Sunday, January 30, 2005

Be Strong

Quick note to the loyal readership:

I'll be offline for the next 3 days, headed out of town. I'm expecting to have a refreshing and thought-provoking time, which will assure good material for future posts. Unfortunately, I don't have a notebook pc to take on this trip, so... well, you know where this is headed.

I'm sorry. This is painful for all of us, but... I'm confident we'll all come out the stronger. I was going to slam up a "quick" post of substance this afternoon, but packing took precedence. (And when are they ever "quick?") All I can say is Hit the archives. And, of course, be strong.

Soon, life will be back to normal.

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Saturday, January 29, 2005

Stumbling Toward Infamy

Yesterday I became aware of a somewhat innovative site called Evangelical Underground. I stumbled upon the place in what is probably the best possible way to stumble upon an unknown object: by noticing a good vibe that must be investigated. That’s right folks, BitterSweetLife has been nominated for an award.

Needless to say, the site is already growing on me. To answer your unspoken question, No, BitterSweetLife wasn’t nominated in the “Best Blog—Absolutely, Hands Down, No Contest” category. Rather, the blog is a nominee for “Best Domestic Evangelical Blog (U.S.).” I could quibble over the “Domestic” and “Evangelical” aspects of this nomination, but hey, you’ve gotta start somewhere. Anyway, a hearty thanks to whoever supplied the love (If you choose to step forward and be counted, I’ll thank you in person)!

In the meantime, there are many other “Best of-” awards out there. Get busy, people.


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Friday, January 28, 2005

Classic Book Reaction

This shot might also qualify as "spontaneous over-reaction" (see below), but since I gave Lindsay the book for her birthday, I found it immensely justified.

Filed in:

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Spontaneous Over-Reaction?

What’s spontaneous cannot be deliberate. What’s organic cannot be orchestrated or planned for. You can’t be regimented and real at the same time.

These are often the operating assumptions in our culture, which imply, overwhelmingly, SPONTANEOUS, ORGANIC, “NATURAL” _____________ (you fill in the blank; i.e. “friendships,” “reactions,” “lifestyles”) ARE THE ONLY WAY TO AUTHENTICITY AND RELEVANCE.

Which is nice, as far as it goes.

Unfortunately, the antithesis (as most would see it) to this axiom is equally true.

The analogy of friendship—or community—is one I like.* We all know the dreariness of those acquaintances that “ought to” deepen into friendships but never do. You know, the one-cubicle-over/brother-in-law/rediscovered-high-school-bud relationships that have all the force of social law and probability behind them. We’re supposed to have great rapport and love for these people. But (sickly grin) that doesn’t always mean we do, does it…?

Seems like the ancient** saying is true: “You can’t choose your best friends.” Which, if we stack it on the side of the SPONTANEOUS-ORGANIC-“NATURAL” crowd, leaves another question entirely unanswered. What about your good friends? Can you choose them?

To which I would reply, Uh, yeah. As ridiculous as it would be to assume that we’ll automatically adore the corporate/familial connections we’re crammed into, it would be equally ludicrous to believe that unless we’re “naturally drawn” to someone, we’ll never have a decent friendship. Shoot, for several years most of us aren’t “naturally drawn” to our parents.***

So, to summarize: Authentic, satisfying friendships (which, on a larger scale, result in community) come about through a combination of “organic” meetings and camaraderie followed by deliberate (often painful & awkward) growth and development.

Balance would probably involve avoiding both:
A) Countless glossy, “stylish” friendships with all the tensile strength of bubble-gum (see Proverbs 18:24).
B) Only one (or, uh, fewer) genuine friendships “because she’s the only one who understands me and no one else could or would ever want to, etc.”

To complete my SPONTANEITY vs. DELIBERATION analogy: Give me a handful of authentic, deepening friendships, and I’m happy. Add on a few more, and I’m happier still. (The circle will never become huge, because a person can only have so many close relationships.) But to achieve this model of perfection would require both side of the coin, thesis and antithesis, "natural" enjoyment and thoughtful follow-through.

It took a while to get here, but what I’m trying to say is: Pure spontaneity is overrated these days. (As far as I know, the only places it really works are Cranium,™ Taboo,™ Charades, all of which are games. If you get me.) If we’re really after authenticity, in community or any other arena, we’ll have to pull off the gloves and start planting those "organic" carrots-er-friendships.

We need more premeditated realness. How about some deliberate spontaneity? Organic intentionality, anyone?

* And also one where imbalanced “spontaneity” exacts a high price.

** Relatively speaking, that is. Relative to this week. I think someone said it within the last couple decades, before which it wouldn't have been considered profound enough to be a recognizable "saying." Plato: "And as it is said, 'You can't choose your best friends.'" Student: "Well duh, sir."

*** And from most of the rest of society, incidentally. For some, often known as social recluses or MU hoops fans, this becomes a continuing way of existence. And yeah, I know these asterisks get old. It's time for Blogger to start supporting footnotes.

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Book Curfew

I broke mine to finish this one. But it’s too late to look back now.

A Generous Orthodoxy… - Brian McLaren
Self-proclaimed “provocative, mischievous and unclear” book succeeds on all counts. McLaren brings to the table a paradigm-breaking approach to the “Christian” institution, which he derides, while pursuing life as a follower of Christ. Positively, this approach is eye-opening, and attempts to rise above stupid infighting. Negatively, it is overly cynical and vital nuances of meaning are lost in “provocative” generalities. I.e., is McLaren a universalist? Does he believe in Hindu-Christians? On a more general level, Does the man have a spine? Though somewhat irritating, Orthodoxy still ought to be read, preferably after reading the original Orthodoxy (G.K. Chesterton), preferably while in a “generous” mood.

