If You Aren’t in over Your Head—A UU Sermon

The following is taken from a service I led at the Towson Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, January 28, 2018. Also included are all readings that were used.

OPENING WORDS

My Moral Life (by Mark Halliday)

Two years hence. When I’m ready.

After one more set of poems

about my beautiful confusion.

After I’ve read Anna Karenina

and Don Quixote

and the first volume at least of Proust

and one big novel by Thomas Mann—

say three years. Three years hence:

after I’ve written an essay about the word “enough”

and after I’ve done something so delectable

weaving together phrases from Henry James and Bob Dylan

and after I’ve written an amazing meditation on Luis Buñuel

and after I’ve spent a month in Frankfort, Michigan

being very real and thoughtful and full of perspective

and fresh cherry pie

then—

then—

in four years at the most—

I see it there ahead of me casting a silver shadow

back upon me now, bathing me in its promise,

validating the self that will arrive at it

in four years or less (maybe just two years?)…

Glimpsing it there is sometimes like already living it

almost and feeling justifiably proud.

Water pollution and toxic waste and air pollution;

the poverty of black people in my city;

the nuclear arms industry; in my moral life these things

are not just TV, they push my poems to the edge of my desk,

they push Henry James into a sweet corner,

they pull me to meetings and rallies and marches

and meetings and rallies and marches.

There I am in a raincoat on the steps of City Hall

disappointed by the turnout but speaking firmly

into the local news microphone about the issue,

the grim issue.

When I’m ready.

Four years from today!

Silver shadow

STORY FOR ALL AGES

Adapted from The Drawing That Talked

Ricky was a little boy who enjoyed going to school and doing all sorts of things, except for art and writing. Using brushes and pencils did not come easy to Ricky, so his works of art did not end happily, and he would give up in disgust.

But one day Ricky was looking through one of the kitchen drawers, searching for candy, when he found bright green pencil with a large pink eraser on top. Not seeing any candy, and with nothing better to do, he grabbed the pencil and a notebook. He opened to the first page and tried drawing a circle. As ever, it did not go well. The Circle was lopsided and the lines were shaky. He was about to throw the pencil away when his drawing began to speak to him.

‘Psst! You aren’t going to leave me like this, are you? Come on, the least you can do is draw me a pair of eyes!’ said the drawing. Ricky was understandably shocked, but he managed to draw two little spots inside the circle.

‘Much better, now I can see myself,’ said the circle, looking around at itself…

“How are you talking when you don’t have a mouth?” Ricky asked.

‘Suspend your disbelief, kid…. Arghh! But what have you done to me?!’

‘I don’t draw very well,’ said Ricky. “I promise I’ll never—“

‘OK, no problem,’ the drawing interrupted. ‘I’m sure that if you try again you’ll do better. Go on, rub me out!’ So, the boy erased the circle and drew another one. Like the first one, it was not very round. This time, he added eyes and a mouth.

‘Hmmm, I think I’m going to have to teach you how to draw until you can make me look good,’ said the circle.

To Ricky, who remained almost paralyzed with shock, the magic talking circle was an authority figure, and he immediately found himself drawing and erasing circles.

The circle would not stop saying ‘erase this one, but carefully; it hurts,’ or ‘draw me some hair, quickly, I look like a lollipop!’ and Ricky obeyed.

After spending nearly the whole afternoon together, Ricky could already draw the little figure much better than most of his classmates could have. He was enjoying it so much that he did not want to stop drawing. Before going to bed that night, Ricky gave his new instructor a hearty thank you for having taught him how to draw so well.

‘But I didn’t do anything, silly!’ answered the little drawing. ‘Don’t you see that you’ve been practicing a lot, and enjoying it all the while? I bet that’s the first time you’ve done that!’

The boy stopped to think. The truth was that previously, he had drawn so badly that he wanted to quit and he had never practiced more than two minutes at a time. Without doubt, what the little drawing had said was correct.

‘OK, you’re right, but thank you anyway,’ said Ricky, and before he went to bed he carefully placed the pencil in his school bag.

The next morning he jumped out of bed and went running to find his pencil, but it was not in his bag. He searched everywhere, but there was no sign the pencil. His drawings were still there, but no matter how much Ricky talked, it did not talk back.

He found another pencil, opened the notebook and quickly drew another little man. It didn’t speak, but as his eyes looked over it, he saw places he needed to fix. He erased his mistakes and fixed them, working until the drawing looked just how he wanted. When he was done, he smiled. The difference between failure and success, Ricky realized, was all in his willingness to keep going.

MEDITATION

Richard Nixon, from “Final Remarks at the White House”

I had a little quote in the speech last night from T.R. As you know, I kind of like to read books. I am not educated, but I do read books — and the T.R. quote was a pretty good one. Here is another one I found as I was reading, my last night in the White House, and this quote is about a young man. He was a young lawyer in New York. He had married a beautiful girl, and they had a lovely daughter, and then suddenly she died, and this is what he wrote. This was in his diary.

