Category Archives: My Issues

My Greatest Fear

In September I took my two older children to the HorrorHound Convention in Indianapolis. It was a lot of fun, but at the end, crossing a busy street, my younger daughter–heedless, as is her way–ran out into oncoming traffic as we were crossing a busy intersection. My sister–surprisingly spry–put on a full Usain-Bolt-Level burst of speed and grabbed my daughter by the back of the shirt just as a Toyota Camry whizzed by. It was a close call, the kind of thing you laugh off at the time but wake up thinking about. It is not, however, what I fear the most.

I’m not afraid of monsters, I don’t think, having yet to see one. I imagine that if I woke up and found Bigfoot eating out of my pantry I would crap my pants and scream, but it’s not something I dwell on. Ghosts, well, ghosts don’t really do it for me either. I’m haunted enough by my own issues, so I don’t think Casper’s going to contribute all so much to an already healthy amount of torment. Serial killers are frightening, I suppose, but mercifully and objectively rare, no matter that shows like Hannibal and Criminal Minds make it seem like there are thousands of wackos (wackoes?) running around.

Sick kids or spouse, money issues, personal health–check, check, check. They register, but tension and general unease are not the same as fear.

Halloween day, I started thinking about what I truly fear, the kind of fear that puts the metal in your mouth, the balls in your stomach. I ran through all the above and more besides, and finally hit on it. And when I realized that this–this–was what I truly feared, it made me ashamed and not a little embarrassed.

I am afraid that if I have a particularly aggressive sneeze when I am peeing, that I will force too much urine out at once and blow out the end of my wiener.

Yeah.

I am fairly certain this is a physical impossibility. After a quick Google search, I could find nothing that confirmed or denied my worst fears (“Will my wiener blow up if I sneeze when I pee?” resulted in “0” hits, which is actually pretty impressive. I thought about changing the word “wiener” to something more scientific, but was pretty tired of researching by then so I let it stand.) I am sure I have sneezed while I was peeing, perhaps as a child, with no ill effects, but since the idea lodged in my fear centers I have made sure that sneezing and peeing are completely exclusive endeavours, even if I have to squeeze off in midstream or use every bit of self-control to staunch the sneeze before it starts.

I know where this fear began. Warner Bros. cartoons, specifically the scene where Bugs Bunny sticks his finger in the barrel of Elmer Fudd’s rifle and the gun goes off in Elmer Fudd’s face. Once again, not scientific, and the fact that I’m basing my greatest fear on a cartoon full of anthropomorphic, maniacal animals is troubling to say the least.

Am I terrible person that this completely fictional fear trumps the fear I should have for my children’s safety? What if a situation comes up where I have to choose–my family’s safety or sneezing while I pee? How will I react? In what godforsaken world would such a devil’s wager come to be? I’m overthinking, I suppose. We all have irrational fears, it’s just that mine isn’t on Google.

But there it is. My greatest fear.

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I Wish Ed Sheeran was Someone Else, So I could Like his Music (a few words on shallowness)

Let’s start this post with two (or three) marginally unrelated stories.

In 2014 Nick Paumgarten profiled Billy Joel in The New Yorker. It’s a great piece, whether or not you like Billy Joel. It’s a much better piece, if you like Joel however, because if you do not like Billy Joel, odds are you freaking HATE Billy Joel. The piece does a good job of explaining why you might hate him, I think, in that even now he seems so insecure, so aggressive in his insistence on laid back cool, if that makes sense, in projecting the louche old rock star ethos, all the while disputing the claims of alcoholism, the bad behavior. He seems like nothing so much as junior high poseur that tells you all about bagging chicks during spring break (spring break with his folks, of course, because it’s junior high…) but who refuses to take off his underwear when he has to shower in gym class. He’s the rebel who still worries what his mother thinks of him.

He wants to be Neil Young, but is more like Neil Sedaka. He is most of us, in other words.

But most of us do not have thirty-three number one songs. Songs that have led Bruce Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau to call him “one of the most musically astute composers of that era.” Songs Bruce Springsteen himself says are “built like the Rock of Gibraltar. Until you play them, you don’t realize how well they play.”