As a sidenote, are there any Weakerthans fans out there? When you find a band with lyrics like-

I need a shiny new machine
That runs on lies and gasoline
And all the batteries we stole
From smoke alarms

-what's not to like?

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Blogging Perks

We’ve all heard the buzz.

Ya know, how blogging can change your life, immerse you in an interactive, real-time community, give you a voice, put politics in the hands of the populace, channel creativity; basically everything besides raise children.

I never fully believed it until today, when I got my first book deal.

Now I’m lookin’ in the rearview mirror like the guy who always laughed at “making the big time” until he got there. Moments later, self-same guy is shopping for ice and sporting the bling-bling wrist watch on the way to the arena.

I feel sheepish writing this, like I should have believed. I guess I should have, really. I should have had faith. Now I feel like a straw man, turned to solid gold despite my doubts. Isn’t this kind of thing supposed to happen to the guy who really thinks it will? You know, the whole Cinderella story. She never doubted her Fairy Blogmothe-I mean, Godmother.

I’m a two-faced hypocrite. But I’m takin’ it to the bank, so deal with it.

Like I said, this was my first book deal. And the clincher is that it’s at absolutely no cost to me. S&H is included. So far as I know, I’m not even required to read it. I just got this unsolicited email and—BLAMMO—free book deal. It happened as follows.

Unsolicited email:

I would like to send you a copy of my book, Going Deeper—How to Make Sense of Your Life When Your Life Makes No Sense…

Going Deeper was just honored by being acclaimed as the best metaphysical book of 2004 by the editors of Allbooks Reviews… It is a significant teaching novel that takes readers on a wild, profound, humorous, and utterly fascinating ride to the edges of the universe and beyond… I look forward to hearing your comments.

Warmest regards,
Jean-Claude Koven<<

Obviously, personal communication from the award-winning author was flattering. But was it fo’ real? A query was in order.

>>Sounds good to me. How was I selected for this honor?

Mr. Koven wasted no time in giving me the big picture.

How, indeed.
The Internet moves in mysterious ways and I, currently in human guise, merely follow. Perhaps, after you've read the book, we'll both understand?<<

And just like that, the dots were connected. Still, it was…mysterious. Almost like a whodunit. Surely it had something to do with the blog? Regardless, the prospect of my first book deal—that is, my first free book—was irresistible. Opportunity was trying to knock me, but I got him first. I quickly articulated my agreement.

>>Fair enough. I'll put it on the "priority" pile.<<

I don’t know what the future holds, but I think congratulations are in order.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Eternity’s Yardstick

I had the thought that eternity could be useful.

This conclusion is not groundbreaking. Since earth arrived, millions of people have reached the same consensus: that eternity is a priceless commodity, and ought to be pursued. They arrive either at this agreement or its inverse: that eternity doesn’t exist, and ought to be despaired over—which is in a way the same thing. Very few conclude that eternity is a mundane, stuffy contingency, and completely irrelevant. Many people live this way, of course, but not as a result of conscious thought. Rather, it’s unknowing naïveté that relegates “eternity” to the realm of “huh?”

I’d go so far as to say that anyone, if he thinks about it deeply, eventually recognizes that eternity is overwhelmingly important (if not “true”) and comes to the same conclusion I have (or its inverse; see above). All this goes to say, I realize I’m writing nothing profound.

Yeah, eternity could be useful. And not just on any one level, but on every.

:: This is one of those authorial junctures where you pause and wonder which doorway to walk through. There are a lot of them. Each of the doors are smooth-grained and attractive, with large, comfortable knobs, a number of which you finger thoughtfully. No real urgency… There aren’t any signs saying EXIT or CAUTION… In the end, you just open the one on the left, about halfway down, the one that catches your eye. ::

How about eternity as a yardstick?

As a comparative standard, eternity is often overlooked. We look ahead or we look up, both fitting impulses. But we ought to consider its “referential” value here and now as well—looking inside, looking around. This is useful.

“Usefulness” in this sense would be like measuring yourself by an unseen ideal—say, Einstein—one to which you will never measure up, but one that inspires just the same. There will never be another or Bach or Plato, but there could be someone else—a Polanyi or a Copeland. It’s in this way that heroes haunt us.

Likewise, in the flickering present of a life, eternity has much to say—like a great one, long dead but still making his presence felt, intimidating live artists by his very existence. And yet it’s different. The question is not so much “Will I measure up to one particular hero?” as “Am I living heroically? Is my life casting hero-shadows?”

Because what’s begun here continues. Eternity looms ahead and behind us, unspooling forever, undulating like a mathematic line, a ceaseless parade of causes and effects taken to their ultimate completions—which are growing “more completer” all the time. Eternity washes nearby, a colossal ocean flowing around our time-bound island. Like a great song or a great book or a great artist, it overshadows our exertions…outside our knowledge; not lesser, but deeper, older, irrevocable.

What’s begun here and now, said this instant, lived out yesterday, continues. The line is relentlessly lengthening, running inevitably toward the edge of the map. And then?

Life beyond the edges. Everything changes, but one thing stays the same: What's begun now continues.

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Monday, January 24, 2005

Invisible Mountain Shadows*

There’s something striking about Moses, the guy God used to orchestrate the Exodus. It’s something I haven’t really thought about before: Despite the miraculous intersecting his world at every turn—a desert bush flowering with fire, water bursting out of solid rock, unleashed lightning dancing on mountaintops—Moses always wanted more. “Please, show me your glory!” (Exodus 33:18) he said to God at one point. But if anyone had seen God’s glory, it was Moses. The man was a glutton for glory, so long as it was God’s.

