Saturday, April 30, 2005

Seen Scars

I have a huge research paper on the burner this weekend; here’s a melancholy rag to tide you over until I break loose.

::

Seen Scars

After 26 years,
the knees creak
but this is scarcely audible.
Two lines on the brow are visible,
but most of all,
a sadness in the eyes
is perceptible.
We all see through it:
The scarring of the years
resides in the iris.



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Thursday, April 28, 2005

Nagging Happiness

The Inadequacy of Ordinary Looking-Forward-To



A comfortable euphoria accompanies the anticipation of our favorite pastimes—we smell the coffee, or hear the gulls crying before we find the sea. The joy of simple, reliable expectation is too often overlooked. But as much as I love my well-worn pleasures, something in me wants them magnified—blown up and posterized. They’re endearing, but too small.

That personalized delight I feel as I look forward to basketball, or a camping trip, or a riveting book—the joys that have been cultivated so long that I savor them without thinking—if only these sensations could be heightened and prolonged. If, somehow, the week-day ecstasies could lose their flightiness and put on weight. I want relentless happiness, but I suspect it will take more than an incredibly show-stopping hoops game.

This fugitive “feeling” persists throughout a life: a sustained glee, a pain-resistant giddiness, careless of immediate nuisances. Call it a nagging happiness. Sounds good, you say. Wrap one up and put it in a bag for me. And while you’re at it, point me toward Atlantis or the Fountain of Life, your choice.

What I want is elusive, and I know it. Arguably, it would take something more than the latest P.D. James. What kind of huge pay-off would be required? Fifty-two weekend get-aways a year wouldn’t get it done. A magnet strong enough to draw me that far, and that steadily—throughout life, optimistically for 80-some years—would have to dwarf the horizon. Fortunately, I’ve seen it, and it does.

This behemoth hope, the joy to end all joys, lurks at the edges of the sunrise. In moments of acuity, I realize the sunrise is merely a cloak for what stands behind it: something, Someone, who unfolds the sola like a sheet of gauze. Sometimes he appears more clearly, but at all times he’s there, standing in the imminent glow on the horizon, walking in the radiance. Steadily, the world grows brighter.

The joy I want, is, after all, undying. Invincible happiness may sound ridiculous, but I can taste it. If, at the end of each evening, I could turn off the light thinking, “One day closer, one day less to wait;” if I counted off hours like days before Christmas, counted seconds like diamonds on a string; if each moment had appeal simply because it passed—like ticks of the minute hand the night before a child’s birthday—this would be the life I’m after.

It would also be a life lived in light of the facts.

Fact is, the world spins madly toward its liberation, a day of freedom rapidly approaching. The Father leans forward, the Son smiles, the Spirit sings. Christ stands in the horizon, notching off each dawn. Another dawn, another daybreak, another tick of the calendar—a few brief instants more, and then—the fireworks! Deafening explosions of life, devastating and restoring everything. And what next?

Freedom, of course.
Freedom, O freedom.

Deeper, sharper, sweeter than we’d ever dreamed.



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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Journal is Born


A line-up of my previous journals appreciatively eyes the newcomer.

Last week saw a momentous occasion unfold, as I opened the cover of a new notebook and began scribbling.

In the past, I’ve always preferred the cheap, spiral-bound variety, the type you don’t feel bad about throwing in a pack, spilling coffee on, jotting illegible notes in. A journal shouldn’t limit a man’s expression by its quality. In my mind, that’s the problem with the elitist “Journals” (note capital J) lining the walls at Barnes & Noble, Border’s, and other “literary” establishments. They tend to be too ornate to write in. They tend to be too (shudder) pretty.

An author can be repressed by the considerable influences of such a Journal. His line of reasoning goes like this:

“My thoughts aren’t as crisp and flamboyant as this Journal, so I’ll wait until later… I’ll write that idea down until after I finish my coffee… In a while, my mind will spontaneously host more noble sentiments; I’ll write stuff then.”

This is why so many Journals lie unused in drawers. It’s a case of snobbery, the Journals snubbing their would-be authors. Instead, a journal should be rugged and highly useable. On the same pages should reside the perfect sentiments of a wondrous love poem—and the first 17 drafts of that love poem. You don’t go to the Book Nook to buy a journal…you go to Target.

Last week, though, I turned over a new leaf. The leaf was cardboard with a tasteful blue binding and matching elastic snap-around thingy. I almost shudder admit it, but there it is. I own a snobbish journal. It’s not pretty, but it has excessive class.

Fortunately, I paid next to nothing for it, which in my mind justifies this lapse. I’ve already spilled some coffee on it and begun scrawling on the first several pages. I am happy to report that the journal is no longer a Journal.

Another era of vigorous life-transcription has begun.



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Quoting Myself

One advantage of extended blogging, say six months or more, is that you can start making self-referential comments. You can link yourself to yourself in order to avoid misrepresentation. On many of the topics I write about - joy, pain, hoops, coffee, heaven - there's already an existing body of work. Written by me.

Sometimes I wonder if this is narcissistic. I try to balance excessive self-quotation by pulling in outside sources. Blogging so easily lends itself to self-obsession that one has to be careful. For that very reason (I think) I rarely go back and read my old posts...although there could be other reasons, such as that some of them are ridiculous. As they say, Write and learn.

Sometimes I find myself trying to say the same things over and over, and it's a relief to look back and notice that I seem to be saying them better this time around.



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Monday, April 25, 2005

Stupid Dreams

I’m one of those people who inadvertently disprove Freudian psychology at every turn. I attack Freud’s most vulnerable juncture, which is incidentally mine as well. In this arena, Freud is somewhat exposed, and I’m entirely unconscious. We’re both at a disadvantage, but I tend to come out on top.

My dreams, when I remember them, never make sense according to Freud’s rubric…or any other system that I’ve come across. However, the pattern is occasionally broken, which is the case with a recurring dream I’ve been having lately.

In this dream, I suddenly come to the realization that I’ve almost missed the entire semester of a crucial class. How it happens is never quite clear. Apparently I skip a class period once or twice as a matter of convenience early on, and then, as a result, completely forget that I’m enrolled in the class. In my dream, the awful realization always dawns a week before finals. You can easily imagine the “anxiety” that results.

