Squirrel Sex

I was walking down the path at the park and noticed two squirrels having sex just next to the path. It dawned on me that I couldn’t figure out why that’s not appropriate for humans? 

I’m NOT AT ALL advocating that people do this in public, but I noticed that I didn’t judge the squirrels. I didn’t think it was “disgusting” for these two animals to be screwing right next to the walking path in the park. (They did run away when I got too close, but I assume it was self-preservation rather than shame that prompted this response.) So what is going on that makes us feel like we shouldn’t see people screwing on the sidewalk or the park bench?

  1. Lust. This is probably the most common reason, and it’s tied to many different character flaws. But when you think about it, it is YOUR weakness that is causing the sin, not the action of our imaginary amorous couple. It’s that you can’t resist thinking about taking the place of one of the people in the act to enjoy the other- simply for your own sexual pleasure. It’s not motivated by love, or a desire to give the other person pleasure, or to create a safe family together for a child to be raised in. It’s purely a desire to get gratified yourself right now, without regard for helping anyone else-even your partner- have a better life now or in the future. It’s simple temporary pleasure, and therefore foolishness. Go for the bigger pleasures- they are expensive (and paradoxically free) because they require you don’t spend every bit of cash you have on cheap trinkets like lust. 
    You want to stop the couple because YOU can’t control your lust, and want others to stop tempting you since you don’t have simple self-control.
  2. Envy. This is also pretty obvious and tied to lust and greed in many ways. You may be envious that this other couple has a relationship- whether you see it as sexual, romantic, or simply free of shame and fear.  You’re envious that you don’t have someone that attractive, confident, or adventurous enough to have sex on a public bench. Maybe you have all the thoughts and confidence, but you don’t do it because you’re ashamed of your body and feel unattractive- so you’re envious that they are beautiful or confident enough to pull it off. Perhaps you imagine that this display speaks to a kind of love that is so bold and complete that it cannot be shamed into the dark, and you’re envious that this couple has that kind of love you so desire. Or perhaps your marriage has those components but not the freedom to be so public about your love and you envy the freedom they have to shout so boldly of their togetherness. 
    You want to stop the couple because seeing what they have just makes you realize that you don’t have it. It reminds you that you’re not satisfied.
  3. Greed. Greed is so closely tied to envy for me that I find them difficult to separate. The way I’ve come to understand it is that greed is wanting the things that others have, and envy is wanting the emotional feelings that others have. So in this case, it’s pretty obvious that you want that sexual lack you can’t really control to be tamed. You want that body, that relationship. This is different than wanting the relationship for envious reasons. There, you’re wanting the peace and contentment inside that another has. When greed is in play, you want the relationship because you desire to possess the other person like an object. You want the trinket on your shelf or the mansion on the cliff… the amount of desire relates to how much worth you give to the other. But you’re still thinking that joy and contentment comes from something outside of yourself, so you try to get more so that you’ll feel more. 
    You want to stop the couple because it reminds you that you are in want and discontented. It reminds you that you don’t have peace. 
  4. Laziness. This is harder to see, but definitely in the mix. Perhaps you can look back at relationships you were in but were so selfish and demanding, trying to get the other to meet your needs or dissatisfied with what they offered, but you realize that you were not accepting everything they gave. When they attempted to give to you their best offerings of their different perspective- you resent being asked to even do the work of considering their view. You don’t want to change, and you resent that their lives required some work you simply didn’t want to do. I feel certain I have done this in relationships- I assume every teenage relationship is marked by this. You don’t want to grow into a responsible adult, so you wish to be coddled by your relationship rather than grow in it. 
    You want the couple to stop because it reminds you that you never gave enough of yourself to another person to be able to enter this kind of free, confident, unashamed love. It reminds you that you’ve never loved so freely and completely.
  5. Gluttony. Lower in the list there seems to be less connections to specific angles of sin, but my desire here is to point out that it is sin itself, not the action that we are judging that is the problem. It’s OUR sin, not theirs. As for gluttony, perhaps some might have an amazing love life at home, and all the joy and peace that comes with a solid relationship and material comforts. You don’t desire the relationship like envy, or the trophy like greed, you just want more than you need. You have all that you want and you’re still looking around for more, even though if you were to take the time and be present- you would see you have all you need. You already have the peace you want, you just don’t feel it because you’re focused on the “more” rather than the “thing.” You don’t want the extra relationship, you don’t need the feelings- you already have them at home… You just want more. 
    You want so much more than you need and it never fills you, but you’re already full and still want more.  It reminds you that you’re not satisfied because you’re unable to be pleased and content.
  6. Wrath. Here we start ramping back up into the darker areas of the heart, you may resent our young couple because you are full of wrath. Wrath is always complex because it assumes already that you are in the right, and in that assumption you are probably falling prey to one of the other sins on our list… but you’re so far beyond that now that you have to make your first stop at wrath before you can move forward to fix the core problem. You feel wronged, and that you have the authority and power to seek justice and penance from the other. They must conform to you, and will under force if you have your way. The force can be physical, political, social, emotional, or any other weapon we wield; but we do feel we have the right to enforce our stance. This is so closely tied to pride it’s sometimes hard to separate, but this is there. 
    You want the couple to stop because you desire the power to stop and control other people to make you feel stronger and safer. It reminds you that your anger is a cage, and you feel better when others are caged as well. 
  7. Pride. This is the last sin, and is also the sin of our couple if they are aware that their behavior might cause others to get tripped up on (admittedly) the observer’s own weaknesses. It could be that our couple is so proud and arrogant that they feel nobody has the right to ask them to hide their intimacy (I’ve seen this in the hallways countless times as a High School teacher). It could also be that you think you’re so sexy and attractive that nobody could possibly look on and see anything other than the dazzling human specimen you are performing at the peak of human experience. This could also be the sin of a judgmental passerby who looks on and says like all the hoity-toity refined and cultured people that say it’s inappropriate. This may be the saddest of all the sins, because you don’t get any joy from it… you just try to make others seem more miserable than you already feel.
    You want the couple to stop (or you are the couple showing off your goods) so that you can feel better than the other side. You feel so worthless you actively look for people to look down on to make yourself feel superior. 

