Friday, April 30, 2010

diamonds are NOT your best friend

My sister who is living in the United Arab Emirates recently shared a story with me about a close friend of hers who, after years of pressure from his parents, has consented to marry the woman of their choosing. That's what we, the un-initiated, usually think of when we hear about arranged marriages - parental coercion. Although my sister's friend could hardly be described as being forced into it (despite the cultural pressure, he does have a choice), there are people who do not have the freedom to say "no." Forced marriage is an ugly thing.

Still, I find myself more and more intrigued by the idea. I don't personally know anyone who has had an arranged marriage, though, so a couple of weeks ago I went online and ordered a book about arranged marriages. It cost a penny and was called, "First Comes Marriage: Modern Relationship Advice from the Wisdom of Arranged Marriages." I've been reading it over the past few days, and it's really rather weird.

Arranged marriage itself isn't weird - if we are going to define "weird" as "out of the ordinary" - since the fluffy little concept of "wuv and marriage" as it has been marketed to us is a rather recent and localized invention. It's just weird to be reading a "dating-for-marriage" guidebook written by a secular, urban, Indo-Canadian woman, for other women.

Even so, I find myself resonating with this book. It makes good sense to me, culturally speaking, to have arranged marriages, since marriages are the basic unit of culture. An affair or a little between-the-sheets hankey-pankey is a selfish act, but marriage is all about stability and community. It's largely about sacrificing personal freedom in order to build something that is greater than yourself.

I am getting ahead of myself, though.

I certainly can't fathom actually having an arranged marriage and Reva Seth, the author of this book, isn't even arguing for it. She just grew up in that culture and decided to dig a little deeper to see if she could better understand the experience. She agreed at the outset that coerced marriage was a morally repugnant practice, and then began interviewing women from a variety of cultures and backgrounds who had willingly entered into arranged marriage. For some of them, it was all they had ever known. Many, however, came to arranged marriage after years of less-than-satisfactory dating experiences. In all, she interviewed over three hundred women, and the things she learned from them astounded her. She abandoned many of her pre-conceived notions about what marriage ought to be and ended up using what she'd learned to sorta-kinda "arrange her own marriage."

Reva Seth makes a lot of good points - points that have elucidated my past and given me things to think about for my future. I'm going to brevify/outline her book for you because I know you're busy people and I doubt you have the time yourself to go interview three hundred people. Plus, whomever did the line-editing for this book was probably on some sort of narcotic, and if you try to read it yourself you'll probably just get annoyed at the grammatical slips and completely miss the message. I'll try to make it a bit less gender-specific, because I think the lessons are more broadly applicable. So without further ado...

First Comes Marriage: Written by Reva Seth, Brevified by Josh Barkey

I. Introduction

- Arranged marriage is weird to us because it just isn't portrayed positively in the media. However, the popularity of TV shows like "The Bachelor" (et al) and the ubiquitousness of internet dating sites as interpersonal intermediaries suggest that attitudes may be shifting.

- We crave something different. The divorce rate in the United States has sort of leveled out around fifty percent, but that's probably because a lot more people are just shacking up. Arranged marriages, by contrast, have about a five to seven percent divorce rate, and surveys tend to indicate that whereas marital happiness starts a bit lower in these marriages, it generally climbs from that starting point and surpasses that of so-called "love matches."

- This doesn't necessarily mean that arranged marriages are the way to go - just that it is worth looking at their success secrets in order to re-conceptualize marriage from the very broken way in which we often think about it.

II. Lesson # 1: Your Man Doesn't Have to be Your Best Friend [see, I told you it was weird that I read this book]

- In the past women mostly looked for a husband to provide a couple of things: financial support and children. It was part of the equation of what was necessary for life. This is no longer the case (and a good thing, too... a woman is not a kitchen appliance!) but the problem is that the pendulum often swings far in the other direction, and now a woman expects nothing less than everything... Mr. Shiny-Perfect.

-At this point, Reva Seth suggests that you take out a pen and paper and write down (as honestly as possible) what you're really hoping for in a spouse, and what roles you want this man to play. She says to describe an average day in your life with this person, and lists a bunch of things to get your brain thinking. She then suggests that your fantasy probably has more in it than you've ever realized - something like this: Love, Acceptance, Romance, Great Sex, Companionship, Honesty, Open Communication, Commitment, Doing Things Together, A Nice Family, Friendship, Understanding, Listening, Sharing, Emotional Support, A Connection, Genuine Intimacy, Shared Personal Growth, Financial Support, Social, Sense of Humor, and Being a Good Father.  She also suggests that this is more than one man could possibly fulfill.

- The next exercise she asks readers to do is to take the list they wrote and expand on each point. Write down every over-the-top fantasy. Then take that list, set it on fire, and say goodbye. "Just like any real breakup," she says, "you're now entitled to an evening of gobbling down peanut butter cups and ice cream while lounging in bed in your favorite ratty pajamas."

- Spouses are life partners, not life savers. Arranged marriages are based on the idea that you can build a good relationship by bringing together two people with complementary backgrounds and goals. Since people don't enter these marriages with all the detailed expectations and fantasies just described, they are free of a lot of loaded associations and can just enjoy their relationship for what it is - and do the work necessary to help it grow.  If the relationship didn't immediately give them everything they ever wanted or expected - well, no big whoop. For example, if they found their spouse didn't share their passion for horse-back fire-juggling, well then, they would be proactive and seek out friends who would share that interest.

- She suggests that freeing yourself from the myth of "The One" helps you in a number of ways. First, it increases your freedom by making you more of a participant in your life and not just a passive person waiting for that "someone" to happen to you. Second, it decreases dating tension because it frees you from requiring someone you are dating to fulfill a whole lot of unrealistic expectations - you can focus on what really matters most and stop sweating the smaller stuff. And third, it increases your chances of meeting a real person you can be with, because "The One" doesn't really exist.