And thinking about it, Moses wasn’t the only one. There are others in The Book who display this strangely eerie tendency. David, the warrior-poet-king, displayed a similar soul psychosis, an abnormal fixation with the person of God. David met God in the wilderness, stumbled upon him in the heat of battle, wrote poems to God, lived as if this Lord was visible, tangible, nearby. And despite all this, he wrote lines saturated with desire. “One thing I’ve asked from God, that I will seek: a life lived out in the presence of God, every day of my life” (Psalm 27:4). Like Moses, David was a grasping man, grabbing up armloads, heartloads of the presence of God like shiny “ice.”

I think about people like this and the world seems to invert itself, if only for a moment. Like C.S. Lewis’ character, Ransom, I realize suddenly that the axis of life I consider normal—vertical, horizontal, the “straight” plain of the horizon—are in reality all out of alignment. To be standing “straight up” in regard to the universe, I would be positioned at a 45 degree angle to the floor.

The earth appears momentarily in its true shape—the shape that Moses and David and others discerned through mists of physicality—and it’s a miniature cosmos designed with one purpose in mind: the fullest possible display of God’s glory. The earth is meant to be seen through. And my fleeting realignment with earth’s ultimate purpose changes the “truth” of many things.

Greatness, for example, is different than I think. The great ones, I see, are those who take the world at face value and embrace its purpose. That many of them have been world-changers is secondary, almost incidental to their identity. A great person could live out her lifetime on a desert island, stranded, marooned—with God—and not lose an iota of her greatness. The tragedy would not be that her greatness had been lost, but that it had been lost to us.

Moses had mountaintop encounters with God. That’s where he caught the glory fever. David met God in a fiery back-country wilderness, out beyond the edges of the trail maps. Deep in the wilds, God seemed very real—because he was. But you had to open your eyes to see him.

These days, we live our lives in the shadows of a towering, snow-capped peak, a mountain that doesn’t just brush the sky but crowds it, and sometimes pokes through holes. But most of us don’t see it.

Some do. They look up and discover the heaven-scraping mountain next door. And then they blink and rub their eyes like crazy, because it turns out the vast mountain range is everywhere, and the one next door is just a foothill. We’re living in the foothills, and if we see them, they change us. Earth takes on sudden depth and height, swimming between the soaring towers of these peaks. True sight flickers to life, adjoined to glory. As Thomas Wolfe wrote,

Against the hidden other flanks of the immutable hills the world washed like a vast and shadowy sea, alive with the great fish of his imagining.

Once seen, these “immutable” borders are hard to forget. They burn a lasting image in the incorporeal retina. But they’re easily missed. And most of us do miss the mountains somehow, confused by the shadows they cast. We’re wandering through an art gallery, studying cracks in the marble pavement.

Occasionally though, someone looks up. Their names are Moses or David or something with similar resonance. They’re so startled by what they see that their lives lurch off the tracks of normality and never again get with the program.

How could they, when they stumbled on a soaring range of leviathan peaks and golden snowfields, shot translucent red, melting into blues and purples, shouting in the sunset: LOOK!

And by a dusty footpath at the hill next door, a sign reads, “Climb me.”

* Inspired by a message titled "Let Us Then Lift Up Our Eyes," John Vanderhorst, 1.23.2005

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Saturday, January 22, 2005

A Lay-Up Call

Over Christmas, the scope of my hoops life had become sadly limited.

Yesterday, while making a Post Office visit (see previous entry), the guy who went and searched for my package thought I looked familiar. Of course I did, since I’m at the PO every other day,* but he thought I looked familiar for more than the usual reasons. He looked familiar too. Him being a big black guy, about 6’3”, one context for an acquaintance was obvious.

“Do you play pick-up ball?”

And so the full story emerged. We’d played a few times at UMKC, our local metro college, where I’d been in the habit of hoopin’ it up Saturday mornings. Until Christmas break, that is.

Some of you have probably been wondering what’s happened since my last hoops update. Did I bust a knee out pullin' a move? Torque my ankle beyond all recognition? Sprain my index shooting finger? Or finally get that spot in the NBA developmental league? Sadly, nothing so dramatic. The currents of the urgent just grabbed me and pulled me under, and what with one Saturday morning engagement or another, hoops had taken a back seat.

What can one do in response to a providential, divine encounter like the one yesterday at the PO? Only one course of action, really.

I repent. I repent. I repent.

* I exaggerate slightly. And yes, I'm fully aware that this is the latest in a string of fairly lite posts...with any luck I'll get something more substantial up soon. It's the plan.

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Friday, January 21, 2005

Err Mail

One of the joys of living downtown is my ongoing relationship with the USPS. Some of you suburbanites probably won’t understand the close symbiosis of this bond, so I thought I would explain. It works something like this.

1) I order something—usually a book. Or two books.
2) During the next several days, the USPS “rushes” to deliver my item in a timely manner, usually failing; but it’s the thought that counts.
3) On an appointed day, the friendly ‘hood mailman comes by while we're gone. Sensing the damage that might occur if he stuffs a 5” by 8” book into a 4” by 6” mailbox, he compassionately writes us a brief note of explanation and motors away in his little Jeep/golf-cart.
4) The next day, or the one after, I drive to the Post Office. A number of the employees there know me on sight, which they acknowledge by a slight inclination of the head and sympathetic looks.
5) I present my note and pick up my “package”—i.e. my book. The personnel take a quick look at my driver’s license, just for kicks. I have yet to become, in their estimation, a real danger to society. Nonetheless, they keep hoping.
6) Often, to show my appreciation for the USPS’s relentless nondelivery of packages to my apartment, and to acknowledge the personal responsibility they feel for my possessions, I buy a few stamps.
7) After the customary remarks, I drive home, checking the mailbox on the way inside to see if I’ll be visiting my friends at the Post Office again tomorrow.

