Wednesday, March 30, 2005

‘Hawk Hope

It ought to be noted that for those of the Jayhawk nation who are not still weeping in their Gatorade, the future looks bright. A recent article in the KC Star highlighted the three phenoms who make up the incoming class, and tonight’s MacDonald’s All-America game, featuring all three prep stars on the same squad, will no doubt bear this out. Assuming the Illini bounce the Gumshoes in the title match, Bill Self may bring home the NCAA ring before ol’ lyin’ Roy does. Go Illini! Crush the ‘Heels!

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Adventures in Lower Education

The most rewarding aspect of my job has to be the potential for unusual encounters. Just this morning, as I stood outside the auxiliary building at North KC High School, waiting for someone to unlock the door, I was lucky enough to experience a rare pseudo-bouncer encounter. These are among the more sought-after episodes in the substitute teacher's life, offering, as they do, an exceptional mixture of surprise and wry humor.

So I stood there by the double doors, surveying the overcast sky as I waited for someone to notice my outcast state and let me in. Fortunately, my practiced nonchalance was not needed for long; I glanced through the Plexiglas window and saw a couple teachers approaching down the hallway. Viola. Deliverance was at hand. Or was it?

When I looked through the window again to make sure they were really coming my way (and to ascertain whether the scream-and-kick-the-door plan should be initiated), they avoided my gaze. Fortunately, though, they were walking toward me. And they couldn't hope to get outside without my getting in.

The doors swung open, and one of the two teachers offered a dismissive, "Oh, Excuse us," but I was not deterred. I smiled, gave the customary "That's ok" and stepped toward the door. They stood in the door. And that's when the reality of the pseudo-bouncer encounter washed over me. It was actually happening! I noted the details of the moment:

One of the teachers, a balding man with an imperious face, stood roundly in the doorway as if to repel me with his girth. His protruding stomach doubled as a roadblock—or that, I think, was the idea. His accomplice, a pleasant-looking middle-aged woman, flanked him on the right, doggedly holding her ground. They were not about to let this insolent youngster into the building before the morning's start time. Several moments elapsed as I absorbed the sweet irony of the situation. But it could not go on indefinitely. The pseudo-bouncer encounter owes some of its charm to the brevity of its life. "'re not supposed to-" began the woman bewilderedly.

"Actually, I'm a sub," I said, like superman unveiling his threads. Instantaneously, the situation was defused. The two of them smiled in slight embarrassment and relief. The stomach drew back, and the lady teacher gave me an apologetic smile. "I thought you looked a little old to be going here..."

Of course, of course, not to worry, accidents happen. Having just enjoyed a rare moment of intrigue, I could afford to be gracious. In my profession, interludes like this must be savored. A pseudo-bouncer encounter—chalk it up.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Repressed Conversations

Yesterday I spent about half an hour trying to post a comment on BitterSweetLife. After the umpteenth error message, I gave up—which raised an alarming question: If I’m throwing in the towel, trying to comment on my own blog, how many other people are doing the same thing? I know my readership is loyal, but c’mon…

I’m thinking about suing Blogger or switching platforms…or something. In the meantime, keep on trying to contribute your thoughts—and if you want to leave a comment, but can’t, just nod your head.

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Monday, March 28, 2005

Bandaging the Break

In hindsight, I’m not so sure my Spring Break wasn’t a Spring Fracture. Late rise times, drowsy afternoons, unfocused evenings, therapeutic or no, have a way of shattering vital routines. One starts wondering who one is.

Now that I’m back in school, I’m already feeling more healthy. Of course, there are likely other reasons for this. Before my break started, I was convinced I couldn’t go another day without a vacation. This may also have been true.

In any case, now that my Spring Laceration is a bittersweet memory, it’s time to comment on the sweet aspect of the interlude. Here we go; “Book-a-da-Year” candidates are already emerging…

The Writing Life – Annie Dillard
Dillard’s meandering metaphorical jaunt is evocative, brilliant and lovely. By turns whimsical and haunting, she made me want to write, even while dreading it. Highly quotable.

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship – Colin Duriez
A highly enlightening co-biography of the two giants. Duriez, predictably, was at his best when melding the two lives; the best insights came in the relations of the two to each other, in the quirks and modulations of their friendship. Their intimacy, roughened by differences, is bittersweet. The two pillars of Christian story influenced each other intensely, even as they differed widely as to the place of the author in Christian thought. Tolkien resented Lewis’ “amateur dabbling” in theology. Lewis regarded Tolkien as somewhat dilatory and eccentric, though clever. Intriguingly, their friendship had an academic, sitting-room air to it, washed with tobacco, beer and tea, seldom exposed to the rigors of non-collegiate life; Edith, Tolkien’s wife, and Lewis were mutually uncomfortable until Lewis’ late marriage. Memorable is a conversation on page 100, where Lewis and Tolkien discuss the kind of books “we like”: “‘You know, Tollers,’ Lewis says decisively, pipe in hand. ‘I’m afraid we’ll have to write them ourselves.’” Could there be a lesson there?

Subversive Spirituality – Eugene Peterson
It was a pleasure to get more inside the mind of a theologian who assigns “poems and novels” to his students in every seminary class. In this collection of articles and essays, Peterson affirms the storied nature of revealed truth, insistently pushing for prayer and work that recognize the bigness of the gospel narrative and take their place within its ranks. The crucial pastime of a pastor, he argues, is not to “explain,” not to “exhort,” but to “make”—to render the invisible reality of God in terms so concrete that people must stumble over it or adjust their routes of travel. The church does not need more exposition; she needs more imagination.

