Friday, March 31, 2006

Humility & Prayer Collide

Does God Need My Emotions?

When I was just starting college, going to campus prayer meetings and Bible studies, I felt a lot of admiration for people who could generate prolonged intensity while they prayed. A raspy, desperate petition, punctuate by a lot of "Father-God!" expressions, would hold me spellbound. Likewise people who paced while they prayed, pouring on the urgency.

My response was immediate and visceral: I wish I could pray like that.

This was a worthy aspiration, and in the years that have elapsed since, I guess I have learned to pray like that upon occasion. However, I've also realized that saddling prayer with an unnecessary emphasis on good feeling can have crippling effects. Here, in slightly exaggerated form, is how I used to think:

Man, I've got some serious problems facing me. I've got to pray. I should have been praying 24 hours a day, starting yesterday. Problem. I don't feel like it. I actually suspect that God's about to let something bad go down, with me in the middle of it. I definitely don't have the wherewithal to generate one of those intense, sincere, heartwarming prayers that God really likes. I just can't. Forget praying, I'm going to play basketball and forget about my problems. At least for the next three hours.


There were brief periods where my hoops game became really sharp because of all that non-prayer. It wasn't a trade worth making, though. Because I believed that there was a minimum emotional requirement I had to meet when I prayed, prayer became a frustrating proposition. I thought I had to gloss things up before I sent my thoughts Godward. Forcing myself to generate the prerequisite pious, trusting feelings became a real drag.

I now know that God wasn't enjoying it either.

Because of my misconceptions, I was making prayer into a kind of emotional good deed. I thought I had to churn out some good feelings to back my words to God, like I had to add a special personal ingredient to make prayer really work.

The time I spent at the end of myself, worn out, mad, and pursuing with various distractions, would have been perfect chances to bring everything to God. I wish I'd seen it sooner.

Looking back, I think I was lacking something vital that would have allowed me to see the reality of prayer with vivid clarity. I thought God needed my emotional reinforcement in order to 'get' my prayers, but that was wrong. The real missing piece? Humility.

I think it takes an at least slightly humble person to see that God doesn't need all the emotional embroidery that we add to our devotion. Of course, God wants our hearts. Demands our feelings, in fact. He invites us to approach him with joy, with wild gratitude, with outbursts of wonder, and if we don't, something's missing.

But God has no minimum emotional requirement for prayer. We can't invest prayer with any more meaning than God has already given it. When we pray, God has agreed to listen. This is one of the incredible things Christ does for the people who end up knowing him. End of story. We should pray when we are strong and full of faith. And we should pray when we are down and full of vitriol.

No matter how zealous, content, or sincere I feel, I can't improve on God's arrangement here. This is a surprising blessing, but it takes a humble person to grasp it. At least someone who's willing to give humility a try, despite the discomfort.



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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Escape from the Google Sandbox

Google Finds This Blog’s Popularity Hard To Fathom

Aidan and Ariel

I’m about to take my last Aidan make-up exam, and in order to do so, I obviously need to write a quick post.

I thought I’d note that this blog has apparently managed to escape from the dreaded Google “Sandbox.” You would think that playing in the sandbox would be a good place for any blog to be, but what you learned in childhood doesn’t apply here.

From what I’ve heard, the Google Sandbox is the place where up-and-coming web-pages go to die. The Google team keeps an index of sites they suspect of having illegitimately gained a lot of incoming links, which would wrongly boost Page Rank. These unlikely “popular” sites are shoved facedown in the Sandbox where they wait on time out until Google has a chance to investigate.

I find this whole story intriguing for its slightly fantastic tone. Getting out of the Sandbox seems a little like escaping from a feudal dungeon. There’s that same chivalrous, romantic aura. Not to mention the bragging rights…

“Yeah, my blog was in the Sandbox a while back. It’s out now, of course, but for a while there…phew. Tough going.”

“Was your blog ever stuck in Google’s Sandbox? NO? Mine was.”

“Aidan’s not old enough for a sandbox yet. But speaking of sandboxes…”

Seems like you would start looking for creative ways to introduce sandboxes into conversations.

The allure of the situation is increased, at least for me, by my total inability to confirm any of the details. The whole thing could be a clever fantasy invented by Google (they are geniuses, after all) to deter would-be hackers. But anecdotal evidence seems to suggest the opposite. Just consider:

Mere weeks ago, the (very few) search engine hits BitterSweetLife got were from MSN and Yahoo. Today? Dozens of Google hits every 24 hours. This blog has, in a matter of days, managed to stake out real estate in such notable searches as
  • Spiritual journey
  • Kansas Jayhawk Basketball
  • Smack talk
What’s not to like? With a story like this, I have no choice but to be a firm believer in the Sandbox. Not to mention what it implies:

Google finds the relative popularity of this Indie-style blog hard to fathom.

Ha! Well, BitterSweetLife has always cherished its underblog status. We will take this
slight, pin it inside our locker room, and run with it.

Look for BitterSweetLife in next year’s Final Four.



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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Guessing at Heaven's Mood

Perfect day

Today was a good day.


I think every so often God sends us a day that, while not perfect, fills the slot for all practical purposes. Often it’s in summer. I soak in fiery energy under a cool breeze, or feel my senses heightened by a rustling forest, and I have the sensation, if any sensation on earth can earn the billing, of eternity sweeping, wheeling, waiting close by. Today I could live forever, I think.

