Micro-Post: The World Is Pulling My Leg

At the Millcreek Mall, Micah and I pass the Food Court and a pet store on the way to the E-cig kiosk. Smells: from Subway to General Tso’s chicken to pizza to a chemical cleaner that’s no match for pet poo.

A couple of kids play with a pup–maybe a Weimaraner, not sure–through the glass. The transaction seems friendly. The kids aren’t taunting; the dog’s having fun, spinning, reaching its paws toward them.

As I wait for Micah to pick up his cappuccino-flavored liquid tobacco, I begin to feel as though I’m from another world. Earth is pulling my leg.

In front of me is an establishment devoted mostly to eyebrows and eyelashes.

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“Oh,” I think, “you can get some kind of fabric woven into your eyebrows if you want them darker or you can make a weak mustache sturdy with facial threading.” But an eye-hair business? In this world, gracious, what you can buy!

After Micah pays, we head back the way we came. “Can you believe it,” I say, “a place where all they do is weave fake hair into your eyebrows and grow your lashes?”

“Uh, Dad,” Micah says, “I think with threading they roll thread over your hair to pull it out.”

Ah. Duly noted.

Back by the pet store, the kids are gone. The dog is lying in its cage–looking for more kids?

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In this world, animals that we consider friends are for sale. Dozens here alone, like sofas or flat screen televisions.

We sell what can love, fear, even save. And we micro-manage our eyebrows.

Dear World, please stop fooling around. Some of these jokes make me tired and sad.

A Prayer for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Bieber, and a Child in a Fire

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Philip Seymour Hoffman (Credit: Wikipedia)

I was settling in for my Sunday afternoon ministerial nap with a little channel surfing, and there it was on CNN: Philip Seymour Hoffman found dead in his bathroom; heroin in apartment; needle in his arm. I hollered downstairs for son Micah, a former addict. He sat on the bed at my feet, said, “Oh, no!” and put his face in his hands.

I let a minute pass. “Would he have known what was happening to him?”

“No,” Micah said. “He would’ve passed out right away. He died in a couple minutes.” Clean for over eighteen months, Micah would know.

Heroin has been in the news in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio lately—maybe beyond, I don’t know. Some sinister entrepreneurs came up with the idea of mixing fentanyl with heroin. The problem: fentanyl is 10 to 100 times stronger than heroin. One recent batch from Allegheny County in southwest Pennsylvania contained 50% fentanyl. Good night!

People are dying, and Hoffman himself appears to have overdosed on that sketchy brew. Maybe because Micah’s a fan, this average-looking-at-best actor is taking up spiritual room in me today. He was at the top of his game, most likely in great shape financially, but there was an ache in him somewhere. At least I imagine this was so. I bet most of us have pain burrowed down so far inside that nothing much can reach it.

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Justin Bieber (Credit: Wikipedia)

Without knowing it, Hoffman foreshadowed the difficulties of another troubled celebrity in a 2006 60 Minutes interview. He may as well have been talking about Justin Bieber, who at that time was probably up close to the mirror, searching for his first whisker. Hoffman said,

I always think, God, I have so much empathy for these young actors that are 19 and all of a sudden they’re beautiful and famous and rich — I’m like, ‘My God, I’d be dead’ — 19, beautiful, famous and rich, that would be it, you know … I think back at that time and think if I had the money, that kind of money.

Ironic, of course: Hoffman’s dead anyway. During Micah’s first months of sobriety, he mentioned that eventually shooting up wasn’t any fun. Life was just about getting ahold of drugs so he wouldn’t feel like crap. I wonder if that’s how it was with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And what’s Justin Bieber thinking? Beautiful and famous and rich, he’s apparently shaking his groove thing at the edge of the abyss; that is if the news is accurate. Fast cars, booze, some weed. Who knows? Is Bieber going through too much, too fast, too young? Nineteen year olds can be explosive to start with. Whatever his deal, I’d say from my spectator’s distance that inner-peace isn’t part of the package.