He said, “She was beautiful in face and form and lovelier still in spirit. As a flower she grew and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine. There had never come to her a single great sorrow. None ever knew her who did not love and revere her for her bright and sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure and joyous as a maiden, loving, tender and happy as a young wife. When she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun and when the years seemed so bright before her, then by a strange and terrible fate death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.”

That was T.R. in his twenties. He thought the light had gone from his life forever — but he went on. And he not only became President but, as an ex-President, he served his country, always in the arena, tempestuous, strong, sometimes wrong, sometimes right, but he was a man.

And as I leave, let me say, that is an example I think all of us should remember. We think sometimes when things happen that don’t go the right way; we think that when you don’t pass the bar exam the first time — I happened to, but I was just lucky; I mean, my writing was so poor the bar examiner said, “We have just got to let the guy through.” We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever.

Not true. It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

SERMON

If You Aren’t in over Your Head

As some of you know, I am currently employed, in a part-time capacity—as the historian-in-residence at the Presidential Pet Museum. It’s a fun job, particularly for a person like me who loves history. One of the best things about the work is the chance to really dig into presidential history, to better understand the men who have shaped this country for good or for ill.

Of course, some presidents are more interesting than others. How much can you say about Chester Alan Arthur? He had horses and some cool facial hair, but that’s about it. His legacy is limited to some civil service reforms that would fit in a footnote in a history textbook.

Not so with Theodore Roosevelt. With TR, you have a larger-than-life personality, a man who barreled through life with the exuberance of a dozen lesser men. I would wager that at the mention of his name, most of you probably pictured a barrel-chested and mustachioed man in a cowboy hat waving a big stick and yelling “Bully!” while standing next to a lion he had just killed with his bare hands. Sure, it’s a caricature, but it’s not too far off the mark.

Here was a man so tough, so resilient, that when he was shot in the chest while campaigning as the presidential nominee of the Progressive (or Bull Moose) Party In 1912, he refused medical attention and gave a ninety-minute speech with blood seeping onto his shirt. He began this speech by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” (Meanwhile, if I feel myself getting a hangnail, I’ll be cutting this 15-minute sermon short.) I could probably cite that incident as proof enough that you can overcome any obstacle with enough determination and grit, but in fact, Roosevelt was even more remarkable.

When he was a young child, Teddy suffered from debilitating asthma. At night, his sleep was sometimes interrupted with asthmatic attacks so severe that he felt as if he was being smothered to death. Doctors had no cure, and his parents were, as any of us would be, terrified. Young Teddy was certainly frightened, too, but he was determined not to let his fear keep him from doing what he wanted to do, and, oh, there were a lot of things he wanted to do. He taught himself taxidermy and created his own museum using animals he had hunted. He traveled with his family to Europe and Egypt. When he was eleven, he hiked through the Alps with his father, which is no small feat for a person with asthma. He took up boxing to strengthen a body he believed was too weak. This youthful love of adventure and activity carried him the rest of his life, even through that would-be assassin’s bullet. Yes, the sickly little boy made himself physically strong by sheer force of will. And maybe I could end my sermon here and everyone would get the point I’m trying to make, but there’s more to TR’s story than that.

In 1884, as Richard Nixon noted, what should have been one of Roosevelt’s happiest moments became one of the darkest he ever experienced. Two days after giving birth, to their first daughter, his wife died of kidney failure. The symptoms of her illness had been masked by her pregnancy. That same day, his mother, who was living in the same house, died of typhoid fever. In his diary that evening, he drew a large black X on the page with a brief notation: “The light has left my life forever.” He was 25 years old.

Roosevelt decided to charge forward. He threw himself into public life. In ten years, he was the head of the police commission for New York City, where he worked at ending corruption and increasing standards for the hiring of officers. Seven years after that, he became the President of the United States. His life exemplifies Newton’s law that objects in motion tend to remain in motion. Or, as his friend Henry Adams remarked upon TR’s death in 1919, “He was Pure Act.”

How difficult it is for most of us to act at all! I find myself, like Mark Halliday, putting my goals off for two, three, maybe even four years, as lesser ambitions distract me. When it comes to long-term focus, I have the perseverance of a cat watching a laser pointer. I run here, scamper there, and end up pouncing on nothing, Then I do it again.

I’m not alone. As you’ve probably heard, a reported 92% of Americans fail with their New Year’s resolutions. We represent that other Newtonian idea—that objects at rest tend to remain at rest. Like Ricky in our Time for All Ages story, we get frustrated with the results of our efforts and we stop. Anything that makes us uncomfortable is avoided. We seek comfort and ease above all else.

This is not good for us or for our community. If we never risk failure, if we never dare to flop, we will never experience real, gratifying success. As T.S. Eliot said, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”

I don’t mean to make it sound like we are in control of our own destinies. After all, Teddy Roosevelt didn’t ask to get shot before he gave that speech. What we are in control of is the way we respond to the forces beyond our control.