Last night, the dream came again, but with a notable wrinkle. Not only did I miss the class, but now it turns out that it would have been one of my favorite classes—Philosophy of Religion. In the past, the class title had always been vague, withheld, no doubt, in order to be dramatically introduced at a later time.

How exactly one forgets, for an entire semester, that one is enrolled in a class one has anticipated since starting school defies logic. That, of course, is part of the dream’s horror.

However, if unconscious academic stress means conscious academic swagger, I’m all for it. I’m not backing down. So get this.

Not only am I aware of all my classes, but I attend them all—huh? huh? And not only do I attend, I take notes!—got that? And beyond notes, I’m keeping up! Exams drop behind me like 2-foot bank shots! Quizzes fall like free throws! I laugh at reading assignments, yo! I deal with papers like deposit slips! Ha ha! How do you like them apples?

Stupid dreams must be dealt with forcefully.



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Old Friends & Strange Talks

I ran into an old friend last week; as anyone knows who has survived such moments, the encounters can be surreal. The elements of time and geography may have chaotic effects on the ability of two people to understand each other.

In this instance, the “surreality” was caused, in my opinion, by

a serious error in judgment
chased by some self-help drivel
mixed with an unstable compound
half optimism, half naiveté.


This is in reference to my old friend, sadly. I was recruited to the conversation largely as a listener, and listen I did, as she showered me with biographical statements that

dealt adequately with minutia
but missed the central facts—
a perfect circle of logic and competency
about two inches wide.


Have you ever listened to someone build an “air-tight” argument for something, watching with fascinated horror as they use only about 17% of the available evidence to do so? Such a presentation was made by my friend, as she built her small ring of truth which

encompassed what it surrounded,
oblivious to what lay outside.


It wasn’t that her answers were technically wrong, but what they failed to take into account that troubled me.

What your thoughts miss—
what your words do not reflect—
describing sandburs, your back to a rising ocean.

How does one react in the face of such reasoned myopia? I can’t say I fully know. Every so often I would interject with a question or comment, giving my friend an opportunity to clarify herself or enlarge her frame of reference. It never happened. I was as blunt as I dared, with no result.

You make your case for sanity,
not realizing you are blind;
your demonstrations of sobriety
sidestep the mind.

In the end, I was left with a sense of disbelief—“Is this really all she makes of her life? Was that really all she’s concluded? Is she really trying to bandage that gash with those pieces of string?” These questions melted into vague disappointment. It had been a strange talk with an old friend.

Everything dealt with but the obvious questions,
everything answered but Why?

The problem with having heart-to-hearts with “old friends” is that as friends, you may just be too old to sustain real communication. Crucial give-and-take often requires the elasticity of well-maintained comrades. But you never know.



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Saturday, April 23, 2005

So People Read The News After All

Much to my surprise, some people actually seem to care when you get a picture in the paper. Never mind that it was just a happy accident; a guy gets a blurb in the local daily, and immediately his net worth rises. Well, I guess that’s ok.

Not only have a few teachers dropped by the blog, but my recent run-in with the printed page has had off-line repercussions as well. Imagine my surprise, when, strolling in to my toughest class at the seminary this semester, my professor handed me a clipped-out copy of the article, kindly suggesting that my mother may have wanted a copy. (This professorial favor was offset by the destructive, tortuous exam that immediately followed, but that, as they say, is another story.)

But the Star saga doesn’t end there. On Wednesday, it was business as usual, and I was set to reenter the subbing arena. The weekend and its make-me-look-good article had been duly enjoyed. I was prepared for the battles of the will and “class struggle” paradigm that’s par for the course in this subbing life.

So imagine my surprise when the day came off without a hitch. When I entered my classroom, and the teacher next door dashed in with some pointers, she pulled up in surprise—“Hey, Mr. Famous Teacher…” Later, several students looked at me with that slightly-perplexed “Shouldn’t I know you from somewhere?” expression that must annoy lesser celebrities to no end. Maybe the students didn’t know quite where to place me; or maybe they were remembering the good times last Friday, playing kickball; or maybe it was just my imagination—but it worked. There was one definite instance of face-recognition, though. As I walked out to the car, one guy collared me: “Hey…didn’t you have an article in the paper?” Incredible. He actually seemed impressed. And I didn’t even know kids read the paper these days.

However, the plot thickened on Friday, when I went back to work. When I picked up my sub assignment, pinned to my folder was—gulp—the familiar article, once again clipped out for my convenience. “I thought you might want another copy,” the secretary told me with kind sheepishness. “I read the article and thought it was very interesting.” No way! I didn’t expect my “coworkers” to read this! As I walked into the teachers’ lounge, mentally reviewing the article for potentially-damning material, one of the veteran teachers looked up in the middle of a phone conversation—“[Hang on a sec] Hey, great article!”

Ridiculously, these incidents set the tone for the day. When I finally headed out, I had been the recipient of student confidences—“Our last sub acted all strict with us, but at the same time she wanted us all to be her friends”—teacher confidences—“My plan was to watch Aladdin 2: The Return of Jafar, and tie it to our topic…”—and student accolades—“Mr. V, you rock! What’s up, Mr. V? Hey Mr. V, when you have kids, you should name one after me.”


One has to wonder, where will all this end? Fortunately, I think I can supply the answer there: Could this mean…a chance to break my previous “smooth subbing assignments” streak of 29.7 days? It might just happen.



It seems appropriate to link a few classic sub posts here.

Life of a Sub
Probably the quintessential subbing story, also the first.

Adventures in Lower Education
I elaborate on an experience unique to subbing, the "pseudo-bouncer encounter."

A Place in the Sun
My most 2nd most recent subbing post, in which startling parallels between secret agent assignments and the daily sub assignments materialize.

Playing Tag With Fame
Not truly a subbing article, here's a quick account of how this enjoyably ridiculous KC Star business came about.