I can’t adequately explain why all of this ran through my head in the park- though I know the impetus. I am just wondering if the church will ever start to act like Jesus and do what he did: Love, forgive, serve, and sacrifice yourself for people that are “worse” than you are. 

That, in the end, is exactly what Jesus is all about.

Review of Finding God In The Waves by Mike McHargue (@sciencemike)

Review of Finding God In The Waves by Mike McHargue (@sciencemike)

I found it a little bit difficult to figure out which memoir I really wanted to write about. There’ve been so many recently my life that literally changed my worldview. I’d like to start by mentioning a few that were in the running in case this review resonates with anybody – there are some others that I think really deserve a chance. Bitten by a camel by Kent Dobson is another recent read along a similar vein. Kent is the son of the famous James Dobson who was at the helm of the Christian Coalition and 1980s conservative Christian scene. One of my favorite memoirs ever – blue like Jazz by Donald Miller must be mentioned for its soul-searching honesty by just another regular churchgoers like you and I. Searching for Sunday by Rachel held Evans is also an honest look at life in the church from the viewpoint of the pew. I think most of my other memoir’s that I love are fairly well-known so I don’t feel like I really need to mention many more of them. For those of you that feel like you’re curious about God but church and the religious status quo kind of piss you off… The books I mentioned above are pretty good start. Once you find these and start finding other people that have read similar authors, you will find your way home.

Finding God In The Waves is a memoir about a very dedicated Southern Baptist from Florida who enters a crisis of faith and becomes an atheist, and then finds his way back into faith again. I remember when I first heard a podcast by Mike and heard his story; how much it resonated with me. He, like myself, had devoted himself to the typical American church experience. He served faithfully in his church, led Bible studies, was actively involved in ministry for years, and his whole worldview and family life was based upon this kind of deep involvement. It really does become your world. What this means for many people on the inside of the church is that it is really scary to ask questions and doubt. When your whole world is based upon this shared religious experience you have with the community, questioning your faith in your faith experience is a lot like making a decision to run away from your family. That may sound dramatic if you’ve never been really deeply involved in something like a church where your whole life revolves around that shared experience, a for many of us this is exactly how it feels.

Mike’s crisis of faith revolves around his father’s affair, similar to how mine revolved around my wife’s affair. He, like I, thought that if he could just find the right first, the right words… He could talk his dad into honoring his vows to his mother. I thought the same thing with my wife. And as Mike began to really dig into his Bible to find answers, what he found were questions instead. These questions began to shake at a religious foundation that avoided the weaker parts of his faith through confirmation bias, as well as a subconscious, but very organized and consistent echo chamber that most religious people live in. Once he read the Bible straight through – without the blinders provided by commentary – he bumped into the beautiful mess that is the Bible. But since his faith was built on the Bible being essentially synonymous with God, when the Bible failed to be “the living, active word of God” marked by perfection, consistency, and inerrancy… God himself quit living and being active for Mike. I have had the opportunity to experience the same crisis of faith and it is scary and heartbreaking. In this way, Mike’s story really resonated with me and brought back some really scary feelings and thoughts that I thought I had completely processed away. The honest way that he shared his struggle and internal dialogue was really impressive – his ability to be honest and keenly self-aware was a great read.

