When humor fails

Every day, when the final bell rings at Christian's school, my oldest walks one mile to the school his younger siblings attends. There he waits for a few minutes until their classes are over and I pick all three kids up in one location. Or, at least that is how it usually works in warmer weather.

I don't mind making him walk to and from school when there is snow on the ground, but I don't want him walking when the the temperatures are in the low teens or single digits. Since the last week of school before Christmas break through today and potentially into next week have been cold enough to discourage his status as a pedestrian, I have been dropping him off in the mornings. I still give him the option to walk after school but also let him know that he is free to call me if he wants me to pick him up.

Today, right on schedule, my phone rang and I saw his school's name flash onto the display. I answered.

Me: "Hey kid."
Christian: "Hi. So, um ... I was calling because ... "
Me: "You wanted to let me know you were going to walk to your brother and sister's school?"
Christian: "No."
Me: "Because you wanted to borrow my teleportation device?"
Christian: "NO!"

Like most dads I know, my goal is to be a good dad. I want my children to grow into functioning and productive members of society. I want them to know that I will be there for them whenever they need me, whether it is to celebrate their success or to support them when the road is rough.

Yet I aspire for something more. Sure I desire to be a good dad, but also wish to be a funny dad. The kind that can make my kids laugh. The kind my kids' friends think is cool even when my kids find me embarrassing. Most days I feel like a success. I enjoy my time with the kids and the smiles and laughter they bring light up my world. My oldest is unquestionably sure I could find a second career as a comedian.

Sometimes I fear, however, that my attempts to be funny are mistaken for my serious face. The moment when Christian called this afternoon to ask for a ride was one of those times where my humor and my lack of humor where indistinguishable.

Of course I knew Christian wanted me to pick him up on the way to get his siblings. I knew his intentions when he called, before I even answered the phone. I don't own a teleportation device so that comment could not have been a logical or serious suggestion. But for a bizarre few seconds, Christian thought I was completely somber. He was getting impatient with my repeated failed attempts to guess what he wanted from me.

It all turned out well. I assured him that yes, indeed, I would pick him up from school. When I arrived, I found him out front waiting for me, reading a book, lounging underneath the cold winter sun. Like this:

He said it was surprisingly comfortable.

Later tonight, he asked me if it was time for him to go to bed. I told him, "You must ask yourself, it it a good time to go to bed now? Or if now is a good time to go to bed?" That one made him laugh. My work here is done. Thank you, goodnight.


Glass Cutters

Marcus was my first artistic friend. Granted, it is hard to brag on the artwork of four year olds but I remember his skill exceeding the rest of those in our age group. We were in the same preschool class which was inevitable since his parents and my parents attended the same church.

He was always doodling pictures of monsters and he had imaginative stories to accompany each piece. His parents would frequently invite me over to their house for lunch after church and the earliest memories I have with him were in his yard re-enacting epic sagas of his invention.

He was also a big Star Wars fan. One day, for show-and-tell, he brought in a Millennium Falcon playset. It was one of those huge plastic beasts large enough to fit action figures inside of it, with removable panels to see the cockpit and other sections of the interior. Back in 1983, it was the holy grail of Star Wars toys and cost more than my parents would have ever spent on a gift for me. I had a Han Solo action figure. And Chewbacca. But Marcus had their ship, their home, the place where they belonged.

From that moment on, I thought Marcus was the coolest kid my age. In 1987, he was the first in my circle of friends to see The Monster Squad and Spaceballs. Afterwards, he told me about all of the most salacious parts of each movie and the phrase "Wolfman's got nards" quickly became an inside joke.

Unfortunately, geography drew us apart. He and I were districted for different elementary schools, so once preschool was over we would only see each other at church. We both developed friendships with classmates that we interacted with more frequently. A few years later, we attended the same middle school, but by then we rarely interacted.

Over the years of our childhood, his personality changed. Once the most comical and outgoing of my peers, Marcus grew to be more introverted and soft-spoken. By the time we were teenagers, he didn't speak much. At a rewards ceremony for our wrestling team when we were in ninth grade, Coach Iverson praised his skill on the mat and gave the most accurate description of Marcus's personality that I've ever heard. Coach said, "When Marcus joined the team, I didn't know much about him. But after working with him every day for the past few months, I still don't know much about him."

Even in youth group, Marcus maintained his brevity. He and I didn't hang out much but he was always someone I respected because of our shared status as youth group misfits. Like me, he wasn't one of the popular kids. Due to his quiet and unassuming persona, he was often overlooked or ignored. He did not go to any of the youth camps or retreats but he would show up for other events like attending Mariners games or parties held at the church.

At one of our white elephant Christmas exchanges, he brought a big heavy box that everyone assumed would be the best gift. Instead, it contained a large rock (miniature boulder) that he dug up out of his yard. Even in silence, he was a practical joker.

Once a year our youth group held an all-nighter. My favorite memory with Marcus happened at one of these all night parties.

On a Friday night, all of the teens gathered around dinner time at the church where we played group games that only 90's era church kids would understand and snacked on the type of foods potheads buy when they get the munchies. One of the leaders led a quick devotional then we piled into church vans to travel to our first destination: the Family Fun Center in Edmonds. We spent the evening with mini-golf, batting cages, and arcade games until closing time. We returned to the vans and headed off to the next location.

Around midnight, we arrived at a gym facility rented out from a local campground. Inside was a basketball court, volleyball court, a couple ping-pong tables, an air hockey table, a foosball table, a collection of Nerf footballs, and several of those rubber balls once used for dodgeball. We were trapped there until 5am and no one was allowed outside.

I don't know which of our youth leaders thought it would be a good idea to herd a bunch of sleep deprived teens into a gym in the middle of the night and expect them to be sporty for five hours, and I don't know if they would do the same thing today. What I do know is when we left the gym, most of us were exhausted and would have preferred bed instead of breakfast.

Sleep would have to wait because our leaders took us all out for breakfast. During the 20 minute ride in the church vans while we drove from the middle of nowhere to the Denny's in Everett, half of us dozed off and the rest were were silently staring out the windows like zombies.

