Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lancelot, In Brief

Recently I read The Once and Future King, a retelling of King Arthur tales. I'd never been fully exposed to these stories, and I'm not sure how close the book stays to the more "original" sources, but I felt the story was as much if not more about Sir Lancelot as it was Arthur. His and Guenevere's story was an unexpected treasure amongst what I expected to be a story full of magic and swordplay. I believe I cried when I reached the end of it.

This Christmas Robyn asked that we all share a Christmas story on Christmas eve. I don't have any story I'm particularly fond of but the story of Lancelot and Guenevere had been lodge so lovingly in my head for the past few months that it kept coming to the forefront of stories I could share. The problem is it's not exactly a Christmas story. I do wholeheartedly believe it's a story about God and Christ and in the spirit of retelling and Christmas I decided to retell it myself. And although this is not my story, writing it has been one of the most fulfilling things I've ever written. And, as my family can attest, I definitely cried when I reached the end reading it to them.


A thousand years ago the world was a different place. Back then even grown men believed in miracles the way children still do today. It was common at the time for a person to believe that if they were virtuous enough and righteous enough they would be blessed by God by being allowed to not only witness a miracle but perform one. This story is about a man with such a belief.

When Lancelot was a child, on the verge of becoming a man, he sailed from France to England with his father, a French nobleman and knight. They sailed to join Arthur, the new King of England, in a great battle against the old ways of English nobility. They fought against brutality and privilege. They fought for the rights of peasants and a new kind of goodness. During these battles it soon became obvious that Lancelot was skilled in the art of war far beyond what was normal for his age.  

When the war was over he met Arthur and instantly loved his goodness and majesty. He swore on that day that when he arrived back at home he would train and live with an eye single to the goal of becoming the greatest knight in the entire world so that he could return to Arthur's court and spend his life striving for goodness and protecting the weak.

Crucial to this task was the belief that he must remain pure and chaste before the Lord. For the Lord would never allow the greatest knight in the world to be a bad man. And secretly, in his heart, he hoped that in addition to being the greatest knight he would one day be allowed to perform a miracle. He held to this future miracle like a treasure of endless value.

Back in France he trained and fought and trained. Day in and day out he practice sword and shield, he rode his horse, and spent countless hours jousting against any man willing to sit in a saddle opposite him. At eighteen he left home to return to Arthur. Arthur lovingly embraced him and quickly Lancelot became the head knight at Arthur's famous round table. He defeated all foes in tournament and in war. He saved countless other knights and always made his king proud. He and Arthur became the closest of friends.

But no man is perfect, and Lancelot had his own weakness. On the day he returned to England to join Arthur’s court he also met Guinevere, Arthur’s beautiful young wife. At first he despised her because of her closeness to Arthur. But soon he realized he slighted her with his coldness and determined himself to be more kind and gentle with her. Eventually the two fell in love. Their love remained pure for years but one day Lancelot was tricked by a witch and their love was consummated. He had committed a sin against his king, his best friend, his country, and his God. The sin was a secret they kept unto themselves. But it caused him internal grief, sorrow and pain. He fought this temptation as often has he raised sword against foe, but with always the opposite outcome: defeat. Although he was the greatest swordsman in the world, he had no defense against his own heart.

As time went by his sin continued to worry his soul. He worried he'd soon be dethroned as the greatest knight in the world. He worried about losing his friendship with Arthur. He worried about the damage that would be done to Guinevere if their tryst was uncovered. And he worried that he'd never be able to accomplish his miracle. One day he slunk away from the kingdom and Guinevere, and he repented of his sin, turning his face fully toward God. As a reward for his repentance God blessed Lancelot by allowing him to set his eyes upon the Holy Grail, one of only a handful of people to ever do so. And to humble him, God put before him a noble knight whom he could not defeat in combat. This knight disappeared with the Grail into God’s great and mysterious mists soon after defeating Lancelot; neither the Grail nor the Knight have ever been seen since.

Lancelot eventually returned to court knowing he'd turned a corner. But before long he returned to Guinevere's side. This time he fell even deeper into despair, knowing how far he'd fallen after being so close to God. Lancelot was so depressed that he stopped competing in battles--he didn't want anyone to know of his sin, and he knew that his sins would cause him to lose in battle, that it was impossible for him still be the greatest knight in the world given his moral flaws.

His friend Arthur worried greatly about him. He'd never seen Lancelot so removed. He constantly kept looking for something to draw Lancelot out of himself. The people attributed Lancelot's refusal to participate in tournaments as a sign of him getting old, but Lancelot knew better.

Then, one winter another knight in Europe was cursed by a defeated foe’s mother. The curse bestowed upon him kept his wounds from ever healing. Instead he remained in eternal pain and constantly bled. With the curse was also foretold the cure: the greatest knight in the world would be able to heal his wounds by a simple laying on of hands. The bleeding knight searched all of Europe for the greatest knight but time after time the knights who tried to heal his wounds failed. After many such failures a knight from England told him that if the greatest knight in the world was what he sought then he should make his way to England and speak with Sir Lancelot. This he did and when he arrived at the shores of England Arthur caught word of his approach.

Thinking this was the perfect opportunity to pull Lancelot out of his shell he insisted that the knight come on Christmas day, and on that day a tournament of might would be held but without a single sword being raised. Instead, each knight would have their chance to bless the bleeding warrior, with Lancelot being the last, and of course, in Arthur’s mind, the only one to succeed at the task.