Interestingly, through a very strange set of circumstances Mike found himself at a Christian conference listening to a speaker named Rob Bell – a provocative and controversial figure in the church who has deeply influenced my understanding of God and the world. Mike essentially stands up in disagrees with Rob in the middle of his talk – pointing out the inconsistencies and impossibilities of Rob’s worldview. But instead of challenging Mike or defending himself, Rob just said “Thank you. Thank you for your honesty, and for helping all of us in this room understand the challenges you have with embracing these mystical experiences we all try to share.”  Mike was sure he would be roasted by this crowd of religious people, but others spoke up and shared their questions and doubts as well. I won’t ruin the story for anybody reading this that may enjoy the book – but I will say that at that point, just with the acceptance of his questions, the church doors opened again to Mike. People rarely have a problem with God – it’s normally just his kids that piss them off. That certainly was the case for me as well. Mike and I both had a good relationship with the church – but both of us also came to a place where we realized that a lot of what we thought was a solid foundation turned out to be smoke and mirrors.

I can’t recommend the book highly enough. Even if you don’t have a church history, it might give you a little bit of a peek into what it is like to be on the inside. Honestly, it’s weird for us, too. But just as Mike found his way back to God without all the trappings of religiosity in church bullshit, there is a way to hold on to the beauty, mystery, and wonder that I think most of us long for without having to check your brains at the door.

An additional note – Mike is also part of a podcast called the liturgists with Michael Gungor- a former pastor who seems to still be wrestling with where he stands on the faith question. Mike gives a quick summary of his story in the two-part series called Lost And Found.

The Story has Changed

I thought I had a true story to tell, but it was fictionalized. 

Like many of you, I had a story about my own life that was fiction. Even memories and feelings had been shifted with time or twisted by emotions and justifications for my feelings. I wasn’t trying to lie, I just didn’t realize that I was. Honestly, looking back now it feels like I was in sort of a dream, this illusory reality where I got to play the hero and the victim, the Savior and the saved, therapist and patient. Ironically, the villain of the prior story turned out to be the unintentional positive change agent for the new one. Frankly, as I write this right now it is still so fresh still processing all that happened. My entire perspective on everything has changed. I have no idea what the future looks like for me, except that it is way better than the past – and the light switch seems to work in the rearview mirror as well. Not only is the future much brighter – but my past is too.

Sometimes we need a mirror. One of my favorite things ever heard in church was “My sin on me looks like it needs to be forgiven. Your sin on you looks like it needs to be punished.” That resonated with me not because I felt I struggled with it so much, but because I felt like it was a common problem in the church that was rarely pointed out. I have always been prone toward leaning into grace for others even more than myself, a simple personality quirk that I don’t believe has anything to do with true humility or wisdom- it was a happy accident for me. But this allowed me to be keenly aware of the reactions that Jesus had to the Pharisees and religious people in the bible. Jesus was a pretty laid back guy, but this judgemental know-it-all arrogant group called the Pharisees really ticked Him off. Unfortunately, they’re still around just using a different name to hide from their shameful judgement. 

I grew up in the church. I had mixed support for it at home as a teen, but have been pretty actively involved by my own free personal choice since I was about 15. Now nearly 50, I’ve never given up on my faith- though it’s been challenged and certainly shifted from the arrogant and prideful self-righteousness of my youth. I’m also recognizing that the faith community I was involved with has also shifted… and in an opposite direction. I think I was always leaning out while the church was leaning in, but in 2018 the leaning seems really extreme. The church is now behind men that live in ways I was brought up to believe were wrong in the church. The “christian values” that I believed in my whole life (and still do, I’ll examine them in this book) are now no longer what the church in America is about. This strange flavor of Christianity I’ll call Ameri-church in this book- it’s the christianity you hear about on “christian” radio and television. It’s the kind of Christianity that’s easy to mock, and rightfully so. I was once a part of the Ameri-church and have since repented to follow the teachings of a middle-eastern rabbi that lived 2000 years ago and preached a distinctly different message than the religious leaders of the time or the church leaders of today. He pointed out the hypocrisy of the religious and made a way for everyone to find peace with God and themselves. 

I have a friend who is very religious- a part of Ameri-church. She and I were once very close but have drifted apart for a myriad of reasons- but one reason in particular was a very intentional, very calculated, and still continuing betrayal that was very damaging to my family. It has cost my kids and I greatly for the last 10 years and will for the rest of our lives. I have no desire to go into detail about it; but let’s just say that we would all agree- my friend included- that what she did was horrible. We would also all agree that she has never repented of it, if repenting means “not doing the thing I shouldn’t have done anymore and trying to make it right again.”  She has also made legal and religious commitments to continue in this hurtful relationship with her friend who together with her damaged my family and kids forever. 

What triggered the final shift in my whole perspective on the church and Christianity was my friend’s reaction to her son staying at a friend’s house. Her son’s friend was gay, and she was unable to accept this or allow her son to be alone with this friend. What she said to me that morning on the phone was astounding to me: “My christian values say that this lifestyle wrong and I don’t want my son in this situation. Kids get confused and want to experiment with things in High School and I don’t want my son to make a mistake he’ll regret.”

