For a New Year (again)

As 2015 draws to a close, I want to take a moment to look back (learn) and to look forward (dream).

One of my groups encourages everyone to have a word for the year. A word to focus on, to motivate and inspire, to keep you driven and moving toward your goals. Last year my word was "healing" and I have done a whole lot of it over the past 12 months. I also wrote a post one year ago about New Year's resolutions - that mine was a simple two word ambition: Be Better. I feel that I've achieved that resolution to some degree and the best thing I could do going into 2016 is to adopt the same resolution all over again. While 2015 was a great year for myself and my kids, I want this next year to be even better. With that in mind - my word for 2016 is "Better." In addition to a word, I'm also picking out a theme song:

Consider what has happened this year. I'm healthier than I have been in a long time. The kids and I are all happier than we were in 2014. There were some great changes at work. I took some big risks in life that I would have never imagined myself taking when this year started. The Faithful Geek blog has seen some successes and I have been blessed with the opportunity to write for a few of my friends. I have also found some unique chances to help and support others in ways that would not have been possible a year or two earlier. If these experiences were a result of me wanting to be better, then I am overly optimistic about what could happen in 2016 if I continue striving to be better.

Now that this year is dwindling into its final hours and I contemplate all that has transpired in the past three hundred and sixty five days, all I can say is this was a great year. For that, I want to express my gratitude. To everyone that has taken a minute or two to read my thoughts here - thank you. To those few brave souls who allowed me to write a guest post for their blog - thank you. To my pastors and mentors - thank you. To those of you that have laughed and cried with me, who have hugged me, who have joined me for spirited games of Quelf or Mario Kart, who have encouraged me or challenged me, who have loved my kids - from the depths of my heart, thank you. To my family - I love you all dearly. And for all who have indulged my geekiness - may the force be with you.

This is it. One more day of the old year and I am wishing you the best. May 2016 be better than 2015. Heading into the new year, here is my hope, my goal. I'm going to scream it from the top of my lungs.


The Greatest Gift

We had a rough night last weekend. My daughter was unusually morose after church. Most Friday nights, she is bursting with manic energy after the games and teaching in our children's ministry. Being the last weekend service before Christmas, this sullen emotion was out of character for my typically chipper Zu.

When I asked her what was wrong, my heart sunk. "No one cares about me" her answer. "Nobody loves me."

"Can't possibly be true because I love you very much. I'm sorry that you're feeling like this." I did my best to recognize her emotions as valid yet help her understand our feelings are not always honest.

As we talked, she continued her brooding. "God probably doesn't love me either."

"Oh, sweetheart, it must have been a hard night. It's not fun feeling like this. But I do not believe there is anything you could do to take away God's love for you."

As we talked, she revealed more of the reason behind her sadness. She wants so desperately to have a good Christmas and a happy New Year, but she fears she will get neither. This made her sad so she didn't participate in Kids' Quest, instead she sulked. She then felt like God couldn't love her because of her behavior; this exacerbated her despair. She even told me she felt like her heart was breaking.

When we got home, we started our bedtime routine. With her in her pj's and a tomato in hand (her bedtime snack), I tucked her in then sat on the side of her bed and spent some time doing all I could to soothe her fears.

"I hope you know how much I care about you." I said. She nodded. "Did you know that God cares most for those who are hurting?"

Her expression seemed to display confusion, as if she were saying 'that can't be true.'

"I believe that God's love is best demonstrated when we are sad and hurting. In fact, one of my most favorite verses from Psalms says 'The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and He saves those whose spirits have been crushed.' The way you're feeling right now isn't proof that God dislikes you; it is a sign that He is close to you."

Then I continued.

"You know what? I'm really excited about Christmas. Like really super looking forward to it."
"You are?" She looked at me with eyes swelling on the verge of hope.
"I am. And I am sure that this Christmas is going to be great. You know what else?"
"I'm hoping we have a happy New Year too."
"Are we going to watch the ball drop?"

And that was all she needed to hear. She finally smiled and wrapped her arms around me. I gave her a kiss and told her the same thing I say every night: "Goodnight sweet girl."

By morning, Zu was acting more like herself. Playful. Joyous. Looking forward to our Saturday adventure. And not wanting to take a bath. Normal.

Her stocking stuffers and presents were purchased two weeks ago and hidden in a closet. Tonight, I will be up late wrapping and setting up her Christmas surprises. However, I am convinced that none of those presents will compare to the gift of assurance I gave her this last Friday night.

We dream. We hope. We wish. And yet, sometimes life deals extraordinary circumstances. We face loses in life and jobs and marriages. Tis the season for peppermint and gumdrops but it is also the season of strained finances and annoying relatives. Sometimes happiness and joy are debatable. It can be incredibly difficult to embrace the spirit of the season when the spirit within you is burdened, stressed, and heartbroken. This is Christmas. Bah-humbug.

But sadness is nothing new. Sorrow and misery have existed as long and humanity has graced this planet. Grief was a thing long before the birth of Christ. Yet as long as people have had the ability to experience depression, God has had a plan to heal our emotional wounds. In our hopelessness, God is telling us "I am here. I am close to you. I will demonstrate my love through your brokenness and your life will be made new."

This experience was described in another Psalm: "You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent."

Two thousand years ago, God gave us the gift of His Son, this act was his signature to a love letter that He had been writing since the dawn of time. In Jesus, He showed us that wherever we find broken hearts and wounded spirits, He would be there to heal all our achy parts. A baby boy, a gift, God with us.

At Christmas, we express our longing and hope for something worth hoping for. Many of us do that in a list. Me? I would love it if someone gave me an Xbox One with a copy of Star Wars Battlefront. I could really use a new car. Or even an all expense paid weekend in Seattle. I'd be content with concert tickets or an hour long massage. Those gifts would be awesome, but realistically I have all ready been given the greatest gift imaginable, the assurance that everything is going to be OK.

I have mourned and God has turned my mourning into dancing. I could not ask for more.

My wish for you is to have the happiest of Christmases. But let's not fake it. If this is more of a somber holiday, admit it. Fell free to say "Life sucks right now." Do it. Because I believe in a God who is big enough to listen to your complaints and loves you anyways. And I believe in a God that can transform your deepest hurts into something beautiful.


White as Snow

All I ever wanted for Christmas was six feet of snow. Well, not six feet exactly. That estimate is an exaggeration: a number to explain I want a lot of snow. It has been my wish every year for as long as I can remember. For a kid growing up in the Seattle area, a white Christmas would be a miracle. I wanted one, but knew the odds were as favorable as an actual fat man in a red suit shimmying down my chimney in the middle of the night to leave boxes adorned with festive wrapping and my name on every tag.

I blame music. When I was a little kid, we listened to Amy Grant's 1983 Christmas Album every year. My folks had it on vinyl, and it found a near permanent home in the record player from Thanksgiving until New Years Day. It was the only Christmas album they owned so we listened to it a lot. I still remember every song on it by heart and could sing along from Tennessee Christmas to Angels We Have Heard On High. From the album, my favorite song was her take on Sleigh Ride. Amy's version is the standard by which I judge any other artist's interpretation. I loved that song in an unrequited form. Sleigh rides were a foreign concept to us Seattleites. In the sea-level suburbs, snow was fleeting. It is difficult to snuggle up together like the birds of a feather in a horse drawn sleigh ride upon rain-slicked wet concrete. Yet that song built up within me a longing for winters where skis and snowshoes were commonplace. For magic falling as white crystals from a frozen sky.

We hear it on the radio every December. "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. Where the treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow." Or "The fire is slowly dying, my dear we're still good-byeing, but as long as you love me so, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow." Also "In the meadow we can build a snowman and pretend that he is Parson Brown. He'll ask 'are you married' we say 'no man, but you can do the job when you're in town.'" From Frosty the Snowman to Silver Bells to In the Bleak Midwinter, we have it ingrained in our culture: snow is an intrinsic element of Christmas. Mariah Carey sang "All I want for Christmas is you," but me? All I want for Christmas is snow. In large quantities. When it comes to the holiday season, this could be my theme song.

