Because I’m Happyyyyyy

9-not-need-happyI’ve read many interesting and helpful articles with titles like Ten Ways to be a Happier Person.  Common answers are exercise, practicing gratitude and kindness, healthy eating, and limiting social media.  There’s a whole science around happiness.  There are entire industries focused on happiness.  In fact, you could argue that nearly all industry is focused on happiness or satisfaction, not the least of which involve drugs both prescribed and illegal.

But what does it really mean?  What is happy?

Google simple defines happy as:

feeling or showing pleasure or contentment

Mirriam-Webster says:

feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation, etc.

Those are radically different definitions.  The first says nothing about external factors.  It doesn’t suggest at all that happiness has anything to do with “your life, situation, etc.”.  This is a profound difference.  I suspect entire books have been written about this difference.

I lean toward Google’s definition.  In fact, I’ll take it one step further and say that maybe happiness is the feeling of pleasure and enjoyment regardless of circumstances.

This is a spiritual kind of happiness, and it’s a spiritual kind of question:  How can I feel happy with unhappy forces surrounding me?  Again, many books have been written about this including scriptures of several religions.  I have no intention of writing any of those books, or of examining the science.  My study here is a self-study.  The truth may be that all I truly know in the world is that which I’ve experienced.  Although I can reason and study the nature of happiness in the world, I cannot truly know it until I experience it;  empiricism. By the end of this post, I will no precisely how to be happy.

My natural inclination is to attach my happiness to the things and experiences of my day. I’ve lived this day hundreds of times.

  • I wake up and I’m unhappy.  I wish I could go back to sleep.
  • I forget to pray and I feel unhappy that I didn’t do it when I do remember.
  • I take my medicine and I’m unhappy because of the one pill that I frequently choke on.
  • I stop at the 7-11 and buy an apple fritter, which brings me pleasure, but I feel unhappy because it makes me feel guilty because it is not good for me.
  •  I arrive at work and get a bad parking place and I am unhappy to have to walk in the Oklahoma weather to get to my office.
  • Then I feel unhappy have to work for eight hours.
  • I break for lunch and/or swimming.  When I swim, I feel happy, but I become unhappy because I worry that my shoulder hasn’t healed enough for me to swim regularly.  I might then eat at McDonald’s which is neither healthy or economic.  It tastes good, but I feel unhappy about eating there.
  • I drive home and listen to NPR or a book which makes me happy because it satisfies my craving for knowledge and because I feel good about myself, because smart, cultured people read books and listen to NPR.
  •  I come home to my family, and am unhappy to find a mess in the kitchen because my kid didn’t do a load of dishes.  I do dishes, and even though it only takes 10 minutes, it makes me unhappy for longer than ten minutes.
  •  I love to cook, but sometimes I just want to order a pizza and watch tv.  If I order a pizza, I feel unhappy about not cooking my family a healthy, economic meal.
  •  Then I may or may not clean up.  If I clean up, I don’t feel happy doing it.  If I leave it, I feel guilty not doing it.
  •  I truly enjoy watching tv with my family, but I feel unhappy about it because I feel bad for not doing something more interesting.
  •  On Tuesdays I play in orchestra and feel 100% happy.
  •  On Wednesdays, I direct choir and feel happy if they sing well, and feel unhappy if no one comes or they sing poorly.
  •  As I lay down, I feel unhappy because I am anxious about getting to sleep because I struggle with insomnia.
  • Then I realize I haven’t brought our coffee mugs up the bedroom.  I worry that my wife will think I don’t love her as much if I don’t.
  • I pray which makes me happy because it helps me let go of my anxiety.
  • If I’m not asleep by midnight, I take 2 Benedryl and hope for the best.  If I sleep, I am happy the next day.  If I struggle, I feel unhappy that night.

That might be a relatively unhappy life by Mirriam-Webster’s definition.  But we make choices.  I can choose to be happy.  There are reasons to be happy that have nothing to do with the  circumstances of my.

Here is a very self-tailored plan for happiness

  • I wake up being grateful to live another day on earth.
  • I pray, or I don’t pray;  either way, God is with me.
  • I have great health insurance that enables me to buy the medicines that keep me well.
  • If I’m going to buy the apple fritter, I should enjoy it.  If I want to be healthy then I should feel good about not getting it.
  •  If I get a bad parking place, it gives me the opportunity to be outside under the sky, and a chance to be grateful for my legs.
  • I like the work that I do.  I’m good at it.  It’s even easy for me.  And I get paid a very good salary for it.  What is there to complain about?
  • Swimming is one of the great joys of my life.  Any day I can swim without shoulder pain is a day to be grateful for.
  • The food I eat is a blessing no matter what.  If I truly wanted to feel better about it, I would make the effort to eat healthier and cheaper.  Until then, I can enjoy my burger.
  • Reading books and listening to NPR is about satisfying a fundamental human need for knowledge and art.  If I let go of my superficial need to be cultured and smart, I might even enjoy myself more.
  • I have a family to come home to.  I nearly lost that privilege once.  It was grace that brought me back to my home.  I can treasure it if I choose.  Washing dishes is a very small price to pay.
  •  The truth is, there are few greater pleasures for me than cooking a beautiful meal.  I sit all day looking at a screen.  Why is it so attractive, then,  to sit all evening looking at another screen when I could be standing in a kitchen doing something that I enjoy and that I’m good at and brings pleasure and sustenance to my family?  I can choose to do the happy thing.
  •  Doing my share of cleaning the house brings peace to my wife.  When she leaves for work early in the morning, why would I want the first thing for her to see to be chaos?  Cleaning is a way of loving my wife.  I love her very much, so I should love her very much and very often.
  •  Watching tv after a day well-lived is a pleasure.  There are so many amazing and inventive shows these days.  They give me an excuse to get cozy with my three favorite people.  There is no need for guilt there.
  •  On Tuesdays I play in an orchestra and feel 100% happy…end of story.
  •  For years, I prayed for an opportunity to direct choir at a church.  I have that now.  It’s thrilling to get to do something that I am uniquely trained for and gifted with every week.  People come when they can.  They sing the best they can.  What is not to enjoy?  The truth is, I’m not unhappy with them.  I’m worried that I will be perceived as not doing my job well, but I get nothing but positive reviews from my employer.
  • Bringing up coffee mugs is such a small thing that I do to tell my wife that I love her.  It allows her to stay in the bedroom and brew a cup before she’s ready to face the world.  I know she doesn’t need me to do it for her to feel loved, but it’s a way to show my steadfast love for her.  There’s no reason to worry about it.
  •  I cannot really help if I sleep or not.  It either happens, or it doesn’t.  If it doesn’t I feel sick all of the next day.  But you know what?  Some people feel seek EVERY DAY.  Feeling sick a few times a year is not really anything worth complaining about.  It feels good to lie in a bed with the woman I love whether I’m asleep or not.
  • And then I pray.  Sometimes I feel a connection and sometimes I don’t.  Either way, I believe God hears me and cares about me.  Gratitude is a good last thought in a day.

