Tuesday, June 29, 2010

good

Once again, that guy with the name just like mine has written an another article for GOOD magazine online. I approve of his words, so I think you should go read them and leave him positive feedback and an encouraging comment so he will keep writing (he seems like a creative guy, and those people usually have pretty fragile egos).

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Four C's of Seeing

The following is the afterword I wrote for my memoir, "Anatomy of an Effup." In retrospect, it seems to break with the overall theme of the work and therefore I am giving it the old heave-ho. Still, it represents a fair bit of effort so I don't want to just stash it on some back shelf. Instead I am going to post it on here for your reading enjoyment. 

It's ridiculously long and parts of it have been posted before, but I hope you get something from it. 

Here goes...

---

The truth about visual art is that it's not about having a magical power or really good fingertip coordination. It is about seeing. That's it. The rest is just practice. It is amazing to me how little anyone really sees the world around them - how much energy and effort we all expend to box it, objectifying and categorizing and symbolizing everything that comes before our eyes. We do this, I think, because we are very, very small and the world is very, very big, and often ugly. Fear grips us, and so we do violence to the world in hope that it will then make sense. "She's just a welfare queen," we say, or "that's just a wombat," or "televangelists are the Great Satan," or "white people suck."  This is how we are.

It is not, however, how our spirits yearn to be. When I learned to make visual art, I learned how to see. And thinking about this type of seeing has helped me to see, just a little clearer, the rest of my life. I hope it will help you, too.


"The Four 'Cs' of Seeing: Learning to See Contours, Contrast, Color, and Connections".

The first thing you must learn to see is CONTOURS. For the un-initiated, this just means the edges of things.

Here is what I want you to do. Go into a room where there is another human being and ask them to hold still. Grab a pencil and paper. Open your eyes. Try to look at that person.

I am sorry to tell you that you will fail. You cannot see them - not really - and so therefore you cannot draw them. Ever. This is very important, so I want you to remember it: when you look at someone you are not seeing them - you are only seeing an impression of what they seem to be from your perspective. At the beginning, when you are focusing on contours, all you are really doing is trying to look at imaginary lines between an object and the stuff that you see around it. These are called positive and negative spaces, respectively, and they are also not really there. You are not drawing reality, you are just drawing reality as it presents itself to you. Your eyes can see a lot, but they cannot see the capital "T" Truth.

So relax. Your main task is to communicate what you are seeing with only the power of suggestion. Try to see these imaginary edges of the larger masses of the person, and then try to mark them down. But remember: you are not capturing reality as it is - you are creating a new reality of your very own. The best way to get better at this is to practice. So as you walk around, try to see the world as you're actually seeing it, with humble eyes that acknowledge their own limitation.

Why is this important? Because the alternative is objectification, which quickly becomes a lust for power, which is the same as hatred. Objectification is probably impossible to avoid completely. What you want is a better informed, more humble objectification. I’ll explain that more in a moment, but let me first try to illustrate with the story of the erotic dancer and her four-testicle dog.

At the end of my first year as a planting foreman, I had been bumped from nine employees up to fourteen. I was stressed and fatigued out of my mind, which may be why I didn't jump immediately on the objectification bandwagon on the day I drove back into the campground where we were staying and a tired-looking brunette came up to me and said, "Hey, you wanna see my four-testicle dog?"

This was at a time in my life when it would normally have made me a little uncomfortable to hear a woman (any woman) say the word "testicle;" but like I said, I was too beat to bother. "Would I?" I enthusiastically replied, "who wouldn't?!?" So she called out to this big, shaggy hound of indeterminate lineage, leaned over him from behind, grabbed his front two legs, and picked his front end up off the ground. Sure enough - four testicles. It may have been the fatigue, but I just raved. I called the crew over and made them look at it. It's not so often you get to see a bona-fide-four-testes-fido.

The woman’s name, it turned out, was Deb. Deb the dancer. The erotic dancer. This, also, did not bother me. Instead, I was intrigued. She told me that she was waiting at the campsite for some friends, but that she was staying over at a motel and was on a tour of small towns in Northern British Columbia, working as a stripper and an erotic dancer and trying to put together some cash. This was really out of the ordinary for a guy like me, a little missionary jungle boy who'd never seen an in-the-flesh erotic dancer before – let alone one with a four-testicle dog. Somehow, though, I didn't try to put her in a box. I didn't objectify her as some "damned harlot of Babylon," nor did I picture her as an object of hidden lust, about whom I could fantasize later after publicly decrying her lifestyle. Instead, I was entranced. This was a world I knew nothing about, and I was seized by curiosity. I asked her question after question. Who was she? Where was she from? What was it like, traveling from town to town doing what she did? How did people treat her?

I think she sensed that I really wanted to know and wasn't just digging for dirt, because she proceeded to tell me all about her life. She told me of her strained relationship with her father, with whom she'd bounced from town to town growing up as a military brat. He was in Florida and she was saving up to go see him, to try to work things out. She told me how the ladies of the towns treated her with contempt, crossing to the other side of the street and angrily glaring at her in the grocery stores. She told me how the men from the clubs often followed her around after work, making her nervous.

I felt privileged that she was letting me into her world a bit, but just as we were starting to really talk, one of the guys from my throw-together crew who had been hanging around listening butted in. He was your basic Bible School Boy, nineteen years old and absolutely convinced that he had the truth cornered and was just milliseconds away from wrestling it to the floor in a hammerlock. He started to barrage this lonely, sad woman with really invasive comments. He wanted to know, he said, if she was aware of how badly her lifestyle was reflecting on her. The contempt in his voice was palpable, and I watched as Deb the Dancer visibly shrunk into herself, made an excuse, and walked away.

The Bible School Boy could not see Deb. If he had tried a little harder, he may have been able to make out her outline. But he didn’t, so she disappeared.

The second thing I want you to learn to see is CONTRAST.

Unlike a spray-painted stencil, the gradations of light and dark in the world of the eyes are both infinite and transient. They are always changing depending on time of day, location of the viewer, and the relative quality of the optical equipment being used. Those who like to name and control things in art call these gradations "values," and it is rather fitting, as the value we put on the various aspects of what we see reveals yet again the way we try to order, understand and control the world around us.

My last year of University the notable poet
Luci Shaw came to a round-table discussion at a creative writing class I was taking. At the time my, writing was categorized more by fear of disclosure than anything else, but my visual art was often raw and honest, exposing some very dark aspects of who I was and how I was living in the world – so much so that as I have mentioned before, it made certain people very uncomfortable. I asked her about this – the supposition that some of my work was too dark, and signified a problem with my soul.