I don’t really know if Billy Joel wants to be Bruce Springsteen. I am sure, based on the comments’ inherent patronizing tone, that Bruce is happy being the Boss. Perhaps Billy Joel’s fans see them as equivocal. But they are not.

Yesterday I was in the car with my daughter. There was a slow-burn R&B ballad on our local Top 40 station. It sounded good. Good for Top 40. Hell, good for music. Had to be Bruno Mars. Maybe he wrote some bullshit cash-grab love groove for the new Insurgent movie or something. (I hate those movies. I’ve only seen 1/2 of the first. I hate them both. This information is relevant, I promise).

“This is pretty good,” I said.

My daughter was in the passenger seat. “It’s Ed Sheeran.”

We found something else to listen to.

This is a personal problem, I am aware. Billy Joel cannot not be Billy Joel. As much as he really, really wants to (Seriously, has any other major recording artist seemed so uncomfortable with being who he is? Maybe Garth Brooks. It almost feels like there is some sort of Quantum Leap thing going on and it’s actually Scott Bakula’s character inside Billy Joel’s body for most of the clips I’ve seen him in. He seems to always be asserting about how he’s a badass, but his hangdog expression…I can’t…I have to stop…this is another essay).

Ed Sheeran can’t not be Ed Sheeran.

Remember when you first heard “Blurred Lines”? Before the litigation? Before you got the creeps when you realized what it was about? Most importantly, before you realized it was by Robin Fucking Thicke? Don’t you wish you could have that back?

Of course, the enlightened thing to do would be to enjoy the song for what it is, give credit to the creator, and move on with my life. It’s three minutes, right? I often tell my students that life’s too short to feel guilty for what you read and watch. “Guilty Pleasure” is a bullshit dodge designed by hipper-than-thou’s to justify liking Train. It’s the musical equivalent of “hate-watching.” Own it, right?

“Guilty Pleasure” should be a term we apply to child pornography and dealing methamphetamine. It should not be something we apply to something as innocuous as a three-minute song on the radio.

But I am a hypocrite and I not only need to enjoy a song, I need to feel cool while I do it. And Billy Joel, Ed Sheeran, Train, Collective Soul, and James Blunt ( to name a few completely random examples I’ve totally never screamed along with in my car) do not make me feel cool. My wife justifiably accuses me of listening to essentially unlistenable shit as long as it’s by someone deemed artistically important, which is why I will subject myself to a full-length LP of Tom Waits throwing live chickens into a wood chipper before I’ll admit that I cranked “Jesse James” by Cher to full blast in my Kia minivan.

Novelist and Essayist Leslie Jamison wrote a piece on sentimentality: on spotting it, hating it, and avoiding it. Except, in her honest-to-a-fault fashion, she admitted that she could not really discern the manipulation. She did not understand how others, who apparently have a finer and more nuanced emotional instrument, were capable of dismissing some art as meritricious shit and lauding others as an honest emotional investment. Is it irony? Grit? Psychological complexity? What’s the fucking recipe?

And why are we (I) so invested in this idea of artistic authenticity, especially when most of the criticism is just short-sighted, self-deluding, goggled justifications for trying to feel cool? Why con’t I just listen and like?

Because I am pretentious and want to feel better than other people. I want to feel informed. And I’m insecure on how to do that so I swipe great big armloads of hip, critic-flavored rhetorical jabs (multi-influenced, emotionally searing, swagger, Big Star affiliated,etc.) and use them like ninja throwing stars.

And let’s not even get into the fact that the only artists I’ve mentioned (with the possible exception of Cher) are male. So Sad.

And so we return to music. I’m cutting out a lot of the reasons people dismiss musicians, of course: charges of selling out, over-popularity, media saturation, creative switchbacks and ox-bows, general R.-Kelly-Level-whackadoo extracurriculars. I want to focus on the fact that if a song sounds good to my ear holes, and makes me happy, why do I need to vet it like it’s running for office?