We typically held these all-nighters in late January or early February. That meant the mornings were cold and frosty as we climbed out of the van and stumbled into Denny's. The coldest of our all night excursions happened during my junior year of high school and it was on this trip where Marcus uttered one of the funniest statements I have ever heard.

The van he and I rode got to Denny's first; our leader made us get out of the vehicle and wait in the parking lot for the other van to arrive. We stood there, shivering, complaining of the low temperatures, and observing our breath form clouds as it escaped our lips.

Then Marcus spoke: "My nipples could cut glass."

All conversation ceased. Everyone turned and stared at Marcus. For some of the kids in our youth group, they had never heard Marcus say more than one or two words at a time, let alone a complete sentence. Furthermore, our church was extremely conservative. Mention of certain body parts was taboo and the nipple was one of those parts of which we shouldn't speak. To describe nipples as being as hard as a diamond or tungsten steel was definitely verboten. His comment broke the ice - literally and figuratively. Suddenly, no one cared about the cold. We were laughing by the absurdity and audacity of what Marcus had to say.

When we were four, Marcus gained my admiration for his Star Wars fandom. When we were sixteen, he cemented my admiration for saying things no one else was brave enough to say.

Why do I share this story now? Because it is that time of year. The nights are long and the air is frigid. For those of us in North Idaho, this is the season where single digit and negative temperatures are normal. Through the years, that one out-of-nowhere comment has stuck with me. And last night, in my apartment, it was the only way I could think to describe how cold I felt. My nipples could cut glass.

It is not a phrase of my design. I am neither funny or creative enough to create such a remark on my own. I can only thank my childhood friend Marcus for his inventive eloquence.


More than a Princess

I grew up in a generation where women in pop culture were either the damsel in distress or nothing more than a romantic interest. They needed protection. They needed to be swept away by Hollywood's idealization of a man. They were there as eye candy. Even in the video games I played as a kid, the princess was in need of my help. Mario was on a pursuit to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser (who was always in the next castle) and Link explored all of Hyrule to save Princess Zelda.

Over and over, the lesson was reinforced: men were to be strong conquering heroes and women were to be beautiful but helpless on their own. These were not healthy character archetypes but it was the story told and retold from Disney cartoons to prime-time television dramas. If there was an exception to the rule that defied the trend of my childhood, that exception was in the Star Wars universe.

A New Hope opened with the biggest baddest villain in movie history capturing and imprisoning the Princess. Her secret message sent a simple farm boy along the hero's quest to discover his destiny. But Princess Leia was not the stereotypical helpless damsel. She was in distress but even while staring into the face of evil she was strong, defiant, and sassy. Her hope and faith never wavered. When Luke, Han, and Chewie showed up to help her escape she refused to let the guys do all of the work. She was an active participant in her own rescue mission.

Through the role of Leia Organa, Carrie Fisher demonstrated that women could be something more than what was normally portrayed in pop-culture. For the first time, I saw women as people who could kick ass. It was the first time I saw a woman serve as a leader worthy to be followed. She demonstrated a balance of tenderness and battle-ready passion in a way that I had never seen.

Over the course of three films, Leia led a rebellion and a revolution. She remained brave even in the wake of unfathomable grief. She used her chains to strangle the crime lord who tried to keep her in bondage. She befriended a dangerous sentient teddy bear and convinced its tribe to join her fight against the Empire. She possessed greater courage than her male counterparts. She was worked hard despite rarely receiving recognition for her efforts. As Leia, Fisher taught me one important fact: sometimes princesses were in need of rescue and sometimes they were the ones doing the rescuing.

image source: Trust me, I'm a Nerd.

Today, Leia is one with the force and Fisher has left this world. A lot has changed since the four year old version of me fell asleep in the theater while watching Return of the Jedi. I am no longer the kid that was thrilled to watch her ride a speeder bike, chasing after Stormtroopers.

As I return to the original Star Wars trilogy time and time again, I watch with new eyes. I am now the father of a daughter. I have grown from a boy who wanted to fall in love with a girl like Leia to a dad who wants his daughter to become a woman like Leia.

Someone who will always be willing to fight for what is true and good. Someone who will stand up against tyrants and bullies. Someone who will follow her convictions even when it leads her to great personal loss. Someone whose words will move the hearts and minds of everyone she meets. Someone who will be both vulnerable and tough. Someone who will befriend whiny losers, big walking carpets, and scruffy-looking nerf herders. Someone who will love the unlovable.

Off screen, Fisher battled her own demons from addiction to mental illness. Yet she did so with grace and humor. I know her career was wider and deeper than her role as Princess Leia as she contributed her acting skills to movies like When Harry Met Sally and Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back. She was also a talented script doctor that lent her writing talents to some of my favorite movies.

But it is her iconic role in Star Wars that made her a geek legend who was universally adored. Because of her portrayal of the Princess of Alderaan, I have discovered something much like what was delivered to her at the end of Rogue One: Hope. She gave me hope that my daughter can be both a princess and a hero, both a peacemaker and a warrior, both delicate and unbreakable, both compassionate and fierce.

Ms. Fisher, we will hate watching you leave. Rest in peace and may the force be with you.


Driving in a Winter Wonderland Part 1

In the closing scene of It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey receives a Christmas card from his guardian angel Clarence. His daughter Zuzu hears a Christmassy sound and explains its significance. "Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings." This winter, someone had the brilliant idea to place a seasonally relevant spin on the sweet sentiment, turning it into a meme. Instead of referencing bells and angels, Zuzu warned us "Every time a snowflake flies, an idiot forgets how to drive." For the Inland Northwest, that statement is comical because it is true. Street crews in and around Spokane are frequently unprepared for the first major snow accumulation of the season. Drivers around the region undercompensate by driving slower than needed causing traffic hazards or they overcompensate driving faster than they should as if streets were clear and dry. The first winter storm often causes more accidents, spinouts, and cars sliding off the side of the road.

By any measure of logic, I should be one of those idiots who forgets how to drive after that initial snowfall. After all, I grew up in the Seattle suburbs. The whole Puget Sound region is known more for rain than as a winter wonderland. It does snow there. Occasionally. But "White Christmas" is not in their vocabulary. Municipal budgets do not plan for snowplows or sanding trucks. Seattleites tend to flock to grocery stores at the first forecast of snow to stock up on bottled water and canned goods in preparation for hibernation. They're worried that their infrastructure will collapse the moment snow hits the ground and no one wants to be stuck without food – forced to make the dangerous trek to KFC for dinner. Schools close with mere fractions of an inch accumulated because the steep hills are too hazardous for busses. Or traffic. Or anything other than sleds. Winter driving is not a native skill for those who come of age in the greater Seattle metropolitan area.