She paused for a moment, as wise old poets often do, and replied with the same basic point I have been making here - that both light and shadow are necessary to depict and reveal the world as it really is to us. To know whether or not I had focused too much on the dark, she said, one would have to look at a lifetime of my work. There are different seasons of life for all artists, she went on, but all good art will have elements of both light and dark worked into them. I found that to be both true and comforting - but not easy.

Light and dark are organic forces. Our perceptions of them constantly shift as we live and move. They are real to us, yes, but not like cubes of sugar that we can fidget with and feed to the monkeys. Most beginning artists are extremely timid about drawing in the darker areas, but denying the existence of the dark shows that we believe it to be an actual thing (it isn’t). This gives it a power it need not have as it feeds on our self-delusion and fear. It also blinds us to the fact that as scary as it can be, the darkness that we see in our art creates volume, in a sense bringing mass and form to our otherwise two-dimensional experiences.

So to grow as an artist, stop living in denial and the fear that it engenders, and instead accept and explore the wondrous complexities of light and shadow that play across the world around you. Open your eyes and your soul will open as well.

Wow.

We're really zipping along all tickety-boo here. You've blown past the fear of the blank page, of contours and contrast, and will be painting your own Sistine Chapel before you know it. And speaking of the Sistine Chapel, let's move on to the third thing you are going to have to learn how to see - COLOR.

This is your reward for all this work. This is where it gets really fun.

You may be a little afraid of all that color, but color itself is not the problem - it's being in charge that has you walking the knife's edge. You know what? Forget about it. New experiences are always a little overwhelming. When I was in high school I mostly just used colored pencils to copy pictures of supermodels for my friends. Then I went to university and they made me buy acrylic paint. For my first masterpiece, I chose to depict a shoe. I slaved over it for days and when it was all over, I thought it was so ugly that I cried. I had a fair bit of raw talent, but fear and a whole lot of emotional baggage almost made me throw away the brushes forever. That would have been a tragedy because of one thing: Joy.

Color is the music of the visual universe, and contrary to the cold calculations of materialists everywhere, I think that although color does have its utilitarian purposes, it transcends those and exists for one main reason: to bring joy to all of life, even the ugly bits.
Shortly after my wife had announced her intention to leave me - I was browsing the internet and that random moment in the Smallville hallway came to mind. I had been processing a lot of the unhealthy ways that I had dealt with people in my life, and suddenly I realized that I had been unkind to Allison Mack.

So I looked her up on the internet. I found out that she was born somewhere over in Germany and had come to America at the age of two. I learned that she was passionate about her craft, that she studies dancing, and that she learned to crochet from the actor who plays Clark Kent's mom. She is also about my same age. At the bottom of her bio on imdb.com they had a personal quote. She said,

"The most powerful way we can live our lives is if we stick within the community... when you come together as a community to achieve one specific goal, it's really just a beautiful thing."

That really grabbed me. At the time, I had been reading a book by Wendell Berry, who writes a lot about the value of community. It had been on my mind a lot and my curiosity was piqued, so I googled Allison and found that she had a website... a blog. I looked it up, and it was actually fairly interesting. It turns out that this Allison was not just some Five-in-a-Can TV Blond, and that she was actually passionate about a lot of the same things as I was. Hmm, I thought. Hmm. It is just possible that if I hadn't been such a dink on that set, we might have had a good and challenging conversation. I might have even learned something.

There are moments when it feels as though my life has been a long succession of these missed opportunities for real, human connection. This is obviously a more dramatic example, since it involves bright lights and a celebrity. But in many smaller, less-glamorous ways I have developed a habit of allowing my fears, anxieties and judgments to come between myself and other people.
I went on Allison Mack's website. I wrote her a note a note of apology. Then, when she posted an "art challenge" to anyone who reads her blog, I got involved. She said that she'd been been reading "A Writer's Book of Days", by Judy Reeves, a book which provides a daily writing exercise. She said she was going to do them, and posted the first. It didn't give a lot of detail. It just said you had to write a piece that had to begin: "__________ is the color I remember." I took up her challenge, did the exercise, and then posted it in the comments section.

Perhaps my whole life has been a running farce of missed opportunities to connect and converse with people in a way that creates something new. But in that instance, at least, I got a sort of a second chance. Color painted over sorrow. Here is what I wrote:
Light brown is the color I remember – the chocolatey brown of the amazonian waters where I learned to swim, to almost drown, to love… to lust.
There is a smell these waters carry with them, a glorious musk compiled of tiny particles dragged from snow-capped alpine peaks, tumbled off smooth-worn rocks and pulled from mossy cliffs. Every year the rains swell the rivers and they reach out – first in fingers, then with broad sweeps of arms, laying a blanket of themselves over the whole Amazon basin and then sucking downstream tiny bits and pieces, drawing with them the stink of life and death and decay.
By the time this water flowed through the oxbow Peruvian lake on which I lived, the dank waters were so choked with this history of a watery life that to an outsider they were nearly unswimmable.
For me, however, each time I immersed the warm waters wrapped me in their amniotic embrace and I emerged, at last, feeling new-born and alive. It was a Baptism of Being – and although I now live in North Carolina, swimming only very rarely in the sterility of chlorinated pools – every once in a while I smell something so earthy and primal that I am transported in an instant back… back to the light brown waters of my childhood.

Life is full of color, those wondrous little moments that give the madness of it all it’s meaning. 

In the final weeks of my last year in Peru, my friend Benjamin and I walked the long, grassy airstrip down by the lake. This was the year that Benjamin learned of his mother's cancer, the illness that in a little over twelve months would claim her life. We walked as we had many times before, saying very little, and then sat on the sloped edge of the runway, staring off into the distance at one of those bizarre, localized storms that often happen in the Amazon. Two monolithic pillars of angry gray clouds were billowing and piling up side-by-each, probably about a mile up into the atmosphere and at least a few hundred feet apart. The moon glinted off the columns in shifting brushstrokes of silver as something brewed in the darkened center.

As we watched, lighting began to gurgle all up and down the insides of each of these pillars, illuminating them here and there with flashes of rich, glowing colors. There were swaths of green and gold, blue and crimson. There were pinks and oranges and yellows and all over little fingers of hot white fire danced and played, crackling and fizzling and sparking. Then long bolts began to flash intermittently across the space between the two clouds, searing bands that lit up the inner faces of those columns at intervals, to be echoed in the silences by the subtler hues being painted within.

