What I Do Is Redd Up

What I Do Is Redd Up

$%&#! Ouch!

I want to be home by 3:00 this afternoon. A cluttered living room waits for me, as does an unmade bed and a kitchen that needs to be, as my mother used to say, redd up. In other words, the house requires attention before wife Kathy shows up at 6:00 p.m. with grandsons Cole and Killian in tow. For a couple of hours, we’ll act as spotters to boys who are constantly, gleefully careening toward a concussion. By the time daughter Elena picks them up, dirty dishes will have returned, and planes, trains and pterodactyls will be scattered everywhere, waiting for me to step on them and shout bad words. Clean up, mess up, repeat.

The person in charge of squalor control and hygiene restoration used to be called a housewife, an impoverished term to my ears. A job that involves cleaning, cooking and often child rearing deserves a more worthy title. Nobody is married to a house, nor does one’s marital status constitute a vocation.

But homemaker is a good fit. Creation is involved, as is purpose. A house isn’t a home until people related by blood or blessed ties find nurturing shelter there. Such a place can be ramshackle or palatial as long as at least one heart beats affection into the cupboards and windowsills.

Plenty of homes thrive without full-time tending, of course. Whoever can keep a house presentable, prepare healthy meals, do laundry, give children the attention they need and put shoulder to the wheel forty hours every week for a paycheck deserves credit. Props, bows and curtsies to them all, especially to those who have no choice.

That emphatically said, I have a soft spot for careers given to home and family. My mother spent much of her life that way. Dolly Coleman worked part-time at what she called the budget bakery and at the Boston Store, for decades the crown jewel of downtown Erie, but her identity was grounded in motherhood.

On the back of a well-worn cookbook . . . a housewife, perhaps?

My only reservation about Mom’s vocational history is the possibility that, like countless sisters of her generation, she was disheartened by a society that patronized women and kicked their intelligence to the curb. Housewife bore an implied prefix: just a.

Kathy went back and forth with staying at home and taking jobs. Regardless, she gave Elena and our son Micah amazing childhoods. Some parents can’t keep up with their kids, but my beloved had the distinction of outpacing her offspring. Never much for napping, Kathy was mistress of over-the-top fun, constructing cornstalk mazes in the backyard, going to legendary pains with Halloween decorations and building snow forts ad infinitum. She pouted when the kids weren’t game for the expeditions she cooked up.

A fidget blanket made by Elena Thompson, to calm the restless hands of a dementia patient

As it happened, one of our little acorns didn’t fall far from the oak. Elena and husband Matt decided that their issue were to be raised by a mother who would fill their days with joy and adventure. Capable though she is of employment, our talented daughter has been building a cottage industry of weighted and fidget blankets. Her household speaks of shalom, and her handiwork gives sleep to restless children and calm to dementia patients. Call Elena what you will, but don’t dare start off with just a.

A couple of years ago when I accepted a part-time call to serve St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, it was with the promise of writing time and the expectation that Pastor Coleman would lean into housework.

I know better than to call myself a homemaker. That profession—paid only with emotional currency—is broader in scope and deeper in sacrifice than I can manage. What I do is redd up. Ministry and writing are passions, but home duty now completes my vocational trinity.

Detail from Kathy’s throw on the couch

My job description has gradually written itself on my heart. 402 Parkway Drive should be presentable when Kathy gets home after eight hours of treating cancer patients. Why? Because she deserves a sanctuary: tidy counters, her throw—adorned with representations of sailing knots—draped neatly over the back of the couch, minutiae that threatens to take over the dining room table put away. Stepping across the threshold, she should drink from a cup running over with peace. She shouldn’t worry about dinner. She should leave the dishes to me.

The reason for my efforts, modest though they are, is love. Redding up is a gift. I’m no homemaker, but after thirty-five years with Kathy I’ve decided, against all logic, that being called her househusband would suit me just fine.

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I Want to Be “Decisive” When I Grow Up

I guess decisive is the word. Maybe it’s convinced. Or certain. But since I’m fifty-something, the question of what I’ll be when I grow up is academic.

I am what I am, which is discerning. Discernment’s pace toward decisions is stately. It’s focused, but patient. That’s me. I’m comfortable with interesting and hmm. No need to stampede toward conclusions.

Practically speaking, I’m how rich and what poor. I know, for example, how to sit with people and listen, but am nearly clueless when it comes to what they should do. I can figure out how to string sentences together, but readers these days pay to be told what to do, and I suck at that. After “secure that smartphone and pay attention to your kid, wife, husband, and ferret Rafael,” my prescriptions run out.

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Raphael (Credit: Wikipedia)

My life-management skills are sketchy. Walking with you? That I can do. Giving you a plan or grid or diet? Don’t look at me. This is a suspect orientation for a Lutheran pastor and writer. Men who get paid to wag their chins on Sunday mornings and volunteer their personal essays for Internet consumption should clarify more often than mystify.

Here’s a brief study in what I’m bleating about. If I were a decisive grown up, you would be reading a compelling case for one of the characters currently plotting to be President of the United States of America. What a rush it would be to write with the conviction of, say, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who can tell you exactly whom to vote for and why.

I wish. Like hundreds of thoughtful citizens, I’ve been grazing in the unkempt fields of campaign coverage and punditry. Two states into the meal, I’ve strayed into gray pastures, nauseous with uncertainty. What I’ve got to say may feel good, but mostly as a purgative.