Who is this? Who? One Direction? Turn that shit off. (Except, of course, when I’m by myself. Story of my Life.)

 

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“Girls”, “Last Man on Earth”, and the Art of Being Unlikeable

When I was thirteen, I was in love with this girl named (hmm…let’s call her) Jenny. Jenny had no idea who I was, and if she did, she was keeping it way on the down-low. One day, I saw her talking to a boy named Tristan, whom I knew to be a student with special needs (we did not call them that then…).

I saw Tristan as my “in”, and if I could establish some rapport with Tristan, establish some bonafides with Jenny (I’m nice, I talk to “special” kids), then establish that Tristan could go away, I might be able to finagle the situation into something resembling a come-on.

Foolproof.

Except, Jenny really had no idea who I was, and when I approached, asked Tristan if I was his “little friend.” Forget that she was patronizing: that’s what cool, pretty, popular junior high school girls did, as far as my thirteen-year-old brain could tell. Hell, the only boys with the stones to approach them without some hare-brained scheme were the kids blessed with lowered faculties for manipulation, abuse, and exploitation (This is, of course, not necessarily true; I’m sure those with different, perhaps even objectively diminished mental faculties are just as capable of manipulation as Mensa-grade diplomats in war-torn Darfur, but it did not seem that way to my thirteen-year-old brain. I chose Tristan because I saw him not as a person but as an opportunity). Anyway, I took her comment as an affront and more importantly a wedge in my genius plan, so I back-pedaled, informed everyone who would listen that Tristan was not my friend because I was not in the same classes as him, because I was not retarded.

Yep. Retarded. Said it at least three times, once in that junior high voice that signified to assholes everywhere the idea of “retarded.”

Jenny and I are Facebook friends now. That’s the extent of our romance. I do not remember one conversation we had after that afternoon that did not begin with “Do you have a pencil?” and end with “Yes/No.” It never occurred to me to apologize to Tristan, which is shameful. He is, as far as I can tell, not on Facebook.

I am tiptoeing like a ballerina on hot coals to distance myself from that disgusting little thirteen-year-old bastard. Except, I still am that disgusting little bastard, in my heart. Insecure, sneaky, manipulative, and consciously striving to approach others with honesty and integrity and without prejudice, especially when I have the opportunity to make someone I perceive as “less-than-I” look dumber, weaker, angrier, or meaner, therefore making me look smarter, stronger, happier, and kinder to someone I want to impress. Especially if I think it’s funny.

I mention this not as some mea culpa (25 years late…) but because the season finale of “Girls” and a particularly gnarly pair of episodes of “Last Man on Earth” aired on Sunday (3/22). The shows could not be more different, except that both have a particularly interesting knack for making the protaganist(s) artfully, if bludgeoningly, unlikeable.

The lack of likeable characters is a knock that’s dogged “Girls” since its premiere–spoiled, entitled, manipulative, bafflingly overconfident (to the point of psychosis–Marnie makes “Eastbound and Down’s” Kenny Powers look almost Buddhist)–and perhaps most damningly “hip to the point of insufferable triviality.” And yet the show leans into these criticisms, which leaves room for grace notes that seem earned. When Jessa surprises herself by taking control of the gonzo water-birth of Adam’s sister, it’s affecting, undercut by her decision later in the episode to become a therapist (she lacks the skill, education, empathy, and rigor to train a pet, let alone become a licensed therapist for other human beings). And yet you pull for her, just as you pull for Hannah and Adam and Ray–whether they’re trying or not, their weaknesses are the same weaknesses I see in myself (pretension, deflection, projection, self-pity, etc.).  Marnie and Desi suck, suck, suck, though.

Sunday’s “The Last Man on Earth” was surprising in its cruelty, even if it knew exactly what it was doing. Phil Miller’s (Will Forte) treatment of the new “last man” is so transparently immature and shitty (he talks of “the Fats” as if they are a racial subset) that it becomes a parody of insecure Alpha-male posturing (and done so ineptly as to be a kind of performance art). I actually think these two episodes could skew viewership, as Phil has become so unsavory, needy, and unlikeable that it transcends satire. It is only pathetic; there is no meta-agenda. I personally think it’s brave–it’s the most daringly awful a purportedly “comedic” show has consciously allowed its main character to act since Ricky Gervais’s David Brent in the British “Office”.