When Lancelot heard of the event he dreaded its approach. He knew that soon everyone would know of his sin, of his lowly state. But he couldn't refuse his king, and above all else he knew it would be his punishment--worthy of his sins--to be rebuked by the Lord in front of all the kingdom. He was so despondent that he considered taking his own life rather than be a part of the tournament.

Christmas arrived. Lancelot sat in his own room listening to the celebrations. Everyone knew Lancelot would be the last one out and that he would succeed, for they all knew in their heart of hearts that he was still the greatest knight in all the world, and that today they would be seeing a miracle. Their cheers depressed him more. A man who had never known fear now buckled at the knees with each knight’s failed attempt, as his time of denouncement grew nearer. Finally a guard entered his quarters and told him it was his turn. Lancelot put on his white cloak and white shield and walked through the door and toward his destiny.

He walked out into the courtyard. There he saw his king, as radiant as ever. He walked between rows of knights on revert and bent knees. The courtyard was full of bright flags whipping amongst the wind and light snow. With a bowed head he approached the platform where the suffering knight lay bleeding in great pain. He ascended the steps. Standing before the knight, Lancelot shed a tear before placing his hands upon the man. And there, on the Lord's birthday, all of England witnessed a miracle. The bleeding stopped and the man was saved from his curse.

The people of England thought that the curing of the curse was the miracle, but in his heart, Lancelot alone knew that the real miracle was that God had allowed even him, the lowest of the low, to heal the man.

One might argue that this isn't a true Christmas story, sure it's a story about God and Christ, but not about Christmas. But like Lancelot, Christ was a savior from the most unlikely of places. The Jews of the time looked toward the rich, the powerful, and the noble for their savior. Instead Christ came from the most unexpected of places.

God works through us and this story is a reminder that all of us have a reserve of goodness within us. Sometimes the place we least expect to find goodness and greatness
is from ourselves. We have not only endless opportunities to share goodness, but also the ability to do so, even when we don't think we do. To be an agent of God we need not be kings or prophets or presidents or saints. We need not be perfect or without sin. We simply need to act.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

I'll Never Let Anything Hurt You

"I'll never let anything hurt you." I look into her eyes and I mean it. And she believes it. And I know it can't possibly be true, but I mean it. I really do. Let's disregard all the little bumps and scrapes she'll undoubtedly acquire throughout life. We can even skip over broken bones and other more serious but non-life-threatening injuries. With all that put aside, it's still possible there are loose electrons flying through her body right now; she might already be her own cancerous time bomb. It's possible one day a car will fly off an overpass and land on ours. It's possible a psychopath will mistake killing children for some form of bravery or vindication and do the unthinkable. It's true I can't even guarantee my own safety; I can't prevent so many others from hurting me. Even so, I look her in the eyes and without flinching I say it again, "I'll never let anything hurt you." And in case she doubts me, "Ever."

Some nights I lay awake thinking about the possibilities. If someone were to break in, what would I do? What could I do? They'd have a gun, of course. In these moments the space between her bedroom and mine stretches out before me. Twenty feet, tops, between her crib and my bed. The intruder would see me streak across the hallway like a lightening bolt and hear the doors open and close like thunder. Then what? We jump out a second story window? I hate guns. But shouldn't I own one just for this scenario? Somewhere else, in a small corner of my mind, I see her finding it and a different Godforsaken tragedy, the cure becoming the disease.

Somewhere there is an electron rattling around the insides of a skin-cell, and a bullet ricocheting around the insides of a rib-cage,  and a car bouncing around a freeway like a pinball. So what? I still won't let anything hurt her. I put the idea away, like a man filing his favorite novel amongst his non-fiction books--because it's absolutely true, somehow.

Yet, on a day like today, it's not enough. There is no solace in the thought. Instead I wrap my body around hers. A lead blanket that deflects cosmic rays. A bullet proof vest that rejects bullets. An invincible force-field  that can stop anything. A simple hug, nothing more. A single, frail human body protecting another, yet frailer human body. This is the tool I have. I lift my heart to God and hope it will always be enough.

And peace unto those who have been shown it's not nearly enough.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Once and Future King

I picked this book up recently from the bookstore because of a strange familiarity I felt toward the title. I still can't place why it rolls off my tongue like some common phrase I hear or use all the time. Even so I didn't have high expectations for the book, and after reading the first few chapters it felt kind of silly (it's a retelling of the King Arthur stories, the first section being the basis of the Disney movie The Sword and the Stone. So it's tone reminds me more of a Prachet book or a Monty Python movie or Princess Bride, as opposed to Lord of the Rings which is more akin to the sort of fantasy I normally read). But something happened a hundred pages in where I noticed I really loved the writing, especially the scenes that deal with Wart turning into animals. The author does a great job of getting into the minds of the animals and relating how they experience the world in what feels like a very meaningful and accurate way. But I probably wouldn't write this post at all if not for some of the beautiful descriptive prose. I really just wanted to share this description of a flock of geese fly through a cloud (Wart being on of them during a magical transformation courtesy of Merlyn):
"Sometimes, when they came down from the cirrus levels to catch a better wind, they would find themselves among the flocks of cumulus--huge towers of modelled vapour, looking as white as Monday's washing and as solid as meringues. Perhaps one of the these piled-up blossoms of the sky, these snow-white droppings of a gigantic Pegasus, would lie before them several miles away. They would set their course toward it, seeing it grow bigger silently and imperceptibly, a motionless growth--and then, when they were about to bang their noses with a shock against its seeming solid mass, the sun would dim. Wraiths of mist suddenly moving like serpents of the air would coil about them for a second. Grey damp would be around them, and the sun, a copper penny, would fade away. The wings next to their own wings would shade into vacancy, until each bird was a lonely sound in cold annihilation, a presence after uncreation. And there they would hang in chartless nothing, seemingly without speed or left or right or top or bottom, until as suddenly as ever the copper penny glowed and the serpents writhed. Then, in a moment of time, they would be in the jewelled world once more--a sea under them like turquoise and all the gorgeous palaces of heaven new created, with the dew of Eden not yet dry."
It might not be the best stuff ever written but if far exceeds anything I expected to find in this, or really any, fantasy book.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

New Beginnings and Continuations

An excerpt from a letter I'm writing Berkeley. Life shall not sit still, even if you chain it to a chair.

