Sunday, August 2, 2015

"No Donny, these men are nihilists. There's nothing to be afraid of."

This morning at work I entered the break room with an empty stomach, scanning the counters to see what crumbs might be left of the morning fixins. I happened upon the last half of an Everything Bagel, Cha-Ching!!! (Remember when that was so popular people even had crew-neck sweatshirts with it on them?) The sweetest little coworker anyone could ever have meekly said she left that half "just for me." After making a joke about destiny or serendipity or something of the like, I said, "Well bless your heart for leaving it!" To which another person in the room replied: "Isn't that kinda mean?" Now I've heard my father say bless your heart my whole life, and he hasn't a mean bone in his body. So, naturally, I say it because he's said it, and he's said it with sweetness. How could the words mean anything else? Evidently there's a whole separate understanding of this phrase that uses it to call someone an idiot in a southern, kindly sort of way. We had to get to the bottom of it, so naturally we turned to for answers. Sure enough, the first definition is this:
This is a term used by the people of the southern United States particularly near the Gulf of Mexico to express to someone that they are an idiot without saying such harsh words. 
It goes on to give examples that lean heavily on the redeeming end of it. Kind of an "it's not their fault" sort of tag for someone who's deficient in this or that. I asked my dad if he'd ever heard of this usage, he'd not. Perhaps as an Atlantonian (I just made that up) he was a tad too far north to be taught such a particularly insidious angle on this particular colloquialism.

As a spry and naive eighteen year old I was introduced to a whole new version of the Christian faith at Calvin College. With Dutch ancestry and flowery acronyms, I walked into an intellectual and dogmatic system that seemed so much heavier and rigid than everything I grew up with. The most controversial tenet of Calvinism is "Predestination," or the U in its TULIP acronym, which stands for Unconditional Election. Simply and harshly put, Unconditional Election says that every human who has lived or will ever live on Earth has been "elected" by God to either receive or not receive the ability to have faith in God. This election is the foundation for Predestination. Predestination is the overarching idea that if God has chosen some to have faith and thus salvation, God must also have chosen others to not have faith, and thus condemnation.

The other day a customer came to shop at the store with their obviously cancer-ailing child in tow. A faithful friend of mine mentioned to a non-faithful friend of mine that hardships like this make it seem impossible not to believe in God. He said, "I'm just throwin' it out there." To which my non-faithful friend replied, "And I'm throwin' it in the trash." To one, thinking as a parent, such trials are proof that God exists, to the other, scathing proof of the exact opposite.

Back in June an article made its way into my Facebook feed entitled "Don't believe in Evolution? Try thinking harder." It highlights a new paper written by Will Gervais that asserts belief in Evolution may be primarily linked to one's cognitive style of thinking. But the human need for certainty and purpose declares war on the uncertainty and purposelessness of Evolution, and gives faith and Creationism strength because of their seemingly clear answers. Gervais' findings assess that all people intuitively reject Evolution, but that some cognitively analyze in such a way as to override this intuition. The grey area lies in how to assess the co-mingling of the intuitiveness, cognitive analysis, and social-cultural impressions which produce either typically God-fearing-Creationists or typically faithless-Evolutionists. As if we didn't have enough to think about in discussing belief-system differences already!

What is truth? What is absolutely true?

Well, depending on where you are, where you've come from, when you've come from, what you've experienced, what your ancestors experienced, and now according to Will Gervais what sort of cognitive inclinations you have, your truth might be absolutely different from everyone else's. And there-in lies the rub. To my friend who threw it in the trash, I tried to convey that the only reason either of them declared what they did is because of their time and their space. There it is again, time and space. I don't want to venture too far into Nihilism or Relativism here, but how is it that so many people can live and die with their versions of absolute truth? And worse, how is it that we can take these ideas of truth so far as to declare we know that a god has chosen some to be privy to belief systems that secure eternal paradise for their souls and some be pre-determined to eternal condemnation? Even worse, how can so many witch-hunt and holy-war for their versions of absolute truth? How can we not see that our understanding of truth is the cumulative result of so many factors?