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Thursday, April 21, 2005

Beyond Theology, Beyond Loss

In Response To Bleeding—GOD

It’s been a little while since a Post of Substance has appeared here, and to be honest, I’ve been putting it off. Dread isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s a fear of seeming overly morbid, although that’s not quite it either. For whatever reason, I’ve been reluctant to write this. I knew that I would, just “not now.” Posts of Substance, like brave assertions, can’t be tossed off flippantly. But apparently all the cylinders on my “writer’s lock” are finally aligned; the small safe that held this post is swinging open.

Ever noticed how, in the throes of pain, what we want most is not often deep philosophy? As Job would have told you, Beware of offering theology to a wounded man. In my own struggles, when the heart seems to pump bile, I find myself reading mystery stories and writing compulsively about basketball.

This is not to say the truth becomes irrelevant. Rather, it is deeply relevant. It is the bones that support the drooping flesh, the timber that props up the sagging roof. Theology, like a sacred memory, is frequently mulled and wept over, but often at a level that defies light conversation.

When theology is all you have to stand on, the pavement you slump on, you may not care to discuss the brand of concrete and its method of reinforcement. Assuming your foundation is strong, grief is not best overcome by a structural assessment. The moment when theology (“God’s will is perfect”) is most valuable may also be the moment when it is most inscrutable. The truth Job needed to plumb was not that “Eventually, in this life or the next, God will reward the righteous,” but rather—GOD IS.

The weight of this fact, simple and heavy, descended on me recently. About three weeks ago, Lindsay and I suffered a loss in the family, and found ourselves immersed in sorrow. As the days went by, I tried to make sense of my own experience. I was willing to talk about our loss, but what was there to talk about? The pain was the central reality, the biggest thing. The value in exhaustively describing the pain was limited. The pain was to be borne.

Later would come the time for theology—later, and, simultaneously, below—below the present pain, and out of sight, not rehearsed like a mantra, but embraced like a man hugs his own bones. Later, perhaps, I would examine it again. Just now I simply needed a distraction. A distraction and God—God, the eternal and penultimate distraction; Christ pulls us away from “truth” that cannot be helped by further dissection, and he gives us Himself instead. This, I now think, has been a secret of Christians throughout the ages. While in agony, they could not, perhaps, read fiction and shoot hoops, but they were nonetheless “distracted.” Profoundly distracted.


At the point where further scrutiny is masochistic and self-defeating, Christ waits. He says, “I know what you feel, but look at me instead.” I do not doubt that he can hold our attention.



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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

KU Notches (Another) Stud Recruit

I know you can read this somewhere else, but I prefer to gloat about it here.

Looks like KU's Bill Self just wowed another big-time recruit into an unexpectedly early commitment, ala Julian Wright in last year's class. Apparently, junior
Dwight Lewis and his parents were so impressed by Self's in-home visit that he went ahead and orally committed. Wright would not, of course, play this coming season, but the one after.

As Dwight's dad summarizes his game (from the Lawrence Journal World, linked above):


"His strength is he can score at will," Lewis Sr. said. "Being double- and triple-teamed, it's amazing he could put up those numbers. He can shoot the three, but his strength is his mid-range game, shooting it off the dribble. He shoots it so well off the dribble you might say his weakness is the stationary shot."

Coming from pops, this must be taken with a grain of salt, but regardless, Lewis sounds like a big-time talent. Chances are he'll be vying for court time in the 2006 MacD's AA game.

Jayhawk fans have to like this highly unusual phenomenon of blue-chip players buying in to a coach's vision without a campus visit (again, like Julian Wright)—and competing coaches have to be slightly alarmed. The Bucknell fiasco is not deterring the recruits, and Self's charisma is already filling the stable for 2006-07. Are you reading this, Roy Williams?



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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Bangs and Explosions

Some time ago I wrote a post expressing concern over my increasing handiness around the house—a post that was interrupted, incredibly, by Lindsay asking me to trim her bangs. She called me away just as I posed the question, “Where might all this end?” Talk about ironic timing.

Well, on Sunday, the sequence was repeated. Lindsay cornered me and coerced me into trimming her bangs again—but this time I did what I should have done the first time. I cut them a little too short.

Not that it was exactly intentional. In fact, I said at the time—and I still maintain—that I did exactly what I was asked to. Wet hair has certain unique properties, such as, when it dries (or you cut it), it “rebounds.” So haircuts in the mirror may be shorter than they appear.

I felt like I needed to get this out. Those of you who know us will be hearing about it anyway, so you might as well hear the true story first. Forewarned, in these cases, is fore-armed. When the truth is at risk, one can hardly be too cautious. So don’t believe everything Lindsay tells you.

A helpful suggestion, however: If she seems to want to talk about it, just tell her you always thought Queen Cleopatra had a really good look going. ;)



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Monday, April 18, 2005

Saved from Fame

As hard as I’ve tried to keep this blog “underground”—a little-known alternative savored by a discerning few—fame keeps chasing it down. As I narrated last week, BitterSweetLife narrowly missed becoming news “lite” for the local masses.

Fortunately, a quirk of timing saved this blog from a highly-publicized fate. Artistic license and absolute creativity remain my prerogative, free from the pressures of a large and demanding readership.

However, I didn’t dodge the bullet of notoriety entirely. I just redirected it. If you care to see what happened from my second-chance interview with the Kansas City Star’s Andrea Lorenz (Thanks, Andrea), check it out : My substitute teaching life is on display in all its dorky (and slightly misquoted) glory. The interview, of course, was better—but as a friend pointed out, isn’t it *always?*


At least I can rest easier now, knowing that BitterSweetLife will remain an underground phenomena, at least for the rest of the foreseeable future. Of course, the blog gets a token mention in the Star article, but how many people will be irresistibly drawn to explore the life of a substitute teacher? Exactly.

I feel the safe, warm blanket of obscurity wrapping me once again. But for a few seconds there, it was close.



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Sunday, April 17, 2005

What They Don't Tell You About Marriage

I was carrying things inside from the car—a pastime that absorbs much of a husband’s life—when I noticed that Lindsay had left her purse there. Obviously, I would need to bring it in. So I grabbed my briefcase, a random plastic bowl, and Lindsay’s purse, and started toward our apartment building. I had taken about two steps when the extreme awkwardness of my situation struck me.