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Saturday, March 26, 2005

Forget the Ivory Tower

It has been a weird week. By turns satisfying and vacuous, the last seven days have revealed the limitations of apartment living, the shortcomings of bookish seclusion, and the fragile nature of my “poetic” muse. At the same time, the necessity of musing and reading has been affirmed. They’re essential, but when taken in isolation, they can sap the life out of you.

It rained—freezing drizzle—all week, so getting outside was not an option. Academically, my duties were still with me, so an illusion of absolute freedom was impossible to maintain. Otherwise Lindsay and I might have packed up and drove off in search of sunnier climes.

But no, we had to stay put, inside, and I had to write papers, and my most worthwhile leisure pursuit, by default, was reading. Ironically, I wanted to read. But when reading became the only option, it lost some of its appeal. As Solomon said, “The writing of many books is wearying to the body,” and if this is true, we can assume that reading them all can be equally depressing.

I can’t believe I just wrote that. But I did, and there it is. Good things in too-large doses can still hurt you. Great books, without the benefit of sunlight, physical exertion and fresh air, preferably occurring simultaneously, possess all the allure of Webster’s reconstituted. Knowing should never be severed from doing. It’s good to get this straight now, early in life, so I won’t be confused later on.

Down the road, when I break an Oxford speaking engagement to hoop it up in a local gym, I will laugh in the face of my detractors. “I guess you just tanked your academic credibility,” they’ll sneer.

“Maybe,” I’ll reply, “but you just wish you had my jump shot.”

Knowledge and living, you just can’t keep ‘em separated. As far as the Ivory Tower goes, give me a bungalow in Ocean City or a cabin near Estes Park, and I’ll call it even. Meditation should not take place amid inaction. Musing needs conversation to keep it sane.

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Thursday, March 24, 2005

Watch What You Ask For

In the early days, the only keyword searches generated for this blog came from people looking for dark chocolate online. Things have improved since then, I’m happy to say, to the point that this site ranks high in the listings of several highly sought-after* keywords. Here’s a rundown of recent searches that have driven traffic to BitterSweetLife.

On the Well-of-course end of the spectrum come several non-surprising results, among them “post-postmodern philosophers.” As informed readers know, I am the world’s foremost
post-postmodern philosopher, so this hit is a no-brainer. As well, the search for “a bittersweet life” would obviously conclude here. Likewise, a “discerning reader” would clearly find much to like at this site.

But it gets better. Several of my specific posts have begun to garner attention on the international level.* Unexpectedly, my colorblind poem has received some interest (perplexed interest, probably) as well as my
classic, melancholy post on “how to deal with the silent treatment.” No doubt people everywhere are looking at stoplights differently and exercising grace in the face of cold stares as a result. Another heavy hitter is “mugsy bogues dunking,” which comes in direct reference to my all time favorite hoops rant.

The other entries tend toward more toward trivia. Topping the list in terms of wordiness come “brief explanation of an unexamined life is not worth living” and “what is meant by an unexamined life is not worth living?”—no doubt both generated by the same intrepid seeker of truth. Whether her doubts were laid to rest here is another question. Taking the prize in terms of specificity is “john piper seeing and savoring jesus chapter 10,” which, of course, led to my authoritative corresponding entry. Remarkable for their pure whimsy are “visual therapy," "mysterious phenomenon" and “narcissist fundamentalist.” (If you’re wondering what in the world they linked to, here you go: therapy, mysterious, narcissist.)

Well. In response to such a tour de force, what can I say? What could anyone say? Before we know it, BitterSweetLife will be lurking at the end of every keyword.*

*Hopefully, before you read this, you realized this post was mostly tongue-in-cheek. Except for the keywords, of course. They're for real.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Soul Renovation

The accumulated wisdom of writers throughout the ages runs as follows: At times you will not feel like writing; you must anyway. Since much of my self-image is enmeshed in this masquerade of being a writer, I grit my teeth, hunch limply over my keyboard, and commence.

For some time I’ve wanted to mention this conception I have of the soul. We often lack fitting metaphors for the soul. We write it down as “spirit” or “essence” or “personality” and leave it at that. Occasionally, I think, we should envision things differently. More concretely.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you The Soul as a House.

Picture, if you will, an old, classically-styled residence, the type that once featured prominently on “Main Street” but has since become a victim of urban sprawl. Today, the shutters hang crooked and the front porch sags. This is the type of house that you purchase in a burst of optimism, start to touch up, then realize what you took for wood grain is really buildup from a dozen paintjobs, and the walls have as much solid timber as a Louisville Slugger.

The example is extreme, but I see our souls in much the same light. We are Someone’s work in progress, requiring years of wholesale renovation. If we had a real estate agent, the best selling point he could muster would be “nice lines.” In other words, we don’t just need minor touchup. Some of us should have been consigned for salvage. Nonetheless, a Builder has signed on, intent on “recapturing” a pristine whole. At times, what exactly he sees worth saving is anyone’s guess.

After a small foundational adjustment has been made, or when the dust settles from a costly addition, I speculate what the blueprints hold, and wonder if this is really all worth it. So many design flaws to rework, the drafty walls and cracks in the ceiling. Wouldn’t it be easier to start from scratch? Apparently, builders are immune to critique from their houses.

