" Mac 'n Cheese to my guests as they make their own statement with their fresh, deliciously-prepared offerings.

I've got a bunch of cans of beans, ready to serve, but which I will doctor with ketchup and mustard and brown sugar and hot sauce and pickle juice and onion and who knows what else?  And I'll probably bake them in the oven too long until the thick sauce I started with is but a coating for some Navy Beans prepared somewhere far away.  They won't be great.  They won't be special.  They will be more hit or miss than they will follow some recipe.

But you know what?  When they sit, steaming, in a large Pyrex dish as part of a variety of offerings, people will say to themselves, " Yeah, I think I'll have some beans."  And my beans will do the job.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Living In Other People's Homes

With the rise of VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) and other, similar sites, the idea of paying to use someone else's house for a couple of day or so, has become a new, and I would argue, strange normal.  Not that people haven't always rented out their places for various reason before, but now, that has become a kind of standard practice.

These rental properties tend to fall into two different camps. The first is the family home or vacation home that the owners open up for rental from time to time.  When you stay there, you enter a family space and live life as they might also when they are there.

The second is a vacation home that they still own, but it is largely stripped of any particular family personality.  If it does have that, it comes in the form of photographs and such, not clothes in the closet or personal items that the family will gravitate towards any time that they return.

Although, like most social changes, I was slow to the VRBO party, I have stayed twice this calendar year in other people's homes.

Now, don't get me wrong.  Renting someone else's home can be a very nice, even wonderful, experience, especially if you can set aside the financial expense of doing so.  But I also think that people, meaning me and mine, when they live in someone else's house, live differently, live in ways that are neither positive or negative, but simply are a bit askance from the ways that we might live in our own homes.  For example:

1.  When you stay in someone else's home, you always end up a bit amazed by their choices.  Last weekend, because I knew that I would be doing some serious cooking, I moved a lot of cooking items up to the the cabin we had rented.  Then I discovered that the place already had almost everything that I had brought, from electric appliances to spices.  I was thrilled.  And then I discovered that there was no vinegar in  the house, and very little sugar.  And I thought, What?

2. In someone else's house, you tend to be simultaneously careful and careless.  How is that possible? Well, consider this: the place we stayed had a great outdoor fire put, and in the course of getting that fire going one night, I knocked over and broke one of their solar-powered light that lights the path to the put.  I thought, that's a Target light, a cheap thing, and there is nothing I can do to save it.  At the same time, so many things inside the house, and especially in the kitchen, received the most careful care I am capable of.

3.  At someone else's house, you take liberties.  Because we had to pay an exorbitant fee for a rental during a college graduation weekend, my wife decided that she was going to do as much laundry as possible.  She washed everything.  She told my daughter, who was coming late, to bring more laundry.  Now, this wasn't entirely because of the price.  The reality is that doing laundry in the clean, carefree confines of someone else's house is more fun.  She does the same thing when she goes to her mother's.

4. Your hosts have gone out of their way to make your stay unique in tangible ways, but because they don't know you, how can they?  Last week's cabin had, among other things, a restaurant-style gaming table full of vintage games like Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga.  And when you get there, you say, "Wow! This place has a Pac-Man game and a ton of other games and books and great TV reception!"  And when you are leaving, you realize that you didn't use any of them.

5. Because, continuing #4, in many, perhaps most, locales, you rent a place to sleep in, not a place to live in during however long your prescribed stay is.  And that means that you are almost always out and about, not hanging out at the place.  And that means that many of its offerings, physical, natural, or equipmental (my word) end up having little or no relevance for you.  For example, you could rent the coolest home in the French Quarter, but if you go to New Orleans and spend most of your time in your hotel or rental home, you have likely wasted your time, unless it is your honeymoon.

6. Yes, rental homes have all of the amenities of home and then some (our most recent place had a paddle boat), but those amenities likely run counter to the reason why you are staying there.  So it becomes a Catch-22: do you take full advantage of your place or do you take full advantage of the area where your place is?  It is difficult to do both.

It's strange being in someone else's home.  For a good part of your stay, you feel like you own it.  And then, when you have to "return" it to its real owner, you kind of resent the work that you have to do to return it to that condition.  You don't want to give it up; you don't want to obey the house rules.  Because that would mean that it isn't yours.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Center of the Universe

"Woman (Oh Mama)," the first single from Joy Williams following the roller coaster crash that was the two-person, two-album event known as The Civil Wars, is about as subtle as a hand grenade in a barrel of oatmeal, as Foghorn Leghorn might say.