There is no right way for a guy to carry a woman’s purse. This is all the more true when he is by himself. Conveying it neatly by the two handles is clearly out of the question, and it’s hard to nonchalantly conceal a purse under your arm because then it looks like you’re stealing it. In the end, I grabbed the purse with a masculine disregard for its handles, while keeping it in the open to indicate fair play. I conveyed it quickly and self-consciously to our apartment, hefting it by its “neck”—if purses have “necks.” But you get the idea. Now I am writing this quick note so other unsuspecting men can avoid a very dangerous situation. Be wary, fellows. There’s really no way to come out a winner.

Filed in:



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Saturday, April 16, 2005

A Place in the Sun

6:30 a.m., another day on the job. I rummaged through the fridge for lunch, spiked my hair into something resembling symmetry, and vanished into the dawn. I was joined in the cab of our vehicle by Lindsay, who had made her own hurried preparations before materializing in the passenger seat. A glance of mutual understanding, and we were off.

The building looked much as it always did. Students loitered by the doors, on the steps and in the hallways. Lindsay and I threaded our way to the main office with the practiced expertise of crowd-control tacticians. At Main we picked up the day’s assignments, signing and dating our forms to indicate, Yes, the new objectives had been duly received. With a nod to the ever-present secretary, we pinned on our ID badges and strode forward to re-immerse ourselves in the chaotic world outside.

Moving down the hallway, stepping around and through patches of light and students, I scanned my assignment. Not bad, not bad at all. I had taken the call with restrained optimism, but my actual duties exceeded my rosiest expectations. I squared my shoulders and proceeded to the triage point with an extra bounce in my step. Today would be a good day.

Approximately seven hours later I returned to Main, sun-burnt but in good spirits. The ever-present crowds were already thinning as I unclipped my ID badge, and passed over my completed objectives with a collected nod. The secretary smiled appreciatively: “Thank you very much.” “Not at all.” When you’re good, you’re good. What more is there to say? I turned on my heel—out the door and away, back to the unsuspecting world.

***

Yesterday I arrived at North KC High School, expecting a light day of subbing. The students had spent the previous four days knocking their heads against a wall called the MAP test. I knew they’d be relatively docile by Friday, and ready for a break. I couldn’t picture many teachers who wouldn’t be on the same page, and my expectations were justified. On the way to school, I projected likely options. The Incredibles? Shrek 2, maybe? Or that old fall-back, Monsters Inc.? Turns out my expectations were too moderate.

I can count on one finger the times I’ve been paid to get a tan playing kickball all day. But so it was. The results, ultimately, were disappointing: an 11-12 loss, followed by an 8-11 loss, followed by the day’s real heartbreaker, in which my class went up 12-8 before losing 12-13. I contributed line drives, a long-ball and some stellar defensive play, all in a losing cause. The students, those who played, were equally committed, but defensive errors ultimately undermined our enthusiasm. Sigh.

Of course, in evaluating the day as a whole, the W-L column is a mere technicality. No one can say the life of a sub doesn’t have its moments. If only Lindsay could have gotten in on it, the day would have been a complete success. Then again, she’s not exactly a kick-ball buff… But chances are that she too, at some point, will get her day in the sun. The key is to hang in there until it arrives. Like a pension program for subs, you know. Who says we don't get benefits?



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Thursday, April 14, 2005

Futility Online

My MSN internet service has been on the lam recently, and, pathetic as it normally is, being dial-up, its new-found status is hard to describe. Indeed, words fail. Not yet resigned to my fate as an email-deflecting, server-repulsing, electronic black hole, I earlier this week contacted one of MSN’s faithful online representatives. My question: How come no emails appears in my inbox anymore, even though I know people are sending them? And how come all my archived and sent messages are gone? And how come MSN quits without warning at random moments? And how come I’m paying for all this?

Below are enlightening moments of our conversation, chosen for their instructional value.

{Syed}
Thank you for contacting MSN Online Support. I am Syed and I will be assisting you today

{Ariel Vanderhorst}
Great

After verifying the problem—which was, essentially, in so many words, in a nutshell, to put it plainly, MSN is broken!—he cut right to the chase. Or so it appeared.

{Syed}
I apologize for the inconvenience caused to you in this regard.

{Syed}
Please stay online while I check my database regarding this issue.

{Ariel Vanderhorst}
Ok

{Syed}
Thank you for your time and patience.

{Ariel Vanderhorst}
Sure

We briefly exchanged pleasantries, but then I caught him with an unexpected query.

{Syed}
I apologize for not being able to access your new emails in MSN.

{Ariel Vanderhorst}
So how do I fix this?

{Syed}
Sometimes this issue is caused due to the migration of your account to a new & better performace server.

Incredible. Had Syed secretly anticipated my question? Or did he creatively compose an answer on the spot? But I wasn’t convinced yet.

{Ariel Vanderhorst}
Does this usually take a week or more?

{Syed}
Areil, I cannot give a time frame in which this issue is going to be resolved

{Syed}
However, I will give you some steps to troubleshoot this issue, which may resolve the issue. However, if the issue persists even after performing these steps, I would request you to wait for sometime till the migration process completes.

{Ariel Vanderhorst}
Ok...

However, I was once again one step ahead. It was time to play hardball.

{Ariel Vanderhorst}
I've already tried reinstalling MSN and restoring my system info

{Ariel Vanderhorst}
This is getting to be a headache

Undeterred, Syed continued with his groveling/apologetic line of attack.

{Syed}
I understand that this whole experience has been very frustrating.

I didn’t go for it.

{Ariel Vanderhorst}
Righto. After all, email is what I'm paying for.

{Syed}
Ariel, I do understand how troublesome this could be and I once again apologize for entire inconvenience.

{Ariel Vanderhorst}
Thanks. So, how are you going to make me feel better about this?

{Ariel Vanderhorst}
That "what I'm paying for" phrase was a subliminal message, in case you missed it.

Sadly, the ensuing remarks confirmed my darkest suspicions. Not only did Syed lack a sense of humor, he whiffed in the competency department as well, as the following remarks indicate.