Many people like shows with “likeable” protaganists. What are these shows, objectively speaking? “The Big Bang Theory”? “Friends”? “Mike and Molly”? I’m cherry-picking, of course, and bashing on traditional, laughtrack-based shows of a certain ilk, and yet these shows have terrible human beings at their center. Whiny, unrealistic, grabby, awful people. Chandler Bing is such a profound homophobe he hates his own transgender dad and uses her as a point of ridicule. Ross’s codependency is borderline sociopathic. Rachel is a callow, materialistic man-eater. Joey is a stupid, amoral, gluttonous, womanizing douchebag. Take away the laugh track and it becomes an Andrew Jarecki documentary. The only reason we do not see that is because the conflicts and co-stars are even worse. We root for the protagonists because even though they are ethical monsters, the people they have to deal with and challenges they have to overcome are beyond the pale. The unlikeable is masked by the overall misanthropy of the writers and creators.

I enjoy “Girls” and “Last Man…” because they don’t just needle, they explore. We are asked not just to laugh at the characters, but come to terms with them. It’s the difference between “this is humanity” and “that is humanity”–one points in, the other out. The comedy pricks because the unsavory behavior is rooted in what we (OK…I) feel is endemic to our (my) insecurity, our (my) shitty behavior, our (…my) inept attempts to act like a human being. Which probably makes it that much more human.

Random Recommendation: “Headhunters” (Netflix), Morten Tyldum’s debut, is crazy and fun and risky. Basically everything his solid but staid second film “The Imitation Game” is not. At one point there is a chase involving a forklift, a dead dog, and a very, very dirty outhouse.

Can’t wait for: “Bitch Planet” by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Graphic novel that explores feminism and patriarchy through a combination of sci-fi and women-in-prison exploitation films of the 1970’s. Basically the weird bastard child of Betty Friedan and Russ Meyer.

 

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Sketchy

I went through the drive-thru (drive through?) at the bank yesterday to cash a check ($16.00—ching!) and take out $50.00 for a weekend trip to see the Reds with my dad and kids. It only took about 37 seconds to realize that I have no idea how to ask to withdraw money from an actual person at the bank. For starters, I have no clue what my savings account number is. Also, I don’t have a bank card—it was chewed up by the machine a couple of years ago after I forgot to take it out of the slot and I’ve never felt the need to replace it—so I have to use my wife’s. Finally, I’ve never really known how to fill out a withdrawal slip, which I had to do to get my money.
“I’ll need 50.00 from savings,” I said.
“I’ll put a withdrawal slip in the box,” she said, and smiled.
“Is that completely necessary?”
I actually asked that. As if she’d asked me to submit to a strip search. To her credit, she said nothing and gave no sign that she’d heard me. It was well played, one of those moments when you both know that one of you is an idiot, but the one who is not has too much class to admit it. I thought about how suspicious it would be if I just took the $16.00 from the cashed check, drove around the block, and got the money from the ATM. Maybe not suspicious, but dumb, which is even worse.
“Fine,” I said, “Give me the slip.”
“Do you know that this is your wife’s card?” She actually didn’t say “your wife” but my wife’s name. I try to leave names out of the blog but I will tell you that the fact that she just used the name and not her relation to me—even though, how could she know for sure?–made me feel like I was doing something wrong.
I said, “Yes!” and smiled like she’d asked me if I wanted a free salsa sample. She sent the slip through and I eyeballed it. It didn’t look hard to fill out, save that I didn’t know the account number. But looks are deceiving. Most things look easy when you’re new to them. You have no idea, really how shitty you’re going to be. Confidence flies, unfettered by experience. It’s why everybody things they would be good at curling.
The woman was patient, but I had the creeping sensation that she was suspicious, and why wouldn’t she be? I was using a card that wasn’t my own, sputtering on about how I didn’t know which account to withdraw money from (we apparently have two) and filling out the slip like a third-grader.
I am worthless. I am a child.
And ultimately, I probably should’ve been denied and possibly referred to the authorities for fraud. I suspect that what saved me was my cluelessness. Anyone who was truly trying to use a stolen card to get money would have a much better cover story and be far more proficient in the process of withdrawing money. The woman at the register had to know I was telling the truth, right? Thieves aren’t as dumb as I am.

