2016 Advent Ramblings: All That’s Left To Do Is Live

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

*Just idle ramblings on stuff I’m reading for Advent this year. I read Isaiah 7 today…

“You can get so confused, that you’ll start in to race, down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace, and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space…

…headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…

…Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come,
or a plane to go or the mail to come,
or the rain to go or the phone to ring,
or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.

Everyone is just waiting.”

–Dr. Seuss, in Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

“And it feels, and it feels like
Heaven’s so far away
And it feels, yeah it feels like
The world has grown cold
Now that you’ve gone away”

–The Offspring, from “Gone Away”

In the late 8th century B.C., the king of Judah had to make deal. See, Israel and Syria banded together to stand against the threatening Assyrians and were planning to take over Judah as part of that plan. Fighting for the survival of his country, Ahaz wanted to send cash (and lots of it) to the Assyrians for protection.

Spoiler alert: Dealing with an enemy that has the leverage is like living with a rattlesnake. Eventually it will bite. You don’t know when. In the interim between the deal and the bite, fear gripped Ahaz and his people. The Bible describes it as “the hearts of the people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind.”

Enter Isaiah with a message from God. The prophet let Ahaz know that Israel and Syria wouldn’t be an issue for Judah…and side note, if you trust God on this, your nation will survive. If you go about it another way (like cash and lots of it) things will not end well. Spoiler alert: Ahaz spent the cash and lots of it.

The rattlesnake would bite and things would get dark within decades. God, however, offers comfort that Ahaz’ decision wouldn’t be the end of Israel: “Behold, a maiden will be with child and bear a son, and she will can His name Immanuel.” The bottom line: Things will get tough and stay tough for a long while, but somewhere down the line, God will deliver His people.

Then the clock started counting down on Judah…and the clock on their dark, long “waiting place” would begin.

Far be it for me to disagree a bit with Dr. Seuss, but the waiting place doesn’t have to be “a most useless place.” You can get a lot done at the bus stop or train station. A trip to the mailbox can bring all sorts of surprises (Christmas cards, anyone? Wedding invitations, anyone?). A ringing phone can change life as you know it. New snow always looks good to me. The “yes” or “no” is a revelation. A cancer patient’s new head of hair is pretty great, too.

All of Dr. Seuss’ instances of people just waiting assumes passivity…but there’s active hope built right in. You believe the bus or train will take you where you want to go. That the mailman will bring the mail. Folks will call. Winter will come. You will get your questions answered. Your hair will grow.

See, there’s a lot you can do while you wait. Around 150 years after Ahaz’ deal, the prophet Jeremiah wound up in the midst of the darkness after the fall of Jerusalem. He wrote these words to tell them during their exile: “Build houses and live, and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.”

In short: live well while you wait…even if it feels like God isn’t with you, well, your feelings are lying to you. They’ll do that here and again. “Immanuel” means “God with us” after all. Remember that when your feelings lie to you.

I’d be lying if I said I felt like God is with me right now. I’m in a season of waiting myself. Granted it hasn’t been some 700 years of waiting…it’s only been about six months. I don’t seem to have bus fare or plane tickets. The mail has been discouraging (got no less than four rejections for jobs on Friday alone). The phone isn’t ringing. Winter isn’t even really winter here in Dallas. There have been plenty of “no” answers and a dearth of “yes.” My hair is growing even if it seems like my hairline recedes at a noticeable rate.

Nobody seems to think I can be a good pastor these days. Nobody seems to think I can be a good teacher these days…at least on a full-time basis. I’m still waiting on what God wants me to do vocationally while I am quite clear on my calling (there is a difference).

It feels like God is so far away.

My feelings are lying.

And I will choose to live in my mini-darkness. I will love my wife well. I will enjoy my family and friends and dogs. I will embrace the Kingdom glimpses in my neighborhood and work days. I will enjoy good books and see movies and watch football. I will grade master’s level papers. I will eat good food and enjoy good drinks and time around tables. I will enjoy good sunsets from my roof and crane my neck to see other little glimpses of Him in the everyday interim.

Because my feelings of divine abandonment and personal inadequacy and the myriad of pity-party inducing emotions are lying to me.

Waiting is not useless. God is with me.

