Guilty Pleasures

When it comes to art, it seems like everyone has a guilty pleasure: a movie or song they love but would be sheepish to admit it in polite company. Those created works that you know your friends would relentlessly mock if they knew you enjoyed it when no one was looking. Therefore, you keep the thing that makes you happy a secret.

Personally, I hate the idea of a guilty pleasure song or movie or book or video game or Broadway production. If you like something then like it. And if that thing is a bit silly, then let your geek flag fly. If you are ashamed to like something, then maybe you shouldn't like that thing.

Trust me. I am a man who will shamelessly listen have Peter Cetera and Al Green playing in my office at work. I am a man who will occasionally watch romantic comedies despite not having a spouse or girlfriend to force me to do so. I am a man who has songs from Rent, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Music Man, Into the Woods, and West Side Story in various iTunes playlists. I am a man who will sit and play My Little Pony with my daughter. I don't embarrass easily.

Sure I live by such guidelines. But are there not exceptions to rules? I mean, I have my limits.

A while back, I woke up with a song stuck in my head. I was humming it while in the shower and while I got dressed for work. I sung it to myself in the car during the five minute drive to my office. While I completed my morning reports, the song was still playing on my internal jukebox. I could not shake it. So I pulled it up on my iPod and pushed play. But then I immediately paused it. I couldn't just let the song play out loud. I dug out my headphones, plugged them in, and pushed play a second time. Then I smiled. I could listen in peace and any coworker walking by would be oblivious to the tune satisfying my eardrums. Besides, no one needed to hear THAT song blasting over the cubicle wall. What would they think of me?

The song? Just an old country ditty from Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Fishin' in the Dark. Don't remember Nitty Gritty Dirt Band? These guys?

So everything I just said about how you should embrace the things you like and if you're embarrassed about it, maybe you shouldn't like it? Ignore me. I clearly have no credibility to make such statements.


Serial Complainers

Serial complainers prior to July 6th, 2016:
"Kids these days. All they do is sit inside and play their video games and binge watch Netflix. When I was their age, I didn't have any of those fancy phones or iPads. We played outside until it was dark. We got dirty and no one cared. We know how to talk to other kids. Today, young people don't have a sense of community. They probably don't even know how to get to the grocery store unless their parents drive them. You know what they need? They need to get out more. Interact with their peers. Go to the library. Visit a park. Take a hike. No more of this watching TV all night mumbo jumbo."

Serial complainers since July 6th, 2016:
"Kids these days. They're every where. Like big masses of dimwitted cattle roaming the streets. Every park, every sidewalk, every coffee shop, every church. There is no escaping them. Hordes of youth taking crazy mumbo jumbo about Squirtles and Pidgeys, and Snorlaxes. Why do they have to invade the park and the library and the grocery store. I just wish they would stay home. They are even out after dark. Doesn't anyone care?"

***Full disclosure: I have not downloaded Pokémon Go onto my phone and don't intend to do so anytime soon. But many of my friends play and I am enjoying the pictures and stories and memes everyone is posting. Despite what the curmudgeons are saying, I believe this game is doing a great amount of good in our world.***


It's Friday, I'm confused

We were driving home when the song 'Friday, I'm In Love' started playing. The kids all adore this song and often sing along. It might be the only song by The Cure that they know. Well, they might be familiar with 'Close to Me’ and 'Why Can't I Be You?' but 'Friday, I'm In Love' is the one they can all recognize from the opening guitar notes and they can quote the lyrics from start to finish. Hearing their voices superimposed over Robert Smith's is one of those things that warms my heart.

This occasion was different than the dozens of other times we've listened to this song while driving around. Christian had some questions.

"Dad," he said, "I'm confused. In this song, every day of the week is kind of cruddy except for Friday. Why is Friday the I'm-in-love day?"
"Well, Friday just happens to be the day he's in love." I answered, thinking that would explain everything. I was wrong.