These days don’t come often. And they don’t last. But while they’re with us, I wonder if we have the momentarily ability to make a purely intuitive leap at what immortality will be like. Pure guesswork, I know; I can’t help myself. This kind of day, this rare mixture of mood and weather, makes me lightheaded.

I’m convinced the seasons are eternally eloquent. But I may like it the best when one day leaps off the calendar page, and speaks about heaven with a voice both soothing and bracing, vivid and teasing. I can’t wait to hear it all.



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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Extra Security to Stop Me

This afternoon I was standing in line at Price Chopper, waiting to buy the half & half that would supplement my 4 o’ clock espresso, when the cashier struck up a conversation.

“Smile, you’re on camera.”
“Huh?”
I said, ‘Smile, you’re on camera.’”

I had been watching a workman on a mechanical scaffold-ladder-machine (as they are technically called) installing something on the high ceiling.

“Oh, are you adding more security?”
“No, we’re just adding a newer camera.”
“Really.”
“Yes, you’d be surprised how many cameras there are in this store.”
“How many?”
“Over a hundred.”
“Woah.”
“Surprised?”
“Yeah, definitely. I won’t try and walk out with anything.”
“We catch people trying to steal stuff all the time. I guess they think it will be so easy.”
“Yeah…”
“A lot of people probably get away with it once, then get caught the second time.”
“I’ll bet they do.”
“Well, have a good evening.”
“You too!”

As I headed out to the car, I suddenly wondered why I had been the target of this conversation. It was friendly enough—probably just because I was watching the camera get installed. Then again…

Given my new, short haircut and the angry black tattoo I’d had inscribed on my forearm after KU lost to Bradley in the first round… The lady was warning me not to try anything shady. I know it.

I’ll just have to walk erectly, look employees in the eye, and never slur my speech at this Price Chopper. (Forget “Wassup.” It’s “How are you doing, ma’am,” from here on out.) This store is the only source of decent coffee within walking distance of my campus, so I’ll definitely be back.

We’ll just see whether they have enough security cameras to catch me next time.



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Monday, March 27, 2006

Losing Control of Your Life

Unhappy AJ

Sometimes I hate the world because it seems like I have no control over anything.

When our baby got here a month early, that was cool—because he was cool. But Aidan was one of the few things ‘beyond my control’ that turned out really well. My friend says I have "the back of an 80-year-old woman"—and while I hope that’s a slight exaggeration, it’s pretty close to the truth. The more I cater to their wishes, the more my vertebrae defy me.

I can’t control our car either. Ironically, I can control it on the road; it’s when I park it that things get out of hand. Someone walks by and smashes a window; someone else walks by and smashes the driver’s side mirror; I discover these things when I walk outside in the morning, and visualize money bursting into flame in our bank account. So I have this list…

  • Health
  • Car
  • Money
Other items could be added to the list of Things I Can’t Control. It’s an encyclopedia. If I kept on expanding it here, I’d bore you because you can fill in the blanks yourself. Besides, I would feel like swearing.

My standard response to TICC is to get angry and want to hit something. In a way, I recommend this, so long as you are outside your apartment. Of course, it doesn’t really solve anything but for about a minute it feels good.

Ultimately, what do I do with this TICC list? The obvious answer is to gain control over everything, but this doesn’t work either, and it makes you a freak. Another route would be to stop caring, which can have the undesirable side-effect of making you wonder why you’re alive at all.

Which is why it’s good to think about these things as little as possible.

Maybe not, but to a lot of people, the real answer will be hardly better. Try it on:

In the end, the person who realizes that ‘control’ is a myth will be the last one laughing—and maybe the only person who has a genuine reason to laugh. When I realize that God runs the universe, and continues to do so when a vandal smashes my car and my back plays dominoes, I have stumbled on a source of comfort. I may be weeping in my coffee, but the sky remains the color of Aidan’s baby blanket, the sun falls like daffodil petals, and trees are waving their arms around.

God is nearby, and he's doing nothing to openly provoke me, but the wellness of the world implies that someone, somewhere, is laughing. After I stop cursing the way life works, and look at the people hurrying by in the street, I realize that it's God.

Surely you realize, he says, that none of you are really in control?

What God wants is childlike trust, and while this annoys the hell out of me, when I see straight I have to acknowledge that God is right, that this strange arrangement is an economy of grace, and the whole lovely-awful plot makes divinely perfect sense.

Control eludes me and not only will that 'have to be OK'--it is.



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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Theology 101: Infant Depravity

Spiritual baby

A kind of thin, punctuated wail met my ears when I entered the bathroom.

“What’s going on in here?”
“Check this out, Dad” said Aidan. “I’m showing off my sin nature! Wee-ah, wee-ah, wee-aaah!”

I watched as the little guy karate-kicked a bottle of baby lotion into the sink, his legs working like pistons. Lindsay was frantically trying to hold him down as she changed his diaper. The scene was riveting.

I stood by the counter and observed the microcosmic battle between good and evil, waiting to see who would get the upper hand.

“Hey, would you mind giving me a some help here?”
“Oh, sure.”

Let me tell you, this kid is a walking, talking theological laboratory.



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Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Baby Speaks

talking baby

This morning after I changed Aidan’s diaper, he was wide awake, so I managed to elicit a few sound-bytes on various people. Here is his commentary, complete and uncensored.