Perhaps it’s useful to think of earth as a new housing development zone—but a sector where the “new” residences are actually old ones being refitted; at least for now. What if design flaws remain when the construction period ends? Say the house participates willingly with the draftsman—as much as a house can—but at the end of the time allotted for renovation, the changes are not complete. The house is improved, but not as intended. What then?

This is mere speculation, but I can’t help wondering if the earth-bound patching job is temporary. Say a true demolition job was what was needed all the time? The soul was sanded and reinforced and expanded, but the initial flaws ran deep. Ultimately, will the approach to renovation drastically change?

One day, will “repairs” cease, smiles all round, as a wrecking ball swings through the walls to cries of “At last?” The house will finally be leveled, the foundation ransacked, and then…brick by brick, remade. The house, our soul, us—will be rebuilt, different but the same. Awful architecture erased, good lines brought into the light, there all the time, but unrealized.

If it does happen like this, the final transformation will take place in an instant. The long, slow years of repair will be obliterated in an explosion of violent kindness; we will be reduced to mere material, than rectified with genius perfection—all in a flash. As Paul wrote, “I tell you a mystery…in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be changed” (I Corinthians 15:52, The Bible).

That will be the instant when full soulhood—full humanness, full personality—is realized. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “The Props assist the House…then the Scaffolds drop affirming it a soul.” There comes a time when braces and artificial reinforcement are no longer necessary, and we can support our own weight at last. The place is finally habitable. The Builder strolls in.

For now, we are under construction, persistently incomplete. I, at least, cannot wait for the final razing, and then, the final raising.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Spring Break Languor (below)

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Spring Break Languor

The last couple days I’ve been battling with—and losing to—Spring Break Languor. At least I think it’s the Spring Break genus. The association might be artificial, in which case I can begin feeling better about myself. It’s possible I’m suffering from Spring Flu Languor, a related but quite different species.

In any case, all the symptoms are there. The chronic sleepiness, recurring tendency to sprawl out on the futon, lack of curiosity about the world at large, and, with few exceptions, aversion for focused activity.

The dreaded Languor results in a perception of reality that is fuzzy around the edges. Yesterday I shook off the sedentary beast long enough to write a page and a half of a paper, and then collapsed in exhaustion. I willfully cleaned up in the kitchen, and then relapsed violently, beating the computer in successive games of hearts. I tried to conceptualize a blog post, and the mere idea caused a nervous reaction; an extended reading session was necessary before I could regain equilibrium. Yes, the Languor is making its presence felt.

But a ray of light shines through the mental cloud cover.

More perceptive readers will have inferred, from the fact that I wrote this post, that circumstances have begun to change. To an extent, you’re right; I have foiled the Languor, but for how long, I can’t say. As I write, I glance over my shoulder, and guardedly take another swallow of Kenyan coffee. That’s right, the medicinal benefits of coffee have once again become apparent.

But how strong is this coffee? And how strong is the Languor? For the moment, the various aspects of my life—books, chores, assignments, blog—have resolved themselves back into sharp focus. I have escaped, but for how long?

I take another wary sip, and survey the apartment. Somewhere, a beast lurks in the shadows. The futon lies rumpled, books strewn randomly, bed unmade—his marks are everywhere. I shake my head, shivering, despite the indolent warmth of the air.

Today, my game will be evasion.

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Saturday, March 19, 2005

Dirge for KU

Last night, the Jayhawks lost, shamefully bounced in the NCAA’s first round. This morning, I propped up my weakened frame with coffee and despondently watched lesser teams advance. Why? Why them and not us?

Why do people trip over cracks in the sidewalk? Why do birds fly into windows? One suspects the answer, a propos to the KU question, is something like “Because they don’t anticipate the resistance.”

However, that may fail to do justice to the deeper query. How come the ‘Hawks couldn’t grind out a win like they have over and over this season?

Like shadows, a mournful silence lengthens in the room.

Why is the world round? Why is the sea blue?
Some questions will never be answered.

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Friday, March 18, 2005

My Emerging Break

Who would have thought that Spring Break could be so bittersweet? On Wednesday, as I conscientiously supervised a roomful of high school students, imparting crucial life lessons and advanced mathematical principles,* I sensed a change coming. It began as a dry feeling in the back of my throat and expanded. By the time I realized what was happening it was too late. The cold/flu bug ambushed me and I never had a chance.

Funny thing about being sick. One of the best things to do, at least in my experience, is something. Almost anything. Drive somewhere. Buy something. Playing some basketball, even when weakened by a cold, is therapeutic, because you're not thinking about being sick. Ironically, staying home in an environment perfectly tailored to one's mood can be a mixed blessing. Sitting on the futon, wrapped in a flannel blanket, sucking cough drops and watching NCAA games is a happy arrangement on many levels. However, it's hard to forget that you feel like you're swallowing gravel and just emerged from a sauna where you were battered with wet towels—raspy, hot and achy.