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Asshole!!

The other day I went to Kroger and pulled into a space.  I am not good at this, and it drives my OCD crazy.  Always crooked, too close to the dividing lines, or some combination.  This time I outdid myself.  It looked like my five-year old son parked the van for me.  I was about two inches from the Toyota Tundra opposite me, across the line that divided us, crooked—just heinous.

I didn’t feel like fixing it, so I didn’t.

When I returned to the car from the store, the guy who owned the Tundra was sitting behind the wheel of his truck.  He honked his horn and did that quick upward-and-outward chop of the hand you do when you want to establish that the person you’re addressing is an asshole and the thing they did was so what-the-fuck egregious that words have escaped you.

I mouthed “I know, I’m sorry,”  and gave the sorry wave that said that I acknowledge that I am an asshole and I completely and totally understand how the way I parked could rob you of the ability to speak.  Then I started to get in my car.

But he did the same thing, same look, same WTF chop.  And he opened his car door and got out.

And I started yelling at him, which is where things get weird.

He looked just like the realtor we used when we bought and sold our house, and who became a family friend.  That guy moved to Maine, and as I was yelling “I didn’t touch you!  Get back in your car, dude—I didn’t touch you!  Get your ass back in your car because nothing happened!” I was thinking, that guy looks just like Ken, who moved to Maine, am I yelling at Ken?  But I kept yelling.

I was also walking toward the guy, still holding the mint chocolate-chip ice cream I bought in Kroger.  And I noticed that now the guy who-may-or-may-not-be-Ken was quickly retreating to the car, jumping in, and yelling, “You were over the line, that’s all.  All I wanted to say.”  And then he ripped out of his space and was gone.

And I got into my van, made sure my iPod was still playing the audiobook version of Middlemarch, and pulled out.  It was only when I pulled out onto the main drag that I realized that I had been involved in a verbal altercation in the Kroger parking lot, possibly with Ken, my former realtor.  And that I was shaking a little bit because I don’t really get into altercations and would rather avoid them.

But I just started yelling.  I wasn’t even really paying that much attention to what I was doing.  I was more concerned about whether or not the guy I was yelling at was someone I knew that my immediate actions were oddly removed and remote.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Ken by the way.

Anyway, my reaction to the situation was both automatic as well as completelyat odds with how I’d predict I would react if asked about it hypothetically.

Q: If a stranger called you out and suggested that you parked like as asshole how would you react?

A: I’d apologise and explain the situation reasonably.

I would never have answered: I would yell and scare the man, thereby proving his initial hypothesis: I am an asshole.

But that is what I did, with little-to-no effort.  It was like a fight-or-flight response.

Which brings me, of course, to William James, who once asked “Does fear of a bear cause us to run, or does running from the bear cause the fear?”  In other words, is it our reaction that provokes the emotional response, or our emotional response that spurs the physical reaction.  Here’s my corallary: “Does being an asshole cause me to yell, or did yelling make me into an asshole?”

Asshole: state of being or mode of behavior?

Ask Ken, I guess, or whoever that asshole was who thought he was God of the Kroger parking lot.

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Risk is Just a Board Game

Virginia Woolf once said, and I’m paraphrasing because I’m not looking this shit up, that simply living life, living a single day, is a risk, a violent and dangerous act.  Judging from her end, it seems that, to her, the risk was too much.

This is a portentious and somber way of introducing an article about watching my eight-year-old at ice skating lessons.  She wanted to try them, she asked us to try them, and without knowing anyone or anything  ice-skating-related, she laces up every Wednesday and looks like a complete idiot and loves every minute of it.