  • Does the news media manufacture—or at least feed—nerved up realities? Why the breathless, urgent reactions to voting in two Wonder Bread states—no insult intended (Iowa: 92.1% white; New Hampshire: 94% white)? Talk about racism! The suggestion that any candidate is already washed up comes from a malnourished perspective. Would Harry Carry have declared the game over if the Cubs gave up a couple of runs in the first inning? Do cancer patients call off chemotherapy when hair starts to fall out? Come on.
  • What is the most important consideration in voting for President of the United States? Platform? Experience? Promises? Charisma? The older I get, the more I care about intelligence and integrity. Maybe this concern grows out of my cynical hunch that some candidates don’t believe in much of anything—a whoredom that trumps all other prostitutions. I remember decades ago elders saying that they would vote for somebody from the other party; they rooted for the best person for the job. The sentiment is worth revisiting. How much stock should we place in a candidate’s humanity? You can study up on economics. But can you acquire character?
  • Is a revolution really the best corrective to our current governmental dysfunction? I acknowledge the appeal of a righteous battle, the blood rush and passion, the idealism and purity, the triumph of justice and common sense. There’s no shortage of revolts being proposed as we all pant for the results in South Carolina and Nevada. Bernie Sanders has employed the r-word itself. Other candidates vary the diction but stump in the same genre. Although I’m not without sympathy for Sanders’ uprising and even saw merit in Ron Paul’s long-shot crusade, revolutions have drawbacks. The Tea Party has been throwing everything not bolted down into the Potomac for a few years now, which has done nothing but dam up the government. How likely is it, then, that another revolution would yield better results? Nothing beats the language of war for whipping voters into a bloody foam, but if brawling remains our go-to legislative strategy, we’ll have to name Mathew Brady our Capital Hill Photographer. And 2.) losers in a revolution—and there can’t not be losers—go home pissed off and start plotting their revenge.

I could happily go on, speculating about the place of objective truth (what little there is) and manners in politics, but who really wants to follow me further into what started as a dreary example of one Lutheran pastor’s turn of mind?

The point, for anybody still awake, is me—by which I mean, maybe you, too. I’ll put myself in your shoes. Let’s see if I’m warm.

  • Every day is a litany of fast judgments and flawless answers. Television knows the best seat for surviving a plane crash and how to weave to escape a shooter. Family-friends-whoever cure timeless worldly ills with one flippant sentence. The lovely can transform the normal for three easy payments. You say, “I wish I were so sure.” Or “How can anybody be so impossibly full of crap?”
  • You’re overwhelmed, weary with information, each expert shaking you by the lapels. Even as you purchase another plan, your own wisdom speaks: “Tend first to your troubled heart, beloved.” “Hush up,” you respond, for the hundredth time, and swipe your credit card.
  • Part of you hangs onto the belief that you’ll feel settled eventually, at peace and complete. You’ll be grown up, a finished human being.
  • Then, sweet then: questions and doubts will fall silent. You won’t be vulnerable anymore. You won’t have to be humble either, but you will.
  • Long before the polls open, your choice will be set.

If your shoes don’t fit me, please forgive my presumption. But if they do, I’m guessing you have balm for humanity in your soul. If only somebody would listen, you would say, “Let’s pay attention to how we treat each other. Then what we should do to fix the world would be clear.”

As for me, I’m not decisive enough to speak up–afraid of sounding frivilous. Until I grow up, I’ll just say that I’m discerning.

Why All This Crazy Killing? America’s Rights Addiction

Dear Friends,

The following essay first appeared under a different title on A Napper’s Companion in April of 2013. I had about -10 followers at that time, so my 2700+ words amounted to whistling into the wind. So I’m dusting off this old post, stripping it of photographs, and raising it up the flagpole again.

Why am I repeating myself? Yesterday morning, yet another kid walked into yet another classroom and started shooting, this time at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College. Add one more wretched absurdity to our national profile. This long, detail-heavy, occasionally sarcastic, probably boring rant still stands as my opinion of what ails America and has us paralyzed in the face of a shameful body count.

This is your last chance. Everything below the pizza is an absolute bummer. If you’re having a good day, save this for one when you’re already in a funk.

Love and peace,

John

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“Hello, yes, I’d like to order a one-acre pizza with cheese, pepperoni, and mushrooms for pick up.” (Credit: Jon Sullivan on Wikimedia Commons)

In late January of 2013, a boy’s stunned, pale face greeted me on msn.com along with this headline: “Teen: horror movie inspired crime.” “Here we go again,” I thought, but clicked on horror anyway. If you don’t want to feel sick, don’t read on.

On October 3, 2012, Jake Evans (17) killed his sister Mallory (15) and mother Jami. In a four-page confession, Jake explained that he’d watched Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween several times earlier in the week, and the movie got him thinking. “While watching it I was amazed at how at ease the boy was during the murders and how little remorse he had. Afterward, I was thinking to myself it would be the same for me when I kill someone” (dailymail.co.uk). He planned to use a knife, but he thought some more: “If I were to kill my mom and Mallory, I wouldn’t want them to feel anything, so I decided to kill them both with the .22 revolver I stole from my Grandpa.”

Since Jake’s aim was sloppy, his sister died hard. He told the 911 dispatcher, “This is really going to mess me up in the future” and “I’m really worried about, like, nightmares and stuff like that. Are there any times [sic] of medications, and stuff?” Jake ends his written confession by summarizing all his stuff: “I know now though that I’m done with killing. It’s the most dreadful and terrifying thing I will ever experience. And what happened last night will haunt me forever” (dailymail.co.uk).