If I grew up anywhere else in the world, to any other family, or in any other time period, I would likely be absolutely different than I am. That's about the extent of what I can pretty confidently declare absolutely true. That's not much to shape a life after, but I'm trying none the less. Bless your heart if you live comfortably amidst life's uncertainties, but if you're simply incapable of that and have to make it known you've discovered the truth, well bless your heart.

Monday, May 11, 2015

When rock is criminal, criminals rock.

There is no single album that has been more in constant rotation for me than Clutch's "Self-Titled."

Yesterday, it turned twenty years old!

Neal Fallon "wails and moans" through all twelve vocal tracks with a grumble that reeks of whiskey and hard times, never missing a moment to turn a clever phrase or expound on a religious diatribe. Tim Sult is the soul of the this endeavor, writing blues riffs for metal heads that weave and tumble and play with each other, each riff defining its song and becoming instantly memorable. Dan Maines though for me is the true master of the album. Me having stumbled into alternative music from bass-head Hip Hop leanings, his bass lines are the album, the first thing people notice, for good reason...his bass lines. Jean-Paul Gaster drums, it's a great performance, but is out-shined for me by everyone else. Perhaps that's a drummer's job, to hold it all together in the background. Maybe.

Clutch was my first concert, in 1995, at the Phoenix Amphitheatre in Pontiac, Michigan. To this day my buddy hates me for seeing Tad open the show, having no clue who Tad was and not being very impressed. I went with the infamous Scobie boys, both having their terrible long hair, shaved underneath, riding around in a two-door Plymouth that smelled like morning breath at all times of the day, the multiple gas station air fresheners having no effect. They introduced me to things I'd never heard of, and would never have heard of. I bought, rather, my mom bought me steel-toed boots for me to go to the show in, in case of a mosh pit rough up. I had no clue about anything at this point, especially not mosh pits. I remember pointing out some giant skinhead looking dudes to Eric and Steve, which they quickly squashed and tried to help me play it cool. Evidently Clutch, for whatever reason, had an actual Nazi-skinhead following in Michigan, which was notorious for its intimidating presence at their shows. Apparently that sect of people were pretty prevalent in the nineties throughout all sorts of music scenes. During Clutch's set I was forced into the mosh pit during their infamous rager "Binge and Purge." I fell, but seven hands immediately helped me up. It was invigorating! I was hooked.

About a month later the record came out and I bought it at the original Record Time at Ten Mile and Gratiot on cassette. I still have the cassette. It's battered and bruised from getting stuck in "uncle" Kevin's conversion-van tape deck after I forced our youth-group to listen to it on the way to a weekend getaway for church.

I've always had a morbid curiosity about just how many times Neal Fallon says "Yeah!" throughout the album. And now, in honor of its birthday and to pay homage to the record that has repeatedly, for 20 years, astounded, baffled, and inspired me, I will give you that "Yeah!" count. But there were terms for declaring a "Yeah!" a countable "Yeah!" I picked only "Yeah!"s that were not lyrically relevant. For instance, the line: "When I talk-talk on a C.B. yeah I scare men," from The House that Peterbilt wouldn't have a countable "Yeah!" Only celebratory or filler "Yeah!"s would count. Also, there are many moments throughout the record where Fallon double tracked his vocals, making, I imagine, intentional echoes of himself. So, I figured, if it meets the above criteria AND my ears hear it and my singing along would vocalize it, it counts. Boy I've built this up.

The grand total of "Yeah!"s is 42.

Seven Jam alone has fifteen, with Space Grass pulling in twelve. Three tracks have zero "Yeah!"s Forty-two is a lot! But not really as many as I expected. But it could be the most "Yeah!"s ever found in one album, that's something.

All these years and I still don't know what Fallon is talking about much of the time. It's funny how my lips say things at certain points in songs but I know I'm not actually saying what he's saying. In fact, at some of those moments I'm not saying actual words. It'd be funny to catch that on tape. Don't do it though, I'd be embarrassed.

If you haven't dabbled in this record, maybe try it? Maybe you'll love it too.

Friday, May 1, 2015

True and Appropriate.

