Here Come the Judge

The new American past time.

Every once in a while I come across a topic that really sticks with me. It makes me think and re-think and re-re-think as I struggle to decide just where I stand on the subject. Sometimes I find myself back where I started; other times, I find myself moving away from my original position, but still within proximity; and there are those times when I am compelled by reason to change my mind completely on the matter.

At the local website for which I write, the Loganville-Grayson Patch, I’d intended to post a blog inspired by a fellow blogger, Kris Parker, and what he wrote this morning; something about the wrongful death suit that’s making national headlines. But then I got sidetracked by the scrolling comment bar on the Patch homepage; being the curious sort, I clicked on the link to Don’t Be Sucked in by Obama and Hanks Infomercial and gave it a read.

The word despair came to mind. Not because of Cynthia’s writing, mind you; while I don’t agree with everything she wrote, she made her case in compelling fashion, and one need only look at the comments on the post to know she hit a nerve. No, what despaired me was the never-ending-ness of the back-and-forth between people of differing opinions.

I’ve written about stuff like this before, but what really stood out to me today is the inescapable nature of judgment. As human beings, we can’t help it. Someone steps outside our realm of acceptability, and we have this keening instinct to immediate say something about the divergence.

Gay marriage. Abortion. Wrongful death suits. Obamacare. Religion. Gas prices.

You name it and chances are pretty good we can split the room on it within fifteen minutes, with a solid ten of those being dedicated to judging the morons on the other side.

We judge based on criteria such as logic; pragmatism; tradition; personal experience; religious conviction; philosophical conviction; regionalism; race; political affiliation.

We can take nuanced political arguments (or even broad political arguments) and turn them into ad hominem attacks within a single sentence.

And then we’ll judge those that disagree with those attacks.

And then we’ll judge those that disagree with our disagreement.

And down and down it goes.

Is it any coincidence that this show is one of the most popular on television every year? Or this one? Or that this one has suddenly taken off within the local consciousness?

And what do they all have in common?

Judgment. By professionals, but mostly by us, the audience.

There’s something to the notion that our national past time has become armchair quarterbacking, behind-the-screen judgment doled out in five little text messages or emails or phone calls, and then rehashed through social media like Facebook or the old-fashioned water cooler conversation. We are a nation of opinions just waiting to be exercised; and we accept more and more as grist for the mill.

Even as I type this blog, the thought races through my mind: you’re judging others for judging others!

Exactly. We can’t help ourselves. We can’t stop. I don’t think it’s merely a recent cultural phenomenon either; why else would the Oscars be nearly 100 years old? Why else would we construct Halls of Fame for everything from baseball to beach bocce ball?

It’s our nature to compare, to contrast, to evaluate and then to offer our thoughts on what makes someone or something what it is. And when exercised judiciously, judgment is what makes us the brilliant creatures we are.

And there’s the rub: who decides what judicious judgment really is? Believe me, once you put out there for public discussion the question of what foundation we as a human species build upon in determining right versus wrong, you see first hand exactly what I’m talking about.

So I’ll just leave it at this: if we all judge, who judges us?

Uncovering My Passion (And Helping You Uncover Yours)

Saw a quote on Twitter this morning that caught my eye:

“The man with 100 interests is twice as interesting as the man with 50, and four times as interesting as the man with 25.”

As someone who has a number of interests (but few passions), there was something about that little line that made me smile. But it also made me shake my head. I’m learning that having a lot of interests isn’t necessarily a good thing.

It comes down to a conversation that I’ve been having with my wife lately, a conversation spawned by a single question from her: What are you most passionate about? Which of your gifts mean the most to you?

I don’t want to sound like an egotist, but there happen to be a lot of things that I do that fall somewhere between “pretty good” and “very good”. Carpentry is not on that scale. Nor is plumbing. Nor simple math, geometry, checkbook balancing, financial planning, thinking more than five minutes ahead, putting my clothes away neatly, driving patiently, or understanding the apparent simplicity of female non-verbal communication.

Seems most of my gifts are patently useless. But at least I don’t stink at them.

And there’s the rub: when you have several things that you do fairly well, and genuinely enjoy doing each of them, how do you narrow the field in order to do at least some of them with excellence?

When you truly enjoy many things, how do you decide about which you are most passionate?

For me, I’ve had to put some thought into this. Develop some internal criteria. Create a value structure. Consider what, of all the things I like to do, I simply couldn’t live without.