As I was preparing this service yesterday, Facebook reminded me of a poem I had written three years ago.  It’s called “Dedicated to a Friend,” and I was startled at how neatly it dovetailed with what I wanted to say today.

what’s one more

fire to put out

ball to juggle

bullet to dodge

mountain to climb

burden to bear?

she can handle another

punch to the gut

slap in the face

kick to the head

yank of the hair

poke in the eye.

you can’t

hold her down

break her spirit

sap her strength

stop her momentum

kill her dreams.

tomorrow she’ll

give you a smile

give fate the finger

give her daughter a kiss

give her son a hug

give herself a break.

no more

shoes dropping

lightning crashing

ships sinking

hearts pounding

tears flowing.

just

peace

joy

space

warmth

hope.

that’s right

hope

she can hope

I do not think we need to become, like Roosevelt, Pure Act. In a lot of ways, that’s foolish. If you are shot in the chest, for example. I would encourage you to seek immediate medical attention, even if it means cancelling your plans, no matter how important you think they are. Roosevelt believed in a masculine ideal that does not fit with the way most (maybe all) of us see the world. He believed that bravery in battle was the highest virtue, that war was a good way to test one’s spirits. That Romantic idea died with the First World War, and should have died sooner.

Rather, I would encourage you to learn from Ricky, to move forward thoughtfully, with joy, toward your goals, practicing and failing and erasing and trying again until you are happy with where you are. It will be stressful. It will not, most often, be fun. You will be battered and bruised. Don’t let go of hope. Give fate the finger and keep moving. And when you do accomplish your goals, take a moment to see how far you’ve come. Stand on the peak of that mountain and look at the valley from which you have just climbed. Celebrate. And then keep moving.

CLOSING WORDS

Teddy Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic”

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but he who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. …Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength.

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A List of Wonderful Things about 2017

If 2017 was better than 2016, it was only a matter of degrees. We didn’t have to relive the skullfuckery of Election Night, but we had to confront its spray-tanned aftermath. Travel bans, tax bills, neo-Nazis…all things 2016 doomed us to deal with. But not everything was shit, and it’s worth remembering what made life a little easier as we wait for Little Rocket Man and the Dotard to kill us all.

10. Moonlight won Best Picture.

I can count on one hand the number of times the best film of the year actually won the Oscar for Best Picture. That is good news enough, but the surprising wrong-envelope defeat of bland La-La Land was doubly satisfying. The adrenaline rush from that moment carried me through at least a week of bad news.

9. Our new cats.

Last December, we had to euthanize our beloved cat Alfie. At the time, it felt like we were done with felines, but the year brought us two new friends–the 11 year old Sophia and a kitten named Olivia. Nothing gets me to sleep faster than a purring cat in my ear, so their arrivals made my nights so much easier.

8. Bicycle rides.

If I had a dollar for everyone who has talked to me about that blind guy who rides a bike and clicks his tongue for echolocation, I could buy a driverless car from Google and give them all the finger. I did go one a few bike trips this year, though, thanks to my friend Tony and his tandem recumbent bike. I can sit in the back and enjoy the breeze, without having to worry about running over anyone. I don’t even have to click.

7. DAMN.

Kendrick Lamar’s dense, lyrical masterpiece is by far the best album I listened to this year. “LOVE.” and “DNA.” are standouts, but it holds together as a conceptual whole, tuneful and provocative.

6. #MeToo

A lot of scumbag guys had a bad year in 2017. Some men had to apologize for bad behavior, while others lost their jobs and may be facing criminal repercussions. The surprise here isn’t that women have been staring down awful behavior–of course they have–but that for the first time their assailants were being held accountable. Now, if only we can deal with the creep at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue…

5. Doug Jones joined the Senate.

Speaking of which, fuck Roy Moore and everything he represents. Seriously, this pedophile bigot would have been the worst senator since Caligula’s horse.

4. I saw Hamilton.

This might seem like bragging, but I got my tickets at face-value, so I’m not trying to assert my status here. I took my daughter, and she loved it. Highlight: meeting director Thomas Kail, who could not have been nicer.

3. My sister got married.

For a brief moment and for the first time in years, we were all together again. Molly lives outside of Atlanta, so our face-to-face interactions have been limited recently. It was nice to have all three of my sisters and my parents in one place, even if only for an afternoon.

2. Our children.

Mia learned to swim and ride a bike in the same week. Ian learned to read. Both of them smiled and laughed and hugged and got on my nerves (but not too much). Parenting is hard, but the rewards are amazing.

1. My new job.

For almost two years, I was a stay-at-home dad taking two naps a day and eating ice cream sandwiches for lunch. Now, I’m the historian-in-residence at the Presidential Pet Museum. I’ve written (and published) a children’s book, been interviewed by CNN and the BBC, gone ghost-hunting, and I still eat ice cream sandwiches for lunch. Life is good.

Happy New Year!

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The Presidents, Ranked

I like making lists. It's fun. It also forces a lot of critical thinking and soul-searching. Why rank Thing A over Thing B? How does one judge greatness–by quality or personal connection? Can I explain my choices as more than the product of instinct?