It was even worse in my home town. Marysville is in a warm meteorological shadow created by Camano and Whidbey Islands. There were many storms that blew through town dumping snow in Everett to the south, Arlington to the north, and Granite Falls to the east while those of us in Marysville were stuck with a cold drizzle of rain. My childhood was peppered with disappointment when the Marysville School District remained in session while every other district in Snohomish County shut down for a snow day. When it did snow in Marysville, it was like a Christmas miracle. Just not on Christmas Day.

The teenaged version of me rarely received the opportunity to drive in snow. But one winter, the impossible happened. When I woke up there was more than enough snow to cancel school. It was deep enough to paralyze the region. Overnight, several inches fell from our Pacific Northwest skies and I rejoiced. I ventured out into a whitewashed world of silence. It gave me a deep understanding of the carol's lyrics "All is calm, all is bright."

I waded out into the nearly knee-deep snow with intentions to build a snow fort and a snowman and spend my day playing in the fluffy white powder. But my dad had other plans.

He followed me out the door, handed me his keys, motioned for me to brush off the car and climb into the driver’s seat. I thought he wanted to drive down to the donut shop for breakfast or make a quick trip to get groceries. Both assumptions were incorrect. Instead, he directed me turn for turn on a scenic tour of the neighborhood.

We lived on a corner lot of a busy intersection. Both roads received plenty of through traffic, even in inclement weather conditions. By the time Dad and I went out for a drive, enough tires had compacted the snow down into ivory colored pavement. It was slick but not much of a challenge. Dad said he wanted me to learn how to drive in the snow, but after a few blocks I was convinced there was nothing to worry about. How hard could it be?

Then dad found what he was looking for. He directed me to turn onto a road that was still covered in virgin snow - untouched by Goodyear treads. The short street was only four blocks in length terminating in a T intersection at both ends. The only reason anyone would have to use that stretch of road is if they lived in one of the homes in between point A and point B. I was excited. How often does a teenager in the Seattle area get the privilege of being the first to drive through pure and undisturbed snow?

"Floor it. Get it up to 35 MPH," were my dad's instruction.
"But," I objected, "The speed limit is 25."
"Look around. Do you see any other traffic? Do you see a cop car setting up a speed trap?"
"Then speed up."

I pressed down on the accelerator and reached speeds that would earn me a ticket in drier conditions. Dad leaned over my shoulder to watch the speedometer rise. As soon as I reached the instructed speed, he gave me the next step in my lesson.

"Slam on the brakes." He said.

I was sure my dad had lost his marbles. I even expressed my concern for his sanity but he insisted. "Slam on the brakes." I complied. I thought I was going to die.

When the car finally came to a complete stop, pointing askew in a direction that I don't think it should have been facing, my dad smiled with glee.

"Remember that feeling?" he asked. After I nodded, he continued, "Don't ever forget it and do everything you can to avoid feeling it again."

His words sounded like the advice of a mad scientist after sending you into a lightning storm with a metal rod in your hands. However, it worked. In the last 20 years, I have never caused or even been in a snow related accident. Only once have I slid off the road and into a ditch. Only once did I attempt to perform a right-hand turn while my car continued to go straight. Both of those incidents were in the same winter, 16 years ago in Boise. Now with more than a dozen years in North Idaho where it snows aplenty, I consider myself a veteran winter driver.


About Rogue One

The Galactic Empire is ruled by a thin-skinned authoritarian seeking to silence any opposing view points.

A small group of hope-believing rebels engage a mission to steal the blueprints of a massive government construction project. With those plans, the rebels want to exploit its weakness and cripple the oppressive government.

There couldn't be a better time than now for this movie to be released.

image courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd. and Walt Disney Studios


And now, a word from my 12 year-old

This is Christian. He's in middle school and sometimes shows wisdom beyond his chronological age.

He wrote something today and I took him through the process of first draft, editing and revision, and now ... publishing. I can't tell you how, but he's going to change the world some day. Below is the final version of the short essay he wrote this morning.

Life isn’t about being strong or weak. Fast or slow. Buff and skinny, or overweight. Tall or short. A tech guru or a sports pro. Popular or unpopular. Straight or gay. Dorky or cool.

The term “cool” doesn’t even exist without opinions. And with opinions comes hate, drama, depression, cruelty, exclusion, and favoritism.

But there is hope like there always has been and always will be.

Be strong. Have faith. Love. Appreciate all you have and do not complain. Strive to accomplish your hopes and dreams. Always do your best. And most of all, hope for everyone and everything and for what you believe.

Life is about who you are and who you will be when the time comes to do the right thing.


Holiday music: Thanksgiving edition

The Christmas music season doesn't begin until Black Friday. Most of those I know who insist on playing those festive tunes earlier in the year do so because (according to them) there is no such thing as Thanksgiving carols. I beg to differ. There is a host of holiday appropriate music for the gathering around the table to gorge yourself on turkey or ham and all the trimmings. Below is what I have playing at my house today. And if you wish to listen along with me, it's all in a playlist at the bottom just for you. To all my friends and family, thank you for everything. I love y'all dearly.