{Syed}
Please be assured that all your E-mails will be safe and migration will be completed as soon as possible.In the meantime you can access your emails through www.hotmail.com from Internet Explorer.

Meaningless drivel.

{Syed}
I agree that you deserve the service worth your money and I would like to inform you that this migration is done in order to give our valuable customers, a better service.

Poorly-disguised spin.

{Syed}
I appreciate your patience and cooperation in this regard.

Dodging the issue.

{Syed}
In other words this temporary inconvenience is for the betterment of our service and I hope you understand.

Evading responsibility.

{Syed}
I once again apologize and appreciate your patience.

Refusal to pay up.

How much of this could one ridiculously strapped internet subscriber take? Indefinite downtime; continued monthly charges; no remedial action—Few responses would be appropriate in such a situation. None, really. Foolishly, I tried anyway.

{Ariel Vanderhorst}
Unless I'm mistaken, with server issues, the onus rests with the parent company, not the customer's patience. But thanks for the help.

[ The visitor has ended the chat session. ]

Having expressed my impotent protest, I logged off in disgust.

When I later reviewed the transcript of my futile chat with Syed, I was amused to find his wasted attempts to reestablish contact. Perhaps one day he’ll learn that e-apologies can only get you so far in this cutthroat world of customer relations.

{Syed}
Ariel, are you online with me?

{Syed}
I think we are disconected.

{Syed}
I know how frustrating this could be if you are unable to access all your important e-mails. I once again sincerely apologize for the inconvenience caused to you.

Thanks for your kind thoughts, Syed. In the meantime, as I wait for my nebulous “issue” to be resolved in my “undetermined” time frame, Juno is looking pretty good. Shoot, the Pony Express is looking pretty good at this point. MSN, are you listening?



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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

To Know, To Love



If he didn’t love you then,
he loves you now.
Unavoidable, under your gaze—
his admiration, her affection.
He smiles in your sunshine.
She shines in your shadow.
To see is to adore.

I wonder if there is an awareness that precedes self-knowledge? An instinctive knowing that undergirds being, before we are aware of being?

To ask the question is to wander into pure speculation, so there’s not much to be said. But the question fascinates. Did we know what God was like before we emerged amid the obscuring influences of sun and dirt, slights and sin?

Of course, merely “interesting” questions pale in light of tangible truths. Like this one: For God’s children, to see him is to love him. If we belong to Christ, “seeing” means spontaneous affection. Vision isn’t 20/20 now, but when the haze melts away, we’ll see the truth of the supposed cliché, “Love at first sight.”



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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Shining Loss

I just finished George MacDonald’s Phantastes; seldom has a book been better timed. As C.S. Lewis wrote, this story has “a certain quality of Death, good Death.” One gains the sense that to lose, to fall by the way, even to die—in all its range of meanings—may be in the end The Way. Because of Christ, loss is not always what it seems. An air of the unattainable runs keenly through this story. Beauties brushed, never clasped, miracles glimpsed, but not evoked—not yet. A heart’s-weight of sorrow is accrued in a careless instant; moments pace by, the heart grows grayer and wiser, and in the end more joyful. To get, to hold, to possess, in our terms, could be to miss the way, to remain in a dusty turn-off while the road winds on, further and further, and I am left behind.

Sad is the man who fumbles for joy in an empty castle while Life outruns him. We should shed tears, thread the next entry, and walk on. Ahead lies deep good, undimmed and as yet inexpressible, no matter years or loss or pain. Christ defies appearances. As MacDonald ends his book, “Yet I know that good is coming to me—that good is always coming; though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it. What we call evil is only the best shape, which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good. And so, Farewell.”



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Monday, April 11, 2005

Phantastes - George MacDonald, A+

A Flash Review: Shining Loss

Phantastes - George MacDonald, A+

As C.S. Lewis wrote, this story has “a certain quality of Death, good Death.” One gains the sense that to lose, to fall by the way, even to die—in all its range of meanings—may be in the end The Way. Because of Christ, loss is not always what it seems.

An air of the unattainable runs keenly through this story. Beauties brushed, never clasped, miracles glimpsed, but not evoked—not yet. A heart’s-weight of sorrow is accrued in a careless instant; moments pace by, the heart grows grayer and wiser, and in the end more joyful. To get, to hold, to possess, in our terms, could be to miss the way, to remain in a dusty turn-off while the road winds on, further and further, and I am left behind.


Sad is the man who fumbles for joy in an empty castle while Life outruns him. We should shed tears, thread the next entry, and walk on. Ahead lies deep good, undimmed and as yet inexpressible, no matter years or loss or pain. Christ defies appearances. As MacDonald ends his book, “Yet I know that good is coming to me—that good is always coming; though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it. What we call evil is only the best shape, which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good. And so, Farewell.”



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She - H. Rider Haggard, B-

A Flash Review: She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed



She : A History of Adventure - H. Rider Haggard, B-

I started this book on our trip to Glacier Park, interrupted it with various required Archaeology texts, and was still able to pick it back up effortlessly when I had the time. This fact says something about Haggard’s ability to write fiction that grabs you. True, She is not “shocking” by 21st century standards, but the book does have some surprising, even hair-raising twists. The Tolkien and Lewis parallels which I’ve heard of for years (and which are spelled out in the introduction) are fascinating, and I think I would concur with many reviewers who praise She’s slightly haunting mythic quality.

However, I can’t see myself reading this book more than once—multi-readability being a trademark of classic fiction—and Haggard’s writing could use polishing. (A fact that was noted by his contemporary, Robert Louis Stevenson, who cautioned Haggard not to write "too quickly." (Haggard stated that he ripped off She in six weeks!) Thus, while Haggard’s work was more sensational and better-selling at the time, Stevenson’s works have better stood the test of time. )

No one, including Haggard, has been able to nail down the "allegorical" nature of She, which continues to bemuse and tease... Do all men long for unavoidable, inconsolable love of a woman? Some might differ, but I don't think so... Perhaps it is the inconsolable aspect of She that gets people, though, couched as it is in action-adventure form. We don't expect it.