III. Lesson # 2: The Musts Are All That Matter

- The people we date turn into the people we marry, and the idea of having a "type" is a myth that usually ends up being based on some barely-thought-out concepts absorbed from a seriously twisted culture. It's not about a list of likes and dislikes, it's about being brutally honest about yourself, your life, and what you want for the future. It is about figuring out your "Marriage Musts," which are based more on values and lifestyle choices.

- Helpless infatuation is stupid. Passivity is stupid. Sit down and write out what you honestly want. Putting it on paper is an important step towards making it real. Figure out what you don't want. Then get clear on what you do want.

- Reva Seth lists a whole lot of brain-prompts; but the basic idea is this: get detailed about core, value-based things and stay away from stuff like "favorite pizza toppings" and "votes the same way when watching the Oscars." After that, figure out who the sort of person you want would be attracted to, and ask yourself if you are that person. If you want someone who cares for the poor, ask yourself what you do to serve the needs of the poor. If you want someone who takes care of their body, ask yourself if you are willing to work to take care of yours.

- In an arranged marriage, these are the sorts of concerns that the families will focus on. You don't want an arranged marriage, sure, but you can still take advantage of their methods to help you find someone who fits with who you really are. This will help keep you from becoming overwhelmed by their gloriously hot skin-sack-covering.

- Don't fall into the "just for now" syndrome. There are a lot of really, really bad reasons for which a lot of people stick with relationships and end up getting married when they were only really wanting a relationship to tide them over until they found a better fit.

IV. Lesson # 3: Commitment is the Opposite of Constraint

- Overcome the "One Foot Out the Door" syndrome. Arranged marriages succeed because people who enter them do not allow themselves to conceive of them as potentially ending. This allows them to work through the inevitable difficulties and to focus on their more important, core values. It also allows them to focus on the good things in their spouse, because they are not involved in a game of ongoing relationship-evaluation.

- Our culture teaches us to think that we call always "do better," and that we ought to be perpetually focusing on self-improvement. As Monique Chapman (radio host/author) says, "We live in a 'drive thru' society today. We want everything right now and are always searching for the next best thing. The media has sold the public the concept of throwaway relationships, that if we don't receive immediate gratification, we move on." This sort of attitude is death to a relationship.

- Cohabitation, studies show, generally decreases the chance of long-term relationship success because it contains within it the "I can always check out if it sucks" mentality. People who cohabit often "slide" into marriage out of fear or guilt or whatever, without putting a lot of thought into what they really want.

- Arranged marriages avoid this by making the whole thing a conscious, thoughtful decision. You can certainly slide into a lucky marriage or learn to make the best after the fact, but why leave something as important as that up to chance?

- So ditch your plan B. Partial commitment at any level will deeply damage your relationship. Your lack of complete commitment will affect your spouse's commitment. There should be some deal breakers - like physical abuse, extreme substance abuse, etc - but you should figure these out ahead of time and make them very clear to your spouse. Write them all down on a sheet of paper, including all your what-ifs and so-forths, exploring mentally what you would do if they were to happen. Then record them onto a cassette, wrap it up in that paper, and toss the whole package off a cliff. Worry about that stuff if it happens, not before. Face your fears, ditch them, and commit yourself to total commitment.

- This level of complete commitment is very liberating. It makes it easier for couples to deal with problems, because there is no fear that problems will lead to break-up. Be active and practice positive thought and speech patterns with regard to your relationship. As the mouth speaks, so the heart becomes. And hang out with people who want you to be happy and will support your relationship regardless of how you feel on a given day.

V. Lesson # 4: It Doesn't Matter if He Doesn't Dance 

- Don't confuse common interests with shared values. You're not marrying a tennis partner or a stamp-collecting buddy, you're marrying a life-partner. It doesn't help a relationship to pretend that you have common interests, or to try to force what isn't there. You can show love for someone by being interested in their passions, but actually being passionate about those things is not necessary for a good relationship.

- Arranged marriages, obviously, are not all that concerned with shared interests, so they avoid a whole lot of pain and anguish. They recognize that it's a positive thing to have different interests than your partner - it enriches you both and takes the pressure off of both of you as you learn to accept and love each other for who you are.

- What matters is your "Marriage Musts." Everything else is just window dressing.

VI. Lesson # 5: Romance Needs a Re-Write

- There are a whole lot of people sinking a whole lot of money into marketing certain ideas of love and romance and what marriage is all about. These people do not care about you. If you ever doubt that, do a little research on the De Beers corporation and find out how they manipulated the world into believing that diamonds (expensive diamonds) were an essential part of a healthy relationship.

- Arranged marriages avoid a lot of this cultural garbage because, quite simply, that garbage is not a part of the culture of arranged marriage. Even people who date a lot or sleep around before having an arranged marriage often relax the crazy expectation of huge romantic gestures because they just don't expect that from an arranged marriage. This allows them to appreciate the very natural, organic ways in which their partner shows love - which often bear very little resemblance to the pre-packaged tripe marketed by movies, books, and bridal magazines.

- Reva Seth suggests that you try to re-write romance, by actually listing out the things that really matter to you and make you feel loved. Instead of writing down what you're "supposed" to want, write down what actually makes you happy. If you prefer tea in bed to champagne at midnight, write that down. And then, she says, consider sharing that list with your partner. Stop expecting your spouse to be a soothsayer. Own your relationship.

- In an arranged marriage, romance can have any definition you choose. It's user-specific.

VII. Lesson # 6: His Sex Appeal? It's All About You!

- Sexual chemistry is largely a biochemical thing at the outset of a "love match." That's all fine and good, but a positive long-term relationship depends more on choice than chance. If you focus on the positives in yourself and your relationship, your partner will seem more attractive to you and your sexual relationship will grow stronger.