A few weeks ago I got wrangled into looking at a link entitled something like 'The most popular tattoos of 2014.' Lots of line drawings, geometrical shapes, angel wings (really? still popular eh?) and text phrases, the most popular of which was "this too shall pass." The origin of the adage goes back to Medieval Sufi poets. Its tenure thereafter has plenty of folklore about kings and rings and the eternal torment of sad and happy men alike. The modern reclamation I think leans heavily on the relief from woe more-so than balanced perspective amidst grandeur. A friend recently posted about a hardship she was dealing with on Facebook, and almost like it couldn't not be there, amidst the comments, someone wrote "this too shall pass." In this instance, it seemed snide, patronizing, and devoid of wisdom. Almost the same as saying: "you'll get over it."

We're raising a three year old. A strong willed three year old. That's a term people use now. She's had a hard week. Well, maybe we've had a hard week, she's probably pretty okay. Many of our tried and true tricks are wearing off and need to be re-tooled, which is a dismal realization when we're in the throes of meltdown city. Until this week I feel like I've been able to keep a pretty good perspective on how affected she is by her age. She's trying to find her way, understand how the world works, and assert a sense of control. This makes sense to me. But she's found some buttons I didn't quite know existed. In my most deflated moments I start wondering about grim possibilities: What if she's ADHD? Did I do something that makes her fear me? What if these are signs of her being a future troubled teen? Worry! Worry! Worry! But she's three, I can't forget that. Plenty of time for all sorts of revelations, good and bad, that I probably shouldn't start worrying about now.

The other day on the NPR show, Fresh Air, Terry Gross was interviewing two of the three girls who escaped from kidnapper Ariel Castro's home in Cleveland, in 2012, after nearly ten years of captivity. Presumed dead, the world was shocked to hear all three of these girls, now women, were alive and still in Cleveland. The interview was nothing short of devastating to listen to. Chains, rape, pregnancy, garbage-can toilets...ugly, ugly stuff. To hear these women speak of their attempts at returning to 'normal' life, their courage, their perspective, was just incredible! With the help of a journalist turned close friend, they have a memoir scheduled for release. I wonder if this too shall pass ever entered their minds as they endured their crises.

As one of the stories goes, an Eastern Monarch assembled a band of wise-men and tasked them with the job of creating a phrase to reflect upon which should be "true and appropriate" in every situation for all of time. Though I think we can agree it's overused, you know, twenty-somethings all over the country are tattooing it in Hebrew or vintage type-writer fonts, it still holds weight. Flippantly posted as a clever quip or solve-all without any compassion behind it, this time-tested combination of words can seem coarse. But when I strip away my petty grievances of it being so 'emo,' or 'pop,' it still cuts through to the truth none of us can escape. Truly, unequivocally, all of this, our fears of failure, our traumas, our petty judgements, will come to pass. Depending on the moment I suppose that may inspire joy or sorrow, hopefully more of the former.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Our children will play together!

I just walked into the house after shoveling the sheety, rained on, snow that came last night and this morning, and upon entering our house I was hit with the waft of what I can only describe as a distinct "old people" smell. I hope that's not ageist, probably is. Regardless, that smell is virtually what sold me on putting my eggs in this house's basket. Candy hated it, but something about the smell just made me feel like I could make a home here. That and it had most of the other things we were hoping for in a start-a-family sort of house. I didn't get an immediate time and space transport to Grandpa's house per se', but it felt and smelled cozy. Perhaps it's the sort of smell that gives a place the feel that one can grow old in it? Just a thought.

I know four people who've lost their fathers in the last two weeks. They were Fathers, Grandpas, Sons, and Brothers. I'll be attending three of their memorials, funerals, or shivas this week. You may have heard me mention my friend, Oren, who lost his battle to cancer last Saturday. That night I foolishly opened Facebook on my phone between bands at a show, and, a bit saucy from my third drink, wept almost uncontrollably in the corner when I saw Oren's wife post the news. I don't cry much anymore, at least not from heartache. I tend to cry pretty easily at joyful situations in movies, tv, what have you, but less so at the harder times. Hell, every time Jenny tells Forrest to run and he sheds his leg-braces and discovers his freedom for the first time I smile-weep! (And how could anyone not??? It's maybe the greatest scene in the greatest story ever written!!!) To be fair, I didn't know Oren very well, as per usual, I moved away just as we were getting friendlier. But he was the first of our group in B-more to become a father, and the first person I met who was blogging.  He was just a regular guy sharing his thoughts, it seemed profound to me.