It’s all about choices.  Ultimately, it’s about two choice:  Gratitude and Living in the Moment.  There is happiness to be found in every moment of the day if we would just live it.  There is a reason to be grateful for anything, no matter how terrible. It’s impossible to feel regret, guilt, or worry when you are living in the moment and in a state of gratitude.  Regret is living in the past.  Worry is living in the future.  The possibility for happiness is in one place:  the present.  The surest route to that happiness is one action:  gratitude.  I have every reason to be the happiest man on the planet, why would I choose to be otherwise?  So, here’s a new definition:

Happiness is the state of pleasure and contentment found in any moment or in the result of expressed gratitude.

I leave you with one question:  What would your plan to happiness look like?

 

 

 

Trying to Stay Cool

bipolarIn my bio, I mention that I have bipolar disorder.  Although I think that most people cannot tell that I have any disorder at all, other people with bipolar and people who are close to a bipolar (read “a person with bipolar”) can tell.  Even medicated, I have my giveaways.

We all have this idea of what bipolar looks like.  We’ve read novels and watched movies with bipolars.  We see ecstatic people climbing over rails of bridges screaming they’re king of the world.  We see depressed people who stay in bed for weeks.  And although these are real scenarios, this isn’t everybody.  Many bipolars take their meds and live normal lives. The other folks just make better fictional characters.  I’m saying “bipolars” in this piece because it’s easier.  Maybe I should say “persons who suffers with bipolar”, but I don’t suffer.  I’ve never suffered.  It’s the people around me who have suffered.

I don’t really care to get into all my symptoms because some are harmful and embarrassing. That doesn’t mean that I am a danger to others.  No worries.  But my behavior can be harmful in the context of relationships if unmedicated.   Harmful behavior aside, mainly I just get really intense about things and I don’t sleep, although I’ve also struggled with grandiosity, paranoia, motor-mouth (pressured speech), and a scary level of impulsivity.  You can see it in my writing sometimes. Usually, I take those posts down after my wife clues me in.  Or I listen to depressing music and write depressing poetry until I just want to slip away…at least for awhile.

This is one example of my mania.  I went through a period of hyper religiosity.  I would wake up at 2:30 am, brew a pot of coffee, read the Bible and worship with youtube praise videos until time to go to work, and I’m not even an evangelical  And when I’m manic, I don’t feel sleep deprivation.  I can live on little or no sleep.  It’s great…for awhile.  I can get a lot done when I don’t need to sleep.  But  the problem with unchecked “hypomania” is that when it becomes full blown mania, all of that productivity and creativity  ends in disaster. And yes, my religious mania ended in disaster and public embarrassment.

But because some bipolar behavior can be harmful to relationships, I have a lot riding on my treatment.  I never let up.  I take my meds every day.  If I forget to refill, I jump out of bed and run to the drug store.  I have a family that depends on my sanity, and I don’t ever want to let them down.

This disorder has caused me to embarrass myself and others over the years.  With poor impulse control in combination with grandiosity, paranoia, and worse, I’m capable of creating very embarrassing situations on both small and large scales.  So, if I’m feeling impulsive, I shut up or walk away.  It’s tough.  Facebook’s nice because you can delete stuff when you’ve had a moment to rethink.

I’ve shared my diagnosis on Facebook before and I felt uncomfortable with the response.  It was bipolar awareness week and I wrote about what NOT to say to a bipolar, but no one acknowledged the actual content at all.  It was just a huge thread of congratulations for being open and defying stigmas.  I don’t care about stigmas, mainly because I’ve never been the target of them.  I don’t feel brave when I tell someone because I’ve never had a negative response.  It’s a different world.  People are beginning to understand mental illness. Honestly, I think people who know me best were relieved to find out that my condition had a name and was treatable. So if you’re reading this, please consider not congratulating me.  I felt embarrassed by it on Facebook to the point that I deleted the post.  I just want to raise awareness in my own small way.

Common questions:

  1. Are people with bipolar more creative?  That is my experience. A lot of artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, and poets.
  2. Are you better at your art when you don’t take your meds?  Yes, but with some adjustments it is possible to still be able to do it.  Rather than the art coming out of your illness, it comes out of your wellness.
  3. Can bipolars hold jobs, stay married, be a good parent, etc.?  I’m doing all of those things, but many do not.  People with bipolar disorder, because they feel like they are not “themselves” on meds, tend to stop taking their meds.  They also stop taking their meds when they feel better,  thinking that because they are better they don’t need the meds. I don’t understand this because I know for sure that I am better because I stay on the meds.  And, honestly, I feel plenty “myself” medicated.  I didn’t always have active bipolar.  I still remember what it feels like to be well before meds.  I much prefer being well.
  4. Do you need any special accommodations at work?  This article is superb.  Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Bipolar Disorder.  But honestly, the only accommodation I’ve asked for is time off for doctors visits.  Now that I’m reading this, though, perhaps I could benefit from more.
  5. Can you get fired for behavior related to bipolar?  Bipolar is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The employer would have to prove that the offense was unrelated to bipolar.  I disclose at work just in case.
  6. Are bipolars more likely to have other problems?  Yes.  Substance/Alcohol abuse, sexual issues, smoking. 70% of people with bipolar smoke.  SEVENTY.
  7. Are there terms or words concerning your illness that bother you?  Not a one.  When I’m not well, I’m crazy and insane.  When I’m manic, I’m a maniac.  Loony, lunatic, madman, etc.  All of these words have been apt descriptions for me at some point.  BUT, not everyone feels that way.  Some people with disabilities need us to use certain language in regard to themselves and their disability in order to feel respected, perhaps because of how much they’ve been disrespected.  I’ve been treated well, so call me whatever you like.