On the other hand, the ecstatic appeal of March Madness has begun to materialize. In characteristic fashion, I picked a total of 22 upsets, major and minor, and at this point my bracket is sitting pretty. (In case you're wondering, Yes, I had Wisc.-Milwaukee beating Alabama.) Lindsay and I are competing, as usual, though our brackets coincide on an important point...
Final Four picks taped in the hallway with care
In the hopes that the Jayhawks soon will be there

We're not betting, of course. We are bartering, though. For me, an apple pie hangs in the balance. Lindsay's demands include a massage and frozen custard, but my picks are burying her picks at the moment. She's really into the tournament this year, having baked "March Madness cookies" to kick off the festivities.

All this, as you no doubt realize, is the sweet, counterbalancing my new cough drop habit. Factor it all together: A cold coming on like gangbusters amid the Madness. Sitting in a classroom, keeping on eye on students and writing a slightly disoriented post. My emerging break is bittersweet.

* Crucial truths like, "Flattery will get you nowhere" and advanced mathematical principles like "If you put one number below another, that's a fraction."

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

Perfectly Sweeping Statements

Most of us, if we listened to our mothers, shy away from absolute assertions. Silly aphorisms like “Never say never or always” are stacked alongside clichés like “I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate.”

The danger of such statements has been reinforced throughout our lives, especially if we’re married, and usually with good reason. It’s hard to make sweeping statements (“You never make coffee quite right”)* and maintain the high percentage of rightness that is so crucial to interpersonal relationships. (If you’re wondering what my rightness average is, which I calculate daily, I’m happy to report that I—well, on second thought, I’ll let you guess.)

On the other hand, I’ve realized with some pleasure that there is at least one instance where flat absolute superlative is perfectly fitting.

Jesus was the best man to ever live.
No one is more loving than Christ.
No one will ever suffer like Christ.
No one is more joyful than Jesus.
Jesus was always right.
He never made a mistake.
He always wins.

There’s a joy, “childish” but profound, in the prevailing beauty of Christ. Finally, the source of the invincible absolute.

* Quotations and situations in this post are purely hypothetical and should not be applied in any way to the life (or wife) of the blogger.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Tale of Horror

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A Tale of Horror

Earlier this week one of my professors regaled us with a tale of another professor—and such stories are usually quite good. As the story went, at a related institution, in a class very similar to ours, lived a “very popular” professor. He seemed a discerning, pleasant fellow, and was well-liked. Every semester, over a hundred students signed up for his section, eager to sit at his feet and divest themselves of his wisdom.

At this point the yarn seemed like a typical professorial idyll. Tenure, adoring acolytes, a huge lecture hall, all things dear to a Doctorate’s heart. But the saga was about to take a darkly startling twist.

“And so, every semester,” intoned my professor, “they could hardly find a room big enough to accommodate all the students who signed up for his class. However, that problem always took care of itself after the first week or so, when the students looked at the syllabus. You see, this professor always assigned a hundred papers each semester, most of them five or six pages long.”

You can imagine the reaction in my little classroom. It was like the “jump-scene” in a campfire ghost story. The room grew stuffy and close. Suddenly several people developed nervous ticks. One guy convulsively grabbed at the table. A girl on my left let out a little scream. I looked out the window to make sure it was still light outside.

Then my professor mercifully defused the tension with some timely moralizing. “So you see, you guys have it easy. Only—what?—six papers you have to write for me. Anytime you feel like complaining…” etc., etc. He said he’d start brainstorming for paper topics to get the total up to a semi-respectable number, say 50. Sure, sure. We smiled wanly at his mock threat, our knuckles slowly turning flesh-colored again.

100 papers a semester, and in one class. Six papers a week, over 500 pages—for three credits. Does madness does stalk the halls of higher learning? Does a psychopath, wrapped in academic robes, slash the grades of the unwary?

The story had all the trappings of an academic urban legend. But coming from my professor, I was afraid it wasn’t. There’s nothing like a graphic horror story to make you appreciate your pedestrian little life.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Book Oasis

Spring break is just around the corner and I need it badly.

I think I may have just hit the wall I alluded to earlier this semester. About halfway through the required stack, my reading life is about to go off the hook. I’m already doing preliminary assessments for the days ahead. A Break has specialized dietary requirements where literature is concerned. I’m not sure it’s the proper environment for the weighty classics on my docket, say The Brothers Karamazov or Augustine’s Confessions. I’m sizing up several titles which will provide me with substance and variety in juicy chunks—the kind I can handle in between NCAA games. At this juncture, the lineup is as follows:

The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
Subversive Spirituality, Eugene Peterson
Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Colin Duriez

The beauty of this blend is that each title can be imbibed incrementally, like bright-toned Costa Rican coffee. I’ve already started dabbling, actually. I read several Subversive essays and the first chapter of Dillard’s book without even noticing. Tolkien & Lewis may demand a more measured approach, but the subject matter will generate the necessary momentum, a sort of continuous motion machine.

This fanciful mixture of theology, history and authorial musing has the essential Spring Break quality of smoke-free flammability. Spontaneous combustion is likely, and these volumes will burn cleanly. If I feel the urge, I’ll throw down an entire book without stopping, and do it guiltlessly. This is a fundamentally different from, say, mid-semester binge reading, as in the case of P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness, which I ripped through last week in a compulsive fit. But that's behind me now.

Life-saving medication is just around the bend.

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Monday, March 14, 2005

Soul Equivalence

Sometimes I wonder what we’d look like if we really looked like us. Most of us know attractive people who are, sadly, somewhat neurotic and self-obsessive. They don’t look like themselves, because if they did, we wouldn’t find them attractive. Soul-equivalence is temporarily lacking. That’s why gorgeous egotists aren’t barred from the “Most Beautiful People” lists, an unfortunate but understandable oversight.