For instance, I love videography and movies. We even developed a videography ministry within my youth group, and we get together and create funny videos that we show on Wednesday nights. I love filming. I love editing even more. I love the rush that comes when a room full of teenagers laughs at our little productions.

But could I live without it?

Yeah. It’s fun, but it’s a process, and when you don’t have a genuinely funny or inventive idea, it can be a little boring. So as much as I like movie-making, it’s not something that I’m passionate about.

Or take music. I love music. I’ve written lyrics for countless songs, do my best to carry a semi-decent tune, and have often dreamt longingly of learning to play the guitar. But music isn’t my passion; I’m not dying to try out for The Voice or American Idol. I don’t have the drive that a true musician does – a drive that I see in my brother, who is constantly working to improve his guitar skills or expand his vocal range or hone the unbelievably awesome instrument that is his flawless tenor voice.

(And if you’d like to sample my brother’s talents, you need only visit Graystone Church off Ozora Road on a Sunday; my brother sings with their band. His name is Ryan Brooks. Tell ’em I sent ya.)

Same thing goes for cooking. Or painting. Or writing poetry. Or photography. Or golf. Or working out. Or writing fiction.

I like them all. But I’m not passionate about them.

So as I’ve pondered Rachel’s question, I’ve found myself coming again and again to the same two things: teaching/preaching and writing.

I like to teach. I like to preach. In some circles those things are one and the same, so that’s why I counted them as one. But I dig the interaction of being in front of an audience of people and sharing with them, taking their questions and offering my own, responding to people who don’t share my views, and just being able to see even one person have an “ah-ha!” moment. It’s very gratifying, and it fulfills me deeply.

And it doesn’t have to be in an audience setting. I feel the same way when I’m one-on-one with my children, or with a friend, or with one of my students. I love seeing the light bulb go off above people’s heads, and I equally love it when they challenge and stretch my own thinking.

Writing falls into the same vein; there’s something about being able to put words on a page/screen and know that those words resonate with your readers. (Or, in my case, reader. Hi, mom!)

Perhaps it’s better boiled down to communicating. That’s my passion. Sharing ideas, challenging ideas, shaping ideas – seeing people come alive when they use their imaginations for more than just idle daydreaming when bored at work. If I could spend the rest of my life just communcating with people – either in person or in print – then I think I would spend the rest of my life doing so. It’s my passion. It’s my gifting. At least, it is as I see it.

And I can’t live without it.

So what about you? What in your life are you both good at and passionate about? What could you not live without?

Here’s hoping you either know, or have the time to discover, the answer. And here’s hoping even more that you have the courage to chase after it.

Little Too Little

I love working with teenagers. They’re fun, energetic, and quite hysterical to be around. Last night, my youth group spent time hanging out together and it was just a fun evening. Getting to laugh, play games, and just talk is one of the best parts of being a youth minister. It gives them the chance to know I’m a real person, and it reminds me the same thing about them.

It also reminds me that the world of a teenager is rapidly shrinking.

I’ve read a lot lately about the prolonged “adolescence” that we provide young people here in America; a recent article in the NY Times Magazine suggests that an adolescence that runs from 10-26 years old is too long, and creates more problems than it solves. The argument is simple: we baby kids too much these days, protecting them from necessary life experiences that would do much to prepare them for the real world.

On some level, I can understand. But I also see the other side.

Yes, we are protecting our kids from some things, but not everything. There are areas of the teenage life where adults have abdicated almost all responsibility and left the kids to their own devices.

(I realize I’m making a generalization, so forgive me.)

We have more education about sex, drugs and alcohol than maybe ever before, but so little discussion of it. And when it comes to how a young person is supposed to navigate the crooked path of human relationships, moral choices, or even simple things like managing money or forming a political opinion, we talk even less.

The irony is that, in trying to protect them from the world, we’re exposing them to it at a much earlier age – and we’re leaving them to face it alone.

We’ve hashed and re-hashed some of these topics in other forums, usually connected with other issues, but looking at it first-hand, from the perspective of the average teenager (as if such a thing exists) the issues seem to take on a new life.

Keep in mind, I’m not condemning any parent out there. I’m not focusing my lens on a particular family, or a specific type; more to the point, I’m focusing on myself and my relationship with my own two kids.