Aidan talks about…

His grandparents: “They were all at the hospital, waiting to hold me when I came out of surgery, and I appreciate that. At the time I was mad, because the existential weight of life had hit me when I emerged out of the womb, and because having a surgery is never fun. Also, I was hungry. I wanted some milk.”

His mom and dad: “Dad talks trash to me all the time and mom is more relaxed. They’re both pretty cool. Sometimes I see the two of them press their lips together with a little ‘smack.’ They look happy. I wonder if they’re sharing milk.”

KU coach Bill Self: “No matter what the haters say, this guy is tops. I plan on suiting up for him in 2024, and I expect he’ll have a couple of NCAA titles by then. I’ve noticed that on the sidelines, his players drink their milk out of little green cups that say ‘Gatorade.’”

Newly-hired K-State coach Bob Huggins: “He’s no boy scout, but at least the Big 12 North will have better storylines next year. I’ve heard that he recruits shady players and is a heavy drinker. It must take a lot of money to keep a guy that size in milk.”

His dad’s legendary playground hoops career: “My dad put down some swank moves back in the day, and he can still talk a good game. He told me about how sometimes the guys would call him ‘White Chocolate.’ I just wonder, ‘Why not “Milk Chocolate?”’”

Ariel: “Hey Aidan, I sense that we’re getting a little side-tracked with the interview. Are you still with me?”

Aidan: “Of course, Dad.”

Ariel: “OK. Let’s make sure. Who’s your favorite dad?”

Aidan: “You. That’s a dumb question.”

Ariel: “Fine. What’s your favorite color?”

Aidan: “Milk.”

Ariel: “Right. And how many fingers am I holding up?”

Aidan: “Milk.”

Ariel: “All right folks, that concludes our interview for today.”



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Friday, March 24, 2006

Unwanted Sympathy: God Cares? So What.

Lindsay and I have a number of international friends, and while they tend to be bright (‘sent’ to American universities), they are often still polishing their English. This is very understandable, but it can lead to some humorous exchanges.

Last year on Valentine’s Day, one of Lindsay’s friends gave her a card by way of congratulating her on her three-year-old marriage. The message went as follows:

In Sympathy

There is so little
anyone can say
at a time like this…
but it may help to know
that thoughts of sympathy
are with you.

How perceptive, Lindsay said. Right... I responded. We had a good laugh over the card (especially Lindsay), but it makes a good transition to a slightly more serious topic, something I’m calling Unwanted Sympathy.

Lindsay wasn’t really looking for sympathy over her marriage (but don’t ask her about the card, OK?)—and a lot of people aren’t really looking for God to get his blood pressure up over their 'sad condition.'

A sentiment I sometimes encounter could be expressed like this: “You’re telling me that God cares about me—actually, if we get down to it, that God has a problem with me, and wants me to make some big changes and come ‘home’ to him. It’s nice that you feel that way, and it’s nice that God feels that way (assuming there is a God)—but why should I care? As a matter of fact, I don’t.”

The said person often acts as if this settles the issue. But it really doesn’t.

Of course, there’s a point in a person’s thought where doubts about God’s existence could render this whole discussion less urgent. If one thinks the universe is a brute fact, that people are machines made of matter, and that God is a myth for the credulous, then talking about Christ’s personality is beside the point.

Many people, however, do believe in ‘God.’ In which case the conversation can continue.

Let’s say that I am irritated at someone I know. For the sake of an example, let’s say the person is Paula at Ultrablog, and that I have two main complaints against her: 1) Her blog is predominantly purple, which is the official color of the Kansas Jayhawks’ arch-nemesis, K-State, and, 2) She talks way too much about her cats, which I find inappropriate and insulting because we have a canary.

So I have an enduring bitterness toward Paula for these reasons. Paula eventually hears about my accusations, and after five seconds of thoughtful silence, begins laughing. She doesn’t give a moment’s thought to my hostility from that point on. However, Paula’s refusal to discuss my concerns doesn’t alter the fact of my sullenness.

To make this picture really work, of course, we would need to up the ante. One party would need to be deeply injured, the other would need to be really unremorseful. Only then would the serious nature of the dilemma begin to sink in.

Suppose you and I have done something criminal, and that the injured party is ultimately God. We may laugh, or choose not to waste our time thinking about such an absurd problem. But if the antagonism between God and me is really there, the problem is far from silly. If God has something against me, this would have to be The Central Problem of my life, even if I never concerned myself about it.

Let’s say the North American continent was gradually sliding into a sink hole, but on principle there were several things I never concerned myself with: 1) gigantic sinkholes, and, 2) death by asphyxiation.

The issue, I think, is similar.

What’s my point? At the moment I’m not trying to argue for God’s existence. I’m simply attempting to show that if the biblical God is even possibly Real, his feelings toward us cannot be merely a laughing matter.



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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Annie Dillard, A+

Fiery Nature, Fierce Theology, Fantastic God

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had been waiting on my shelf for about a year, but last week, while holding baby Aidan in the hospital room, I finally finished it. It’s a testimony to Tinker Creek that, while holding my two-day-old son in my lap, I still felt a sense of awe when I put the book down. Now I’m searching for the words to do justice to Annie Dillard’s masterpiece.

I’ll begin by saying that this book is eye-opening and mind-awakening—in the very rare sense that, if you are wondering what life is like, how the world is, you had better read it. An audacious, feverish devotion to sense experience fuels Dillard’s work. She takes a concerted, vehement wonder, and fastens it over a gritty network of empirical facts.