- If you happen to start out with a strong physical connection... BONUS! But arranged marriages achieve long-term sexual health by realizing that sexuality is just one component of the bigger relational picture - which is defined not by a feeling, but by what you are building together as a couple.

- Again, it's about those "Marriage Musts." Make sure you've got them written out. Prioritize them, and write down why they're important to you. Even if you aren't getting someone else to arrange your marriage, focusing on them yourself is essential to being able to relax into your sexual relationship in a marriage that you have arranged.

- Bottom line: sexual attraction is more under your control than you think. Love yourself. Enjoy and appreciate your body, your decisions, and who you are and it will become much easier to love and enjoy your spouse.

[Side note: as hippie as this sounds, from my background as a Jesus-Fan this is absolutely true. You are awesome and you can love yourself - it's the first step to loving others.]

- Don't let a culture that has tied sex to marketing dictate your approach to your own sexual relationship.

VIII. Lesson # 7: Family Matters

- Arranged marriages take into account the incredibly crucial role that family plays in shaping who we are and how we approach the world. Traditionally, they did this for the very practical reason that the bride often went to live with her husband's family - so it was essential that she would get along with them. Even though this is generally no longer the case, it is true that you marry your spouse's family.

- You don't need a spouse with a perfect family (good luck with that one), but you ought to at least get a sense of why they are they way they are. Finding someone with a similar family background increases the chances that they will understand where you're coming from on both big and little things. It will also increase the chances that you share common values.

- It's one of the downsides of our very mobile culture that we have lost the sense of family-connectedness that can provide us with the community that we as humans crave. But even if you won't be interacting with your spouse's family all that much due to geographical or personal issues, it is still very important to know where your partner is coming from, because it puts things in context in a way that nothing else can.

IX. Conclusion

- We've all been brainwashed, and it shows in the failure of our marriages. For most of us, it's unlikely that we'll ever go back to the arranged marriages of many of our forbears. Still, we can use the lessons of modern-day arranged marriages to provide ourselves with some context for where we've gone so wrong, and some practical steps to getting back on track.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

your grace

Killed with my civility, you smile.

I smile, too,
pretending not to notice
it is I who throw the polished stones

(which you pick up, silently, to hand back),

and though I love your grace
I turn my face and, still smiling,
throw another stone.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


I keep planning to glue some sort of patterned paper over the covers of the Beatrix Potter boxed set I got for my son at a thrift store last year. Normally I would never defile Potter's lovely artwork in this way, but this particular boxed set was printed by BP.

Yep, that BP.

Now why, you might ask, would an oil and gas company want to print children's books with their logo emblazoned on a bold green stripe across the bottom of the cover? Surely they aren't just thrilled with the fortuitous coincidence of initials, and kids don't buy oil and gas, do they? Well, no - not yet - but their parents sure do, and it can't hurt sales to have thousands of little children clamoring to look at your logo every night. So, being a conscientious pinko-commie-tree-embracing-whacko, I keep planning to glue something over that logo. I'm not going to let some fascist, ground-sucking, earth-defiling multinational corporation into my son's brain just yet if I can help it. So there.

Except... except there is a BP just up the road from my house where I always buy my gas, and my reasoning has nothing to do with those books (I promise). It's the closest station, to be sure, and it's on my way to work, but I will go out of my way to buy gas there. I will flip the petcock on my motorcycle over to reserve and pass two other gas stations, rolling into that BP on fumes, just so I can buy my gas there. And why? Because of people.

Most mornings I fill up there, there are three or four good 'ol southern boys standing around the register, sipping coffee and telling jokes. Dumb jokes, usually, but also generally clean ones, out of respect for the ladies who work the register. They pause their jokes and they say "Hi" to me. They're friendly, and so are the ladies at the register. Maybe it's the fact that the station itself is a bit run-down. Maybe it's because we're out here in the boondogs a bit. But whatever the case, the people are friendly.

They also don't make me pre-pay. I pull up to the pump, open my tank, flip the handle, and whomever the register lady happens to be will lean back, peak out the window, and turn it on for me. She won't do this for just anybody. She knows me, though, so she turns the pump on. This is especially nice because I've got no gas gauge on my bike, so I have to use the odometer to guesstimate the fuel level. This way, I don't have to go through the annoying process of trying to guess how much gas will fill the bike and then going back a second time for my change when I get it wrong.  Sure, I could go to another station where the pumps are all modern and let me pre-pay with a card, but I like buying things from human beings, and the human beings at the BP station up the road make it a pleasant experience.

So maybe I won't color over their logo. Not just yet.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Steven A. Martin 1975-2010

In the fall of 1998 I met a young man who was living, off an on, in the stairwell of my brother's dormitory at University. Like many college students, he struggled to make ends meet, and had taken to alternating his nightly sleeps between the stairwell, his car, and my brother's couch.

Steve was a smallish, slim guy - like me, but tougher. He played rugby, and when he fixed you with his piercing blue look you saw an intensity there that spoke of a passion for life. The thing about Steve, though, was that he wore this life of his openly, on his shirtsleeve. He was always willing to be vulnerable about the joys and sorrows he was experiencing as he ran through life head-first.

Because he first was honest, I was able to be honest with him in return, and it wasn't too long before it occurred to me to invite Steve to come live with me at my parent's house until he could get his financial legs back under him. My folks were game, so Steve became a part of our family. He ate with us, slept in the spare room, and soon began to share his life as honestly with my parents and younger siblings as he had with me. At first I was embarrassed for him - I had not yet learned the value of a life spent being real - but in time I came to appreciate Steve for the beautiful man and person that he was. I rejoiced in his victories, mourned his failures, and just about beat him over the head with a two-by-four when he announced his plan at the dinner table to marry a girl for a green card so that as a Canadian he could go live and work in Hawaii. He thought better of that one, but it always seemed as though Steve was up to some grand and slightly crazy new plan.