Jake still has family left, though he doesn’t want to see them. His father and two other sisters weren’t at home at the time of the killings. Red-headed Mallory looked like a cross country runner you’d see featured in the hometown newspaper. Jami appeared precisely forty-eight years old, probably wished God had given her more or a chin, and like many of us in middle age, carried a few surplus pounds; same with her husband. Jake looks like a lanky kid who’d help push your stalled car to the berm and say, “No problem.” His surviving sisters look like peas from the family pod. In short, the Evans were normal-looking, well-groomed white folk from the affluent Fort Worth suburb of Aledo.

Of course, something was amiss, with Jake if with nobody else. He had breathtaking mental illness. And yet, his 911 call and the last lines of his confession demonstrate a mindset that’s yanking America along as if by a nose ring: shooting his mother and sister was “dreadful and terrifying” for [Jake]; his sister’s screaming is really going to mess [Jake] up in the future; the experience “will haunt [Jake] forever.” The kid’s narcissism is glaring, but if we think the germ that was lethal in him isn’t making America sick, we’re kidding ourselves.

Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Sueng-Hoi Cho, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold: the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre isn’t the only American who has called them monsters and lunatics. It’s hard to blame folks for using these words, resonating as they do with our collective rage and dismay. The trouble with such labels, however, is they provide cover for us law-abiding citizens as we ignore our own inconspicuous lunacy. If we can put all Auroras at the feet of sick monsters with assault weapons, the rest of us can give ourselves a clean bill of health. Right?

I don’t think so. We Americans are rights junkies. Not all of us, of course, not even most of us, but the news is packed with stories of people who do lousy things simply because it’s their right. Many would argue that this addiction is healthy, even patriotic—Don’t Tread on Me! But rights, like all wholesome things, are best consumed in moderation.

Admit it: American’s don’t do moderation very well. We binge on practically everything. According to theweek.com, Americans consume 36,500 acres of pizza each year—that’s 1,327 Ellis Islands of pies; solutiondown.com spins the numbers differently, allotting each of us 23 pounds of pizza annually; we like fries even more, 29 pounds yearly. And we can’t get enough of ourselves either.  Smartmoney.com notes that in 2010 Americans spent $33.3 billion on cosmetics and other beauty products; oprah.com has us spending $10,677,415,674.00 on cosmetic procedures that same year. It’s an odd curse: we eat like pachyderms, but can’t stop looking in the mirror. Is it fair to say we Americans can be stuck on ourselves?

In The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude, Dr. P. M. Forni of Johns Hopkins University explains what happens when stuck on myself evolves into sucks to be you: “When the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization turns into self-absorption, other people can lose their intrinsic value in our eyes and become mere means to the fulfillment of our needs and desires.”

Jake Evans’ confession and 911-transcript are part of the story of extreme mental illness, but his me-me-me thinking poses questions to the rest of us garden-variety neurotics: Has “the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization” in America turned into “self-absorption”? And have other people lost “their intrinsic value in our eyes”? I think so and suggest that our narcissism has combined with a lust for individual rights to create a super virus. What we the people are allowed to do with constitutional protection has become what we should to do with a clear conscience. The result: our sense of individual rights has become perverted.

Most of the studies I’ve come across on the rise of narcissism pin the problem on young people, which may explain why some of the mass murderers of late are committed by males in their teens or early twenties. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, which received lots of attention when it came out in 2010, claims that narcissism is as prevalent among college students as obesity. And according to the American Freshman Survey, published yearly by the Higher Education Research Institution at UCLA, narcissism among young people is at a fifty-year high (dailycaller.com). Like Dr. Jim Taylor, however, I think our problem cuts across age groups. In “Narcissism: On the Rise in America?” he writes, “The indifference, egotism, disrespect and lack of consideration that are central to narcissism are also reflective of the increasingly polarized and vitriolic tone of our current body politic, recent unethical corporate behavior, the rise in cheating among students in school and the gamut of bad behavior among professional athletes” (huffingtonpost.com).

The statistics may say that young people are this country’s leading narcissists, but as Taylor suggests, you need only look around to see that all generations are getting in on the fun. And by fun I mean, morally scurvy behavior that’s technically legal. The United States of America is by definition a country of freedom, which means that people who exercise their rights without a sense of responsibility are protected. So be it. Telling a child he’ll never amount to anything is free speech. I don’t think you’re legally bound to correct the waiter or waitress who leaves that shrimp scampi off your bill. You can invest in a company that makes life a misery for its employees—it’s probably profitable. We can’t go ten minutes without tripping over a right.

Nancy Lanza was within her rights to amass the arsenal that her son put to sinister use. So were the Pennsylvanians who, according to pennlive.com, responded to Sandy Hook by purchasing 133,241 firearms in December of 2012 (versus 84,486 in December of 2011). No law stands in the way of Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween. Interested in making a great deal of money? Market a video game like Activision’s Call of Duty.

There’s no proof that repeated viewings of Halloween enticed Jake Evans to kill his mother and sister. And while pilots frequently hone their skills on flight simulators, nobody can prove that Adam Lanza’s endless hours spent in his boy cave pretending to cut enemies down in Call of Duty had anything to do with his massacre of the innocents in Newtown (nypost.com). If you believe Wayne LaPierre, the solution to gun violence is more guns; all teachers ought to be packing.