1: Thank U by Alanis Morissette from the album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie
2: All I Can Do (Thank You) by Mikeschair from the album All or Nothing
3: Thank You by Dido from the album No Angel
4: Come, Ye Thankful People, Come by Leigh Nash from the album Hymns & Sacred Songs
5: Thank You by Chris Cornell from the album Unplugged in Sweden
6: No One Like You (Thanksgiving Mix) by David Crowder Band from the album Sunsets & Sushi
7: Thank You by John Reuben, Manchild, & Othello from the album (Sees Everything In) Hindsight
8: Thankful by Jonny Lang and Michael McDonald from the album Turn Around
9: Thank You by Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary from the album Kingdom Come
10: Thankful for You by TobyMac and Byron "Mr. Talkbox" Chambers from the album Eye On It
11: Thank You by KJ-52 from the album Behind The Musik (A Boy Named Jonah)
12: Grateful by Lecrae and J.R. from the album After The Music Stops
13: Thank You God for Saving Me by Chris Tomlin and Phil Wickham from the album Burning Lights
14: Thankful by Caedmon's Call from the album 40 Acres
15: Grateful by Wyclef Jean from the album The Preacher's Son
16: Thank You, Lord, For Sending Me the F Train by Mike Doughty from the album Skittish
17: Thankful by Scribbling Idiots, Wonder Brown, D-Minor, Ozay Moore, & MotionPlus from the album Invitation Only
18: Kind and Generous by Natalie Merchant from the album Ophelia
19: Thank You, Goodnight by All Star United from the album International Anthems for the Human Race


American Idolatry

Every four years, I see something peculiar happen inside Christian culture: evangelicals stop evangelizing and begin campaigning. Many within the church trade the cross of Christ for the cross of a candidate. Under the guise of patriotic duty, we begin to worship an idol.

I can see you now - recoiling at my damning indictment. How dare I accuse God's people of worshiping anyone other than God? Chill for a moment and allow me to explain.

Let's start with the definition of the word. According to Merriam-Webster, an idol is: "a representation or symbol of an object of worship; a false god."
Dictionary.com defines an idol as "an image or other material object representing a deity to which religious worship is addressed." Or "any person or thing regarded with blind admiration, adoration, or devotion."

For many Americans, their patriotism borders on jingoism with such fervor that it resembles religious devotion. Straight ticket voters, partisan polarization, and party purity pledges exemplify blind admiration and adoration. The GOP, DNC, TEA Party, Constitutionalists, and Libertarians are the political versions of Baptists, Methodists, Jesuits, and Lutherans. If political parties are the neo-denominations in this faux religion, elephants and donkeys are their graven images; the names on a ballot are false gods.

But how does the Bible define idolatry? In Old Testament scripture, idols were constructed of wood, stone, gold, or silver. Where people were created by God, lower case gods were created by people. Deuteronomy, calls them "a thing made by the hands of a craftsman." They are described in Isaiah as "the work of their hands … what their own fingers have made." And Habakkuk asks "What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image?" In the letter to the Colossians, Paul gave a broader definition. "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry."

Covetousness is idolatry.

Covetousness is a word of greed. It is a state of desire for wealth and possessions, frequently wealth and possessions belonging to someone else. Paul describes this as idolatry because we are placing a greater value on terrestrial things than we do on God; we love this thing or person more than it/he/she deserves.

In an interview, John Piper explained it like this: "It starts in the heart, craving, wanting, enjoying, being satisfied by anything that you treasure more than God. That is an idol. Paul calls this covetousness, a disordered love or desire, loving more than God what ought to be loved less than God and only for the sake of God. But covetousness is the condition that this disordered heart is into, an act of loving too much what ought to be loved less."

Piper's perspective is that idols are anything we love greater than we love God which brings us pleasure. Idols are seeking security, or satisfaction, or peace outside of God’s design. An idol is any person or thing that is loved, wanted, or desired more than God. Idols are those activities or relationships we enjoy or value above God.

Do our political obsessions fit this definition of an idol? Are we seeking security in an elected official or their promise of Supreme Court justices? Will we find satisfaction if our preferred candidates win? Are we hoping our political ideology is represented in the final vote tallies?

This doesn't mean you are forbidden from showing an interest in politics. Nor is this meant to criticize anyone who gets involved with the process as either a candidate or a campaign worker. The implications should not paint all of politics as a den of idolatrous hedonism.

We need to vote. As long as we live in a country that grants us the freedom to do so, we should always exercise our right to vote. And we should vote according to our conscience or in accordance with our moral standards. However, for the Christian, weather we are casting a vote or asking people to vote for us, we must remember that our hope is in someone bigger than an election. We hope in someone greater than America.

As the Psalmist wrote,
"I find rest in God; only he gives me hope.
He is my rock and my salvation.
He is my defender; I will not be defeated.
My honor and salvation come from God.
He is my mighty rock and my protection.”

If anyone assures you their candidate is the only one who can fix things, it’s idolatry.
If anyone claims their candidate will protect their way of life, it’s idolatry.
If anyone says the other candidate will destroy their way of life, it’s idolatry.
If anyone places more faith in a candidate than they do in God, it’s idolatry.
If anyone is worried that God might not be able to protect them if the wrong candidate is elected, it’s idolatry.
If anyone insists that voting for a specific person is your Christian duty and anyone voting for the other person is a heathen, it’s idolatry.

By the end of today, I hope you have voted. If that means you voted for Clinton, awesome. If that means you voted for Trump, OK. If that means you voted third party, great. While I don't think that Clinton will be a good president, I'm not worried what will happen if she wins. Even though I think Trump will be a dangerous and disastrous president, I'm not worried what will happen if he wins. Even if it is bad for me personally, I am still not worried because my hope does not rest upon the shoulders of Clinton, Trump, or any of the other candidates. My hope is in God.

Assuming the worst rumors and accusations about Clinton are true and she destroys America, I'll be alright because I'm God's. And if the worst of what anyone has ever said about Trump (including himself) is true and he destroys the planet, I'll be alright because I'm God's. And even if I'm not alright, I will still be alright because I am God's.


What Halloween says about our economy

In a few days, voters will be walking into polling stations all across the US to choose who they want to be the next President of the United States of America. Or rather who they don’t want as the next President. Lesser of evils and all.

But I digress. For months we have heard how this is the most important election in American history, usually from the people who said the same thing four years ago and will probably repeat the claim four years from now. It is just an election. And come the morning of November 9th, whether we like the results or not, life will go on.

Yet election 2016 seems different than what we have seen in years past. This go-around seems to be fueled by two elements: fear and anger. I get it; people are scared and mad. Why? Well, as one campaign strategist stated during the 1992 campaign season, “The economy, stupid.”