Let me show you where life begins
I am the universe wrapped in skin

Although the song is an assertive listing of all the things "Woman" is -- many of them contradictory yet accurate -- it is above all else a song about motherhood, the center of our mammal universe, the acknowledgement that without females, there is no life. God may well be a He, but without renting out space in a woman's body, "He" would never have been able to take human form.

Men have spent much of history demanding that we look upon their works with shock and awe, admiration and fear. My sister's favorite memory of me is when she was trying to potty train me, and she insists that once she convinced me that I was making something by dropping a turd into the toilet, I was good to go. Practically every time she sees me, she mocks my proud announcement, "I MADE ONE!" (Personally, I don't think it's nice to mock how one behaved when one was 12.)

Many men manage to move from making poop to making other things -- buildings, motorcycles, essays, nuclear weapons -- but men still tend to measure their lives by what they have built. Look upon my works...

For all that talk and fixation, however, we know where life begins, what must exist for life to continue. And the only part we play in furthering the species is the matchbox igniter.

We have enough sperm in banks that two generations of men could disappear in a "Left Behind" instant, and the human race would survive just fine. If the wombs disappear, however, we're done as a species.

When we celebrate Father's Day, most of us celebrate a priceless choice, the willful act of a man to engage meaningfully in the life or lives of his offspring (or in the lives of those he takes under a metaphorical wing).

When we celebrate Mother's Day, we celebrate a choice, yes, but also a non-negotiable necessity. We celebrate the single thing that moves, and has always moved, our species down the river of time.

Women are no longer defined by, or valued predominately for, their child-bearing abilities, thank God. The more advanced we become, the more bearing children is a choice that can be undertaken with certitude. The farther away we can get from the alternate universe of "The Handmaid's Tale," the better off we will be. If the consequence of this good evolution is to ruin all the hard work men have done to commodify our existence, most of us could live with that.

Over the weekend, the blogosphere -- or at least the version shared in my Facebook stream -- involved a lot of hemming and hawing about Mother's Day. Among the complaints and critiques are that celebrating mothers:
  • insults those who cannot bear children;
  • insults those who admirably choose not to bear children;
  • saddens those whose mothers have died;
  • saddens those whose mother is emotionally or physically abusive, neglectful, abandoned them, etc.
Lately, we can't seem to celebrate much of anything without being slapped in the face for our celebrations unintentionally slapping others in the face. The problem: celebration is a collective and unifying experience while sympathy far more effective when it involves a personal connection.

At our church Sunday during the Mother's Day service, a high school senior who hasn't attended much recently was there. I went out of my way to go over after the service and chat with him. His mother died in January. Something about this day called him back to our church, despite the fact that we would be, on some level or another, be celebrating mothers, despite the fact that the day would probably be made harder, possibly sadder, for being surrounded by so many mothers with their children in the pews.

I weep for that young man and what he has lost, and I hope for him. But to have that hinder our celebration of motherhood? Isn't that counterproductive, literally? Can't we celebrate, loudly and proudly as a culture if not a species, the one thing that we must have, indisputably, to be a culture and a species in the first dang place

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Adrift



Lately, I've felt adrift.

My 2015 music purchases are down to almost nothing, which might mean nothing to the average bear, but it's a red flag in my world. My blog writing has been practically non-existent, and what's worse is I haven't tried all that hard to write anything. All of my hobbies feel a bit stupid, even though they're not, even though they provide a kind of meaning and distraction for me.

Friend after friend, acquaintance after acquaintance, relative after relative is being diagnosed with one serious illness or another, most of them ending in the letters "-ancer," all of them either terminal or so serious that they don't want to talk about how serious it is, because they're trying to show a sort of love by not wanting to burden you with something you can't fix or bear for them.

My professional life is in an El Nina of uncertainty, as I bobble and roll between the beginning and end of my master's degree, learn to negotiate the waters of a new boss, watch as some boats sail into new distant waters and as I lose radio contact with other colleagues within eyesight. The upside here -- and it ain't a minor one in the 21st Century -- is that none of this chaos indicates that my livelihood is in jeopardy. For all the instability and uncertainty, my job is secure, and that is of immeasurable importance.

But the aforementioned illnesses and diseases hitting many in our midst have left everyone dazed, or maybe skittish. Whatever it is, we all seem off our game even as the place itself continues to thrive, continues to do by all accounts an outstanding job at delivering on what it promises.

At times I've wondered if those moments of professional excitement, where the future seems so full of potential, only serves as a sort of slap in the face. How dare we feel the excitement of possibility? How dare we look forward to the possibilities of a year or two from now when these people we love and know will likely be gone from us, stolen from us by mysteries we don't and won't ever understand?

It's like you're working on the same floor as Debbie Downer, and you don't know exactly when or how you'll run into her, but she's there, and she's gonna drop by, and whatever smile you're wearing or tune you're whistling, they won't survive that encounter.