I can’t even take her to the lessons without first casing the situation like Robert DeNiro in Heat.  Where do I park?  The garage? Do I have to pay?  Who else is there?  Do I have to talk to them?  Where do I sit?  Is it cold?  Really?  Fahrenheit or Celsius?  Should I wear a sweater?  Cardigan or pullover?  Can I bring a book?  A magazine?  How distracted will I be and how does that relate to the difficulty of said book and/or magazine?

Bitch, I asked Fahrenheit or Celsius!

My daughter doesn’t even wear gloves.  She has to be reminded to wear friggin’ socks.

I’ve gotten better about my reticence to try new things.  I used to pray for rain so I wouldn’t have to play baseball.  I’d ask my mom to give me an excuse so I wouldn’t have to go play at a friend’s house.  How did I get married?  How did I ever have sex?

If it was up to me, I would know, to the minute, what each day brought.

Not that I don’t do anything; I just don’t plan anything. What if it doesn’t work out?  What if I make plans and they’re shot to shit?  Isn’t better to just stay at home?  Nothing good happens from ambition.  Ambition leads to failure.

But I’ve gotten better.  I was in a musical.  I’m on a charity board for the local library.  I sing in a community choir.  Holy shit that sounds pathetic when I write it down.

Me. I even have that sweater.

Mostly, the “risks” I’ve taken have been foisted upon me by others.  I became a licensed minister because a couple I knew asked me to perform their wedding, and I was drunk and figured what the hell.  “What the hell” are the three scariest and most dangerous words in the English language.  I’ve since learned that when I think those three words that it’s time for a bath and a nap.

I have to be comfortable in a situation before I’ll consent.  I have to know I can do it.  I have to know that I’ll be good.  I have to know that I’ll win.  I don’t even play video games lest they are set to the easiest level and I’ve jacked my abilities to a Gandalfian plateau.

But my middle daughter just does it.  Looks silly.  She’s running for class officer as I write this, making the posters.

I sat away from the other parents at the rink, and if at first I was impressed that they let the kids practice on the Redhawks’ ice (you’d never see a college football program allow a soccer or lacrosse camp—even a bantam football camp—on the game field) I soon realized that it was probably the only space available for the mayhem I witnessed.

At the far left, toddlers in skates better suited to dolls waddled and scooted about on their diapered asses with no real instruction.  It was more like practice for being cold.  On the far right, accomplished grade school hockey players skated through and around pylons while a club player shouted things like “Get your stick up!” or “Guide it, don’t slap it!”

I only guide you ’cause I love you

Between the two extremes was my daughter and those at her skill level, a bunch of seven- and eight-year-olds wind-milling and sliding from board-to-board as per the instructor’s whistle.  My daughter skated like she did everything else, as if she were an architect’s lamp being dragged down a rutty path by a four-wheeler.  Every so often, she would look up and wave, almost fall, and in a flurry of elbows and knees, barely right herself before wiping out.

Several of her classmates did not so much as skate as tumble from one side of the ice to the other.  They’d go down like their was a sniper in the eaves of the arena, or a particularly cruel god kept cranking the gravity dial to “11” and then back to normal, watching them collapse like an unused thumb puppet.  They would almost reach the side, reaching for it, only three feet away, then ball up like an armadillo as the rest of the class, who’d already reached the boards, would turn and skate directly at them.

I realized that this would be the group I would be consigned to, if I signed up for skating lessons.  Then I noticed that one of the skaters, a tall blond in an Alex Ovechkin jersey, was clearly two feet taller and seven years older than all the rest in the group.  He’d stand with the rest like Chewbacca at the end of Star Wars, and when called upon to skate, would dutifully fishtail and spasm with the rest until completing his allotted lap.

My first instinct, as always, was to laugh and mock.  What bet had he lost?  He did not seem very happy to be there.  Had his parents signed him up, embarrassed at his lack of grace?  Was he a son of transplanted Canadian academics who were embarrassed that their progeny could not do what everyone believes Canadians should?  Is that a thing?  Like being from Long Beach but being afraid of the ocean?  Was he in love with a figure skater?