Of course, it doesn’t help when one of our two major candidates says things like:
“We’re in a big, fat, ugly bubble and we better be awfully careful. When they raise interest rates, you’re going to see some very bad things happen.”
“It’s not just the political system that's rigged, it’s the whole economy.”
“We have a country that's doing so badly, that's being ripped off by every single country in the world.”
“There is practically not a country that does business with the United States that isn’t making – let’s call it a very big profit.”
“If we don’t, things are just going to had in a direction that's going to be almost impossible to recover from.”
“Our country is in deep trouble.”
“We're losing our jobs, so many of them.”
“Our country is losing so much.”
“We’re a debtor nation. We’re a serious debtor nation.”
“We’ve become a third world country.”
“We have the greatest mess anyone’s ever seen.”

If this is this voice, or others like it are the predominant sources of “truth” in your life, then fearful and furious would be the most logical emotional state to occupy your being.

But is it really that bad?

In 1980, then nominee Ronald Reagan posed a question that has been asked many times in the 36 years since: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

Are you? I know I am. And I’m not alone in that sentiment. Polls taken all over the US reveal similar statistics. More people are agreeing that they are better off now than they were around the time we elected Obama into his first term. I know not everyone thinks we are living in a better America, that is why Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” is so powerful. Too many people feel weak and powerless. Too many people believe like America is in shambles. Too many people fear our economy is in the toilet and on the verge of being flushed.

But is it really that bad?

Monday night, I took the kids out trick-or-treating. While out celebrating Halloween, I noticed a few details that seem to contradict the doom and gloom Trump preaches at his rallies.

1. I saw far more kids out trick-or-treating than I have in recent years. People have long complained that year after year, fewer kids show up at their door looking for candy. That could be due to more parents seeking safer alternatives like community trunk-or-treat events or church harvest parties. But this year, the neighborhood was packed with kids, bringing back memories of what it was like in the 80s. A few houses we visited had actually ran out of candy – they were not prepared to see so many kids.
2. I saw more parents dressed up in costume while they escorted their kids. Sure, we as parents always make sure our kids have a costume, but the money to spend on costumes for ourselves is a luxury.
3. My kids received full-sized candy bars in their buckets. There were a few houses that skipped the bite-sized, fun-sized, variety packs of candy, they went straight to the big stuff. One acquaintance of mine reported handing out 80 full-sized candy bars. In all of the years taking my kids trick-or-treating (note: Christian is 12), this is the first year I have seen anyone handing out full sized bars.
4. My neighbor left a bowl of candy outside his door with this wonderful sign posted above it. Strategy like this risks the possibility of an enterprising youngster dumping the contents of the bowl into their own bag, leaving behind a few empty wrappers for future trick-or-treaters. I haven’t seen anyone this trusting with Halloween treats since Shane and I did it in 1999.

Is the economy crashing? Maybe. I’m not an economist though and my college economics class was a primary reason I never completed my business administration degree. So I might not be the most qualified to speak to our nation’s financial stability or future. However, from a layman’s perspective I am not convinced we’re (as Trump claims) a third world country in deep trouble and the biggest mess anyone has ever seen. After what I saw on Halloween, I’d say our future is bright.

If our economy was a dire mess teetering on disaster, I don’t think I would have seen so many kids out in the neighborhood. I don’t think I would have observed as many grown-ups in costume. I doubt any one would have been giving away full-sized candy bars. And I am skeptical anyone would have left a bowl of candy on their porch with little more than the honor system to govern its distribution.


Halloween Hands

I got on the elevator and saw this hand-print streaked down the wall next to the buttons to select which floor is your destination.

To me, it looked like the last effort of a dying man trying to hold himself upright as life slowly drained from his body. Perhaps that's a bit morbid. But 'tis the season. The practical joker in me wanted to outline it with red paint, letting it drip down the sides. Turn it into a bloody hand-print. Happy Halloween everyone.


Between Two Coaches

When it comes to football, I am not a gifted player. Actually, I'm not much of a player at all. When I was a teenager I fit the nerd stereotype being the last one picked my church youth group played a pickup game of football.

I couldn't help it. I was usually the shortest kid in the vicinity and fit the definition of scrawny. Even when I did play, the ball was never thrown in my direction. I never tackled anyone as I couldn’t keep up with whoever had the ball. The closest I ever came to making a big play was when I jumped high enough to tip a pass in 8th grade PE; I probably would have intercepted it but I was horrible at catching things back then.

Still am.

My brother had the privilege of playing sports with our dad. My father was able to teach Aaron how to throw and catch baseballs and footballs. They competed against each other in basketball and volleyball. By the time I was at the age where most dads are out in backyards demonstrating how to throw and catch and swing a bat or shoot hoops, my dad had suffered a back injury and was no longer physically capable of giving me the same lessons in athletics that he had given my brother.

That was OK with me. I preferred spending my time in the woods, climbing mountains and chasing wildlife. I found more satisfaction in art classes and drama club than in gyms and stadiums. My world was never destined for Sports Center.

Now as a parent with a child who loves just about every sport ever invented, I find myself ill prepared. I am learning how to play while teaching him at the same time. I might not know how I'm going to keep up with him as his talents grow beyond my skill set but for now, I am surprising myself.

Twenty-five years ago, I could never catch a baseball, but now it feels almost natural. Back then, I would not have been able to throw a football without an obvious wobble, but these days my throw frequently has a near-perfect spiral. Granted, I still demonstrate the athletic stamina and prowess of the typical comic book geek, but it is enough to impress my youngest son. I am starting to feel competent enough to fill the role of a backyard coach helping him run plays at the park next door.

Despite my nerdly ways, I am a devoted Seahawks fan. I might not be able to play but I can live tweet game commentary with the best of them. Last night's game is going to plague 12th Man memories like the unfortunate decision to draft of Brian Bosworth and the soul-crushing loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. I'm sure Arizona fans were not happy with the outcome either. In a game like that, the only true winners are pharmacies selling OTC antacids.

A day later, as real life carries on for fans of both teams, I want to reflect on statements from the two coaches: Seattle's Pete Carroll and Arizona's Bruce Arians.

The tied final score was the result of fierce defense from both teams and two failed field goal attempts in the final minutes of overtime. First, for the Cardinals, Chandler Catanzaro bungled an easy field goal attempt, kicking the ball into the upright where it bounced back onto the field.