On the other hand, if we’re lucky, most of us have met people who should be beautiful. They’re kind, discerning, humble, clever. Cinderella types who don’t look like Cinderella. That they don’t is somehow discordant. Prince Charming may be working the late shift, regrettably acne-ridden. Brutus, meanwhile, heads up the Oscar nominees; witches pose for glamour shots.

So far all this is mildly interesting. We don’t necessarily expect attractive people to be really admirable. Quite the contrary, we’ve learned to anticipate the scandals that dog the heels of Parises and Helens. We almost want those 24-carat lives to be double. The Why is another question. Because we’ve been disappointed too many times? Because beauty and virtue can’t correspond, simply can’t—since that would be too painfully unattainable? Or perhaps for baser reasons.

Whatever the case, I think at some point, however far back we’d have to look, most of us had the naïve idea that handsome people were, well, good. Isn’t that a source of pain in most adolescent break-ups? Chalk up countless broken hearts to beauty that didn’t pan out.

My whole point in writing this is to savor the subversive nature of goodness these days. Judging by appearances, moral character doesn’t have a lot going for it. As Paul of Tarsus said of the first-century church, “I don’t see many of the ‘best and brightest’ among you” (1 Corinthians 1:26, The Bible). Not much has changed since then. If virtue were a person, she would be 5’3,” a too-thin girl with glasses. And there’s the present beauty of it. Those pursuing her for illicit reasons tend to self-destruct.

Today, to be good is not necessarily to be stunning. Skin-soul discrepancy is everywhere. People with skins like Hercules swagger off like world-beaters. People with souls like Christ go quietly about their business. The inequity of this arrangement will, at some point in the imminent future, become glaringly clear.

When soul-equivalence arrives, there are going to be some shakeups.

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Sunday, March 13, 2005

Co-Author, Orange Alert

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have a co-author. Seems like the solidarity would be nice, knowing that at the very least your posts will be read by one other person, and probably favorably. Add to that the advantage of added eclecticism—although with this blog, that might be a dubious benefit.

On the con side, there’s always the danger that one of the bloggers would “go off” and bury the other, subduing the blog to his own dark schemes. Excessive or frivolous posts could have that effect. Or what if one of the posters was manic depressive, but didn’t opt for full disclosure? Trouble.

No question that co-authoring works for some, though. The guys over at HiFi have a good thing going. Synergy, laudatory chest-bumping, all that.

On the other hand, maybe my underlying issue is not really the need for a co-author. Could be March Madness; I always feel the pull toward team concepts this time of year. Who wouldn’t? Alley-oop showstoppers, pull-up Js off picks, stifling double-teams… The answer to my questions is probably simpler than I realize. Strangely elusive, as usual, but indubitably round, hip, and like clockwork, orange. A serious game of hoops is the answer to many of life’s problems.

If I actually wanted a co-author, I wouldn’t know until after March.

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Saturday, March 12, 2005


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Do you ever wonder about your blog’s cosmic significance? In the great scheme of things, what is your corner of e-estate worth? In the shadow of the wheeling planets and the inexorably fading sun and all that, am I making a difference? Does my blog matter?

Cultural snobbery aside, this is a fascinating question. One reason is because blog worth is so difficult to track. I, of course, have an advanced supercomputer which tabulates my stats, sorting them into relevant data. If you’re reading this post, within minutes my computer will have determined your relative degree of coolness, among other things, such as your basketball IQ and reading tastes (based on things like visits to and your ebay history), the cumulative total of which ranks your desirability as a guest. You could say I dodge the question of worth by turning the tables on my readers. If this blog isn’t getting it done, it’s your fault.

Actually, not even BitterSweetLife is immune from moments of soul-searching. Why do people come here? When they read this stuff, do they go away thinking or gagging? Is this blog performing its intended purpose of tri-continental domination?

To top it off, the real question is, How could one know? Site statistics are obviously insufficient in this regard, like a CBS opinion poll. Mere hits don’t reflect cumulative blog-effect.

Neither does blog-esteem on the part of the author. I could be feeling like a world-beater and write something deplorably smug. I could be ready to smash my hard drive and write something full of profound melancholy.

In the end, maybe it’s a matter of calling. You blog because you’re a blogger. Asking why you’re a blogger and whether you’re a good one may reveal, ultimately, that you are not one. Then again, sometimes the best writers are those who censure their own work severely.

In the end, we’re pretty much adrift on this one. Does my blog matter? At the very least, I’d better be somewhat convinced in my own mind, a good part of the time. It’s that fluctuating element of certainty, like three-point accuracy in March, that is strangely elusive.

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Friday, March 11, 2005

Holy Thrills

There's an idea loose in the streets that runs as follows: Our lives are such mundane affairs that we have a constant need for excitement. Somehow, we need to add a kick to the bromidic daily prescription. We need variety, flavor, spice. And, since we're spiritual creatures, we need spiritual thrills. Therefore, Jesus should occasionally exert himself and, well, surprise us.

It's the holy alternative to adrenalin addiction. If we believe in God, we may not bungee jump or hang-glide, but we seek our Jesus-kicks. Or something.

A statement by Augustine comes to mind here. Regarding intimacy with Christ, he wrote: "For one who knows you not may invoke you as another than you are" (emphasis mine).