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the presidents. I've done some pretty deep research on some of them for work. And, given the 24-hour news cycle shit-show of the past few months, just where certain presidents would fall on an all-time list has become an ongoing exercise. Why not formalize it here?

A few notes before we begin…

  1. Presidencies are viewed through accomplishments, not just ideals. Some leeway may be given to those whose careers were cut short mid-term.
  2. Obviously, I'm not an expert on all 44 administrations, but I am taking the time to dig deeper on those I don't know well.

  3. I place a strong value on human rights. I do not seek to remove people entirely from their times, but this is a list compiled in 2017, so current thinking does impact the reputations of those long dead.
  4. Degree of difficulty means something. Presiding over a war is more impressive than presiding over civil service reform.

THE GREAT

1. Abraham Lincoln
This is an obvious choice for several reasons. First, Lincoln held the Union together, preserving the nation through the Civil War. Second, the Emancipation Proclamation was a significant moral pivot for the United States, as was the passage of the 13th Amendment. One of our country's finest orators. Bonus points for being funny.

2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The New Deal created the American safety net. FDR's lend-lease program helped keep the British afloat until we entered World War II. Could have surpassed Lincoln if not for the Japanese internment camps and his attempt to pack the Supreme Court.

3. George Washington
Our first president established the norms for our Executive Branch–the most important of which is the willingness to give up power. Plus: avoiding foreign entanglements!

4. John F. Kennedy
The Cuban Missile Crisis could have ended the world, but JFK had the sack to tell his generals "no." He got the Senate to ratify a nuclear test ban treaty. At the time of his assassination, he was working on ending the Cold War, opening relations with Cuba, pulling out of Vietnam, and passing the Civil Rights Act. The Bay of Pigs was a disaster, but mostly his predecessor's fault.

5. Theodore Roosevelt
He fought the corporations, oversaw the building of the Panama Canal, and invited Booker T. Washington to dinner. Bully!

6. Harry S. Truman
Major points for integrating the military in 1948. He developed our modern national security system. The Marshall Plan and the United Nations helped prevent a recurrence of World War. I'm still iffy on Hiroshima, which may or may not have been necessary.

THE GOOD

7. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Built the highway system and started the manned space program. Sent the military to help Little Rock integrate, although he didn't want to. Bonus points for giving us Earl Warren.

8. Thomas Jefferson
The Louisiana Purchase was an amazing deal, although if Adams had done it, TJ would have been pissed.

9. Barack Obama
He passed a (somewhat flawed) healthcare bill no one had been able to get through for 60 years. Opened relations with Cuba, negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran. Cool-headed, good comic timing.

10. Ulysses S. Grant
Much is said about the corruption of his advisors, and that's fair. But his record on civil rights is excellent, better than anyone else until Truman 70 years later.

11. Benjamin Harrison
Signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Supported African-American voting rights. Six states joined the country during his one term. An economic depression ended his political career.

THE COMPLICATED

12. Lyndon B. Johnson
If you can ignore Vietnam, he's one of the greatest presidents. Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act… But you can't ignore Vietnam, one of the worst foreign policy mistakes ever made. It resulted in 58,000 dead Americans and 2,000,000 dead Vietnamese.

13. Woodrow Wilson
Recognized the need for international cooperation after World War I. He campaigned so hard for the League of Nations that he stroked out. His idealism is undercut by his vile racial views.

14. Richard Nixon
He created the Environmental Protection Agency, but also the War on Drugs. He opened China but bombed Cambodia. He was a master politician who resorted to unnecessary and illegal "ratfucking." The subject of Oliver Stone's best film, but also many terrible impressions.

15. Jimmy Carter
He was right to sign the Panama Canal Treaty and his emphasis on human rights was laudable. America should have heeded his advice on energy policy. The Iran hostage crisis doesn't help his case, though.

16. James Madison
Yes, the British burned the White House while he was president. He won the war, though.

17. James K. Polk
I like him less than most people do. He started a war to steal land from Mexico. Just because he won doesn't make it okay. But I'm glad we have Oregon.

18. James Monroe
The Monroe Doctrine says the US won't allow foreign intervention in the Americas. Meanwhile, he was trying to establish colonies in Africa. Bonus points for being "one of our least religious presidents."

19. George H. W. Bush
Unlike his son, he knew better than to destabilize the Middle East. Not a high bar to clear, though.

20. Andrew Jackson
He fought against nullification and notorious dickbag John C. Calhoun. He also killed a lot of Native Americans.