This morning I got to hear a sermon about another father's life with our 3-year-old sitting quietly on my lap. She desperately wanted to relocate closer to the people she knew in the crowd, but was understanding when I explained we needed to wait until after the service to greet them. As I'm listening to how charming, and entertaining, and devoted this man was, my sweets whispered in my ear, "I love you very much Dadda." I couldn't have dreamed a scene more perfect. Of course, a moment later she comically whispered, "I don't love you Dadda," as she likes to say to both Candy and I to get a reaction of tickles or whatever we then do to make sure she's joking.

Several years ago I heard through the ancient MySpace grape-vine that a former Dojo member friend of mine died in an on-site construction accident. Gilbert was a best buddy of mine for about two years until he up and left the Dojo out of the blue. Just prior to that he'd started wearing suits to high school on the advice to "dress to impress" or one other of Sensei's dorky business-savvy models. At that point Gilbert seemed to be lost to me, he was gung-ho for something I didn't understand, and by my view, seemed to have lost himself. Then he disappeared. A guy I saw almost every day for years, trained with, sparred with, swung bo-staffs with, was off the radar. Why he left I never knew. At his funeral I learned he returned to the Dojo years later and casually trained with others I'd lost track of. It was strange also learning that he had a wife, and 2 young kids, and the string-bean-teen I knew grew into a portly adult. His entire adult life was a mystery to me. To this day, every time I hear Dark Side of the Moon I see his face. He's encapsulated in a very different time and space for me. Gilbert's funeral was before I had a daughter of my own. As I think back now, I can almost see the black cloud in the air created by those who know how devastating it is to lose a father, husband, or son, well before anyone could expect their end. The children who will grow up, perhaps without retaining a real memory of who he was, we mourn most for.

There's a weightiness in these situations that I imagine every father, deep down, vehemently fears, as well as day-dreams he could handle as well as Oren did. (Read this for examples of his grace and other things worthy of admiring and pondering.) He's an example of the father I hope to be: intimately connected.  He embraced his fatherhood in a way that I admire and sometimes feel like I'm incapable of. Luckily, through some rearranging and help from fantastic friends, we're able to drive out this week to pay our respects and spend time with the legacy he's left behind. Our children will play together! And if there is any reality in which he can be aware of what we're doing without him, I'm sure there is nothing that would make him happier.


Editor's Note: I received a phone call the day before we were supposed to leave for Baltimore from the friend we were planning on staying with. He explained that Oren's kids were diagnosed with strep that morning and ten inches of snow was predicted from Ohio to Maryland. He asked us to wait until spring to come out, citing it will be a better visit for everyone, so we agreed. So, our children will play the spring.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Hope is real."

As a metro-Detroiter, it's hard not to be aware of homelessness. We live just North of the oh-so-infamous 8-Mile Road that narrowly divides "The D" from Metro-D. The 8-Mile and Woodward underpass is littered with the remains of those who've sought refuge from the streets...on the street. This year and last have been particularly cold winters with temperatures regularly hitting the negatives at night. At times it's hard to stay warm in our house, I can't imagine trying to sleep without a furnace and roof, even if it's under a mountain of generously donated gore-tex sleeping bags.

The past few years it seems there's been a boom in the amount of folks standing at busy street corners hoping for help from those willing to open their windows and give something in the moments before the light turns green. It's hard not to read signs that say things like, Homeless, family hungry, anything helps, without looking into one's soul to figure out what would actually help in this tiny opening between red and green.