I wonder sometimes if given the choice would I choose not to have this disorder.  My conclusion is always the same:  no.  Bipolar isn’t like a separate piece of a person, it’s an integral piece.  They say the person is not the disease, but I don’t buy it with bipolar.  It is a fundamental part of who I am, not as my identity, but in my entire nervous system.  I can do what I do, think how I think, and see the world the way I do in part because of this “feature” of my makeup.  If I did not have it, I would not be the same person.  I couldn’t tell you exactly what would be different, but I suspect it’s a big part of what makes me me.

In my first year of treatment, my dear sister-in-law said.  “I’m glad you’re better, but sometimes I miss the crazy-ass David.”  When she said that, I thought “Yes!  I miss him, too!”  I have realized that there’s a difference between mental wellness and suppressing who you are.  We, the mentally ill, do this so that you won’t worry about us and so that you will feel comfortable around us.  I’m afraid, sometimes, to let the “crazy-ass David” out.  My family’s stability, in large part, depends on “steady David”.

It begs the question, is “crazy-ass” a symptom or is it just a personality trait that no drug will take or should take away?  I’ll let you know when I figure it out.  Until then, I’ll try to stay cool as best I can.

 

 

Jesus Christ Superstar: A Holy Week Tradition

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Judas, must you betray me with a kiss?

 

When I was in high school, I was a member of a youth Sunday school class which consisted of my brother, my two best friends, a Cameroonian girl, and a Venezuelan girl.  The girls tolerated us at best and didn’t come very often.  Our teacher was a very sedate and patient man who nurtured us in quiet ways.  We enjoyed his dry humor, but otherwise ignored everything he said.

One spring, he brought in a tv cart and put in a video called Jesus Christ Superstar.  It’s a 1973 film based on a “rock opera” from 1970 by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice.  The film opens with hippies in a middle eastern desert getting ready for the show.  The music is hard-driving rock with full orchestra.  The four of us boys laughed.  They looked so funny to us in their hippy clothes and the music was all so dated to us.  We made fun of Judas, arguably the main character, as he sang his opening song in a crazy costume.  But as the film progressed, although there is humor, we began to take things more seriously.  It was the story of the Passion told in a way that we had never known.

Jesus had never been presented to me as a man.  The focus of my childhood teachings of Jesus was of a perfect divine being who spoke in dulcet tones.  But that’s not how Jesus is portrayed in the film.  He’s a Jesus who is subjected to the whole array of human experience:  anger, frustration, fear, joy, weariness, companionship, remorse, suffocation, and perhaps even romantic love.  The characters and stories of the scriptures came together in a powerful way for me in this film.  It all seemed to make more sense.

The story is told from the perspective of the misunderstood Judas, the disciple who ultimately betrays Jesus.  Judas sings:

I remember when this whole thing began.
No talk of God then, we called you a man.
And believe me, my admiration for you hasn’t died.
But every word you say today
Gets twisted ’round some other way.
And they’ll hurt you if they think you’ve lied.

Judas loves Jesus dearly.  He’s terrified that Jesus is going to be killed and that his cause of social justice will be lost.  He thinks that if he turns him in they will stop him from taking it too far.  He never imagines that he was betraying Jesus to his death.  As the movie progresses, we see a Jesus struggling with his humanity, grappling with doubt, and enduring increasing pressure to shut down his ministry and renounce what people are saying about his royalty and divinity.  It’s a train wreck and the only two people that know it are Jesus and Judas.

Both Judas and Mary Magdalene love Jesus profoundly and in ways that they cannot understand or reconcile with who they are and who they think Jesus is.  They sing “I don’t know how to love him.”; first Mary, late at night feeling conflicted about falling in love with Jesus, and then Judas, before he hangs himself to death out of grief and remorse.  They love him so much that “it scares [them] so”.  They both try to convince themselves that he’s just a man.  In Judas’ version he sings

He’s a man.  He’s just a man.  He is not a king.  He’s just the same as anyone I know.  He scares me so.

This Jesus may not be a true scriptural depiction.  From Judas’ perspective he performs no miracles.  He is no more than a teacher and a friend to the outcast.  A movement forms around him, but it is not his movement.  But the film takes the scriptural notion that Jesus is fully human and fully divine and explores the humanity in a way that no film had ever done.

The emotional centerpiece of the movie is Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  This is when the Jesus of the film and the Jesus of the scriptures come together with striking clarity.  He weeps and pleads with God to let “this cup” pass by him.  This is Jesus’ most human moment in the scriptures and most powerful moment in the movie.  He sings

God thy will is hard
But you hold every card
I will drink your cup of poison
Nail me to your cross and break me
Bleed me, beat me
Kill me, take me now
Before I change my mind

I’ve never heard those words without shedding tears.

After Jesus is dead, all of the characters put their streets clothes back on and drive away…except for the actor who played Jesus.  He’s nailed to the cross, a casualty of an authentically told story.  There is no Resurrection in this film; only a shepherd and his flock walking in front of the cross as the sun sets.  I think it leaves the possibility for belief.

I could write volumes about this show;  about Pilate’s struggles, the high priests’ fears, Mary’s romance, Herod’s cowardice, but I’ll leave that to the critics.

Although this is a very secular portrayal of the Passion story, it does something very powerful for me, something very spiritual.  How is it that the portrayal of a man from over 2000 years ago affect me so profoundly every year?  There are lots of films with martyrs and deaths and tragic heroes, but they do not affect me like Jesus Christ Superstar does.  Ultimately, faith is about choices.  What do we choose to conclude from what life brings us?  I mourn Jesus’ death every year in this movie. I mourn him no less than anyone who has ever died in my life.  I conclude from this, that Jesus lives and that he is connected to me in a very real way. I know of no other way to explain this anomaly, nor do I want another way.

Opening Minds: Replacing Arguing with Understanding

istock_000010777463xsmallWhen I write on this blog, I do it often more to help me clarify and develop my own thoughts rather than to preach to anybody.  That is the nature of this post.

If you’re reading this, then you likely spend a good deal of time on Facebook.  There are many good things about Facebook.  I am connected to people more regularly and I am connected with people I would otherwise not be connected to.  I’m not very picky.  If I know you at all, or you’re connected with a lot of my friends then you’re in.  I don’t care what your political and religious views are.  I’ve never unfriended anybody for them, but I’ve seen more arguing than I’d care to see.  I’ve also done it myself.