That may seem completely normal- and if you’re even slightly homophobic and/or don’t have any gay friends as reference points, I can understand this. There is a lot of misunderstanding and FUD about homosexuality in Ameri-church, and I’m totally willing to give people a pass even when I disagree with them. What I couldn’t understand is that her very home is a “den of iniquity” if you’re going to use the bible as a reference for morality, and that she herself is completely unrepentant of her lifestyle and even calls it a “christian home” though it’s built on completely unbiblical ground.

For the record, I believe my friend is forgiven, and is just as much loved by God as I am. I believe she is seen as being just as deserving of grace and forgiveness as Mother Theresa (or whoever you hold up as an example of truly exemplary commitment to God). I have forgiven her for the pain and suffering she brought into my life and the life of my children. I don’t believe she owes me anything. But with that being said…

I was totally pissed off when I heard her being so judgmental about this young man who identifies as homosexual. What started in my mind was a “Well, if you don’t accept this kid’s choices and love and accept him as he is- then I no longer forgive you for your betrayal of our family and you owe us now.” I expected her to start repaying all the financial loss she caused my family. I also expected her to repent and return things to how it was 10 years ago… not because I wanted it that way, but as a punishment for her since I know that she (nor I) want it this way. 

And then it struck me. I was doing what she was. I was wanting her to “repent and repay” for her “sin.” I was moving back to the zero-sum game I used to play when we were younger and working together. Her judgement and arrogance was causing me to fall back into the same trap and doing it myself. At that point the light went on…

This is exactly what Jesus meant when he said “Do not judge, or you too,  will be judged.” This is exactly what he meant when he said “Love your neighbor as yourself” and went on to clarify that your neighbor is the person you encounter that needs help. Everything unraveled. Years of Ameri-church indoctrination, White Protestant Evangelical entitlement, and apologetic research fell like Saul off his horse on the road to Damascus.

When it struck me I was in the shower, and began to simultaneously weep with regret and conviction for the times I did the same to others, and laughing with joy that I wasn’t stuck there anymore. I remember actually saying the words out loud. “I’m free.” 

This book is about that freedom. 

Cool Kids

In the beginning, all I wanted was…

to fit in. I was a pretty shy and nerdy kid with a bit of a “zany” sense of humor. The fact that back then I’d actually use the word zany to describe my sense of humor kind of sums it all up. My parents were a bit controlling, so my dad forced me to dress and get haircuts like I was from the 1950’s (which wasn’t cool in the 1970’s), and my mom’s ultra conservativism and general fear stance of anything she didn’t understand kept me pretty boxed in. I was socially awkward, not particularly interested in school too much… there were so many rules and limits that could never entice my curious and wondering mind to stay on the boring, monotonous tasks. All of this combined to make me the nerdy kid who zip-zipped down the hall in my corduroy pants from Sears, just trying to avoid getting his ass kicked by the cool kids, and maybe one day kiss a girl.

Then, I struggled to…

figure out who I was and what I wanted. I think this is a necessary step for everyone. It really clicked for me when I was mowing the yard at around 15, listening to a church-rock band called Petra while mowing the yard. My mom bought me the casette at the christian bookstore about a year earlier, but I never really listened to it until I found it in my dresser and just stuck it in the stereo in my room. I had been listening for a couple months, and it was just resonating with me, and I was starting to get involved a little at youth group in church. I can still hear the words through the foam covers of the headphones for my Sony Walkman Cassette player as Greg X Volz sang:

So be strong in the Lord, and the Power of His might.
Put on all His armor, and fight the good fight.
In all of our weakness, He becomes so strong. 
He gives us the power and the strength to carry on. 

I didn’t know all that those words meant that day, but I knew enough to understand it. More than that, I believed it. I remember stopping the lawnmower beneath the bottlebrush tree, not at all nervous about the bees that lived there, even though I was terribly allergic. I just knew that day that God was real and He was on my side. He was the only one, but He was big. And I just remember starting to cry in a way I never had before… from pure joy.

 I no longer needed to be accepted, I already was. Nor did I cower in front of my parents anymore, I learned to stand up for myself and earned the respect I needed to to allow them to let loose of the reigns. I got a new haircut and some new clothes, and literally within in a few weeks, I was popular in school-dating the cute girl whose dad drove a Lamborghini, and no longer shoved into the lockers when I walked down the hall. 

At the end of this experience, I became… 

much wiser. I realized that the popular kids I hung out with were just as messed up and desperate to fit in as I was. They didn’t have less problems, just different ones. Soon I discovered that the popular group I fell in to was a bit snobby, and the day they shoved one of my old friends into the lockers when they walked by without saying a word, I just stopped. I looked at my old friend Jeff as my new friends kept just walking down the hallway. 