Of course, in the middle of acres of rights exercised out of simple greed and selfishness, serious artists take heat for legitimately challenging us. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was protested by theologically constipated Christians, but I found the film thoughtful and daring. Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photography unsettles me, but I suspect that was part of his purpose. Defending his “Piss Christ” photograph, Andres Serrano challenges Christians to consider the full horror of the crucifixion (guardian.co.uk.com). Anne Sexton’s poetry is graphic, but if ever I trusted that a poet was burning to get human beings to acknowledge her particular experience, I trust Sexton.

I trust the authenticity of Scorsese, Mapplethorpe, Sexton, et. al., but I don’t trust those who accept no responsibility in consideration of their right to free speech. That doesn’t mean I’m about censoring them. But trust them, respect them? No. (Point of clarification: if you could walk into a movie theater, kill twelve people and wound fifty-eight others with a poem, I’d favor some poem control. But the poets and serious artists I know aren’t the shrill voices in America’s rights-binge debate, and Mapplethorpe’s photographs, as far as I know, never led anyone to massacre others with whips and fists.)

For reasons I don’t understand, reading about Mallory and Jami Evans so soon after Sandy Hook has proven my tipping point, my enough moment. Since I first saw Jake Evans, another young face has looked out from msn.com. Somebody please show me a sweeter-looking kid than Hadiya Pendleton, the fifteen-year-old Chicago honor student who was shot and killed days after performing with her school band at Obama’s inauguration. Michael Ward (18) and Kenneth Williams (20) apparently thought Hadiya was part of a gang trespassing on their turf, so Ward fired into her group of friends huddled in a bus stop, and Williams drove the getaway car (usnews.nbcnews.com).

It’s actually odd that these gangbangers were caught. According to nation.time.com, “In 2012, 506 people were killed in [Chicago]. Only 25% of those murders were solved.” Obviously hundreds of people with faces less lovely than Pendleton’s are being cut down, plenty of them kids who aren’t in school bands. And the trouble is, so many are dying coast to coast that we the people are at our wits’ end. It’s been about three months since Adam Lanza opened fire, and slate.com estimates that another 2,605 people have been shot and killed. (Update: as of April 19, 2013, the number stands at 3,526.) (Update: as of April 15, 2015, we were at 82,033.)

The Violence Policy Center, a pro-gun control organization, notes that in 2012, there were “31,326 gun-related deaths nationwide” (slate.com). That’s 10.9 of every 100,000 citizens. So what explains the roughly 1,119 Sandy Hooks of various denominations we had in the United States in 2012? Nobody seems willing to contemplate, much less admit, any personal responsibility for or even indirect participation in the carnage.

Don’t blame the NRA. Wayne LaPierre and company are only protecting Americans’ Second Amendment rights. In 1999, the NRA ran an ad in USA Today stating, “We believe it’s reasonable to provide for instant background checks at gun shows, just like gun stores and pawn shops.” Now it’s Charlton Heston all the way: you can have my gun when you pry it “from my cold, dead hands.”

Don’t blame James Wan, director of the 2004 film Saw. (In one scene, a young guy has sixty seconds to dig a key out from behind his eyeball or a mask of nails called a Venus Fly Trap will snap shut, with unfortunate results; I won’t ruin it for you.) Don’t be too hard on Tom Six for his 2009 First Amendment tour de force, The Human Centipede. (How are the three humans in this bug sewn together? Imagine the worst.) Rob Zombie was only commenting honestly when he said in a vanityfair.com interview, “I don’t think my movies have a lesson. Or if they do, I guess it’s that it’s a f—ed up world and you’re probably f—ed too.” Nobody in this genre of the film-making industry is at fault; watching folks lose their intrinsic value in tormented, demeaning ways can do viewers no harm.

Don’t blame Rockstar Games for producing Grand Theft Auto or Activision for Call of Duty or parents for letting their kids play with these killing simulators. The latter’s Modern Warfare 3 grossed $775,000 in its first five days on the shelves—that’s over ¾ of a billion sweet expressions of free speech (guardian.co.uk). And about the former, one video game enthusiast tells me that you—you being, say, an eleven-year-old boy—can hire a prostitute, have your way with her, shoot her, take your money back, then speed off to other adventures. No matter. The Entertainment Software Association assures us that “years of extensive research . . . has shown no connection between entertainment and real-life violence” (newyork.newsday.com). (So you don’t think I’m pretending to be guiltless, I’ve let violent games and movies into my home. I regret that.)

Don’t blame citizens who reject outright the possibility that even the most miniscule limitations placed on weapons and magazines might save a life or two. Restrictions only punish law-abiding gun owners. Besides, any more gun control measures will shove America down a slippery slope, resulting in the Second Amendment falling off the constitutional cliff.

In short, as long as my DNA isn’t on the AR-15, I’m acquitted. As long as nobody can put me at the scene of the crime, I’m behaving like a responsible citizen. This is the epidemic logic of our time. It’s also the self-absorbed reasoning of a rights junkie.

It should not, however, be the reasoning of unselfish citizens of conscience. When deciding whether to exercise a right, I should consider how my constitutionally protected words or actions might impact others, whether I know them or not. Rights and responsibilities have to be held in healthy tension.