I grew up in a family of very intense “discussers”.  An outsider might perceive it as arguing, but to me arguing implies a discussion with disagreements that becomes emotional and personal.  I try very hard not to get personal or emotional in a discussion.  I don’t always succeed.

So why do we argue?  Are we hoping to persuade someone to change their mind? Force them to admit that they are wrong?  Changing someone’s mind is a rare thing.  A friend changed my mind about who to vote for in the Presidential primary; not by telling me I’m wrong, but by giving me the information I needed to make a more informed choice.   Perhaps I change my mind too easily, but it’s only because I keep it open and strive to consider things from a logical and rational perspective before considering the emotional.  I fail when I dwell on opinions and speak from my own emotional baggage.

I’m not entirely sure if I’ve ever changed anyone’s mind.  Most people don’t inform you if you have, but I do have a five point method for creating a dialog which could open minds, if only my own.

1.  Understanding

The most important point is to understand the other person’s perspective as well as possible.  You cannot do that if you bring your personal opinions into the discussion immediately.  When you listen dispassionately and carefully, it is disarming.  Nobody is on the defensive.  That may be the end of the dialog; you hearing someone out, but it can also be the beginning of a very honest dialog.

2.  Opening Minds, Not Changing Them

The next important piece is that you relinquish any stake you have in changing the other person’s mind.  The point is not to change a mind, but to open it, which means you have to be the first to open your mind and consider the other person’s position.

3.  Know the Differences Between Your Facts and Your Opinions/Beliefs

I’ve mentioned leaving opinions out at first.  Opinions and beliefs aren’t bad, but it is important to be self-aware enough to know the difference between your opinions/beliefs and the objective truths.  I always preface an opinion with “This is my personal opinion” or “This is my personal belief”.  It’s harder to argue with someone’s  opinion and beliefs when they are not misrepresented as an objective truth or fact.

4.  Speak Their Language

Once you’ve understood someone’s perspective, then you understand their language or their terms.  When you understand their language, then you can speak your perspective in a language they understand.  This is far more persuasive than using your own language and ideas to communicate your position.  And I’m not just talking about words, but their subjective meaning as well.  And also the components which make up their perspective.

5.  Admit When You’re Wrong

And finally, you must be open to the possibility of conceding your position on the merits of the arguments, otherwise it is not a dialog, it is an assault.  This one is the toughest one.

I’ve argued until my face was burning and my emotions were swirling out of control with the single motive of forcing someone to see how wrong they are. I’ve listened to just enough for me to make counter-arguments.  I see this on Facebook all the time.  This is when the unfriending begins.  A dialog requires humility; a willingness to admit that you might be wrong.

The core of what I’m writing about is mutual understanding.  This is where peace and compassion and learning begin.  I’ve found that once people know that they won’t be attacked and that you sincerely want to understand them, they will discuss just about anything with you, and they are more likely to want to understand you.  I’ve had so many meaningful discussions with people who disagree with me over the years; perhaps more meaningful than discussions with people who agree with me.

My impetus for writing this is that I’ve seen hundreds or thousands of posts this year in which arguments are made that only the people who agree with them will find persuasive; preaching to the choir, so to speak…a way of venting.   Good dialogues begin by asking questions with the sincere hope of understanding more often than they do with accusatory or disparaging statement with clever memes.

 

 

Bach’s Good Friday

mi0003738578I’m singing something a little unusual for Good Friday this year.  My church is more accustomed to traditional, gospel, spiritual, and contemporary sacred music.  Classical is rarely sung or played.  I sang an aria from Handel’s Messiah a few years ago and it was welcomed very warmly, so I’m going to try an arioso by J.S. Bach.  It requires a little more preparation and thought than my usual music.  I hope you will indulge me writing about it.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a church musician.  He wrote new music every week for his church.  Think about that.  I work hard just to prepare music that’s already been written!  Among his church music he also wrote several oratorios.  An oratorio is defined thusly:

a large-scale musical work for orchestra and voices, typically a narrative on a religious theme, performed without the use of costumes, scenery, or action.

There was a ban on creating operas about Jesus, so they got around it by creating oratorios.  My mind is on an oratorio entitled St. John’s Passion.  The Passion, in scripture, is the story of Jesus’s final days.  The work is specifically an oratorio for Good Friday.  Good Friday is the commemoration of Jesus crucifixion. It is observed the Friday before Easter.  In it is an arioso (less structured than an aria) entitled “Betrachte, meine Seel” – “Consider O my Soul”.

It is an unusual work musically and I lack the musical theory knowledge to say exactly why that is other than to say it is uncommon, harmonically, for Bach and for baroque music in general.  It is full of dissonance and harmonic complexity more characteristic of much later works of romantic composers such as Felix Mendelssohn.  The text is dissonant as well.  It is clear that Bach is trying to reflect that in the music with the reoccurring minor 7th notes (D-flat in an E-flat major key) which occur 4 times.  I interpret this as the suffering of Jesus intermingled with the goodness of the day.  The last few musical phrases resolve the dissonance and it is more recognizable as Bach.  It reflects the last few phrases of the text which show the good in Good Friday and a charge to look to Jesus on the cross.

The text, which is a little archaically written,  can be broken down to a simple idea.

Consider that although it’s a hard fact to accept, Jesus’ suffering is for your highest good;  therefore, raise your eyes to him and don’t look away.

The full literal translation is as follows:

Contemplate, my soul, with anxious pleasure,
with bitter joy and half-constricted heart,
your highest Good in Jesus’ suffering,
how for you, out of the thorns that pierce Him,
the tiny ‘keys of Heaven’ bloom!
You can pluck much sweet fruit
from his wormwood;
therefore gaze without pause upon Him!

The poetic translation that I am singing is not as easy to understand, and you will see that it does not convey the ideas very well

Consider O my soul, in agony and rapture,
Although your heart with tainted joy does languish,
The highest staff is Jesus’ anguish.
For you the thorn crown that did pierce Him,
With heaven-scented flowers will bloom;
You can the sweetest fruit among His wormwood gather
Then look to raise your eyes to Him,
Cease not to raise your eyes to Him.