What must it be like to have over 200,000 citizens sign a petition calling for you to be deported? My friend Mark posted an insightful defense of the Canadian heartthrob on Facebook a couple days ago:

I’m about tired of people crushing Justin Beiber. Get all your jokes out now. Ha ha ha. No, I don’t have a thing for teenage boys. Are you done? Good. I may be over sensitive to the abuse put on the kid because one of my girls loves him. She is crestfallen every time she hears bad press and even more devastated with the ensuing public dismantling. I love her. So when she hurts, I hurt. I don’t like his music and he’s made some absolutely stupid decisions. HE’S 19! Who among us didn’t do stupid stuff at 19? Okay, take 19 year old you and add, say, 10 million dollars. Holy Crap! Now factor in that everybody with a camera wants to take a picture of you. If you’re doing something wrong, even better. Multiply that by the fact that nobody ever told the kid “no”. He was their meal ticket. They had to keep him happy, no supervision makes a happy teen. All this, and he has screaming hoards of women of all ages wanting to, um, get with him. It’s just math people. He’s going to be a little screwed up.

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Daughter Elena holding grandson Cole. Proposal: What if I try to hold the world and everybody in it with this tenderness and joy? I want to try.

I don’t know if Bieber was never told “no,” but Mark’s got it right. If anything, the kid deserves our understanding. It’s easy to condemn Philip Seymour Hoffman’s junkie death and Justin Bieber’s dumb-ass choices, but only if addiction’s never had you by the throat or your post-pubescent brain has never told you the evil-twin lies: “You’re always right, and you’re invincible.”

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Credit: corbisimages.com

The last thing Hoffman and Bieber need is my judgment. What they need is all the compassion I can muster. (And it ain’t easy with the latter’s chronically raised eyebrows and extravagant fitteds.) In fact, that’s what every corner of creation needs: my compassion.

Each week I spend hours in contemplative prayer, and you’d think heroin addicts and crazy kids would barge in on my silence and demand my attention. Sometimes this happens, but Hoffman, Bieber, and company are more likely to visit me at an inconvenient moment. On Sunday mornings, just before the congregation receives Holy Communion, we sing the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. The last words are “grant us peace.” We sing it three sweet times: “Grant us peace. Grant us peace. Grant us peace.”

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Grant us peace! (Credit: Lew Robertson / Corbis)

I stand still and pray quietly: “Grant us peace!” I have just a few seconds; if I don’t start distributing the bread, people will think I’ve fallen asleep on my feet. Ah well. Philip Seymour Hoffman will arrive next Sunday, and I’ll sing, “Grant him peace.” Justin Bieber, too: “Grant him peace.” The four-year-old Erie girl who died in a house fire yesterday will appear: “Grant her peace.” And the firefighters who tried to save her: “Grant them peace.”

“Grant us peace.” Part of me wants to stand still in my alb and stole long after the congregation has gone home and sing: “Peace!” Peace for the wealthy and poor with needles stuck in their veins. Peace for the invincible. Peace for saints and sinners everywhere. Peace and healing to that hidden place in all of us, that dark corner where tears reside.

All are welcome in this prayer. Are you suffering? Are you alone to blame? Are you dead, gone into Mystery? Can you hear me? Show up in my spirit. I’ll sing your lovely name to God.

A Guitar in the Sky Brings Me Back to Myself

I’m not sure how to describe the last month. An awakening? A healing? Whatever. All I know is my spirit feels like my eyes do in the morning, after I rub them and the world comes into focus. What little truth I know has been closer to me than it has in years. The clarity hasn’t given itself all at once, but in instants of inconspicuous awareness.

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Amiable English professor Kirk and his pup Ryan.