“Dude, I’m sorry about that. That wasn’t cool, they didn’t even say anything like they were going to mess with you.” I said by way of a roundabout apology.

“It’s no big deal, I’m used to it. It must be cool to be on that side of the lunchroom though. We talk about you, nothing bad… just that we wish you still hung out with us sometimes.” 

I remember staring at Jeff, mouth hanging open as my face fell to collide with my heart, Then feeling my heart fall off it’s perch into the chocolate milk I had for lunch, turning the milk sour with guilt and sadness.

“Schwartz, let’s go- what are you doing with that loser!? We thought you turned cool.” I heard my new friends taunt as they stared at me talking to this “nobody.” I remember looking down the hallway at how stupid they looked, nearly all dressed the same, with the same haircuts, the same clothes, the same attitude, and the same black scowls on their handsome, popular faces. 

“This is Jeff. He’s not a loser. You guys don’t even know why you pick on him. Neither does he, and neither do I. If this is what it means to be cool then I don’t want to be cool. I’m gonna walk Jeff to class.” 

That day, I realized I didn’t want to impress other people by what I did to set my self above them… I decided I wanted to impress people by how long I walked beside them. As an introvert and pretty picky judge of character, I value independent thinking, individualistic and creative people who like to be different, not fall in line with the ever shifting sands of fashion, popularity, and groupthink. 

I’ll stick at the table with the weirdos for lunch. 


One day when I was in High School- I had the greatest discovery of my life. I finally figured out what I was meant to do. I had always known it was within reach- this thing that I was built for but hadn’t quite found. Until then I was useful, but inefficient. It was like when you use a butterknife as a screwdriver, it kinda dings up the butterknife and does a shit job of loosening a screw anyway.

Finally, I had a purpose. I could finally find my place and fit. I didn’t have to search and feel so outside of everything, so wrong. I wanted to help other kids like me know that they are OK like they are and that of course they weren’t a great screwdriver, they were . I wanted to spend my life helping kids hear that satisfying click that only happens when you know what you’re built for, and you snap into place to do your part. You don’t feel so inadequate for the job anymore. You finally realize that your curved tip keeps people safe when used at the table, just as it put people in danger trying to balance in the slot of the screw, twisting in the slot where you never quite fit.

I wanted to be a youth pastor and help awkward kids like me. My youth pastor had talked me off the edge of a melancholy that leaned toward suicide multiple times, but I’m not sure he ever knew it. He taught me to see beauty in the mirror where I had only seen ash. He showed me that I was created for something; and when I found it I would stop feeling so inadequate, ineffective, and out of place. At our meetings I felt comfortable in my own skin. I’d get out of my introverted shell and participate in the silly games and talk to people I didn’t know, sharing my life freely as it was- perfectly comfortable in my own skin. This was the only place I felt alive… or that I actually wanted to stay that way to be more accurate. That was the only time in my life that I liked myself. The only time I felt like I fit. The only time I felt like I mattered.

A few months later I remember walking into my parent’s room to tell them that I found my place. I thanked them for helping guide me in this direction, and I told them how happy I was that I finally had a direction. The change had been obvious for months. They knew I had struggled to fit in and had commented on the change they could see in me. I no longer was such an awkward, socially unaware kid. I dressed well these days, started working harder in school, started taking care of my hygiene and bedroom- I finally fit. I told them that I wanted to go to seminary and become a youth pastor- that for the first time I could remember I was really happy and felt good about myself. They had both in their own way guided me to this place- forcing me to church when I didn’t want to go, trying to talk to me about the stuff that matters when the lights go out and you’re just there alone with your thoughts. I have never felt this good about myself before, and never again since that day.

It was the same night that my dad came in to my room with a nearly visible aura of anger and frustration. It was so out of place- he never hit me in my life, but that night I thought he was going to throttle me until I quit breathing. I couldn’t believe the anger. I had no idea what I had done that was so wrong, but I was sure I was going to pay heavily for it.

I remember his body shaking with anger. His voice was positively menacing, his eyes darkened with disappointment and rejection. “I won’t let you throw your life away. There’s no way you’re going to waste your life being some youth minister or youth pastor or whatever… you will get a secure job with financial security or I don’t want to be a part of it. I won’t support you with money or moral support or anything else if you decide to do this, Rob. I won’t let your life be a waste..meaningless.”

It was that day that I realized that to my dad, being myself- being who I was most comfortable and alive being- was in his eyes, a waste.

The real me, every dream I had about who I was, every good thought I ever had about myself… a waste.

I was a waste… meaningless.

It’s hard to see yourself even in the eyes of your Heavenly Father as valuable, when you see you’re a piece of shit in the eyes of the dad in front of you… the one God sent you to.

I knew then that God thinks I’m a waste, too… meaningless.