It's entirely characteristic of our generation that we think the onus is on God to jump out from behind a tree and "shock us" with his "surprising" relevance. Somehow, it hasn't occurred to us that God is innately shocking. He could sit on his hands for the rest of eternity and his current portfolio is sufficient to "amaze us" out of our gourds. Christ's very existence is a scintillating paradox.

I find it pitifully egocentric that we think we're giving Jesus a "chance" to kindle our interest. "Look, God, if you make an appearance today, I'm prepared to, uh, sing a quick praise song. You will have saved my week."

God is sure to humor that kind of deluded narcissism.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Defiant Savior

I've been thinking recently about an aspect of Christ that is rarely named. A neglected facet of the divine, a window seldom opened. This glimpse, like every glimpse of Jesus, is sharp and beautifully startling, if only we can see it.

We're accustomed to think of Jesus in pacifist terms, as if his goal was to end all war and die quietly and leave those who knew him affirmed in their self-esteem. We sometimes paint him as a kind of Dalai Lama or a bobbing-head doll, who murmurs pacifying truisms to his followers. Likely at the bottom of this is our modern tendency to misconstrue love (in this case, God's) as whatever makes us feel good. But a mild-mannered smiley-Jesus does not tell the whole story, not by half.

For the Jesus who cooked his comrades' breakfast, raised spirits at a village wedding and coddled children is the same Christ who railed at evil and called his rivals names: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, with outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men's serpents, you brood of vipers" (Matthew 23:27,33, The Bible). The pronouncements of Jesus sting. And they are meant to, words that cut to the heart, from the very Maker of bones. These were no slip of the tongue, but calculating. Awful: "Why do you not understand what I say? Because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father, the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires" (John 8:43-44, The Bible). No milksop Jesus, this. And how could he be?

Jesus would lay into feelings to spare the soul. What concerned him most was not a universal happy hour, but reality. He knew a comfortable, false life was ultimately lethal. Therefore we find in Christ a mean streak, a hard-nosed toughness turned on evil. Jesus was a fierce instigator where illicit trafficking was concerned. A moral brawler. He mercilessly called it like it was, disrupting the darkness hiding in the status quo.

Unlike a model pacifist, Jesus was a fighter. His weapons were verbal, and he made no apologies for arguing reality. Apparently he found some things, like eternally-continuing lives, worth fighting for.

Therefore, Jesus fought. He fought for you and for me, and he said things meant to hurt and to incise—to spur people on to God. He came to turn the whole world order on its head, advancing the unseen above the seen, the eternal over the temporal, the small over the great. He did it so that we would see life for what it really is. He said that earthly wealth and power were mere knockoffs, and if you chased them you were damned. Jesus didn't hedge about the truth, and when he called out error he was ready to follow through.

He was not mean. But he was honest, and strong enough to beat the fear-mongers at their own game. He was never cruel. But his devotion to truth was equal to his compassion, and not less.

All told, he is, as ever, paradoxical: A defiant sacrifice, bringing a violent grace. Deathless but bleeding. Indestructible but beaten. Invincible, facing imminent death. Christ is a miracle child who wars on false appearances. Put him in a box, and it shatters, the splinters bursting into flame. And as we look at the pattern he left, we see that it couldn't be otherwise.

Christ was the perfect teacher, the ideal master, the consummate rescuer of souls. As such, he was the type of man you would want beside you in a fight, for he knew how to tend wounds as well as deal them. If I am to have a hero, a God-man who fights for my life, let him be fierce. Let him be fierce and kind at heart. Give me an Achilles with the cross at his heel and the heart of a Teresa. Let him be fiery love embodied.

Let him be as he is.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Tragic Flaw?

Geniuses are said to have their little quirks.

“If someone gets 100%, the test was too easy. If someone gets 0%, it was too hard.” So says my august professor, and I’m wondering if this might be his Platonic foible…and my Achilles heel. His concept sounds good in theory, but one slowly realizes the margin for failure is much greater than the margin for success; at my last calculation, A-level is 95% and up.

I’ll give you my verdict after I get the first exam back.

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Monday, March 07, 2005

A Post-postmodern Post

I’ve been wanting to write this for approximately forever.

I usually opt to show rather than tell, but occasionally one has to lapse into de facto exposition. I’ve been savoring the “post-postmodern” tagline in my blog intro, and reflecting on how it ought to be spelled out.

For months now, this verbal anomaly has existed without comment, but the time for closet post-postmodernism is past. No doubt the phrase has excited wondering agreement (“He’s right…I think”) and grammatical confusion (“This guy can’t spell”), if nothing else. Time to set the record straight. Post-anything words, when explained, must begin with their antecedents. Our starting place, then, is obvious.

“Postmodernism” is the supposed cultural constant that surrounds us all, the sea in which we splash, know it or not. If you’ll allow me to oversimplify: We unearthed this Truth (for which Nietzsche, among others, laid the groundwork) and it rose to dominance in the 20th Century. The Truth was that none of us really knew anything (relativism). In the arenas of faith and moral compass, we had to hazard our best guesses and trust to the winds of chance to treat us well (existentialism). In our necessarily troubled (angst-filled) lives, virtue could only be regarded in hazy terms of “acceptance,” “tolerance” and “inclusivism,” though when push came to shove, no one could define these either. And there you have it. Postmodernism in a paragraph.