Then I moved away from the Emerald City. I now live somewhere with (typically) snowy winters. While white Christmases are not guaranteed, they are far more likely. Last week, after I had nearly given up on my wish for this year, the skies opened and blanketed my town. I love it. When I went out for a walk this afternoon, the virgin snow still untouched by human footprints was knee-deep, and we are supposed to get more in between now and Christmas morning.

I am grateful to be able to raise my kids here with the snow. I love seeing them make snow angels and build snowmen and throw snowballs at each other. (However, if I'm honest, I am the usual target of their snowballs.) I am happy to dig my car out from under its fresh fallen blanket and drive along Coeur d'Alene's icy streets. I find serenity looking out my window at the evergreen branches sagging under the weight of snow.

When snow falls, the world turns quiet. All that is ugly disappears. Even my most sun-and-sand seeking friends who loathe cold weather will admit to a kind of aesthetic allure only available in landscapes covered by snow. It has a calming effect on the hustle and bustle nature of modern living. It forces us to move a little more slowly - even if for the sake of safety. Snow forms the truest bridge from the dead of Autumn to the blossom of Spring. It is peace, beauty, renewal, healing.

In the middle of this cold and ice, we find ourselves celebrating the birth of Jesus. Fitting, as His life grants us the same promise in our lives as snow has on the land around us. To give us peace amidst a storm. To cover over the ugly and make us beautiful again. To revive and heal everything that is broken inside us. Living in a locale that looks like a Christmas card, the promise God spoke in the first chapter of Isaiah is easier to understand.

In this, we find life. Our God is a God who makes all things new. I see no better demonstration of this promise than in a snow-covered earth.


Feel Good Movies

In a previous post, I talked about the therapeutic effect of a good song. However, music isn't my only anti-depressant. As a cinephile, certain movies also have a positive mood altering impact.

Not all of them though. Fight Club might be one of my all-time favorite movies, but watching it will not make me happy at the end of a hard day. It takes a special element for films to elevate the human condition, to drag a mood out of a funk, to unburden a weary soul, to mend a broken heart.

Such movie magic that can only be found in particular films. Part whimsy, part absurdity, part nostalgia, always comical, and sometimes irreverent. These are the movies you could start watching at any point in the plot, you can watch over and over and never lose interest, you know the script by heart and could provide the character voices on your own if the movie was muted.

One night a few weeks ago, I needed this type of magic. After a stressful week at work, some discouraging news at home, a fight with insomnia, and attempting something brave without knowing whether or not it would be rewarding, I was feeling odd. My head was not in the right place. Worrying about junk that I shouldn't have been worrying about. Cycling through never-ending "what if" scenarios. Giving too much credit to critical voices. And feeling bummed for inexplicable reasons.

I opened Netflix and the banner at the top of their homepage featured another favorite movie of mine: Can't Hardly Wait. 'Yes,' I thought, 'this is exactly what the doctor prescribed.' I turned off all the lights, clicked play, made myself comfortable, and enjoyed the movie. Despite the dozens of times I have previously watched it, I still laughed. Alone in my apartment, I sang along with the soundtrack and quoted some of the best lines of dialog. 100 minutes later, I felt so much better. Any hint of sadness had evaporated.

There are a handful of movies that do that to me. Regardless my mood, no matter how angry or frustrated or glum my emotions, these movies always turn it around. These films have a way of making me happy.

With Christmas a week away, we could all use extra reason to be filled with joy and cheer. If you need it, I recommend watching a feel good movie. I plan on seeing a few this week. I do not know what is in your list, but here is what is on mine.

10: Can't Hardly Wait. The perfect blend of a plucky kid with an indomitable spirit pursuing the girl he's been pining after for years, the bromance between the geek and his bully, and the eccentric cast discovering who they really are. The scene that always gets me is when the dejected Preston is pulled out of the phone booth by a stripper in an angel costume. She had a horrible day but but she shares a poignant conversation about fate and celebrity crushes. This is the line that fixes my sadness every time.

9: Spaceballs. This is one of the last great parody movies. Clever writing. Brilliant cast. Fourth wall breakage. Puns galore from "we've been jammed" to "comb the desert." Every scene with John Candy shines; I cannot imagine how he managed to play a character named Barf with a straight face.

8: So I Married an Axe Murderer. Weird jazzy beat poetry. Mistaken identity. Conversations taken out of context. A Rod Stewart song performed on bagpipes. This was Mike Myers at his best as an unlikely lead in a romantic comedy. Then again, this movie was unconventional as far as romantic comedies are concerned.

7: Grumpy Old Men. Who knew watching a couple old dudes in a rivalry over the love of a woman could be so funny? Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are two of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen and seeing these two men spar through insults and pranks brings me immense joy. When Lemmon drops a dead fish into the back seat of Matthau's rig, it may be one of the cruelest practical jokes, but it always makes me laugh. However, the double entendre spoken by Grandpa Gustafson in the closing credits/outtakes remains my favorite part of the film. But those insults ...

6: Nothing to Lose. Side note, my gut hurts from laughing every time I see this movie, but I have reached the point where it is more fun to watch people watching this movie for the first time than actually watching the movie. Martin Lawrence plays the same type of character he always plays - a quick talking smart aleck with a chip on his shoulder. That persona plays well against the brokenhearted strait man in Tim Robbins. They fend off a pair of career criminals and commit one of Hollywood's most hilarious heist scenes. The mishap adventure starts Lawrence attempts to car-jack Robbins who disregards all sense of logic and fear.

... to be continued


Star Wars: It's Not a Spoiler

One of the most notorious stories about Harrison Ford in making the original Star Wars movies centers on Harrison's wish for Han Solo to get a death scene. He almost got it. Getting dipped in carbonite after being betrayed by a friend would have been a fitting send off for the stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy looking nerf herder.

George Lucas had other ideas. He wanted to complete Han's story arc. George must have felt a better story would be told if Han and Leia lived happily ever after. Or maybe he felt someone needed to party with the overgrown living teddy bears on Endor. Or perhaps this was George's way of making sure everyone knew he was the boss. Regardless the reason, Chewie's best friend lived on to help the Rebel Alliance and kiss the girl at the end.

Every body won.

Except Harrison Ford who never got the epic death scene he always wanted.

Then news came out that there would be more Star Wars films. Location scouting, casting, and various aspects of pre-production began. Fans started to speculate whether or not the original cast would return. Around this time, rumors spread that Harrison Ford would only return to the franchise if the script included the death of Han Solo.

In case you are not already aware, Harrison is a member of the cast for The Force Awakens. Does this mean the film's creators are going to kill him off? Maybe. Draw your own conclusions. The typical movie attendee won't know for sure until tomorrow evening at the earliest. (And if anyone spoils it before I see it for myself, I will feed you to a sarlacc.)

What follows is pure conjecture - the wishes of an optimistic fan. If you are looking for spoilers, you will not find them here.
This isn't the spoiler you're looking for.

If Disney does bring a final breath to Han Solo's life, they better do it right. If you think there is no possibility that it could go wrong, you haven't seen the prequels. What could go wrong? Plenty.

If he dies of old age, fans will be confused. Han isn't Yoda.
If he is murdered during a conversation with a smuggler, fans will protest because we all know that Han shoots first.
If he is simply shot in the middle of battle or perishes while crashing the Millennium Falcon, fans will cry foul as our hero deserves better.
If he is accidentally killed by an oddball comedic relief character, fans will forever insist J.J. Abrams's initials stand for Jar Jar.

If Han Solo must die, then he needs to go out on a high note. He must fall in honor, or fans will be let down. It is the only way Harrison Ford can get his wish that will be satisfying for fans.

If I had been a screenwriter for The Force Awakens, here is what I would have done.

Han, Leia, and Chewie are on a mission to rescue Luke. At first, it seems success is theirs but they are surprised by Kylo Ren and his acolytes who had been hiding to ambush the heroes. Cornered and under heavy fire, the group sees only one possible way out. Someone needs to provide cover fire so the remaining members of the group can escape the the awaiting Millennium Falcon. Unfortunately, such an action would be suicidal as there would be no opportunity for that person to follow the others.