"Lately you've grown fond of trains and tunnels. You want to watch videos of trains all day long and if anything hints at being a makeshift tunnel you're under it without a second thought. Someone on the floor with a pair of legs bent in the shape of an A? Tunnel! Tomorrow we approach a big day: your first day of preschool. We'll ride upon our own metaphorical train into a new tunnel. We don't know what exactly is in it or where it exactly leads. We cling to each other (me more than you) in excitement, sadness, joy, apprehension, and hope. We enter a little family of three. Who knows how we exit. You'll start learning things, many things, not from the words and examples of your parents but from people who are now strangers but whom we presume we'll eventually love. In a broad since our family grows. Which is a good thing. But we send you out into the world now, the first taste of our little girl leaving home. And I'm stuck on that sentence. My Little Joy, one day I'll miss you so much."

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Number Ten

10 (ten i/ˈtɛn/) is an even natural number following 9 and preceding 11. Ten is the base of the decimal numeral system, by far the most common system of denoting numbers in both spoken and written language. The reason for the choice of ten is assumed to be that humans have ten fingers (digits) and because it's the number of years Robyn and I have been married.

 A list of 10.
  1. Yes, of course 
  2. Tatanka
  3. Morgan
  4. Wandering through an all but nameless town in Turkey. Trading Trader Joe's fruit strips for slices of watermelon. Agreeing with the only English words the local children knew: Bush bad.
  5. All the moments a mind can't recall but that still matter, the little things that shape our lives. 
  6. Struggling for and against ones own religion.
  7. Waking up one morning and remembering how the woman laying next to me is related to that girl who stole my heart when I was seventeen. You can't draw a map like that.*
  8. 2+1=infinity
  9. Seeing Robyn, plainly, in the face of our child. It's like experiencing her childhood somehow; filling in the gaps, all the parts of her life I missed out on. This is as close as I'll get to those.
  10. Yes, ten more please. 
*We were talking the other day and Robyn was recounting major parts of our courtship. She recalled so many details that I'd forgotten. Important details, things of major significance to her. Things I've done that count as reasons why she loves me. Prior to that I was reading through some old notes I'd written her. More temporarily lost details. Between the two of us we could likely piece together the major events, the whys and hows and whens. But they wouldn't add up to 3.15569e8 seconds or 5.259e6 minutes or 87658 hours. There would be so much missing and yet here we are, like a map to a pirate's treasure with everything torn away except the X that marks the spot.

So for all the best moments that I can both recall and that I've forgotten, I give thanks to a wife beyond what I likely deserve. Let us dig deep into the sand where we stand; let us unearth family, little children, long life, happiness, good health, and eternal love, together. You're the best Mrs. Robyn Kessler, happy tenth anniversary. 


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Unconventional Sports Fan

This post is dedicated to LeBron James, Peyton Manning, and Bill Simmons.

When I first started watching sports Lawrence Taylor was redefining the shape and size of linebackers in the NFL, opposing players were blaming their twisted and broken ankles on the teflon like coating that Barry Sanders was either born with or was applying prior to each game, Nolan Ryan was doing things to Father Time that are illegal in most countries, Jerry Rice and Joe Montana (and Steve Young) were turning the NFL into an air show, and Michael Jordan was being, well, Michael Jordan.

During that time I chose my favorite teams by choosing favorite players. I rooted for the Rangers because that’s where Nolan Ryan happened to pitch (I probably own well over 200 Nolan Ryan baseball cards), I rooted for the Lions because that’s where Barry Sanders was altering the physical laws of the universe. At the same time I rooted for the Giants because in my head it was OK to have two favorite teams if one was chosen for an offensive player and the other for a defensive player; even when they played against each other I could root for both teams, not caring who won as long as both players had a big game.

It wasn’t until later in life that I realized I care more about individual players and their talents than I do about the team aspect of sports. This was easy to overlook because I only knew Nolan Ryan as a Ranger, and Sanders never wore anything other than blue and silver and Taylor never put on anything other than blue and white. There was a stability in the players and where they played that made this observation impossible to make. But two things happened over the past couple of years that changed all that.

I’ve been a Colts fan since moving away from Indiana in 1992. This originally happened not because of a player but because of my connection to the city itself. However, I didn’t become a huge fan until Peyton Manning was drafted, in fact had he not come to the team I probably would have stopped caring about the Colts a long time ago. This also means that for the longest time I’ve rooted against The Patriots (and to a lesser degree The Saints), but when the Colts tanked last season and Manning sat out it was incredibly easy for me to start cheering for Tom Brady. I needed my fix of greatness and he was the closest approximation to Manning I could find, so if Manning wasn’t winning the Super Bowl his worthy rival was the only other option in my mind.  