But I haven’t said anything startling yet. My clincher, then: Postmodernism is becoming passé. Like kids with cotton candy, we're making the startling discovery that its skeleton is made of paper, and paper is a poor infrastructure. Have you ever seen a beached whale? If not, imagine a de-boned elephant. It’s not a pretty sight. Postmodernism is slowly collapsing under its own weight. The postmodern high-rise is a large establishment, and people will continue living there, unaware of their sinking real estate. Nonetheless, the street lights are flickering and the paint is starting to peel.

That’s not to say the movement hasn’t had its moments.

For example: One would have to say that the persistent tendency to question the status quo is, in itself, not a bad thing. Often it’s been good. But the benefits of a critical eye have often been neutralized by an ironic propensity to jump to new conclusions. All too often the jump is a back flip. The blind spot of postmodern thought is a hasty swallowing of unexamined claims, hook line and sinker, in a rush to fill the mental vacuum. The dash to dispose of “old truths” was too urgent to critique the new ones. “Fools,” as Pope says, “rush in…”

So we end up asserting things like All truth claims are manipulative! (except this one) and Words have no inherent meaning! (except mine) and One truth is no better than the next! (except the one you’re reading). Postmodern “truth” is like a folding dish chair on a waxy floor, where the axis of solidarity is always in flux. The mod styling is nice, but after awhile your back starts aching. That’s when you start looking for the overstuffed recliner.

I’m not saying that postmodernism was a waste. No, the existentialist-self-doubting ethos has given us some good things. Not the least of which is ironic hair and a critical inward eye.

But I have the sense that a whole group of people are steadily emerging beyond the postmodern. Like going through a tunnel, learning some valuable things about low-light vision, and reemerging into life in the sun. People eventually grow tired of naming their kids “Apple” or “Audio” and saying that Stalin was a guy with “different ideas.” Maybe absolute uncertainty wasn’t as absolute as we made it out to be.

Some of us are ditching the postmodern cloud of unknowing and itching to actually know something again. True to our roots, we’re seasoned debunkers. But our roots aren’t immune from critique.

We’re the ones waking up the benefits of truth and gravity. We think Beauty has a more than artificial charm. We say that constant ignorance can be draining. And we take a roguish joy in skewering the silly.

We’re willing to weigh ideas, for we think the post-postmodern has the weight of the universe on its side. This, we assert with happy bravado, is the supreme advantage: Post-postmodernism is not just avant-garde. It’s True.

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Sunday, March 06, 2005

A Dangerous Game

I remember with fondness my first graduate-level exam. I approached it like a dare, with a certain flamboyance. It was me versus the exam. Me versus the professor, the establishment, the world. I’d take their best pitch and knock it out of the park into A-land.

Today, the metaphor has changed. I’m playing dodge-ball, and I always seem to be on defense.

Last week, I successfully executed my first artful dodge, good to get me to the next round. The idea is to remain unflattened on my section of playground until the air clears. I’ll stay out in the open where there’s room to maneuver. The opposition always has their eye on you, but at least you have time to dodge. Those who set up in the tight corners systematically get plastered. They think they can hide behind each other but it never works.

Sometimes I wonder what it will take to “regress” to my original strength and speed. How do I get back to taking my cuts, giving out better than I got, brutally KO-ing unsuspecting tests? Is academic aggression a thing of the past?

Only time will tell. One thing, however, is for sure.

On Monday, the games begin again…

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Friday, March 04, 2005

New Deal

In a rare venture into non-satirical personal blogging, there’s something I have to get out. I’m slightly baffled as to how to say this.

Well, first off, it’s good news. So let out that deep sigh of relief.

Secondly, it’s not a book deal. Or CD deal. Or any typical kind of deal, sorry.

Thirdly and lastly, I, er…refer you to this prophetic link. There it is, in my own words. Incredible foresight.

All right then.

So. You, uh, got it—right? Ok, I’ll just say it.



That's right, young Michelangelo is on the way!
Or young Tolkien maybe.
Shoot, we’d even settle for a young Jordan!

The crucial thing is that he (I maintain, but a she is conceivable) is on the way. And yes, we’ll love him even if he becomes a computer scientist or engineer.

Coming up, “October 17”…

It’s a baby deal!

Awww yeah.


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Imagine This

This afternoon, Lindsay and I were walking up the alley to our downtown apartment. We were coming home from work, and it was a 60+ degree day with blue skies, the kind of moment perfectly suited for thinking out loud.

“Substitute teaching does not instill one with a sense of being needed.”

Crunch, crunch, through broken glass.

“Or self-worth.”

We step over a puddle.

“Or accomplishment.”

Past the dumpster.

“Or money.”

Laughter, and the door thuds behind us.

Sometimes the nonsensical tendencies of our lives are really striking.

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Thursday, March 03, 2005

Bittersweet Grit

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BitterSweet Grit

More often than not I find myself writing from a sense of pathos. How could I do otherwise? Life is imperfectly pleasing. It’s treacherously beautiful.

Sometimes I render “life” as a woman who lets me down. What I am still figuring out is whether she is fundamentally bad, but outwardly appealing, or essentially kind and good, but physically plain.

Life slights me, but she’s so lovely I’m suckered into loving her again. Or life is steady and amiable, but I keep wondering if she’s all there is. Probably it doesn’t matter which. Ultimately, to love life is to embrace a bittersweet lover.