Han volunteers, telling his friends that he would willingly give his life in exchange for theirs. "This is something that I should have done years ago," he explains. Then he looks at Luke. The two men hug each other and Han says, "May the Force be with you."

After Han unholsters his blaster, he pauses one last time and turns toward Leia.

"I love you," he says.
"I know," she replies.

Han smiles then ducks around the corner and begins firing upon the Knights of Ren. He takes a couple of hits but remains standing, determined to take as many foes down with him as possible. Luke, Leia, and Chewie make a run for safety on board the Millennium Falcon. Leia looks back at Han once more, just in time to see him struck by a slash from Rylo's lightsaber.

With tears in her eyes, Leia whispers to herself, "I know." Then she climbs into the Falcon and the trio fly off to join Rey and Fin.

That would be the most noble way to kill off a character. It would be reminiscent of Obi-Wan's sacrifice in Episode IV and echo the biblical adage "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends." Han's death (if there is one) will probably not happen in such a fashion. But wouldn't it be awesome if it did?

*Image source HERE


It keeps getting better

Meet Gnomesworth the Seagnome.* This little garden gnome is easily the coolest gift I have ever kept in a white elephant gift exchange.

Why does that matter? Well, it represents a sea-change in my perspective on Christmas. (See what I did there?) This holiday is supposed to be filled with happiness and cheer. After all "It's the most wonderful time of the year." Yet not everyone feels those feels. For many, Christmas ranges from mundane routine to stress-filled present shopping to painful memories to obnoxious family members and conflict. I don't fall into any of those categories, yet Christmas has never been my favorite holiday.

It was never a day of magic for me. I was not one of those kids who woke up to presents overflowing from under the tree. When everyone returned to school after winter break, I rarely joined the other kids bragging about the cool gifts they received. Instead of expensive crap, I got parents who loved and encouraged me. In hindsight, these experiences helped me remove the materialism from my Christmas traditions. I'm probably a better person for this. However, as a kid, such values are harder to understand.

Getting older made Christmas even more complicated. My first holiday season after leaving my parents' house and moving out of state was lonely. My roommates both flew home to celebrate with their families but I stayed behind. I worked retail both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. That was when I discovered the day after Christmas in Old Navy was worse than the day after Thanksgiving. I don't remember what I had for Christmas dinner that year, probably nachos. I don't remember what my parents and grandparents sent me, but I know I opened it when the mailman delivered the boxes instead of waiting until December 25th.

You might think having kids would inject a little jubilation into my holiday season, but you would be wrong. Instead of creating magical moments, I found it more stressful. I am a horrible Santa Claus. The harder I tried to be the coolest dad ever, the more difficult it was to hold up the charade. These last few years have been challenging as I figure out how to Christmas as a single dad.

Despite the new complications, last year was the best Christmas ever. Even with balling on a budget, I was filled with hope. My brother and his wife gave me the best gift imaginable: they stocked my pantry, fridge, and freezer. Another friend wanted to make sure my kids were taken care of and she played the dual roles of miracle worker and Santa's elf. My favorite present she sent was a framed picture of my three muchkins; it is now sitting on my desk at work. Perhaps the greatest treasure of all was the realization that I was not alone.

This year is already shaping up to outshine last Christmas. I have been twice surprised as my worship pastor and a group of strangers have blessed me with their kindness and grace. It's not about money. It's not about material things. It is a matter of perspective. Mine has been radically shifting.

Gnomesworth now sits on top of my home office desk. Every time I look at the gnome, decked out in Seahawks swag, I smile. I have always assumed everything would be OK, but now I am thinking differently. Now I know things will be more than OK. It will be awesome. When I look at that goofy little garden gnome, I am reminded of that fact. I can imagine him saying in a deep craggy voice "Have a very epic Christmas."

* My kids named the gnome, I dig it.


Splashing in the Puddles

While walking out to the car this morning, I heard a sloshing sound next to me. I looked over to see JJ absentmindedly wading through one of the largest puddles in the parking lot. He was not trying to make a mess of himself - nor was he aiming for the growing pool of water. It happened to be in the path of where he was walking.

My 'be cautious' daddy instincts kicked in and I told JJ, "You know you don't have to walk through the puddles, right?"

"Oh," JJ said as if he was unaware that he was ankle deep in a puddle.

Then I remembered something: I was that kid once. In fact, I was worse than all three of my kids combined. I am sure my mother loathed rainy days like today (and in the Seattle suburbs, this kind of weather was a recurring possibility). The half mile walk from Pinewood Elementary down 53rd and around the corner to the white house on 80th stretched longer than the typical ten minutes on days filled with heavy precipitation.

Because I was that kid. The one who had no qualms making a spectacle of himself. The one searching for each and every rain puddle with gleeful anticipation, often straying from the path to find those out-of-the-way puddles. The one jumping as high as he could upon approach and simultaneously stomping with both feet as close to the middle of the puddle as he could. The one on a quest to discover the biggest splash he could create. That was me.

By the time I stepped through the front door I was drenched and disheveled, dripping my own rainstorm all over the hardwood floors. Every square inch of fabric covering my body was soaked. Shirt and coat. Pants and undies. Shoes and socks. This routine was so thorough, my waterlogged shoes would still be wet the next morning when it was time to go back to school. I was sodden and numbed, shivering as if I had just gone for a winter swim at Kayak Point. Sniffling runny nose, toes and fingertips tingling as they adjusted to indoor warmth. My mom could only embrace me with a towel then follow me with a mop.

I was that kid. So it seems a bit ignorant of my own history and inner child to deny my youngest son the same pleasure. This is the boy who does not like getting dirty. Who craves order. Who is the most organized student in his class. Who believes that everything has a place. For him to mistakenly wander into a puddle because he wasn't paying attention to the ground beneath his feet hardly deserves correction considering I (at his age) would have likely been dancing like a kangaroo in that same puddle.

To my youngest child, please allow me to revise my previous guidance. You don't have to walk through the puddles, but you can if you want. You don't even have to walk. You could jump.

Sincerely, Dad.


Of cigarettes, drugs, and inevitability

One day, during my 8th grade art class, Mr. Taylor turned on the television and allowed the students to pick a channel. We ended up on MTV and worked on our projects with music videos playing in the background. (This was back in an era when MTV's focus was still music.) During those forty minutes of class time, a video from Stone Temple Pilots was broadcast. The chorus crooned "I'm half the man I used to be. This I feel as the dawn it fades to gray." It was not the first time I heard the song, but it was the first I had truly paid attention to the lyrics. "I'm half the man I used to be. Half the man I used to be."

If Scott Weiland ever wrote a self-fulfilling prophecy, the song Creep would be it. Recent videos of his performances revealed a different man. He literally became half the man he used to be. Muscle mass withered away, leaving a frame of bone and sinew. Attempting to dance like Jagger but instead looking like the inebriated over-zealous fan who finds their way to the front row of every rock concert ever since The Doors first wooed audiences. In one clip he mumbled his way through Vasoline like a bad karaoke singer who had long forgotten the words he should be singing. Gone was that rich baritone and vicious snarl that made him famous - his voice was replaced with a whiny whimper that inspired pity far more than awe.

The person we have seen over the past couple years is not the rock star and music legend we remember. Not even the Ghost of Weiland Past. These glimpses we have caught through concert stages and YouTube videos were the final appearances of a dying man, a hollowed shell, evidence of addiction's demanding price.

If Scott's death is a surprise to you, you're a fool. This was an inevitable event anyone could see coming. Russell Brand described Amy Winehouse's death with that same sense of inevitability. He said it was "like watching someone for hours through a telescope advance towards you, fist extended with the intention of punching you in the face. Even though I saw it coming it still hurt when it eventually hit me."