I took my son outside today for a quick push on the swing. The sun was bright, the birds were singing, the air was actually cool and fresh. As I pushed him higher and higher into the air, in the comfort of his little toddler swing, I couldn’t help but wonder:

Am I failing you as a parent?

Am I teaching you how to live life well?

Am I loving you as much as I should, or am I loving you to the point of suffocating you?

What happens when you begin to make your own decisions? Will I have equipped you to make them well?

And to be honest, I wonder the same thing every morning as I put my daughter on the school bus.

I know I can’t be there for every little thing that happens to them, and honestly, Rachel and I have tried to parent in such a way that our kids get to experience more than they are sheltered from. We want them to discover the world. We want them to ask questions (even when they ask them at a rate of 10,000,000 per minute). We want them to think for themselves.

But at the same time we want to protect them.

So the question becomes how much is too much? How little, too little? And perhaps most frightening of all, can we ever really know?

You don’t really consider these questions when you think about parenthood. You tend to think (at least I did) in terms of money or time or loss of sleep; you may have the vague notion that at some point your child will no longer be your child, and you will have to let them go, but you don’t fully understand the terror inherent in that notion until you have them, warm and pink and sweet-smelling, in your hands. Until you hold them and realize that love, unconditional love, exists.

And when you do understand it, you’re already in process. The trick becomes not letting the terror overwhelm you.

These kids of ours are little too little. It’s best to love them with all our might while we can, and then love them enough to let them go, trusting that between what we’ve taught and modeled for them, and their own innate intelligence, they’ll choose a better life than we could ever imagine. It is the dilemma and blessing of parenthood.

Now excuse me while I go hug my kids.

Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

Yeah - I was a child of the swingin' 70s. Dig it, man.

To my right is a picture frame filled with old photos of me as a kid. In one I’m holding my little brother, each of us equally bedecked in some hideous early-80s fashion, and we’re smiling with all of the joy and mischief of childhood. In another, I’m turned out in a strange looking suit/tux/waitstaff ensemble, holding a satin pillow in front of a church altar, the literal picture of an elfish ring bearer. In still another I’m a slack-jawed infant with powder blue booties stretched over chubby feet. And just above that picture is one in which I sport a shaggy blond bowl cut, 4-inch shirt lapels, and a brown suede sportcoat.

Can you say “child of the 70s”?

I’m looking at these old photos of myself, and I’m thinking about the distances I’ve covered as a human being. The roads I’ve traveled; the choices I’ve made; the changes I’ve endured in order to become myself.

It’s not everyday that you get a quiet household and relatively few demands on your time, so when you do, it’s a lot easier for the mind to reflect like this. So I find myself looking at myself and wondering, “Was I really happy then?”

It’s a stupid question. I mean, why wouldn’t I have been happy then? I had a great home, good friends, a wonderful family, and I was yet to be soiled by so much of adulthood. I realize not everyone has an idyllic childhood, but I certainly did, and the thought suddenly occurs to me that, at least in my case, unhappiness is an adult invention.

I mean, why should I ever be unhappy? Life has thrown me a few curveballs, yes, but for the most part I live a life that 90% of the world would love to lead; I have a well-built house with power and running water, two working cars, two healthy kids, a smoking hot wife, and a job that allows me to read, write, think and teach for a living.

So occasionally I don’t get my way. Big deal. Happened a lot when I was kid (usually in the toy aisle of the local K-Mart or Richway–back when Snellville wasn’t so cosmopolitan) and though the disappointment was palpable, it was short-lived. Ten seconds, maybe? A minute or two if I really turned on the pout.

But as an adult, let something not go my way and I can become apoplectic; let multiple things not go my way in one day and I become the Incredible Hulk with a toothache and a hemmorhoid.

I was reminded of this on Tuesday; the pollen was making my head into a pulsating glob of mucus, the Internet was on the fritz so I hadn’t gotten any work done that day, I was tired, I skipped lunch so my stomach was growling, and I just generally felt like the world owed me big time. Lugging that attitude around the kitchen, I accidentally knocked something over – a little glass globe that my son had made at school that was filled with some dirt and green rocks – and heard the tinkling of glass.

I’d broken my son’s trinket. And dirt had fallen all over the floor and counter. And now there was glass everywhere.