Those plans took him off into the wild world and we lost touch, but Facebook allowed me to catch up with Steve over the past while. I was able to congratulate him on his beautiful son, and to enjoy from a distance his new adventures. I was able to laugh with him about things like this picture (which he recently joked that we should make into a calendar and market on this blog) - the sort of things that only Steve would do.

This morning before I headed off to work, Facebook also allowed me to learn of his death in a car wreck last week. I got on his page and read an explosive outpouring of love and remembrance from others who had known and loved Steve.

I love you like a brother, Steve.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

In Memoriam

A gray, gray mist fills my open mouth with silence,
for I have entered the damp slumber of a death.

One last horn blast has grumped off through the fog,
which settles now in an endless, dimensionless damp blanket
over the gray, gray sea where I float
(humming soundlessly)
on a tube of rubber:

a tube losing air in one thin, desperate stream
through a tiny hole that hisses and bubbles,
bubble and hiss,
as I bob indirectly into a gray, gray forgetfulness.

A knife
(which for a while
I stabbed into my arm and thigh and hand and eye -
searching in vain for pain, or blood)
now trails in my gray, gray fingers.

And I wonder if a knife could want,
if it would want to feel
the gray, gray rubber split beneath its razor edge -

to at long last sink me,
into the gray and waiting sea.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How to Avoid Nuance

A lot of people are talking these days about "empathy" and "thinking about the world from someone else's perspective." This is fairly troubling, as those activities are incredibly time-consuming and emotionally draining. You've probably got more important activities on your agenda. Like television.

I am here to help. I am here to offer you a simple, two-step program for avoiding all the ugly complications of nuance.

First, you must create an ironclad world-view with a place for everything, and everything in its place. This will be difficult. There are a lot of things in the world, and your mind will not hold that much information. It's best if you can simplify it down into only two categories: Good Things, and Bad Things.

Second, you must put people (all of them) into one of these two categories. Naturally, you belong in the "Good People" category. Everyone else is fair game. There are a lot of other people in the world, though, so it's best if you can find some way to assign them to a category as a larger group - one by one is just too time-consuming. To do this, you will need to create a complex system by which to justify your categorization choices. So, for example, you will find it helpful to say things like "illegal immigrants are all like this," or "Muslims are all like that." Then all you have to do is say, "people who are like this and that are Bad People, therefore all illegal Muslim immigrants are Bad People." Do you see how easy that was (and how logical, and just)?

Don't worry if you change your mind after you meet an individual who doesn't fit in the category you've assigned him or her as a member of a larger group that qualifies as Bad, though. Unless you have chosen to kill him or her, you can always pick him or her out of his category and put him or her in the other one. You just say, "well, yeah, even though most Blankety-Blanks are Bad, there are some exceptions, who aren't really Blankety-Blanks anyways (because how could they be, when all Blankety-Blanks are Bad?)." Again, flawlessly logical. Chances are pretty good that you won't have to do this very often, though. You're in the Good People category, remember? Good People don't make mistakes.

You are a Good Person, right?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Thugh Lipsmacker

A long, long time ago there was a big fellow by the name of Thugh LipSmacker, who lived in a large cave by a swift stream with a great many other people, all of whom were very, very dirty.

Thugh had dark hair, a squashed, squat nose, and a barrel chest that he was always defiantly puffing out to disguise the fact that he was pretty much afraid of anything he couldn't bully: the stream, the animals in the forest... even the other people. What scared him more than anything else, though, was the suspicion that at any moment the others might discover that he was afraid. Big men cannot be scared.

All Thugh really wanted was for them to love him. He was terrified that if they knew what he was really like, they would kick him out of the cave and he would have to wander the world alone. He was a big man, after all, and big men (like small men and medium men) hate to be alone.  

Then one day, Thugh made an important discovery. He realized that everyone else was just as scared as he was. It occurred to him, then, that if he could expose their fear before they could see his, he would be safe. He would have power over them, and then they would have to look to him for love. So he began to tell stories. Every night in the cave by the light of the smoky fire, he would tell them a story in which horrible ghouls and spiny mastodons and sabre-tooth swamp-rabbits lurked behind every tree and rock, waiting to disembowel them and use their body parts for castanets. They believed him - partly because he sounded so sure of himself, but also because they knew that there were, in fact, things that went bump in the night.

Ugh became a predator before a crouching, cringing prey. They listened as he spoke these gruesome tales in his singsong voice, and their eyes grew wider until he imagined he could actually smell their fear. He tasted it and built it, gradually, larger and larger. In these spellbinding moments, he wasn't afraid of anything. No, he imagined that he was completely in control of the entire world (which, of course, he was not). And just when the others began to quiver to what he knew was a breaking point, he crescendoed the story not in their gruesome deaths, but by offering them a savior... himself.

"Yes, the ghouls and mastodons and swamp-rabbits are real," he said, "but I know how to defeat them - I, and I alone. Stick with me (and give me the choice cuts of meat and your finest women) and I will make sure nothing bad ever happens to you."

The more he said these things, the more he believed them. He was still very, very afraid, but the stories made him feel powerful, and he began to equate power with fearlessness.

Thugh's plan worked exceptionally well. He eventually got everyone else to do all the hunting and cooking and protecting, while he stayed in the safety of the cave, telling his stories. He became rich and fat, by caveman standards, and sired a great many belligerent, squalling little children by all the women of the cave. This bothered the other men (and the women, of course), but they were too afraid to do anything about it.

Time wore on. Things changed. Thugh began to notice a disturbing trend - those very same scared people whom he was manipulating soon got used to their fear... to the point where his stories stopped working. He began to notice that his power over them was diminishing, and that they were growing restless. This scared him immensely, so he invented other, newer fears. He built them and built them.