"Only Fridays?” Christian continued. “You would think the other days get better after that. It would be really horrible if you were only in love on Fridays."
"That's not quite what he's saying. It's more like every other day has sucked but today is Friday and today doesn't suck. So it doesn't matter what happened on every other day of the week because he's in love today."
"But it's only one day. What if today was blue or gray or black?"
“Because today isn’t blue or gray or black.”
“Huh?” He still didn’t understand.
"He isn't writing from the perspective that today is some other day of the week. He is writing this song on a Friday and singing it on a Friday. He doesn't care if every other day sucked because those days aren't today. Today doesn't suck because he's in love."
"But Tuesday and Wednesday broke his heart."
"It's not Tuesday or Wednesday."
Christian shook his head, "Why would he write about those days?"
This conversation was going in circles but I felt it was my parental duty to help him understand. "He isn't singing this song on Monday or Thursday or Saturday. He's singing it today. Because he is in love today. And today is ... "

You could see his facial expressions change as he contemplated the meaning of what I said. Finally, his eyes widened and he smiled. "Today is Friday!"

And in case the song isn’t stuck in your head yet, please enjoy the following.


About Empathy

Story time.

After a robbery at a Metropolis museum, thieves fled to Fawcett City - home of Captain Marvel. Superman arrived and the two collaborated and defeated the bad guys. Superman and Captain Marvel found a mutual respect for each other and flew to Mount Everest where they talked about their powers and had a Step Brothers moment.

image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

However, Superman refused to talk about his civilian life. He considered his alter-ego to be separate from hero duties.

Alter-egos can be a tricky thing. Superman put on horn-rimmed glasses and became Clark Kent. Captain Marvel's alter-ego was easier to disguise. When out of costume, he was an eleven-year-old boy named Billy Batson; a homeless orphan living in the subway, granted the power to defend himself by an old wizard named Shazam. All Billy had to do was speak the wizard's name to be transformed from a preteen into a full grown adult with super strength, speed, and the ability to fly. Uttering the word "shazam" again reverted him back into a child.

Captain Marvel's arch-nemesis, Dr. Sivana, hired a meta-human tracker who discovered Billy's secret. Hit-men were sent to kill the kid, but Billy shouted "shazam" before he could be harmed. Captain Marvel won the fight but his alter-ego's best friend was caught in the crossfire, gravely wounded. Captain Marvel took the injured child to the ER but the doctors failed to revive the boy.

Tormented by grief and guilt, Captain Marvel went on a rampage with the strength of Superman and emotional maturity of an eleven-year-old. He attacked the police station where a suspect was being questioned, fought against officers trying to stop him, and assaulted the hit-man inside the interrogation room. The killer revealed the name of the person who hired him and Captain Marvel left to seek revenge. He destroyed the top floor of Sivana's office building and choked Sivana; he wants justice but couldn’t bring himself to kill the man. Still troubled by the loss of his best friend and the damages he caused, Captain Marvel fled.

Meanwhile, Clark Kent wrote a news story about the successful team up of Superman and Captain Marvel. The article was published just as Clark learned of Captain Marvel's violent quest for vengeance. Clark shed his glasses and changed into his Superman costume. He believed that the rampage through Fawcett City was wrong and wanted to bring his friend to justice. He found a distressed Captain Marvel back on Mount Everest. There, Superman demanded an explanation.

This story played out in Superman/Shazam: First Thunder - one of my favorite titles from DC Comics. What started as a typical action filled comic book about superpowers and crime fighting quickly turned into a morality tale about the emotional toll and personal responsibility of being a hero.

The second scene on Everest is one of the saddest I have ever read in comics. Captain Marvel provided his reasons: assassins were sent to kill him, but they killed his best friend instead. In response to Superman's anger, Captain Marvel revealed his secret identity, "shazam" returned to his normal eleven-year-old self. Filled with grief, Billy remarked how it might be too dangerous to be himself. In light of Billy's revelation, Superman's questioning changed from "What did you do" to "Who did this to you." He began to see Billy as the victim instead of the perpetrator.

Superman left Everest to confront the wizard, Shazam, who he now blamed for Captain Marvel's actions. Billy returned to Fawcett City and moved residence from the subway to an abandoned apartment building. While Billy sat in loneliness, Superman discovered more about Billy through his conversation with Shazam. Superman's argument was that the role of a superhero is one that should only be chosen by an adult - it shouldn't be thrust upon children.

image courtesy of DC Comics

Shazam agreed; Billy was just a kid, one who needed guidance.