Then the Colts didn’t re-sign Manning and now he’s a Denver Bronco, a team I’ve never really had any interest in, but guess which games I’ll be watching next season? I suspect the only time I’ll see the Colts play next season is when they take the field against Denver. This transition is easy and natural for me. Am I a fair weather fan? I don’t think so. I just don’t value a team, a sort of ethereal entity that morphs from year to year, that often has no qualms over dropping or trading players that have been with them for many years, and that often lacks a consistent feel from year to year. Instead I love players, I love talent, I love to watch the best players win. I hated it when the Arizona Cardinals made to to the Super Bowl in 2009. I hated it when the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title in 2011. And in my mind the biggest travesty in sports history isn’t The Decision but the fact that Emmit Smith holds the all time rushing record instead of Barry Sanders, an infinitely better player (in so many ways).

Which brings me to LeBron. I love to watch LeBron play and the rest of the world should too. I didn’t pay close attention to basketball prior to LeBron, his drafting converted me into a regular NBA observer. So I rooted for Cleveland while he was there and now I root for Miami. When people analyze the current state of the NBA all I hear about is how no one plays basketball the right way anymore, everyone is tired of the me-first mentality of the Kobe Bryants and Allen Iversons. And then God delivered to us a near perfect basketball player. He can score, he hustles on both ends of the floor, he’s willing to get in the paint and capture rebounds, he makes the right passes, always looking to make his team better, and he’s naturally gifted and extremely talented (and from all appearances hard working, not wasting his talents like some other naturally gifted players). His problem of course is that he doesn’t play the Meta-game the “right” way (which I’m surprised so many people care about). He wasn’t willing to let fate determine where he spent his career, he wasn’t going to be Barry Sanders playing on what would be the league’s worst team had he not been on it. He wasn’t going to wait for his team to one day decide he wasn’t right for them anymore and trade him (it’s just business after all, and who is going to go out in protest the evil Celtics when they don't re-sign KG or Ray Allen next year?). Sure, The Decision was a mistake, but the underlying reasoning wasn’t. And now the world hates LeBron and unfortunately for those that hate him they’re missing out on getting to watch and appreciate one of the greatest players to ever play the actual game of basketball the way we claim to want the greats to play it. I feel bad for the haters and what they're missing.

And finally, why mention Bill Simmons in the beginning? Two reasons: one I’m reading his Book of Basketball right now and he says if he gets super rich from the book he’s buying a black convertible M6, which is exactly what I would do if I were rich, so I feel like we reside in the same mental space somehow, and secondly the book sort of helped me see how I interact with sports, which is nearly 180 degrees opposite of Simmons. He is the ultimate team guy. Right now he’s very likely rooting against LeBron not just because of The Decision but because he’s playing the ever changing entity known as the Celtics. A team Simmons loved as a child and that he loves now even though the only thing those two teams share is a location and the color of their jerseys. Perhaps when LeBron moved to Miami Simmons made the usual complaint about how a real player wouldn’t switch teams, they’d muscle it out in whatever situation they found themselves in. Jordan never moved, Magic never moved, Bird never moved. Even Kobe never moved. He likely has written articles about how you can’t just throw a team of good players together and win championships (like maybe his most recent article praising the Spurs), you can’t just throw money at the game. And yet he probably cheered last year when the over achieving and over spending Mavericks beat Miami, and when his Big Four take the court tonight
1 against Miami’s Big Three he’ll miss the irony of his complaint against LeBron (I actually believe he’s too smart to miss the irony). He’ll forget that KG and Ray-Ray won the first year on that team, the one year they weren’t doing it the right way, not because sports has anything to do with logic but because these games are really played out in our hearts, and I’m sure his bleeds green.2

So that is one reason why I feel like an unconventional sports fan--I root for players instead of teams. The second reason is also 180 degrees different from Simmons: I rarely actually watch sporting events. However, I can tell you at any time during the year exactly what the standings are in basketball and football, who the leading passer and rusher are every week, who is on track to win the scoring title. I can tell you who was the last person (both women and men) to win a major event in tennis. I can tell you the last time Tiger Woods won a tournament. Maybe this mostly indirect interaction with sports is the cause of how I view them generally, even the root of why I like players more than teams. And I’ll likely be stuck in this position, not fully understanding team lovers, until the Internet does a better job of delivering real-time games since television hasn’t been a consistent part of my life for sixteen years now.

1. Last night really, but I wrote this when "tonight" made sense, but didn't have time to edit and post it.

2. Also, in all likelihood I wouldn’t have written this post at all if not for Bill Simmon’s chapter on Wilt Chamberlain vs Bill Russell (which convinced me LeBron is playing the game correctly, even if not the Meta-game) and Grantland (which generally makes me want to write more about sports).

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Friday Night Lights Revisited

I don't know that I've ever expressed my love for Friday Night Lights here.

With the noted caveat that I haven't actually seen a lot of really good shows on TV (Sopranos, The Wire) it's my belief that FNL is the best show to ever be on TV. When I finally get around to watching The Wire I'm willing to give it space in my mind to usurp FNL, but no other show I've heard described really has any hope of taking its place.

I'm currently watching season one again (the first rewatching), with the aim of watching all five seasons in a much more compressed time period than the five years it took to make it through the series originally. I recall when I watched it the first time through that there was usually some moment in each episode when my body would tingle with joy and emotion in ways that film or TV had never been able to affect me before (you can read that as usually once per show I was on the verge of tears if not crying outright). On second viewing it happens even more, but at different moments. It's all the little things between Matt and Julia when they first start to date. It's the joy and giddiness in Matt's eyes as he introduces his dad to coach for the first time. It's Mama Smash cupping Smash's face in her hands. It's Tim and Billy breaking furniture as they curse and fight each other. It's Tim standing in Buddy's office asking a favor for the first time not for himself, but for someone else. It's watching Tammi and Coach work through everything. Each of these little moments now come with so much built in history. On the one hand it's sad not to be able to experience the show the same way all over again, on the other hand it's so much better this way.