Benjamin and I, who loved to talk and share and “explain” to each other the mysteries of the universe, were stunned and sat in wonder for this show, sharing nothing more than primal groans and shouts of wonder as it went on and on and on – for over an hour. We each wished, silently, that everyone else in the whole world could see this with us: our friends, families – Benjamin's mom. But it was the yearning joy at the impermanence of it all that burned this vision of the creative eye of God into my mind forever. This is the mystery and the music of color that plays on, largely ignored, as a perpetual soundtrack to our mostly blindered eyes.

For me, color connects to all the deeper, intangible yearnings of my glandular self - the things I want to know about but can't, so I just end up having to be satisfied with rolling around in joy. Color is a gift. Color is a feast of delights from the eyes to the soul. It is an orgasm without responsibility, an opportunity to find joy and meaning in the midst of ugliness. As an artist it is your job to show up, play, and smile. So do it.

Alrighty, then. Now that we're all having fun, let's learn how to see CONNECTIONS.

I started University full of turmoil and trauma, undisciplined personally but with an artist's eye and what many called an exceptional gift. There wasn't much of an art program at the school at that time – just two gifted female teachers in an old portable, actually – but the first thing they did was they went and wrecked drawing and painting for me, and then re-made it as something else... something much more interesting. "Why just copy something you see," they asked, "when a camera could do it so much better?"

These ladies didn't give a lick if I was a fabulous xerox-monkey, they wanted me to make something new, something filtered through the only unique thing I had to offer the world: me. It made all the difference in the world. I mattered. I had something no one else did – myself – and with that I could make something that no one else could. I could abandon my fear and self-loathing and rest in the hope that there was a creative God who made me this way, and it was all right.

So, too, can you. Open your eyes to the connections that only you can make. You are incredible - a uniquely placed compendium of influences that can uniquely love the world. Never let yourself believe that you have figured everything out. 

It is a beautiful thing, this life, and more beautiful still when I can accept the humbling and painful truths that set me free to love, and be loved, without fear. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Quote of the Week:

"Because fossil fuels, however abundant they once were, were nevertheless limited in quantity and not renewable, they obviously did not 'belong' to one generation more than another. We ignored the claims of posterity simply because we could, the living being stronger than the unborn, and so worked the 'miracle' of industrial progress by the theft of energy from (among others) our children. This is the real foundation of our progress and our affluence. The reason that we are a rich nation is not that we have earned so much wealth - you cannot, by any honest means, earn or deserve so much. The reason is simply that we have learned, and become willing, to market and use up in our own time the birthright and livelihood of posterity."

- Wendell Berry, from the Essay "Energy in Agriculture," written in 1979 (the year of my birth).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

girl - friends

When I was in the tyrannical Miss Fowler's first and second grade classroom, I knew exactly what girls were good for: rubber-nut burns. See, in addition to their milky white rubber-making sap, rubber trees put off these little brown-striped seed things, and if I rubbed them fast enough across the metal screens of the first and second grade classroom, they got blazing hot and perfect for touching to someone else's skin. I could burn boys, of course, but they tended to do it back or sometimes forgo all that and just punch me in the face. There were a few little girls in my class who would on occasion hit back (I'm talkin' to you, Peanut), but mostly they would just shriek and run away. Perfect, right?

As time went on, I learned that girls were good for other things: things like sword-fighting and volleyball and cookies and... well... other things. Somewhere in my ongoing education, however, I managed to miss out on the most important thing of all that girls were good for... friendship. As my experience of girls as burn-receptacles shifted to an understanding of them as mysterious, alluring and sensual creatures from some alternate reality, I somehow missed out on the fact that females were human. Humans are freakin' amazing, so when I ended up mostly only cultivating close friendships with other males, I missed out on a whole lot of freakin' amazingness.

This past weekend I was hanging out with my hippie-ish-organic-chef friend JJ and his little brother on their mom's porch in Wilmore, Kentucky. As the sun fell out of the sky, I started to explain to him all the fabulous reasons why I could not be friends with half the world's population; "You see," I said, "I just figure that one way or another, somebody's going to end up being attracted to somebody else - we're wired that way - so you either have to get together or push apart. If there's a girl who I think might be interested in me and I am not attracted to her, I have always thought it was just better to save us all a lot of trouble by avoiding her. And if I am the one attracted... well, I'm just gonna take that attraction to the bank."

JJ sat there, listening. Then, without really disagreeing, he started to tell me about all the girls he was friends with - how he loved them to crazies and was really attracted to them, even - yes - in a sexual sense (ominous thunderclap). He told me how he was also mightily attracted to the guys he was friends with, and how he figured all this attraction was a part of the dynamics of what it meant to be human. Why would you want to be friends with people you were not in some way attracted to, he asked? Then he said that as long as there were clear boundaries and it was all kept out in the open, he figured that it was actually good for him as a person and good for his relationship with his wife that he be attracted to all these people. It helped him not only by allowing him to be honest about how he experienced the world, but also by allowing him to have a wide variety of rich friendships with diverse people whom he deeply loved. I had heard all this before, but as I went on to tell JJ the story of my relationship with a young woman I befriended several months ago, it sunk in a bit deeper and made my experience seem even more pathetic.

In the beginning of our epistolary friendship, I had intended to simply enjoy the process of getting to know her through letters. My friend Austin the Actor had been bugging me about learning to be friends with women - even ones I was attracted to - and the girl in question seemed a likely candidate. As we wrote more and more emails, however, I started noticing that the inevitable was happening - I was discovering more and more proof that she was, indeed, a member of that wonderfully intriguing species called "humanity." Not only that, but she was a woman as well, and I felt myself growing more and more attracted to her. I have to admit (with a certain degree of embarrassment) that I sorta-kinda flipped out. My wife had moved out only seven months before I met this intriguing woman, after all. I was a bit emotionally topsy-turvy, and although my wife had assured me repeatedly with fists firmly clenched that it was over, over, OVER, she was still my wife and what was I doing talking to an attractive woman and ohmygosh I was fallingintoiniquity and either my head or the world was goingtoexplode and I was quickly running out of enamel to grind off of my teeth!

I could have just relaxed and enjoyed the friendship for what it was. Instead, I over-thought and tried to box and categorize my way to control of the relationship in the name of some sort of moral code I was obeying and constructing and absolutely throttling the life and meaning right out of. I kept talking more and more about what it all meant and trying to figure out what, exactly, it was. This, of course, freaked her right out. We were friends, after all. Friends don't tie their friendship to the fate of the universe. It seemed as though my old habits were dying harder than I would have liked.

"You know, Josh," JJ went on, "I don't generally try to tell people what they ought to do. And I certainly don't have a right to tell you what you need to do... but I'm going to go ahead anyways and tell you that you absolutely need to learn to be friends with women you're attracted to, or you will never have a healthy relationship of any kind with any woman, ever."

I let that one sink in. He was right, of course. I knew it, and had been trying to figure out a way to backpedal and earn a do-over with my letter-writing-girl-friend for quite a while. I opened JJ's laptop, got on facebook and saw that Austin the Actor was online.

"I've been talking with JJ here about how things went with [letter girl]," I said to him, "I think I maybe could have handled that differently."

"What you mean to say," Austin replied, "is that you really screwed the pooch on that one."

"Well, I guess so. But you know what I learned?" I asked.

"You learned that Austin is always right and you need to do everything he says," Austin answered.

"Shut up," I said, "I gotta go."

I turned to JJ. "I think I ought to write her a note, telling her that I want to be her friend. I mean, I'm always complaining that all the people I really connect with live an hour away in Charlotte or in other states and countries, but then I go and sabotage a relationship with a person I really do enjoy talking to - just because I'm afraid."

JJ thought a bit. "All right," he answered, "but don't be whiny and apologetic. You are who you are and that's okay. Write your note, but I am gonna have to read and approve it before you hit 'send'."

So as the fireflies blinked on and off in the slowly-cooling night air I wrote my note, got it approved, sent it, and resolved once more that after thirty long years, I was going to learn how to have girl-friends.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

breaking away

In high school I was an avid reader of Breakaway magazine. I mean, avid. I read every word at least twice. I even entered and lost a couple of their art contests.

In case you've not heard of it, Breakaway is/was Focus on the Family's teen magazine for boys. It is therefore none too surprising that I avidly read it, since my high school was spent on a missionary center in the Amazon Basin before the proliferation of the interwebs. That pretty much made it a Focus on the Family Hot Zone.

Breakaway had stories, dating advice (or rather, "not-dating" advice) and glossy pictures of professional adrenaline junkies doing insane sports "for Jesus." One of my favorite parts of the whole slickly-packaged deal, however, was the music reviews. Usually they focused on telling me how the latest over-exposed CCM sensation was super-awesome-cool, but every once in a while they would throw in a review of one of the more popular secular bands (insert ghostly howl), presumably to let me know when to put my fingers in my ears so I could avoid having green sin-fungus grow on my brain.

Usually the bands they chose to review "said some good stuff," perhaps even cautioning against "the hazards of promiscuous sex," but ultimately failed the litmus test because of, say, the "lamentable solitary profanity on track seven," or, "the instance where the line at the end of track nine seemed to indicate that the singer had done drugs (illegal ones) and had enjoyed them." This, I was instructed to believe, meant that I could not listen to their music, because art is powerful and music is art and therefore the power of that music would override all other influences in my life and have me blaspheming and drinking marijuana alcohol before you could say, "Nirvana" (Which, by the way, was obviously Buddhist Propaganda Music. Obviously).

I cannot say for certain if the writers intended the following to happen; but a long, steady diet of these reviews taught me one very important lesson: I absolutely must never, ever, EVER allow myself to be exposed to art produced by people who EVER said things that Breakaway magazine deemed evil, or I would become infected. Possibly forever.

This lesson was easy enough to apply. I lived, after all, in the middle of the amazon. On a missionary center. Cell phones with data plans had not even been invented yet, and all those evil-mongering musicians were just mythological beasts... out there somewhere, far over and beyond the lush green jungle canopy of my home.

And then high school ended.

I left my cocoon and went away to another, slightly bigger cocoon at a Christian University, where I could always shake my head and sanctimoniously shut the door of my room when Chris Mouw and Luke Favel started impromptu dance sessions with the Spice Girls in the dorm lounge. I was living in the world, as they say, but was not of it. And I was awesome. Except, of course, for the sanctimoniously evil way I closed my door, walked over to the computer, and fell deep into the cesspools of the internet. Because there is no one righteous... no, not one.

But then came the Root Beer Kegger. I met Chris and Jesse and the other guys of Stabilo and suddenly good music with potty words wasn't just something I could turn off... it was my friends, talking. They said things that Breakaway had taught me were wrong, and they said them really, really well. When that happened, I had two choices. I could do what I had been trained to do and stop being friends with these guys, or I could shut up and listen to their music. I could try to figure out why there seemed to be a discrepancy between their obviously wicked ways on the one hand and their kind, joyful friendship on the other.

I chose the latter and found in their music a deep spiritual yearning that connected to my own spiritual yearnings in away that the sanitized, Eighties-throwback CCM CDs (that's compact discs, kids) never did. When I went over one day to the Crack Shack where he lived, for example, and Chris threw some earphones on my head and made me listen to a song he had just laid down with a click-track, it made me cry. "Jesus I'm your friend I know you'll never leave me till the end of life," he sang, "I'm your Secret Son... don't worry I won't tarnish your name by telling anyone."

"What do you think?" he asked.

I got up, wiped a tear, and gave him a hug. What else could I do - tell him he was a terrible person for being ashamed of himself and therefore not wanting to associate with Jesus? For all my careful avoidance of potty words and drugs and fornication, deep down in my guts I felt exactly the same way. I knew I was not really a good person, and that all the good things I did weren't bringing me the spiritual satisfaction I craved. Yet in solidarity with Chris' yearning sadness I felt that everything was, indeed, okay - that Jesus was my friend, despite the poop I persisted in rolling around in. I learned that despite the Breakaway-not-approved stuff that Chris sometimes did and said and sang, he somehow lived and loved in a way I didn't know how to begin to approach.

I also learned from Chris and Jesse and the others that Grace cannot be captured and boxed and controlled with behaviors, but that it must be lived, honestly and fearfully, one faith-filled moment at a time. I looked back at my Bible again and saw a whole lot of stories about people who did and said screwed up things, people whom God loved and hung out with, even though they kept doing the same naughty things, over and over and over.

Because of this, I started to actually listen to the stories that the people around me were telling with their lives. If they were going to be honest enough to tell the truth about their garbage, I figured, then I could at least be honest enough to listen without the pretension of superiority. My eyes began to open - just a crack. I saw that the contempt that came with my pretension made me a little more contemptible and robbed me of the chance to experience the joy of shared struggle.

Where contempt is, love is not.

And so, gradually, I started to listen and love. I started to weep along with Jesse when he sang about his suicidal thoughts (thoughts that I, too, had entertained in high school) in If It Was Up To Me, and to rejoice in the love and concern that Chris expressed for Jesse on the same album with the song Coffee Spills.

I started to hear through all this music another track, laid down and in and through and between the cacophonous, bittersweet song of the world. This track told a story of love and grace and beauty. It was so soft and sweetly sung... unmistakably divine and the most beautiful melody in all the world. How had I missed it?

I still don't like Nirvana, or any other music that screams at me. I don't like listening to people glorify selfish, pointless sex (although I refuse to be in charge of defining what that is) and I think it is sad, as well, that artists who cannot hear The Song end up chasing after it in all sorts of self-destructive ways. I am more eager than ever to listen to honest stories, however, because I believe that it is the desperate attempt to define themselves as qualitatively superior that keeps that whole CCM crowd (or at least, most of it. what I've heard) making what sounds to me like tin-can, soulless music.

I am done with that. I want to yearn for God - not trap a parody of God in my pocket. I am breaking away.

Monday, June 14, 2010

stories

I used to think that everybody was essentially the same. Sure, we looked different (thank God) and had all these odd little quirks; but at our core, I believed, we all wanted the same things and took a lot of the same stupid, counter-productive paths to try to get them. This belief helped me to empathize with people who acted very, very differently than I - I just assumed they were acting out, in different ways, the same sorts of insecurities and fears that I had.

With time, however, my opinion has sort of shifted. As I have grown up and become a little less afraid, I've had to conclude that not everyone is quite the wreck that I was. What's more, I really am an odd, quite different sort of a duck. I wash ziploc bags to re-use them, love guacamole while hating avocados, and say a lot of stupid things when I get anxious. I am also more creative than most people I know. I like to explore possibilities and to wonder about what might be. I easily construct alternate realities in my mind and just as easily (sometimes) destroy them if I lose interest.

I have always done this. If I see a woman in a frumpy dress dragging her screaming child between supermarket aisles I catch myself imagining her story - wondering about the things that led her to abandon her girlhood dream of sailing around the cayman islands catching swordfish, how she let that dream desperately slide into diapers and daytime television.

I do it to myself, too. For example, as a young child living in a terrorist-afflicted South American country, I would often imagine gruesome scenarios where guerrillas would blow up my house and kill off most of my friends. I envisioned myself barely escaping with my life and my BB gun, and then hiding in the trees where I would kill off the terrorists one-by-one by shooting them with deadly precision in the eyeballs, temples, or under the armpits into the heart. By the time I had finished telling myself these stories, I would be crying right along with "story Josh," imagining standing over the rough graves I'd dug for my family, a small child weeping at the horror of violence and his own lonely vengeance.

I did not ask to be this way, and for the longest time I disliked myself for it. There is a lot to be said for the value of living in the moment... of learning to BE. In difficult, anxious or painful moments, for example, it does NOT help to mentally escape into a story world where I can be the one doing the scripting. I do need to be who I am, and to take each day and each moment for what it actually is. This unhealthy tendency of mine often had me checking out of my marriage when it got tough, and more recently had me spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about an imaginary relational future with a person I barely knew. She's a pretty hep cat and you never know, but seriously - right now, I am pretty emotionally discombobulated by the whole "getting left by my wife" thing. Like I said... not helpful.

There is, however, another side to it. I have a friend who likes to say that "every mountain is climbed twice." It is impossible to create any significant reality without first dreaming it into being, and despite the fact that I do this mental storytelling to a sometimes unhealthy degree, there is a sense in which everyone plays these games. There is a sense in which I was in fact right about my essential similarity to everyone else. Humans have been called the storytelling animal, and I tend to believe that we are made that way, as image-bearers of an incomprehensible, story-telling God. Everyone tells stories as they attempt to understand and sometimes re-direct the essentially incomprehensible courses of their lives.

If I do this more than I ought - if this is who I am as a slightly more gifted (or at least, more experienced) storyteller, then so be it. I may in time learn to balance my mad storytelling impulse to a point where I will no longer confuse fact with fiction and inflict on others the consequences of my mental creations. In the meantime, however, I am going to cut myself some slack and hope that others will do the same. This creativity of mine may sometimes result in pain and confusion, but it also leads to paintings, poems, and (I hope) super-amazing film scripts. If my greatest strengths come with their own inherent weaknesses, then I will choose to accept myself, warts and all. I think it's worth it, even if it does drive me crazy. Viva la difference!

facebook

I am nothing again, inside,
and so - finding myself no longer alive -
I enter the hive mind looking to find what I have lost.

But all I see is flashing lights,
as sight and all other senses are subsumed to the humming of millions of other nothings -
all of them seeking themselves in the hum
of the dumb, dumb, dumb -
of the blind, lame, deaf and alone -

connecting with nothing more than what they bring,
these mindless, humming drones who,
like me,
have forgotten how to sing.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Great Aunt Edie

My grandfather was a thoughtful, literary man, and when my mom came home one day in late high school bouncing off the walls and talking about Jesus, he thought she was crazy. Not that he was completely unfamiliar with a more enthusiastic Christianity - his sister, Edie, had almost died of rheumatic fevers when she was a small girl and had always claimed that when it had happened she had gone to heaven, where she had seen Jesus - but it was a little different when his own daughter brought Jesus into the home. It was all well and good for his sister, but my mom was saying things like, "I wonder what God wants me to do today?" convincing him that she had gone completely bonkers and needed to see a shrink. Nonetheless, it may have been the quiet influence of my mother and my grandfather's close, enduring relationship with his sister that resulted in the eventual conversion of he and my grandmother to Christianity... which ended up being a part of why I have always thought of myself as having come from a long line of Christians on both sides (my dad's family were Anabaptists who came to this country a loooong time ago looking for religious freedom).

Fast-forward a few years to today, when at his behest my son and I went up to my parents' attic, one of his most favoritest adventure zones. I was sitting there on the ground by a pile of books as he tried to bounce a rubber ball off my face whilst yelling "Yo-Yo" and my eyes chanced to rest upon this small, green, fabric-bound notebook. I picked it up, opened it, and to my surprise it accordioned out between the covers. On the first page, it said "Thoughts... set apart... for my beloved niece Martha Lee Milligan on the day of her wedding to Ronald Norman Barkey, July 14, 1973. With love, Aunt Edie."

I never really knew my Great Aunt Edie - only ever visited her once, when I was very young - but my mother had always spoken fondly of her. I took the book downstairs and asked my mom if she would mind if I borrowed it and copied some of it out. She had forgotten the book existed, but said that it was all right. I began to read through and found in her words a poetic suffusion of love. My Aunt Edie would likely have rolled her eyes at many of the cockamamie ideas I throw around on here, but I sensed in her writing a loving, thoughtful woman who understood something of what it means to marvel at the wondrous mystery of this life. Mom seems to think that these are her original words, so I decided to copy out some of her words and let you make of them what you will - to show you a glimpse of the heritage of my mind. The only thing I've changed is a bit of punctuation... she was perhaps a little overly fond of the ellipses.

And if you think to judge her faith, I only ask you this: keep your mouth shut. Love transcends systems of belief, and faith is too precious a gift to allow it to be besmirched openly on the cesspool of the internet. One thing I believe in is the power of family - so please... respect my family, or I will hammer your face with pointy words.

Thoughts from Great Aunt Edie:

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Death:


The parting of the Veil is not so difficult. I wonder why we fight it so... It's as natural as childbirth... only this time we move into a bigger realm. This time we move into an Eternal realm, where Life has no limits and Love is supreme.

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Free Choice:

It seems I hear an echo
of a plaintive call afar.
Is this the call of yesteryears
when men fought wars before?

We've come so short a distance
in so very long a time.
How disappointing we must be
to the Father of Mankind.

I guess it's up to you and me
to wrestle with this weight,
to spread God's word of love
and stamp out man's hate.

5/5/69

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Truth: 

"And the Truth shall make you free."  Truth... the foundation of Life... the frontier of faith... the ultimate in science, the pedestal for God.

11/21/66

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Faith:

Faith is the life-blood to all belief... to all renewal of the soul. Faith is the forerunner of love and hope... without faith, love could not exist; they go hand in hand. Faith kindles the flame that stirs man's soul; Faith hears the knock and opens the door. It's given... by Grace.

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A Helping Hand:

Oh, the love within our souls searches hungrily for God. We hear His great voice calling and go to answer Him. He beckons us to follow... we stumble as we go, not knowing quite the way. Then Christ gives us a hand and lifts us up to Him.

11/21/66

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Encountering God:

The stillness is His breath, the winds are His voice. In like manner, the unfolding of a bud or leaf proclaims His word. He is here... He is NOW.

God is, and that alone is sufficient. And in our small way, we ARE, and in that simplicity, the IMAGE finds its MAKER.

1/5/72

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Peace and quiet - gentleness and calm - waves lap gently upon the sands. God caresses... soothes... and satisfies.

---

A Long Road to Go:


Love... I know love. I cherish love, want love, give love... but it's always on my terms!
            Real love is on His terms... compassion and action - keyed to include the unlovely.
Faith... I'm filled with faith, undaunted faith. Write about faith... teach faith... then fail to practice it!
            Real faith permeates every act. I know I am not alone. I am His hand... his foot... NOW.

Not my will... but Thy will.

8/18/67

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What is this thing called love... Like a river it flows bubbling and placid, then torrential and raging - a Force so powerful we both fear it and desire it. Yet Christ said, "Love casteth out fear!" What is this thing called Love?

---

"...they were of one accord" ... interesting thought ... how often are we "of one accord"?

Pentecost was the result!

---

Silence is essential to the well-being of the soul. We must touch the stillness of the Universe to understand ourselves.

---

Out to pasture... we're always putting people out to pasture. One of these days we'll get the right perspective on youth and age... and eternity?

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God is within, Man is the superstructure! Life whittles away the rough edges until God claims His own.

---

There's a quality of beauteous joy when love aboundeth in the heart and hope abideth in the Soul!

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What is it I want from Life - a bed to sleep in... a pillow beneath my head? Not really: a hand to clasp, a god to adore, a love that permeates and a life that radiates. That's what I want... food for the Soul!

---

Pores open
I cry within
God is real
And I'm alive!

---

Children:

Man's greatest humblers
Man's greatest heartaches
Man's greatest joy!
Loaned by God.

---

A Prayer:


Oh, Thou great and glorious Heavenly Father, Master of all that is - creator of the Universe and the Atom... forgive our petty ways.
We, who are images of Thee, and seek to be gods of the earth... forgive us.
Open our hearts and minds that thy voice may be heard, and may it touch and fill all the reaches of our total beings that all we do may be through Thee and for Thee to the glory of Thy name.

Amen.

---


That was it... all there was. I had thought to pick out a few and leave anything that seemed hokey out, but the whole thing ended up striking me as sweetly beautiful. I hope it brings you joy as well - the words of a woman who, it seems, walked only lightly on this earth.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

questions

I have a little book of questions that I bought for ninety-nine cents at the Salvation Army store on Highway 10 in Langley, British Columbia. It is titled, aptly enough, "The Little Book of Questions," and is basically just a catalyst for conversation or a superb way to cheat if you're engaging another human being in an ongoing intimacy-increasing email game of "question ping-pong." Each question is numbered, so you can also use the book by asking a group of people to take turns picking random numbers between one and two hundred and seventeen, with the understanding that they have to answer the question they have chosen as honestly as possible. This has the potential to be gloriously awkward (some of the questions are really, really personal), but I have found that if there is one thing people hate more than being embarrassed by an awkward answer, it's never getting asked a question in the first place. So sometimes I pick one of these questions out of my head to ask random groups of people - like I did the other day at my year-end faculty brunch. The question I asked is this: If you could invent a new form of transportation that would radically change the way people get around - like, say, teleportation - but knew that it would cause the deaths of around a hundred thousand people a year, would you do it?

One of my colleagues, whom we will call the "Empress of Maklistan," jumped right in and said "No... wait, I mean, yes. You're talking about the invention of the automobile, right? [bingo!] Well, I would still do it. Think of all the lives you could save. It would totally be worth it." There were nods and grunts of approval all around the table, but at that point Steven, the head of our English department, broke in to vehemently point out that you can never save a life, you can only take actions that will cause it to be prolonged for a while (gotta love us English majors), and then the conversation turned to other things. Too late, I thought of a follow up question: Would you still do it if you knew for a fact that your own children (or any similarly important people in your life) would be among the very first killed by the new technology? The answer to that question, I suspect, would reveal a lot about how you view the world.

Why is it so easy to be cavalier about the lives of a hundred thousand strangers when weighing them against some hypothetical advantage, but so immediately horrendous when the question is made personal? Are we really all that selfish? Is it really so difficult to care about what happens to people we don't know?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Maximum Posted Suggestion - Or: On the Evils of Speeding

In early May, nineteen-ninety-eight, I drove my aging diesel Jetta at a blistering ninety kilometers an hour down the long hill into 100 Mile House, British Columbia. I had failed to see the sign at the top of the hill that halved the speed limit. With a flash of red and blue lights, a cop going the other direction flipped a U-turn and fell in behind me. I pulled my overstuffed car onto the broad, paved shoulder in front of the Ramada Inn, rolled my window down the rest of the way and sagged onto the steering wheel. It was the beginning of another summer of tree planting and as usual, tuition had left me broke. This was going to hurt.

A hand thwacked onto the peeling-green paint on the roof of my car and I jolted upright and turned to look straight into the sunglasses of a bulky officer of the law. He cleared his throat.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't give you the biggest ticket you ever got," he said, with a smirk that I was too terrified to notice.

"Uh. Uh. Uh..."

I paused, collected my thoughts, and started over. "Officer, I am really, really sorry I didn't notice the sign. I've driven this road a lot of times, and you'd think I would know better by now. The truth is, I always obey the speed limit. I'm the most ridiculously ridiculous observer of traffic laws that you've ever pulled over. I've never had a speeding ticket before because I always follow the speed limit. I annoy the people behind me, and I annoy my friends in the car. Seriously... just ask them."

He looked at Ryan, who was nodding in the passenger seat, and then leaned over and glanced into the stuffed back seat, where from between piles of bags and planting gear my brother and the hulking Trevor Wallace were also vigorously nodding their heads. "Seriously... he's such a pain," my brother said.

The officer tapped a ballpoint on his pad of poverty.

"All right," he said at last, "Get out of here... and slow down in my town."

Still shaking, I put the car in first and lurched off down the road, once again scrupulously obeying the dictates of the government's conscience, annoying everyone. It was a sort of habit.

See, back in those days I was determined to show everyone that I was a good little Christian boy - and Christian boys obey the law of the land. They have to, because it's right there in the Bible. Jesus himself said in Mark 12:17 that I needed to render unto Ceasar what was Caesar's... by which he obviously meant that I ought to obey the traffic laws of 100 Mile House, British Columbia.

So I watched that speed dial like an accountant, uphill and down. I drove people mad and learned to drop down a gear and smoke out the tailgaters with billowing blue clouds from my rattling old diesel. I sanctimoniously looked down the hawkish bridge of my nose at those who angrily vroomed by whenever a passing lane opened up, and shook my head sadly at the state of the world as even police officers - police officers! - ripped by me on two-lane roads.

And I was right, dang you all. I was right. I obeyed the letter of that law until it was seared on my shiny-scrubbed little face. And I was right.

Except, of course, for the sanctimony. And the intentional use of diesel smoke to annoy people. Oh, and the obsessive, endless judgment of all those immoral God-haters who had driven their cars even one measly kilometer over the legally posted speed limit. I had the letter of the law down perfectly. It was easy to do - letters of laws always are - but I absolutely and completely missed the point and spirit of the thing. I missed out on the love.

The fact of the existence of a traffic law - or any law, for that matter - does not prove the justice of it. While I do think that it is worthwhile to obey the laws of the land unless there is a compelling moral reason to do otherwise, laws are determined as much by practice as by paper. Besides, laws change as society changes. You don't have to look too far to find laws that exist on paper but are never, ever enforced. What does a law mean when even the cops always break it?

For instance, it is illegal to ride an ugly horse down the street in Wilbur, Washington, and ninth-grade boys can't grow mustaches in Binghamton, New York. You can't carry an ice-cream cone in your pocket in Lexington, Kentucky, and goats can't legally wear trousers in Massachusetts. Oh, and don't mispronounce "Arkansas" when you're in that state... it's against the law.*

While traffic laws do not quite fit into the "weird law" category, the lesson learned from weird laws should still affect our understanding of their relative moral weight, and we shouldn't spend every moment living in fear that if we happen to break a law, it will mean that we're doomed reprobates. Laws change, but people and principles don't. Laws are always based on imperfect, generalized conceptions of what it is best, on average, for people to do. They do not account for individuals. Individuals make mistakes. They fail - sometimes on purpose, and often without even knowing it. Even in my hyper-vigilant speed-watching days, I still from time to time parked my car facing the wrong direction on residential streets and performed some dubious U-turns.

I was ignoring a very important truth - the fact that true character is not revealed by how well I perform relatively simple, straightforward tasks (like complying with speed limits); but rather, through the choices I make under pressure. The harder the choice, the deeper the revelation of true character and the more indicative of who I really am. It is easy, for example, to stay committed to a friend when they are treating me well and buying me cupcakes. It's much harder when they're going through a tough time and have taken to regularly calling me "Mr. Flop-Bott." But until they've fallen to such heinous name-calling, it is impossible to know for sure the depth and quality of my friendship.

In essence, I was using my careful observance of traffic laws as a way of deflecting attention (both mine and others') from things in my character that really were deep flaws - things that needed to be laid out in the open if I was ever to be healed of them. I was manifesting selfishness, pride and fear in a lot of subtle, hidden ways, and was too afraid to expose what I subconsciously believed to be my inherent worthlessness. I took care of the easy, visible stuff and ignored the things that really mattered.

This did not work out so well for me. I got tired of it, and then I gradually began to let it go. Believe it or not, now I sometimes even speed. I don't really mean to, but I just don't watch that dial nearly as closely as I used to. And you know what? I'm pretty happy about my newfound "immorality." It was too dang stressful trying to be perfect. I'm much happier living as if I really believed in grace. Now, don't get me wrong. I do think that laws are there for a reason and that it's important to try to obey them... and I still have yet to get a speeding ticket. Nonetheless, I have at last begun to learn to balance a desire to strive for moral purity with the awareness of my inability to be perfect.

As Viktor Frankl, brilliant thinker and author of "Man's Search for Meaning" (go. read it. right now) said, "If you take man as he really is, you make him worse. But if you seem to be idealists and you overestimate him, you know what happens? You promote him to what he really can be."

My idealistic hope is no longer found in believing that if I can just attain to perfect moral behavior, then I will have meaning and value and love in my life. Rather, it is found in the belief that I already have meaning and value and love (a gift, I believe), and can therefore strive humbly for moral excellence in the little things. I believe that if I can do this, then when the big things arrive - the really difficult, really important choices - I will have made a habit of standing strong for truth, revealing a character that has been shaped and molded by love.