21. Bill Clinton
His heart was in the right place; his penis was not.

22. Ronald Reagan
I'll give him this: he offered the Soviets a deal to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Iran-Contra, though…

23. Gerold Ford
Seemed like a nice guy, but he cared more about Nixon than New York City.

THE MEDIOCRE

24. Calvin Coolidge
He was known for being quiet. This is likely because he had little to brag about.

25. John Quincy Adams
He never really wanted to be a public servant, yet somehow is less offensive than half his peers.

26. William Howard Taft
Great mustache! He tried to continue Teddy Roosevelt's work, but he wasn't very good at it.

27. Martin Van Buren
His lasting legacy is the term "OK," which comes from his nickname, Old Kinderhook.

28. John Tyler
Yeah, like he's higher on your list.

29. John Adams
Not awful–but the Alien and Sedition Acts were.

30. Chester A. Arthur
Really into civil service reform.

31. Rutherford B. Hayes
Whatever else he tried to do, ending Reconstruction was terrible for this country.

32. Grover Cleveland
Undid much of the good work Benjamin Harrison got done.

33. Zachary Taylor
Liked the national bank, but favored states' rights. Weird.

34. James Garfield
His best decision was not appointing Charles Guiteau to be ambassador to France.

35. William Henry Harrison
Wear a fucking coat, dude.

36. William McKinley
He won a war, but nobody remembers him.

THE BAD

37. George W. Bush
Iraq, Katrina, recession. But sure, have a beer with him. (Or don't, actually. He's in recovery.)

38. Warren Harding
Cash rules everything around me
CREAM
Get the money
Dollar dollar bills, y'all

39. Millard Fillmore
The Fugitive Slave Act let slave-catchers capture free Blacks and claim them as "escaped" property. Who cares if he started trade with China?

40. Franklin Pierce
So bad that even his party was like, "Nah, let's not re-elect him."

41. Herbert Hoover
Babe Ruth got paid more, and deserved it.

42. Donald J. Trump
He could get better–it's only been seven months. My guess is he will only get worse.

43. Andrew Johnson
"Drunken racist" is terrible combination.

44. James Buchanan
South Carolina seceded, Jim. Maybe, I don't know, try to maintain the Union?

Note: Donald Trump is our 45th president, but Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms, leaving us with only 44 rankings.

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“Never What It’s Supposed to Be”: A Sermon


What follows is a sermon I gave at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, June 25, 2017.  Included here are two readings which were part of the service.

“Yesterday’s just a memory, and tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be.” –Bob Dylan

From Missing Out by Adam Phillips


The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad. We have to be aware of what is missing in our lives — even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available — because we can survive only if our appetites more or less work for us. Indeed, we have to survive our appetites by making people cooperate with our wanting. We pressurize the world to be there for our benefit. And yet we quickly notice as children — it is, perhaps, the first thing we do notice — that our needs, like our wishes, are always potentially unmet.

From “O, Synecdoche! My Synecdoche!” by Roger Ebert

The lodestars of John Doe’s life are his wife, his children, his boss, his mistress, and his pastor. There are more, but these will do. He expects his wife to be grateful for his loyalty. His children to accept him as a mentor. His boss to value him as a worker. His mistress to praise him as a sex machine. His
pastor to note his devotion. These are the roles he has assigned them, and for the most part they play them.
In their own lives, his wife feels he has been over-rewarded for his loyalty, since she has done all the heavy lifting. His children don’t understand why there are so many stupid rules. His boss considers John Doe as downsizable, and fears he may also get the axe. His mistress asks herself why she doesn’t dump this creep and find an available man. His pastor has a pretty good idea what goes on during the other six days of the week
.

Never What It’s Supposed to Be

A lot of people don’t like Bob Dylan. Yes, he’s critically lauded, and he sells out shows around the world. He’s won Grammys, an Oscar, and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is a cultural institution. But, again, a lot of people don’t like him, and if you ask them why, they will tell you that he has a lousy voice, or that he’s a jerk for the way he handled his Nobel win, or that he has completely rearranged his classic songs so that when you go to his concerts they are unrecognizable.

In fact, Dylan has been letting people down for a long time. In 1966, he toured England, performing two sets each night. The first set featured his earlier, acoustic folk material. For the second set, he was backed by The Band, a group of stellar musicians who later recorded “The Weight” and other classics. That second set was full-on rock music, Dylan at the height of his powers, but some of the folkies in the crowd saw this new style as a sell-out move. At the show in Manchester, one particularly bold heckler interrupted the show by yelling, “Judas!”

I mention this not to downgrade Dylan or to mock the contrarians, but because I think Dylan’s career is a vivid illustration of what Roger Ebert was getting at in his “Synecdoche” essay. The people who dislike Dylan do so because he doesn’t conform to their view of his role as a singer, as a Nobel Laureate, as a purveyor of nostalgia, as the Voice of a Generation. A history of Bob Dylan is a catalogue of discarded identities and rejected labels. And while there are those who find his avoidance of convention frustrating and willfully perverse, I believe it is what makes him fascinating.

You can see Dylan’s unlived livee with clarity–he could have been a successful Brill Building songwriter too timid to commit his unusual voice to tape, or a classic rock has-been touring state fairs playing his greatest hits and pretending he’s still 25, or maybe a respected folk artist unknown outside of that niche market. He could have been those things, like hundreds of other musicians have, but he isn’t.

This sermon will not involve me explaining why that is. It’s not even really about Bob Dylan. It’s about you, and it’s about me. It’s about how we relate to each other and how we can come to terms with our own could-have-been and should-have-been thoughts. It’s about recognizing our own desires and preconceptions so we can improve our time together.