I think more than any character the experience of watching Matt has been altered the most; I see the seasons sprawl out before me with every move he makes. Each individual joy, triumph, heartache, and challenge cease being singular events, instead they encompass a lifetime, like looking at a picture of a child when just a baby and instantaneously missing their childhood and looking forward to some grand event that they've yet to attain (graduation, marriage, their own children); what you feel in that moment isn't a moment at all but a lifetime, a life, a person. And though it probably sounds delusional I'll say it anyway, I care for and about Matt like a real person, or as close as I ever have for a character I know is 100% fictional. Which is really to sing praise to those artists who created him, the writers, the director and Zach Gilford (by the way, on rewatching it becomes plainly absurd that he never won an Emmy for his acting.)

I know it's just a TV show, but it's also great art.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dad is 60

This is a gift I gave my father for his 60th birthday. I went old school and made him a biographical mixed CD.

I don't know how much you'll appreciate this CD. I never got the sense—from you or mom—that music was a big important part of your lives. Clearly you enjoy music, but it always seemed peripheral in your lives. From my point of view there is no greater gift than the gift of music. A music compilation from the heart of a loved one, even if I hate the music, is something I would always cherish. I've picked a set of songs, most of which you've probably never heard, that I think you could like because they have close roots to country music, which is the only music I've know you to listen to (besides Elvis). The songs are in approximate chronological order of when I first heard them, or when they became important to my life. Although I spent most of high school and college listening to music that bore little to no resemblance to country music, I believe its constant presence in our home greatly influenced the music I love today as well as affected some very important parts of my life that aren't really related to music directly. So this CD is a tribute to you and mom, a thank you of sorts, for not raising us on shitty music. The list of songs also represent things in my life that I find important and I think you would want to know about your son, even if the song isn't exactly something you would appreciate on its own.

This first song was picked partially to set the mood of the CD. In addition I probably have an overly romanticized ideal about how love is suppose to work; I attribute many of these ideals to the country music I grew up on, and this song I would say is one of the best (if not the best) country song ever written. When I heard it, before I ever knew Robyn, I hoped and prayed I'd one day have a love like that. That I could love some one so well, too well. To whatever degree I'm succeeding at that aim, this song deserves credit for some part of it.

From the 11th grade until I graduated college I probably listened to this album four to five times a week. I have fallen to sleep listening to these heart felt melodies more than any other. They've latched onto my soul and found a permanent place in my life. A union born of dreams, born of dark nights, born of a great aching belief that one day I'd share in a love big enough to fill the Earth. Each song represents in my mind some stage of mine and Robyn's early courtships. A lot of failure, a lot of hope, and some really great moments. This particular song is my favorite on the CD, but the CD is so good (probably my all time favorite) that over half the songs on the album at one time or another have been my favorite.

I feared I'd have to leave Nine Inch Nails off the CD because they don't match the tone at all but then remembered I had this version of the song around and rejoiced with the perfection of it. It's probably hyperbole but I feel that without Nine Inch Nails getting through high school would have been much harder than it was. With this music I was introduced to lyrics and music that spoke to my frustrations and pains. I felt a sense of belonging that had been missing in my teen years. It filled a large painful void that our exit from Indiana created. So a compilation CD from me without NIN on it is inconceivable. I don't know how you guys felt about NIN and Marilyn Manson, but I'm eternally grateful to the freedom and trust you placed in me to allow me to select the music I listened to and I assure you that the net affect of their music upon me has been incredibly positive. I don't know if you realize how important that was for me and how it wasn't a common thing amongst my friends and their parents. So again, thank you.

Another great country song. Included here because it is the reason Robyn and I became good friends so fast. The first time she met me I was at her neighbors house with Jason. We were out front and I was singing a version of this song but I changed “horses” to “turkeys.” Robyn came over in the middle of it and was interested in the gothic/industrial kid who knew country music well enough to sing it and alter it on the fly. It took about seven years of major convincing after that, but this was the first little hook that tapped into her heart and eventually bound us together.

There's too much piano and not enough guitar to be really country, but here it is. Tori was the first music Robyn introduced me to, so this album is tied to her and our courtship in my mind as well. Most of her songs from this album deal with a lot of issues that girls seem to identify with better, but this song I think captures a certain aspect of growing up that belongs to both genders. We were all little kids once, with our hands in our father's glove. And we all let go at some point. Eventually we all skate on our own, and bare the winter alone.

The thing about this song is that I partially love it because I'm convinced that the singer/writer loves it more than any other song has ever been loved. I don't know how to explain it, but his voice just tells me that he knows that he has something amazing here, something to be cherished. There is a minor religious tone that meanders through the song and all the talk of snow and old men reminds me of Idaho and family (even though it's about South Georgia).

Country music has made me a sucker for sad songs. I don't know that I've heard a more heart wrenching song than this. The last two line slay me: “tell him I love him, but I am not returning.” Part of the greatness of the song is that it embraces the complexity of life. Some of our hardest decisions come about because we do still love those we leave behind. Life would be easier if all separations were spurred on by hate and anger. But life isn't lived as such.

I probably don't even need to say anything about this song. I mean it's so obvious. It's almost an embarrassing cliché to include it. I don't know what it was like for you “becoming a man.” But I've always felt like a kid. I mean even now, with a child in my house, I feel like a 34 year old kid. This song captures the awkward process of really growing up, a process I'm still in the middle of, and captures a new type of love that I can honestly say I didn't expect to enjoy so much. I can barely listen to this song without crying. That little girl, man, she, she, she makes me speechless. I stand amazed.