But as I watched, the more I grew to admire the kid.  Here was a boy who, forced or not, was not going to let the fear of embarrassment stop him from trying something new.  I imagine he wagered that there would be kids his age.  If so, good for him for keeping up with the lessons.  If he knew what he was getting into, then all the more propers, because I sure as hell wouldn’t’ve been out there if I was his age.

The only time I ever took a lesson in something similar was when my mother made me take swimming classes at the local Y.  She told me that if I went to every lesson for six weeks—I was terrified of water and still don’t like it much—then she would go to the Audobon Reserve and pet a snake, of which she was deathly afraid.  I cried to, during, and from every lesson.  I never took my feet off the pool floor.  I never learned a stroke.  But I went.  And when we went to the Reserve, my mom took one look at the snake, dug into her purse, came out with a crisp twenty which she handed to me, and hustled me back to the car.

So maybe it runs in the family, and maybe it’s all too common.  It’s been said that public speaking is a more profound fear for people than death, which I see as an outlandish assertion, even if true.  I think the truth is that we fear uncertainty; we fear embarrassment.  I want to know what will happen before it happens.  I’d rather have done something than do something.  It’s never as bad as it seems it will be.

But it could be.  It damn well could be.

So as I watched little Ovechkin and my daughter skitter up and down the ice, I made it a point to try and embrace uncertainty.  After all, people who are certain all the time are either buffoons or inherently dangerous, and the quest to be certain is the quest to catch your own shadow.  The only guy to do that was Peter Pan, the most unquestionably certain of all fictional characters, and he was a sociopath.

You know you’re scared.

So I will take risks.  I will learn something from my kid rather than try to teach her something, for once.  I will say “What the hell.”

But first I need a bath and a nap.

 

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How Church Made me a More Contemptible Person

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete,

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round.

-“Church Going” by Philip Larkin

 

I have no idea what Philip Larkin is talking about here.  Actually, I didn’t read the whole poem, I just entered “Church” into poetry search engine and this came up and looked good and there you go.  I do know that Larkin was a vain, petty, unpleasant little man, as am I, so the words fit the following post in spirit if not in theme.

About a year ago I told my wife that we should try to look for a church.  Our kids–ten, seven, four—were of an age that they should be exposed to some semblance of organized religion and young enough that they would benefit from the Sunday programs.

Seventy weeks later, we got it together to get up, dressed, and into the car in time to get to a service.

A little background.  I was raised in a religious family and in a fundamentalist church.  My wife was not, and was encouraged to try out different religions—to visit churches and go with friends.  This is a point of contention, in that my wife still connotes church with fellowship and social gathering, and I believe church to be a place where the word of God penetrates your brain, skewers your soul, and leaves a two foot hole coming out your ass.  Church is not about love or friendship.  It’s about being intimidated by a very real, very powerful, very DISAPPOINTED God, who loves his flock in the same way I loved all the ants in my ant farm.

Probably a little harsh

I will never be good enough, and that’s why there is a Jesus.

Still, I haven’t been to church for ten years, so anything is better than nothing, right?  Actually, no.  That’s the definition of a lukewarm Christian, and I learned long ago that nothing disgusts Jesus like a lukewarm Christian.

But if I have to reconcile myself that Christ sees me as vomit (“I will spew you out of my mouth” Revelation 3:16), it’s better than listening to my daughter refer to the Christmas crèche as “the baby in the barn” or only using words like “Jesus” and “Heaven” and “Religion” in our house when a pet dies.  My sister had to explain to her daughter that though Jesus rose from the dead, he was neither a zombie nor a vampire, so I can count my blessings, but still, when asked by a friend if her family went to church, my oldest said that she “prefers to have Sunday free.”

It’s Santa’s birthday, right?

Something must be done.

The morning started as all church mornings start, with screaming at our children to “Hurry the fuck up and get in the car because we’re fucking late!”  My middle daughter wouldn’t brush her hair.  My son did not want to wear a shirt.  My oldest was pissed that she couldn’t wear those shoes with that dress.  Using the Lord’s name in vain is a sin, without question, but I’m sure I used it quite a few times that morning, if only in my head.