Addiction is a terminal disease. You can see the ending approach from miles away, yet still feel powerless to stop the grim finale. For a touring musician, drugs and alcohol are practically an occupational hazard. Scott Weiland indulged in it for a quarter century. Because of his habits, he was forced out of Stone Temple Pilots and fired from Velvet Revolver - the two bands he was most recognized for fronting. Rehab never worked. At one point, a DA testified before a probation judge that Scott was "on the road to killing himself." Seventeen years later, the DA's prediction came true.

The actual cause of Scott's death may or may not have been suicide. We don't yet know if it was an overdose. Regardless, his passing is a direct result of a lifetime of heroin and cocaine addiction. Healthy people that are as skinny as a 2x4 do not have heart attacks at age 48. And 48 is too young to die.

Stories like this shouldn't happen. Drugs have been around long enough that everyone knows their effects. Between scientific studies and real world examples, everyone knows what drugs do to your brain and your body. Sober people should be able to envision their fate with drugs and decline on the overwhelming evidence that such a future will end badly. Yet, drugs ruin countless lives year after year.

This is a quandary that confused my oldest son. He is a smart kid. He knows that smoking is unhealthy. He knows it causes cancer, makes your breath and clothes stink, and turns your teeth yellow. He also has friends and classmates whose parents smoke. After seeing a bunch of cigarette butts in a parking lot, he asked me why people smoked. He said, "If people know it is disgusting and so bad for their health, why do they do it?" I tried to explain how tobacco is addictive and once people are hooked it is hard to quit. That answer didn't satisfy him. "Then why do they start in the first place?"

The answer for Christian's second question is not an easy one to explain. One could talk about peer pressure, the desire to look cool and fit in, nervous habits, or the cultural effect of growing up in environments where everyone else smokes. One could explain the numerous reasons that people light their first cigarette but each of those answers would be grossly inadequate. And they should be.

I could be cynical and say that drugs are just something that people do. That it will always be a part of life. That it will always lead to ruin as it has done for Scott Weiland. But I refuse to be that kind of guy. I choose to take the perspective that my son has with smoking. Drug abuse should not make sense. There should not be an acceptable explanation of why people do it. And if we can't get rid of the cartels and the dealers and the pushers then we need to work harder to make sure our kids don't grow up to be users. We need to make every effort to ensure young artists and musicians eschew the 'sex drugs and rock'n'roll' image of their cultural forefathers.

We need to do better. Because I'm fed up. I don't want to lose any more heroes. Yes, heroes. I don't want to model my life after Scott Weiland. He’s not that kind of hero to me. However, he did influence me and is one of the biggest reasons I started writing. His music helped me get through my awkward teenage years. His songs are still those I crank up the volume and sing along every time I hear them. Now he is gone.


Musical Therapy

I am grateful for a great many things in my life. Hopefully, I am doing a good enough job communicating my gratitude throughout the year so I'm not one of those jerks who saves it all up for an obligatory "thank you" message on Thanksgiving Day. Yet I am still abounding in reasons to be thankful - perhaps more this year than I have in a long time.

As I look back over the past few months, the days I am most thankful to have lived are the days surrounded by music (or at least talks about music). There were conversations with a coworker or a friend from my small group about our favorite songs. There were days spent with the worship band at church as they rehearsed and laughing together in the green room. There was an afternoon providing the background music for a company party. And there are so many moments where I have caught my kids singing along with the car stereo or hearing my daughter singing to herself words from songs that I grew up with hours after the music stopped playing. These moments fill me with immense joy.

I wholly believe that music is therapeutic. There have been numerous studies to support the fact drum patterns and musical accompaniment have beneficial neurological effects. Reports have shown music in education help kids be better students in traditional academics. You can easily find a plethora of anecdotal evidence of music being a source of motivation, of being a mood stabilizer, of inspiring and uniting and strengthening people everywhere.

Then, on a day when I needed to see it most, my brother posted this on facebook.

On that day, I engaged in my favorite form of therapy. I plugged in some headphones, shut out the outside world, and for the next hour and a half I allowed the melodies, harmonies, tempos, lyrics, and rhythms to heal my wounds.

In case you're looking for something similar, here are my therapists from that afternoon.

Bottom of the River by Delta Rae
Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars
Take Me to Church by Hozier
Fading West by Switchfoot
Not Alone by Matt and Kim
We Come Running by Youngblood Hawke
Anna Sun by Walk the Moon
Bodies by Savoir Adore
Tongue Tied by Grouplove
Divisionary (Do the Right Thing) by Ages and Ages
Just Kids by Mat Kearney
Renegades by X Ambassadors
Major Tom (Coming Home) by Shiny Toy Guns
Safe and Sound by Capital Cities
Young Blood by The Naked and Famous
We Don't Believe What's On TV by Twenty One Pilots
In the Shadows by The Rasmus
Excited Eyes by The Notionaries
Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men
Seattle by The Classic Crime
I Like To Be With Me When I'm With You by Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors
Down There by Bronze Radio Return
Train Song by Listener
The Outsiders by Needtobreathe
Life Goes On by Pigeon John
I Wanna Get Better by Bleachers
Walk This Way by MØ
Little Secrets by Passion Pit
L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N by Noah and the Whale

30 songs and I felt whole again. Revived and ready to take on the world.


Not Afraid

We live in an ugly world. It is filled with broken people who have a penchant for cruelty. After the headlines of last weekend, I have seen a few common emotional reactions. Anger. Sadness. Fear.

The anger is evident. If you listen closely you can probably hear war drums pounding. It is hard to skim through social media without seeing a vitriolic rant about governments not doing enough to stop terrorist attacks or calls to nuke the Middle East until it glows. Both French and American militaries have engaged in bombing strikes over ISIS controlled land. So, yes, you could be angry. But I don't want to be one of those people. There is enough anger out there without my contribution.

Sadness makes sense to me and feels like the most Christian response. After all, the Bible tells us to mourn with those who mourn. Sorrow should be the most natural answer to the loss of life on a monumental scale.

Then there is fear. Fear that the worst might happen and it could happen to you. Isn't that the purpose of terrorism? To make people scared? It's not worth the effort. We may be swimming in currents of emotion but I refuse to be swept away by an undertow of fear.

I am not afraid.

Yes, I realize that I am a member of a culture and society that ISIS hates. I am not afraid. I know that they have threatened our nation's capital. I am not afraid. I am aware that extremist groups are encouraging homegrown militants to attack cities from a kill list which includes the nearby communities of Bonners Ferry, Spokane, and Airway Heights. I am not afraid. I recognize domestic terrorists (people like Timothy McVeigh, Richard Butler, and Dylann Roof) are a greater and more probable risk to my life than any foreign jihadist. I am not afraid.

Even if a suicide bomber were to walk into my neighborhood, my office, my church, my bank, my favorite coffee shop, or anywhere I happen to be at that given moment - I am not afraid.

Because I believe in a God who promised to never leave or forsake His people. A God who told us not to fear anything because He is with us. A God who gave us power, love, and self control instead of fear. A God whose love casts out all fear. If this God is for us - if he is on our side - then nothing can stand against us.

The writers of the Bible had reason to be afraid. The Israelites, fled from a life of slavery. They battled against vastly superior military powers. King David led Israel into a time of peace but was first hunted down by a murderous madman before he could take the throne. After him, the kingdom suffered generations of ineffective leadership and were eventually conquered by a neighboring superpower. By the time Jesus came along, the nation of Israel had fallen under the dictatorial rule of Rome. The first Christians faced threats of torture, imprisonment, and execution under the Roman government. Yet these people were the first audiences to hear God's repetitive command: do not be afraid.

What makes us think we're different? What makes us think we're special? What makes us think that ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, or al-Qaeda are more deserving of our fear than of the Philistines or Pharaoh's, Nebuchadnezzar's, and Caesar's armies? Are they greater than the tyrants who oppressed the Israelites and the early church? If God commanded His people to be fearless while they were facing the most fearsome conquerors of ancient times - why wouldn't that same order apply to us? If we consider ourselves to still be God's people, what do we have to fear?