Sure, the powers that Shazam gave to the young Billy were more than a kid could handle. It might be unfair to force such responsibility on a boy not yet old enough to make that choice for himself. Yet, at the same time, Shazam's gift was an act of compassion. He saw a lost child who needed help, needed power so that he could survive the harsh realities facing homeless youth. Shazam gave what he could but recognized the boy still needed something that the wizard could not provide: guidance. A role model. A mentor.

Superman covered his costume and found Billy's new home in the abandoned apartment. Instead of approaching the child as a hero, he entered as a normal man. Now wearing glasses and a nice suit, Billy did not recognize his friend; he thought this strange man was a social worker coming to get him into foster care. Clark Kent and Billy chatted briefly, then Clark loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt to reveal his secret: the big red S on his chest.

image courtesy of DC Comics

Superman sat down next to the boy and said "My real name is Clark." After the grief, the emotional turmoil, and all of the trouble, Clark finally saw the boy inside Captain Marvel and realized that he could give Billy the guidance that Shazam could never offer.

Superman's first instinct was to pursue justice - something that is righteous and noble. Yet in the process, he learned that justice isn't always served through harsh rule of law. He went looking for a super-powered man who clashed against police and destroyed an office building, instead he found a child who was scared and alone.

Sometimes, a little empathy and vulnerability heals more wounds than punishment.

The empathy that Clark Kent demonstrated in the final pages of Superman/Shazam: First Thunder is powerful. Unfortunately, that kind of power is lacking in our society. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we made more effort to see people for who they really are beyond biases and first impressions.

If we could see African American citizens as a group of people who matter just like the rest of us.
If we could see the beauty of the LGBT community as they were created in the image of God just like the rest of us.
If we could see behind the badge of police officers that they are human and make mistakes just like the rest of us.
If we could stop being scared of anyone we think is different: Mexican immigrants, or Syrian refugees, or gay people, or cops, or gun owners, or feminists, or teens roaming around town while playing Pokémon Go.

I would be willing to bet, if we are vulnerable enough to bare our secrets and we compassionately see the humanity in those around us, we could begin to tear down the walls that divide us. We could see each other as equals. We could fix the tensions in our cities. We could learn what it means to actually love our neighbors.


Hello to those we lost

One of the projects happening at Gizmo CDA is Gizmo2Xtremes. They are building a robot to send 100,000 feet into the atmosphere attached to a weather balloon. From there, they will be guiding the robot back down with controlled flight to Lake Pend Oreille where it will dive 1000 feet below the surface. It is a fantastic way to get kids excited about STEM education.

Along with the robot and the weather balloon, Gizmo CDA is also sending messages on little scraps of paper that will scatter once the balloon pops – a stratospheric message in a bottle. At Kinetic Fest, they were selling tickets for people to write whatever message they desired to send up with the robot and balloon. I spent a couple hours in the Gizmo2Xtremes booth, talking to people about the project, collecting the money, and giving them paper for the messages. What most people wrote is a complete mystery to me. But there is one older gentleman that stood out.

Late in the afternoon, he walked up. If I were to guess his age, he’s probably a decade older than my dad; old enough to have grandkids that are grown with kids of their own. When I asked him if he wanted to send a message into space, he smiled big and said, “Absolutely.”

He handed me a dollar and I gave him the paper and pen. With no one else around, I watched his hand as he composed his message. The first four words he wrote simultaneously broke my heart and renewed my faith in humanity.

“Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad.”

He continued to say “Hi” to another ten names. Considering his age, I knew he wasn’t greeting anyone one still living. His saying “Hi” was his way of letting go.

I wanted to walk around the table and give the man a big hug. But I didn’t want to make it awkward so I just stood there on my side of the table which was probably just as awkward.