Querying whether life is fundamentally good, but imperfectly so, or essentially ruined, with flashes of beauty, is to miss the point. Life is like Christ said it would be: Bittersweet but being redeemed (John 16:33, The Bible). Jesus’ description of present-reality fits the facts exactly. Bittersweetness, though, is not enough. Life ought to be perfect and we all know it.

In our mind’s eye, “life” is not sick, flawed or defective. Allegorically, I need a woman who is captivating in essence. The love I want is uninterruptedly sweet—and no disclaimers. I’m not going to hedge and tell you less.By saying “Life is bittersweet,” I’m acknowledging that I haven’t laid hold of real life yet, but I will. (Philippians 3:11-14, The Bible.) You can count on that.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Hitting the Paper Wall

No one can run through a brick wall, but sometimes we don’t realize we’re trying to until we’re halfway in.

It’s like the temporary “suspension” of gravity when one falls off a cliff—the briefest of moments in which one realizes, I’m falling. Before you hit the ground, there’s the awful realization of plummeting. Likewise, with the brickwork through which no creature can emerge, there’s a surreal realization, pre-collision, of colliding.

At the moment, I’m trying to extend this analogy to reading assignments and papers. I’m not in over my head yet, but I’m about to be. Can one run through a wall of papers? We shall see...

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A BitterSweet Manifesto*

I talk a lot about life's BitterSweetness, but mostly in terms of allusion. I say, "Time has a bittersweet quality," or "Have you thought about how sorrow and joy converge?" But if BitterSweetness is as inescapable as I make it out to be, shouldn't we be proactive? I mean, wouldn't this phenomenon have implications for living—not merely referential, but operative? I think it would.

Here are some guidelines for lived-out bittersweetness. To avoid overwhelming the blog with a 24-point outline, I’ve formulated just three main aspects of the BitterSweetLife. So pull on your battered thinking caps and precede at your leisure. Here's the first:

::1: Ask hard questions of life.

And sooner rather than later. Ingrained in the bittersweet ethos is an impulse to account for both good and evil, darkness and light. There's no use in barricading ourselves off from apparent mysteries, paradoxes, puzzles or contradictions—often, the heart of bittersweetness lies in such places. So be an persistent interrogator on every consequential front. Consider, for example, spirituality (Is the soul eternal?), ethics (What is the morality of cloning?), and, inevitably, personal decisions (What are the implications of sleeping around?).

Don't be naive about truth and consequences. We're in this game for more than laughs. Ultimately, realize that all questions—and answers—have spiritual ramifications, determined by how you answer—or ignore—life's first order questions. Who am I? Where am I from? Why am I here? As Einstein queried, "Is the world a friendly or unfriendly place?" These inquiries refuse to remain shelved.

(If you're wondering why bittersweetness is a good thing, or if it's really a discernible phenomenon, I refer you to the "must read" posts on the sidebar.)

::2: Embrace pleasure.

If this sounds like hedonism, it is. But it's hedonism in its purest and only justifiable form. A "BitterSweeter" sees joy not as a distraction to be avoided, nor as sentimentality to be sneered at, nor as an evolving emotional "commodity" to be handled with care. Rather, joy is a necessity to be embraced. And a person on this path values pleasure so highly that it must be undiluted, that is, true. He sees joy for what it is, and rejects all substitutes as "dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers" (C.S. Lewis).

A principled pursuit of real happiness and, therefore, a moderated "skepticism" about apparent fulfillment, is central to BitterSweetness. As Lewis says, "I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy." Joy is what we are ultimately after, and genuine pleasures are within our reach—if we know their source. This is the Sweet. And for purposes of this Manifesto, the Sweet can be captured in a word—Christ.

::3: Study suffering.

Article 2 covered the Sweet. Now we turn to the Bitter. On first glance, it might seem that my generation has this one covered. Among us you'll find professing "realists," non-confessing pessimists, and chronic gripers (not to mention habitual whiners). But despite all this, we fundamentally fail to really deal with suffering. Perhaps our relationship with it is too shallow. Perhaps we ask the wrong questions. At any rate, the answers that we often give—"Life sucks," "‘Things’ will get better," a muttered "I hear you," an awkward silence—are clearly inadequate.

We hover between bleak depression and naive optimism. At the very least, this Bitter side of life deserves an honest examination. What are we to make of "meaningless" pain? Why does distress so often infringe on joy? And conversely, how shall we explain joy's strange "intrusions" into heartache? Strangely, the two aren't often separate, and BitterSweetness inevitably appears. Well, there it is... I leave you with a triune approach to a bittersweet life:

::1: Ask hard questions of life.
::2: Embrace pleasure.
::3: Study suffering.

Drop any one "precept," and we risk incoherence. Life is all sunshine? Never for long. Life is "one long struggle in the dark?" (Lucretius). Not without rays of wonder. And we'll never grasp the essence of this phenomenon without querying our experience. Indeed, "An unexamined life is not worth living." Why? Because we may miss the very revelation "life" is meant to impart. When grasped by an inquiring mind, BitterSweetness is a good tool for the road.

* If you've been around awhile, you may think this sounds familiar. Ages ago, I posted "A BitterSweet Manifesto" in three parts. I thought it would be worthwhile to patch my previous thoughts together, update slightly, and republish.

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Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife