Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Dream

As part of my quest to challenge myself physically, I did another sprint triathlon on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It's a distance of a quarter mile for the swim, ten miles for the bike, and then a 5K run, just the sort of distance I can handle right now. I especially like doing this post-Thanksgiving Turkey Trot race, because it gives me a reason not to over-indulge at the Thanksgiving feast. Don't worry, I just hit the leftovers pretty hard after the race.

I trained for it the way I usually do, lots of swimming, running and biking - obviously - keeping my endurance up and my weight down. After all, I have to wear my special triathlon super-suit, which fits me like a Lycra glove, concealing nothing. On a side note, if you own a super-suit for triathlons, it is always perfectly acceptable to yell "Honey, where's my super-suit?" down the hall on the morning of the race. Anyway, for this race, I got my best time ever, speeding up dramatically on the bike and the transitions, and maintaining my time on the run. Unfortunately, my swim time was slow by about three minutes, so I'm looking to train smarter for that next time. 

Still, I don't even feel that it was the training that made the difference this time. In fact, I chalk up this race's success to a dream I had the night before. It was the weirdest one I've had in a while, and I have some pretty weird ones. I don't know if it was the melatonin or the really good sleep or Providence, but it was so vivid and so encouraging, even though it didn't start out that way.

Before I describe the dream, I'd like to emphasize the fact that this was a weird one, and I really feel like it helped, so if any psychology majors out there find some aberrant meaning in it, I'd rather not know about it. It started out with me hanging out with Roy, a buddy from high school that I haven't seen since the first year of college. The two of us had been captured by Asian pirates, somewhere in the South Pacific, and were being held for ransom. In the dream, it felt as if we had been there for over a week already, locked into bamboo cages. From what we could tell, they were getting tired of waiting for a ransom that probably wasn't coming, and were planning to sell us as slaves. Sex slaves. Like I said, weird. After dragging us out of our cages and laughing at us for a while, they said that we were shipping out tomorrow, and the only way out of it was to fight the boss of the gang. If any of us could win a fight against the boss, we could go free, and take our chances getting back to town. Both Roy and I said we'd take the chance, until the boss came out.

Into the little dirt floored courtyard walks Chong Li from Bloodsport. If you've never seen the movie, shame on you, but he's the huge guy that almost kills Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds by stomping on his head. I've been scared of that guy ever since Enter the Ninja. He's just one of those actors who I'm sure is a really nice guy in real life, but just has that look that makes me wonder how his wife even sleeps in the same room with him. He comes out with his massive arms crossed over his massive chest, and all the pirates go nuts, yelling and cheering for him. My friend Roy freaks out and jumps back into his cage.

But I say to myself, "Take him on." I figure the worst that can happen is he kills me, and at least I'd go down swinging, if he even gives me the chance to throw a punch, that is. That's when the dream gets even weirder.

I duck the first couple of straight punches he throws, and then block a huge left hook. After about five more punches, I'm flustered and amazed that this guy can't seem to get a hand on me. Everything he throws at me, I easily get out of the way or block. This seems to go on for minutes before I even think to try and throw a punch myself. When I do, it's a left jab and a straight right, and both of them land flush on his jaw. They don't really hurt him at all, but they do back him up a step. He gives me the most hateful look, and then rushes back in. The fight seems to go on for hours in my dream, but the whole time, he can't seem to hurt me at all, and every single punch I throw lands exactly where I want it. He starts to get tired, and I feel invigorated the whole time. I wake up before the fight finishes, but I'm going to assume that I earned the respect of the pirates and got my buddy and myself out of a short life of sex slavery.

That dream just stuck with me the whole race. despite the slow performance on the swim, it was like I couldn't get tired. I kept seeing myself fighting that huge scary guy, and the feeling of power and control I had in the dream. Normally when I get out of the water, it takes me a while to gather my strength and start moving into the transition. This time, I hit the land and immediately started jogging towards the bike racks. I pushed that bike so hard that I felt a charley horse coming on, but just a few seconds of backing off, coasting, and flexing my ankle put me back in play, and I finished well. The run actually felt good, like a run on any other pleasant day. There is a part of the two lap race that runs through a wooded area, and the tired and lazy part of my body started saying, "You know, you could just walk through the woods for a bit, catch your breath, and then really burst out the other side and make a great finish video." But then the side of me that brought the pain to Chong Li said, "You know what else you could do, just pick up the pace and run this doggone race like a man."

When I checked my time and saw how much I'd improved, that I was now only three minutes off of my goal time of 75 minutes, and saw that all I had to do was swim as fast as I normally do to crush that time. I really felt the way I did in that dream. I don't know if it was me of God talking to me, but I really think it helped.

Now, if I could just find a way to stop thinking about all the psychological implications of a dream about sex slavery and kumite fighting.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Adventure Time

Over the last few present-worthy occasions - birthdays, Father's Days, Christmases and so on - my wife has been helping me build a collection of camping and outdoors equipment. The latest item was a pretty incredible three-seater inflatable kayak. The thing about camping, or really anything outdoors in South Florida, is the heat. I really enjoy camping and kayaking and the outdoors, but I can't stand the heat. I tell my wife all the time that my people come from the land of snow, not the land of sun. So there's really only a small window of opportunity in the late fall and the winter when sleeping under the stars is actually comfortable, and not just a sweaty insomniac test of will and character. When the weather gets cool enough I try to take any opportunity I can to use my gear and get out in the wild.

Sometimes my son will come with me, and that's some good male bonding time. Other than that, I'm on my own, out there like Grizzly Adams, just me and the bears. This weekend, however, I decided to try to take the littlest, just overnight, to see if she would like enough to make a habit out of it. It went exactly the way I remember all of those family and church camping trips when I was a kid, which is to say that about half of everything went wrong.

When I was growing up, there was a real concerted effort on the part of the men in my church, my own father included, to get all of us hood kids off the streets and into the wilderness, to learn about nature and master some survival skills. Or at least, survival skills other than urban. I really did learn a lot about being outdoors, setting up tents and tying knots and cooking over fire. But we kids were always very aware that things were rarely going according to plan. For example, there was this one time when our camp leaders forgot to stake one of the tents down properly, and a strong Florida wind picked it up and carried it - intact and still erect, like Dorothy's house in the tornado - up into a tree about fifty feet high. It stuck to the side of the tree, looking like a nylon tree house for a few minutes, and then deflated and flopped over one of the highest branches. It was still there, in increasingly rotten condition, every year for the next few summers, whenever we would go to that campsite. I remember one chaperone trying to show us how to cook foil wrapped dinners of chicken and vegetables on the fire, and constantly burning himself every time he tried to snatch one out of the flames, because he left the tongs at home. We got more excited every time he did it, because he was one of the deacons, and kept  getting closer and closer to cursing every time he did it. Unfortunately, he gave up and went with the back up plan, hot dogs, before he went full on Def Comedy Jam.

So this time it was my turn to mess it all up. It was just one night, one single night of camping, and yet I spent two weeks covering all the angles to make sure it went smoothly. I went shopping specifically for the food, and then still ended up going back for a couple of items. I had marshmallows and hot dogs for the fire, which was a little tricky, since the park allows fire rings, but not gathering firewood. No problem. I called ahead to make sure that the rangers had firewood at the concession area, which they did, and even bought a special steel fire ring, just in case. I opened up the inflatable mattresses to check for holes or mold, and sprayed them down to disinfect them. I started pulling things out the weekend before, and even packed the car the previous night.

Knowing I had to get there before sundown, I left work as soon as the last bell rang, pushing aside some students to get to the parking lot. The plan was to run down to pick up my daughter from day care, swing by the house to collect the food and supplies that couldn't sit in the car all day, and then drive the hour and a half up to Jupiter to get to the park, racing the sun the whole way.

The sun won. Traffic was so bad that it nearly doubled our time, and I could feel the night closing in on us as the GPS ticked down the miles towards the park. It was just after six when we got there, and pitch black in that part of the country, but still, I didn't worry, because I figured I could use the car headlights to set up the tent. Building a fire would be a little tricky in the dark, but I had a lantern to help me see that as well. What I didn't realize was that the park itself closed at sundown.

My heart froze over for a moment when I pulled up to the entrance, the nose of my car a foot away from the closed electric gates. I had already hyped this trip up so much in this little girl's mind that I was having visions of trying to console her as she cried the entire two hour trip back home. Luckily, I found the number for the ranger's station and they picked up and let me in. But then they tell me the park store is closed, so the nearest firewood is down the street at the grocery store. So, in my mind, building a fire is out, and now I just have to use my Jedi mind tricks to get the baby off of the idea of hot dogs and marshmallows. Thank God she went for the idea of fast food, because I was already tired and still had to make camp.

The next day was almost perfect, the only hitch being that she remembered the campfire and the marshmallows and wanted that for breakfast. After more trickery, we were off to ride the ponies in the corral at the park. We stopped by the visitors center to get directions, and, of course, she got sidetracked by all of the kid friendly exhibits and just wanted to touch fake animals and color pictures at the art station. Since the center had chairs and air conditioning, I gave in and let her stay for a while.

Then came the horses. I thought there would be ponies for the little ones, but apparently they had all grown up into full sized horses. She got to ride around the pasture, led by a very friendly cowgirl, on a horse that would have been the right size for me. He was a brown horse named Cinder, at least four and a half to five feet to his back. She took a while to get used to balancing herself on top of that monster, but she had a huge smile on her face the whole ride. She could barely understand anything the cowgirl said to her, and could only whisper in reply, so lost she was in her haze of animal attraction.

And that's the thing that makes up for all the failures. One experience like that one, one night of successful sleep under the stars, one excited hike looking for wildlife, can make up for all the flaring tents, and driving, and planning, especially when the planning never works anyway.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Aftermath

I think I may have been living in a protective bubble throughout this election. Living and working in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties in Florida, I don't really meet that many people who were Trump supporters. I knew some, and I suspected others, but since my neighbors come out overwhelmingly for Clinton, or just not-Trump, in most cases, I just kind of figured that the rest of the state, and maybe even the country would be pretty much the same.

But I've learned a lot in the last few weeks.

We've been through the harshest, most divisive and hateful election season that I can remember, as someone who has been voting since 1992. I've see things around the country at Trump rallies that any other candidate in my lifetime would have treated like a pack of dementors circling their campaign and immediately attacked and disavowed. People physically attacking minorities, even women, at events, and that sometimes when the victim is a Trump supporter. But instead of attacking these actions, he incited them, with his words as well as his silence. I've learned things about people that I thought I knew, that I can't just unknow now. I've learned that some people in my circle of influence either don't care about the welfare and safety of my family, or have secretly had outright contempt for us. I've learned that many people really believe that anything that doesn't include being an active, card-carrying, hood-wearing member of the KKK could not possibly be racism, up to and including accepting the support of active, card-carrying, hood-wearing members of the KKK. Anything else - physically attacking people of color at rallies, shouting racist things like "Get out of my country" or "Build a wall," reinforcing stereotypes and making insulting generalizations, proposing unconstitutional and oppressive policies like "stop and frisk" - can all be rationalized and excused as anger at the system or economic despair or political impotence. I've learned that even people who think of themselves as "good white folks" will send an entire salad back to the kitchen if one leaf of lettuce is wilted, but don't mind swallowing their pseudo-Christian party loyalty even if it comes with a heaping side of racism and immorality.

And now, after over a year of the nastiest campaign I can remember, after a fight that was nothing but low blows and head butts, after nationally broadcasts of personal attacks that most people wouldn't allow in their schoolyards or workplaces, after manipulation of the voting system and outright cheating in the primaries, now I'm told that the election is over, and as we go back to our lives, we have a moral and logical responsibility to pull together behind our president. I'm told that we should all go back to the way things were before all of this, and work together to make this country great again. People are even comparing any opposition to Trump's presidency or policies to self-destruction, saying that hoping that he fails is like hoping that the pilot crashes the plane, when we are all on board with him.

The thing is, I may be on board the plane, but I don't like where it's headed. I didn't sign up for this, and if the pilot in your ridiculous analogy changes direction midflight, I'm going to make a stink about it to the attendants, and a bunch of us just might do what we can to prevent him from taking us all into dark territory. If that plane is really supposed to represent America, then we still have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly on board, we still have the freedom, and the obligation, to oppose our leadership when necessary, and not to stow our consciences in the overhead compartments until landing. That plus in-flight WIFI, I hope. I'm headed to Miami, and if the pilot changes direction and starts taking us to Greenville, I'm not just strapping in for the ride and going quietly with him.

Seriously, though, I'm not going to Greenville, you all.

But I don't even agree with the analogy from the start. I don't think this is a choice between supporting the pilot of our flight or crashing the plane in a fiery mess. I think it's more like hoping that the hijacker who takes over the plane misses his target. I think it's more like sabotaging the plane after someone takes over the cockpit, pulling out wires and snatching controls to keep him from using that plane to hurt large numbers of people. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Trump stole the election, even with the huge difference between the electoral vote and popular vote. Until we get either smart enough or angry enough to get rid of the electoral system, we deserve outcomes like this one. What I am saying is that I now have a president who has stated his intentions to use his office to attack and harm citizens of this country, including my family.

This may not seem like a problem to some, because some people either want to go to Greenville, or at least don't mind a four year layover there, as long as they get where they want to go. If Trump actually employs "stop and frisk" as his solution to urban crime, it's not their sons that will get stopped and frisked, detained and harassed, and physically harmed if they don't react to the violation of their rights in exactly the right way. I've already got family members being harassed by emboldened Trump supporters about being deported, and half of these family members are American citizens, and the children of citizens, not that it matters. To all of the Trump supporters who knew that he was racist, but put that aside because he convinced you that he was anti-abortion or pro-Christian or whatever, it must be nice to not have to worry about the hurricane because you've got shutters and impact windows, but my family is living in a tent out here. And for those who swallowed the red pill because they were so concerned about a liberal Supreme Court expanding abortion and gay rights, just know that some of us are equally concerned about an alt-right Court dealing with issues of civil rights, freedom of expression, mass incarceration, and immigration law.

So, no, I'm not going to blindly support a president whose policies threaten my family's future and safety. I'm not going to lay my voice on the altar of so-called peace or patriotism. I'm going to continue to follow my conscience, and hope that everyone else does as well, with all of the courage and patience and wisdom that it will take to get through the next few years. I'm going to obey my God and obey the conscience that He has given me, alongside everyone else who prizes goodness above party loyalty or America. If we had all lived the last year that way, we wouldn't be in this mess now.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Murtaugh Effect

When I was worried about the idea of having another child after so many years, and just when I had expected to be sending my kids out into the world, instead of bringing new ones in and starting all over, a good friend who had been through the same thing told me "That baby is going to keep you young. She's gonna be your fountain of youth." At first, I thought it sounded like the kind of rationale for getting a dog. "You'll get more exercise, taking it out for walks and bending over to pick up poop. You'll be chasing it around the house and trying to get it back indoors all the time. You won't want to do any of these things, and you'll hate every second of it, but, hey, exercise, right?"

But he was more right than I could ever have thought. I just turned forty-three, and I feel younger and fitter than ever. A lot of that is lifestyle changes and positive thinking, but I know that even that is motivated by the disruption of what I thought was my destiny. I look at old pictures of myself, the few that my big kids have saved, that I haven't gotten rid of out of sheer disgust, and I cringe at my former self. Almost a hundred pounds fatter, slow and weak, settled. Forced singlehood, single parenting, remarriage, and immediate and unexpected fatherhood are the gauntlets that have shaped me into the man I've become today. I know so many guys my age that are starting to settle, and I can tell that this insane challenge is what is keeping me sharp and strong and smart.

Still, I can feel the age and decay creeping up on me sometimes. My joints are fine, but the plantar fasciitis comes and goes, and when it comes, it has me alternating between running like the wind and limping like the three legged labrador. I'm at peace with my hair going gray - have been since I realized that my dad's hairline was my destiny. There's even something liberating about just shaving it all off every couple of days, and not thinking about it. It's the hair in the ears that's bothering me, often popping up faster than I can control it, like playing a game of whack-a-mole with a pair of tweezers. I'm more active and physically fit than I've ever been in my life, and I'm always looking for new challenges. Next year's challenge is to do some kind of race every month, and I feel like it's going to be a tremendous effort, but also an opportunity to prove something to myself. However, I do wonder how long it's going to be before other people see that it's getting more difficult for me to straighten up after bending over for a few seconds.

And all of this is the product of these unexpected changes and challenges. There are days when I think I'm not up to it, that I'm getting to old to be at this stage of life, but my friend was right. There really is something about having that baby in your life, in your arms. Unfortunately, sometimes in your bed. There's a muscle memory that kicks in, just like on the basketball court or the gym. Your body remembers what to do, and your brain reverts back to when you were just a young man yourself with your first child. It inspires me to stay quick, both physically and mentally, because the commitment I've made is such an important one, and requires me to be in peak condition, just like any other race I decide to run. I think back to the guy I was fifteen years ago, how I planned to be done with kids about now. And these days my wife and I are even working on having another baby, which means that I'll be bringing another child into the world, at exactly the age when I had planned to be kicking them all out into the world, and enjoying an empty house and lots of leisure time.

Like I said, it's a disruption, and it challenges the very concept I had about getting older. It might mean that I have to work more than I thought I would at this age. It might mean that the novel(s) don't get finished on schedule, or that I'll have to sacrifice some time from something else to get them done. At least when I sit down to write these days, I really feel like I have something to say, stories to tell. It has definitely meant that I sometimes have to get creative about what it means to get exercise. I can get my HIIT on in the park with the toddlers, and they can run cones with me and play with the resistance bands when I'm resting. I'll have to get used to sleep deprivation again, just when I had gotten the insomnia more or less under control. But I know that I'm stronger, leaner, faster, smarter, saner, tougher, and all around better than I have ever been, and I am equal to any task. I might just need a couple of weeks of training to get ready.

Sometimes, I catch a view of myself in the mirror, and, for just a second, I don't recognize that guy looking back at me. But I think he's pretty cool.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Magic Kingdom

My oldest daughter just turned sweet sixteen, and since she's such an easygoing girl with simple tastes, who understands the limits of our disposable income. She didn't ask for a huge party with ice sculptures and guest appearances from Beyonce or J Cole; instead, she just wanted to spend the day at Disney World with her best friend. I couldn't turn her down, in good conscience, especially when I kind of wanted to go myself.

If you live in Florida, pretty much anywhere in Florida, Disney World is close enough that any three-day weekend can turn into a Mickey Mouse vacation. Plus, with the resident discounts, it's pretty affordable, even with the recent price hikes. On top of that, if you have kids, it sort of becomes an imperative, at least once or twice.

The thing is, the last time we went was over a year ago, at the beginning of summer time, and I swore that I wasn't coming back until the youngest was at least five years old. We had gotten in free, because we knew someone who worked in the parks, which is also probably a thing if you live in Florida, so the cost wasn't an issue. The problem was that there are two Magic Kingdom parks.

In the off season months - October, November, sometimes February - Disney World is a place of friendly spirit, familial love, and just sheer childlike wonder, no matter what age you are. Everyone smiles at you and shows you kindness, whether they work there or not. The weather is great, and just a light jacket will get you through the worst of it. There are lines for some of the rides, but none of them really unbearable. Some of my fondest memories of Disney World are during these times. My most precious memory of dating my wife was the day we spent park-hopping, just the two of us, carrying on like teenagers without having to defer our fun to any kids. This trip was a lot like that.

Summer Disney World, on the other hand, is a soul crushing experience. The park seems to relocate to the light side of Mercury, where the ground crackles and softens under the intense heat of the sun, and its brightness blinds you no matter where you look. You get into line outside the Small World ride, thinking it's going to be about forty minutes, only to find out you're standing at the end of the line for Aladdin's Flying Carpets, across the park, and the wait time is 735 minutes. And you either wait it out or decide that you're okay with the idea that you traveled four hours by car to visit the park and you're going to do exactly nothing while you're in it. Patrons are rude, pushing and cheating their way into lines and generally using their bodies like missiles or bumper cars. Might as well - it's the closest thing to a ride you'll be on today anyway. The cast members are as polite and helpful as always, but they have a weary, tortured look in their eyes that betrays their friendly attitudes, and God bless the young person in that Winnie the Pooh costume.

So, with the memory of that last fateful trip to summer Disney World still burned into my psyche, I planned this trip, mostly out of love for my daughter and a desire to make her birthday special, but hoping that October Disney World would be as good as I remembered. I was not disappointed. It really felt like coming home in a lot of ways. The fun was back, and experiencing it with our precocious three-year-old, with all the suspension of disbelief that she brings to the experience, took be back thirteen years ago when the big ones were little ones, and, honestly, even forty years ago, when this big one was a little one.

We used the new Fastpass system, but instead of rides, we booked all the princess experiences, since those would probably be more memorable and picture-worthy. Our little girl got to play the part of the horse in Belle's story time, and at a time in her life when she has just discovered Beauty and the Beast, and wants to watch the movie at least twice a day. She'll settle for just scrubbing it back twenty times to watch the ending, though. She got to sit next to Ariel in her grotto and talk to her, pretending she was under the sea. She got to meet Rapunzel, whom she knows nothing about, and Tiana, whom she adores. In fact, she almost passed Rapunzel right by to try to get to Tiana before she realized that the lady in the pink dress with long hair was calling her over. The poor baby seemed as if she was trying to mask her annoyance with a fake smile. I actually felt a little badly for the woman playing Rapunzel, because she put her whole heart into her script, but she delivered all of it to the back of our little girl's head, because she was looking across the room at Tiana the entire time.

Tiana was especially kind to our little one. The baby has the lightest skin out of all of us, except me, has blue eyes and definitely would pass for white, if she didn't also have her mother's super kinky curly hair. She usually goes around looking like a white, blue-eyed child with a brown, six inch afro, unless we put it up in puffs or braids, which are the only possible styles for it. As soon as she walked, or more like skipped, over to Tiana, the actress went off script as said, in a perfect Louisiana girl accent, "Why, look at your hair. My Momma used to do my hair just like that when I was your age." I don't know how the baby actually took it, but she smiled so big that I have to believe she at least got a piece of it. God bless that woman. It did my heart good to see this beautiful Black woman dressed up and coiffed like a princess to tell my little girl that her parents used to have a hard time with her hair, too. Especially because at that point in the Magic Kingdom, after hours of walking around and several rides, plus a nap in the stroller, the afro puffs were starting to look more like cheese puffs. In fact, I wasn't even sure if the actress was in character or not at that moment until she mentioned something about borrowing Lottie's hair ribbons. Actually, she said a lot of things, but I was a little distracted and mesmerized, for more than one reason.

That wasn't even the only affirming thing about the trip. Everywhere we went, we saw different types of mixed couples and families, some younger or older than us, some of them mixed in different ways, but several of them, with or without kids. We have a code that we use when that happens - swirl week. As in, "It must be swirl week at Disney World," or "Did you hear anything about this being swirl week?" It's an uplifting thing for us, because living in such a multicultural city like Miami, we get used to the acceptance, but when we travel, sometimes we get more stares, depending on where we are, and not all of them are admiring. I think especially when we are all five together, some people play a game called "Who Belongs to Whom?"

The major difference was that my oldest daughter didn't spend the day with us, choosing instead to walk around with her bestie all day, and meet up with us for dinner. It was kind of a bittersweet thing for me - sweet because I think she enjoyed her birthday much more without having to include a three-year-old in all her activities, but bitter because it serves as another reminder of how old I'm getting. She sent us pictures every hour on the hour, as a sort of safety measure, and it looked like she was having fun, even though her smile got less intense and her eyes started showing signs of weariness after about two in the afternoon. The beauty of it is that we got multi-day passes that let us come back three more times. This time, I'm a lot more excited to go than I was before, coming off of a bad trip, but we're definitely planning the next trip on off days. I just hope Tiana is still there.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Election Day Can't Come Soon Enough

I'm really dreading election day this year. Normally, elections are always a touchstone for people with different views, but this year, it really seems to be bringing out the worst in people, bringing the worst out of our nation. I don't know if it's because of the really low quality of the two main candidates, or because of the end of Obama's term, and all of the anger and racism towards him, but it is really getting ugly.

What bothers me most is how this is affecting the church. I'm watching pastors that I have formerly read and respected making the most illogical and weak arguments for supporting an extremely corrupt and immoral Republican candidate. I'm seeing church members who I thought were more levelheaded and rational making all kinds of racially prejudiced and sexist statements. This newest scandal with Trump's 2005 statements on video are probably the worst ever. People that I know, not just talking heads on television, people who have sat next to me in church for years, are now excusing all kinds of debauchery and verbal violence under the name of "locker room talk." And when I ask if they talk like that amongst themselves, the answer is always a vehemently defensive "no," as if the very suggestion was blasphemous. But I can't help feeling that they are betraying themselves a bit with the idea that we are somehow allowed to have private lives that we share with a very few people, where we can be as sexist and racist and even criminally predatory as we want, and somehow that's okay, and shouldn't be counted against us in our public lives. It's as if the carefully crafted facades that we show everyone are supposed to be the only official version of us, and the seedy side of us is immune to criticism, or, at least, can be dismissed with a simple, perfunctory apology.

I'm starting to worry that I don't really know anyone at all, except for my closest friends and family.

I'm seeing people that call themselves Christians gloating over the deaths of other human beings at the hands of police officers. Implying and outright declaring that a man deserved to die because he smoked weed a few years ago, or that a woman deserved to die because she was a little too mouthy with a cop. Someone who has recently been removed from my FaceBook feed posted a video of a man in a pickup truck plowing through a crowd of Native Americans protesting Columbus Day. Somebody in the crowd got badly hurt, but the truth is that the driver could have killed someone. And the comment on the post was "Serves them right!" In case that's not clear, the idea is that they were blocking the street, so the driver was well within his rights to run them over and maim or kill anyone in his way.

I wonder if it had been a group of white people protesting an abortion clinic who had been run down, would this white Christian still say "Serves them right!"

I am thoroughly disappointed in the American church today. I don't see any love for either countrymen or foreigners, any compassion for the oppressed, any empathy for those who are mourning, any respect for anyone with even slightly differing beliefs. I don't see very many Christians (or even Christian leaders and pastors, God bless us) trying to preach the gospel to a lost world, trying to "speak the truth in love." Instead I see people baring their teeth in hatred and wishing harm and ruin on others because of their moral deficiencies, but excusing that same immorality in the people who look like them, or belong to their groups, or run for office in their chosen party. I see people who call themselves Christian spreading racist, sexist, and otherwise hateful lies, boldly, in the name of politics. Saying things out loud, with their names attached to them, that they wouldn't have dared to even whisper a few years ago. All it took was one man with a microphone, a lot of money, and a severe lack of morals to shout these things to a crowd, and the sickening darkness in millions of hearts burst forth into our streets and airwaves.

And the worst thing is, I don't know if any of this will die down after the elections. Usually, election day is like Superbowl Sunday. We takes sides and draw lines in the sand, fight and cuss at each other in defense of our team, but after the game is over, we eat leftover lasagna and barbecue and go back to throwing the ball around in the yard. But the damage that is being done here is very different, and I'm not sure if we can go back to being friends after this. As depressing as the current climate is, I'm not even sure that I want to go back to the way things were, where everybody hid their hatred and contempt and cruelty and you didn't know that the person singing next to you in church secretly thought that you were not quite worthy of freedom and life.

Sure, I can extend grace and forgiveness, and we're all sinners, but now I know who these people really are, and worse, I know what they think of me and my family - that we are somehow less Christian, and somehow less valuable. What would they say if my son was shot in the street on his way home from school, because some police officer thought that he didn't comply in exactly the right way, at exactly the right time, with exactly the right attitude? Will they say "Serves him right"? What would they say if some sleazy older man (or a clean-cut younger man for that matter, a college student, a star swimmer and Olympic contender) makes my daughters the subject of their violent sexual observations? "Just locker room talk"? And what if they act on their words? What would they say about my daughters then? That they are liars or "tramps" or just making a big deal out of nothing?

I still can't vote for either of the two major party candidates, and I don't think that makes me stupid or less moral, despite what I'm hearing from other Christians. I still don't understand the argument that I should support immorality and godlessness, in order to prevent immorality and godlessness.

I keep hearing that if I don't vote a particular way, the the American church will be persecuted, that we'll be hounded out of careers, silenced in our sanctuaries, locked up for our beliefs, and attacked in the streets. I don't think it could get that bad in this country, but if it does, I have only one thing to say.

Serves them right.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Hurricane Matthew

Hurricane Matthew is the first storm that has actually had me outside in the weather putting up shutters and sealing up the house, at least since I've been a homeowner. We've had a good run for the last decade or so, with hurricanes missing us left and right and either heading out to sea to die, or unfortunately hitting our neighbors to the west, north, and south. The Caribbean especially gets hit by every storm that comes through, just because of where these things usually get created in the tropics. I don't know how they do it, but it seems like they're in a constant state of rebuilding, and for those of us that have family "back home" in Jamaica, Haiti, or the Bahamas, there's always a sense of dread until communications are back up and we can contact them.

The way that people talk about Miami, with its crime and tribalization and lack of manners, you would think that the city would just become the Purge or Marvel Battleworld during a hurricane, where all laws are suspended and normally sane people just run amok. The truth is, I've found the opposite to be true. In my neighborhood, I see people running extension cords to their neighbors across the street, heading out to put up shutters for the older people in the area, making grocery store runs for women alone with kids, and generally watching out for each other. I go to Publix to get water and other supplies, and the lines are long, but people are really chill, talking and laughing with each other, because even if we don't know each other, one thing we know is that we all go through this together. There was one guy in line complaining about the two-per-customer water limit, but then he was also saying that he had nine kids at home. While I had a hard time wrapping my head around that one, I did notice that the next two or three people in line who were not buying water all sent someone over to grab a couple to buy for him. I think he ended up going home with eight gallon jugs of water, plus two or three large cases of bottled water. I have pretty good shutters on my house - roll-down for the windows and corrugated pieces for the sliding glass doors - but we had to run through Home Depot for more nuts and bolts to hold everything down. The store was pretty packed, and they had run out of plywood and batteries, but even there, everyone was being really kind to everyone else, making room in line and helping less experienced people like myself find what they needed, since the employees were already jammed up. I even saw a couple of people showing real concern for the Home Depot employees, asking them when they were getting off work, and whether they would have time to take care of their houses.

Miami is a very special city for this reason. Like a family, we don't always get along, but we are usually down for each other when things get rough.

Then there's this one guy.

On Thursday night after we had buttoned everything up and sealed ourselves in, my wife and I ended up watching Netflix (literally, unfortunately) until about one in the morning when the lights went out. It did seem odd at the time, because the wind wasn't really that strong and we could hardly hear anything going on outside. Still, we figured we really couldn't judge, since we couldn't see outside the house - one of the strangest feelings, by the way, if you've never been through a hurricane.

In the morning, I went for a run through the neighborhood to the park nearby, which is kind of a tradition with me, ever since I was a teenager during Hurricane Andrew. I usually run through the neighborhood past some people I know or down past the church to see how things turned out for them. This time there really wasn't any damage to houses or even trees, until I got to the bridge over the canal a couple of blocks away from my house. 

The wooden utility pole next to the bridge was broken in two places, about three feet from the bottom, and again about three feet from the top. The top of the pole was hanging precariously by its cables over the corner, and about twenty feet of pole was just leaning against it, obviously the reason we lost power. The power company was already out working on it, God bless them, so I kept on running. 

On the way back, I passed it again, and this time I noticed some things I hadn't before, because the repair truck had been moved. First, I saw that the bottom part of the pole, sticking out of the ground, was bent over, away from the street, and the chain link fence on the other side of it was damaged too, but not by the pole, since it had fallen in the opposite direction. In fact, somehow, the pole had fallen toward the street while the base was bent away from the street, in opposite directions. And then I saw the tire tracks in the road. 

So the whole reason we lost power for a day was not because of the winds or anything related to the storm, really, but because some idiot driver tried to power through an all stop intersection, next to a bridge, in a thunderstorm, and lost control of his vehicle, slamming into a power pole hard enough to snap it in half. Then, presumably, he back up his vehicle, which I can only assume was either a clown car or a stolen van from the prison fleet, and left the scene.

At least the power was only off for less than twenty-four hours, and there wasn't any worse damage, although whoever owns that house is going to have to repair that fence that the guy ended up hitting as well. At least no one was injured, except maybe for the driver, who I kind of hope got just injured enough that he's going to be in pain for the next couple of weeks, but not too seriously. At least the kids, including the youngest, were able to sleep through the night, without being frightened by the storm. 

So, for everyone who's heard bad things about Miami, or has ever been afraid to visit, not all of the negative rumors are true. There are lots of good people here, and we do look out for each other.