Time wore on still further in this manner, and Ugh grew old. Looking to the future, he began to train some of his sons to tell his stories. At long last, Thugh Lipsmacker died, but by then the fear was so widespread that there was no stopping it. Each generation the system of fear grew a little bit bigger; because no matter how scared Lipsmacker's descendants made the other people, they always got used to it. They always began to wonder why they kept sacrificing the choice meats and healthiest women to the whims of their supposed protectors. New stories had to be invented, refined, and re-shaped to fit the changes that began to happen in the world. They had to be made into systems, and other people had to be appointed to maintain those systems.

Other story-tellers came along, wise men and women who saw what Lipsmacker's descendants were doing. They were afraid, too, because the world they lived in was, in fact, a very scary place. They were more afraid, however, of the Lipsmacking lies - lies that were growing so fast that it seemed they were about to swallow up the truth itself. These new story-tellers tried to counteract the lie-stories with tales of their own, truth-tales in which the people became their own heroes by learning to face their fears and love each other without trying to control everything. There had to be something more, these stories suggested, than just the ever-growing fears of the Lipsmackers. There had to be an uncontrollable truth that was bigger than the stories that people could tell.

A few listened. For most, however, it was impossible. The Lipsmackers they could see and hear, but this hope - this invisible faith that the other storytellers were trying to argue for - this was too scary to dream of. They were too afraid of being unloved - too cowed by a habit of fear to take the terrible risk of being the first to let go and begin to really Live. On and on it went, the battle of the storytellers, with lies and truth mingling and mangling to the point where no one knew how to tell them apart.

And no one knows if it will ever end, or how, but one thing is certain: the Lipsmackers keep smacking their lips... getting fatter.


*Note: Any resemblance in this story to people who make church signs in Charlotte, North Carolina, is probably intentional. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Lord's Prayer (New Implied American Version):

Our Father, who art in... well, who cares where you are? Just give us our daily bread, give us our bread, give us some freakin' bread! And none of that cheap sandwich garbage from Safeway that the hoi-polloi eat, with the ninety-two ingredients and all that high fructose corn syrup in it. No, we want that thirty-two grain stuff hand shaped by Tibetan monks, who ground the flour themselves with real, honest-to-goodness stones. Oh, and we want it lightly toasted with a pat of organic goat's-milk butter on top, and an artistically slathered glop of some of that really expensive jam that comes in the tiny little jar. Or better yet, make it caviar. Yeah, caviar. From Russia.

I think it would be best, our most compliant Father, if you would give us this lightly toasted bread warm, on a silver tray, in the hand of our personal Swedish masseuse, who will pull it fresh from the mini-oven in the back of our plush, patent-leather limousine. And make that masseuse our doting spouse and lover, while you're at it, and make them virtuous and good and also a little bit wild and the most selfless lover in the entire world, because let's face it... we deserve it.

While you're at it, we'd like some really, really well-tinted windows.

We don't need anyone looking in as we eat our tasty bread of tastiness, and we certainly want to be able to easily tune out the stuff we see outside those windows. And give us good shocks on our limo. Make it, like, a Hummer limo with laser-guided rocket launchers and a complimentary machine-gunner. We've heard a rumor that there's a lot of crazy stuff going on out there, and Lord, we just want to be able to enjoy our piece of delicious toast. Is that too much to ask - to be able to enjoy the bounteous blessings that you have heaped upon us - your most loving, devoted and deserving servants?

We didn't think so.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


My friend sent me this story from storypeople, because she said that it rang with a feeling of me in it. It kept ringing, so I picked it up and connected it to here...

"He told me one time he forgot himself; his heart opened up like a door with a loose latch; he tried for days to put it all back in proper order but finally he gave up; left it all jumbled up there in a pile; loved everything equally."

Friday, April 9, 2010

the problem of pain: SOLVED

Back when we were both in University, my rock star/philosopher friend Christopher John used to tell me about once every couple of months that I was an existentialist. I'm a dabbler in the fine art of wisdom-loving, so I know (or at least, I think I know) that this means that I believe that I believe that "existence precedes essence," which I will herein re-define as meaning that it is not "what you know," but "how you live."

Makes sense to me, so today when my son and I were driving to dump off our recycling, I decided to use this existentialist para-dig-um that I apparently have to solve, once and for all, "the Problem of Pain."

[Pauses for Uproarious Laughter]

That was a joke. And it was really, really funny. People have been trying (fairly unsuccessfully) to solve the problem of pain for a lot longer than I've been turning air into carbon dioxide and (tee hee) methane - and believe it or not, some of them have even been smarter than me. So I guess that the way I'm going to get past this glaring difficulty is to sneak around behind it, wrap an existential garrote around its neck, and pull until it dies of boredom and I die of not breathing anymore.

Perhaps I should start by defining what I am talking about, so that all the materialists and atheists in the room can leave. You see, Pain is only a Problem if you believe that life is supra-meaningful. What I mean to say is that if you don't believe that there is anything super-natural (like God or an afterlife) that gives significance to the natural world you live in, then it shouldn't come as a particular surprise that the world is often a very yucky place*. It is what it is (the reasoning goes), so if people do stupid things and hurt each other; or if bad things happen to pleasant little old ladies like my grandmother, well... then I guess life sucks and then you die, and that's all there is to it. No sense in trying to make a divine mountain out of a primordial puddle.

However, for folks who believe (or want to believe) that their lives are meaningful in a way that transcends their experience, then Pain becomes a very, very sticky issue... especially if they believe that there is a good God who is running the whole show. How do you rationally reconcile a good God and meaningful existence with all the things that happen that seem very, very not-good, and also meaningless? I touched on this a while back in my post entitled "Jesi Renmen Ou, Haiti," which I wrote just after a horrible earthquake devastated that already suffering country (remember waaaay back when that happened?). How do you reconcile, for example, the Haitian earthquake? How?