We must realize that the greatest weapons in our fight against terror are not methods of modern warfare. Our enemies are undeserving of our rage or our terror. Our best response would be to live our lives as we wish. To combat terrorism, we must fight with bravery and boldness on the homefront. Every western citizen living with love, kindness, generosity, and fortitude will conquer terrorism quicker and more definitively than a barrage of drone strikes and xenophobia. We need nations to collectively declare: We are not afraid. We will not be shaken.


Meanwhile, outside my apartment

The top of this tree ...

... is now here.

And just a little further south, a tree came down on one of the garage units. All in all, it could have been worse.


And yet there's hope

Friday the 13th might be Jason Voorhees' favorite day of the year, but this last weekend it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. It was a day of violence, bloodshed, and discord.

Photo courtesy of The Seattle Times.

Like many of you, I spent Friday evening reading through various news accounts and scrolling through the #Paris trending topic on Twitter. I wrestled with the questions of how to explain such evil and destruction to my kids. How do you describe holy war, suicide bombings, and hate so powerful that it would willingly terminate the lives of hundreds of people in less time than it would take to drink an eggnog latte from a solid red Starbucks holiday cup? How can you possibly make sense of such tragedies in a form understood by an eleven your old who thinks everyone deserves to be loved regardless of who they are, how they look, or what they believe?

When he asked, "Why would anyone ever do something like that?" he demonstrated a special kind of wisdom only kids possess. It takes a childlike sense of wonder to see the world as it should be and not as it is. This youthful wisdom views the world as vibrant and filled with infinite possibilities. Human depravity and the capability to cause unfathomable atrocities does not fit into such optimistic world views.

Reality knows there are answers to my son's question. But none of them are good answers. None of the answers are logical. No amount of reasoning can justify the actions of these jihadists. For that, I am thankful. I am glad my son can see the worst humanity has to offer and still refuse any explanation as acceptable.

My heart is broken for the city of Paris. And not just for the French people, but also for the victims of Friday's bombings in Beirut and Baghdad.

However, I also feel hopeful. If my son wields the maturity to reject the lure of hate that has trapped and consumed so many people, then there must be more kids like him. And if there are other kids like him, then there are parents like me. We are raising children who believe in the power of peace and everyone's right to live.

These kids are our next generation. If we can nurture these better aspects of their nature, they will change the world. We could raise an army to drown out these voices of discontent - not with guns or warfare but with love and respect.


Now that gives me hope.


Need a break?

My friend Charles is taking a break from writing his blog so that he can focus his efforts on NaNoWriMo. In order to take that break, he's enlisted the help of people like me to create content for him. As soon as I heard what he was doing, I knew exactly what I needed to write about - how important it is for us to take a break every now and then.

This isn't the first time I've written a guest post for him, and hopefully it won't be the last. Hop on over to SecondIron and enjoy some thoughts about rest and an obscure Bible story from the book of Acts. Take a Break. Tell Charles "Hi" and wish him luck on his novel.


The Outsiders

They are everywhere. Outcasts. Human aliens. Out-shined and overshadowed. People who feel like they don't fit in, don't belong.

It could be a matter of financial or social status. It could be the result of personality or disposition. We could be held back by physical or mental health issues. Whatever the cause, there are people everywhere who feel like they are not accepted and that no one understands them.

As I've studied the bible and listened to podcasts from notable pastors and leaders in Christian thought, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: the church should be a place where these outcasts feel welcomed and accepted.

Consider this: most of the bible was written by authors under the rule of brutal empires: the Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans. The people who composed God's word were not victors. They were not the cool kids. The bible was written by oppressed people.

The Jews fleeing Egypt: outsiders.
Jeremiah and many of the prophets: misfits.
The disciples: rebels.
John of Patmos: an outcast.

It is under the shadow of a tyrant where the Christian church was founded. It flourished in a time when they were hunted, tortured, and executed. It shunned Jewish traditions and defied Roman rulers. The first Christians were a motley bunch of weirdos. They were radicals who didn't fit in anywhere else than with each other. They built a community for others who felt misplaced in society.

Sadly, the modern church is not as welcoming. In many houses of worship, strangers get the sense that there is an unspoken code of conduct to be followed for admission. The way you act, the way you dress, the way you sing, the food you eat. If you want to be one of His, you got to act like one of us.

The church was never meant to function like this. We were never supposed to strut around like the in-crowd or wrestle to be the dominant political power. We were designed in God's image - a God who heard the cry of the broken and hurting and was moved to act on their behalf. We were made to be a refuge for those who have nowhere else to go.

We have lost our way but we can go back.

Perhaps I'm biased. Maybe this is my love for fellow freaks and geeks speaking out. I believe the modern church needs a cultural shift. We need to declare that we are the outsiders. We need to find other outsiders and let them know we know those feels.

What if we fully lived what we believe? What if we were hope for the hopeless? What if we could offer freedom to those who feel trapped or oppressed? What if we were a safe shelter for outcasts? What if we were a place where those who feel like they don't belong could finally call home? What if we gave the misfits a place to fit in?

Sure, we say we all ready do those things, but do we? It might be the ideal we strive for, but we have a long way to go. We get it wrong far more than we get it right.

Full disclosure: I don't know how to make this a reality on a grand scale. I don't have any clue how to change the tide of religious culture in America. Yet I believe it can be done. And why not? I have learned to embrace my weirdness and I have done it in a local church that has also embraced my weirdness. If you want to talk about being an outcast, about not fitting in, that has been the story of my life.

If an oddball like me can find a place to belong within the church, I know there is a place for other nerds out there too.


Deserved / Undeserved

If you must only subscribe to one rule in life, "Don't be a jerk" would be a worthy rule. It is a catch all that covers a wide array of sins. Living by the jerk-less mantra would lead to healthier relationships between parents and children, stronger romances between lovers, happier neighbors, lasting valuable friendships, more satisfying employment. Society in general would benefit.

Revelers would not riot after their favorite team won a championship game. Disenchanted populations would not protest (and most likely would not feel disenchanted). Mass shootings would not occur. Racial violence would never be an issue. Political bodies would have productive discourse and they might actually accomplish something worthwhile.

That only happens if everyone aspires to the same goal. Such utopic dreams are only possible if everyone agrees that kindness and justice and faithfulness are more beneficial than power and greed.

Unfortunately, charity and goodwill are not attributes that can be legislated. Governments cannot force its citizens to be pleasant and happy people. No law on earth can compel anyone to act in the interests of others above their own self interest.

As much as I believe generosity and compassion contribute to a better way of living, there is nothing illegal about the opposite. It is perfectly legal to be a scumbag. In this world, there exist law-abiding bigots. There are rude and arrogant people who have never committed a crime.

There are also well-intentioned people who pursue kindness yet screw up and inadvertently come across like a jerk. Everyone makes mistakes.

Where the law has punishments, there are natural consequences for being a jerk. Broken relationships. Failing finances. Ostracization. Overcompensation. A lifetime of regrets. These results often work slow and unseen giving rise to the illusion that the morally corrupt get everything they want while the righteous and innocent suffer.

That is difficult for people like me. I have an over-inflated sense of justice. I want to see people get what they deserve. I enjoy being an agent of instant karma. One of my favorite words is "schadenfreude." However, I will be the first to admit such perspective is not the best method of living life. I could demonstrate more grace (which I do so much more now than I used to). It is a process and change takes time.

Sure, I would love to see victims triumph over their bullies. I would love to see Donald Trump spend half of his fortune on a hopeless presidential campaign. I would love to see dishonest news channels lose viewers and ratings. I would love to see the most haughty athletes, musicians, and actors be humbled. All of which leaves lives in tact. Those are damages which could be repaired.

Somethings cannot be fixed. There are retributions which leave scars of both the literal and figurative variety. Lives have been lost or fractured over the most petty offenses.

Let me be clear, no one deserves to be physically injured for their lack of kindness. No one deserves to be shot for being a pain in the ass. Acting petulant is not a capital crime. No one should ever be killed or wounded for being a jerk.