The parts about the bad drivers, however, are all true.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

DIY Marriage Retreat

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to St. Thomas, USVI, for an extended weekend. Of course, it's a beautiful place - I think I was surprised by how mountainous it is. I was a little disappointed that the attraction I was looking forward to, Blackbeard's Castle, was closed to visitors, but the did tour the island, visit the beach, and stand on Drake's Seat, so overall, it was fun. 

Whenever we go on short excursions like this one, we usually try to turn it into some kind of marriage retreat or reconnect mission, in order to justify taking the days off from work. It's a lot easier to write down "marriage retreat" on your pre-arranged absence form, than "I want to swim all day, and you don't let me do that here." I've been looking into legit marriage retreats, most of them Christian-run, but none of them seem to be available when we can actually go, or else they're just too expensive. As a replacement for the real thing, we try to plan similar kinds of activities and talks for ourselves.

This time, I got inspired to look up some help online, and I came across an interesting article called The Getaway Plan, at I took the discussion questions from the website, as well as the basic structure. We flew in on Thursday and out on Sunday, so we agreed to take some quiet time separately every night, starting on Thursday night, after the bags and bodies were all in the hotel. I even made two journals out of composition books (because I love composition books) with decorated covers and the questions printed out and pasted nicely in the pages, with ample room for long responses. Then we would go to bed, or stay up, since we don't have any clocks to punch for the next couple of days. In the morning, over a nice quiet breakfast together, we would trade our journals and read each others answers to the questions. The rules we decided on were:

1) You have to read all answers before asking or saying anything.
2) You can ask only two questions at first, and those only for clarity.
3) You cannot make a defense for any of the answers you read - assume your spouse is being honest about their feelings and accept that.
4) You cannot defend, refine, or take back any of your own responses once you trade journals - stand by whatever you wrote.
5) After asking your two questions, we won't talk about the answers until after lunch. No immediate responses.

It was really odd to drop bombs like that and then just keep your mouth shut and think about it, but we found it pretty effective in making us both really hear and accept each other's responses.

The first set of questions, for the first night, focus on how we specifically relate to each other as partners, friends, and lovers. One caveat, I felt funny about "borrowing" the questions, instead of writing some myself, but the more I tried to write questions, the more I felt like I was being biased. It felt as if I was writing questions that I wanted to ask my wife, or avoiding questions that I didn't want her to ask, which was obviously counter to the whole purpose of the exercise. Either way, a big shout out to Rob Flood for the insightful questions. 
  • In what ways do you feel cherished by me?
  • In what ways do you feel taken for granted?
  • In what areas have you seen God change my heart and spirit this past year?
  • In what areas would you like to see me grow in my heart and spirit over this next year?
  • What three things am I currently doing that make you feel encouraged?
  • What three things could I do that would help encourage you further?

Tough ones, right?

The second night questions had more to do with how we relate to our children, and to each other as parents.
  • What three things could I do to help you fulfill your role as a father/mother?
  • In what ways could I improve in how I help you?
  • What are the top three issues you see in (child's name)'s life right now?
  • What do you think he/she needs in the next six months to overcome those issues?
  • In what two areas could I most improve as a father/mother?

These were fewer questions, but a whole lot more work, since we had to write answers for the third and fourth questions for each of our three children. But doing this really forced us to think about how different all the children are, and what different stages in life they are in, and ultimately how special each one is. My son, the oldest, is in college, but living at home. My older daughter is in the middle of high school, with everything that means, and very ambitious about it. And then the baby is not really a baby any more, and needs her mind stimulated, and a lot more discipline than the others.

The third night questions were honestly ones I would not have thought of on my own. They have mostly to do with how we relate to our community, our family, and our church as a couple and as a family. 
  • How has God used our family in the past six months in the lives of others?
  • How do you sense He is leading for the next six months?
  • How effective has our family worship/devotional time been? Should we make changes?
  • In what ways has God answered prayer in the last six months?
  • For what should we be praying in these next six months?
  • What atmosphere do we want others to feel when they come into our home? Do our activities and our attitudes help us to achieve this goal?

It's ironic, that my wife and I talk about family members and church members, or people in the neighborhood, that we're concerned about, and we sometimes intervene and either try to help or just talk to them, but we rarely get alone together and just pray for the people who are on our mind. 

I definitely recommend this for any married couple, whatever your situation. It's easy to do, low stress, no yelling and crying (as long as you stick to the rules), and it builds some connection and intimacy into any kind of trip you take together. In our case, we had the baby with us, and despite the potential distraction, we were still able to get her involved in an iPad long enough to focus on each other and these questions.

So, when we got back home, after a flight that was delayed because the plane flew through a flock of birds on it's way into the landing (really), we definitely felt closer. Even though we made a point of not discussing/debating the responses we gave, I can tell that my wife read them and took them to heart, because I can see some change and effort on her part already, and I hope she sees that in me. Best of all, by writing everything down, we still have the journals to look at periodically and think about, and since there are a whole lot of pages left in them, we can take the same ones on the next trip and add to them as we go. Maybe it will take us another ten years to fill those composition books up with our thoughts and feelings, and that's just fine with me.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Luv U Better

"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband."

Ephesians 5:21-33

"So let's laugh together, cry together / God willin' we gon' die together" 

LL Cool J, "Luv U Better"

This summer was a tough one.

I've been really trying to maintain this blog on a consistent basis, despite all of life's intrusions, but sometimes I don't really feel like I have a story to tell, or something to say. Then sometimes I have something to say, but not the will to say it. So pretty much all of May and June slipped by silently because I was sorting out some things that I had to make sure I understood before I uttered them.

Despite all the factors against us, age and finances and practicality, my wife and I decided to try for another child. It was definitely her idea and her passion, and I was against it at first, but willing to give in if she was willing to listen to reason. The finances were a big issue for me, and I felt like we weren't as stable as we should be, and I didn't want a new baby to put such a huge economic strain on us that the delicate blended balance we work hard to maintain would start tottering. I struck a deal with her, that if we could work together to get the budget right and get our expenses reduced to a specific level, then we could try. Within six months, she had cancelled two services, negotiated with every other utility, paid off both credit cards, and refinanced the house. 

So, after just over a month of being off the birth control, we got that positive sign. There's something about that kind of excitement and love that's catching, and I caught it. I started coming up with lists of names for the baby, all of which were rejected because they were names of either rappers or Marvel superheroes. I still stand behind every one of them, however.

Obviously, we didn't plan on telling anyone until three months, even the kids. But because my wife is so slim, and apparently second pregnancies just show more quickly, we really couldn't hide it. When we're all in the pool together and one of us has a baby bump peeking through her bikini, the jig is up. Her coworkers knew, because she had to be taken off of any assignment that involved lifting or moving anything bigger than a bread box, and people at church were noticing no matter what she would wear. So after two months, we started telling everyone.

And then we lost the baby.

I regret that while we were trying, just for a moment, I thought to myself that if this happened, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, because when it happened, it felt like the worst thing in the world.

There were a couple of weeks of mourning, exacerbated by too many awkward conversations about it. Since we had just started telling people, almost everybody knew, and so going to church or being around friends and family was difficult until the word got around. But, amazingly, after those first two or three weeks, my wife started talking about trying again. So I put my foot down.

We're both at the age where this starts to make no sense, where the risks are too high. I wasn't completely on board in the first place, and feel like I've fulfilled my obligation here. Also, frankly, I just don't want to go through another heartbreak like this again. If we had two years or more to recover, I might feel differently, but in two years we'll only be older and less able to handle this. 

Immediately, my wife agreed with me. Through tears, she said that I was right, that it doesn't make sense to try again. I think it would have been easier for me if she had disagreed. Maybe if she had selfishly stood her ground and yelled at me or nagged me about it, then I would have felt justified in digging in my heels and stubbornly holding my own position. But she didn't. She didn't yell, she didn't nag, and she didn't turn cold or mean. She was just sad.

I was sad, too, just maybe not for the same reasons, and I figured her sadness would wear out just like mine, and life would go on. After a month or two, she'd get used to the idea and give up the dream. Things would get back to normal again. They didn't. Instead, she just got more sad. She tried not to overwhelm me with it, but it's hard to ignore someone crying in the bed next to you at two in the morning.