The feeling catches us off guard, and we realize a thriller doesn't normally cut so deep. Haggard's form of inconsolable longing sticks us in a place that isn't often probed. We don't necessarily want a goddess/woman, who would turn out to be human after all...but we do want Someone.

Kudos to Haggard for (inadvertently) bringing up a subject that is rarely breached in fiction. This in itself relegates She to the coveted rank of "solid."



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A Shabby Playroom



It struck me recently, the unnatural isolation of our lives. Our living conditions, even the best of them, are disquietingly wrong. Our lives possess a degree of separation from their Source that is surreal—C.S. Lewis called it a “great divorce.” The more I think about it, the more I see this truth as obvious but hidden, the disconnected strangeness of our lives.

We are like a child in a dysfunctional home. Our dwelling is a single-parent household, our situation effective abandonment—except that we perpetuate it ourselves. We are not statistics. We are not marginalized children.

We remain stubbornly in custody of an earth that treats us poorly, prevented by our own perversity from reunion with a loving father. He watches us from a legal distance; we do not see him. His heart is heavy, and we are saddened, and do not know why.

Christ wants all his children with him, and sometimes chooses peremptorily to bring them home. The rest of us live on in this unnatural state of things, this strange plantation, a dim-lit Never-Never Land, Island of Lost Boys—do we ever come to see it? Mercifully, the Father finally reclaims those who are his, even when we fail to realize how foreign our lives have become.

Ironically, we may catalogue our sense of alienation without diagnosing or even guessing at its source. Most of the time our degree of separation does not register fully, but we can be sure for God it does. As Christ mourned:

“Jerusalem…how often I’ve ached to embrace your children, the way a hen gathers
her chicks under her wings, and you wouldn’t let me” (Matthew 23:37, The Bible).

For us, it’s different. The knowledge of seclusion rises naturally enough:

The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that the sense of loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon peculiar to myself and a few other solitary people, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. – Thomas Wolfe

But having stumbled over this “central and inevitable fact,” how do we employ it? Irrationally, we continue in this unbright nursery, stumbling through shadowlands, splashing in the shallows, crying over bruises and sand burns, while the Father calls us to the blue Atlantic, the Caribbean radiance of life as he lives it.

There is a sense in which God watches from a towertop or through a window as his children play outside and below—“unable” to go to them because his children will not have him.

Or more aptly, we children alternatively romp or sulk in a halogen-lit playroom while God observes from the outside world of soaring mountains, sunlit meadows, azure lakes, a living, growing cosmos. Our orphan-status is an artificial construct. We remain in this shabby playroom because we ignore the doorknobs.

I wonder at our reluctance to meet our estranged Father. Is it because we fear to meet him? Or because we fear who we’ve become? At any rate, lucky are those who have never entered the chronic dysfunction, or who swallowed their pride and allowed the Father to heal the breach. As Wolfe queries—

Which of has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

—to which I say, Some of us do, Some of us have not, Some of us never were. One day there will be a great setting-to-rights. Earth will become an empty nursery.



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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Bloglet Ends My Insomnia

For months, it seems, I’ve lain awake at night, playing out various scenarios in my mind. I fret, I tweak this condition or that, I exercise hyper-optimism—but the outcome is always the same.

It’s like a recurring nightmare, the type of horror story that makes you not want to sleep. Only problem is, I’m awake. The story goes like this: Undoubtedly, for every new post I slam up, there are dozens of loyal readers just waiting—sitting at the pc, clicking refresh, refresh, refresh—until it appears. But also undoubtedly, there must be at least a dozen who should have seen it, wanted to see it, were dying to see it—but didn’t. And this is the thought that haunts me.

Maybe your internet connection went AWOL. Maybe the hard disk raged out of control. Maybe your dog ate your mouse. Maybe you just took a lovely unplanned vacation, only later realizing the full consequences. Whatever the case, a horrific outcome lurks in the shadows, waiting to be recognized at a later date: BitterSweetLife continued while you were gone, and you weren’t there to see it happen.

An appalling thought, I know. Hopefully you were in a pleasant, well-lit room with classical music playing when you read this. But for those who are haunted by this waking dream, as I am, there is now a cure.

Look to your right. There, in the sidebar. The little box with the button that says “subscribe.” Yeah, Bloglet may just change the way you sleep—and live.



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Playing Tag with Fame

Last week, this blog almost went syndicate.

Kansas City Star reporter Andrea Lorenz contacted me via email, and asked if I’d be willing to do an interview for a feature article on blogging. She said BitterSweetLife had attracted her interest with its hip yet realistic, sophisticated yet lucid, profound yet laugh-out-loud content. Actually, she found the blog on a search engine. But why split hairs?

I gave the interview request careful thought, and then left a memo for my people to call her people. Actually, she and I played email tag. But you get the point. Email tag progressed to phone tag, and this went on for a couple days.

Finally, we had a real-time conversation, but it was too late—the article deadline had already passed. Andrea had been forced to dig up a replacement blogger. However, sensing the surreality of the moment, she offered me a consolation prize—a feature article on “How I Survive Substitute Teaching.” I replied with a conclusive “Well, OK.”

Yesterday, the interview took place over the phone. From the comfort of my own futon, I tried to convey a convincing picture of the Subbing Life, inserting not-so-subliminal blog references wherever possible. I wish I could say it went off flawlessly, but I’m afraid Andrea will have to deal with some duplicate content and that dreaded plague of casual conversation—the ums.

Back in my tenure as reporter and then Editor-in-Chief at the Johnson County Community College Ledger, I did countless interviews. Unfortunately, not many people interviewed me. My knack for spot-on, spontaneous commentary is still developing. This, among other reasons, is why I turn down most of the numerous interview requests this blog generates.*

At what price, fame? I’ll just have to wait and see how this pans out.


* No, no, not really. If I had 'em I wouldn't trash 'em.



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Friday, April 08, 2005

Rain Veil



The mystery of divine will
is a rain veil round this earth.
We stand beneath
and water streams our faces,
cold or caressing in turn.
Who can pierce the rain clouds
or describe their purpose?
We may scan,
we may plot,
we may forecast—
we presume to know
at our peril.


AJV © 2004



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Thursday, April 07, 2005

Pulp Fiction Compulsion = Mystery Books?