As I've grown older I've enjoyed abstraction and metaphors and literary depth more and more. If the previous song was the epitome of obvious this song is its polar opposite. It's dark, it's beautiful, it's vague. Without hesitation I'll say it is my all time favorite song. It resonates with me, it causes feelings in my soul I've never felt before. Or that I'd felt, but been unable to name. It's a song that overwhelms me with emotion. Check these lines: “you always told me. No matter how long it holds. If it falls apart or makes us millionaires. We'll be right here forever. Go through this thing together. And on heavens golden shore we'll lay our heads.” To me that is perfect. It's what I want out of life. A sense of joy and wonder and struggle, that no matter the results, if the trip is with the right people, then in the end we'll have our reward (because the the journey is the reward).

Don't ask me how to pronounce either of those words. This is one song that veers away from the country music feel I had going, but I think its worth it. The band is Icelandic. I couldn't tell you anything about what the lyrics mean. I don't want to know what the lyrics mean. But when I want to soar, when I want to feel alive, this song (and their music in general) does it for me. Somewhere in their music is the meaning of life. It feels like you're riding on the back of a whale, or flying like a bird, or running like a human through a field of wheat. The music feels alive, consistently, like little else I've ever listened to. If I were to send a piece of music out into space in hopes that it would one day reach an alien land and that the music would tell those aliens something about what it means to be human, this would be the song I would choose. Hear this, and be filled by humanity.

I have a great wife. One of the best I'm certain, for a lot of reasons. I don't know why I've been so blessed, what I've done to deserve such a quality life. Sometimes I feel guilty at how good life has been to me. Robyn is a large part of why I feel that way. Jason once said that you learn a lot about someone by looking at the person they love. So if you want to know me, then know Robyn. This song, and its main theme of forgiveness, I think is Robyn put to music. Understand this song and you understand her, and me by extension I guess. “May the voices inside you that fill you with dread, make the sounds of thousands of angels instead.” … “your swinging off those gates of hell, but I can tell, how hard you're trying” … “somewhere on the steepest slope, there's an endless rope, and nobody's crying.” The world would be a much better place if we all had Robyn's capacity to forgive.

Idaho. Josh Ritter is from Moscow, Idaho. Born and raised. So his relationship to it is different from mine. But the place, it will always remind me of you. Thinking of it makes me think of you, even more than it makes me think of mom. I don't know why. But you and that state seem inexplicably connected. It's nice to see someone with that sort of relationship to a place. I can appreciate that it means so much to you even though I don't know that I've ever had the chance to get quite so attached to a place. It's full of our family history. So many dead bones there. It's a shame I suppose that I have no desire to live there, but one place isn't meant for everybody.

This is sort of an extension of the previous song. I know you're not a “real” farmer, but your desire to be on the land feels farmy to me. And if I were you (whatever that means) I imagine this song would reflect well the struggle of staying in a place I love while my kids (and grandchildren) were elsewhere, out there. And I'm almost jealous of the feeling of being so attached to a place that you just can't leave it behind. It sounds magnificently painful. :)

I think one of the most overlooked, or under represented relationship in popular music is that about child and parent. This song nails that relationship perfectly I think, from both sides. It looks at things from the child's point of view as well as the parent's. The family make up in this song, two brothers and a man who has a wife and daughter, fits perfectly into the shape of my life. I mean come on, “make sure my daughter knows I love her, make sure her mother knows the same.” I see me in Berkeley and I see you in me. I'll know your pains and your joys. And in turn, one day, she'll know them, too. It's a beautiful chain.

This is a love song, but I think, it serves just as well as a celebration of family in general. “We came for salvation. We came for family. We came for all that's good. We came to break the bad. We came to cheer the sad. We came to leave behind a better way. If I am walking through the rain. And I hear you calling out my name. I will break into a run without a pause. And if your love laughs at your dreams. It's not as bad as it seems. If you take of my soul. You can still leave it whole, with the pieces of yours you left behind.” I don't know what it means to have a perfect family. But I'm so greatly pleased with the one I have. I'm grateful to you and mom and Frank and the love and life we've all shared.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Once upon a time I was a child. Like all children I was eventually introduced to the strange and mysterious world of adults. And, like many once-upon-a-time-children, that introduction was made by “three bad brothers.” These gentlemen, if I may, introduced me to a considerable and powerful set of concepts: pornography, violence, hypocrisy, girls, partying, drugs (legal and illegal), parable, and of course music and rhyme.

I was in early elementary school the first time I heard License to Ill. As a mostly innocent child eager to take in the world, to grow up fast, to be cool, I was highly receptive to their words. It’s been argued--and one might still argue--that the content of that album wasn’t suitable for a child of my age. But in retrospect I don’t think the messages I received from their music shaped me in any negative fashion. I’m grateful that my introduction to a lot of these concepts were accompanied by the silly and playful lyrics of the Beastie Boys rather than the more cynical (regardless of how true to life) lyrics of Ice Cube, Ice-T, EZ, and Dr. Dre (all of which I did appreciate later in life). 

License to Ill was likely the first tape I ever owned. I probably only listened to it for a year before moving on to other musics. But that year in Germany is inseparable from that album. I can’t listen to anything on it without recollecting fond memories of wandering the German countryside or riding my BMX around our neighborhood like I was some kind of badass (which I wasn’t). And so the album has forever had a place in my heart and the Beastie Boys have forever felt like big brothers to me, big brothers who had already gone off to college but who sent letters back telling of their wild tales and who, when they did visit, were always more than willing to hang out with me and my friends even if they were a hundred times cooler than I’d ever be.