I will put the words up on the screen to give the congregation a little more time to contemplate the meaning.  The difficulty is exacerbated by the musical phrasing.  It does not follow the punctuation very well.

Here’s the song, sung in the original German.

To me, this song truly exemplifies the meaning of Good Friday.  The “good” of Good Friday is a troubling word for Jesus’ suffering.  It’s also called Holy Friday.  But let’s take it at face value.   “Your highest Good in Jesus’ suffering”.  That’s Good Friday.  From Jesus’ suffering, fragrant flowers and sweet fruit will grow.  God brings goodness out of suffering, both in Jesus’s life and in our own.

It took my pianist and I a little while to grasp the beauty of this song, but now that we do, it’s come together quite well.  The question however remains:  will the congregation grasp the goodness of this Friday song?

 

Try the Salsa!

Y10041565000682_z3ceears ago, during a family event, we stayed at a Drury Inn which had a free breakfast. It’s been a long time since this happened, so there might be a few embellishments. I would add that salsa was not a standard condiment for eggs, yet.

I first noticed her hovering around the breakfast bar as I struggled with the pump on the coffee dispenser. I was not a fan of chatty food service professionals in the morning before my coffee, and I was already struggling to form a game plan to avoid the chit-chat assault that was fast approaching my vicinity. As I reached the juice dispenser I began to glean bits of what I was up against. She wasn’t just chatting, she had an agenda, and it all seemed to center around a bowl of some diminutive form of salsa. It was just a grade above the hot sauce that comes in packets at fast food Mexican restaurants.

I could see a very disturbing pattern forming. She would step out with an empty tray or cruise the hotel dining area for empty plates, then she’d return to the eggs where the salsa was being very prominently displayed. She was watching for something. But for what, I was not quite sure. Then, to my horror, the full agenda of Chatty Cathy the Drury Inn breakfast bar professional, was fully revealed when a woman cautiously reached for salsa. Cathy pounced.

“Ooo, I see you’re trying the salsa with your eggs,” she said with perverse enthusiasm, blocking the buffet line.

“Oh, yes, I saw it there and thought That sounds interesting. I’m going to give it a try.”

“I’d never heard of it myself before just a few weeks ago. It just doesn’t seemed like it would be good. I don’t usually like real spicy stuff. But I really got hooked on it. I suggested it to the manager myself.”

Myself.

This word really rang out. It hung in the air like a foul odor. I had heard similar words uttered by grocery store baggers, receptionists at doctors’ offices, and interns of any profession. People with no say inappropriately trying out their ideas on customers. This was far worse to me than general chattiness. She meant for me to try this salsa. She likely had a son or a nephew who had visited San Antonio or Santa Fe or El Paso or somewhere in the Southwest and who had spooned Pace Picante sauce on her eggs one visit on Christmas or Thanksgiving or something and she was not going to rest until she had spread the gospel of bad salsa on eggs.

How would I get passed this to get to the sausage and biscuits? How would I reach my fruity yogurt and Corn Pops cereal. Corn Pops for Christ sake! This was not the crappy organic cereal that my wife always bought. This was FREAKING CORN POPS!!

In the distance I heard the cry of a young child, “Mommy! It burns my mouth!”

No, I would not make it passed her without salsa somewhere on my plate.

But just as she began to sidle up to me the voice of a savior rang out. It was the voice of authority and reason.

“Carol. Can I see you for a moment?”

Apparently her name was not Chatty Cathy the Salsa Nazi. It was Carol. Carol attempted one parting shot before she stepped away from the egg station.

“Hey. You oughta try the salsa on your eggs. Just a little, you know. It’s preeeeeetty spicy. But it gives it just a little kick, you know?”

I stared at her, speechless and terrified. I looked at the eggs. I looked at the salsa. Then I looked at the Corn Pops. She was relentless. Merciless. Exuberant. Undeniable.

But the hotel manager was too quick. She touched Carol on the arm and spoke her name once more. She led her out into the hall. The manager spoke in hushed tones. The only piece I could make out was, “Carol. We’ve talked about this. The answer was no. Corporate was very specific.”

The conversation was over. The manager stepped briskly into the dining area grabbed the bowl of salsa off of its decorative stand, and disappeared through the service door.

Carol stood in the hall, deflated. I could just make out the words on her lips as she spoke them to the floor. “I thought it was a good idea. I liked the salsa.”

My heart sank. It was just salsa after all. Did it really hurt to set some salsa out by the eggs? Some people like salsa on there eggs. Even bad salsa.

“Ma’am?” I said to the manager as she reappeared through the service door. “Do you have any salsa? I’d like some with my eggs.”

The manager returned with the salsa. Her face and ears were flush and her smile was forced. She’d been duped, and she knew it. She glared at Carol who was sauntering up to the egg station, revived and triumphant.

“Mmmmm. Ain’t them salsa and eggs good?”

It may not have happened exactly like that, but that’s the way I tell it.  There was definitely a Carol and she definitely wanted me to try the salsa.

Union Square Street Hustle

golddust_121A number of years ago, I was attending a conference in San Francisco with a couple of coworkers.  After our sessions, we made a nightly habit of going to our favorite hangout, the Gold Dust Lounge right off Union Square.  It’s not on the square anymore.  It moved.  It was a tiny bar with an old-timer cover band called Johnny Z and the Cameros.  We got to the know the staff and band for that week, we were regulars.

Every night, we could count on hearing Sweet Caroline at least twice by request.  The band visibly rolled their eyes.  Not again they must have thought.  Who knows how long they’d been doing this and how many times they had played the song?  But it was a crowd pleaser every time.  It’s not easy to get American’s to sing in public, but they sang this at the top of their lungs and even more so as the nights progressed.

As we adjusted to the time change, we would stay out later and later until we finally closed the bar at 2 am.  Union Square is full of people living on the street.  There are men and women with signs, gimmicks, hustles, wares, and music. You get used to it over time.  I gave money every once and awhile, but eventually you do what most of the locals do, you learn to ignore it.

But on this night, I was not in an ignoring mood.  It was 2 am and the bar was emptying out.  We’d all had a few beers and were in very amiable moods. As we turned to walk up the hill past the square to our hotel, someone began calling out to me. I’ll do my best to approximate his dialect without being offensive.

“Hey!  Hey, man.  Slow down.  Lemme aks you somethin’.”