And you're just wishing you had this kind of connection with your PO.

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This is for a friend of mine who has been in the woods awhile.

And I said, “Why do you have to go?
I don’t understand this.
How can I walk without you when
This rain is hiding the way?”

And I don’t know,
When I walk down this way,
I can’t be sure.
I wish I knew the path to choose.
Rising sunshine may light
My steps through forest darkness.
I hope so.

In my mind I see the sun come up,
Brushing aside these misty fingers.
Oh, things could be different.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Missing Heroes

Reading great fiction combined with a healthy intake of Great Nonfiction has various effects on a person. One of them is something we occasionally label "hero worship;" but this is often a simplistic way of dismissing an impulse we all experience in various forms and can't very simply explain. The foundations of "hero worship" could appear fantastic when examined closely, especially when the heroes we so admire are either 1) fictional, 2) dead, or 3) inherently flawed people like us.

Actually, though, I didn't set out to analyze hero worship. Maybe later. For now, I'm only expressing something inextricably "native" to each one of us. I want heroes - or a hero - too.

Missing Heroes?*

I saw you laugh in the face of the law,
and as I watched you walk away,
I wondered what secret you’d stumbled on,
what caused your smile.
‘Cause you weren’t living by the dictates of this world anymore.
You weren’t living in this world anymore.

You’d found a different set of rules
and in the light of your eyes
we all looked like fools,
our hearts all shriveled from disuse.
And the next time I bent to the world’s routine
my soul said, What’s the use?

I want to go
where men like him have gone.
This world seems empty now
or lacking anyhow.
I’d like to follow in Elijah’s footsteps,
where men like him have gone:
ride a fiery chariot, win a starry crown.

* And now, after you've read it, the disclaimer. This is one of those "rag" poems that would work better as a spoken word piece than on the page...
© 2004 Ariel Vanderhorst

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Metaphysics & Basketball

The Coalescence of Life and Hoops

What secrets does this round, orange symbol hold?

Several days ago I watched a hoops game featuring a 2-guard “type” shooter who couldn’t handle the ball to save his life. Throw him the rock with a little space and he’d knock down the J. Throw him the ball in traffic and he’d get knocked down, or fall over, or dribble out of bounds—whatever it took, in fact, to turn the ball over. Baffling.

Having a mind ridiculously predisposed to analogies, I started thinking, What’s the life-equivalent to being able to nail open looks but butcher your dribbling duties as a matter of course? In metaphysical terms, what is a shot?

Seems like a “shot” is that instant in the limelight where you take center-court, all eyes on you, where the clear expectation is that you will perform. The “shot,” in other words, is that shining moment that most of us live for, where you look really good while everyone happens to be watching. Is it any surprise that most people go out of their way to manufacture situations like these? We do it with a certain subtlety, perhaps (or perhaps not, if you’re in high school), but almost without a second thought. Most of us are obsessed, like incoming prep-stars, with creating our own shots.

And therefore, so the story goes, solid ball-handling gets the knock. Since we’re planning to let fly at any given opportunity, we don’t see the need to cultivate good handles. Dribbling—the not-so-glamorous, game-long necessity—require more tenacity than it does showmanship. There’s something so boring about ordinary competence. That’s why we think we can always work on it later. The big moments, the “shots,” those are what matter. The nitty-gritty maintenance stuff, right hand/left hand work, crossover dribbles, that’ll come in time. Right?

That’s what you think until you’re stumbling all over yourself, trying to control the ball without success. And just like that, the game is eluding you, the ball is bouncing away in someone else’s sweaty palms and you’re about to get posterized. Turns out that dribbling, steadily moving the ball up the floor, was important after all.

The problem wasn’t that “shots” were bad, or overrated. We just have to take ‘em in the flow of the game, even though they’ll likely be unexpected—and not pass up an open look when it stares us in the face. Real opportunities, as opposed to the manufactured kind, have a startling quality to them.

As I was sitting there, watching that game, something in me was saying that we see a lot of shooters these days, but only a few “players” who can really protect the onion down the stretch.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

So Throw The Book At Me

Lindsay and I were “stuck” at home again today, our expertise as substitute teachers not having been called upon this morning. It's their loss.

Among other things, this interlude gave me a chance to polish off some assigned reading for my recent J-term class. Which, in turn, caused me to reflect on the feast I’ve enjoyed in the last several weeks, Reading What I Want To Read. Since going back to school, this is an experience I haven’t had regularly, and it’s been luxurious.

Now, I realize that listing these titles would not actually qualify as a “post of substance.” More horrible to consider, some might consider it intellectual preening or literary one-upmanship. But it’s really neither. Instead, it’s just me leaning back in my chair for a moment, closing my eyes and smiling…before I’m demolished by a flood of Hebrew syntax, textbook definitions and desperate memorization. Just a brief moment of peace, savoring the days I stole from the specter of cold academic expediency.*

So then, the books I’ve devoured during break:

Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis
Perelandra – C.S. Lewis
That Hideous Strength – C.S. Lewis
The incredible “Space Trilogy” by Lewis melds metaphysics with story and does it flawlessly. The philosophy is the story. God appears awfully great and I feel small, yet crucially significant. Awe, horror, and romance are invoked; the glory of creation, the banality of evil, the “truth” of myth—for Lewis, nothing is off limits.