I’ve found few authors who capture the taste and texture of the world like Dillard. Creation leaps into sharp relief, this wild, weird, vivid and deadly order which we all inhabit, and usually fail to notice. As Dillard observes, “Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.”

Dillard apparently reversed this ritual human regression and devoted herself to several years of lavish, unrestrained noticing:

Fiery Sunset“When I see this way I analyze and pry. I hurl over logs and roll away stones; I study the bank a square foot at a time, probing and tilting my head. Some days when a mist covers the mountains, when the muskrats won’t show and the microscope’s mirror shatters, I want to climb up the blank blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and with a steel knife claw a rent in the top, peep, and, if I must, fall.”

She takes a working knowledge of theology, philosophy, natural science, and physics, and goes to work reading the world. The 'notes' from her observations are presented in beautiful, and often ferocious, prose.

I found Dillard’s “Afterword to the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition” very helpful in revealing the approach behind her writing. She writes,
“Neoplatonic Christianity described two routes to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. Philosophers on the via positiva assert that God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc.; that God possesses all positive attributes. I found the via negativa more congenial. Its seasoned travelers…stressed God’s unknowability… Thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.”

Thus, in terms of arrangement, the first half of the book tends more toward euphoric creation studies, poetic and scientifically precise—while the later chapters dwell on the horrific practices we find everywhere in nature, “that it is death that is spinning the globe.”

In Dillard’s fascination with ubiquitous death, and her battle to rectify it with divine love, I found a fascinating parallel to George MacDonald, though the styles of the two authors differ dramatically. Remarkable, to my mind, is that C.S. Lewis’ comment on MacDonald’s Phantastes could be almost equally applied to Tinker Creek: “The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live.”

My final observation, which I draw out as an admitted lover of Lewis and Tolkien, is that Dillard has an overt love for true north—the arctic wastes, cold brightness, dark distances, a kind of soul-shriving emptiness. She longs to stand on an ice pack and gaze through layers of nebulae, the world falling away.

Annie Dillard speaks of “northing,” and for her the sensation is triggered by thoughts of Eskimos and geese and dancing specks of ice. Here I found an unexpected overlap of minds, a cross-pollination of ideas and loves. I wonder if Dillard’s northing, her desire to stand at the apex of the world and watch stars wheel, is similar in kind to the love of “northerness” that Tolkien and Lewis shared, and the sharp, bright stories of William Morris—say, The Wood Beyond the World. Lewis remarked that, "No mountains in literature are as far away as distant mountains in Morris."

One wishes to escape life’s tangled confusi
on, and stand on the edge of pure, piercing beauty, even if death or danger is a bridge on the way. We'd like to blaze a trail to an enchanted forest or, in Dillard's terms, an arctic pole.

Dillard finds the distant axis through National Geographic-like surveillance and lab-work. She studies insect and ice caves and wishes she could walk all the way home to true north. In a way, I find this shocking, because I would not necessarily take Dillard’s route to arrive where she does. But arrive I certainly want to. Many of us do, even as we grapple with the painful necessity of, for the next 70 years or so, staying put. We hope to get there in the end, all of us. Both scientists and dreamers.

Apparently there is more than one road.

::

Present on the Master Book List.



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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bad Coffee Tricks and Midterm Blues

Treacherous Dark Coffee

This morning I drank myself awake so I could start studying for one of the three midterms I blew off last week. My professors were kind enough to work with me, but I can’t say I’ve approached the exam prep with my usual excitement and joy.


I’ve read that if you feel tired, say you’re driving cross country or completing an overnight trucking route, there’s a clever way to trick your body into wakefulness. Studying for multiple exams seems a lot like driving down miles and miles of interstate, so I gave the scheme a shot.

It goes like this: Drink a cup of strong coffee, then lie down for a quick nap. Since the caffeine won’t reach your bloodstream for 15-20 minutes, you’ll sleep for about that long, and then serenely come around, wondering why you feel so good. When you become fully awake, you’ll also feel like a genius, having cunningly achieved both your objectives—rest and alertness. A smile will sweep across your face and you will jump to your feet, your mind tapping out a staccato rhythm, a friend to all mankind.

::

I sat in the plush room they reserve for overdue exam takers, feeling like about two bucks. A ‘60s-style chair was crammed behind a huge, bare, fake-wood desk, flanked by towering, empty bookshelves. The empty plastic trash can behind me was a nice touch.

I slung off my windbreaker, feeling feverish, and slumped in the chair. Usually I approach my exams with the kind of militant aggression that has carried me so far in my basketball career. This morning, all I could muster was a kind of resentful disdain. Why am I here? Why am I taking this stupid test? I wonder whether Aidan is asleep right now.

I turned to look out the window, see if the sun had come out, but there wasn’t a window.

Stupid test. Stupid test.

I grunted and started writing.

::

One test down, two to go.

That I kicked this exam in the teeth was inevitable, but I don’t feel the usual satisfaction. I need to go play basketball somewhere, take some more baby pictures, and then get to the backlog of posts I’ve had percolating for days, even before Aidan showed up to infuse them with added insight.

Or, as Lindsay says, maybe I should just go take a nap.



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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Smack-Talking Baby

Smack-talking Baby

You wouldn’t believe the things this kid says.