We had several talks about it, even a couple of sessions at the family counselor, but we were still at an impasse. I didn't want to get pregnant again, and she agreed with all of my reasons, but still felt such a strong desire for another child that her mourning was as much for the death of the dream as for the death of a child. She insisted that she wasn't going back on birth control, for a number of reasons, mostly medical, and I agreed that she has the right to make that decision. But then I suggested a surgical option for myself, and she broke down crying again.

At this point, I can't take it any more. If you've ever been in the situation where the Spirit and the circumstances and the Scriptures are all very clearly telling you to do something that you don't want to do, that every selfish cell of your body rejects, then you know how difficult it is to submit and obey that call. I'm called to lay down my life for my bride, and I don't like it. But more than that, I'm tired of seeing her crying, or knowing that she's not letting me see her cry, and knowing that I'm the cause of her sadness. The mourning is over, and now I'm the one standing in the way of her pursuit of happiness. So I give up.

That means we're trying again, not forever, but at least for now. We've agreed on a stopping point that we can both live with, and then we'll have to make other decisions. Maybe we'll be welcoming another child into our family in a year. When I'm forty-three. Maybe it will all go very badly and my wife will be sad again. But if it does go that way, we'll be sad together, cry together, stay together. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Strange Bedfellows

This article from a pastor that I respect a great deal came across my feed yesterday.

OMG, how did Trump become the evangelical heart throb? 

So what he's saying is, the guy may be conceited and insulting, vindictive, unwilling to stand up to obvious wickedness, adulterous, deceitful, the kind of guy who thinks bombing women and children is a good idea, but he's not evil. Somehow patriotic makes up for all of that.

And I don't buy that he's not racist, either. I base that opinion on the records of racist housing practices committed by his and his father's companies, along with JUST ABOUT EVERY WORD THAT COMES OUT OF HIS MOUTH.  

So, when it comes down to it, the only thing he has going for him is a successful career, which he doesn't even have. Just about every venture he's tried has failed and folded, including the Trump University scandal that left thousands of students out in the cold, trying to sue to recoup the money they invested in him. 

Sure, he's pro-life, except when he's not. The writer likes to think Trump is changing his mind on all of these matters because he's learning and evolving into some brilliant conservative, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon of hedonism. He never even considers the possibility that the Trump evolution seems to perfectly match his climb in the polls, that the only reason he's saying the opposite of what he said even a year ago is because it gets him votes. 

So, just like every other pastor with Republican colored glasses on, Grudem poses only two options. Either vote for Trump and expect the repeal of Roe v. Wade, a booming economy, and Merry Christmas in every store window, whether they like it or not, from December through April. Sandi Patti will be on top of the charts and dungarees will be back in style. Vote for Hillary, and you usher in the age of compulsory abortions, sharia law, and orgy Thursdays. A welfare chicken in every pot, pot in every chick, and two grooms on every cake. Fire will rain from the heavens in daily terrorist attacks and Christians will be herded into gulags and forced to watch Will and Grace and Ellen Degeneres for hours each day. American flags will burn and the U. S. will be renamed North Mexico.

And I want to be clear that I don't think that Hillary is any better, and I don't intend to vote for her either. She seems to be as dirty as they come, politically, and while I don't disagree with every single thing she says, I don't agree with most of it, and, really, it doesn't matter, because I'm not convinced you can believe anything she says anyway. So, this rant is not me trying to throw support Clinton's way. I just don't understand how Christians, and especially pastors, can be so allegiant to this Republican party that they are willing to overlook any wrongdoing, rationalize any wickedness, in order to vote for the GOP. I don't understand why Christians are so eager to look at someone like Trump as "evil" but rather "a good candidate with flaws," and Clinton, or any Democrat, really, as the spawn of Satan himself. I don't understand how, as a nation we've so bought into the idea of a two party system, so institutionalized it in our laws and media that viable presidential candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are excluded from a presidential debate. Just to put that in perspective, these candidates are not even allowed to be in a room with either Trump or Clinton and engage in a conversation about issues.

But the truth is that there are other choices, not just third party, but fourth and fifth, even. There are other candidates that my conscience would let me vote for. And even though some would say that I'd be wasting my vote on a candidate who has no chance, I'd say that maybe if everyone with a conscience, or at least everyone claiming to be a Christian, would stop voting for lesser evil and actually get behind someone that doesn't force them to do mental contortions and look foolish for supporting someone who is obviously not worth their support.

Failing that, maybe pastors just need to get out of bed with politicians, and get back behind their pulpits where they can speak to the spiritual and moral problems of this country, or back in the streets and communities where they can help to heal their communities.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

I See Mixed People

My oldest daughter is light-skinned, with dark hair and eyes. She is one of those mixed kids who gets lumped into the white people category by most people who don't know her, until they find out her mixed race heritage. Then a very interesting thing happens. I swear I can actually see the needle in their mind move from 'white' and slide all the way over to 'black.' It rarely ever stops in the middle. Like some kind of magic trick, she goes from being a white girl to being a black girl right in front of their eyes. I think that she has grown sensitive to this as well, and as a result of years of this, she has developed super powers.

She swears that she can identify a mixed person on sight. It's not as impressive as say, telekinesis, or flight, but she thinks that she has a talent there. You could call it bi-radar, something like a mixth sense, but she truly believes that she can just take one look at someone and tell whether they are mixed or not.

For instance, she saw a girl waiting outside her new school and immediately called it. The girl was kind of tall, pretty, with light skin and long, very straight brown hair. From the back seat of the car, my daughter said, "Oh, she's definitely mixed. I can always tell." Not that anyone was asking.

I'm trying to put together a proper test of her powers, kind of a danger room for her mutant ability, but I'm not sure exactly how that would work. My best idea so far is to create a slide show of celebrities that she probably wouldn't know too much about and quiz her on which ones are mixed and which ones aren't.

But then the problem with that is determining the parameters of the trial. Most importantly, what qualifies as "mixed"? Her mother has two Black parents, but also has one Cuban grandparent and an Irish great-grandparent. Does that count as mixed? Are we only counting people mixed who have a mixture of Black and Caucasian in their immediate family history? If we expand the definition wider than that, at what point would we have to concede that almost anyone could be considered "mixed" in some way?

I suspect that her so-called superpower is hit and miss anyway. In the same confirmation where she outed the sidewalk girl, she admitted that she watched The Office for two or three years before she realized that Rashida Jones was mixed, and I seem to recall being the one that told her so. Point is, how did that one slip under the bi-radar? Maybe her powers require a live presence, or maybe they develop with puberty (God help me) like in X-Men.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Dance Class Remix

Sometimes it's little things in life that really make you aware of how many crazy turns your life can take, little moments that wouldn't normally seem so strange or important, but somehow hit you with that sense of strangeness or deja vu. In this strange moment, I'm sitting in the three-year-old dance class, watching the baby learn her ballet positions. At this moment, the baby is doing absolutely nothing. But more in that in a bit.

I remember taking my older daughter to dance class at this same school, with these same teachers, many years ago, when she was little herself. The school has moved to a better location, but it's just so surreal to be back in this place again, after so many years. Just helping her with her ballet shoes and leotard was starting to take me back, but actually sitting here.... I used to sit through just about every Saturday class with my older daughter, soaking up the five positions and the seven ways to move and even some tap while working on some writing. There's something about the motion and sounds and all the commotion that stirs up those writing wells and makes it easier to get words out. Seems counterintuitive, but there it is. 

The thing is, at this moment, the baby is doing absolutely nothing. Not a thing. Unless, that is, standing and staring blank-faced into the mirror like a train is coming straight at you is doing something. Maybe it's a kind of expressionist dance, a comment on the confusion and despair we all sometimes feel in the face of a decaying and polluted environment. The teacher is trying so hard, too, valiantly, even. She moves the baby's feet and arms, puts her into the correct positions, but the arms drop as soon as she lets them go. It wasn't like that with her sister at all, the show-off. Her sister would do all the movements and then some, making up some of her own flourishes to add to the moves, and still dancing after the music was finished. She never had a problem with dancing in front of people, not even when it was hundreds of them at the recitals and she was on stage under the bright lights. This girl, on the other hand, is having a hard time. I don't know if it's the physical reminder that I've got one kid in college and one in pre-K, or just the striking difference in personalities that gets me, but I am bugging out a little.