At times, a need for "pulp" fiction descends like a sand bag from a third story window, crushing everything in its path. I
n an analogy more to the point, the sand bag kills a passerby, it looks like foul play, and I am recruited to apprehend the culprit.

Pulp these days takes the form of mystery stories - and unabashedly good ones at that. It's really a stretch to term P.D. James a pulp writer, but I'm not sure where to place her. She's no Dostoevsky, but she's no Stephen King either (which is meant as a compliment). Her stories are tightly spooled, written with panache, and approach life's weightier issues in authentic ways. A murder is never a mere plot development.

All right then. Here are a couple of recaps, the first of which deals somewhat with my compulsion to read this stuff.

Cover Her Face - P.D. James

A good mystery story is like a boxed appliance that says, "All necessary parts & tools included." Dark tensions mounting to an inevitable crescendo? Check. An imposing array of apparent leads, among which lurk the "right" ones? Check. Wry dialogue and subtly allusive conversations? Check. A scintillating workout for the mind? Check. Fantastically sophisticated characters? Check. When assembled-an effective escape from encroaching reality? Precisely.

James' initial foray into "crime writing" is a blockbuster. Having inadvertently read the sixth installment in her Adam Dalgliesh series first, I devoured the true numero uno book without disappointment. I treated James' nuanced characters with more respect this time around, but still couldn't pin the murder on the right bloke. With a plethora of leads and suspects, a late-breaking red herring, and absorbing psychological interplay between characters, more Dalgliesh lies ahead. Incidentally, how come all the best mystery writers are British?

Death of an Expert Witness - P.D. James

An Adam Dalgliesh mystery, my first exposure to James' incisive characterization and tightly spooled plots. Dark, nitty-gritty and somewhat sexually charged, the story gave every evidence of being solvable; I'm not sure I did justice to this option, embroiled as I was in a mystery of my own: Can I get all my assignments done? In any case, Dalgliesh, and his accomplice, Massingham, when viewed together seem to hold seeds of redemption; transcendance comes up naturally in these stories. (As it turns out, this was episode # 6 in the Dalgliesh series!)


Filed in:



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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Life Bounces On



The wheels have finally fallen off the wagon. At every juncture, I thought the inevitable might still be avoided. At every turn, I was wrong. Roy took home the hardware.

After the Jayhawks imploded against Bucknell, I generated a variety of creative scenarios in which Roy Williams did not win the NCAA championship. At first I had UConn tabbed as the giant killer, but they failed to make the appointment. The Villanova Wildcats, my initial hopeful, tripped up in the last moments of their dance with destiny. I could never seriously convince myself that Wisconsin would challenge the Tarheels, and they didn’t. I forced myself to believe that Michigan State could knock Roy off…but I didn’t really.

The Illini were my last great hope. To their credit, they fought back from a disastrous shooting performance to put a scare into UNC that Roy’s heart won’t soon forget. They did well, very well, but they failed down the stretch in their assigned mission—to knock Roy Williams from the title game.

Lindsay and I yelled and fist-pumped and even winked at Coach Weber’s ostentatious orange coat. Those back-to-back threes that Deron Williams knocked down—we willed ‘em in. Those surprising-but-crucial shots from Ingram—we screamed at him to spot up and knock them down. We willed the Illini to stop Sean May too, but our powers of telepathy weren’t strong enough.

Our spectacular arsenal of negative vibes and projected antipathy were not enough to stop Roy Williams. Tuesday was a grey day in Kansas City. The ultimate putdown had been pasted to KU fans. Williams had fooled us, said KU was the new hoops paradise, then turned on his heel and walked out two years later.

We Jayhawk fans sat in baleful silence as he swiped his first NCAA trophy. In Lawrence, Self’s boys were in the workroom, already gunning for next season, puzzled intensity on their faces. Self had watched the game with something like desperation eddying beneath his self-assured demeanor. In different states, three highly-decorated McDonald’s All-Americas had soaked in the spectacle on CBS, weighing their chances of reversing KU’s fallen fortunes in seven months. When Roy hoisted the trophy, they didn’t quite understand the implications, but they suspected they were big. They shifted restlessly on their sofas and mentally shouldered the burden.

The KU weapon was doggedly reloading. Somewhere in Lawrence, KS, a beautiful orange sphere caromed down a court beneath a palm, defied gravity—and hit only nylon. Above the Field House, the sun shredded clouds as if they were a net. Life would go on.



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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Convalescence

Brief elaboration on a common theme of late.

::

Pain works its way out,
a quill in the chest.
It will emerge behind you
if organs escape.



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Monday, April 04, 2005

Sorrow Has A Shelf Life

Gouged spirits, like cut flesh, scab over. Sorrow has a shelf life. I say it as an admonition and a consolation: I won’t have the urgency of blood for long; eventually even the ugliest wounds grow firm. Sorrow has a shelf life.

I know it does.

There is a purpose and an end in grief, and we had best exploit it while the potency remains. One thing’s for sure: Sorrow sharpens. Like an open wound harshly accentuates our spatial awareness—what we bump into, what we touch—so grief gives us a keenly vulnerable alertness. Emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, our senses are heightened.

Sometimes when the sharpening seems unbearable, we ought to remember the sword is two-edged. It brings piercing joy as well as pain. Sorrow pushes perception to a razor-edge, so we see truth in all its lovely, aching brilliance. The truth of loss. And the truth that undergirds the loss. We must remember which is greater.

A crucial caveat in this “product,” sorrow, must be that we do not allow it to permanently disable us. “To cripple” is not one of its intended effects. To hurt, perhaps to humble, surely, to mortify and sober us, yes—to sideline us, conclusively “wounded”—No. Woundedness is a temporary state, a transient gift, but it is not a lifestyle.

As David wrote, that warrior-king, “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30, The Bible). As anyone who’s read his story knows, David progressed from songs to sorrow, from sun-drenched elation through midnight horror and back again. Sorrow has a shelf life. Some things we can only see through tears. But tears end.