Arians' response directed the brunt of his ire on his kicker. He was angry at the NFL for what he saw as bad officiating, but he also blamed the man who failed to score the winning points. In the press conference following the game, Arians had this to say about Catanzaro, "Make it. He's a professional. This isn't high school baby. You get paid to make it."

He did not have any kind words for Catanzaro but he did for the rest of the Cardinals. He praised the whole team, except for his kicker. "I think the defense played really well tonight. ... I thought our football team, other than the three plays in the kicking game, was outstanding. The offensive line battled all night. We put up those kinds of numbers, but not the number of points because of the kicking game."

Arizona's failed field goal attempt in overtime gave Seattle hope and those hopes were crushed a few plays later when Steven Hauschka also missed an easy kick, sending the ball way wide to the left.

In Carroll's statements, his tone was remarkably different than what Arians displayed. Much like Arians, Carroll praised the efforts of his team's defense. He also complimented the Seahawks camaraderie and Russell Wilson's continued efforts despite recent injuries.

When it came time to address the missed field goal that cost the team another win, Carroll chose to encourage Hauschka instead of criticizing him. "Steven will be OK. ... I can't remember a time we've asked him to kick a game winner when he didn't get it, so I'm counting on him doing it this week. He has been phenomenal for us. That's behind us and we've got to move ahead."

In yesterday's press conference, Carroll said Hauschka "made his kicks to give us a chance and unfortunately he didn't make the last one. He's been making kicks for years around here. Everything was in sequence. Everything went OK timing wise but we didn't hit it. But he's gonna hit a lot of winners as we go down the road here. ... I love him and he's our guy."

What a difference between the two coaches. One voiced no confidence in his kicker and the other expressed full confidence. One threw his kicker under the bus and the other extended grace. One refused to accept an error and the other accepts that everyone makes a mistake. One said “I blame you” and the other said “I love you.”

Can you imagine how it feels to be Catanzaro? To know that his coach thinks everyone except him did awesome. Compare that to how Hauschka feels knowing he will continue to have his coach’s support.

I might not play in the NFL, but if I did, I know which coach I would rather have as my coach. Given the choice between Arians and Carroll, I would choose Carroll every time. As JJ gets older and joins little league and school teams, I hope he always plays for coaches like Pete Carroll.


The Violence Trap Part 7: Springing the Trap

On Friday December 14, 2012, a disturbed individual walked into Sandy Hook Elementary with his mother’s Bushmaster Rifle and started shooting. He killed twenty first grade students and six members of the school’s staff.

Later, that same day, after every news network had covered the story of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, there was another event with guns occurring on the other side of the nation. Anyone driving along Government Way in Coeur d’Alene would have seen a sign advertising a gun show being held at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds that weekend.

Bad timing? Insensitive? Callous? On the day America experienced the worst school shooting in our history, the fairgrounds were inviting Cd’A residents to go buy more guns. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of dismay.

I understand that the gun show was scheduled long before the gunman entered the elementary school with evil intent. I know it was too late to cancel the event. And I realize there were sellers there with business that need to make a profit - dependent on customers showing up and purchasing guns. Even with those facts in mind, I still felt the brash street-side signage was disrespectful. They could have still held the gun show without putting out the signs.

When I drove by the fairgrounds that rainy Friday afternoon, I felt sick. And the responses to the picture I posted on facebook were simply disturbing.

“We can't put our lifestyle on hold. Life goes on.”
“Gun shows are a business, not some Broadway musical.”
“It is good business.”

These statements do not tell me anything good or bad about firearms. Rather, they speak volumes about our culture. Americans idolize guns – elevating them as something equal to or even greater than God. It demonstrates how badly we are trapped in a cycle of never-ending violence. We are stuck thinking that violence is the solution to all our woes.

When I hear someone say “We can’t put our lives on hold because of some tragedy,” I hear someone who is trapped.
When I hear the claim “Obama (or Clinton) is going to take away our guns!” I hear they are trapped.
When a Bushmaster advertisement states they’ll take away our man-card if we don’t own a gun, I see customers who are trapped.
When I hear someone say they need guns for “self-defense,” I hear someone who is trapped.
When I hear they need guns to “over throw our tyrannical government,” I hear someone who is trapped.
When a person argues “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” I hear someone who is trapped.
Every time I see a “We don’t call 911” poster with a picture of a sidearm on it, I see someone who is trapped.
When an old man walks into a children’s play area with a 9mm strapped to his hip and brags about how he has a badge for it, I see someone who is trapped.
When I see pictures of pistols on top of bibles, I see people who are trapped.
Whenever someone utters the words “God, guns, and glory” or “God, guns, and country” I hear people who are trapped.

We are better than this. Or at least we should be.

Before I get carried away, I must clarify that I do not wish to disparage any gun-owners. If I refused to be friends with people who owned guns, I would be a very lonely man. My objections are not to guns but to the attitudes of our culture that have us mired believing in redemptive violence. I reject the attitude that the second amendment is the greatest amendment. I protest the attitudes that guns bring us closer to God. Guns do not symbolize your savior, they do not symbolize your manhood, and they do not symbolize hope.

Guns may not be the problem, but they are definitely not the solution. What we have is a people problem. We are stuck in a trap and think we can shoot our way out of it.

Think about quicksand. While the younger version of me believed that the danger of quicksand would be far more prevalent than it actually is, it does exist and it is possible to get stuck in it. When caught, quick and panicked movements will cause someone to sink deeper. Simply put – fighting it makes it worse.

The myth of redemptive violence is like quicksand. We are stuck and the more we fight the worse it gets. We are sinking in clinging to our guns. We are sinking in anti-government rhetoric. We are sinking in gun shows. We are sinking in fatal police shootings and sinking further with riotous response to law enforcement. We are sinking in belief that we can fix our broken country with violence.

When stuck in quicksand, slow and careful movements are essential for escape. If we want to get out of our violence trap, we need to make deliberate efforts and stop fighting.

I don’t believe that banning guns will put an end to American violence. But I do believe that gun-proliferation will make it worse. Both of those extremes would be akin to panicked actions causing us to sink deeper in the quicksand. If we learn anything from other nations like Japan, Switzerland, Mexico, and Honduras, weapon regulations do not increase or decrease gun violence. While common sense gun-control could be beneficial, it won’t fix our people problem.