And why isn't this child dancing, anyway? Why is she still just standing there like a floppy stuffed bear sitting in the corner of some spoiled kid's bedroom? She was so excited to start dance school, practically jumped into her leotard and shoes, and wanted to go since last week. She must have tapped every tile in the house with those tap shoes before she took the off a couple, of days ago. There's only three girls here, including her, and now she acts like this is the worst idea ever. It's all so familiar, but all so different at the same time.

One other thing that's different this time, in a good way, is that my wife is sitting next to me, watching this train wreck. When my older daughter was dancing, from three-years-old all the way up to about thirteen, when she quit, it was always something just between me and her, me sitting through classes and writing when she was little, and then sitting in the lobby of the studio when she was bigger, and writing. It's weirdly good to be doing this with my woman this time, sharing the moments and feelings with her. Right now most of those feelings are shame and embarrassment, but I'm sure others will come.

I think that's the major difference in this phase of my life, this era of starting over, is that I don't feel like I'm on my own so often. 

And what's even better, the baby is actually starting to dance. Just thirty minutes in to the class, she's tentatively trying some of the stretches and some of the moves. Fifteen minutes more, and she's doing her pizza delivery glide across the room, one hand on her hip and the other holding her imaginary pizza box, while "Circle of Life" plays over the sound system.

So different and yet so familiar. 

If the missus wants to keep coming to classes, maybe another difference could be that instead of sitting through every class, we could step out and just have some breakfast together sometimes, and let the baby dance on her own. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

My Loser Is Better Than Your Loser

I'm having a really hard time this election year. Now that we're down to the last two, I don't see anyone who represents me as a Christian, or who represents my mixed family, or who represents virtually any of the core character traits that I value. I've been voting for about twenty-four years now,  all the way back to my first presidential vote in 1992. Maybe some of my readers can remember that one, but in case you don't, it was nuts. That year it was incumbent George "Big Daddy" Bush versus Bill "Mack Daddy" Clinton, and it was already tight. Then out of nowhere came this little crazy businessman from Texas, who was confusing the heck out of everyone by actually winning votes and getting on ballots. He had said some racist things in the past, and was selling himself as an outsider, a successful businessman who could get the country's finances under control. Both the Republicans and the Democrats had to tighten up their campaigns and clearly state their platforms, because they couldn't just rely on name recognition this time. With a loud and unpredictable third party winning hearts, they had to differentiate themselves from him, as well as from each other.

I remember then feeling that I wasn't sure who to vote for. We had an incumbent president who had broken promises, and a Democratic challenger who seemed a little too like a rock star. That plus the crazy Texan guy. I remember really having to think about who I wanted to give my first presidential vote.

This time it's not like that. This time I know I can't vote for either one. I can't, in good conscience, endorse either candidate, and I'm not seeing any dark horse, any third party with any alternatives, coming to rescue me. Apparently, a no-vote is a vote for Trump, or maybe a vote for Clinton, depending on whose Facebook page you're on. But, really, for the first time in twenty-four voting years, I think I don't really care.

I have all the regular kooks on my Facebook page who think that their passionate beliefs give them some ownership over my vote giving me all kinds of reasons why I'm less of a Christian if I vote this way, or less of a thinker if I vote that way. I feel like I've become the official investigator, fact-checker, and watchdog of the Internet, because of all of the reposted lies I find myself exposing, even though it doesn't make any difference, because the propaganda, ignorance, and outright hatred just keeps on rolling, as if the truth is more of a stumbling block to these arguments, rather than a building block.

And while I'm on the subject, I'd like to remind my fellow Christians on the internet that the ninth commandment definitely applies to reposting things on Facebook. I can't even imagine a better example of "bearing false witness against your neighbor than reposting some doctored picture or fake quote that you didn't take the time to verify before spreading falsehoods. I've come to the conclusion that people don't research these things, not even because they don't care if the information is true or not, but more because it feeds their political ideas so well that they don't want to know if it's false.

I look at the huge mess that the Republican convention was, and the huge mess that the Democratic convention is shaping up to be, and I really do fear for the country. Again, I remember feeling uncertain about which candidate to choose, but I don't ever remember feeling so adamantly against both candidates, that I start to wonder how either of them got through their primaries. On the Republican side, there's a candidate who says awfully racist things, and sometimes even announces plans to make them policy, who makes foolish promises like building a wall between borders with our nearest neighbor. Or, to be more precise, our nearest neighbor of color. Canadians pass the bag test, so they can still come and go as they please, I guess. On the Democratic side, we have a candidate who has apparently either engineered, or simply accepted and profited from, a rigged primary system that shut out any other viable candidates. Already I've got serious moral and ethical problems with both candidates, and I haven't even analyzed their platforms or a single issue yet. In fact, with that level of inconsistency and deceit, what does it matter what they say about the issues, anyway?

What bothers me more about this election is that I'm still expected to choose one of these losers. I keep hearing about the lesser of two evils, and about Supreme Court vacancies, and about the moral issues attached to each party, and, again, I'm starting to feel like I just don't care anymore. Whenever I have one of these discussions with anyone from either side, I'm just too focused on the fact that the person seems to be so at peace with the corruption on both sides that they can still talk about appointing judges or comparing flaws, instead of throwing up their hands in despair and cursing the entire system. I hate talking to these people, frankly. It's like trying to convince someone that the house is burning down around them, and all they can do is shove color wheels in your face and force you to choose a shade for the living room.

I promise I'm not running to Canada or Sweden, though. I might run to Mexico, only because I can speak decent Spanish and I'm training for an obstacle run, so a wall climb should be easy for me in a couple of months. Also, tacos. Always also tacos. Instead of running, the plan is to keep reading what smart people are saying about the election, people like Thabiti Anyabwile, for one. I'm going to keep blocking people on FaceBook so that I don't immediately get angry every time I log in to see pictures of people's kids or cats or video game achievements. I'm also going to keep visiting those same people's profiles after I've blocked them, because I just know they posted another racist, propagandistic falsehood that I need to squash with my research skills and rhetoric. Why? Because I can. I'm like the Batman of FaceBook. I'm going to keep praying for this country and my people, all of them, that their eyes will be opened, and that they will do what they can about this corruption, rather than simply pretend it's not there and maneuver around it, like eating around the rotten part of the apple. Whether that means writing, voting, speaking, reading, emailing, calling, protesting, or just complaining, I pray that people will use whatever tools they have to work against this system, instead of working with it.

And, yes, I'm sure I'll vote, although it won't be for either one of the major party candidates. I'm still holding out hope that viable third party candidate will show up at the final hour, like a superhero, to save me. In fact, if it doesn't happen, I'll probably just write someone in, like maybe Steve Rogers. Where's Captain America at a time like this. Oh, right. He's Hydra now. Crap.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Hip Hop Is Dead, Almost

I'm seeing all of these challenges going around on social media - push-up challenges, love your spouse challenges, some of them more like try-to-get-yourself-killed-doing-something-stupid challenges. I have a challenge for all of my hip-hop lovers out there, and anyone else who wants to join in, that I want to call the Hip-hop Diet Challenge.

I've been lamenting the state of hip-hop so much and so loudly lately that I'm afraid that I'm starting to sound like Snoop's dad in the "Gin and Juice" video. I've been talking about the monotony and lack of depth in the lyrics, and the beats that sound like they were not just created on a computer, but by one. I do see some exceptions, in guys like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, among very few others, but for the most part, I'm disappointed. It would be one thing if they were just rapping about things that were vulgar or self-destructive, but doing it with excellence in the lyric and music. I can't even tell how many songs I could probably quote verbatim that fall into that category, ones that stay in regular rotation in my iTunes. It would be okay with me if the message were positive, or at least intelligent, but the lyrics were less than brilliant, although I tend to have less respect for those songs than for the former, somehow. But too much of what I hear, is both - vulgar and stupid, and at the same time weak lyrically and/or musically. I keep asking the younger hip-hop lovers I know, "Is this song on the radio because you like it? Or do you just like it because it's on the radio, because someone told you it was the next hot thing?"

I feel very vindicated by this fiasco with Rich Homie Quan at the VH1 Hip-hop Honors show. For those that live under the rock where hip-hop doesn't penetrate, the video of it is posted below. Essentially, Quan was meant to honor Biggie by performing his lyrics in a performance of "Get Money," alongside Lil Kim, at that, and didn't seem to know any of the lyrics past the first line. If he had just switched a word or two, I would give him a pass, but it really looked like he had no idea what the lyrics should be, as if he had tried to memorize them on the limo ride to the venue. It was bad enough that you can see audience members rapping the lyrics, like you would for a little five-year-old boy trying to sing the national anthem at a baseball game and forgetting the lyrics. For my money, the highlight of the video is the look on Pun's face when it registers with him. I feel you, Pun.