I turned to see a scruffy, street-worn black man of indeterminate age.  His light brown skin was punctuated by dark freckles across his nose and cheeks.

Great, more street hustle” I thought. But there was something about him and about the mood of the night that made me stop.

“Yeah?  What do you want?”  I said, warily.

“Hey hey, man…relax.  I don’t want nothin’…shiiiit.  I just wanna aks you something'”

“Ok, so ask.”

I kicked the gritty sidewalk with my foot watching the tip of my boot and discreetly touching the pocket that contained my wallet wondering if it was racist or a reasonable precaution.

“Come here, man.  I ain’t gonna bite you.  Shiiit.”

My friends stood back laughing and watched me with the man.

Every phrase he uttered broke into a raspy cackle which caused him to bounce and shake his head.  Against may better judgement, I took a few steps toward him.  I wanted to appear relaxed.  I was tired of ignoring and open to the possibility of a meaningful exchange.

“You from around here?” he asked.

I shrugged.

“You got any weed?” the man asked.

I laughed a little and decided to play along.  “Why?  You know where to get some?”  I’d never been asked for pot nor been offered it.  In school, I would be the first guy out of the door of a party where pot showed up.

“Shit, man.  If I knew dat, I wouldn’t be askin you.”  What teeth were remaining in his smile gleamed yellow under the street lamp.

Most of the people had cleared out of the bar, and the night air was becoming calmer.  I knew my friends were ready to leave, but I relaxed my posture a little and smiled.  “Sorry, man.  Got nothing.”

“Das alright.  You just look like the kinda dude who might be able to help a brutha out.”

I chuckled.  “Oh yeah?  Whatever you say.”

“Hey, listen.  Check dis out.  Man, you ain’t gonna believe dis shit.  I’m gonna show you somethin’ you ain’t NE-VAH seen on a brutha.”

I held up my hands and took a step back, still smiling.  “Whoa!  Now hold on!  I don’t need to see nothin’!”

“Nah nah nah…it ain’t like dat.”

The man reached up, and with all the flare of a magician offering his audience a slow reveal, pushed the front of his raggedy toboggan hat up over his forehead.  I squinted and took a step closer as the man pointed with a dirty index finger protruding from his finger-cut glove.

There, on the man’s wrinkled forehead, was a stratched-in homemade tattoo of a symbol that I truly was surprised to find:  a tiny swastika.

“That is messed up!  That is sincerely messed up, man!” I exclaimed.

For a moment, we were just two men on the street laughing at the surprise and oddities of life.  The man laughed and wheezed at his own bizarre joke.

Wanting to know why a black man would have a swastika on his forehead, but not wanting to linger any longer on a lonely street in the middle of the night with this guy, I looked further down the street and then back at him, I said, “Ok, man.  Umm…yeah…thanks for that.  That what truly weird, but I’m smiling, so thanks.  See you around, brother.”

“Ha ha!  Alright, yeah, I will.   Hey, but…maybe spare a few dollars?  Just need to get me a burger or something.”

I obliged, and started the climb up toward the hotel in hopes of catching up with my friends.

He called after me, “Have a blessed night, brutha!”

I still wonder about that man, and how he got his tattoo.  Was he a victim of a hate crime?  Was he so messed up on drugs that didn’t know better?  Or was it simply the strangest street hustle on Union Square.

School Days and Girl-Crazy

boy-kissing-girlMy first school memory was in Austin, Texas.  I attended a preschool with my brother.  I very much enjoyed this school.  We ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches.  We ate celery and peanut butter. Lot of Peter Pan peanut butter.   We sang Singing in the Bathtub and pretended to wash our armpits. We took a walk to the corner store.  There were butter cup flowers along the path.  My teacher taught me how to hold the flower under my chin.  If my chin glowed yellow, then it was conclusive, empirical proof that I liked butter.  She assured me that I did.  I certainly did after that day.

My crushes on girls can be traced back to this class.  I was “girl crazy” from a very young age.  If I’m not mistaken, you can tell if someone is girl or boy crazy if touching the back of their neck makes them ticklish.  I was undeniably girl crazy.  I never went through an “ick girls!” phase.  I have only one recollection of the girl at that school.  I was looking out of the window of the second story classroom into the playground and I saw her in her coat and dress; brown hair and ribbon.  It’s hard to explain how a 3-4 year old crushes on someone.  Perhaps I simply wanted to hold her hand.  Or maybe it was far grander.  Maybe I fantasized about marriage and “playing house”.   All I know for sure is that my tummy felt funny when I saw her.  We moved very soon after.  It would be one of several experiences in childhood unrequited love.

We moved to Lonoke Arkansas when I was four.  There, we attended Ginger Bread Pre-school.  We ate chili mac for lunch. Kids got yelled at for not eating, but I didn’t have to be asked twice.  I steered clear of a kid whose nose was filled to the brim with brown boogers.  I joined the more daring boys on the playground clearing the slide in one broad jump from the very top.

As Christmas approached, a boy who would became my friend throughout elementary school stood before the class.  He was a plump kid.  Adults used the word “husky” for kids like that.  Consequently, his voice was very husky as well. He recited Twas the Night Before Christmas. It was the most impressive feat from a kid my age I had ever witnessed.  I cannot hear that poem without thinking of him.

My crushes continued on through kindergarten, but I lacked the courage or the skill to doing anything about them, and the few attempts that I made were sorely lacking ranging from the ineffective to the humiliating.

 

My parents could not afford nice clothes for us.  If we got new clothes, they were from the Sears catalog. But we were very fortunate that there were two boys in our church whose father owned the nice clothing store in town.  We got all of their nice hand-me-downs.  It was exciting to us to wear Polo and Izod.  Every kid wishes they were richer, and this helped me create the perception that we were.

On the first day of school (1st/2nd/3rd grade, I cannot remember), I chose some fresh hand-me-downs.  It was a red and white satin track suit (tank top, and shorts).  I was a little anxious about the satin, but I figured if the previous owner could pull them off, I certainly could.  I tucked the shirt in, put on some knee-high tube socks with red racing stripes and proudly strutted to school.

No one said anything at first, but finally a kid who eventually became my friend took me aside.  We were both running errands for our teachers.  As we walked he said something like “Where did you get that shirt?”

I lied and said my mom bought it.