Bud McKelvey of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, strikes a nice balance. His February 7, 2013 letter to the editor of the Erie Times-News, two excerpts of which I share here, is encouraging: “When I bought my first pistol, I was told that there was a five-day waiting period before I could get my gun. The five days were to check my background. The exact words I told the gun dealer were ‘I don’t care if it takes you a month. I have nothing to worry about.’” And “I’m a firm believer in the Second Amendment, but when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they didn’t have weapons that could fire 600 rounds a minute, and at the time, the British had their soldiers quartered in the colonies. Naturally, they wanted everyone to be able to keep and bear arms. They didn’t mean for people to be able to slaughter their neighbors and groups of people.”

Bud McKelvey understands that, to paraphrase an old high school Problems of Democracy teacher, his rights end where his neighbor’s nose begins. “And who is my neighbor?” It takes only a small leap of compassion to recognize that my neighbors live not only next door, but in Newtown and Aurora and beyond. “Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper?” Bloody right I am! I envision the faces of my many friends and family members whose spiritual beliefs are all over the map, and while they may not agree entirely with my argument here, I bet they’d answer Cain’s question as I do. Most Americans probably would, too: I am my sister’s and brother’s keeper. If I have to ask whether somebody is my neighbor, I already have the answer. Most Americans, not necessarily those with the loudest voices, know this.

At last, then, I land in a naïve, idealistic place. No matter what legislation sneaks through Washington, our body count will be disconcerting until our national rights binge abates. Before speaking freely, I ought to wonder whether my message might unnecessarily harm others. Before demanding unlimited access to weapons with frightening power, I could acknowledge that some limits are reasonable. It wouldn’t make for safe and sane roads if I could put a GE90-115B jet engine in my Mazda 4×4; a magazine with a 100-round capacity poses the same kind of hazard. Before doing anything at all, I should ask myself if my words or actions are in any way helpful, challenging, or constructive.

In land of the free and the home of the brave, our greatest patriots are often those who decide, for the sake of the common good, to refrain now and then from exercising their constitutional rights.

An Advent Descant

Starbucks, 6:27 p.m.: Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” keeps playing in my brain. His whistling descant during the second chorus always makes me think of Dad, God rest him, an All-American whistler with a spry warble. The only song more blue is “Christmas Time Is Here.”

In the 1954 film White Christmas, Crosby sings to soldiers far from home, and by the time he gets to “may your days be merry and bright,” their heads are sagging. About twenty years later in A Charlie Brown Christmas, “snowflakes [are] in the air” and “carols [are] everywhere.” As kids skate on a frozen pond, Linus tells a depressed Charlie Brown, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Brown-iest.”

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Opinion: Charlie Brown understands Advent. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Both of these Christmas favorites sing about a complicated season. The lyrics are glad and wistful, but the music is melancholy, maybe for good reason. Does your Christmas spirit ever reach your mountaintop of expectation? As December 25th approaches, do you find yourself waiting for the doors of your soul to fly open and unfettered joy to blow in with snowflakes and sleigh bells? Never happens that way, right? (If your Christmas bliss is unbridled, I’m happy for you—honest.)

My Advent and Christmas moods follow the Buddy System. No emotion goes even to the lavatory alone. I’ve worn Khalil Gibran’s words from The Prophet thin because they fit:

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. 

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When sorrow sits alone with me at my dining room table, remembering that joy sleeps on my sofa saves me.

Last night at church, kids sang and made popsicle-stick Christmas trees. Cookies were everywhere. In my imagination Grandma Coleman’s molasses cookies joined the abundance. I could smell them. As children had fun, the beloved dead stirred in my soul.

Trees in the distance, snowless this December 5th, are bloodshot-gray veins against the Lake Erie sky—tender, lovely. A few hundred miles to my east, citizens under the Hudson River sky protest a guy choked to death for selling loose cigarettes. I receive the nonchalant blessing of an in-breath and an out-breath. Still, a cry echoes, “I can’t breathe!”

I’m stubborn enough to believe that joy will have the last cosmic word, but, man, is sorrow injecting anabolic steroids this Advent of 2014. (Blogger’s note: If you already know that creation is groaning in labor pains and don’t want details, skip to #4, which is a benign kvetch.) To wit . . .

1.) “Don’t shoot.” “I can’t breathe.” What will the next mantra be? How many wrongs can be packed into one historical narrative? Let’s see.

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Birmingham high school students being hosed while on a peaceful walk, 1963. (Credit: Charles Moore on Wikipedia)

a.) No argument: throughout American history, blacks have been shat upon. Until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, abuses were not only unapologetic, but lusty. Since then, slow progress has been lacerated in ways obvious to blacks and unconvincing to some whites. Most blacks, I gather, have misgivings about the police. They have either experienced unfair treatment (e.g. profiling) or know somebody who has. Or maybe they have been regarded by a cop with unwarranted suspicion. Or maybe they have been on the wrong end of a fire hose in Birmingham. Whatever the case, blacks of all levels of education and income aren’t feeling the love. Their convictions, of course, aren’t based solely on encounters with law enforcement. I bet every black citizen has absorbed the unprovoked disdain of a white stranger at least once. Such experiences must freezer-burn one’s DNA permanently.

b.) The news coverage of Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland is muddy. The excerpt of George Stephanopoulos’ November 25, 2014, interview with Darren Wilson that ran on ABC Evening News was a slam-dunk for the Ferguson cop, at least to this viewer’s eyes. Some days later on PBS’s Democracy Now, which leans decidedly to the left, an interviewee noted that sixteen of eighteen eyewitnesses to Michael Brown’s shooting claimed the kid clearly had his hands up. In this case, a grand jury saw things Wilson’s way. But the treatment of Staten Island’s Eric Garner on July 17, 2014, is on YouTube for all to see, as is John Stewart’s rant about a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who administered what looks for all the world like a forbidden chokehold. (I’ll toss in that flattening Garner’s head into the sidewalk seems excessive, too.) So blacks who were pissed after Ferguson went berserk after Staten Island. Any white folks paying attention should start, well, paying attention.