I’m not qualified to speak to the quality of their music, I’ll leave that to others. But they own a place in pop culture that is amazing in its reach and power. I can’t imagine what it’s like for kids now to grow up with Slim Shady instead of the Beastie Boys. Sure the albums are still out there but you can’t expect kids to listen to License to Ill and get the same thing out of it any more than my parents could have expected me to have learned much from Elvis (sorry dad). 

I never bought another Beastie Boy album after that, so don’t confuse me for a great fan. But I do greatly appreciate their little place in my history and the much bigger roles they’ve likely played in thousands of their hardcore fans’ lives. I just want to pay homage to that greatness, that social importance, and the general manner in which they accomplished it. Bravo gentlemen, bravo. And at the same time I want to say goodbye to one of my early educators.

Two last thoughts. When I moved to Indiana there was a bully in our neighborhood who deplored me. I have exactly one memory of interacting with him that wasn’t negative. I traded him my License to Ill tape, my heritage, for his copy of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning. It was a bizarre transaction on a lot of levels and I can’t help but force meaning into it. Clearly we were both going through a shift in music taste, but perhaps something else was happening as well. The Boys and Metallica made a bridge over a gap that I never thought could be crossed, and never again was. Perhaps I gave Adam that tape hoping he could learn about all those concepts in the same fashion I'd been taught and thus he could become a little more like me, a little softer. And perhaps Adam thought I could use a little metal in my life. Who knows? But it feels like a significant event.

And finally, there is a line from one of their songs that pops into my head all the time. I find myself singing it often, and smiling. It’s an odd song for me, and an odd line. I’ve never been in a physical fight (other than with my brother). I deplore violence, especially senseless and random violence. Yet, I can’t help but love these lyrics, which are now slightly melancholy, for they represent the loss of not only a big life but also a little piece of my childhood. “MCA was with it, and he’s my ace, so I grabbed the piano player and I punched him in the face.” R.I.P.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Love Lingered

If you've spent much time in the ocean you're probably familiar with the lingering feeling you get later in the day, when you lay your head down to rest and close your eyes. You can still feel the waves pushing your body around, up and down, in gentle lulls. It makes you feel dizzy but relaxed all at the same time.

I discovered something similar the other night when I went to bed. A physical manifestation of love lingered. I'd spent most of the day carrying and playing with Berkeley. Rolling around on the floor with her, throwing her in the air, hugging her tight, laughing together. I put her to bed and then put myself to bed a few hours later. And there it was. I could feel her little body still near mine, my mind tumbled across the floor, up and down we went. It was one of the most unexpected but pleasurable things I've experienced in quite some time.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Tree of Life

Some thoughts about The Tree of Life.

The Father: The embodiment of a certain type of man from the 50s. He's not exactly the abusive authoritarian but he's surrounded by a culture that tells him he should be the ruler of his home. That he should demand respect and obedience from those whom he protects under his strong wings. So he lashes out, reaching for those things but all the while what he wants most is to be loved by his boys. But that love is tainted by the oppressive demanding style by which he asks for it, the only way he knows how to ask for it. I am your father, so it must be. The movie hints at the softer side of him, the side that wants to love for love's sake, that loves beauty as shown by his love and talent with music. He himself regrets after his sons death that he could never love the boys like their mother did. This is a man in a sad state, a state most often overlooked when appraising what men were back then. Sensitive men existed, but they were meant for another time.

The Mother: An angel practically. As much a child as the boys in some ways. An innocents, the father would call it naivety (more so out of jealousy than any actual spite). She forms a unit with the three boys. Something foreign and all but impenetrable to the father. She lets us know that there are two paths. The path of grace, to love everything. And the natural path, the path to struggle, the path to make other things as you want them.

The Boy: A dark storm. Learning from his father exactly that which he never wished to teach him. To be cold, to be hard. To be distant with his future wife. To lean hard upon his younger siblings. To require forgiveness out of them at such a young age. To reach for glory in money and power. To know regret. To forget all that his mother taught him.

The story as I understood it was a study between the natural path and that of grace. The father and the mother. The mother's struggle begins with the notion that if you follow the path of grace you'll be spared hardships. A misinterpretation of grace, as we find out. The father's journey is more overt. His hardness is like a beacon of light that only fall always upon the death of his child. When he realizes so much time and energy was wasted on the constant struggle to shape life, to make it just what he thought it should be.

At church the only sermon we hear is that on Job. The righteous man who still suffers greatly. Pain and hardship is meant for all. The father is pious in the church but steps outside and concerns himself with his reputation and his connections, with prospects of money. The wife meanwhile appears much the same in church and out. I suspect the scene is not only meant to inform us of where the mother is off-base on her understanding of grace but also to show that religion and grace are not the same thing. The father, however sincere he is in the building forgets to take the important parts outside with him, to apply them to his life, to his family's life.

The mother eventually sees that grace doesn't protect her from loss and pain. It protects her from devastation and permanent sorrow and suffering. To love everything one must must even love the loss. To accept it. To return her child to God.

I've heard people complain about the beginning and the end, but without both the middle is just pretty scenery. The beginning and the end give that story a destination, some where to go and a purpose. Personally the movie is one of the most beautiful things I've ever witnessed. I could probably watch the mother return her child to God for hours without growing bored of that imagery.

While watching the movie I was shocked. I thought, to dislike this movie someone would have to have a very different interaction with the world, with life, than I do. It romanticized life! But if we can't romanticize life then, well, then there is nothing worth romanticizing, so I'll keep doing it.