Rumors of Another World – Philip Yancey
Yancey’s intentional foray into skepticism attempts to lure seekers toward faith with evocative “rumors” of deity. The resulting book is conversational and thought-provoking, but something less than an intellectual (or spiritual) tour de force. One could level the criticism that Rumors pushes one toward “transcendence” as much as toward Christian faith, as Yancey’s evidences aren’t always singularly Christ-centered.

Reed’s Beach – Bret Lott
Lott tackles pain and loss in this sympathetic story of a grieving couple. Their counterparts (another couple with “scars”), who serve as conduits for healing, are beautifully atypical in their sustaining beliefs. A great story where faith is more seen than heard.

Seeing & Savoring Jesus Christ - John Piper
Classic Piper, focusing on key aspects of Christ’s person. This was a vision-renewing book. The chapter dwelling upon Jesus’ eternal happiness was my favorite.

I have the sinking feeling that I’m forgetting someone—or someone’s book, which is very nearly the same thing. If so, there will be an update. In the meantime, enjoy whatever reading leisure you have to the fullest! And if you have your heart out. I will about a week.

*This is what you call hyperbole, or dramatic exaggeration. I actually like my classes.

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Monday, January 17, 2005

A Dangerous Game

Moments ago, against my better judgment, I fixed a broken clothespin. Yeah, believe it. In the past I've replaced light bulbs, but this... I feel like I’m standing at the edge of a cliff, or at a trailhead where trees hide the destination. Sure, the initial descent looks innocent enough, but who knows what it will lead to? Start fixing any little thing that Lindsay brings me, and where will at all end? In fact, I can only guess what—

Unbelievable. In an incredible expression of irony, Lindsay just interrupted this post, pleading with me to cut her hair. I did it, disproving that old adage, A lack of preparation on your part doesn’t necessarily mean an emergency on my part. And as you might guess, her bangs came out looking pretty good. Sigh. But come to think of it, I’ve been coasting down this slippery slope for days, weeks now. Just last Friday I fixed the broken door on our dishwasher. Calls to mind my coworker back in my brief stint in information technology. One day I watched him wire a phone outlet for DSL and he noticed my curiosity. “Believe me,” he said, “this is the kind of thing you do not want to know how to do.”

So, as I was saying… Actually, I guess this post doesn’t really have a point anymore.

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The Silent Treatment

A Parenthetical Subject

Yesterday at church I was talking to a friend and the subject of interpersonal relationships came up. (Incidentally, this friend deserves props because he’s a statistical analyst with an eye for superior literature; one meets a mere handful of such people in a lifetime, if one’s lucky.) The gist of the conversation was how to live with each other in a united, understanding way—a tenet of Jesus’ teaching. (In a mere two verses on the subject, Paul the philosopher-theologian, uses the terms “humility,” “gentleness,” “patience,” “tolerance,” “love,” “unity,” and “peace.” (Sorry for the excessive parenthetical statements, I’ll try to restrain myself.)) The standard Christ passed down is one of caring, interactive community, face to face.

Our talk, however, hinged on a specific difficulty in trying to maintain such openness: What should one do in response to the proverbial “silent treatment?”

Say you had a friendship that was, to all appearances, relaxed and healthy. Then the moment came when, for no perceptible reason, the aforesaid “friend” started regarding you with a cold eye, as if they had caught you in the act of some revolting crime. (Say, on the same depth of petty awfulness as stealing a two-year-old’s sucker or furtively kicking someone’s dog—deeds for which you could despise someone and feel justified.) But to you, the awful misdemeanor penciled to your account is shrouded in mystery.

During my junior year of college, when I was Editor-in-Chief of the Campus Ledger at Johnson County Community College, there was a girl on my staff who hated my guts. It was obvious. It was so obvious that even I noticed, which is saying a lot for a guy who was going to school full-time, trying to run a newspaper, and completing a correspondence course, all while in love.

I came up with various theories explaining her extreme dislike, most of which, no doubt, were ridiculously wrong, a few of which probably contained some fragment of the truth. I let it lie as long as I could. How do you deal with an issue that is never actually vocalized? But finally (like Ben Folds in "Rocking the Suburbs"), I got tired of the hate-hate-hate vibes coming my way, so I finally brought the matter to a head. I’d hired this girl, for crying out loud. The irony of it. Finally there was a moment in the office when the two of us were alone.

“Hey, Jen.” (Name has been changed to protect the…innocent?)
“Uh, yeah?”
“I’ve been hoping to get a chance to talk to you… Uh, I’ve been wondering lately if there’s something I did to offend you.”
OH NO.” (As if this idea strained the very limits of credulity.)
“Well, I think I must have done something or said something. It seems like you’ve had some kind of issue with me lately. And if I did something wrong, I’d like to apologize.”
“Oh no…I’ve just been tired and grumpy lately.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, ok. I’d really like to get this straightened out.” An awkward smile. We both turn back to our monitors and silence ruled the newsroom. But the silence was not therapeutic…

A few such experiences are enough for anyone. As my friend suggested yesterday, all one can really do in a situation like this is to maintain a love for that person. And this can be a struggle, especially if they reject overtures of friendship or look frostily on your attempts to act “normal.”

Personally, I can think of one such person* I’d place in this category right now. And I may as well give credit where credit is due—if you want to get under my skin, this is the way to do it. If someone verbalizes their issue with me, I can write her off as a vitriolic lunatic or deal with her as an authentically injured friend, one or the other. But just stare at me with silent detachment and I’m left to stew.

In the end, the final option for this type of person is to relinquish them to the dubious joys of their silent bitterness. Loving someone from a distance is hard, but you try to do that as well, and learn to cope with the persistent stress it places upon you (like a nagging splinter). In the end, I think a clear conscience will obliterate even this nagging “detraction by implication.”