I want that to be enough…

My Life Right Now in 10 U2 Quotes

Just havin’ a little fun…been on a U2 listening kick for a few days so I thought I’d let you know why I’m digging them again:

“Here’s what we gotta be
Love and community
Laughter is eternity if joy is real”

“Well my heart is where it’s always been
My head is somewhere in between”

“I will follow
I will follow
I will follow
I will follow
I will follow”

“I thought I heard the captain’s voice
But it’s hard to listen while you preach”

“It’s a beautiful day
Don’t let it get away”

“I’m not broke but you can see the cracks
You can make me perfect again”

“One day you’ll look back
And when you see
Where you were held
How by this love
While you could stand there
You could move on this moment
Follow this feeling”

“I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide”

“I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred
Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost, now has been returned
In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”

“I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice”

The Flip Side of My Fear: Emotional Detachment (Part 4)

Tags

(this is the last entry for my series on my fears and the flip-sides of my weaknesses. If you’re still with me, well, thanks for reading!)

 

We all have unrealistic expectations. For the most part, they stay tucked away and unseen. Like the undertow.

Until some sort of disappointment, insult or injury pulls you under. Then you become hyper aware of them.

We all have realistic reactions, too. For the most part, they are pleasant surprises. Like a tax refund.

They are the universe’s little bits of encouragement, honors or other delights that show up when you’re at the right place and the right time.

I’ve said before that I had an unrealistic expectation that my dad would live to be past the ripe old age of 36. Sure, the statistics would point toward the reality that it’s likely he’d have lived to be double that number…but people win the lottery. The odds of that are higher than being struck by lightning. People get struck by lightning, too. Don’t confuse unrealistic expectations with statistical norms.

So, it’s pretty normal to live your life with those statistical norms…which makes it even more strong when your roulette number comes up. The anger that surfaces first when one of these unrealistic expectations hits tends to be directly proportional to the odds against it. For example, you might roll your eyes when your toddler doesn’t pick up their toys or cuss when someone cuts you off in traffic or wail your eyes out when they wheel your dad’s casket adorned with the same type of flowers that were in your mom’s wedding bouquet the day they married.

It’s also pretty normal to clap and cheer when your toddler takes his first steps or high-five the folks at the bar when your team scores a TD or have your heart jump into your throat when you see your daughter in her wedding dress—that you made a point not to see her in it previous just so you’d have that moment—standing at the top of the Driskell Hotel lobby staircase (in the interest of fairness, I had a similar reaction when the other daughter’s name was called to give the valedictory address at her school). I’ve found those reactions are proportional as well.

Our personalities play into that, too. I’ve got friends that weep deeply at movies that begin with a desk lamp jumping on the letter “i.” I’ve also got friends who can see their favorite band live with 60,000 people screaming and have their arms folded across their chest…but having the time of their life nonetheless.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ll cuss under my breath and punch a pillow when the Tigers fumble at the one and high five my buddies when Mazara puts one in the home run porch. I’ll hug my students when they get accepted to their first choice college. I’ll hold the hand of another student on the transatlantic flight because they didn’t know they were scared of flying until that moment. I’ll laugh like crazy when my friends are funny. I’ll smile when my wife walks through the room and my first thought is how pretty she is. You get the idea.

But that’s the new me. That’s years of recalibrating my emotional responses after my dad’s death.

And recalibrating is precisely the word I want to use.

Because I’d shut off any and all emotion in high school…with the exception of anger but even that was more of a controlled aggression. It showed up in heavy contact in non-contact sports and those fake sports fights where you point fingers and start shoving knowing full-well it’ll get broken up before it gets much past that. Mosh pits were about the only place I was fully emotional.

Everything other than that was squelched. I kept busy. I choked them all down…the things that hurt and the things that were fun. It was easier, frankly.

Then I met my Winnie Cooper and started reading my Bible. In that order.

My high school girlfriend was great in a lot of ways. The most interesting to me was that she cared enough to ask good questions and then gave me time & space to answer. It usually went something like this:

“So, how, exactly, did your dad die?”

“Heart attack.”

“Hmm. (silence for a half a minute) So, when do you work this weekend?”

(Two days go by)

“Hey, remember on Tuesday when you asked how my dad died. It isn’t really as simple as a heart attack…(some long story of whatever I was thinking about the whole ordeal)”

“Thanks for telling me that. I know it isn’t easy for you and I’m glad you did. You can always talk to me, you know.”