Tattoo Me

When I was around 20 years old, I was part of a youth outreach organization for the Wesley Center (a Methodist campus ministry) on the campus of Georgia Southern University. I was pretty involved, and became part of a summer traveling group called Lifesavers. Four college kids hopped in a van, hired for next to nothing to run a summer program for youth groups across the state of Georgia. I was a bit of an outcast in Georgia, a surfer guy from South Florida who skateboard it around campus and never wore shoes- but I tend to be a decent speaker in front of a group so is pretty easy to fall into leadership positions in campus ministries. Playing guitar helped, too.

I had been wanting a tattoo for quite some time, I had a drawn up and constantly drew it on my notebooks and notes for class. A simple, pointed cross with red at the center in blue on the tips, straddled by an Alpha and Omega. At the time, I was pretty new to much of the symbolism and iconography of the church so I found my little creation to be super deep and profound. The truth was, I was in the South, so most of my church upbringing and education was fairly flat; and most of my church history stopped around 1950.

I had scheduled the day to get my tattoo in a little town where I knew we would be hanging out for about a week. I can’t remember exactly where it was – but I’m pretty sure it was near Atlanta. The Lifesavers team had a day off after back to back lock ins, and after grabbing some sleep I scheduled my appointment at a local tattoo joint.

I remember waking up, and one of the other kids from the youth group wanted to come along with me. He offered me a ride so I wouldn’t have to take the church van – I was treading dangerously close to the edge of decency in the late 80s church scene of South Georgia. When the kid showed up to give him my ride, I couldn’t find my wallet.

I, of course, was convinced this was a sign from God.

I remember turning to this kid and saying, “dude, I can’t find my wallet… I never lose my wallet. I think God is trying to tell me I shouldn’t get this tattoo.”

This kid – wiser than his years – just looked at me and said, “Why don’t you pray about it?” So I did.

I asked for wisdom, confess any arrogance or pride I might’ve had, confessed mighty rebellious spirit, and told God that if he didn’t want me to have a tattoo, I wouldn’t get a tattoo.
I didn’t hear a voice, I just had this weird impression that God was talking to me. I’m pretty sure I even use that phrase to describe it at the time, but it definitely wasn’t spoken. I just had this impression of a windowsill.
I remember opening my eyes and looking at this kid, a little bit confused, and saying, “God just said ‘Windowsill.’” And the kid said “Let’s go check the windowsill.”

I checked the windowsill at the house I was staying, no luck. And then I had that vivid picture in my mind again of the blinds at the church. So I told the kid and he drove me over to the church, where I found my wallet on the windowsill. I remember grabbing it and just kind of staring at it in my hand. The striped shadows of the blinds tracing dark streaks across my forearm. I remember being confused – trying to figure out if God showed me my wallet so I can go and get the tattoo, or if he showed it to me because I confessed my arrogance and pride.

This was quite a conundrum for an overly zealous nearly 20-year-old college kid who couldn’t find his place in the southern church in the late 80s. I recognized my desire to kind of tweak the nose of convention and feign ignorance of the social norms of the claustrophobic social underbelly of the southern church in my hyper conservative version of Christianity. But I also had this overwhelming zeal – a deep and profound knowledge that there was something more to all of this, and that somehow Jesus was in the center of it all. And I had the sense that I was supposed to be helping people challenge their assumptions about what Christianity looked like.

So that night, I had my first tattoo, and my first mystical experience.

Left on the Counter

I finally met all my dad’s expectations of “success”- I was out of debt, I had published a book, my business was successful and I was “financially secure.” This was his rallying cry. I figured FINALLY- after 40 years of trying to please him with the external stuff, I’d finally get to talk to him about the things that mattered… the stuff going on inside. The deeply spiritual things that ultimately made me click- the things that made me “me.” I had bypassed so many of my own desires and goals for the previous 40 years to get to this point that was all my dad could see- “financial independence.” Once that was satisfied he might see me, what I have inside to offer the world- not just my stuff. (I repeated this course of action with my ex-wife with similar results, but that’s another story).

I had just gotten out of debt before hitting 50, I was a published author and relatively successful entrepreneur. I wasn’t rich or anything, but I didn’t have anything to worry about when it came to money. I had that “safety net” he had always talked about.  I had written a note to my dad on the inside cover of the first copy of my first book to thank him for the schooling, the financial support, and the encouragement to do my own thing and leave the (minimal) safety of a fully employed teacher to become an entrepreneur like he was. I showed him around the studio in the house I built to produce my videos, and we talked about the business and the freedom that financial security can bring. I was so stoked that I finally had jumped through all his hoops to become the son he always wanted instead of that idealistic, zealous, jesus hippie that he was so disappointed in when I was growing up. I had given up my deepest desires and goals to reach this plateau so it could be off the table and he could see me, not my failures to be who he wanted me to be. 