This, I think, is what Jesus would have wanted me to give to Caesar.


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*Wacky laws borrowed from Uncle John's Tenth Anniversary Bathroom Reader. That's right: I'm super highbrow.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

war

According to the Experimental Theology blogger guy:
Deaths on 9/11 = 2,995
US Deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan = 5,408
Estimated Iraqi civilian deaths = 90,000-100,000


Each death a tragedy.


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A Prayer of Hope, Written in the Woods


God of dewdrops blinking in the morning light
and stars that nightly shimmer in the fullness of space; 
God of the places no one sees, like fresh-green
grown through the boles of fallen trees
and what breathes in the depths of a turquoise lake:


When I awake, I hear you in the mountain stream
and in the love-songs of unforgotten sparrows.
In the narrows of a rock where water falls
I hear the calls of a world that yearns 
and seethes between your hands.


God of stands of livid trees and all that lies beneath -
of shadows and sorrows
and the joy of no tomorrows...
these days, I walk alone
and moan for what's not there.


But when I start to scare,
I see again the endless sky
and fall to resting on a raft of grass.
I see it all pass in cotton shapes of bliss
and feel again the kiss of you.


Anew I wonder at the God of thunder
and of birth of softer things like sparrows' wings,
of God who brings laughter to a time of whelming pain:
who made the summer rain
and winter moons that shone on long gone men.


And when the shadows roll again 
and it seems the dark has won -
when I see the storm clouds still -
I close my eyes and bend my will
and wait,


wait for the sun.


by Josh Barkey (1999)



ten rippling pounds

As embarrassing as it is to admit it, I am gaining weight. I am doing it on purpose, too. But not like my friend Josh, when he decided to see how much he could gain in one day eating only Burger King Hamburgers (Twelve Pounds!). If I was doing that, I'd be bursting not only with burgers, but with pride. Because, c'mon... TWELVE POUNDS!?! That's flippin' amazing!

However, I'm not doing anything wonderful like that. Nope, I am gaining weight for selfish, vain, hypocritical reasons.

See, back in high school, when all my friends were hitting puberty and I was reading a lot of books and obsessing about how I was not hitting puberty, I decided that I needed to be happy with who I was. Everyone is different, after all, and someone has to pose for the "before" pictures in all those Atlas Weightlifting Ads in the middle of the Archie Comic Books. Besides, muscles shrink with age and bones become brittle, so it's foolish to look for identity and worth in something as stupid as a physical archetype, and blah blah blah and so on and so forth, and a whole bunch of other things that are very, very true.

And yet...

And yet I persisted in not liking my body and extrapolating that sentiment out into a nagging dislike of my whole Self.

Not always, mind you, and definitely not in every way. I did learn to like myself, somewhat, for who I was. I learned that I could do things that many muscle-bound dudes could not (such as, use words like "extrapolating" in a sentence); and in time I even began to accept that my ultimate value would never be found in what I did, or what I looked like, or who my friends were. I realized that my value was already there, because I was a unique individual, bearing a truly lovely Divine Stamp all over my God-Awesome self. It is one thing, however, to rationally accept a principle as true. It is quite another to feel it, consistently, on an everyday level.

The past year has taught me a lot about being fake. I have learned that I do it regularly, and that I don't have to. So instead of denying that I still think of myself as a little runt and pretending that I do not care when the big boys shove me around with their big boy muscles, I decided to do something about it. I decided to gain ten pounds. Not a big deal, really - ten pounds. But you gotta understand that I have weighed the same for the past ten years. It hasn't mattered if I ate like a horse or a sparrow, did manual labor or taught in a classroom... through some weird, freak-of-nature self-balancing metabolism, I have been Mister Buck-Forty forever.

So I decided to take responsibility. I decided that I should stop lying about my feelings and proactively work towards change. I began to do a few exercises at home (pushups, chinups, etc) wearing a weight vest that a student bought for me, and I began to eat more food and to drink protein shakes after exercising. I decided I would do this for six months, and if at that point my body still insisted I had no business getting any bigger, I would give up.

Ten pounds is nothing, I know. You can gain that in a day, eating burgers. But for me, ten pounds is significant in three ways. First, it is a way to acknowledge to myself that I have been lying about being all right with the way I look. Second, it is a symbol of choice - a realization that I am not the helpless victim of fate. I have been given the incredible gift of freedom, and I can use it. And Third, it is an admission that if I do not begin to be intentional about caring for my body at the age of thirty, I will regret it later on.

Not lying, making choices, and caring for your body are good things, right? So why, you might wonder, am I embarrassed to admit it?

I guess it is because in so doing, I have to admit imperfection. Although anyone can look at me and see that I am not a Greek god with the body of Adonis, it smarts to speak those words out loud in a culture that says that brawn is an essential part of what it means to be a man. I'm a bit smaller than average, and no matter how much reason and truth say otherwise, I still breathe the air of a society that believes that this makes me a bit less manly than average.

It is more than just masculine insecurity, though. As a human being, I am a study in contradiction and am as vain as the next guy. There are a great many wonderful things I see in myself - things that I often (foolishly) believe are the result of my own superb character. I got skills, baby, skills. So I don't think that is it, entirely.

Rather, the main reason I am embarrassed to admit that I am actively trying to gain ten pounds is that I am aware that this is a form of hypocrisy. I have essentially chosen to spend a significant amount of time and money on something that I firmly believe to be a vanity*. I am not a serious athlete, training for some event or contest. I'm just a guy with a complex who is trying to get over it - which strikes me as selfish and pathetic and also a wee bit stupid-dumb. Folks are starving out there, and here I am making strawberry banana protein shakes and sweating all over my kitchen floor.

As embarrassed as I am, though, I am still going to do it, and take it to be a good thing.

I know it won't actually work - ten pounds will still leave me smaller than average, and ten pounds will not fix my insecurity issues. You cannot resolve what is essentially a problem of the soul with what would seem to be a purely physical remedy. Still, body and soul are connected in a great many mysterious ways that I certainly can't comprehend, and it is just possible that I might be able to turn this work that I am doing and the food that I am eating into a sort of prayer and a sacrament - a way of regularly admitting my own hypocrisy and self-absorption. If I can make this a practice of confession, perhaps I will end up with a healthier sense of who I am as a unique facet of the reflected light of God.

And biceps. Rippling biceps.

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*I would like to make it perfectly clear that I think that working out for the purposes of health and fitness is a fabulous idea. My motivation, however - to gain ten pounds - is ridiculous. It takes SO much food to make ten pounds of muscle.