It would be a mistake to assume, based on someone’s determined silence, that you’ve committed the unforgivable sin. Thankfully, we’re only expected to rectify visible shortcomings, the ones we’re made aware of.

But just the same, in answer to the question, “Is something wrong?” the most hair-raising response conceivable has got to be “OH NO…nothing!”

*In case some of you armchair-Sherlocks are wondering, No, it’s not Lindsay. As everyone knows, these things don’t happen in marriage. He heh.

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Saturday, January 15, 2005

Car-Wrecked Conscience

Has your conscience "made you" a faker?

Some time ago, Lindsay and I were stopped at an intersection, poised to make a left turn. The red light changed and traffic began to lurch forward. Then, as we watched in suspended horror, another car rumbled into the intersection, apparently trying to “beat” the red light. But the light had already changed. The first car from our side of the light smashed into the luckless vehicle with a resounding crunch. Bull’s-eye, broad-side, almost dead center.

It was strangely satisfying. How many times have you watched some fool totally blow a red light as if he’s colorblind and myopic? Cars who have the right of way are forced to brake or swerve to miss him. Possibly worse still is the casual disregard for the laws that exist to govern such contingencies—as if they were made to be broken, and specifically by this joker. The arrogance. The vulgar, thuggish savoir-faire.*

All to say, this surprising incident was almost enjoyable. Finally, a wiggy** king of the road who got his comeuppance.

It was only upon reflection that I began to remember the various occasions (accidental, of course) that I had run red lights. On none of those days was “justice” carried out in the form of a smash-mouth broadside. If it had been, I would have felt, no doubt, pitiable and victimized in the extreme.

It’s funny how we’re willing to explain away laws of all sorts unless they apply to someone else—in which case they ought to be enforced at all costs, the sooner the better. In fact, we may even deny that “laws” exist—except when we are losing out by their abuse or stand to benefit from their enforcement.

In the end, Conscience makes fakers of us all. And maybe alerts us to the Laws, civil and otherwise, that we’d just as soon not recognize.

These words appear in association with the Vocabulary Association Project.
I know, I know, I’ve never brought in two conversation-killers at one blow before. I apologize, but who could resist “wiggy?”

*Savoir-faire: As with most words of French derivation, the idea is one of polish, sophistication, class. I used the word in an inverted sense (often a good use for French terms), of course. Synonyms include culture, breeding, refinement, even urbanity (which would’ve also worked nicely, with a pleasing sense of irony—“thuggish urbanity”—but I like to be international).

** Wiggy: A cut-to-the-chase term for someone who’s stuck on himself—hoity-toity. Synonyms include arrogant, bloated, self-important, stuffy. This is one of those words that should definitely be used in conversation as often as possible.

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Thursday, January 13, 2005

This photo is loosely related to the post below.

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Haunted By Story

Last night—when I wasn’t watching the Jayhawks gut out a win over Iowa State, moving to 12-0 and showcasing again their daunting tenacity—I finished That Hideous Strength. Strength, being the final book in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, brought his story to a crescendo and left me in a happily contemplative mood. Lewis excels at weaving “philosophy,” or what we would call philosophy if found in the abstract, into his narratives. But he does it so well that it’s hard to say where the story leaves off and the philosophy begins. Which is, of course, the point—they are one and the same; the vehicle of story, for Lewis, was ideally suited to conveying life’s hidden realities:

O WORLD invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

So Francis Thompson penned; and this seemed to be a working motto for Lewis.

Sometimes I think we have an almost physical hunger for story: “Take me below the surface of things and show me something undisclosed, that defies appearances, that is truer than what the eye sees. Give me a story, but make it real.”

Paradoxically, this is the great search that, however sweet, “stories” can never really end. But they have their uses. The great stories “trick” us into a mode of thought where trivialities begin to fade, and something larger appears through the mist. The real shape of life begins to materialize: mountains we’d never seen, while living on their shoulders; an ocean we’d never noticed, blinded by the waves crashing on the beach.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Infinity Without Fraying

My bro Paul flirts with disaster in the Grand Canyon. Could "infinity" present a similar threat to personhood?

Lately I've been thinking about the implications that God's "infinity" has for personality. What got me started was a statement from the memorable Apostle Peter: "...the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you." Perfect? Confirm? Strengthen? Establish? This is a soul-overhaul. More than a life's work. "Legacy" doesn't begin to describe it. And we're talking a very wide constituency.

I can't imagine the attention it really takes to bring out the nuanced edges of a personality, to quell insidious weaknesses that threaten chaos, burnish all traces of virtue to an ambient gleam. I'm not even sure a lifetime is long enough. In fact, "time" may be a poor context to conceive of such a project.

The reality is that none of us can understand this kind of artistry, much less actuate "perfection" in even a solitary person. You or I could invest ourselves in someone indefinitely, and after 80 years or so, that person still wouldn't be perfect. More pertinent to my case in point, we still wouldn't fully know her.

God's "infinity"—an endless continuum of "time," "space," and personality (I suspect I'm beginning to fray the edges of these terms)—is the only foundation for vivid identity in a vast multiplicity of souls. Only in the framework of an infinite being could there be significance for a multitude of "saints." Without the unfathomable capacities of God we would be lost in a sea of faces. God isn't extending mere recognition. He's promising more than an office plaque. Rather, he's guaranteeing heart-authenticity to myriads—to be fully formed and fully known. And no one else could do it.