He didn’t have more than 20-30 minutes to visit… he was spending the weekend with his girlfriend’s daughter and running late. We didn’t get the chance to talk about the things that I had wanted to start to talk about for 40 years- to introduce myself to him as a distinct individual rather than just the story he got to talk to friends about the way he talked about his girlfriend’s daughter… she was a successful rep for a medical company living in a mansion. But at least I got to show him that I did it. I was successful so that he could finally talk about me to other people the same way he talked about other people to me. He even had a signed copy of the book with my heartfelt note inside the front cover to show off to his friends. There’s little he enjoys more than showing off to his friends. Finally, I could be the thing he was proud of.

But when he left to make it in time to his girlfriend’s daughter’s house for dinner, he didn’t bring the book with him. He left it behind on the kitchen counter. 

He left me behind on the kitchen counter.

The Plotline (Fall18A)

The flirty tone and cooing lilt in the voice of the woman was filled with sexual energy. The couple was young and attractive, but had no idea I was listening. I could only hear her voice- his words silent on the other end of her phone. I felt guilty listening to such private conversations I wasn’t a part of, but couldn’t stop listening- believe me, I tried. But I was enthralled- envious and jealous that this guy had so captivated a woman this beautiful. In many ways I hated him for it. I had longed my whole life to be loved the way couples love, to know the serenity and safety of a family that shared dreams, and joy, and love. It felt wrong to spy on them- to be a voyeur into this intimate relationship between two lovers, but I couldn’t stop myself from wanting to know everything about their relationship, and to just catch a glimpse of what it might be like to be loved by her.

I had become obsessed with her relationship with him over the last few months, trying to find out if my chances with her were finally over. They tried to hide it from everyone but I had a feeling that she was falling for him, and I had been in love with her for years. I don’t think she ever had any idea how much- I was nearly invisible to her it seemed. I’d see them talking and laughing together at school or church events, our families sometimes hung out together and I always tried to get her attention, to impress her… but she was impenetrable- at least for me. When she laughed with him I felt the hot sting of jealousy rise up to my face, red like a warning light for my heart, signaling a critical rise in the shame and emptiness of unrequited love.  My heart broke when I heard her voice speak the words into her phone that I longed to hear her speak to me, “I love you… I’m already on the way.  I can’t wait to see you.” 

At that moment my world fractured. I’ve heard heartbreak described as a heart shattering, but for me it wasn’t like that at all- not so explosive and full of energy as that. When my heart broke it was like when a mountain’s heart is broken by a glacier, the muted sound of granite fracturing in the cold earth beneath the soil- slow, cold, and deep. Unable to be seen, but sensed in the heart of the earth by anyone in the valley. In a fit of jealousy, I told his wife what I had heard.

When she discovered my treachery, the ice in her heart came to the surface and boiled with anger. The disdain and revulsion she felt for me all these years finally surfaced and revealed her heart to me, frightening in it’s anger and rage. “How dare you interfere in his marriage and tell his wife- his marriage is his business.” 

“Our marriage is mine.” is all I could reply. 

Memento and Meaning (MLS504-1.1)

My favorite film of all time is Memento (2000), by the director Christopher Nolan. It was this film that made me a fan of this director and I am always fascinated by the depth of the characters in his films, and the exploration he nearly always does of how a person’s weaknesses, when unchecked, almost always lead to their demise and are often manipulated by others.

Memento was the first Nolan film I ever saw and soon after I searched for anything else he had produced, which at the time included only one other film, Following (1998). I was struck by both films, the originality of the writing, and the similarity of the tides of meaning in both films. I’ll take some time now to examine the film on at least three levels of meaning.

Referential Meaning (What happened): Memento is the story of ,Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pierce), a man suffering from anterograde amnesia he suffered from a head injury from an attack on him and his wife in his home. Leonard killed one of the two attackers, but the other clubbed him on the head, allowing his escape, and causing Leonard’s imprisonment in revenge and the eternal now- quite literally.   In terms of referential meaning, this is the crux of the story- and a clever device Nolan uses in presenting the film as well. Anterograde amnesia is the inability to store new memories, and as the protagonist of the story suffers from this, we experience the story from his viewpoint. Nolan takes the viewer through the story in reverse-chronological order, through a series of short episodes that we experience with the protagonist. The beauty of the film is that Nolan brings us into Leonard’s world by delivering the film as Leonard experiences it- life lived without context except for revenge. It can be very challenging to watch and understand, I admit to seeing it in the theaters three times just to try to get a better grip on what “really” happened. On the level of referential meaning- Nolan not only makes it clear that the main character and narrator experiences this psychological challenge, but we get to go along for the ride. A spectacular film making device that affords us more connection to the main character than is possible otherwise. Admittedly, using this as a device for the sequencing of the film crosses lines of meaning, and invites (nearly forces) us to explore the deeper meaning of the ways we might lie to ourselves to excuse (or enable) our worst behavior.