Apparently he hasn’t yet learned to appreciate the deep spiritual heritage behind his name. I don’t know for sure, but my impression from reading about ‘Saint Aidan’ was that he was a thoughtful, soft-spoken man. Our Aidan qualifies on the first count, sort of, but definitely not the second.

Just the other day Lindsay and I were sitting down to our first post-delivery Boggle game, Boggle being something of a tradition in our family. The game was in process, the timer running, when the little fellow piped up: “Hey Mom, do you see the word I see? It’s a five-letter word that begins with ‘L’ and ends with ‘S-E-R.’ In between there’s an ‘O.’

“I don’t see it, Aidan,” said Lindsay.
I was slightly annoyed, not seeing why Aidan should be helping his mom and not me. But I looked for the word too. “I’m not finding it either, kiddo.”
At the same moment, Lindsay and I both looked up from the Boggle cubes. “Hey…wait a minute.” We both glanced at the baby and he had this smug little grin on his face.

“AIDAN JAMES VANDERHORST!” said Lindsay.
Oh boy. I rolled my eyes. “Aidan, really.”

Innocent baby Aidan

A couple days ago R. Sherman offered to send over some MU baby clothes, and because I knew Sherman meant it sincerely, I mentioned it to Aidan after his midmorning nap. He was still rubbing his eyes, but he muttered something about how he’d been wanting some cloth diapers anyway. This kid is wicked, I tell you. We’ve got to rein him in.

Lately he’s taken to wearing his little stocking cap and swaggering around the apartment. One moment he’ll be lying there in his flannel blanket, looking around wide-eyed as Bambi, then suddenly ZING, ZING, one-liners are whizzing everywhere.

Just this afternoon he told me to step on it with the diaper change. “Being too weak to change my own diapers is bad enough. Do you think I like lying around here naked?”

I deliberately moved very slowly as I toweled him off and buttoned up his little Onesie. He got pretty steamed, but I think he learned a valuable lesson. This kid may talk some outrageous trash (I won’t even tell you what he said about his doctor at the hospital) but his dad is not about to be pushed around by a six-day old.



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Monday, March 20, 2006

The Words Are Coming

A Writing Process?

The words come at me in a swarm and I try to pluck them from the air and pin them down. I pick, I prefer, but I take what luck gives me. I press the words down,
determined, into a makeshift mosaic that blurs and whirls like a dust cloud, a pesky flock of gnats. Now and again I catch a glimpse of a shape.

I put the words together. I take them apart.

The words bite and I rub my eyes, then snatch more of them from the buzzing swarm, though most escape me. They are skilled at subterfuge. They wing behind irrelevant memories and hover. They hide behind bland connotations. If I could catch the right words I could change the world.

But the story-picture grows, and suddenly it’s there, and I’m powerless to change it. The struggle is over, though the exertion has left my eyes irritated, my skin pale. Is this all?

I take a close look at the colony of words I have captured. Together they make a picture: I've written a tiger. I assess myself in proximity to my work (how much of it is me?) and see that the tiger is snarling and lunging and I’ve got a white-knuckle grip on the tail.



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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Unfinished Jayhawk Business

Baby Jayhawk

The birth of
my firstborn son on Tuesday, a month ahead of schedule, prevented me from previewing the ill-fated Bradley game. As it turned out, that was no great loss. Or rather, it was. You get my point.

However, Aidan’s arrival allows me to treat the Jayhawks’ implosion with a fairly sanguine attitude. Anyone who saw the K-State and MU losses had to know this was a team that could fall apart in a hurry. The Baby Jayhawks fooled us into thinking their growing pains were behind them. We should all be saying, “Ha, you got us.” Just goes to show, you can never trust babies to arrive on time.

Part of me wants to quit talking about basketball for the season. The world is acrid and bitter. My team sucks in March. KU should adopt a new slogan. “The Kansas Jayhawks: We craft Cinderella stories.” “KU: A great escort to the big dance.” ‘Hawks: Watch us flap in the spotlight.”

Life is awful, I’m weeping in my beer, etc. etc. But there are some loose ends that need to be tied up. Such as,

1) Which team do I root for now?

Instinctively, I’d default to the surviving Big 12 team(s). But in this case that team is Texas, which has somehow evolved into KU’s biggest rival. I was inclined to give Texas respect, until Rick Barnes and the ‘Horns started choking on sour grapes after the Dallas defeat. “I would have loved to see if we made those free throws, with a one-possession game, see what happened in the last couple of minutes,” said Barnes.

“They played pretty good defense, but I think it was more of us just bogging down on offense and not doing all of what we were supposed to have done,” said Tucker. Big-time players and coaches know when to stop making excuses and give respect. Texas is not a team I can root for in good conscience.

Where do I look next? Several teams have won my respect with their hard-nosed play, but none more than George Mason. Anyone who kicks Roy Williams out of the tournament automatically earns my admiration and gratitude.

So you heard it here first. The George Mason Patriots will beat the Longhorns by 5 to win the NCAA trophy.

2) Where will Darrell Arthur end up?

Given Arthur’s hurry-up-and-wait approach (never do today what you can do next season) and his flirtation with Texas, it might be hard to embrace him with open arms. However, KU will need someone to bang with Texas recruit Kevin Durant next year, and Arthur can’t be blind to the fact that should he follow Durant to Texas, the two will be competing for minutes. The Jayhawks, however, have been soft in the middle all year, and I don’t see Giles, Kaun and Jackson keeping Arthur from getting serious playing time.