Animated by a limitless being, the faces of a million "perfect" people will overshadow Hollywood's finest and our university intelligentsia like the sun outdistances a piece of quartz. This will be a civilization no Who's Who list could ever begin to fathom—a society where everyone will be Somebody. In a titanic, world-conquering crowd, no face will lack definition.

As the real thing outstrips the knockoff, as the Grand Canyon puts mere photos to shame, what passes now for "friendship" and "security" will seem like shadows. At the end of the day we'll be seeing Mankind, the genuine article, complete as planned.

And if you'll allow me to indulge a penchant for categorical statements, I'll sum up: Perfect identity in vast multiplicity is a tension only the Infinite could maintain.

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Technology Overload

So I was trying to wash my hands in the Men's/Adolescent's/Boy's room at North KC Highschool, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out why the faucets wouldn't turn on. Nearby students washed up effortlessly, provoking streams of hot water with nonchalant gestures of their hands. I watched them from the corner of my eye. But when I moved my fingers in front of faucets—carefully targeting the small recessed squares above them—nothing happened. I tried it again. Nothing. How about a different faucet? Nope. But soon I got tired of standing there cavalierly waggling my fingers.

I felt stupid, but "Is there some special trick with these things?”

With typical baffled helpfulness: “Well, uh, you just push ‘em.”

Good thing that kid wasn’t in my class. I hate getting out-psyched by a lack of technology.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Trouble With Writing

Despite the ravages brought on by rap music and similar verbal garbage, we have no shortage of people who express themselves well in writing. Recycled clichés, dead-on metaphors and the snappy one-liner will always be with us. Beyond this, I would go so far as to say there are countless people who aspire to write about meaningful things. The clincher is that we have a shortage of sufficiently meaningful people.

In a sea of aspiring philosophers, few can row. Why? We can only write what we’re truly acquainted with. A threadbare author’s thoughts inevitably surface, and no amount of verbal drapery can hide the shortfall.

As Flannery O’Connor said, “I write to see how much I know.” For me, the answer is usually “Not much.” But I write in the hope that I’ll someday know enough, or become human enough, in the Christ-centric sense of the word, to say meaningful things. Does one reach this place of clear-eyed insight through trial and error, starts and stops, miscues and disappointments? A guy can hope.

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Monday, January 10, 2005

Breathing Through Adversity

A few days last week, it was so cold outside I didn’t want to breathe. When I did, it was like inhaling icy steel nails, piercingly cold. I did, however, keep on breathing. I kept on breathing even when I had to crawl through our trunk and across the back seat to kick open the iced-over door from inside. My self-control was incredible, but even when it hurts, You Gotta Keep Breathing.

Stupid, I know, but I’m actually after a different paradigm. To invert this picture: Prayer, I believe, is just as essential as oxygen in cold weather. But when prayer gets painful, hard to maintain, do I continue? Inhaling icy air can be physically painful. Prayer is different—I am “discharging” something, exhaling, but when prayer becomes like icy air, or like pulling splinters, what happens then?

The redemptive essence of prayer is not, as some would maintain, the mere act of “breathing out.” Spiritually speaking, prayer is more than baroreceptors reacting to dangerous levels of CO2. In other words, it transcends catharsis—something beyond the emotional relief brought on by a good cry.

We may as well say the main benefit of breathing is the “religious” exercise of the diaphragm. Rather prayer, like an elliptical orbit, is only as strong as its central object. Reflexive, undirected prayer, unless accompanied by a heart in earnest, does no one any favors. As Shakespeare put it, “My prayers go up, my thoughts remain below. Prayers without thoughts never to heaven go.”

To return to the original “breathing” parallel: I’m convinced that failure of the prayer-reflex, like a flat-lining EKG, is an indicator of dire things. A non-breathing person will likely soon be pulse-less. A person without a pulse is called a corpse. Likewise, a person without a prayer life is, at the very least, clogged and asphyxiating at heart, descending toward spiritual unresponsiveness.

The analogy would of course need to be tweaked to really hold water, er—air. Oxygen would have to be a transformative entity, capable not only of life maintenance but something like cell-regeneration as well. Not to mention conversation. And breathing, I suppose, would have to be voluntary.

But there’s another sense in which, I think, the analogy does fit. Prayer, or the lack thereof, does ascend continually. There’s a sense in which we’re all, at all times, emitting a scent, if you will, either of spiritual deadness or of life. Don’t confuse this idea with some kind of new age “aura”—I’m simply saying that our spirits emanate life signs—soul diagnostics for those who can read them. Our souls are “beating,” whether they are in relationship with Christ or not.

We could say the “prayer” of a prayer-less person is not nonexistent but empty, like oxygen-less breath, carrying disintegration through the bloodstream instead of life.

I’ve come a long way to say it, but the crucial question is whether there is life in your spiritual breathing? And when will I learn, finally, to keep "breathing" through adversity?

I'll take frozen oxygen over an iced-up soul any day.

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Saturday, January 08, 2005

Academia Strikes Again

The last three days I have paid my dues, you could say, for Wednesday's indulgence. Bookish reveries are now merely a pleasant memory.

Aiming to collect a few "extra" credits, I enrolled in one of those accelerated "J-term" classes...the kind that meets for roughly 10 hours a day...three days in a row. Add a "surprise" research assignment that's due the next morning, and, viola!—instant redeye. Even the most resilient of minds had to feel the impact, and my grey cells are beginning to lose their mad elasticity.

This was the kind of experience that turns your mind inside out and dumps the contents on the carpet. A good vacuum was hard to find.

The first couple days I jumpstarted my hours in the classroom with a pot of coffee, and repeated the dosage at various strategic points throughout the day. This morning, tired of feeling "stoked" and slightly jittery I decided to fall back on that old tool from my undergraduate days—mental toughness and cold, hard discipline.