It is time we stop victim-shaming. It is time we stop sympathizing with people who abuse their power at the expense of others. If a child, student, subordinate, or random citizen is defiant or non-compliant of the request of a person in authority, it is the responsibility of the authority to deescalate the situation - something that is never accomplished through violence.

Whether you are the sheriffs deputy that detained and harassed a couple of kids as if they were drug dealers because they made a joke about Nickleback, a security guard that maced peaceful protesters, a campus resource officer that aggressively wrestled a stubborn kid out of her desk, or a billionaire using your twitter feed to taunt and belittle anyone you think is a loser or hater, you are not solving anything. You are only making matters worse.

If we want a better society, the people best suited to make a positive change are the people with power. We need selfless political leaders. We need good cops to outshine the bad ones. We need parents, teachers, pastors, corporate CEOs, and entertainers who will lead by example. Those with power and authority should rise above expectations and be a catalyst for healing. They need to stop being jerks.


At the coffee shop

Barista: "You want something?"
Me: "I do."
Barista: "One moment" (finishes up someone else's order) "OK, what can I get you."
Me: "I need caffeine."
Barista: (laughs)
Me: "White chocolate, white coffee, mint, iced."
Barista: "Mocha, latte, breve?"
Me: "Surprise me."
Barista: "Four shots?"
Me: "Absolutely."
Barista: (makes drink, hands it to me) "Everyone is super tired today. You too?"
Me: "Yup."
Barista: "Not able to sleep last night?"
Me: "No, just hanging out with friends - stayed out far too late."
Barista: "Ah, self inflicted."
Me: "Yes, it's my own dang fault."

At least I'm willing to admit it. And I regret nothing.

*photo courtesy of Foodspotting


Family Friendly

Sharing music with other people is one of my favorite things. I love introducing friends and strangers to new tunes and old favorites.

Looking back, the most rewarding job I have ever had was as a DJ. I do miss that job. It didn't pay much and it consumed every Saturday night. But it was a lot of fun.

Since quitting that job to raise a family, I have rarely returned to my place behind a mixer. Giving my time to provide the musical entertainment for a friend's or family member's wedding, once for a youth group dance party, and I did it again today for a company party.

When your primary audiences are wedding receptions and school dances, your music selection skews to family friendly selections. Some people surprise me. I am not sure why anyone would want Garth Brooks' Friends in Low Places played at their wedding, but it happens. Or a guest who repeatedly requested AC/DC's You Shook Me All Night Long despite the bride's request for no rock'n'roll (and eventually offered a $20 tip if I played it). Also, I don't care how nicely you ask, I will not play Marvin Gaye's Lets Get It On at a high school prom.

Most crowds are easy. There are some variances, but certain sets of songs that are safe for most groups. Classic rock, country music, and some indie rock for older audiences; punk-pop, top 40, and EMD for younger crowds. As much as I enjoy hip-hop, I avoid playing rap music because, well, language.

Today's company party was a family event. There were hordes of kids running around while their parents socialized. Considering the demographics of those in attendance, most of the music I played was recorded during the 70's and 80's.

Yet some people surprise me.

Folks filtered through the food line while David Bowie's song Changes played over the speakers. One guy made a bee-line from the chili filled slow cookers to my table with a question on his mind.

"Snoop Dogg?" He asked. I thought he was making a joke about the current musical selection.

"No," I answered, "David Bowie. But you're close."

"No, no, no. Can you play Snoop Dogg?" He said.

"Sorry, I don't have any Snoop Dogg with me."

"You don't have any Snoop Dogg?"


"Bummer." Pause. "How about Insane Clown Posse?"

"No. This is a family event. My music is as family friendly as possible."

"Oh. Well that sucks." He then walked away dejected. Not just to sit down and eat his chili, but out the door never to return.

Some people surprise me. Some people have an odd definition of "family friendly."


What Is Pop Culture?

The fifth week of class was my favorite. We looked at the emerging trends in comics that appeared in the 60s and 70s that have stuck around through today's books. In our assignment, we had define pop culture and determine if it is something that was created in the 1960s.

In the simplest definition, pop culture (pop being short for popular) is about the thoughts and ideas that drive a culture – primarily in the realms of popular arts and entertainment. Pop culture is formed by the trends, sounds, and images that shape the opinions and attitudes of large swaths of a populace.

With that perspective, pop culture could exist in any era of history. In theory the gladiatorial games during the 1st and 2nd century could be deemed pop culture of the era as it was designed to entertain the masses of the Roman Empire. However, in ancient times and through most of the Middle Ages, entertainment was a luxury that was only afforded to a select few. What we could classify as popular during their time would not have been available to anyone with a nomadic lifestyle, or the slaves, the farmers, and the lowest members of society. Culture was reserved for the elite: emperors, kings and queens, and wealthy merchants.

By the time history reaches the Renaissance era, we begin to notice a division of high culture to entertain the aristocrats, and low culture for the commoners. It is during this time that the Catholic Church was commissioning artists like Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni and Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci to create masterpieces of art – paintings and sculptures to adorn St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and other cathedrals across Europe. Art was paid for by the bishops, cardinals, and popes of the church to shape the culture and to influence the monarchs.

Yet as technology and practices in agriculture, worker’s crafts, and metallurgy improved, coupled with better living conditions and increased health, peasants of the Renaissance era possessed more recreational time than many of their stature in prior generations. They began to seek out their own form of entertainment. While high society would entertain themselves with masquerades and balls, the common people would attend festivals and gather at the tavern. Soon they would find their own version of culture, often venues of entertainment considered too low brow for the upper classes of society. Writers like William Shakespeare (and later Charles Dickens) catered to these lower class tastes – and it is their work that has endured due to their popularity among the poorer and larger segments of culture.

All history considered the term popular culture did not come into use until Dickens’ time. The industrial revolution gave common citizens more spare time, more opportunities for education, and greater desire for entertainment. This gave rise to minstrel shows and vaudeville. Improved technology moved the forms of mass entertainment to radio, magazines, movies, and television. During the first half of the 20th century, comic books began to be an influencing medium of popular culture.

From the folk songs sung in medieval taverns, to the traveling Wild West shows in the American frontier, to Marvel Comics’ first Fantastic Four issue in 1961, the common thread of all pop culture is that it was never intended to entertain the highest echelons of society. Pop culture was always meant to reflect the attitudes and values of the ordinary people, common folks. It was always a dumbed down version of what was available to the upper class.

Clearly, pop culture has existed long before modern times. However, the cultural revolution of the 1960’s transformed how all of society viewed pop culture. During the sixties, pop culture was mainstreamed more than it ever had been before. Certain elements found simultaneous success as both high and low culture. The creators and innovators of pop culture began to be more influential. Through Beatlemania, artists like Andy Warhol, filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, and the musicians who performed in front of 400,000 people at Woodstock, the art and ideas of pop culture were at the forefront of shaping history.

What makes the sixties unique when looking at modern pop culture is the decade’s lasting impact. If you trace the lines of who influenced who, most musicians can point to The Beatles (either directly or indirectly) as their inspiration. Today’s directors can trace their influences to movies from Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Alfred Hitchcock and their work from the sixties. Current comic books (and the related cinematic universes) owe their heritage to the teamwork between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel, and the revival of the Justice League of America at DC during the sixties.

More than any other era of history, the sixties have left a bigger footprint. Many of the legendary figures we see in the movies, watch on TV, and read in comic books have roots in the revolutionary culture of the sixties.


Superheroes in the Age of McCarthy

In our fourth week of class, we studied the gap between the golden and silver ages of comic books. This was a time of declining sales and American fear. In our assignment we looked at how the government, educators, and the medical profession viewed comic books and whether the Comic Code Authority fixed things or made it worse.

World War II had ended, but America was far from being a nation at peace. The USA was in a nuclear arms race against the USSR and many Americans were caught up in a red scare – believing Communists could be lurking in every neighborhood and plotting their scheme to destroy the American people. During this time, the common citizen raising a family found another threat to the American way of life: kids being kids and teenagers doing what teenagers do. The boisterous behaviors of minors were interpreted as juvenile delinquency.