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Police Officer Ray Albers, who was captured on video pointing his weapon at peaceful protestors and cursing. Before he was identified, he was known on social media as “Officer Go Fuck Yourself.” He resigned soon thereafter. (Credit: Wikipedia)

c.) Speaking of understandabilities, looting businesses and torching real estate are perhaps predictable mob responses to injustice, but thievery and flames are self-mutilation taken to a community level. Innocents on the home team have lost much in what television news calls “protests.”

d.) I won’t parse the shooting of Cleveland twelve-year-old Tamir Rice other than to point out something I’ve not heard mentioned in the conversation. Why is it okay for manufacturers to make toy guns that look unmistakably like the real thing? All you have to do is cut the impotent little orange tip off and you’ve got a weapon. In the dark a squirt gun could look convincing, I suppose, but are realistic airsoft guns necessary? Don’t bother citing the First or Second Amendments. I’m tired of clever folks lining their pockets by exploiting the noble intentions of the Constitution.

e.) A-whole-nother side of wrong is the untenable situation police officers face each day. Nothing less than perfection is tolerable in the new millennium. Never mind that human beings are increasingly expected to maintain sparkling performance with dwindling resources. Punishment is an imposing presence. A teacher makes a knee-jerk, cruel remark to a student. A nurse administers the wrong medication. And, yes, a cop who has dealt on his shift with three noncompliant citizens pops his cork in subduing the fourth. I don’t mean to excuse any behavior, but to acknowledge what I see as a reality. In all professions, the margin for error is literally razor thin, and forgiveness is in short supply.

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Bill Cosby in 1969. (Credit: Wikipedia)

2.) Oh, Bill Cosby! Oh, Dr. Huxtable, who wore Christmas sweaters so well! If he drugged and raped women, then, in the words of Queen, “Another one bites the dust.” If Cosby harmed any woman in one of the most profound ways possible, then who was he channeling when he complained about blacks “with pants down around the crack”? But if twenty-six women are out to lynch an entirely innocent Cosby–how likely is that?–then we have another lousy statement about the human condition. Whatever the case, there are no winners; only ugliness all around.

3.) Here’s an odd thought for the list. In an April 12, 2012 Washington Post editorial, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein—left and right, respectively, and both well respected—claim that the current G.O.P. is “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; [and] unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science.” More and more I get the feeling that Mann and Ornstein have their fingers on our collective pulse. I would love to be corrected on this, but it seems to me that lots of us have our rancorous heels dug in. We mistake our fancies and hunches for certainties. Actual facts are greased pigs, but if you manage to secure one, expect to be dismissed with a sniff and a Bronx cheer. The point: our foundation for societal negotiation is cracked, our collection of shared assumptions depleted.

4.) Finally, on an irrelevant, purely selfish front, I’m filing a complaint against restroom hand dryers. How can machine blow hot air at a velocity that makes your skin ripple and still not dry your hands? When deprived of the paper towel option, I always exit feeling unkempt. Yes, a few extra seconds of vigorous hand rubbing would finish the drying job, but I reserve the right to be petty in this small matter. The head gets enough of my time as it is.

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If this were a decent photograph of a hand dryer, you could see that the little arrow at the bottom says, “FEEL THE POWER.” I want to get a Dymowriter and cover “POWER” with “FRUSTRATION.” (Crappy Credit: John Coleman)

My last grievance notwithstanding, sorrow has one advantage over joy: sorrow tends to arrive like a freight train blasting its horn, whereas joy springs like a chocolate lab puppy from a Christmas box and quietly sniffs and licks your face. Sorrow carries a big stick; joy walks softly.

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Joy happens by like this guy named Brownie. Yes, I, John Coleman, am trite! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Consider twelve-year-old Devonte Hart of Portland, Oregon. At a protest about the death of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, the boy held a sign that said, “Free hugs.” The photograph of Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum and Hart hugging went viral.

Of course, as many an Internet cynic has claimed, the hug may have been staged. (I fell for a YouTube video showing a bicyclist being chased by a bear, so I’m not the most astute viewer.) Even so, I object to Jonathan Jones, a Brit who, writing in The Guardian, takes Facebook subscribers to the woodshed for their over 400,000 shares of the hug photograph: “Each one of those shares is a choice of what to see and what not to see. In the context of the completely unresolved and immensely troubling situation, not just in Ferguson but across the United States, where Ferguson has opened wounds that go back centuries, this picture is a blatant lie.”

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Officer Bret Barnum and Devonte Hart in “the Hug” (Credit: Johnny Nguyen / AP Photograph in The Guardian)

One can’t help but envy Jones’ clairvoyance and nimble reasoning! As if he can see into my heart and mind and understand the meaning I assign to any photograph! As if sharing a photograph means that any Facebook viewer is in denial about what troubles America. As if—just one more—any roundhouse-throwing art critic gets to decide what muse speaks a helpful word to suffering citizens. I didn’t share the photograph on Facebook, but I’ll bet most of the 400,000 who did took the kid’s and the cop’s embrace not as a reflection of where American race relations now stand, but as a vision of where they ought to be. To me, the image doesn’t scream from atop a phony soapbox. It whispers hope into the patriotic dreamer’s ear. It’s the lab’s cold little nose brushed against America’s cheek. It’s a whistle over a familiar melody.