One month ago today—September 19, 2013—while perched at Starbucks, I read a short piece in the Erie Times-News: “Coffee? Leave your gun at home.” “Starbucks,” the report begins, “says guns are no longer welcome in its cafes, though it is stopping short of an outright ban on firearms.” Whew. Glad I hadn’t brought my glock with me. My immediate thought: What’s the big deal? I understand the need for Starbucks to issue a press release to announce this—what?—friendly request, but what have we come to when a coffee shop has to ask patrons not to show up packing? A confederacy of dunces? I tore the article out and slipped it into my bag. A truth was being lifted up to me, something obvious when seen under a certain light. (Note: I happen to be writing this at Starbucks, where Kirk Nesset happily works away with Pomeranian pup Ryan on his lap. I suggest Starbucks put out word that well-behaved dogs are welcome.)

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“Iron Mike” Webster, who died at 50. His autopsy revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Some doctors estimate that his brain had suffered the equivalent of 25,000 car crashes. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Then I watched “A League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” on PBS’s Frontline, my jaw growing more slack by the moment. Everybody’s affronted by clear evidence that the National Football League has been playing dumb for years and covering up what it knew about how unhealthy it can be for a man to have his clock cleaned every Sunday. Seriously? The NFL deserves to get its knuckles cracked—more than 765,000,000 times—for letting its lucrative human demolition derby go on and on, but we’re not dealing with a league of denial here. We live on a planet of denial. What sane player or fan would suppose that you could repeatedly slam your head against other heads, bodies, and the ground and not spend your retirement dazed or worse? And don’t say, “Oh, but they wear helmets.” Um, okay, but no protection is going to prevent your brain from smashing about your skull if your head smacks into a hard surface. My point: this Frontline program holds a truth, but it’s not about football. It’s about a society’s capacity for reason. I love to watch football, but how compassionate is it to watch men risk destroying themselves? Time to give it up.

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A Rolodex like Mom’s, except hers was an ugly orange. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Next: on October 10, 2013, the Erie Times-News carried a short article by Patrick May of the San Jose Mercury News: “Tech stress: With proliferation of digital devices, we’re freaking out.” (Side note: Nobody forwarded me the memorandum announcing the change in practice of capitalizing first letters of words in a title. I’m not against it, but it looks wrong.) Mike Kushner, co-owner of Palo Alto, California’s Bay Area Computer Solutions, describes the rabid stress techno-junkies live with: “We see people crying; we see people angry; we have people lash out at us because we can’t recover what they lost . . . . People are under incredible pressure these days because of how dependent everybody is on their computers and especially their smart phones.” Boy, I’ll tell you, all this iTechnology is, in the words of Rick Postma of Holland, Michigan, “slicker than a harpooned hippo in a banana tree.” My mother of blessed memory kept a $1.99 K-Mart Rolodex on her end table and never once cried or lashed out over lost contacts. Meanwhile, I and thousands of others suffer from, as May puts it, “’phantom vibration syndrome,’ that creepy sensation that your smart phone is buzzing in your purse or pocket when in fact it isn’t.” As an iPhone owner, I ask members of the tribe, “Have we lost all good sense?” Suspected truth: We have.

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“”The Good Samaritan” by Amie Morot.

Next: A few days ago fellow Starbucks barfly Alan stepped out outside on the porch where I was sitting, raised his closed eyes to the clouds, and took in a cosmic breath. “Yeah,” I said, “things could be a lot worse, huh?” Alan is Zen2 (tall, lanky, constant half-smile, slightly wild gray hair). He told me about a twenty-year-old guy he met at the Regional Cancer Center: “My throat cancer was nothing compared to what that guy had.” We breathed together a few times, then he bowed slightly and walked to his car, chewing his scone on the way. Truth: at every possible opportunity, close my eyes, breathe, and bow to my neighbor. (“And who is my neighbor?”)