Grief is hard. We are not really taught the right way to mourn death and great losses in our lives. It is such an individual process that even if someone were to tell us what worked for them, there is zero guarantee that it will work for us. But this old man had it figured out. If anyone knows how to say goodbye to lost loved ones, it is him. Because there is something I noticed as he composed his message to space.

As he wrote, there was not a trace of sadness in his expression. It was something else completely.


He had come to terms knowing he would never see his parents, friends, and family on this side of existence, whatever sorrow he had previously felt was replaced with a calm that defied explanation. He was filled with peace. Sure, he might have been saying goodbye, but he did so in the best way he knew how.

He said “Hi.”


Can we grieve?

It started less than a month ago with a terrorist attack – an event that was simultaneously a hate crime and the worst mass shooting in modern American history. After which, we were granted a reprieve just like any other tragedy, even as they become more frequent.

Then this week happened.

One horrific shooting, broadcast so that the world could watch. What we saw was not justice. Twenty-four hours later, we watched another unnecessary loss of life, live on facebook the aftermath of another officer involved shooting. Then on the third night, another act of terror as a sniper (or snipers) fired into a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing five police officers and wounding more.

Ever feel like you can’t catch a breath?

My old high school wrestling coach put us through something he lovingly called hell practices – run until you puke, pushups until you collapse, crunches until you can’t breathe, and then repeat. Never a chance to stop and rest – done with one thing and on to the next. Suck it up and keep moving.

That is what this last week feels like to me. Hell. But this wasn’t practice. This is reality. Senseless acts of violence, one after another. I want a moment to breathe but then it happens again. I find myself crying out “God just make it stop.”

Can we take some time to breathe and reflect upon all we have lost in the past few days? Or are going to suck it up and move on to the next tragedy?

My favorite book in the Bible is Lamentations. It seems to fit my melancholy disposition. A few short chapters of vivid poetry filled with bitter complaints and yet brimming with hope. More than anything else, this biblical entry taught me that it is OK to be sad, to be hurt, to be emotionally wounded. Lamentations teaches us it is OK to grieve and mourn – that there is a time to lament. It showed me how an expression of sorrow could be the deepest act of worship imaginable.

Within its verses, the author penned these words: “Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.”

And later: “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.”

Is this how we feel right now as American people?

The lament does not end there. The writer continues to mourn the loss of his country and the destruction of his city. Half way through the book, he shakes it off and shifts into a divergent tone and direction. These verses have long been etched into my mind. Words which I have memorized and frequently recall when I am feeling down. Monday night, with the sounds of fireworks exploding all around my apartment, I took some colored pencils and transcribed them onto a blank sheet of paper that is now posted to the inside of my bathroom door so that I see them at least once a day.

There is hope. Even now when it doesn’t seem like it. Even last night as chaos erupted in Dallas. Even as young black men are killed by police. Even a few weeks ago on a terrible Sunday morning at the Pulse nightclub. There is hope.

The author of Lamentations understood the existence of hope. He believed in it, but it took him two and a half chapters to get there. Before he could say “great is Your faithfulness” he had to first lament. He had to speak of his brokenness before that pain could be healed.

Perhaps we as Americans need to do the same. Before we can heal, before we can see hope, maybe we just need to lament. Can we come together as a nation and mourn? Can we weep over our losses? Can we cry out in grief? Can we ask if there is any sorrow like our sorrow?

We need to demonstrate our grief. If that means we gather in the streets and protest, then let it be protests. If it means candlelight prayer vigils, then let's pray together. If that means we sit alone in our rooms and cry, then let it out. If it means we wander off into the woods and curse at the skies, I believe in a God who is big enough to hear our profanities.

Whatever it is, we need to mourn. Now is a time to lament. If we can do that, I promise you there is hope.


How do you explain hatred?

In 1938, Detective Comics published the first issue of Action Comics featuring an alien with godlike powers who wore blue tights and a red cape. His name was Superman - the first modern superhero. Nearly 80 years later, Superman is still one of the most popular and beloved fictional characters ever created. He has become an American icon and a prototype for many more comic book heroes.