The leaders in both suburban living and global politics were afraid of shifting dynamics. When people in power face fear, they do what comes easiest – they find something to blame. The targets for these post-war fears were Communism and comic books.

Like witchcraft, heavy metal, and violent video games have been subject to blame for deviant behavior in other eras of American history, comic books were an easy scapegoat. The tales told in comics were becoming more varied – no longer about patriotic heroes fighting against the Nazis. Comic pages were beginning to include lascivious scenes, and stories of horror or crude humor. The older generation did not comprehend what comic books were or why young people found them so entertaining. They did what has happened many times in America, people villainized that which they did not understand.

The biggest response out of the medical profession was the book ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ by Dr. Fredric Wertham. The claims in his book lead to the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. The government and medical treatment of comic books during the era of McCarthyism was little more than a witch hunt that preyed on the paranoid fears of the times. Much of the evidence presented was done in a manner of confirmation bias – the harder they looked to find something wrong with comic books, the more likely they were to find something that matched their preconceptions.

photo courtesy of Comic Book Justice

The comic book industry had been branded as subversive and they made attempts to promote their educational value with little success. Some educators may have seen value in comic books as a resource, but the scare tactics of the US Senate and Dr. Wertham proved far more convincing and schools predominantly avoided the use of comics.

Advertising educational benefits was not the only attempt the comics industry made to save itself. Many heroes like Superman rebranded their image to promote good health and family values. Yet the comic book audience shrank, attacks against them for series like Tales from the Crypt continued, and the industry was facing the possibility of government regulation. To prevent government interference, the Comics Magazine Association of America created the Comics Code Authority as a way for the industry to censor itself.

At the beginning, the CCA saved the comic book industry. It provided an opportunity for self governance so that publishers, writers, and artists could work within a known construct without government control. But anything that is good could turn bad eventually, and I feel that is what happened with the Comics Code Authority.

courtesy of Head Stuff

A few publishers found the CCA liberating, but others struggled. Publishers who could not find ways to adapt completely went out of business. There were two major publishers that rebelled against the CCA and published their titles without the CCA seal. And yet another – Educational Comics, converted their Mad Comics title into a magazine format to avoid the CCA restrictions.

Individual artists and writers struggled to work with the Comics Code Authority. All books had to be submitted to the CCA to be screened for approval. Anything that did not pass CCA review was sent back to be revised. For many comic creators, this increased their workload. Those who could adapt stayed, but many quit and went to work for other mediums within the publishing industry. In the long run, it paid off. The CCA was revised several times and eventually abandoned. Readership stuck with the industry through the changes and rebuilt the industry into an empire.


The Religion that Created Comic Book Heroes

The third week of my class analyzed the early writers and artists that helped build the comic book industry. They were predominantly Jewish immigrants or first generation American Jews. Our assignment was to determine why Jewish Americans found success in comic books and how other religions influenced the industry.

During the first half of the 20th century, Jewish immigrants coming to the United States faced strong discrimination and antisemitism. As minorities and outsiders, they worked to build their own industry in places where negative attitudes of society would not have accepted them. This led to Jewish dominance in the film and banking worlds as well as the creation and increased popularity among comic books.

Comic book publishers started by reprinting backlogged Sunday comic strips, but quickly ran out of material they could use. They needed new characters and original stories. Rival publishing companies began hiring young writers to make content for the comic book marketplace; in order to compete they looked for talent who couldn’t find work elsewhere. These writers were often Jewish because of antisemitic practices in mainstream publishing and media.

The early Jewish immigrants and first generation Jewish Americans were perfectly suited to create the superheroes we still love today. Their religious heritage was filled with epic stories of men and women who were heroes of their faith. They grew up learning of Jacob wrestling with God, Joseph sold into slavery then rising into a position of power under Pharaoh’s command, Moses leading their people out of Egypt, the prostitute Rahab helping smuggle Hebrew spies out of the city of Jericho, David slaying the giant Goliath, and Esther who married a Persian King and saved the Israelites from the schemes of the King’s grand vizier. In comics, they created mythical heroes that could rival the legendary stature of the stories they were taught from the Torah and other scriptures.

Their position as an American minority also helped shape comic book characters. While most of the superheroes were not overtly Jewish characters, the culture that created them are evident. Steve Roger’s diminutive size before taking the super soldier serum played into Jewish stereotypes. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster designed Superman as an outsider who would be a champion for the American people; this showed how possible it was for culture to embrace an alien in both the literal and figurative sense. Many of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s characters embraced this dichotomy of being a hero and an outsider at the same time: Thing, Spider-Man, and The Hulk. This approach is most easily demonstrated through the X-Men – as mutants they were born different just like Jews were born into a different culture. The X-Men also portrayed a group of heroes who fought to help and protect people who feared them, much the same way most antisemitism was rooted in fear.

photo courtesy of Marvel Comics via Adherents.com

The early comic books were written by more than just Jewish immigrants. Part of the explosion and growth of the industry was due to writers coming from a multitude of religious and ethnic backgrounds. However, Christian authors had a different approach to comic books. For many of them, they saw comic books as a tool for evangelism or created books marketed solely to Christian audiences as an alternative to the more recognizable and popular heroes. These titles, like George A. Pflaum’s Treasure 'Chest of Fun & Fact' or Educational Comic’s 'Picture Stories from the Bible' couldn’t compete with bigger titles like Batman and Iron Man. Christian themed comics had a smaller share of the market and struggled in sales.

However, Christianity’s influence is seen in the world of Superheroes – even in characters created or written by Jewish authors. Batman, Nightcrawler, Daredevil, and Bruce Banner all have Catholic backgrounds. Superman’s adoptive family was Methodist. Protestant origins have been written into Spider-Man and Captain America’s stories. Regardless of whether or not Christian writers are involved in the creation of comic book heroes, their religious dominance in America will be felt in the pages of comic books as it is an art-form that largely reflects American culture.


Superheroes in the Depression Era

The second week of class reviewed the young comic book industry and how it blossomed during the Great Depression. Our assignment was to explain why comics thrived during that era of history.

When looking at the depression era, many Americans view the 1930s through distorted lenses of revisionist history. We have romanticized the existence of mobsters, speakeasies, and bootlegged liquor. This Hollywood version of the Great Depression does not reflect the harsh reality many Americans faced during those years; the trials of the average citizen inspired and helped spur the proliferation of the earliest comic books.

The consumers of that day were facing rough times. Banks were failing, construction work slowed, wages plummeted, and farmers faced severe drought. The number of unemployed workers ranged from 13 to 15 million, many of whom became homeless. Due to prohibition laws, the criminal element in cities flourished. They took advantage of tough economic times and preyed on those all ready devastated by financial downturn. But these were not the idols we see in film; they were the most wanted by law enforcement. Many people were harassed, violated, and intimidated by the mafia. People feared them and believed that there was nothing the police could do to control the mob.

Comic books provided these people the possibility that a hero could exist to fight for them and stand against these violent criminals that controlled their communities. In poverty, Americans found comic books readily accessible; the comics were cheap and distributed through newsstands. Kids who were not old enough to work understood the struggles their parents faced and comic books gave them the perfect method to escape and hope for something better than their current circumstances.

photo courtesy of The History Rat


Ancient Mythologies & Modern Superheroes

As mentioned in my previous post, most of my August and September was wrapped up in a Smithsonian/edX pop culture class. To be honest, it has been a little hard getting my feet back under me since then. There are Seahawks games to watch. Kids who need help with homework. Extra time devoted to exercise and healthier cooking. And it really feels good not not be writing for a few days. Nice little break. Until I get my groove back, allow me to share what I composed for my class.

The first week was about the beginning of the comic book industry. We talked about the first heroes to make their way into pulp magazines and how the comic creators found inspiration in the gods and demigods of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. Our first assignment was to find similar inspirations behind our favorite heroes (or villains or anti-heroes). The first of my geeky course work begins below.