Explicit Meaning (What it means): I always look for at least this level of meaning in film- the motivations of characters, and what it says about the human condition. In Nolan’s films, the main character(s) almost always have a character flaw that they are aware of, but almost always give in to, creating the pivot point for the film. In Memento, the desire for revenge blinds Leonard and at critical times of clarity, he neglects to give himself a “memento” of what he’s learned so that he won’t be limited in his quest for revenge by something as benign and bothersome as facts. This allows him to be manipulated by other characters, and at times, even himself. Nolan’s first film Following had a similar message. In this film, the character slowly gives in to his desire to spy on others with his camera, becoming a voyeur. This later comes back to haunt him as his weakness is turned against him by the antagonists and he becomes manipulated by the very character flaw he nurtures into defect. Nolan’s message in both of these films is that we are often complicit in the situations we would call manipulation- that it was our own surrender to our weaker selves that ultimately causes us the greatest harm. We often are not the victims we feel ourselves to be; we are on some level complicit in our own self-delusion even if we enlisted someone else to assist us in it.

Implicit/Symptomatic Meaning (What it says to us or about society): Nolan does a spectacular job of showing how people can easily be manipulated by their weaknesses when they surrender to it, and that it’s often impossible to stop the forward progress of self-delusion. In Memento as well as Following, the protagonist is manipulated by the antagonists of the film using their obsessions and unique character flaws (or literal handicap in the case of Memento) as a fulcrum to exert more force against our self-control than we can resist. The implications are clear- that we must be aware of our weaknesses so that we don’t allow ourselves to be fooled into doing things we wish not to do- all the while believing that we are accomplishing our goals. Symptomatically speaking, we often blame others or society for the things we know we bring to the table ourselves, but having an enemy to blame shifts the focus and gives us a feeling of righteous indignation against our perceived enemies. These enemies are often just distorted reflections of ourselves as we bend the world to reflect back whatever we need so that reality becomes the funhouse mirror that shows us the monster that “made us do it.” But that monster is often just our own reflection, bent with small compromises and self-manipulation to allow us to push it just a little farther.

We are often our own addictions, and Nolan does an incredible job of showing us how others bend their mirrors so that we can evaluate how much we are doing this ourselves… if we take the time to stop looking for a victim in the mirror -and check for our assailant.

The Journey of “A Trip to the Moon” (MLS504.1.3)

Georges Melies’ classic and groundbreaking film A Trip to the Moon (1902) was the first narrative film ever produced. It was the logical progression of Melies’ experiments with early film special effects- which were discovered by accident as most of the world’s greatest discoveries are (Corn Flakes, anyone?).

Visual effects in film were born when Melies’ camera jammed while filming a street scene, and the result was a cut in the visual narrative that made it appear that a passing carriage turned into a hearse. It may be mere projection on my part, but I imagine Melies thinking about the “meaning” of it- that our busy lives on the street in a carriage inevitably turn to our last trip down the street in a hearse… the timing is the only difference between Melies’ stuck camera clip and our actual lives.

As a Visual Arts and Media teacher, I’m familiar with A Trip to the Moon but must admit that I never knew much about Melies. I loved the documentary The Extraordinary Voyage on many levels- as a teacher and creative I especially love the story of the accidental discovery of “special effects” in film, and the journey into narrative that Melies took with A Trip to the Moon. He was an artist at heart- the George Lucas of his day in many ways- and eventually was soured on film as the trends moved away from his rather kitschy style of lowbrow humor.

The move was inevitable and obvious in hindsight, but Melies didn’t appear to see it coming – his style of humor lacking the depth to sustain long term interest. His films seemed to rely wholly on novelty alone- and it seems he may have even assumed the progression to narrative he himself introduced to filmmaking was more novelty than actual maturing of the audience’s tastes. Like George Lucas, his early success with experimental special effects misled him, and he focused obsessively on the style rather than substance of his film. Neither Lucas or Meiles seemed to be able to break out of that rut, and it led to the early exit of both master innovators from the field of filmmaking that they quite literally revolutionized with their work.

As cinema and audience expectations progressed, Melies tried to recreate his early success relying on the pattern of his earlier films rather than the progress his earliest films represented. As the industry moved forward and the audience’s tastes matured and widened, Melies tried to recreate his early success by focusing on the effects and production without regard to the audience’s growing and maturing palate for narrative, meaning, and realism. Melies, like Lucas, tried to focus on progressing the novelty rather than the narrative of their films, and in the end it cost them both the audience they had garnered, leaving them soured on their art and audience.

The message to any creative is obvious- progress is made by evolving and experimenting with new ideas- often the expansion of a mistake. Trying to buckle down and white-knuckle your way through creative drought by just doing more of what got you there will never work… unless you realize that what got you there was a change in direction, not the distance you traveled down the path that brought earlier success.