Superman was the result of collaboration between Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Both were sons of Jewish immigrants working in an era of Antisemitism. Through the medium of comic books and super-powered beings, Siegel and Shuster portrayed an exaggerated version of the Jewish experience in America. People of their heritage were shunned, discriminated against, harassed. Jewish Americans were treated with skepticism and disdain. Yet their ingenuity helped build much of American society; their influence built or revolutionized the film industry, banking, publishing, and the sciences. The Jews living in America felt like aliens in a strange land, despised yet wanting nothing more than to help. Superman was an alien in a strange land, misunderstood yet wanting nothing more than to save lives.

In a way, Siegle and Shuster created a fearsome creature that would be a guardian to the American people as a way of subtly convincing readers how that which they feared could save them. They were selling acceptance of Jewish peoples in the form of a man with unnatural strength and the power to fly. If such a powerful being came into our world, (Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!) would it be revered or feared? Human nature tends to be scared of that which it does not understand. We are afraid of things that are abnormal and weird.
image courtesy of Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment

That is what happened during Jesus' time. John the Baptist was a strange man. He lived in isolation, wore strange clothes, and ate bugs. He criticized those in power and as a result was feared by Herod who though John might lead a rebellion. In the end, John the Baptist was beheaded. When Jesus began his ministry, he taught about love and a new heavenly kingdom and a radically different way of living. Much like John who preceded Jesus, the religious and political leaders of the day felt threatened. They were worried of a revolt lead by Jesus, the charismatic and popular teacher who spoke against power and corruption. They feared what they did not understand and could not control so they had Jesus executed, crucified like a common criminal.

It is sad how frequently how fear steers our culture. Whether it is ancient Judea, or the Antisemitism of the 20th century, or today and this very moment, little has changed. John the Baptist and Jesus were feared because they were different. The Jews were hated because they were different. It makes me wonder who is different now.

Homeless people?
The LBGT community?
Syrian refugees?
Mexican immigrants and migrant workers?
African Americans and the Black Lives Matters movement?
Hillary Clinton supporters or Donald Trump fans?
Your neighbor?
My neighbor?

Fear leads people into drastic and often irrational actions. In the last 48 hours, we have seen this played out in horrifying measure. For inexplicable reasons, fear led law enforcement to end the lives of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.

When my kids heard about these news stories, they wanted to know why. Why would someone do that? Why did this happen? Aren't the police supposed to help? Aren't they supposed to prevent stuff like this from happening? Why are people so angry?

I am left to explain hatred to my kids. I have to give a reason for racism, xenophobia, ableism, and homophobia. I have to describe discrimination and profiling and how it happens. In the process of this conversation, I feel like I am justifying the inexcusable. Because when my son asks me "Why would anyone hate someone because of the color of their skin?" the only appropriate answer is "They shouldn't."

These conversations break my heart. They are soul wounding discussions that should never have a need to exist. So I apologized. I told my oldest son that I was sorry how my generation has created such a mess of our culture. I told him that he deserves better. I told him his brother and sister deserve better. And I feel absolutely powerless to change anything.

My son told me it is OK. And with wisdom that should never belong to an eleven year old child, he said, "Maybe, when my generation is older, we'll see how cruddy the world is and do something about it."

This kid gives me hope. Our governments are gridlocked. Our police forces are reactionary. News media preaches misinformation. Everyone is scared and angry. But my son believes his generation has the power to fix it. I want to believe him and I hope that you do too.


Is It Bliss?

The proverb proposes “ignorance is bliss.” I have often wondered the origin of the phrase with some strange hope to travel back in time, prevent its adoption into popular usage – like a literary terminator sent into the past to kill what would destroy us, forever protecting our lexicon.

Is ignorance really bliss? What does that even mean?

Alas, I am not a T-800, nor do I possess Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique. What I do have is access to the internet and my google-fu is strong. I don’t have to ignorantly wonder about useless trivia for all eternity. If I want to know where something originated, I only need to spend a few of minutes with a search engine and diligent study.

While the powers to defy boundaries of time and space belong only to The Doctor and his companions: I can peruse the texts of history and Thomas Gray is safe from my intellectual wrath.