You might be surprised to find out that my own current life is not the one I imagined for myself when I was a kid. Blind, retired at 36, living in suburban Maryland? These were not my dreams. Around the time I was in 6th grade, I decided I was going to be a movie director living in Malibu with one of those houses where a wall of windows looks out onto the Pacific Ocean waves crashing, spewing foam onto jagged brown rocks and I’m in a bathrobe drinking Manhattans with my latest actress girlfriend while my Oscars sit nearby on the shelf.  

A little later, there was the imagined life where I married my high school girlfriend. This one would have been quite different, because I grafted my dreams onto hers. We were going to live in southwestern Pennsylvania and teach. Every week, we would attend a fundamentalist Christian church and we would never watch the kinds of movies the first Me won his Oscars for because they’re just filth. 

Or, as recently as two years ago, I imagined a life where things were almost exactly as they are now, but I was still teaching middle school. An assistant helped me with data entry and paperwork, and I ate lunch every day with my wife, who taught at the same school as I did. 

None of these lives happened. A thousand things–choices I made, choices others made, accidents, missed opportunities, bad timing, good timing, genetics–turned the course of my existence in ways both traumatic and unnoticeable until I arrived here, at this moment, in this pulpit, speaking to you.

Your own experiences are vastly different from mine, but I feel safe in assuming they are as full of dreams deferred and wishes unfulfilled as mine is.  

As Adam Phillips notes:

We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.

I would never presume to tell you that everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe that. But I do believe that our losses and how we handle them can help us understand ourselves. That doesn’t make it easier, but perhaps it can help us move forward.

Maybe you married a frog and hoped for a prince. You saw potential just under the surface, and you felt certain things would turn out. Sometimes, your frog grows into his crown.  Other times, you have to take him back to the swamp. 

For many of us, though, it’s neither of those outcomes. We’ve paired up with someone who displays occasionally regal bearing but still has a few easy-to-spot warts. They leave the toilet seat up or snore or watch TV shows we can’t stand. They can be so lovable, so charming, and yet…so infuriating! If only our partners would conform to our expectations at all times! But no, we are John Doe from Roger Ebert’s piece, and it’s easy to feel frustrated when that other person just isn’t acting as we expect them to. Or, more accurately, it’s easy to be frustrated until we remember that our significant other is John Doe, also. They had dreams that we’ll never come close to fulfilling and their lives are a tangle of frustration and loss, just like ours.

And the same thing goes for the person sitting in the row behind you now and the greeter who welcomed you this morning and that one person whose vision for our church you adamantly oppose. 

What I’m saying is an obvious truth, but it bears constant repetition: We are all trying to bend the world to be what we think we need it to be, and we are all failing. Instead of responding to that failure by lashing out or by withdrawing, we need to acknowledge our part in our own disappointment: the roles we assign to other people that they would never have chosen for themselves, roles they probably don’t even know they’re playing. The roles we blame them for screwing up.  

Too often, we expect someone else to change us, to make us better. In Synecdoche, New York, the protagonist (Caden) is a playwright obsessed with presenting the capital-T Truth as he understands it through a massive theater project. His theatrical production begins to imitate his life. At one point, a dear friend, the one Caden should have married, dies, and Caden stages a funeral as part of his theater piece. The presiding minister offers the following thoughts:

...And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved…

If, as the movie posits, fate is what you create, if it’s the accumulation of your choices, relying on someone else to bring you happiness Is a recipe for misery. “I bargained for salvation,” the narrator says in ’Shelter from the Storm,’ “and she gave me a lethal dose.” You can spend years waiting for the realization that true salvation starts with you, with your choice to struggle toward wholeness and happiness. 

Use your fraction of a fraction of a second wisely.  Do not allow your life to become a protracted mourning for or endless tantrum about dreams that didn’t come true. Consider how the missed opportunities, mistakes, and roads not taken have shaped you. Remember that the exemptions you’ve suffered make you who you are.  Recognize that you are pressurizing the world for the fulfillment of your own needs, and dial that pressure down. The people you know will never fall neatly into the parts you’ve written for them, and they shouldn’t have to. They have their own needs.

And you don’t have to play the role they’ve assigned you, either. Think about Bob Dylan. Remember that moment I described, where the angry British folk aficionado called Bob “Judas” during his electric set? Dylan responded by launching into a furious version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” practically daring the grouch not to enjoy it. That heckler almost certainly felt vindicated in his assessment, but to the audience members open to new possibilities, it was amazing. And Dylan keeps being whatever version of himself he wants to be, fifty years later.  May we all be that lucky.

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The Definitive List of the 25 Best Movies of This Century

Because the critics at the New York Times have decided to list their favorite 25 movies of the 21st century, I am following suit.  Their list is interesting and wide-ranging, but, to my mind, flawed.  There are omissions (of course) and at least one head-scratcher.  (The 40-Year-Old Virgin?!)