The bile rose so fast you’d have thought it was on Cialis. I snatched that little globe off the counter and stalked over to the garbage can. I jerked the lid on the can up and raised the damaged globe high over my head and, squeezing it so as to maintain better control, threw it into the trash can as hard as I could, getting little slivers of glass in my fingers as a momento of the occasion.

And when I looked up, there was my daughter, her face ashen. Suddenly, tears poured from the corners of her eye as her lip trembled and she asked in a hushed voice: “Are you mad at me too, daddy?”

I was so outraged her fear didn’t even register. It took my wife saying, “No, Ella. Daddy isn’t mad at you, but he’s not setting a good example right now. He’s letting his anger get the best of him.”


Conviction, thy name is parenthood.

Thinking about it now, it’s so obviously moronic that I feel dumb even typing about it. But at the time, my anger seemed justified. The universe had slighted me. Things weren’t going my way. Who wouldn’t be angry?

I’ll tell you who wouldn’t have been angry: seven year-old me. He would’ve just gone on with his day and played G.I. Joe in the backyard. Or four year-old me; he would’ve just gone to his room and looked at books and doodled for a couple of hours. Or even ten year-old me; he would’ve gone outside and shot baskets until darkness fell or his fingers fell off, whichever came first.

Looking at the pictures of me as a kid, and maybe even more, looking at the living pictures that are my kids, I’m reminded that there was once a time when I didn’t view life so miserably. And I long to get back there.

I’ve been humming that Beatles song all day: “Get back…get back…get back to where you once belonged…”

Maybe it’s time I made that trip in my heart.

Learning from Hollywood: The Cautionary Tale of John Carter

Golly - given how lame this poster is, I don't understand how John Carter ended up as a flop...

The number crunchers for Walt Disney and its various movie subsidiaries announced today that their $250 million space epic, John Carter, will officially enter into the books as a bigger flop than Ishtar. All signs point to the n’er-do-well sci-fi dud to lose close to $200 million, once all factors are considered.

For some reason, exactly nobody was surprised.

I mean, how could a film based on source material that only the geekiest of sci-fi geeks know about, starring a humanoid that only the geekiest Friday Night Lights fans knew about, and featuring more computer animation than Finding Nemo and Wall*E put together, possibly go right?

(And for those who have no idea about the references in the above sentence, the correct answers are: Edgar Rice Burroughs The Mars Trilogy; Taylor Kitsch; and the past two films of John Carter‘s director, Andrew Stanton.)

So another can’t-miss, Hollywood blockbuster goes splat. What’s the big deal?

I think it’s a cautionary tale for all of us, especially this election year.

Bigger is not necessarily better. Not for government, not for spending, not for promises, and certainly not for number of doo-doo flinging attack ads. This might be the perfect year to sit back, play it small, and let the facts do the talking.

Except that even our facts get conflated. On both sides of the aisle. As does the rhetoric, hyperbole, name-calling, finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and other political campaign standards.

“Barak Obama is the worst president to ever hold the office! He should be pilloried from pillar to post and voted out of office by at least 50 bajillion votes! He wants to steal your money and give it to Cadillac-driving, no-education-having, crack-smoking, malt-liquor-drinking, illegally-immigrated, alternative-lifestyled, green-energy loving wonks who will bankrupt this country of money just like they bankrupted it of morals!”

“Republicans want to rip out your uterus and use it as a yo-yo! They want to tell you when you can have babies! They want to steal your money and give it away to big fat-cat businessmen who already have enough of their own money and drive gas-guzzling SUVS that emit invisible toxic fumes that kill baby rabbits! And, they can’t even decide which of their horrible cadre of unelectable candidates to trot out for certain November defeat!”

It’s special effects in place of story. Sizzle instead of steak. Show to hide the sham.

Now THIS is how you make a movie.

In short, it’s everything that critics have been saying about John Carter. The similarities are eerie: uncertain story; a seemingly endless budget; countless experts working on it; little sustained interest from the general public; breathless and sometimes convoluted advertising.

But perhaps the most painful similarity of all: characters you neither care about nor believe in.

Maybe the prescription for what ails John Carter is the same for what ails politics: a compelling cast of characters who, though flawed, fight for the good of all people in the midst of the apparent destruction of all civilized society. Despite their differences, they are united by the need for heroes, and with their combined strength beat back humankind’s destruction with perseverence, teamwork, and no concern for who takes the credit.

You want to know how to solve America’s political problems?

Be in theaters on May 4th.

Avengers assemble, indeed.