[Stop. Now. Send Money. Return to Post]

There are, of course, a great many attempts to make this reconciliation; from the more profound written by very wise, very intelligent and compassionate theologians - to the more idiot-stick attempts by people who say things like, "well, they had it coming to them, because they had a pact with the devil." To the work of the former, I really have nothing to add. To the latter, I have only to say with an admixture of sorrow and rage, that it is my firm belief that you have made a grave error and possibly a pact of your own. Sooner or later, something seemingly meaningless and unjust will happen to you (although by this point, I think most people would say you probably deserve it) and you will have to choose between either facing the truth, or creating another, more complex lie. I pray you take your time with that decision... it is very, very important.

So how do I solve the Problem of Pain? Well... the short answer is, I don't. What I try to do, instead, is to face it with tears in my eyes - every single day of my life. Because if C.S. Lewis, or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, or Mother Theresa can't actually "solve" it, then chances are pretty good that neither can I. All you atheists can call this a failure of intellectual rigor (go ahead and do it, you'll feel better), but how does the saying go...? I'd rather keep my mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.

Oh, I've got my theories, but the best theory I ever read was a young adult book called "The Giver," by Lois Lowry, which didn't actually solve anything for me, but somehow bypassed my "higher" brain functions and convinced me (somehow) that living with the awareness of the evil in this world of ours is just a wee bit better than the alternative. And that's key, because it is the awareness that is the real problem. Wolves, bunny rabbits and probably even grasshoppers feel pain, but I'm pretty sure it's not the injustice of it that bothers them - they just want it to stop and will do anything they can to make that happen. I doubt the boll weevils get together on Fridays and try to hammer out a solution to the significance of why the rice merchants keep poisoning them. No, the Problem of Pain is a human problem, a part of what it means to be human**.

But I'm talking in circles here, and I suspect it is largely just for the pleasure of hearing myself think. The point, the point!

The point is, that although people on all sides of this argument are liable to condemn me for it, I refuse to try to "solve" this problem, because Christopher was right. I am an existentialist, and I do think it is more important how I live in the face of the Problem of Pain than what my logical take on it is. In fact, I think that anyone who presumes to actually solve (once and for all) a mystery such as this, is the very sort of person that you should not trust to tell you anything - not even directions to the door so you can escape all those blasts of hot air. It is an important question, so people with keen brains ought to wrestle with it. They're also welcome to share the results of their wrestling matches with others, and those others are welcome to listen. But not me, not anymore. I've had my go and I'm done with it.

Instead, I will start from the belief that there is pain in the world, and that I cannot make sense of it. This pain does not jive with what I believe about the meaning of life, nor does it fit with what I believe about a good God who loves me and everyone else. Nonetheless... I believe in those things... nonetheless. First, because I have found no better alternative (Jesus is way cool!). And second, because that IS faith. It's what faith is all about, and anyone who tells you differently doesn't have faith, they've got a Club!

Having admitted that "it is what it is" and having made it very clear that I am NOT going to clear things up for you (as if I could), I will now tell you what I meant when I said that I try to face it with tears in my eyes - every single day of my life. I have waited to explain myself because I think that you can't take that step until you've first reached that place of epistemological uncertainty that I have been trying to describe. Now that we are on the same page, I will say that I am not, in fact, talking about esoteric philosophical principles. I am talking about the real, human pain I felt when my first dog died. And when I got dumped by my first best friend, and girlfriend. And when my marriage died. And when, recently, I did something else (ooh... a mystery) that was poorly timed and caused me more pain than it needed to. This is real, gut-level, simple stuff.

But instead of denying that pain, I will attempt to look squarely into it, holding desperately to my faith because I believe with all my heart that it is that hope and that faith that will allow me to transcend that pain and begin to love other people. Everything else I've tried has just been manipulation and control, and it hasn't worked.

I'll end by giving it to you as a two-sentence starting point: not an answer, but a question. Not certainty, but a hope:

If you admit that pain is an inevitable mystery and really, truly accept this while somehow maintaining your hope that life is still meaningful and good, then it will open you up to Love. If, however, you deny the truth of your finite inability to comprehend such an infinite problem, and repeatedly try to cobble together some illusion of having "solved" it, then you will close yourself off to Love and invite despair into your heart, where it will destroy you and let the smoke monster convince you to kill people just to get off the island***.

Only a sado-masochist would want pain in his life, but I can honestly say I believe that all the heartache of my life - from the dead puppy to the dead marriage to the mysterious recent "thing" - are treasures that I wouldn't trade for anything. They have taught me how to live. They have expanded my capacity to love.


* I want to make it exceptionally clear that I am only using the terms "natural" and "supernatural" very loosely here, in order to give a general sense of why Pain is a Problem for a certain group of people. In my own life, I do my best not to dualize the two, because I think they are intertwined in a mysterious symbiotic relationship that is defiled by attempts to split the world into these two categories. Nice try, Plato, but you can take your cave and stuff it with cotton candy.

** As a side note, you could perhaps argue that I am suggesting that materialist atheists are inhuman, but I think rather that I am saying that they're working awfully hard to deny an aspect of their humanity and that I very much doubt if any of them will actually ever completely succeed. This is, of course, an arrogant, dehumanizing thing to say. But you'll remember that they said (at my prompting) that I had dropped the ball on intellectual rigor, and if I can encourage them to speak honestly out of their convictions, then they ought to do me the same courtesy.

*** Woot! Woot! Props to "Lost"! Never thought I'd care about a TV show, but there you have it. Oh, and props to Hulu, for letting me watch "Lost" without having to own a television.