If we want to end the violence, we need peace. We need to lay down our arms. We need a change of heart. Unfortunately, it is impossible to legislate morality. No law can ever force someone to be kind or humble. If we want to encourage peace, there are things we could do aside from revising gun laws.

Remember the biggest difference between Honduras and Switzerland? One nation is economically and educationally secure and the other is not. If you look at violence in America – the perpetrators and victims are both more frequently found among the most disadvantaged of our population. Poverty and crime dance in tandem.

Do you want to reduce the possibility of homegrown terrorism? Do you want to see an end to school shootings? To you want to see less senseless violence in major metropolitan streets?

Then we need to fix our broken education system that favors those with wealth and burdens kids in poor neighborhoods.

We need to do recognize wage disparity in our nation is a travesty and end corporate welfare.
We need to close the loopholes that allow the rich to get richer on the back of the poor.
We need to maintain safety nets to make sure that no one falls through the cracks.
We need stronger policies to crack down on school yard bullies.
We need to call out hatred and discrimination wherever it exists.

When everyone has access to hope and justice, we will stop believing in violence as a cure. We will be freed from the trap.


The Violence Trap Part 6: A Myth Undone

Theodore Parker was a transcendentalist and an abolitionist whose words influenced both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. In an 1853 sermon, Parker stated “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

A little more than 100 years later, Martin Luther King Jr simplified the same sentiment, “I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

We should see this is true. Contrary to the headlines broadcast from cable news networks, life isn’t that bad. Our society is acting with more justice than it ever has before. Our kids are safer than ever before. The poor are wealthier than ever before. That doesn’t mean life is sunshine and roses for everyone, just that we are better off as a whole. Our culture isn’t perfect but we are heading in the right direction. We might find evidence of moral decay, but the same is true of any other era in history.

Despite the looming threat of terrorism – from both homegrown and foreign radicals, despite the increasing occurrences of mass shootings, despite the petty bickering over partisan topics on social media, despite the reports of collegiate rapes and sexual assaults finding more publicity, despite the news of police killing unarmed black teenagers, despite the reports of cops being killed in cold blood, despite of all that is wrong in our world, we are better off than previous generations. We continue to engage in war but fewer soldiers are dying in battle. Racism, misogyny, and other forms of hatred still exist, but we have come a long way from the days of slavery, women’s suffrage movement, Jim Crow laws, and the Trail of Tears. We have our flaws but the moral arc of the universe is bent toward justice. We are getting better and we will continue to improve.

But the moral arc didn’t always bend that direction. It once bent toward anarchy. The mythology of ancient cultures is filled with violence and chaos. From the Norse peoples to the Egyptians, from the Aztecs to the Mongols, from the Sumerians to the Romans. Ancient civilizations were inspired by tales of gods and monsters, dragons and warriors. For thousands of years, humanity lived in tribalism. We didn’t care about justice, we only wanted to protect our tribe. We needed heroes who would face our foes and shout “This. Is. Sparta!” Our tribes grew into empires and empires constantly clashed for dominion over the others.

Something changed. Something took the moral arc of the universe and twisted away from self-preservation, pointing it instead toward justice. I believe that change happened with a man, born into persecution in the hill country of Judea.


He was a strange man who preached strange words. When Jesus showed up, he started telling people about an alternative to the myth of redemptive violence. He said “Look, I know it’s always been like this, but there is another way – a better way.” The crowds had been taught to repay violence with violence. The law even allowed the penalty of an eye for an eye. But Jesus said “You don’t have to do it. You could turn the other cheek. You can repay violence with peace. You can respond to offenses with grace.”

Whether you do or don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, one thing can’t be ignored: Jesus inspired a group of people who believed that they could be different. Jesus led a ministry that emphasized justice, love, goodness, and mercy. In the centuries that followed, empires crumbled and civilization became more civilized. We went through an age of enlightenment. We industrialized, reformed, launched space shuttles, and tumbled face first into a globalized society. Along the way, we implemented methods of more humane treatment of farm animals, passed more ethical laws for the treatment of children, provided rights to women and minorities, gave relief to victims of natural disasters and refuge to those fleeing the turmoil in their homelands. Violent crime is going down. Murder rates are lower. Jesus gave us a glimpse of what justice could look like and we have been trying to achieve those ideals ever since.

But it didn’t end peacefully for Jesus. The Roman government executed him in the most violent method they had available at the time: crucifixion. Yet even the death of Jesus debunks the myth of redemptive violence. Instead of a savior committing violent acts to redeem us, The Savior redeemed us through suffering the violence committed against him. Jesus could have resisted. He could have overpowered those guards sent to arrest him. He could have called lightning down upon every centurion who participated in nailing him to the cross. But he didn’t. He showed compassion and asked God to forgive them for their ignorance.

In Jesus, we are given a new model. Violence is not defeated by violence. Violence is conquered by sacrifice. Violence is ended by a love that is willing to lay down its life for its friends. Redemption isn’t found in the perpetuation of violence but by breaking the cycle of violence.

Which brings me back to another statement from Martin Luther King Jr’s 1965 sermon. Before he said anything about the moral arc of the universe, he talked about redemption: “If physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children and their white brothers from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.” Taking a life will not redeem you, but giving up your life will. In a way, King was echoing the words of Jesus, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”

There is no such thing as redemptive violence. But there is a sacrificial redemption.


The Violence Trap Part 5: A Violent Myth

There is a lie we all believe: violence stops violence. Some even take it further proposing that violence prevents violence. There’s even a term for it: The Myth of Redemptive Violence. It has become a common story model from ancient legends through modern action movies.

The Babylonian creation myth is one of the oldest examples. It begins in chaos with warring gods and heroes. The worst of them oppress the gods and thrives on breaking the rules. Eventually, one god steps up with a plan – he will defeat the antagonist in exchange for the right to rule above all of the other gods. The agreement is made and absolute power is given to this one god who proceeds to annihilate his foes with increasingly creative and gory methods of sadistic vengeance. Once evil is conquered, this violent god creates the world from the corpse of his greatest enemy. Babylonian mythology teaches how humanity’s existence was built upon brutality – that the violence of the gods redeemed us.