Anyway, you won’t agree with my list, either.  There will be at least one movie you despise, maybe one or two you haven’t seen.  Make your own list.

A few caveats first…

  1. Films on this list were released in 2001 or later.  The year 2000 was a terrific year for film, but it’s actually the last year of the 20th century.
  2. Rankings, especially as we descend the list, are tenuous and possibly arbitrary. This is how I feel today, and likely subject to change.
  3. As my eyesight has declined, I have lost the ability to read subtitles.  There are, I’m sure, many brilliant foreign-language films from the last decade, but I can’t read them.  This is a limitation, no doubt, but it’s not my fault.
  4. Finally, while some of the included films were never released theatrically, they were designed as singular artistic statements and not as series.

1.  Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro’s “fairy tale for adults” snuck up on me.  It is a film of dazzling imagery, of beauty and terror, of politics and history, of hope amidst defeat.  Rooted specifically in civil-war Spain, it taps into something universal: our struggle to push beyond our fears to improve our lives.  Never bombastic, never silly, never less than stunning–this is the movie I want my kids to grow up and see more than any other on this list, and that’s reason enough to give it a slight edge over the other great films here.

2.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Relationships are hard, and there are any number of movies that go out of their way to rake you over the coals of bad romance.  What makes Michel Gondry’s film–from a script by Charlie Kaufman–unique is its structure, which allows the viewer to experience the dissolution in reverse, ending with that first rush of infatuation, when all possibilities are wide open and the future seems to offer only joy.  Whether the lovers in the film ever rebuild their shattered life together is up for interpretation.  What matters is the feeling that maybe, if they’re lucky, it might just happen.

3.  The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
I may never have a better Christmas than the one I spent in the theater with Martin Scorsese’s hilarious satire of excess in American capitalism.  Leonardo DiCaprio gives his best-ever performance as a cheerfully sleazy asshole, but somehow Matthew McConaughey manages to steal the movie with little more than a cameo.  There are people who say this movie is too long, or that it celebrates the debauchery it depicts.  These people are not your friends.

4.  Children of Men (2006)
Rarely are apocalyptic movies as hopeful as this.  In a future where people have lost the ability to reproduce, one man finds a pregnant womsn and must protect her from a variety of dangers until she can give birth.  Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork dazzles, and director Alfonso Cuarón grounds the material in a world we can almost squint to see.

5.  The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Wes Anderson’s style has its detractors.  His perfect compositions and eccentric characters are easily paRodied.  The naysayers somehow miss the deep well of emotion waiting just below the surface.  I would point to this film’s suicide attempt scene, or to the climactic wedding-day long-take, both of which draw tears even after a dozen viewings.  Gene Hackman’s flawless performance is a bonus.

6.  O.J.: Made in America (2016)
Some consider this a TV miniseries, but the Academy deemed it the best documentary of last year.  Let me go further–this is the best film of 2016, bar none.  An incisive look at race-relations in the United States in the last 50 years, it also has the time (in its too-short 8 hours) to eviscerate the media and the legal system.  A horrifying, compelling, enlightening, must-see film.

7. and 8.  Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2 (2003, 2004)
Over the last two decades, the rise of CGI and the demand for PG-13 violence has led to frenetically edited action scenes that border on incoherent.  Not so with Quentin Tarantino’s two-part opus, Kill Bill. A kung-fu revenge thriller with Looney Tunes inclinations and endlessly inventive storytelling, Tarantino’s saga is split neatly into two films, with each taking a different approach to the material.  Volume 1 is action-packed, with an all-timer fight scene for its last chapter.  Volume 2 is more reflective, bringing real heart to the narrative.  Taken together, it’s the best two-parter since Francis Ford Coppola dropped The Godfather, Part II in 1974.

9.  Zodiac (2007)
Less a serial killer movie than an All the President’s Men-style investigative procedural, Zodiac uses its lurid subject matter as a departure point to explore obsession.  With deft sound design (particularly in the director’s cut) and striking atmospherics, David Fincher’s genre-defying masterwork rewards repeat viewings.

10.  There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t fuck around.  Each of his films is great in its own way, but none feel quite as ambitious or quite as demanding as There Will Be Blood.  This is a jagged, brutal film, made in the image of its protagonist, Daniel Plainview.  Daniel Day-Lewis gives a towering performance, even by his own standards, and Paul Dano proves a capable foil.

11.  The New World (2005)
One of the most openly romantic films ever made, as well as a stirring re-telling of the Pocahontas story, The New World is a perfect vehicle for Terrence Malick’s unique gifts.  His lyrical, nature-focused style suits the material and, indeed, elevates it gorgeous heights.

12.  Romance & Cigarettes (2005)
The 21st century’s best musical is wonderfully bizarre.  James Gandolfini can barely sing, but it doesn’t matter.  Writer-director John Turturro fills his movie with hilarious non-sequitars and stunning scene-stealers.  Elaine Strich owns.

13.  When the Levees Broke (2006)
Spike Lee has become one of American cinema’s great documentarians, and this film (originally developed for HBO) ranks with his best narrative features.  It is heartbreaking to see a great city battered by disaster, but heartening to see the resolve of its citizens during Katrina’s aftermath.