And consider Lori Burke. I mentioned a while back kids having cookies at church. The reason kids and adults showed up was to join in a sing-along led by Lori, which the latter enjoyed as much as the former. During snacks and crafts, she shared with me an idea in gestation. She already has a couple of CDs out as well as a popular parody of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” on YouTube.

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Lori Burke . . . sing it, sister! (Credit: loriburke.com)

Now, Lori would love to start a movement of sorts. She has got a name—For the Love—and is now fussing with how best to communicate it. For the Love is Lori’s developing vision for helping us all to grow into the habit of showing kindness and generosity to strangers. She mentioned a couple of possible For the Love logos and at one point said “hashtag,” which means she has Twitter thoughts. I’ve never quite understood hashtags, but I’m rooting for this sacred sister.

This is how joy happens: two people kibitz and think out loud. “What can I do?” Lori wonders, then decides to trying something. Maybe. We’ll see. No matter what happens, the impulse to encourage sisters and brothers to love each other is just a crumb. A mustard seed. A widow’s mite. In other words, Lori’s impulse is everything—a fragile wish, a helpless mutt, the Indwelling hope of the world. Salvation depends on crumbs.

Endnote

In recent days “White Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here” have been replaced by Dean “Dino” Martin’s rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” in which he calls the hero “Rudy.” In the last stanza, all the reindeer “shouted out with glee, Rudy the Red-Beaked Reindeer, you’ll go down in history.” Oh, Dino, you casual fellow! Your song goes into the complaint file with those hand dryers.

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Don’t even think of calling me Rudy. And I can’t breathe out of my beak. What the hey? (Credit: aussiegall on Wikimedia Commons)

 

Frass from Your Oddest Planetary Brother

My list of miscellaneous notes has grown long enough to tip over. Some subjects are worthy of mention, but not full treatment. So I offer what follows as a kind of frassy salad. Reviewing a couple month’s worth of scribblings, I’m hesitant. If you read on, there’s no way to un-know what you’ll stumble upon. An idea or two might make you want to scour your mind with Ajax. And I’m pretty sure you’ll conclude that I’m about your oddest planetary brother. All this said, here’s the list. Have smelling salts handy.

1. We’ll start with the benign and merely annoying. Some mornings after dropping off wife Kathy at Erie’s Regional Cancer Center, I stop at a grocery store for a quick grab: cranberry juice, newspaper, sugar-free dark chocolate (don’t eat too much or you’ll have explosive flatulence). At 7:40, you might expect a quick transaction. Nope. About an hour ago, two lanes were open. One was occupied by a guy who had a lot on the belt, including a bizarre number of darkish bananas. At the other, a polite woman wanted smokes, but the cashier had to call for a manager to fetch them. Oh bother. Here’s the trouble: the store has roughly an acre of self-checkouts! Of course, none of them were open. In the most nonchalant way possible, I asked why. “They don’t open till 9:00.” I had already figured out the reason: somebody has to be standing by to troubleshoot. So this is a convenience how?

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Handy self-checkouts . . . useful as dog turds on a skating rink!

Additional consumer incident: a couple weeks ago Kathy and I wanted to buy a chair at Bon Ton. We had a little time at around 8:00 p.m., went to the store, and located the chair. Kathy went on a reconnaissance mission to find an employee. I was beginning to think Rapture when she finally returned, slack faced. A cashier in another department informed her that we could not buy the chair, since nobody was working in Furniture. We walked out of the deserted store in silence, expecting to encounter tumbleweed or Rod Serling. I did say that Bon Ton could sit on what was supposed to be my new prayer chair with atomic force, and I wasn’t going to make the purchase on principle. Kathy returned the next day and bought it. Whatever.

2. I did away with my graying beard last week for a reason you’ve probably never heard. If I go any length of days without shaving, a dozen hairs sprout from my lower lip. Not from the flesh just south of my lip, but my lip. You know, the landing strip for Chapstick. So now I’m baby faced, not that anyone takes much notice. It’s not like when George Clooney or Brad Pitt shave off their ugly-ass beards and everybody, men included, are relieved. I’ll also mention that I can no longer dig wax out of my left ear with a fingernail, since a tuft of hair has taken up residence on my eardrum–at least I assume it’s hair. Could be moss. “What’s next?” I ask myself. I’m hoping not to experience the fate of the Coleman’s beloved lab mix Watson, who has a stiff, inch-and-a-half bunch of silver hairs growing bull’s-eye center out of his rump-hole. It’s a marvel, but kind of pathetic.

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Watson years ago ready for trick-or-treating–before his unfortunate hair event.

3. Just now, Starbucks friend Barb handed me a gift card. How sweet! We were talking about miscellaneous topics, and I mentioned the kidnapped school girls in Nigeria and the South Korean kids who went down with the ship. “It’s your day off,” Barb said. “Happy thoughts.” Thanks, sister.

4. The Coleman family is about to get our 1981 Electric Commuticar back on the road after repairs made by Renaissance son-in-law Matt. Behold:

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The “Goudalet,” so named because somebody told the previous owner that the car looks like a wedge of gouda cheese approaching. Kathy will be driving this bad boy to work.