My gut feeling is that Self will get Arthur to sign on the dotted line, and then go to work refining his inflated ego lackadaisical worth ethic. Would this be a chancy move? Maybe, but a guy who can bring in Brandon Rush and keep his self-image in check is probably qualified to deal with Arthur. With the exception of head-case Micah Downs, Self seems to be able to ‘get through’ to his players.

3) What about next season?

No one wants to talk about next season, because it’s such a cop-out. The ‘freaking’ ‘Hawks (no more ‘frickin,’’ that is so Williams-era) should still be progressing in this one. I would need a really great excuse to talk about next season when the smoke from this year’s smash-up is still rising. But of course there is such an excuse, and the word is youth.

You can forgive babies almost anything.

So I’m allowing myself to derive satisfaction from the thought of an angst-filled Jayhawk weight-room. A pumped up bunch of sophs and juniors (can you picture Julian Wright with 15 more pounds of muscle?) will make the 2006-2007 squad a viable preseason top ten pick. Darrell Arthur will give them an inside scoring presence they lacked this season. Sherron Collins, yet another in-your-face guard, will deliver additional firepower.

Out of respect to deservedly bitter KU fans everywhere, that’s as far as I’ll go. But since I have a new baby son, I can afford to think big.

Cross-posted on Phog Blog.



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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Is BitterSweetLife Becoming a 'Baby Blog?'

Aidan Watches the Jayhawks Aidan Hides from KU
A. Aidan watched the first few minutes of the KU game with me.
B. When the Jayhawks started falling apart, he just couldn' t take it.

Is BitterSweetLife becoming a 'baby blog?' (We sense the panic in your voice.) No, but we can see why you’re asking.

Aidan and Sarah
Aidan is already getting attention from the ladies.

Ever since Tuesday, when our son Aidan arrived a month early (weighing only 4 pounds, 8 ounces), I’ve been understandably preoccupied with that dreaded blogger category, ‘baby news.’ (While we’re on the topic, check out the best ‘baby blog’ I’ve come across, Marks on a Wall, maintained by little Gavin, the son of my friend Charles.)


Also, for those just joining us, here are the progressive Aidan updates I’ve posted, oldest first:

Infantile Remarks and Spiritual Epiphany

Hidden Meaning for Pain
Baby Relief
When Babies Attack
Under the Knife
Baby Facts
Baby Gets a Name

::

What about Bittersweetness?


The infatuation with baby news will continue in various forms for the rest of my life, I’m told, but the content of this blog will not
directly reflect that. However, Aidan's appearance gives me a chance to emphasize the fact that 'theology,' one of the central topics here (sort of), must be fused with life if it is to be valid. Theology must be, in an fundamental sense, popular—that is, livable, geared for application.

What I’m saying is, Aidan will be a catalyst for more spiritual truth discussion, more divine insight into living, and I’ll unabashedly write Aidan stories to that end.

Of course, it should also go without saying that I’ll write Aidan stories for the same reason I write KU and Lindsay and Coffee stories. Because I like Aidan—and I like stories. No great surprises there.

Now, as a token of good faith to bittersweet readers, I'd like to make the following remark, partly in response to my friend (and theological sparring partner) Alexys, who noted that "
Many happy moments are in store. See, I told you life is sweet, forget the bitter, at least for now. Good job."

Quick observation: Aidan's arrival has been undeniably bittersweet.

What? Why not total, 100% sweetness? Can't you sacrifice a little? Don't tell me you're already making a dig at little Aidan?! You monster.

Actually, Aidan's arrival is bittersweet for the simple reason that he arrived on earth. In a perfect world, he wouldn't have been born prematurely with low blood sugar, he wouldn't be an 'at risk' baby, and Lindsay wouldn't have needed to have an operation to get the little fellow out.

Principles must be maintained, even in the face of celebration. Therefore, as ecstatic as Lindsay and I are over our son, I'm asserting all the more that life is bittersweet. Aidan's arrival would be altogether joyous only in a world where Christ's will was perfectly carried out!

No matter how happy you are, bittersweetness is a fact. Otherwise you might make the mistake of thinking wrongly that heaven had already arrived.



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Friday, March 17, 2006

Baby Gets A Name

Nameless Baby

...Continued from Baby Facts

When Lindsay and I finally got a minute alone, the immediate agenda was obvious. We conferred about the baby’s name as he anxiously looked on. And after brief discussion, we settled on the long-time leader:


Aidan James

We’d liked "Aidan" for years, ever since I read the story of the Celtic Saint Aidan and we found out that Aidan was the first name of A.W. Tozer, an exceptional Christian author. Also, Aidan means “fire,” which is basically awesome—or, I should say—which has a wealth of allusive and metaphorical possibility. I’ve heard other people diss the name for this very reason: “Well you knooow, Aidan means ‘fire…’” Yeah, exactly. Isn’t that the point?

It seemed like a great meaning to us.

However, The Aidan Plan hit a roadblock when we learned that “Aidan” was one of the top ten baby names in 2005. How’d they find our name? Also, there’s been this proliferation of names with long-A sounds: Caiden, Hadyn, Jaiden. None of this really excites us. These are all names that people might hear and say, “Oh, you were from that era.”

In the end, we decided it didn’t matter. If there are a lot of little Aidans out there, our Aidan will just have to be more famous than the others.