14.  Vanilla Sky (2001)
Cameron Crowe followed his warm autobiographical Almost Famous with this twisty psychological thriller.  A remake of the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos, Vanilla Sky showcases Tom Cruisr at the end of his most adventurous period, burying his movie star face under a creepy latex mask.  It polarized audiences, but in another life, when we are all cats, it will get its proper due.

15.  Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
One of the best films ever made about childhood, and a model for book-to-film adaptations, Where the Wild Things Are takes the beloved Maurice Sendak book and  adds strands of loneliness, betrayal, and rage to create an original vision.  More filmmakers should use source material as Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers do.

16.  Lost in Translation (2003)
Sofia Coppola allows her characters to develop at their own pace, and she doesn’t force them into unreal behavior for the sake of story arcs.  Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are delightful as bored Americans who meet in Tokyo.

17.  Murderball (2005)
Wheelchair rugby is a brutal sport, with two teams of quadriplegics battering each other.  This documentary erases any preconceptions we might have about disability by following various players to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.  Funny, moving, and deeply inspirational.

18.  City of God (2003)
A tale of life in the favelas of Rio, this blistering film was proclaimed “one of the best movies you’ll ever see” by Roger Ebert. It is certainly one of the most vital.  Shot and edited with gorgeous precision, City of God is fiction that hits with the authority of a news broadcast, bringing the slums into your living room.

19.  Moonlight (2016)
The surprise Best Picture winner is a quiet film, the kind that might normally pass unnoticed by the world at large.  Fortunately, Barry Jenkins’ deeply humanist tale of a timid Miami kid trying to survive his environment earned a well-deserved place in film history.

20.  A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Becoming a parent made this film even more heartbreaking for me.  Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi Pinocchio story is often misunderstood (particularly the ending) but nearly perfect.

21.  Stories We Tell (2013)
Sarah Polley’s documentary begins as a search for the truth about her deceased mother and ends up being about how our narratives define us.  Polley operates with love and forgiveness uncommon in any genre, but particularly in secret-revealing documentaries.

22.  Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The Coen brothers’ look at a luckless Greenwich Villsge musician in the early 1960s is not an easy film to embrace.  Its central character is a constant fuck-up.  Every decision he makes is wrong.  Liking Llewyn Davis is difficult.  On second viewing, however, his flaws begin to feel like virtues and what initially felt cold about the film has become empathetic.  Not to mention it gets funnier on repeat viewings.  Oscar Isaac is brilliant, and so is the soundtrack.

23.  Synecdoche, New York (2008)
No film I have seen in the theater has polarized audiences quite like this.  Charlie Kaufman’s staggering directorial debut is a puzzle, a multi-faceted work of art that is impossible to take in with one viewing.  It can be frustrating, sure, but every layer peeled back reveals more details to examine and interpret.  This is the funniest sad movie I have ever seen.

24.  12 Years a Slave (2013)
Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative is the rawest onscreen depiction of human bondage this side of exploitation.  Absolutely devastating. 

25.  A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
“The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” Virginia Madsen’s angel informs us halfway through Robert Altman’s last film.  Maybe so, but watching this adaptation of the long-running Garrison Keillor radio show might make you think twice about that.

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Insanity (Day 30, 2017)

NaPoWriMo ends today.

Insanity

Studies show that most
people don’t bother to use
actual words in text
messages because it’s too
much effort to spell
you being that it takes
two more thumb taps
and my wife says 
clicking the Facebook links to my 
blog might be burdensome to 
the general FB crowd 
who prefer memes they can 
just scroll by and
I keep writing poems
anyway on the off-
chance anybody 
still cares

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To Those Who Patronize Strip Clubs (Day 29, 2017)

Tomorrow is the last day of National Poetry Writing Month.

To Those Who Patronize Strip Clubs

Strip clubs are great
if you can’t get a woman 
to disrobe for free
and you prefer your
arousal devoid of personal
connection, her eyes,
if you actually look at them
glazed over in boredom
as she pretends to
pleasure herself to earn your 
dollar before moving on to the
next lonely and pathetic man
and repeating the performance

Maybe you can even pay the 
disinterested young(ish) woman
to sit on your lap and squirm
in a pantomime of ecstasy
and speak words your
wife won’t say during 
your semi-annual 
for-old-times-sake 
four minutes of 
missionary thrusting
where you both keep your
your shirts on and 
never kiss

On route 22 in
western Pennsylvania
there is a drive through 
club where you can pull
around back and stare
at a dancer through 
a window (two, if you
forgot to roll yours down)
and then return to the
highway to continue your
trip to your parents’ house
or back to the office
having gained a fleeting thrill
in exchange for five dollars
and your dignity

If only you,
like me,
oozed sexual charisma
so fierce that
several times a day
you had to decline
your partner’s frantic
erotic pleadings
for fear of driving 
her clinically insane 
with a preponderance of 
sexual pleasure,
none of this would be
necessary

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