If you asked me to imagine what homelessness looks like, without hesitance, I'd see Eugene. I don't remember the specifics around Eugene's situation, but my dad does. Eugene was his project, his faith through works, his attempt at turning the other cheek, at giving the shirt off his back, at walking the extra mile. Eugene stayed with us many nights over many years. I'd be pouring my cereal in the morning readying for school, and catch a whiff of his dense, musty alcohol and sweat, tip-toeing its way up from the basement. My parents would ask to wash his clothes while he showered, which he often declined, then after buying him a meal, my dad would drive him off to wherever he deemed his next destination. Every time he came through, for a moment, we'd wonder if this would be the final so-long. My dad likes to recall how he'd take Eugene to Burger King and every time without fail he'd comically order a "Whopper, heavy-all." Eventually we moved to Pennsylvania and prayed he'd be okay, wherever he was.

Growing up the son of a Pastor gave me many opportunities to witness the attempts of others to live the word, or practice what they preach. Specifically in regards to the homeless and hungry, many times we took people into our home or into the church to try and provide relief, if only for a night or two, hoping that our actions represented our faith and good intentions.

Last fall while eating in downtown Ferndale, we met Julia. After a double-take, as if we were long-lost friends, she greeted us through the window with an excited wave and jolly grin. She popped her head in and said to our table with a bit of a slur and a playful tone, "I'm hungry!" Not quite knowing what to do or say, fighting silence, I foolishly said "I bet you are!" She mumbled something that only a few of us could hear pieces of and walked off. As she left there was a heaviness in the air. We're a table of well-intentioned folks who have no reason, except the inconvenience of it, not to help someone who's hungry, but none of us seemed to know what was best to say or do in that moment. We were having a family dinner, toddler and guest in tow. We were in a restaurant that likely does not want to have their customers solicited from. It was complicated. None of us felt good about the interaction. Once we parceled together what she said, I felt an elephant snuggling up on my chest: "How can you be so nonchalant about my hunger?" We finished our meal and talked about the nuances of these situations. Dad and I agreed we were at fault, my off-color comment and his silence being the culprits. We walked across the street to where she was, introduced ourselves and apologized for our insensitivity, offering her the opportunity to order from the Chinese menu as we had. She said "It's no big deal," then asked if we'd be willing to get her some chicken wings and coffee from a different restaurant. Who said beggars can't be choosers, right? We felt like such A-holes we'd probably have driven downtown to get her Slows at this point. But we walked down to the wing-joint and ordered her boneless wings and a coffee to go. She was grateful. On the coat-tails of her thankfulness, she inched close to Dad, and asked in a much quieter tone, if he could also help her make bus fare while weaving a story of woe about her daughter and the police and a stolen bike. He obliged.

On our walk back Dad asked if I heard what she said when we apologized? "She forgave us," he said.

Sometimes I like to daydream about being a more honorable man; one who lives to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless. To be more willing to sacrifice my own needs for someone who isn't able to help themselves. I hope to instill this value in our beloved, as small as she is, to feel for others. I fantasize about having the abilities of Powder, to literally feel others' pain, to know what brought them to where they are, and similarly to be able to transmit their story to those as naive as me. But such abilities are works of fiction.

One 'intersectioner' has held a sign that says, "Hope is real." Reality asks that I simply take time to learn about another. That I consider another. It doesn't feel like enough, but perhaps this consciousness alone will give me the fraction of courage I need to act when action is needed. Perhaps hope IS real and can lead to healing in some capacity. I can live in hope.

Photo: stolen from

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Pieces of puzzles, threads of webs.

Scrolling through Netflix a few weeks ago, my wife stumbled on Pee-wee's Playhouse and decided to see if our three year old would have any interest. After an insistence that we watch the episode "Monster in the playhouse" on repeat for a few days we're now well into the third season and she loves it! When I told a buddy of mine we were watching it he told me about The Nerdist podcast and their interview late last year with Pee-wee himself, Paul Reubens. Among slews of other interesting things Reubens had to say about the development of his career and the Pee-wee persona, he mentioned one thing that anchors it all: he knew from the age of seven he wanted to be an actor. He tells a funny story about how, as a youngster, he hated Ron Howard because he thought he could do a better job than him as Opie. But from that moment on, he took every risk and opportunity to make it happen. For him, that was it.