This was a pivotal decision for me, one of those crucial moments when character and knowledge collude to yield an epiphany: Despite what the self-help books might tell you, caffeine works better.

No doubt there will be other occasions for me to put this new-found knowledge to use, but...why do I always have to learn the hard way? Experience, I was thinking all day, Something you never get until after you need to drink it.

So that's the story of my weekend. But, somewhere, I do have a notebook filled with copious scribblings...which, for inexplicable reasons, become somewhat disjointed about 2/3 of the way through. Now, if I can just remember what the notes were about.

And where I am and what I'm doing.


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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Story Bound

Faced with hours of precipitation and forced inactivity, it’s is hard to conceive of a day more gloriously spent than in bookish drowsiness. Yesterday, after an early-morning errand to get the car inspected, banal reality was put on hold as I burned through Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy. (Lewis is one of those authors I feel “homesick” for after longish absences. It’s been since August since I read The Great Divorce.) Today Lindsay and I hoped to work, but a forecasted ice-storm closed down the school district and put an end to that aspiration. Instead, I turned to Perelandra, the second book, and with just pages to go…I take a few moments off to gloat.

Two non-mandatory books in two days. Aaaah. This sure feels good. There's nothing quite like being snow-bound and story-bound at the same time.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

While others immersed themselves in holiday festivities, I wracked my brain, agonizing over the life-changing resolutions I would bring to the New Year. ;)

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New Year, New Resolve

Some people shrug off the “resolution” thing as morbid self-immolation, and let’s be honest—there can be some of that involved. But attempting to change your life or stay the course doesn’t necessarily imply a mental beatdown. And I’m convinced, really, that a certain skepticism where our own motives and accomplishments are concerned is healthy. All this goes to say that rallying our oft-emaciated wills to a virtuous cause ought to be viewed without the dark glasses of cynicism.

So then, without further ado:

In 2005, I hereby resolve…

::: That BitterSweetLife will not go “pop.” Flirting with disaster once ought to be enough for anyone. Unfortunately, in my own experience it often isn’t, thus this reminder. Anytime I feel the temptation toward mainstream blogging creeping over me—to post, say, poignant non sequitors or some ravaged and dark inner thought life—I’ll remember this resolution. The blog must remain true to itself, pursuing topics of substance (most of the time, anyway). Pop culture never gets deep enough to be considered bittersweet. And besides, the illiterate masses are never going to stumble across this blog.

::: To age gracefully. Yeah, yeah, I know; I’m just a youngster, I still have hair, I fall in that category of the “ever-hip,” etc. But various sobering realizations struck me this year, such as My vertical leap has lost about 4 inches and I don’t seem to be regaining them. Beyond that, for the first time since I can remember, my NY resolutions do not include the perennial favorite—To play in the NBA. Don’t ask me why. I just didn’t feel like I had it in me this year. And that in itself speaks volumes.

::: To stop using satire and playful sarcasm in my posts. After much thought, I realized that quips and wordplay that some people might miss are simply inconsiderate. I ought to be more mindful of the satirically-challenged. From now on, any allusions I make will be painted with so broad a brush that even the lifetime McDonald’s employee who thinks PlayStation™ is high art will be able to make them out. After all, one of the fears that haunt me is that someone may not “get” some remark I make, and feel left out. This must not be.

::: To take the previous resolution in a manner diametrically opposed to its “face” value. And to use vivid and transpicuous* language while doing so.

Good enough for now. Four Public Resolutions ought to be enough for anyone. There are probably more, and I may post them if I can think of some way, however circuitous, that they relate to BitterSweetLife. Is anyone else out there bravely resolved?

* This word appeared in association with the Vocabulary Reclamation Project.
Transpicuous: The sense here is one of vivid understanding. Something crystal-clear and also memorable. Synonyms include “lucid,” “luminous,” “unambiguous.”

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Monday, January 03, 2005

Life Maintenance

I’ve spent the last several days in a post-holiday netherworld. The air here isn't dark enough to be called "blue" nor is it an indeterminate foggy grey. It's more like stormy weather at sunrise, low visibility pierced by glowing fragments. If there was a road sign in this haze, it would read, Welcome to the chronological doldrums. This location, or condition, is brought on by the semi-casual chronicling of the past year, a tabulation of things done and undone. It could be a happy exercise, but just as often, it’s not. There's a melancholy often associated with the year's end. Label it a hangover it you like, but contemplating chronology seems to have this effect on us.

Reviewing a year is a task nearly on par with reviewing a life; as long as you’re alive, perspective is never what it should be. One just makes educated guesses or unschooled stabs, as the case may be, and looks hastily to the future again.

I think the burden of having a life to live weighs on me this time of year—the incredible heaviness of being, I call it—and all the more so when 2004 ended in tragedy for thousands. Being alive implies grave responsibility. That being so, I’ve reconciled myself to the retrospection and introspection such awareness requires. It’s like car maintenance after a road trip.

I’m willing enough to take a glance back over the highways and rural routes I’ve traveled and then spare a glance inside the engine. It may be painful—at the very least it's humbling—but it’s only good sense. Ultimately, though, I realize such tune-ups exert only so much influence over the journey ahead.

Am I headed for the right destination this time? How long will it take me to get there? Did I pack the right stuff? Is my engine what it should be? (Can I afford the fuel?) Should I have arrived already?

Etc., etc. There’s no denying that taking stock of one’s life is sobering. It should be. Thankfully, in the end, I’m willing to acknowledge that every map I tentatively pen out is merely a smudged derivation of the master copy. And this is comforting.

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