5. Talented photographer-writer friend Mary Birdsong told me that the term for caterpillar poop is frass. Though spellcheck denies it, frass covers multiple varieties of insect droppings. (Side note: Mary took what I think is a stunning macro-photograph of a butterfly that will grace the cover of a frassy book I’ve got coming out in June. It’s called Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs . . . and Other Wonders Before Your Time. This collection of notes will get handed to my grandchildren when they come of age. Meanwhile, you can read it if you want. Watch for details, please!

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“Daily Minder”: 1.) Eat leaf. 2.) Drop frass pellets. 3.) Eat another leaf. 4.) Drop more frass pellets. (Credit: Wikipedia)

6. Thoughtful friend and fellow Lutheran pastor Mark Fischer posted on Facebook the following quote from President Eisenhower, which comes from an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 16, 1953. I reserve my only comment for the caption:

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Ike was a Republican, right?

7. For nearly twenty years I’ve written pretty much in solitary confinement. That is to say, I seldom write more than an hour a day and have had minimal contact with other writers. I think that this fact is partly to blame for my present need to reconsider my use of contractions. How stupid is that? I’ve published a decent pile of work with another book on the way (though the upcoming one is indie published–so be it), and at fifty-two years old, I’m rummaging around with the apostrophe. Here’s the rule I’ve come up with: if a contraction has more than one possible meaning, scrap it. Example: Bush’s beans can mean beans belonging to Bush or Bush is, as a person, beans. Avoiding confusion trumps casual tone.

8. Here are a couple of delightful additions to my vocabulary of expressions. Wife Kathy mentioned the first: “rode hard and put away wet.” Urban Dictionary‘s illustration: “when someone has not taken care of a horse after a hard day.” Ah, so many possibilities here. The other two come from friend and parishioner Judi Pacileo: shoveling smoke, which means worrying about and planning for something that probably won’t happen; and chin wagging, which refers to fun, relaxed conversation. Enjoy!

9. I’m oddly proud of grandson Cole, who at five months old swore for the first time when he was out shopping with Mommy and Grandma. Mommy (Elena) captured the moment for us all:

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Proud Grandma Kathy with our future Mensa grandson, who seems to be saying, “Guys don’t like shopping.” I’m a little verklempt here!

10. Speaking of Cole, I baptized the little pootums this past Sunday. I should say we because my sister Cindy, also a Lutheran pastor, and I splashed the water and said the words together. Such a joy. But I mentioned to you that by the time you finish this sophomoric slog, you’ll consider me a weirdo–and probably a heretic. Here’s the deal: Cole’s sponsor (Godfather) is my son Micah. Elena and son-in-law Matt asked me if that would be okay. There’s only one snag: Micah is an atheist. My first thought was, “Aw, shit!” But I did what I always do. Prayed, sat with the issue. And a sacred irony settled on my heart. Most sponsors or Godfathers or Godmothers are frankly nothing of the sort. Most are given this awesome responsibility because they’re somebody special in the parents’ or kiddo’s life. And I’ll wager fully one half of sponsors-Godparents never acknowledge what ends up being an honorary title. Never. Ever. With thoughtful atheist Micah, Cole is going to get an honest-to-goodness spiritual companion, somebody who will accompany him where his spirit takes him. As a matter of fact, Cole will learn from Micah a distinctly Christian gentleness and sense of mercy and justice. There were promises in the baptismal service Micah couldn’t say, but there were other promises written on his face. Again, the promises many parents and sponsor-Godparents make are simply lies. So, I said yes to Micah being Cole’s Godfather. As Sister Joan Chittister once said, “Okay, go ahead and throw tomatoes. This [shirt] is washable.”

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This picture gets blurry as I ask: “Could the God I love use my beloved atheist son to lead my beloved grandson to a God-pleasing place?” Lord, hear my prayer.

11. Okay, you’ve stayed with me for a long time, so here’s your payoff. I had an exchange sometime back with my blogging bud at naptimethoughts.com. She is one funny woman, so please visit her blog. The topic of our brief back and forth had to do with males and farts. The only thing I’ll say in my defense is that she started it. In her post “Boys are gross” she describes walking into her five-year-old son’s bedroom, which the kid had fart-bombed all night long. (It’s a quick read, so klick the link.) His manly output combined with his astute description of his state of health forced me into this comment: “I never met the kid, and I’m proud.”

Naptime made the mistake of responding with a question: “Men. Tell me John, why is it the potency of the fart and not the loudness that is the prize? I don’t get it.”

Here was my answer (and remember, if you read on, you can’t un-know this):

“Okay, see, there’s a fahhht hierarchy with men, whose sense of humor never graduates middle school. Third place goes to one that simply issues a loud report. First place goes to a quiet one in a confined space that takes another poor soul by terrible, horrid surprise. And second goes to a subset of first and can best be explained with an example. My daughter and son-in-law were driving along when my daughter said, ‘Sniff, sniff. What is that smell?’ Son-in-law was quiet. ‘Sniff!’ daughter said. ‘Hey, did you fart?’ ‘Yes, I did,’ confessed son-in-law. ‘Aw, dammit,’ daughter said. ‘I explored that.’ The cruelty of the second place winner is in the receiver’s conscious decision to sample and evaluate. Ok, this day’s work is done. I’ve unveiled the mystery of flatulence and modern man.”

I suppose this is more than enough for one day. And what I said about throwing tomatoes: that was a lie. I’d appreciate if you took it easy on me with my heresy. I don’t seem to be able to get anger stains out of my soul.