When I was a kid, my favorite show was The A-Team. Unjustly disgraced war veterans make a living as soldiers of fortune, rescuing the oppressed while evading military police.

image courtesy of NBC

Like many episodic shows of the era, The A-Team’s plot followed the same formula from one week to the next. The team worked as mercenaries, hired by people that were in trouble with an array of villainous villains: religious cults, corrupt cops, drug runners, Vegas mobsters, street gangs. Their first attempts usually failed so they hatched a new plan. There was a montage of them MacGyvering a collection of weaponry and modifying BA’s GMC creeper van – all set to epic 80’s action music. This was followed by an all-out assault on the bad guys, their clients were freed from their troubles, and the A-Team walked away heroes just before they could be arrested by the authorities.

The A-Team was one of the most violent shows on television at the time – despite no depiction of bloody wounds or bruises, and the team never killed anyone. The show also perpetuated the myth of redemptive violence. Episode after episode, they confirmed the idea that the weak and powerless could only be saved by an onslaught of machine gunnery and gratuitous explosions. It taught that a peaceful resolution was impossible and an exercise of brute force solved all problems.

We continue to see this myth in superhero movies. Superman defeated General Zod but half of Metropolis was destroyed in their battle. Destruction follows The Avengers wherever they go, from Manhattan, to Malibu, to Sokovia to fight off the threats of demigods, aliens, madmen, and killer robots. Even Captain America and Iron Man viciously pummeled each other over a difference of ideals.

In the real world, we flex military muscle. These days, we engage in preemptive conflict – the absurd notion that we can prevent war with war. We believe that the only way to conquer our enemies is to destroy them. We don’t even restrict our wars to foreign battlefields. We bring it home to our own turf. Rival gangs. Drunken bar-room brawls. Clashes between protesters and police. Martin Luther King Jr – the advocate of peaceful protests repeatedly said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

We believe that mightily overcoming the enemy is the solution we need, but instinctively we know it isn’t true. We know that violence does not bring peace. Violence creates greater violence. This is proven if you’ve ever seen a pair of junior high kids get into a fight. It starts with an insult, then a comeback. The invectives and name-calling escalate into threats. Soon one bumps into the other and the other pushes back. Push comes to shove and the shoves become more and more potent until someone throws a punch. Left to their own devices, the retaliatory punches continue until both are rolling on the ground kicking and pulling hair and choking each other.

In theory, we think that violence redeems us, but in practice, violence is a mold that spreads exponentially. Jay-Z knew this to be true. In his song ‘Justify My Thug,’ Jay-Z rapped, “Now if you shoot my dog, I'ma kill yo' cat. Just the unwritten laws in rap. Know that for every action there's a reaction.” In essence, his words are a warning. If you push me, I punch back. If you step on my shoes, I’ll burn your house down. You injure me, I’ll bury you. Jay-Z knew that life is much more primal – that retaliation will always be bigger than the originating offense.


The Violence Trap Part 4: Polite Society

There is another rhetorical meme that is common when discussing violence and gun control that bothers me: An armed society is a polite society. It sounds believable yet it gives me a creepy sensation.

Why is that?

The idea behind this statement is the assumption that people will be less likely to say something rude or act belligerently if there is a greater likelihood that the target of their ire is armed. In other words, as the chance that you have a gun increases, my willingness to express anger decreases. People who cling to this desire for an armed society believe that people will stop picking fights in there is a good possibility that everyone has a concealed weapon.

Politeness doesn’t exist under duress or obligation or anticipation of lethal retaliation. That is not what it means to be polite. That is called fear. An armed society is not a polite society; it is a society that is afraid. A fearful society is not a safe society. Terror engages our flight or fight mentality. People act stupid when they are scared.

However, the idea of stockpiling weaponry is somehow responsible for creating polite citizens is backed up by statistics. Well, allegedly supported by numbers, as demonstrated here.

The best lies are wrapped in a shred of truth. Yes, both nations have comparable population in terms of gross numbers, however the demographics are vastly different. Honduras does have the highest homicide rates of any nation on earth. Switzerland’s homicide rate isn’t the lowest, but it is extremely low. But the factual statements in the infographic end there.

Are Swiss citizens required to own a gun? Well, yes and no. The government requires all men to enlist in mandatory military service and all members of the military are issued a gun. However, the soldiers can only bring the gun home without ammunition and all government issued weapons are returned upon completion of military service. Civilian gun ownership is allowed but far more restrictive than the above infographic implies: automatic weapons are banned. Concealed weapons require a license, and there is a mandatory background check for all handgun purchases.

What about Honduras? Handguns are the weapon of choice in a vast majority of their murders. Analyzing the map to study the geographic location of deaths in Honduras, it is easy to see that most killings are related to drug trafficking – a problem that is nearly non-existent in Switzerland. And Honduras doesn’t ban guns. Most of the 9mm guns used in violent crimes were legally purchased. Watchdogs describe gun laws in Honduras to be less restrictive than other nations in the region from Brazil, to Venezuela, to Mexico.

Guns are readily available and legal in both Honduras and Switzerland. Yet one nation has the highest murder rates in the world and the other experiences very few homicides. Both societies are armed, but one is clearly more polite than the other. What is the difference? Perhaps some additional comparisons could be relevant.

Consider some of the nations with lower murder rates than Switzerland: Japan, Singapore, Iceland, Monaco. Their gun laws are extremely restrictive and they all see less than 0.5 homicides per 100,000 population. These countries are industrialized, wealthy, and educated. At the other end of the list ranking intentional homicides by country, the top ten with the most murders include many of Honduras’ neighbors: El Salvador, Venezuela, Belize, and Guatemala. These are uneducated, impoverished, and caught up in drug-trade; some are governed by militaristic regimes.

We have one set of nations with gun laws ranging from strict to permissive with low rates of violent deaths. The other set of nations also have gun laws ranging from strict to permissive but experience the higher rates of homicide than anywhere else in the word. What sets the two groups apart is not an accessibility or lack of weapons. The laws in these nations have minimal impact on gun violence within their borders. The difference between the peaceful and the dangerous nations is a matter of economic and educational opportunities.

An armed society is not a polite society. Perhaps the best phrasing might be that an educated society is a polite society.