The comic book characters that I am drawn to are those that wrestle with issues of faith and spirituality. Using their superpowers to fight against super villains often contradict their religious tenets; the conflict between their belief in pacifism and the moral responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves creates a tortured soul that I find endlessly fascinating.

One of my favorite characters frequently faces tension between being a hero and a man of God: Nightcrawler. As a mutant, Nightcrawler's abnormal features have been evident since birth. He has furry blue skin, yellow eyes, pointy ears, fangs, three fingered hands, and a long arrow tipped tail. Despite being a devout Catholic and his studies to become a priest, most people are afraid him because of his demonic appearance.

Nightcrawler's abilities make him an expert in combat and stealth tactics. Agile, flexible, and dexterous. He has heightened sense of balance and night vision. He can blend into shadows. But his most noticeable power is the ability to teleport short distances by briefly slipping through an alternate dimension.

In mythology, many gods were known for showing up out of nowhere but these sudden arrivals were not ascribed to teleportation. However, Islamic tradition (also found in earlier Persian and Arabic mythology) describe an order of beings that were able to teleport. These creatures were called djinn.

The djinn were beings somewhere between angels and demons. They were created by God – granted intelligence and free will like humans. With free will, djinn could be either benevolent or evil. They were often thought be the source of power for magicians and fortune tellers.

The Quran states the djinn live in an unseen world and were made of smokeless fire that could exist in both the physical and non-physical realms. Reports of their tangible form varied from dragons, to dogs, to the shape of men. Muslim lore lists the djinn as one of five different types of demons and describes them as travelling ceaselessly. Aladdin's story in Arabian Nights tell of djinns able to transport themselves from the Orient to Northern Africa in an instant.

The djinn serve as a perfect model for Nightcrawler. Djinn were of the order of demons, and Nightcrawler possesses a demonic appearance. He shares intelligence and free will with the djinn, and chooses to be altruistic. When travelling with Wolverine, Nightcrawler frequently engages in practical jokes much like the djinns that assisted magicians. The teleporting ability mirrors that of the tale from Arabian Nights. The unseen world of the djinn is similar to the alternate dimension that Nightcrawler uses to teleport. When teleporting, he disappears in a cloud of atmosphere that smells like brimstone; matching the smokeless fire of Islamic scripture.

The djinn have other connections in the Marvel universe - primarily Nightcrawler's parents.

Mystique was his mother. Like Nightcrawler, Mystique’s skin was blue and she was frequently considered a demon by locals. However, she is a shape shifting mutant that can alter her physical appearance. This mirrors the myths of djinn that could change their form. She uses her ability to mislead and fool unsuspecting people like the djinn’s use of magic. Her djinn like powers give her the ability to blend into the shadows by camouflaging herself. Mystique is given the same options to be good or bad just like the djinn. While she spends most of her life as a villain, she occasionally uses her power to help others and even temporarily joins the X-Men as a heroine.

Nightcrawler’s father, Azazel, has the most direct connection to the djinn. His name was taken from ancient Hebrew scripture. In apocryphal tradition, Azazel is a fallen angel and leader of other rebellious angels called Watchers. In Muslim culture, Azazel is an early name for Iblīs. Iblīs was a djinn who rebelled against God by refusing to bow down to Adam and was the one who tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. Iblīs is the devil of Islam and the leader of Shayṭān djinn.

In comics, Azazel is the leader of the Neyaphem – demonic mutants from biblical times. His intentions are the same as Iblīs: to do evil. Azazel’s appearance is similar to Nightcrawler – only with red skin. And both characters share the ability to teleport. Azazel also shares Mystique’s power to disguise his appearance. And he inherited Iblīs’ immortality and ability to manipulate minds.

The mythology around djinn does not reveal much weakness. They seem to be all powerful creatures, yet their power does not extend to be greater than God’s. Marvel’s Azazel experiences this weakness first hand as an angelic army of mutants known as Cheyarafim defeated the Neyaphem and banished them to an alternated dimension.

For Mystique and Nightcrawler, having the demonic appearance of djinn is one of their biggest weaknesses. For this reason, people fear them and both have faced existential crises reconciling their purpose with their image. Mystique used that struggle in nefarious ways, but Nightcrawler pursued God and turned his weakness into a quest to be a force of good.

* Image courtesy of Marvel Comics Database


School's out!

School is out. Funny thing to proclaim at the end of September when most kids are just starting their school year. But for me, it is done. Today. Or at least for now.

In hopes to improve my writing skills and storytelling abilities, I have been looking for opportunities to study our culture and do more to make myself a better person. So I enrolled for some classes to do just that: classes that look at telling good stories through various mediums. For the past six weeks, I have been studying and writing for a POPX class through the Smithsonian and edX.

It was providence that I stumbled upon the class: The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture. Being a card carrying nerd, this is the type of class within my particular set of skills. I registered and dove in head first. I geeked out for six solid weeks and learned a lot about the history of the comic book industry.

courtesy of edx.org

A few late nights studying and doing homework over a holiday weekend. Meanwhile college kids everywhere are rolling their eyes. "Big deal," they say, "we do that all year long."

It is true, taking one class pales in comparison to a full credit load. Still, I am grateful I took the opportunity to do it. On the downside, it meant I spent less time writing for Faithful Geek and a couple other projects. But a fringe benefit is the priceless expression other people gave when I talked about the class.

Them: "What are you studying?"
Me: "Pop culture"
Them: "WHAT?!?"
Them: "You can do that?"

Now, it is done. My final project (a write-up about the history, impact, and relevance of Daredevil) was submitted last night. Today, I return to normal. Well, my version of normal.


Another Day in Paradise

It was an early morning and I was snaking my way through a crowd of people. As I passed an older gentleman, I heard him say, "Another day in paradise."

His comment was directed to no one in particular. Just a random remark tossed out to any who care to listen. The scowl on his face and the bitter tone in his voice betrayed any possibility that his words were genuine.

Another day in paradise.

It was sarcastic.
It was an accusation.
It was a defense mechanism.
It was an admission of defeat.

His day, his lot in life. It was anything but paradise.

Why is it when people make such proclamations they are rarely serious?

Have they given up on their dreams? Are they so worn down by circumstances that they are not able to see a way out? Have they fallen victim to the consequences of their own choices? Did they forget there is more to life than going to work and paying bills?

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not an eternal and incurable optimist. I realize that life is not always sunshine and roses. I am intimately aware that being human is not an easy feat. I know that events beyond our control have a nasty habit of kicking us in the teeth.

Does this realistic understanding of existence make me a pessimist? I hope not. Because I also know that life is more than our burdens. I believe that we are more than our mistakes and failures. I value improvement over perfection. I hope in something to hope for. We go through Hell and life goes on.

From that perspective and with all sincerity, I will declare myself to be in paradise. Right here. Right now.

I live in one of the most beautiful regions of the nation. I have a good job and brilliant kids. I have a roof over my head and food in my fridge. I have hobbies to occupy my free time and talents I use to help others. I have friends who are immensely valuable to me. I have parents who are encouraging and supportive, and an older brother who has always been my bodyguard and my biggest cheerleader.

How could I not call this paradise?

Even if the worst happens, even if tragedy strikes, even if my greatest fears come to fruition, even on the most terrible horrible no good very bad days. This is still another day in paradise.

Because I'm alive.

I think we forget about it too easily. We forget this breath that fills our lungs is a gift of life. We forget how our hearts beat with purpose. We forget about little joys and simple pleasures that make us happy. We forget the grace we've been given.

Instead we show up, do our thing, and return home only to whine, complain, and mindlessly repeat the routine again tomorrow.

Please do not be like that grubmling stranger. Do something to remind yourself how much life beats inside your chest.

Eat spicy food. Listen to feel-good music. Take the long way home. Call your folks and tell them you love them. Be thankful.

Then go for a walk. Wherever that path leads: on a crowded sidewalk beneath giants of steel and concrete, down a dirt trail on a forested hillside, along a sandy strech of beach, or through a cow-pie littered pasture. Let each step remind you that you are a living breathing being with hope, worth, and purpose.

You are here. You are alive. Welcome to paradise.