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“I want a human being.” (Credit: Wisson/Jordan)

Next: I was standing in line at the bank. An old guy sat in an armchair and voiced a single desire into his cell phone:  “No, I want to talk to a human being. No, I want a human being. Any human being who’s there. No, I want a human being.” Of course, he was speaking to an automaton, but speaking a sane truth all the same. Is it too much to ask for a human being? On the phone? At the grocery store check out? On the front porch? I’d like to invent a social media just for this man. I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) name it Facebook. I’d just call it Face.

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A guitar in the sky brings me back to myself.

Finally: Micah needed a drum pad, so we stopped at Erie’s World of Music. As he walked to the door, I stayed in the car and reached for my iPhone—a habit, impulse. For no particular reason, as I thumbed my phone’s snotty leather cover, I looked out my window at the sky and saw a guitar. I used to park in that lot once a week for Micah’s drum lessons and never noticed that guitar next to the World of Music sign. A wordless question brought me to myself: John, aren’t there better things to look at than text messages, e-mails, and ABC’s news stories? Check out the guitar in the sky and while you’re at it, receive the sky.

I’ve don’t think objectivity exists, but I do believe in truths. Though I’m not smart enough to define them, I now have sightings. Truths rest at my feet or hover in the sky when I’m aware, when I breathe. I see them and give thanks. I feel like myself. I feel at home.

Mean: the New Normal

Begin with this: I’m no better than anyone else. Pick whomever you like: the haggard, rotten-toothed crack head; the Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not 1000-pounder who eats four rotisserie chickens for lunch; parents who treat their kids like dog crap. One environmental variable; one chromosomal kink; one impulsive, destructive choice: slip one of these into my row of biographical Dominos, and I’m not a marginally respectful fifty-one-year-old blogger and Lutheran pastor. I’m a vagrant, letch, junkie, inmate, whatever. Because of this truth, what follows is a peek at a sad sore on my spirit. Don’t picture my hands as fists.

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One mishap here, and I could be living under a bridge. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes midday oblivion is joyful. Imagine finishing a swim in warm water. Your blanket and towel are in the shade. When you lie down, the sand cradles your body. The breeze is so perfect it seems like part of your skin. Sliding into sleep, you think for a moment your head is resting against the chest of Merciful Eternity. Yeah.

Other times, midday oblivion is the bird—not a bird, but the bird. It’s weary, though reptilian, repartee with the world. It’s a mumbled f-bomb. It’s a wet Bronx cheer. It’s what you say as you shoot the moon. It’s your way of grunting, “Go pound sand.” Or it’s a sighed, “Enough already. You win. I’m taking a nap.”

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Credit: openclipart.org

Today’s oblivion won’t be the beach kind, and before a glorious siesta, I’m wagging my flaccid bird at meanness, which is epidemic. Unless I go to a monastery, I can’t seem to escape it—probably because my eye is now hypersensitive. Mean is everywhere.

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Even canned coffee is mean these days.

The other day my son Micah asked me to run him to the Exchange, a great used media store with friendly, helpful clerks. As he looked around, an ad for some World Wrestling Federation video played over and over on a flat screen in a corner near the ceiling. I stared up, slack-jawed. So many means to celebrate: sweaty, snarling, barking, slamming, glistening, hollering. And that’s just the gladiators. The crowd is in a constant, lathery rage.

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Amasis the Wrestler–grrrrr. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When an aching neck forced me to look down, I noticed that at eye level and below, no square inch of the Exchange goes unexploited. There’s junk for sale everywhere. Check out the gallery of confrontational action figures and other curiosities.

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Ew.

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Not one of Al Pacino’s finer moments, if you ask me.

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Sorry for the glare. What will scare a monster? Tell him Chuck Norris is hiding under his bed!

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Grrrr. Hulk pants too tight!

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At least the Joker laughs as he blows a puff of poison gas in your face.

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Bobble-heady Freddy. Needs dental work.

In fairness to the Exchange (did I mention the help is genuinely nice there?), not all items are angry.