She knew when to speak and when not to. For some reason I just knew she was trustworthy. I could count on her, too. I made choices to love her and my feelings followed. Might’ve been the first time I really felt anything other than anger in three years. She was my best friend in high school (distinctly different than my buddies who had a needed but entirely different role to play). Bonus: I got to kiss her. Double bonus: She was exquisite (and my guess is she still is…we are Facebook friends but tend to go years between chats and neither of us are really class reunion people. If I didn’t plan the first two I’m not sure I’d have gone). It’s an understatement to say she was easy on the eyes but add all the extra lasting character traits and, well, wow. Needless to say, I was–and this word is precisely the one that fits–gutted when things didn’t work out (timing can be a real wicked bitch sometimes and that fear of abandonment thing? Yeah, that came back in spades for a while) but at least I was feeling again. It was high-risk and I lost the chips I had on the table. But I was in the game, man.

That made me a better person in the long run. A better husband. A better father. Better at almost the things that really matter to me. I could ante up and play high-risk again.

This ability to feel again was coming at a time when I was getting closer to God and spending a lot more time in my room reading the Bible. One passage was a game-changer for me…so much so that it heavily influenced how I taught my students when I was on the teaching end of things.

It’s that well-known section the Byrds sang about in “Turn! Turn! Turn!” You know it: “There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance…”

And on it goes. It never hurts to go back and check that one out. Ecclesiastes 3 if you’re interested.

Anyway, the theme of the book is on gaining wisdom…which is something I really started to strive for. I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but I stole the phrase from a friend of mine and incorporated it heavily into the lives of my students: Wisdom is knowing what time it is.

Is it time to fight or not? Is it time to laugh? Cry? Mosh? Refrain from moshing? And on it goes.

It seemed to me that the Bible was clear on the idea that emotions are a good thing…just be wise in how you deal with them.

So, what is the flip side of my emotional detachment? What strength comes from that?

First, I learned that emotions are responders in that they respond to whatever stimuli they’re given. Whether it’s getting cut off in traffic or getting a tax refund. The wise thing to do is line them up with Scripture and see if they are the appropriate ones…or at least rational ones. They can be controlled appropriately. I use the example of waking up from a nightmare and you are shaking and breath is short. Everything changes when you sit up, take a look around and your brain changes the response because it’s now feeding you truth.

As an aside, this is why I push back hard when people tell me they “just have to vent” or “they made me so mad” or “if Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” Please. Mama needs to get happy. Someone else’s behavior doesn’t excuse you from self-control. Venting (unless it’s to God—be careful with that fine line) is anger. Self-control is a thing. A fruit of the Spirit thing. Live supernaturally, I say.

Second, I learned to be in the moments. One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, said that sometimes, we need to take a step back when we are in a pure life moment and say, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” And my use of the phrase I stole from Stephen King (“manalive!”) tends to express my feelings a great deal. It’s also okay to let my personality be what it is. So, if Dez caught it and dives for the end zone I can high five my friends. When the refs overturn it and call it incomplete, I can curse under my breath. I don’t have to be over-the-top if that isn’t who I am. We’re all God’s children and there’s room for all of us.

Third, I can choose to let others in and be better for it. Sure, you can get hurt–even gutted–but that’s the risk. You’re playing another hand and that’s a good thing. I’m pretty picky about who is in and who isn’t in my circle of trust but if you’re in, well, you might not like what you see but what you see will be real. Letting others in and being transparent with them—no matter how much time it takes for me to get there—makes my life more abundant.

And that’s wisdom…

…which…

…when you think about it…

…is what I really got from my fears and their flip sides.

 

(up next: thoughts on leaving the suburbs and moving downtown)

The Flip Side of My Fear: Loneliness (Part 3)

Tags

I learned pretty quickly that I was supposed to fly right, wear khaki, vote Republican and strive for middle management. This complicated my re-entry into all things Christian.

My life had stabilized a bit in the three years since my dad’s death. My mom completed her Master’s degree and she was home after work. My sister was in middle school doing whatever it is middle school girls do. I was driving my ’77 Cutlass, running for senior class president and dating the girl who would become the Winnie Cooper to my Kevin Arnold.

There was a guy from the outreach ministry at my high school who had a knack for talking to me about Jesus while being sensitive to the deal I’d made with God to stay on His side of the universe while I stayed on mine. He knew his subject matter—both Jesus and me—and kept harping on the anti-authority stories about Jesus. It worked. I was intrigued.