The church, Presbyterian, was friendly and beautiful inside, as that goes.  Afterwards, when I was talking to my father, I mentioned we went to church, and when he asked where, I said “the local Presbyterian church.”  He got a bit quieter.  “How was the pastor?” he asked.

The pastORS are a husband and wife team.  I did not tell my father that.  I imagine that he will read this and give me a call.

In truth, it pulled me up short as well.  I’ve spent the last decade believing myself to be progressive and liberal, but when faced with a female minister, I immediately shifted into a reactionary, fundamentalist place (“therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing” Ephesians 5:24; “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober…” Timothy 3:2).  Before you judge me, I’d like to report that the feeling and thoughts I had gave me a bit of the all-overs and I spent a good portion of the service trying to sort them out.  Am I a sexist or a traditionalist?  Are these conservative tendencies a product of a latent faith and trust in the written word of God or am I a self-deluding, hypocritical pig, content with the continued oppression of women in the workforce?

Haters be hatin’

I was tired, so rather than really get to the bottom of my reaction I just decided that I was both.  Oh well.  If you can’t be forgiven for your shortcomings in a church, then you’re shit-outta-luck.

Still, my initial discomfort soon gave rise to a simmering, insecure, petty twitch all through the service.  I discerned that the lady behind us, and her full-throated, vainglorious, operatic wail during the hymns, was a vain and trifling woman there for her own glory rather than the Lord’s.  I watched as the congregation gave the offering, dismissing each proffered bill as laughably, sinfully stingy.  “If that’s ten percent of your take home, asshole, then you must make about six bucks a week.  Have fun at the Nike factory this week.”

I silently mocked the sermon, dismissing the choice—Song of Solomon—as middlebrow and obvious.  Let’s go to church and learn to love each other.  How novel.  I could’ve learned this shit on Wonder Pets.

We prefer debating the merits of Gnosticism.

And then there was communion.  At first my wife and I panicked.  My two oldest were still there (my son ditched halfway to go and eat cookies and drink lemonade at Sunday School–he’s the only one who’s pumped to go to back) and had never received communion before, and I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for visitors.  In the church I was raised in, Lord’s Supper was for members. If you weren’t part of the church and wanted to partake they hustled your ass out like management at a Teamster meeting.

It’s the Lord’s Supper, copper!

But it seemed ill-advised to try and explain to the girls why they couldn’t eat a little bread or drink a little juice, so we just rolled with it.

A couple of observations:  First, I am ashamed to admit that when I realized that we were going to participate in Communion, my initial thought was how the bread and juice would affect my carb-free diet.  That thought actually occurred to me.  Can you imagine the first Last Supper (weird oxymoron there) and Thomas asking Jesus if he could just have another slice of mutton and some water?  “I’ll pretend, dude.  Gotta thing about my glycemic index.”

Mmmmm. Communion.

The second observation was when they were passing the bread around.  At my old church, they either cut up a loaf of Wonder Bread into hacked-up shreds (it looked like they just fed a loaf into a wood chipper) or they gave out these tiny, white, unleavened rectangles you had to soak in the juice to even bite into. One of those and a slingshot and you could kill a deer.  This church had at least three kinds of bread—if pressed, I’d have to identify them as rye, French, and was that pumpernickel?–beautifully cut and arranged.  It was like Jesus was a chicken and we had the choice of light and dark meat.  That’s gross, but again, the thought totally came up.

The juice was just juice, served in those church-approved shot glasses, but like the bread, the congregation threw it back immediately after receiving it.  No “This is my body, broken for you,” no prayer.  It was like getting communion in a drive-thru.

Heathens.

As we were walking out, my middle daughter turned to my wife and I and said, “It doesn’t seem like we’re the churchgoing kind of people, you know?”

I know, babe.  I know.

But we’re going back until we get it right.

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Filed under Essays, God, My Issues