I'm busy working away in my brain on a post that will solve once and for all the "problem of pain" (snerk), but in the interim, I thought I would share with you some beautiful advice I received in college from a guy named Baz Luhrmann. Watch it with music here (recommended), or just read it:

Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of ’99
If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be
it. The long term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by
scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable
than my own meandering
experience…I will dispense this advice now. Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth; oh nevermind; you will not
understand the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded.
But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and
recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before
you and how fabulous you really looked….You’re not as fat as you
imagine. Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as
effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing
bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that
never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm
on some idle Tuesday. Do one thing everyday that scares you Sing Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, don’t put up with
people who are reckless with yours. Floss Don’t waste your time on jealousy; sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes
you’re behind…the race is long, and in the end, it’s only with
yourself. Remember the compliments you receive, forget the insults; if you
succeed in doing this, tell me how. Keep your old love letters, throw away your old bank statements. Stretch Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your
life…the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they
wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year
olds I know still don’t. Get plenty of calcium. Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone. Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t, maybe you’ll have children,maybe
you won’t, maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky
chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary…what ever you do, don’t
congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself either – your
choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s. Enjoy your body,
use it every way you can…don’t be afraid of it, or what other people
think of it, it’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever
own.. Dance…even if you have nowhere to do it but in your own living room. Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them. Do NOT read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly. Get to know your parents, you never know when they’ll be gone for
good. Be nice to your siblings; they are the best link to your past and the
people most likely to stick with you in the future. Understand that friends come and go,but for the precious few you
should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and
lifestyle because the older you get, the more you need the people you
knew when you were young. Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard; live
in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel. Accept certain inalienable truths, prices will rise, politicians will
philander, you too will get old, and when you do you’ll fantasize
that when you were young prices were reasonable, politicians were
noble and children respected their elders. Respect your elders. Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund,
maybe you have a wealthy spouse; but you never know when either one
might run out. Don’t mess too much with your hair, or by the time you're 40, it will
look 85. Be careful whose advice you buy, but, be patient with those who
supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of
fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the
ugly parts and recycling it for more than
it’s worth. But trust me on the sunscreen…

Sunday, April 4, 2010

And The Sun Also Rises

In my childhood Easters we would all gather on the Scott's sloping lawn in the humid almost-chill of the pre-dawn and gaze out through a gap in the jungle as a dull glow began to fill the eastern sky over the lake. Often there were mists licking the surface of the water and ribbons and shrubs of clouds that filled the expanses and set on fire with bits of light. Up front Uncle Willie "the wild-haired Pigeon Man" and Uncle Scotty warmed up their wind instruments at the slap-dashed together podium as latecomers trickled in and tried to find places for their blankets and lawn chairs.

Then, as the sun began to peek through the trees at the far side of the lake and to lift its glowing, orangish arc into the morning sky, a choir of men would call everyone to order and Uncle Willie would put down his trumpet and he and Mr. Smith with his wild-eyed singing face would raise their voices acapella and with chests out and fists pumped would launch into a glorious rendition of "Up From the Grave He Arose," as around a hundred and fifty congregants tried to croak along.

Some were hardly awake. Many of the children were still asleep. But still others gradually exchanged the bleary eyes of sleep for a look that reflected the mists falling and fading into the lake. Their eyes began to glint as they contemplated the central, glorious mystery of their faith.

And there, beneath the spreading limbs of a giant tree filled with the rustling wings of huddled birds, we all glimpsed together for the briefest of moments the creative glory of the universe. The sky and waters and all the crazy panoply of jungle colors and birds and life seemed to be lit for a moment with a transcendent glow, picking us up with them as we, too, rose on the wings of the dawn to greet the central, glorious hope we yearned for in the idea that we, too, were resurrected from our ugliness and despair.

I today - a cynical, jaded, saddened and uncomfortable part of this whole mess called "Christianity" - want to look back and judge that moment for its failures and follies. I want to, but find instead that once again the tears come to my own eyes as I yearn back to a place and time when everything was illuminated and united in one, big, glorious hope. For it is in the travesty of it all - the mystery and the insanity of the instigation of this upside-down kingdom - that I sit here today alone in the church of my own office, watching the sun rise and light the oak trees outside my North Carolina home. It is here, in the imperfection and brokenness of my lonely vigil, that I once again believe that there is life beyond the brokenness, and that the resurrection is living on, now, in me.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Mr. President

The first time I ever heard of Barack Obama was from a flyer on the wall of a hipster designer's office on the third floor of a building at my alma mater, a private Christian liberal arts university in British Columbia, Canada.

It was in the early summer of 2008, and I was popping in for one last visit with my photographer friend Mike Rathjen when I saw the words "Going On Vacation?" plastered across a sheet of computer paper on the next cubicle over. It continued, "Barack Obama Will Water Your Plants For You!" There were four more of the home-made flyers, each of which touted some ludicrous thing that Barack Obama was going to do to make your life easier.

That was not, obviously, the last I would hear of Mr. Obama. Shortly thereafter, I moved down across the border and back to North Carolina. I began to hear his name jubilantly spoken all over - often from the sorts of people whom I  generally experienced as being thoughtful, concerned folks who loved truth and justice and tried hard to conform their lives to love. However, there was a tone and tenor to their adulation of Obama that often felt to me to be a little too close to that of those flyers - overblown to the point where I began to wonder if it wasn't all perhaps one big joke. I was suspicious of these almost-crazed cries of adoration, because Mr. Barack Obama is a politician.

As time went on, it became apparent that he had a fairly good shot at the oval office. As much as I don't like politicians, I do think it is important to know as much as you can about the world around you, so one day in the grocery store I picked up his book, "Dreams from My Father" and started to read.

Now, as you may know, I like words. I especially like them when someone with some real skill has arranged them into sentences, paragraphs and chapters that let me peak into the arranger's soul. When this happens, I get to feeling like I know the person, and I begin to trust them. This is what a good writer does - he or she earns your trust. The more I read, the more I liked this Obama guy... and the more I understood why some of my friends were dancing giddy circles at his political success. Still, it was political success they were talking about. And politicians, as you know, are weasels.

I wanted to know more, so I got Obama's second book, too. And I still liked him.