Oh yeah, and James is my middle name. It just sounded right with “Aidan.” The biblical meaning is “deceiver,” which I prefer to interpret as “persuasive talker.” Anyway, the news is out: There’s now an A.J., jr. in the house.

And a new tag on the blog: Aidan

A quick aside: I know a lot of you are in shock right now, having thought you'd figured out the baby's middle name for sure. To make you feel better, I'll acknowledge that if KU had won tonight instead of careening weirdly around the court, we might have retrofitted little AJ's middle handle to "Jay." Who knows, even "Jayhawk," had KU made an Elite Eight run. But no. The enormity of this loss has yet to sink in for Bill Self. Someday he'll meet Aidan and realize what a tragedy BradleyGate actually was.

OK, enough on that. Back to the hospital scene.


::

Once Aidan’s blood sugar came roaring back, he spent most of the day meeting friends and family, giving high fives and smiling his little grin. What a charmer. It was after 10:00 when I finally left to get some sleep.

I drove through Wendy’s, then headed home, euphorically eating the cardboard fries and thinking about how life had just ridiculously changed. On the freeway I was very careful, avoiding semi-trucks and giving the guard rails a wide berth. It would be a bad time for a life-ending accident.

Once I got home, I broke out a celebratory beverage and lofted it, offering an amazed toast to God—“Lindsay is OK and we have a cute baby—because you answer prayer.”

The silence that followed was perfectly uplifting.

The end...for now.



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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Baby Facts

Baby Boy

...Continued from Under the Knife.

It’s hard to say what surprised me more—
the fact that my son was sitting there on his little bed, breathing air, the fact that he was squeaking angrily at the nurses, or the fact that I had changed into a dad without having even been present. I was also surprised when I opened the door to wheel the kid out of surgery, and about a dozen girl babies were lined up outside, just waiting. That part was a little more easy to fathom.

After we got past the girl babies, Lindsay joined the little guy and me in the transitional room. Everyone asked us what his name was. We said we didn’t know. Actually, we did know, sort of. We’d whittled all the options down to just two choices, and had wisely given ourselves a whole month to choose the finalist before the baby arrived April 16.

While we were talking about how the baby didn’t have a name and how he was amazingly good looking, a new problem materialized.

I’ve pulled off some hard sells in my life, but what happened next was the masterstroke. Like I said, the youngster was extremely good looking, but also barely larger than a bull frog—a very handsome, human-looking frog, weighing 4 pounds, 8 ounces. Because he was so small, his blood sugar wasn’t up to par. I guess it was in the 30s, which is equivalent to having a room-temperature IQ—painfully low. The nurse told us that if it wasn’t above 50 within fifteen minutes, the baby would have to go spend some time under the bright lights. I picked up the bottle of formula, palmed my son, and got to work.

Wheedling and massaging was the initial approach, which met with limited success. I saw that the little man wasn’t buying it. No, something more imaginative would be needed. Listen, I said, you need to drink this formula. It will help your jumpshot. He just looked at me with a pained expression. Look at it this way: If you don’t drink it, the woman in the green scrubs will take you away from Mom.

POW.

I’ve never seen a baby chug before. I didn’t know they could. When the nurse came back in to take the measurement, the tyke’s blood sugar had soared to 83—which, as I understand it, is equivalent to genius level. We were back in business.

Happy Baby

Now if we could just come up with a name.

To be continued...



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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Under the Knife

Heading into surgery

...Continued from When Babies Attack

Johnny and I jumped in his car, me at the wheel, and we took off for Overland Park Regional. It was a good 40 minute drive, even with my expert foot on the accelerator. We were both extremely nervous; my throat was lined with tasteless cotton candy; Johnny was wondering what more he could do to help; but we stayed calm and played it off well because we’re cool like that. I asked Johnny, Did he know any more details? No, not really. Lindsay hadn't said much on the phone, except that she was being wheeled into the hospital on a stretcher. Ah, gotcha.

I thought, I am skipping Theology 2 to go meet my child. I hope this all works.

::

We pulled into the parking lot and jumped out of the car, walking hurriedly. We rushed into the Doctors’ Patient Building and punched the elevator button, then rode impatiently to floor 3. We stepped out of the elevator and looked around. This isn’t where they deliver babies, is it? Nope. We jumped back into the elevator, and rode impatiently back to floor 1. Out the door—this time we headed straight toward the building that had the words Main Entrance pasted on the side in five-foot-high letters. They wouldn't fool us twice.

::

I walked into the operating room, briefly inspected the gaping incision in Lindsay’s stomach, and seated myself by her head. I smiled at her encouragingly, took her hand, and prepared myself to witness the bloody worst. At that moment my mother-in-law, dressed up to resemble one of the operation assistants in blue coveralls, hairnet, and mask, said, “Do you want to see your new baby boy?!” and I realized I had missed the whole show. Oh well.

::

Approximately 45 minutes had elapsed since Johnny had apprehended me on campus. The world is always changing, but rarely does it buck and jerk this wildly in three quarters of an hour.

To be continued...



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When Babies Attack

Coffee Morning

As luck would have it, I got five hours of sleep Monday night and it took two cups of espresso to get me going in the morning. After a grande Starbuck’s coffee between my morning classes, the world seemed unreal enough when who should I see but my brother Johnny—driving across my campus in the passenger seat of a sedan, next to a middle-aged woman. His eyes looked wider than usual when he saw me, and I think the surprise was mutual.