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Most colorful of the Rolling Stones coaster set.

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$9.00? Seriously?

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Love M&M’s. Need ear buds. Not tempted.

The common denominator here? If an item isn’t quirky, it must be baring its teeth. Who would buy somebody under eighteen a psychopathic action figure? Only Chuck Norris isn’t a physiological aberration or demented killer. And what adult would collect such diabolical kitsch? The absurdity and ugliness are draining.

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Ah, that would be a “no” vote from Simon. (Credit: newsbiscuit.com)

Of course, the face of mean isn’t always ugly. Often it’s stylish and witty. Back when “American Idol” was hot I didn’t watch it. Not only was it excruciating to witness performances by kids whose parents had lied to them about their talent, but I also couldn’t hack Simon Cowell’s delight in explicating their failure. I don’t blame Simon—he’s probably a great guy—but he has certainly contributed to the evolution of a television menu that’s riddled with mean. If you want to watch a cooking program, one of your options provides chefs with bizarre ingredients—pork tenderloin, Oreos, arugula, merlot-infused goat cheese, and honeydew melon—then puts their concoctions before restaurateurs, one of whom cowells them over the head for creating gunk. Throw a cluster of narcissistic brats on an island or into a mansion and you’ve got reality television: look how rotten these characters can be to each other, how many ways they can lie to and betray each other. And now home improvement and remodeling shows are caught in mean’s gravitational pull. What’s-their-names, those handsome twin brothers, are now leading teams of competing remodelers, and the underachievers are going to be thrown onto the scrap heap. I can’t tell you the names of these shows, since I watch for a minute, then catch another wave. (By the way, is “Survivor” on anymore? I honestly don’t know.)

I wonder what lesson all this mean entertainment teaches us—and don’t even get me started on “Grand Theft Auto” and “The Human Centipede,” diversions that are beyond mean. If nothing else, I’d argue that the stimulation I’ve mentioned contributes to the normalization of mean.

After watching a movie in which humans are sewn together in the most unsavory way possible, what’s the big deal about posting an embarrassing picture of a friend on Facebook? When housemates shout bleeps and stab fingers in each other’s faces during primetime, a nasty text message seems benign, arriving as it does without eye contact.

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I imagine she’s actually very nice. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But what’s got me looking napward at the moment is more basic than cinema, games, Facebook, and cell phones. I’m tired out by good, old fashioned, face-to-face mean, mean tendered for no good reason, mean delivered because—ah, what the hell!—mean is normal, even hip. (I’ve no empirical evidence to support any of this preachiness—sorry.) My impression is this: contemporary snarl and snark, far from being frowned upon, is now a compelling fashion statement. Wrestling gladiators and movie action figures, with their teeth bared, are only the new normal reduced to caricature.

In this regrettable landscape, simple unfriendliness doesn’t register on the interpersonal Richter scale. Even those who claim to be religious can treat fellow human beings shabbily without any fallout of conscience. Lately a dear friend has shared news that those around her are repeatedly breaking author Anne Lamott’s Rule #2, which I paraphrase here: “Don’t be a [schmutz].” My friend’s been hurt, worn down by cold shoulders and passive aggression.

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Come here, kid. You’ve got schmutz on your face. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Truth be told, it’s actually my friend’s pain that’s tiring me out—a cordial, hard worker being pummeled by schmutzes. There’s no remedy for what’s certainly longstanding bad behavior that I’m stung by now only because I’m thin-skinned. All I can do is follow Voltaire’s advice that I cultivate my own flawed garden. And I can give loving, juicy raspberries to a world that seems extra mean today, then lie down. My hope: in sleep the only teeth I dream will be framed by smiles.

Thich Nhat Hanh visits Calligraphic Meditation Exhibition in Bangkok

Make a bobble-head Thich Nhat Hanh smiling at me, and I’ll buy one. (Credit: corbisimages.com)