Who is Thomas Gray? Gray was an eighteenth century poet, a scholar and a professor at Cambridge University. By all accounts, he was an intelligent and eloquent man. He spent most of his free time reading or playing a harpsichord. He had an interest in botany, physical sciences, and locations of antiquity. His most famous poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ contained lines that immediately found their way into common use in the English language – phrases like “celestial fire” and “kindred spirit.”

Thomas Gray is also to blame for first penning the words “ignorance is bliss.” It is found in the final stanza of his poem, ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.

Over the past 270 years, the original meaning of Gray’s words has been replaced. Gone is the loving nostalgia of faded youth. Gone is the fond remembrance of being in school and getting an education. Instead, the final eight words of a beautiful poem are immortalized and taken as gospel: happiness is found in ignorance and wisdom is foolish. Modern America has embraced these words to become a higher calling – that idiocy is something to which we should aspire. Ignorance is bliss. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Where did we go wrong? How did we come to interpret this work of prose into a twisted American ideal? It couldn’t have been at the birth of our nation. A little more than forty years after Gray’s Ode was published, Benjamin Franklin wrote his autobiography which contained his list of thirteen virtues for moral perfection: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. While recognizing it was impossible to be perfect, attempting to reach perfection made Ben better and happier.

Please note, Franklin did not list ignorance as a virtue. Yet a large portion of American culture lives as if it was, gleefully bragging about their disdain for any semblance of intellect. This is the culture that turned Honey Boo Boo into a star, clings to debunked conspiracy theories, and denigrates those with Ivy League degrees as elitists. We use ignorance as an excuse; we cannot be held accountable for things of which we were not aware, dodging personal responsibility in an effort to maintain our pursuit of happiness. We never have to be wrong nor do we ever need to be challenged. This trend is alarming, but nowhere does it concern me more than within the church.

It needs to stop. We can no longer demonize scientific inquiry as some great evil. We can no longer shun those with an insatiable appetite for knowledge. We can no longer discourage education.

If we as Christians believe in a God who literally created everything, then we must also believe the same God created the seismic shifts and eons of erosion that formed our continents and gave shape to our mountains and coastlines. If we believe in a God who was the creative spark at the origin of our species, we must also believe the same God gave us brains and intends for us to use them. If we believe in a God who wove the tapestries in this world of scenic vistas teaming with wildlife, we must also believe the same God wants us to care for and preserve that natural world. If we believe in a God who decorated the heavens with countless stars and distant galaxies, we must believe the same God wants us to explore those extraterrestrial depths and understand our universe.

That is the kind of God that King Solomon worshiped. He did not see ignorance as a virtue. Rather he valued wisdom. In the biblical book of Proverbs, Solomon wrote, “Hold on to wisdom, and it will take care of you. Love it, and it will keep you safe. Wisdom is the most important thing; so get wisdom. If it costs everything you have, get understanding. Treasure wisdom, and it will make you great; hold on to it, and it will bring you honor. It will be like flowers in your hair and like a beautiful crown on your head.”

The Apostle James encourages his readers to ask God for wisdom if we lack it because God will give it to us generously and without reproach.

It is wisdom, not ignorance that will take care of us. It is wisdom, not ignorance that makes us great. We should be asking for wisdom, not ignorance. Because God gives wisdom, not ignorance.

Knowledge and wisdom are both spiritual gifts. We need to stop treating them as taboo topics or nefarious qualities. If we are to abide by the words of the first chapter of Isaiah, wisdom is essential.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow's cause.
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

Justice requires wisdom. Caring for the orphan and widow takes wisdom. God is clearly asking his people to think. He wants us to reason together. Rational, critical thinking.

Does that mean we should ignore Thomas Gray’s poem? Of course not, but we should put it into context. He was looking at a younger generation as a reflection his own days of youth. He wondered if knowledge of the future would ruin their joy. If you knew what would happen to you over the next twenty years, would it inspire you or discourage you? Gray figured it would be better for kids to be unaware of the pains and trials of their future as it would diminish their joy.

To be ignorant of the past is dangerous. To be ignorant of current events is irrational. But to be ignorant of the future? Well, that is bliss.