The car did a ‘J’ swerve in the middle of the street and Johnny hopped out as I walked over.

“Hey Johnny!”
“I’ve been looking all over campus for you. We just got a call from Lindsay, and she’s in the hospital, about to give birth.”
“WHAT?”

A surreal day was about to get surreal-er.

::

To be continued.



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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Baby Relief

Yesterday Lindsay and I went in for the much-anticipated doctor’s visit, and the news was good.

As we waited at Overland Park regional, tangy country music was piped into the room, the staff apparently under the illusion that most of their clientele were displaced rednecks. The closest I could find to an SI or ESPN magazine was Cycle World and Race Day. So instead of reading hoops news, which would have distracted me and soothed my nerves, I defaulted to the book I’d brought with me: Humility: True Greatness by C.J. Mahaney.

This was ironic, since after we’d cooled our heels in the waiting room for 45 minutes, humility was more of a pleasant idea than an achievable reality. While we waited, other patients arrived, took their seats, and had their names called. I fumed and time passed.

Eventually we entered the sonogram room, and the nurse on duty furthered our hopes by sizing Lindsay and me up and observing that our baby might simply be naturally, healthily small. “You’re not very big,” she said to Lindsay. “And you’re not very tall,” she said to me. This fact, which has always haunted me since I believe my height kept me out of the NBA, took on a strange, encouraging significance.

After the doctor swept in and administered the sonogram, she reviewed the data, allowed 30 seconds of suspenseful silence, and told us that all the indicators were good. The baby is small, but seems to be receiving nutrients and growing normally. Lindsay will need to return to the hospital a week from now, and the week following, to make sure the baby continues to put on weight. If the baby stops growing, a quick C-section will be necessary.

The only other concern is that the baby is wrong side (head) up, which would also require a C-section. Lindsay isn’t excited about getting cut open, so we’re hoping the kid will put the inherited athletic genes to work, and perform an acrobatic flip.

All that goes to say that we’re not one-hundred percent in the clear, but we’re definitely smiling. God answers prayers. (Thanks to those of you who spoke up on our behalf.)

Tonight Lindsay and I celebrated by going out for pizza and giddily pouring over the special NCAA tournament section of the KC Star. When we got home we had a dramatic argument and then watched a movie. Life had returned to a kind of divine homeostasis.



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Monday, March 13, 2006

KU Jayhawks Basketball: Smash-Mouth



Zone busters. Spark plugs. Pit bulls.

I’m looking for the right words, help me.

The Kansas Jayhawks are rolling as the NCAA tourney looms, and it’s hard to do justice to their offensive tenacity and smash-mouth defensive mentality.

After the Jayhawks beat down the Texas Longhorns, making me look good for having called the win and predicting key stats, the whole state of Kansas started jumping up and down. Out in the prairie, ground hogs thought a minor earthquake was hitting the Midwest.

Nope, it was just the ‘Hawks and their fans, celebrating a pay-back smack-down. Everyone told them not to do it, including the Longhorn cheerleaders, but KU went on and defied the Lone Star curse. They messed with Texas, but the dirt didn’t stick. If anything, NBA lottery pick LaMarcus Aldridge (4 points, 5 rebounds, no blocks) is looking a little dusty now.

As the week progresses, I’ll post some thoughts on KU’s first-round match-up with the Bradley Braves. Bradley features a couple of NBA-caliber players, one of them a 7-footer. Needless to say, the services of the Jayhawk big men will be required once again.

For the moment, I’m simply thrilled with the tough, tough, in-your-face intensity I’m seeing from the Jayhawks. This team appears sold on Bill Self’s strategy, and as a result has a toughness that Roy Williams KU teams always seemed to lack. This concerted aggression is embodied by PG Russell Robinson, whose stat line in the Oklahoma State game included 7 steals, 7 assists, 7 stitches. No problem. Against the Longhorns, Robinson’s stat line resembled a Trophy assembly line: 14 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals.

Gutsy.

::

Cross-posted on Phog Blog.



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A Startling Discovery About My Personality

At the behest of John B. of Blog Meridian, I opted to take my first 'personality analysis' quiz ever. Normally these things hold no fascination for me, since I don't really care to learn what type of ergonomic furniture or hard candy I represent. It always seemed self-defeating to define myself in terms of a food group or home appliance. One of my little quirks.

However, John's self-assessment had provided considerable insight, as it was revealed that he and all he stands for can be summarized by ONE BOOK TITLE, and a good one at that, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

This was admirable both for the fact that it was a BOOK, and that the book was not a pop-art missive culled from someone's best-seller list, say a Jonathan Kellerman or Dan Brown. Rose artfully blends theology, philosophy, and medieval mystery. When I read it over Christmas break a couple years ago, I loved it.

So I think it's entirely understandable why I was drawn in to this little Quizilla scheme. I also think that long-time readers of this blog will be very startled to learn what book 'I am.'

So much for massive doses of self-revelation.

::

Lord of the rings

J.R.R. Tolkien:
Lord of the Rings.

You are
entertaining and imaginative, creating whole new worlds around yourself. Well loved, you have a whole league of imitators, none of which is quite as profound as you are. Stories and songs give a spark of joy in the middle of your eternal battle with the forces of evil.

Which literature classic are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

::

As a matter of course, I discount the above description, which is as flattering as it is exaggerated...

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