“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.


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 
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

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A Letter of Apology (Day 28, 2017)

Almost done with National Poetry Writing Month.

A Letter of Apology

I’m sorry

you came here for lighthearted levity, bright airy reveries, gentle irreverence free 

from the snark and the snarl and the bile, the sickly perverse and the dark and the vile but

you were mistaken, a fool who’d been taken, you left this place shaken and

rightly disheartened, so I beg your pardon, no

offense was intended, let our breach be mended, your forbearance commended, for

these are just words I’ve strung in a line, no need for concern–I promise I’m fine, your trust must be earned; I’m honestly trying to

be what you see in me, why you believe in me, all that you need from me, I’ll prove you can lean on me, please

be patient

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Easily Offended (Day 27, 2017)

We are 27 days into National Poetry Writing Month.

Easily Offended

it wasn’t the swear words
that upset her
not just them, anyway
he could be funny and kind
but his mind traveled
to places she preferred 
to pretend did not exist
why push boundaries and buttons?
she did not see the offense she’d given him
the first time they met
at the office Christmas party
when he saw her in a 
snowman sweater 
worn unironically
and knew that they
were destined to be 

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What the Cat Saw (Day 26, 2017)

Just a few more days to go for National Poetry Writing Month.

What the Cat Saw

The cat balances 
on the back of the couch
with her face pressed
against the window

the little boy play
soccer in the neighbor’s
yard with his friends
his legs pumping hard chasing
the black and white ball as it

into the street
bouncing up a few inches
on the lip of the sidewalk
and skipping onto the
weathered asphalt 
where it takes a turn 
down the slight slope
to the right

for the silver SUV
going a little too fast
because the driver
is late for dinner
hungry enough to distract
him from the road ahead

small feet slap the
pavement in blissful
ignorance of the 
force approaching
now that the ball is just
out of reach and the
boy dives for it
as it passes under the
black plastic bumper

screams to rise from
horrified throats 
startling the driver into 
braking suddenly and 
for a silent moment
the players stare at the
Star Wars tennis shoes 
poking out from the
front of SUV
not moving
until a tiny voice yells
I’ve got it!
and the boy crawls out 
holding the ball
smiling at his friends
as the driver shouts
the friends resume breathing
and the cat purrs softly

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