We must not become a psychological Fisher King, adopting an invalid’s life of perpetual blood-loss, waiting for a “miraculous” healing. Miracles do happen, but they tend to appear in the midst of pain, like light through clouds. Miracles leave us with bittersweet responsibilities. There is a sorrow that leads to benefit, to reward, to life, even. But a sadness that is artificially prolonged, a latent melancholia, has no medicinal value.

Grief is a temporary opening of the clouds, when tears wash the windows of the world and truth appears in stark and bracing clarity. We need this, all of us—to embrace the reality of pain, to comprehend the kind of world we live in, and to discern that healing comes from the outside. I think of woe as washing our eyes so we can see Christ.



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Sunday, April 03, 2005

Academic Hoopla

In Which I Brag About My Skills

Lately I’ve been indulging in a string of basketball posts and I don’t see any reason to end the trend now.

Saturday morning the sun rose to shine beatifically on a long-awaited test of my ballyhooed hoops skills. It was my seminary’s legendary 3-on-3 tournament, which generates bragging rights that hoopsters in Rucker Park, the Bronx, Lawrence, KS—hoops meccas everywhere—daily weep over.

Some of you are probably shaking your heads in disbelief. “Right, a bunch of puffy-bellied middle-aged men are definitely gonna cause some scintillating match-ups. What’s your catch-phrase? ‘Hoops!—with all the excitement of sumo wrestling?’” Observant readers of this blog will recognize a level of truth here (concealed as it is beneath a thick layer of sour grapes). Sadly, seminary students, and academia in general, are not known for their Herculean musculature—and I think that may just be the understatement of the year. I, of course, sharply defy this globular trend and encourage others to do likewise.

Anyway, the pear-shaped scholars that populate the halls and lunchroom of my school during the week were glaringly absent Saturday morning. As it turned out, the tourney’s massive reputation was justified, and game outcomes would be decided in reputable hoops fashion, rather than in a squashy battle of titans.

It's hard to know just which moments ought to be recapped, and which must be consigned to merely live on eternally in the minds of the spectators.


As I absorbed the surprise of seeing my school in a new light—fit!?—a sense of relief washed over me, combined with bewilderment. “Yes, we’ll get some decent games!—but where do all these people hide during the week?” The first impression would be proven correct; an answer to my secondary question remains elusive. But on to the games themselves.

I felt the tension when I walked on the court. Someone had been talking some considerable trash in previous weeks, and now that swagger would have to be made good, proven, or someone would be shown up as a pathetic phony. That someone was me.

In a situation like this, good players start feeling pressure like Atlas, the weight of the world on their shoulders. Great players, however, use the pressure to focus their abilities to a razor-sharp edge, make good their boasts upon the bodies of their enemies. I guess you don’t need to ask how things went with my game. I will, however, tell you anyway.

As is typical of highlight reel performances, it’s hard to know just which moments ought to be recapped, and which must be consigned to merely live on eternally in the minds of the spectators. In the end, one has to settle for mentioning brief moments—as when I swatted the shot of the opposing point guard, grabbed the “rebound” and drove the lane to shoot in a fall-away J over his desperately scrabbling fingers. No doubt he’s still replaying that sequence in his mind. Or there was the play when, frustrated at missing a couple outside shots in a row, I juked my man and drove inside to post up the 6’5” “center,” notching the shot and one to win the game. For a minute, I thought my 34” vertical was back, the old days of abusing the inside players. Of course, the pure joy of repeatedly knocking down guarded outside shots is also hard to match. What’s that old saying, “Being good is its own reward?”

That wiseman must have been a hoops player. At any rate, when the NBA comes knocking, I’ll have my contractual requirements ready.



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Friday, April 01, 2005

KU Brags

For the record: Wednesday’s McDonald’s All-America game definitely gave Jayhawk critics something to think about. Specifically, I’m thinking that radio-borne MU funs have been unusually quiet the last couple days. Less gloating about Simien being gone. Fewer “Over-rated” jibes. And those childish Bucknell pdas are on a downswing.

Of course, it could be just be my imagination. But I doubt it.

The incoming crimson & blue class are nothing short of spectacular. Mario Chalmers, a 6’2” point guard, dished out 5 assists, swiped the ball 5 times, threw down a dunk in traffic, and notched 20 points. And he did it in a matter of minutes.

Julian Wright, at 6’9”, displayed handles most guards dream about. He converted a variety of ferocious dunks, showed 3-ball and midrange ability, and gave people fits on defense. Apart from OK State recruit Gerald Green, he and Chalmers generated most of the night’s NBA hype; this would be disquieting if the two were looking to jump. They’re not, so it’s merely icing on the cake.

KU's mysterious third man, Micah Downs, displayed a propensity to sulk about playing time, but it’s hard to visualize minutes being a concern down the road. In 11 minutes Wednesday, Downs racked up a decent stat line—8 points, 2 rebounds and an assist. Six of those points came off threes, one of them Atlantic-deep. The man has range. Now, for some emotional maturity…

Incidentally, the Big 12 scored six AA players, a total rivaled only by the ACC, also with six. These McD’s games are notoriously over-hyped, but Midwestern hoops junkies have to consider this a good indicator.

I guess it goes without saying, it’s high time we start projecting next year’s starting five.



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Pain's Purpose

Pain may make you stronger, but that doesn't necessarily make it weakness leaving the body. I think psychological pain, a realization of loss or suffering, can extract more valuable elements—say, love or trust or repentance.

There is a paradoxical quality to pain. It can have the effect of making us cling all the more tightly to what we already value, so that friends, or family, or Christ, appear increasingly precious. In spite of this, we do not seek pain. It performs a needed work, but we do not welcome the agent. Sometimes I think that pain does the work that no one, nothing else, will.

Disappointment, suffering, sorrow, loss—they conspire to throw us face down before what centers us, the source of our stability. Often, this is God; always, it should be.

I wonder if proven love and trust require a world like ours. The outcomes of painful suffering, however vital, do not often appear to justify the loss. But is it conceivable that sorrow is the means to an end that could not otherwise exist?

I tend to think the world we live in is necessary for love—and ultimately, faith. We experience this bittersweet present state of things because we cannot bring ourselves to trust Christ perfectly in perfect happiness.



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