Granted, the dinosaurs were too much. I get what was going on there but I still think it was a little unnecessary in the bigger scope and I think it lost people that needn't be lost. Which isn't to say the creation scene wasn't glorious. I truly loved it, I just think it could have skipped over the dinosaurs and been more powerful, less distracting.

When I struggle to create art, usually in writing, in my head it looks like this movie. In practice it rarely turns out anywhere near this, but I think similar goals were imagined. This wasn't always the case but shortly after Berkeley was born I went to a funeral. And as terrible as it sounds somehow sitting there, grieving for people I barely knew, surrounded by those greatly affected, I discovered something. I remember sitting there thinking, feeling, knowing, that THIS is life. Somewhere in the tragedy is the work and the glory. Those grieving people were so filled with life, I could see it spilling from the pews and out the windows, sweeping across hills and water. Here was human connectedness. Here was humanity. And somewhere in that is God too and the ever present struggle with grace. It was the most profound experience I've ever had at church and this movie brought it back to life for me sitting in the dark on the couch next to my wife while my baby slept upstairs and above her the stars crossed the sky and we were (are) all but the most important specks.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Love Stumbled Upon

Some thoughts have been floating around my head lately that I've been wanting to articulate, but feel like I lack the proper words.

It mostly started with the first song in this video (Sorry Jeff if you're reading this).

In particular let's focus on these lines:
Stall your mother
Disregard your father's words

Two years ago those words would have meant something incredibly different to me. They would have been me pleading with my love to give me just that one more minute of her time. It would have been a look back at the past, of those great moments that encompass falling in love. But no longer [not entirely true]. My eyes turn toward the future now. One day I'll be the father whose words are disregarded and Robyn will be the stalled mother. These are songs that no longer belong to me in the same way they use to.

I suspect the cliche feeling I should be having, especially with these particular lyrics, is to be "Not with my daughter!" Maybe when she's sixteen and not one and half I'll change my mind, but as of now I look forward to her having these sorts of experiences. I look forward to meeting her future and all the people she brings into it. I look forward to her future love as much as I look forward to anything in life.

Of course, I don't think for a second I'll ever be witness to these events, but I hope some day she gets her late night shooting star and I hope some boy (or girl) writes her songs (regardless of how asinine and terrible they are). I can't wait for the day we stumble into each other walking down the hallway--she's oblivious to the world, beaming--and I get to ask, "What's up?" And she gets to grin and claim, "Nothing." That will likely do.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Finished this book and aside from the obvious ideas that were dealt with: how we often try to return home to avoid or deal with problems in our lives only to realize that many of our problems and issues stem from that home, so going back doesn't do much to offer relief; it also had me reflecting greatly on what home is.

The word home doesn't mean the same thing for everyone. I think this is often taken for granted. We imagine everyone has this place where they can return to, that encompasses their childhood, a place that we can inspect and see first hand how much the world has changed, a marker not only of the past but of the present and into the future as well.

But then there are people like me and my brother and his family. People who moved around a lot because of their parents' work. There are a myriad of other reasons why one might not have a place they call home but I suspect many of them lead to similar experiences when reflecting back upon the concept.

When I think about home I think of two things, well three really. These two things are a shrunk (which is a large piece of wood cabinetry built in Germany) and a nondescript plush lazy boy style recliner. The third thing is sort of an extension of these two, or the root of them really. My parents. Their house, though I've never lived in it, still feels something like home.

This lack of grounding in a place is a peculiar feeling. There's no returning to an old neighborhood and feeling the pull of nostalgia as I walk beneath the trees or down familiar streets. No beloved playground. No best friend's house. No high school to revisit. No movie theater where my first kiss took place. Visiting Idaho is like floating free across space until entering my parents' house. Once there things make sense, but looking out their front door, onto their front yard and at the fields across the street, invokes no more emotion or memory than looking at a picture of the Martian landscape.

As time passes the inside of their house changes. They get different furniture, buy different rugs. At this point even the dogs we had when I left after high school are no longer alive. But the shrunk and some version of the recliner always seems to stay around.

After leaving home I moved as much if not more than ever. I think I averaged a move once a year for the first six years after high school.

But now I've lived in one city for ten years and the same house for almost nine. Just a fraction of the time one might spend in a single home growing up, but still more than double anywhere else I've ever lived.

With Berkeley with us now I can't help but look around and think about what sort of place this would make for her as a home. Her youth will be nothing like mine (forgetting even about technology). Will she run these streets with the few other kids in the area? Will she love the beach? In my mind I see her as a young teen standing on the dunes looking out at the waves, taking in the vastness of the ocean, contemplating it for the first time, wind blowing her hair into her eyes. This image alone convinces me here would be a good home.

Robyn sort of hates our house. I can understand this. It has its issues. The electrical outlets, its general age, the impossibility of keeping it warm, it's only two rooms, the kitchen is small and a little gross, sometimes there are mice. I get it. But since I lack a childhood home of my own this one that I adopted when I was 25 feels special to me in ways that probably don't make sense to a lot of people.

One day, assuming we are here long enough for Berkeley to feel like it is home, she'll probably leave at the first opportunity. While San Francisco and California have the air of freedom and independence to me they'll be the exact opposite to her. A place to escape, to get away from in order to see the world. To be her own person. But equally as likely she'll come back one day and stand on the dunes, put a hand to her head to shade the sun from her eyes, a tangle of gray hair blowing around her head, and she'll marvel again at how big the ocean is and how lucky she is to call this place home.