He said, “Some of the kids are saying it’s a girl’s shirt.  I say wear what you want, but I thought you’d like to know.”  Or some little kid version of that.  I felt embarrassed for the rest of the day, and I never wore it again.  I must have wondered if I just wasn’t as cool as the previous owner.  At least not cool enough to make it work.

When I did finally get a girl to like me, she told me that her mother and father had forbid her to have a boyfriend.  I wondered if her parents were some sort of old-fashioned pioneer people.  I’m not sure why pioneer and not puritan or something, but we had a romance none-the-less.  She would not let me kiss her, but she did let me hug her.  That was good enough for me.  It was an ephemeral affair lasting three or four recesses.

My third grade year was the most violent year of my life.  I punched both my best friend and the 3rd grade held-back school bully square in the right eye.  I was disappointed because I was going for an uppercut to the jaw like on tv, but I couldn’t make it happen.  I never hit another person again.

Then came, the most awful, most violent thing I’ve ever done in my life.  I shudder to recall it.  We had a very sprawling playground.  There were several creatures that could be found out in the field.  There were dragonflies, bees, butterflies, and frogs.  There was a disturbing trend going on with the boys.  They were stomping toads to death for sport and for an initiation of sorts.  I did not fancy the idea at all, but there was a pressure to participate.  One day, I gathered the courage to do it.  I do not wish to describe the terrible result of my action.  I’m disturbed to this day by the thought of that poor toad.  Perhaps this is why I feel uncomfortable with toads to this day; guilt.

The bees were of interest to me.  I went through a period of catching bees in jars, and one day I decided to catch one in my hands on the playground.  I’d seen an older kid do it.  Naturally, I was stung.  The on-duty teacher sent me to the librarian.  I thought this was odd, because we had a full-time nurse on staff, but I didn’t mind.  The librarian was one of my favorite people.  I had spent several weeks as the library aid.

It was quiet, dark, and cool in the library, which was a calming change from the heat and noise of the children playing. My life-long love affair with books started in that room with Ivanhoe and a kid’s mystery series called Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators.   I showed her the sting which was already swelling.  She said very little.  She was a very quiet and stately woman.  She pulled out a pack of cigarettes, deftly extracted one, and proceeded to open it up.  She took my hand, pulled out the stinger, and rubbed tobacco on the skin.  It helped.  I don’t remember it bothering me much for the rest of the day.

There was one girl I was crazy about from the time I met her in first grade to the time I left Lonoke in sixth grade.  She was a quiet girl. Smart.  A good athlete.  She lived alone with her mother.  I thought she was extraordinarily pretty.  I began petitioning her in second grade with the standard form;  a note with a check box for like or not like.  At first she declined to answer.  Then she made a very ambiguous response.  Perhaps checking both.  Or adding a third box with friends or something.  But I was persistent.

In third grade, she finally checked yes.  She let me hold her hand on the playground for one day.  Then it was over.  She wanted to just be friends.  That was the first time I heard that line, and I was grateful to at least have that.  It wasn’t the last time in my life it happened to me.

In my final year in Lonoke, she had a boy/girl birthday dance party; the very first of our grade.  There, I learned that she was “going with” the coolest boy in sixth grade.  I watched them slow dance, and I knew it was hopeless. I would never be as good looking, athletic, or suave as he was.  We moved away, and I moved on.

There were many more crushes and girl-crazy moments, and many more cases of unrequited love, but eventually I struck gold.  In 10th grade I asked Jennifer Wilson to dinner and a movie.  She was my first true love, and I’m crazy about her.

Language Geek (Logophile)

words1
id·i·om
noun
  1. a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g., rain cats and dogs, see the light ).
et·y·mol·o·gy
noun
  1. the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.

If you know me well, you know that I have a great interest in words and their origins.   For example,  I love knowing that “making the grade” doesn’t have to do with school grades; rather,

The word grade is short for “gradient” and the idiom derives from railroad construction in nineteenth-century America. Back in the non-high-tech age of the nineteenth century, calculations had to be carefully made to ensure engines didn’t encounter sudden steep gradients and this is how we ended up with “make the grade”. http://list25.com/25-startling-origins-of-popular-idioms/

But why am I so interested in the origins of language?  I’m hoping to know this by the time I finish writing this.

Stories

One reason it is important to me is that I enjoy stories.  I find meaning in writing them, reading them, and especially being told them.  Each word or idiom has a story.  Words have to start somewhere.  Sometimes the origin includes a date and publication where it was first printed, but words often predate printing.  English words often even predate the English itself.  They originate from the Norse or the Germans, or the Galls, or any number of related language cultures.  The idiom might begin with a charismatic person, an historical event, or a trade.  Idioms evolve as well.  No one means anything about railroad engineering when they say making the grade.  As the technology for building railroads became more obscure, so did the original story of the idiom.

Literacy

I read a lot.  A good writer carefully chooses the right word for the idea they are trying to express.  It’s called economy.   A writer will often choose one word over many if there is such a word.  And sometimes writers do the exact opposite.  Instead of using economic language, they use expository language so that we can more fully understand their idea.
And so, I care about how I communicate, and I care about being able to understand what others are saying.

So much of my writing is on Facebook.  I make choices about my language in social media.  I choose whether or not to confine my language to a common vocabulary to be understood by more people or to use richer language to play my part in keeping things interesting, more literate.  I believe that both are worthy ideas. We’ve stopped using punctuation, capitalization,  and good grammar.  Our Facebook vocabulary has become very limited;  limited to a 5th grade vocabulary and lots of slang.  67 percent of Facebook language is at a 5th grade level or lower. I’m not sure if this is bad or not. It is what it is.  My friends are much smarter than the average, but it is still very telling of the literacy of our society.

But why is that?  Are we becoming more populist with our language?  The more common and limited our language, the more likely we are to get our ideas across to a larger, more diverse audience. This is certainly noble, but maybe that’s not it.  Maybe we have simply become lazier, less creative, and less literate. I’d like to think it is the former, but I suspect there is some truth to the latter.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps I’m just a language snoot!

Precise, Original Language Suiting the Context

Although I like the stories behind idioms, I often take the time to express my ideas in original language.  Idioms have their place in my life, but sometimes original language makes brains work a little bit more, creating the possibility for deeper understanding.  An idiom can mean different things to different people. It can add color to speech, but it can also make speech worn out and dull.  Precise, original language can make writing and speaking more personal and more appropriate for the context.