Somewhere among the fifteen million headlines for Huffington Post articles that show up in my Facebook feed every day I remember briefly scanning one with the headline: The question we should all stop asking each other when we first meet, or something like that. It piqued my interest enough to read the first paragraph to find out that "what do you do for work?" was the author's culprit. He or She argued that it automatically forces us to place class judgments on each other, or something along those lines, leading to potential disconnects right out the gates. Instead, we should ask broader questions like "what do you like to do?" and let that conversation develop. I thought, "Yeah, I'm more than what I do for work, dammit!" And then stopped reading, because I got the gist of it.

Several months ago I started seeing a therapist with the intention of talking about Mommy/Daddy issues. While we've certainly talked through those, the conversation often comes back to my understandings around purpose and fulfillment, and my struggles in feeling those. I speak most about the confusion of never having had a moment where I felt sure I should to be doing any particular thing. Some people find this easy. Some people, like Reubens, know from early childhood what they want to do in life. Some people just enjoy something so much they can't not do it. Some people have life-altering experiences or epiphanies that show them the way. And some people believe the Heavens have decreed their purpose. However this certainty comes about, these people pick something and do it. They're doing their it.

I've talked with several friends recently who have said they feel like they're not doing anything productive, moving toward any particular goal, or they're not where they thought they'd be in life by now. They have a dissatisfaction with themselves. Like they're not doing something more significant. When I asked a friend about her dissatisfaction, she called it her "artistic voice" that's trying to get out. And, as she's an artist, not doing art in a full-time way, it makes sense that she'd call it that. I wonder if there are people who aren't artists in any structured fashion that feel this same nag? As I think of all the people I know experiencing this frustration, they're all artists. So maybe there's something to that.

The grand-picture part of my mind wants to deconstruct our ideas about purpose by relating it to class issues. The fact that survival is not something we have to consider, at least as middle-classers with, I'm guessing most of you reading qualify, white-privilege, changes the dynamic so much. The mere fact that I can sit here and try to wax eloquently about my ideas proves that I have the privilege to do so. I like to think about history and the development of civilizations and how people, as pieces in a puzzle, may have had a much clearer idea about what they're to do in life. Trades were often handed down through generations and only rarely was the glass shattered because people have to put food on the table. It's sort of a cog in the machine viewpoint. The machine must have all its working parts. There's a whole-lotta ugly in that sort of view too. Why should one person die of coal inhalation for another person's Industrial Imperialism? Not saying it's better one way or the other, but perhaps the option-paralysis much of my generation struggles with was not as present.

A friend recently joked about being terrible at job interviews, because he finds it hard to fake wanting to work. "Why do I want to work here? Well, I have time and I'd like to trade it to you for money." When I think of people who are super career-oriented, they are usually willing to give much of their time to their career. It's what they place value on. That or they want more money, which then requires more of their time in order to acquire it. In an attempt to fight against my self-hatred for my lack of ambition, I place value judgments on things outside of the career world. What do I like to do? Or, better yet, what makes me me? Well, let me refer you to the brief bio in the bottom right corner of this page. I am a father, a husband, a writer, a band-dude (quick plug), and so much more, right? Oh, and I'm a cog in Retail and a part-time Massage Therapist. Pieces of my puzzle. Threads of my web. But the image to my puzzle still seems hazy. I've somehow created a world in which there are no other options and have spent all my time trying fit something rather than find what fits me. There is no shoe that fits. So I guess I have fill my time with all sorts of shoes. And because of this, I have knots in my stomach, and scurry about hoping to find the elusive right single shoe. Perhaps the ambitious have the same knots, but on the opposite side of things, being defined by one particular aspect of their lives. We're all struggling with something.

As Greg Bennick, of the brilliant Between Earth & Sky, and of being-the-kind-of-guy-I-wish-I-was put it: purpose is anything we give purpose to. And my mind knows this. But my mind is at war with my history and with our culture.

My dad went to school for Engineering, until one fateful day when God called him to be a minister. There are people like Kayla Mueller who die trying to relieve the suffering of Syrian refugees. And then there's Pee-wee and a billion other examples of people who just knew what they wanted to do, I'm just not one of them, and so I'm doing things, and thinking about more things.

Here's to searching for the elusive it, and to balance and patience.

Image: stolen from google at