I know Quan apologized, sort of, and so I don't want to bash him, really, but that type of disrespect and laziness is unconscionable, and represents, I think, a widespread problem of artists who respect only money and vice, and not the art form that they participate in. Again, he did apologize, and he deserves forgiveness, but I have to point out that to blame this on some technical glitch that had him flustered before the performance is a cop-out. Most of the guys, and women, in my squad could recite those lyrics outside in a thunderstorm, underwater, with five pounds of rocks in their pockets. What I expected from any apology was basically, "I'm sorry I didn't bring it." In fact, what I expected was for some of that old Lil Kim to come out, for her to snatch that Coogi sweater off Quan's back and boot him off the stage with those heels. For him to instead blame it on technical glitches makes me wonder what kind of professional performer he is, to get so flustered by a faulty mic or whatever.

This brings me to the Hip-hop Diet Challenge. I've had to do this for my own personal reasons over the last few years, and it's always had a positive effect on me. The challenge goes like this: For thirty days, I will abstain from any form of hip-hop that is does not have a distinctly Christian message. Not just positive - Christian. There are so many great rappers out there that we aren't listening to because they are either labelled as "Christian" or from a Christian label. I have to confess that I used to be the same way. I took this challenge myself when a pastor that I respect talked about purging our lives of sinful voices. I really felt convicted, but I had a hard time imagining my workouts listening to praise music or gospel. I have nothing but respect for those musicians, but their music isn't conducive to creating a workout mindset. Furthermore, when I hear or sing praise music, in church or wherever, I'm aware that this music is meant to bless God more than me. I also need music that is for me, that speaks to me, that instructs and inspires me. I hadn't listened to much Christian hip-hop, just enough to believe that it was all, in a word, wack. And I stand by that belief, at least at the time. But Christian hip-hop has gone through such a transformation in the last ten years, more or less, that I really think that the majority of the fire lyrics and beats are coming from guys like Lecrae Moore, and the majority of what I hear coming from the radio is just substandard, lyrically and musically. After I did the first thirty days, I went back to listening to the full spectrum of music in my library, but I had added several albums and artists that I had never listened to before, some of whom are now in my top ten list.

You could start with Lecrae, Andy Mineo, and basically anyone in the 116 squad. You may not own much of this music, but try plugging any of those names into Pandora and listen for a while to see which artists you like more than others. If you hear something you like, support the artist and buy the track or album. You're going to hear a range of styles from New York to Dirty South to Trap (just without the actual Trap). You're even going to hear a range of topics, from deep theological discussion to praising Christ to just thoughts on love, marriage, and life from a Christian perspective. I can promise you that you won't have to sacrifice the beat for the message, and that if you love hip-hop, you will love this too. These brothers, and a few sisters, are a part of the body of Christ like us, using their talents to educate and sometimes discipline us (and themselves), but doing it without the airplay and money that other rappers, ones who don't even have half of their talent, and if Quan is any indication, their commitment to craft, are getting. We owe it to them to at least give them a spin.

So let me know how it goes. Thirty days of nothing but "Christian" hip-hop. Let me know if you feel differently by the end, if this has the same effect on your spirit that it did on mine. For me, it was like being off junk food for a month and sensing how much better my body moved and felt, but spiritually. Also, let me know what artists particularly struck you as superior talents, and where you would put them on a scale with the rappers you already know.

Here's a Lecrae video to get you started.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Happy Days

People who know me well know that I have very vivid and complicated dreams. Last night's dream was the craziest yet, and that's saying something.

I dreamed a complete, very special, two-part episode of Happy Days, on the theme of religion, featuring Aretha Franklin.

The plot was that there's a new kid at the high school who's Muslim, and some of the gang is flipping out about it. Plus Aretha Franklin's tour bus breaks down outside of Arnold's and her whole crew drops in for a while.

Highlights of the episode included:
1) Richie and Joanie asking Mr. Cunningham why he doesn't like Muslims
2) Pat "Arnold" Morita talking about religion in his country
3) Aretha performing "Respect" at Arnold's in the second part
4) Richie sticks up for the new Muslim kid
5) Potsie tells a bully to stop bothering the kid and "sit on it"
6) Fonzie gives Aretha a ride on his motorcycle
7) Al says that if the Muslims take over, he's changing his last name from Delvecchio to Jazeera
8) Fonzie gives the Muslim kid an encouraging talk and some tips on how to be cool
9) Aretha talks about Muslims she knows in the music business

There was even a "previously on Happy Days" montage between the episodes.

I couldn't get back to sleep for a while, so many questions running through my head. First, what kind of anachronistic nonsense is this? Second, when was the last time I even watched Happy Days? Third, is it too late to get into writing sit-coms now?

Also, this is why I don't need cable TV.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Barbershop 4

My wife very often struggles with her hair, which means I sometimes struggle with it too. She likes to change her style up often, but a trip to the stylist, for her, is usually an all day affair, and usually costs about as much as our car payment. Even going natural is difficult for her, because while there are many beautiful natural styles out there, her hair seems to only want to do the low and tight. I've watched her put both product and effort into it on a Sunday morning for almost an hour, and by the time we eight out of the car at church, it's back in its favorite position. I can actually relate to her issues in a small way, being follicularly challenged myself. I know what it feels like to put in time and effort into making your hair look good, and being frustrated when it just doesn't. I decided a few years back that I was just done with the fight, and started shaving my head, but that's not necessarily an option for my wife.

Until now.

As it happened, it had been a particularly trying day for her, not only with work, but also with some of the home accounting we've been trying to revamp lately. Then she got the voicemail from her stylist saying that her appointment the next day was cancelled. So, the hair thing was just the icing on the cake, if you really hate cake and the icing tastes like garbage. When I asked her if there was anything I could do to make her feel better, she said, "You could take your clippers to my head and chop this mess off." I laughed sympathetically and rubbed her back. 

She looked at me with the most serious eyes.

Ten minutes later, we have one of the dining chairs in the bathroom, the clippers are buzzing, and my wife is looking at me in the mirror with absolute trust.

Now, I've cut hair before, only as an amateur. I cut my son's hair until he was about fifteen, and I've given a couple of my friends cuts back when we were sometimes too broke to even make it to the barber. I cut my own hair two or three times a week, but that doesn't really count, since it doesn't require a whole lot of art or skill. Cutting a woman's hair was an entirely different thing. If I messed up on any on the guys, the rule was, we can always just take it all the way down to one. In this case, while my wife and I have a lot in common, I feel that baldness shouldn't be one of those bonds.

Turns out there was a lot more hair than it seemed. I'm not a novice when it comes to her hair, but I never realized just how much of it she was packing in such a small space. At times, I felt as if I was pulling it out rather than clipping it, from the way that the comb-guard on the clippers was working so hard to get through. At first, I was nervous and awkward, certain I was going to have her going to work looking like Bobby Brown in the "Rock With You" video. In fact, I would have settled for Grace Jones' look back in the day, would have felt pretty proud of it, too. I told my wife that this was the strangest thing we have done together since helping her give birth.

However, once the bathroom floor was covered in kinky black hair, I started feeling more confident, cocky even. I didn't like how the first pass looked, so I decided to change out the number eight for a number six and try to give the sides a fade. The clippers were moving much more smoothly now, and I could actually see what I wanted. Within about ten more minutes, I had created what I thought was a style that she could at least wear to work without looking like her husband had cut her hair in the bathroom with his own clippers. 

Unfortunately, the next morning, when she woke up, her hair had done its magic trick again and recoiled into its safety zone again. Thank goodness, there was another voicemail from the stylist saying that the appointment was back on for that evening. When my wife arrived home, at about 9:30, almost six hours after leaving work, her hair was the shortest I've ever seen it, probably less than half the length I'd left it, very neatly faded, BLONDE, and sexy as heck. I truly think my wife was pleased with her hair for the first time in the last three years.

I told I was really impressed and that I loved it, but unfortunately, the Demolition Man joke was such low hanging fruit that I had to pluck it. Hopefully, I scored enough points with the clippers to still come out ahead.