Knowing the original, or broader sense of a word can enrich the use of the language. There are certain words that only get used in certain phrases; otherwise, they wouldn’t be used at all.   For example, “stark naked” or “stark raving mad”.  Other than in older books, this word is confined to nakedness and insanity.  We all know what it means, but we don’t use it.  I ran from the bear in stark terror.  The living room did not yet have furniture or drapes.  It was very stark.  These usages are becoming less and less common in regular parlance.

There are also words that we only use in it’s negative that we could use in the positive.  Unkempt is very common, but kempt is very rare.  It’s a great word for describing someone who is very neatly put together.

I’ve reduced the frequency of hyperbole in my language.  If you ask me how many times I’ve heard a song, I might say a million times.  But when I really think back, even though I’ve heard the song all of my life, I’ve really only heard it fifteen or twenty times. For example, “Horse with No Name” by America.  This is a ubiquitous song.  It’s playing non-stop in the world right now.  But I can’t have heard it more than 30 times.  I didn’t have the album.  I’ve only listened to it on the radio. 30 is really a much more interesting number than a million times.  It’s quantifiable. I can imagine someone sitting down in their living room and listening to it 30 times. It would take about two hours.

Knowing when to use an idiom is of consequence.  For example:  In a meeting at work, I might say “Hey!  You really hit the nail on the head.” Then I’m the folksy, friendly guy.   We all know what the idiom means implicitly, but what if I said, “You are absolutely correct! You have said precisely what needs to be said here.”  There is a difference in tone.  Instead of being the folksy, friendly guy, I’m the professional, smart guy. Companies look for people who have the ability to think creatively, originally, and precisely. 

In government work, more so than anywhere else I’ve worked, I’ve found that management uses so much idiomatic language, “buzz words”, that I wonder if they’re actually robots incapable of original thought.  What about the visionaries who created the idioms?  Which would you rather be?

Conversation Piece

Knowledge of words can lead to interesting conversation.  Not everyone cares about words the way I do, but some people find it engaging.  Of course there’s the tedious windbag, beer drinker in Cheers whose encyclopedic knowledge of the world is unwelcome in conversation over peanuts and beer.  But that’s showing off.  Some people actually share an interest in language, like the men in my family. There are other logophiles both casual and fanatic.

My love of words begins with my father’s sermons.  My father was a preacher and is very much a linguist.  In interpreting the scripture he often started with the Hebraic or Greek origins of words. I’m sure this was tedious to some people, but it wasn’t for me.  It was often my favorite part of the sermon.

I know I’m not like everyone.  Just ask my wife.  I don’t expect everyone to resonate with what I am writing here.  Nor do I think everyone should care about language the way I do, but I know I’m not the only language geek in my large circle of Facebook friends.

 

Other language posts

The Languages of Respect

Computer Programmer’s Perspective on the Oxford Comma

Fartle: Proposal for a New Word

Kewl:  When Social Boundaries are Challenged

Sort Of…

Tech Support

nerd-bigstock_extreme_computer_nerd_1520708I’m a software developer.  That means that I use programming languages to build apps to use on computers.  And in a small-time operation that makes me the tech support on the software that I develop and maintain.  Bigger organizations have a dedicated tech support staff for their custom software.  It’s interesting to note that no organization that I’ve worked for believes or wants to believe that their systems are small-time.  It’s like the 5-year-old kid that takes offense at being called 4.  The functions the organization may perform may have a large and important scope, but the software doesn’t always reflect it.

hp-v100w-h19-2002-main

A USB Drive just a few years older than my teenage kids

Well, you may say, we have a user base of 300 people with 100 gigabytes of data with 50,000 lines of code.  We’re huge!  When in reality that’s relatively small.  And it is all relative.  I’ve worked on systems that serve several thousand people with terabytes of data and tens of millions of lines of code (medium-scale) and it felt HUGE..  But there are systems that serve many millions of people with an unfathomable amount of data and code.  I am currently working on a system that serves 20 people with 203 megabytes of data. The entire system could fit on a USB thumb drive from 2002.  When they interviewed me, they said that there was a lot of data.   It’s the most small-time system I’ve ever maintained.  It’s function is critical, though, so I treat it with a lot of respect.

power-user-image

Power User

 

In tech support, I’ve learned a few things.  There are two kinds of users: normal users and power users.  The power users are tech savvy and know how to use the full range of the software.  Sometimes they know more about how to use the software than I do.  They also know how to use office suites like Microsoft Office.  They know how to map their network drives.  They know how to set up network printers. There are only a handful of these people in a typical organization.  Then there’s the rest of them.  The

Worried at Computer

Normal User

normal users.  They may know how to surf the web, check Facebook, and use their email.  That may be it!  It just depends. They may know how to use Word, but not Excel and Powerpoint.  The normal users are the people I support the most.  Power users are mainly self-supporting.  They can figure it out, and take pride in that.  Without sufficient regulation, though, they can be dangerous! 

 

My experience has taught me that it’s important to understand the level of competence a user has with technology. That takes a little time.  No one likes to feel underestimated or overestimated.  But when I come to your desk the first time, I assume you know absolutely nothing.  I just helped a guy log into my software, run a report, and save it as a PDF on his machine.  From my perspective, this is really basic stuff.   It boggles my mind that you can be a professional anything without knowing how to print to PDF, but people just don’t know how to do it.  But I sometimes forget that I have a 15 year career in IT and I’ve been fooling with computers since the 80s.  This is where my education degree comes in handy.  I know how to teach things on a fundamental level.   I assured him that I would be available if he had trouble in the future.  He probably will.

aaeaaqaaaaaaaaopaaaajdzmzjq0ymm2lte1zjutndhlmc1izgm0ltvhndi0yti2nddmzq

Nick Your Company’s Computer Guy

But the other thing I’ve learned, is that being judgy about it is unprofessional.  Everybody knows that IT guy or that friend who makes you feel stupid about technology.  They use very intimidating, technical language that goes over everybody’s heads.  They make you get up from your seat so that they can do everything themselves out of impatience with you.  I understand that guy, but I will not be that guy.  Everybody wants to feel smart and respected.  The truth is, we are all smart in our own ways.  If everybody was as smart about technical stuff as an IT professional, I’d be out of a job.  And I’ll make a confession.  I call tech support just like everybody else.