Then I began to hear other strident, exuberant voices. Except these voices were screaming about how much they hated the man. They said things... horrible things. They called him a liar and a snake. They hurled racial epithets. They claimed he was a muslim terrorist. When that was debunked, they claimed he wasn't an American citizen, and when that was debunked, they claimed a whole bunch of other things that also reminded me of some posters on the wall of an office cubicle in Canada.

It was all so crazy, so farcical, so... insane. Could he really be as inherently evil as many people were beginning to claim?

I had read Barack Obama's books and had come to the conclusion that he was an honest man who was trying to be a good politician. He was a pragmatist, though, which meant that he believed that sometimes you had to do things you didn't like in order to get what you really wanted. I understood this because I, too, make compromises (as, I would argue, does everyone with their eyes open who tries to live justly in a thoroughly unjust and broken world). For example, I am almost pathologically opposed to the consumption of fast food. I not only believe that it is gross, tasteless, over-salted-and-sugared garbage, but I also think it is wrong to cast a vote in its favor by eating it. Nonetheless, I ate fast food yesterday. I did it because three of my male colleagues at work were going to grab a bite to celebrate the beginning of our spring break, and I wanted to be a part of that. I valued community over my own tastes and opinions, so I ate some horse manure. And I had a good time doing it, too.

I make these little compromises all the time, and even though I feel that I ought to be stronger - ought to stand for my beliefs without any failing, ever - I don't generally let myself get too worked up about it. I try to be stronger, but it is a screwed up world and I am in it. Still, it's hard not to get a bit incensed when other people - people with some serious power - make these sorts of compromises in order to get things done. I want to judge them as harshly for this as many of my friends, students, and family seem so eager to do.

But I keep remembering that politicians are people, too. They are screw-ups, yes. But they are also trying to get by and get things done in a system that is inherently flawed. A four-year election cycle is fine when the average person has some modicum of integrity and a love of truth and their fellow man... but this is America, people! We eat, breathe and sleep a mantra of ME! ME! ME! We chase titillation and selfish pleasure and react with fear-driven anger when any of the conveniences we've come to expect are in the slightest way threatened. This is at least ostensibly a democracy, and we are getting exactly what we pay for.

850 million people in the world are malnourished.

Eight Hundred and Fifty Million.


In my faith-paradigm, that is eight hundred and fifty million image-bearers of God walking (or crawling) the face of this earth without enough food to fill their bellies. Fifty million children die EVERY YEAR of malnutrition-related causes.

I am afraid you are going to have to pardon me if I do not get spitting mad because one man, in one white house, actually acts like the politician he is and occasionally fudges on his principles in order to get things done in a hostile, vicious, overly-partisan environment where a large portion of the electorate doesn't care about all those starving kids and only cares about destroying their enemies, maintaining the status quo, and ensuring that they get as many privileges with as few responsibilities as possible.

I like Barack Obama. I like him for the artfulness of his words. I like him because he's black and I think his current position strikes a pretty potent blow against the racism that nearly makes me want to vomit when I hear it spewing out of the mouths of everyone from small children to adults. I like him because he seems to be trying to do something.

I do not like his office. I do not like the game he is playing. I do not like politics, and I do not like a democracy run by selfishness.When he got up to give his Inaugural Address, I was praying fervently that he would walk up to that podium, get on his knees, and with tears in his eyes confess to the world the sins of this country. He did not, because if he had, his Presidency would have been over. This is, after all, a democracy of selfishness.

Instead, he did what politicians do and told everyone how awesome they all were, and how they were going to continue to win the game of international Risk they were playing. I understand why he did this. I don't know if, in his position, I would have done differently. America is a great place. As broken and selfish and obnoxious as its people are, there is also so much good in all of them (yes, you liberal snobs, in those backwards, opinionated rednecks you like to sanctimoniously mock, too), and so much power and potential to reverse our many ugly trends and impact the world with love. I do believe in the potential of this country, but in the words of Bono, "if you want to touch the sky, you've got to learn how to kneel."

Instead of kneeling, however, we put up our fists and look for someone to fight. We hate and we kill, exchanging the impossible dream of the Upside-Down Kingdom of Love for the tawdry facsimile of a cardboard castle of self-righteousness and scapegoating.

I will not worship Barack Obama. Neither will I refuse to listen to anyone who ever says anything bad about him. For all I know, he likes to torture small furry animals for fun. He's just a man - a man in perhaps one of the worst jobs I could possibly imagine - and I refuse to put my faith in some mere mortal. I think it is just as dangerous, however, to direct my hate towards some mere mortal. The darkness resides in all of us, and I think it far more useful to expend my energy and emotions in a direction where it might do some good... inwards.

If I can do that - if I can honestly face my own lapses of integrity and faith - then it is just possible that in the stillness of my self-reflection a real change might occur. It is just possible that when that happens, in my own very small way I will have changed America. 

As I have felt again and again the frenetic energy of hate that seems to be seething towards a boil in this country, I have repeatedly returned to the words of that classic Eagles song, "Learn to be Still". So once again I will let art speak more beautifully and well than I ever could with mere prose the call that I, for one, am trying to learn to heed...

Learn to Be Still

It's just another day in paradise
As you stumble to your bed
You'd give anything to silence
Those voices ringing in your head
You thought you could find happiness
Just over that green hill
You thought you would be satisfied
But you never will-
Learn to be still

We are like sheep without a shepherd
We don't know how to be alone
So we wander 'round this desert
And wind up following the wrong gods home
But the flock cries out for another
And they keep answering that bell
And one more starry-eyed messiah
Meets a violent farewell-
Learn to be still
Learn to be still

Now the flowers in your garden
They don't smell so sweet
Maybe you've forgotten
The heaven lying at your feet


There are so many contridictions
In all these messages we send
(we keep asking)
How do I get out of here
Where do I fit in?
Though the world is torn and shaken
Even if your heart is breakin'
It's waiting for you to awaken
And someday you will-
Learn to be still
Learn to be still

You just keep on runnin'
Keep on runnin'