If anyone were to suggest I sound depressed, I'd probably throat punch them. Not in real life, mind you, but in my head. I'd smile and thank them for their concern, and I'd walk away with the vision of them falling to their knees, gasping for breath, wondering if I snapped their trachea in two. Whatever level of depression I might have -- and I promise you it's very minor if it even exists -- isn't terminal, and it won't involve chemotherapy, or radiation, or compound nouns like "drug cocktail" or "experimental treatment."

Whatever this is, this creeping, lingering melancholy, isn't some revised Book of Job, and it's due to tragedies around me, not to any sort of destruction of my own life. So I think I'll take my own little teaspoon of misery, swallow it down without so much as a wince, and move on, thankyouverymuch.

A few beers now and then help, although even that hobby has seemed less interesting of late. Family, meanwhile, does more than help.

Family is the one anchor I cannot, will not, detach from the vessel of my life. Even in moments of feeling adrift, there's the assurance that the anchor holds, and the chain has simply rolled out further than I thought possible.

I bought my first few 2015 albums in the last couple of weeks, one of which is Sirens by The Weepies. The Weepies are one of my go-to bands for swimming in self-pity and helping me crawl back out of it, a sort of binge and purge of being stuck in emotional tar. Their previous album, Be My Thrill, is their least compelling to me because you can feel too much joy from it. It's too carefree. Not acceptable, Weepies!

This one returns to their native land of melancholy take on a "get busy livin' or get busy dyin', nobody knows the trouble I seen vibe, and listening to it has helped pull me back toward the shore, helped remind me that I am anchored, that the boat is in tact and the waters that trouble are the same ones that carry us from port to port.

I don't need no trouble
but it's plain to see
sometimes trouble needs me

Deb Talan, by the way, has stage 3 breast cancer. She is currently "cancer free" and in remission.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Gift Is A Gift

A gift is a gift.  Can there be any more direct statement?  And yet, for most of us, it is among the hardest statements to grasp or to believe.

CASE IN POINT:  Last night, I met some friends for a beer.  When I arrived, the bar was raffling off “swag” of various types, all, as I realized later, related to Sierra Nevada beer.  I didn’t realize it at first.  So, when I sat down and the waiter asked what I wanted, I asked a friend what he was having, and he said, “A Sierra Nevada blah-blah-blah.”  So I looked up at the board and ordered a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  (I am not a beer snob and am easily influenced by others’ choices).

When the beer came, I also got a ticket.  A ticket for the raffle.  My friend across the table had a ticket, too.  I thought everyone at the table had a raffle ticket, but I was wrong.  You had to buy a Sierra Nevada.

The next time the raffle came around, I won a nice, green Sierra Nevada t-shirt.  I’ll wear it.  Kind of made the night a little cooler—buy a beer, get a shirt.

Some other friends came in.  They saw the shirt, heard about the raffle.  Some of them got a Sierra Nevada and some didn’t.  I got another beer.  Same thing.  I got another raffle ticket.  The big prize was still out there—a six pack of various beers.  My friend sitting across from me doesn’t like beer; he likes cider.  So I gave him my ticket.

You can guess what eventually happened.  When the last raffle of the night came around, for the six pack of beer, my second raffle ticket, which I had given away, won the sixer.  He was excited; he had said in advance that he wanted to give it to his wife.

But when he got back to the table after accepting his gift, he said to me, “I can’t keep this.  It’s yours.”

“Take it,” I said.  “Keep it.”

Later on, he said, “Let me buy you a beer in exchange for it.”

I said, “It’s a gift.  I don’t want anything in return.”


I have another friend for whom it is almost impossible to do anything at all.  In his head is a tally sheet, and on that sheet, he always thinks that he comes up short, so he can never accept anything gratis.  I can’t buy him lunch.  I can’t pay for anything.  It is very frustrating.

To be fair, I like to live quite often in the world of quid pro quo (you do for me, and I’ll do for you), especially when I am dealing with students who need to work through their own sense of entitlement.

But far more important to me is the world of hospitality, the world of gift-giving.  A gift requires nothing in return.  If it does, then it is not a gift.  I remember one Christmas where the other writer of this blog gave me a cool t-shirt as a Christmas gift.  I did not give him anything.  Neither he nor I have given each other a Christmas gift since.  It was just a moment, a confluence of events where he was purchasing some cool shirts and he got one for me. 

That is a gift.  It comes out of nowhere, perhaps, when it is the best kind of gift.  It originates in an unplanned, random thought, being in a place where we see something that we know that someone we know might enjoy.  And so we get and then give that gift.  But how hard it is for us to accept without us attaching some strings to it!