Keep in mind my spiritual life from the church nursery to my dad’s funeral was wonderfully Alabama Episcopal. We were a rare breed and we were serious about the liturgy and stained glass and candles followed by a covered dish lunch every week. There were plenty of picnics with kegs and my dad took the nickname “whisky-palian” pretty seriously. They were hardcore about both the worship of God and the table/party…which certainly a draw for the Irish in me.

But Duffy kept inviting me to his Bible church. I’m not sure why I went the first time, but I know that I was pretty naïve about the visit.

I didn’t do anything out-of-the-ordinary that first Sunday. I drove into the parking lot with the windows down and the Jensen cranked up playing the Clash. I was wearing a ¾ sleeved baseball undershirt that had the local hard-rock radio station call letters on it. Flip flops (standard issue) and jeans with holes in the knees. At that time I was wearing an ear cuff since piercings and tattoos were verboten at home and school.

And I got looks.

The kind that either said, “it’s great that Duffy is bringing in those lost kids” or “it’s a stage that he’ll grow out of” or “we’ll have Bob talk to him after the initial breaking-in period.”

After that initial breaking in period people did start talking to me. About the music that I loved. Asking kinda personal questions about what my Winnie Cooper and I were doing when we were alone. About how I presented myself. About the political thoughts I had regarding Reagan’s America. About what movies I needed to stop going to. About the American Dream and how my college choice could let me grab my share of it.

I was fascinated with the revolutionary Jesus that Duffy and Bob and Pastor Mickey kept talking about it. I was annoyed with the version I was hearing from the rank and file. There was a gap I couldn’t make sense of.

But they did care about me. It was a nice respite from the loneliness of the past three years…even if that care came with a few unspoken (but clearly communicated nonetheless) conditions. I was drawn to them even if I’d traded silver, candles and stained glass for plastic communion cups, acoustic worship and AWANA squares. Since Bible was their middle name they focused on getting me in that. I gradually walked away from the Book of Common Prayer but I can still step back into it anytime I’m with my Episcopal peeps. It’s on my brain’s hard drive.

What was cool was that, in my naivety, they listened to my honest questions about God and Jesus and the Bible. I was an ideal youth group kid. I really wanted to know, and when I’d ask questions it made the Bible-church-from-the-cradle kids either show how much they knew to be true or how much they toed their own party line. Duffy and Bob and Pastor Mickey—and eventually a guy named Dave who handled the day-in, day-out me—loved it when I’d make folks in the church revisit what they thought they knew.

In short, even though they weren’t big fans of my music or taste in clothes, they made time for me. They appreciated what I brought to their table. They gave me a hearing. They were patient with me. They majored in the majors and minored in the minors with me. As leaders, they were a lot more open than the volunteers and random adults in that local gathering of about 400. My guess is they had meetings about me initiated by the concerns of the latter.

They “got” me. They gave me space to let the Holy Spirit do His thing on His timetable.

I wasn’t lonely anymore.

I learned a few things from going through the loneliness and coming out the other side with the Tribe.

First, they were pretty clear that there was room for an outlier. I’m not sure they ever put it into words, but the leaders seemed to welcome a different perspective. “Why are you always late to church?” they’d ask. “Because the music is bad.” “How is it bad?” “It’s too slow and the words are about joy but nobody really seems joyful singing them. Last night at Black Flag we sang along with the band about how we’re going to rise above and we all really meant it. Here, they just sing what’s on the overhead like robots.”

“Huh. Well, let me tell you about the history behind that song…”

And it was that way about almost everything I questioned, from Bible interpretation to the night they brought an expert in “backward masking” to tell us about the evil rock and roll (“Am I the only one in this room that thinks this is total nonsense or no?”). They were really cool that way. Even though I was an outlier in almost everything, I learned that it was okay to be one. That I have value and a place in the tribe even if I’m off the well-worn path to Republican khaki American Dream middle management.

Second, I learned that I had to deal with pride and give grace. See, you can’t always be the one who is catered to. That’s not how family works. There are plenty of little old ladies who were offended by my wearing my Atlanta Braves cap backward to the church service. Or my Ramones shirt. Or my cassette tape of the band “X” full volume as I came into the church parking lot. I needed to learn that my view of how this revolutionary Jesus wants me to live isn’t the way he wants them to live.

I’m a big fan of receiving grace, not so much on giving it. If I could serve these blue-haired prayer warriors and understated heroes of the faith by leaving my cap in the car or wearing the good jeans or collared shirt with the penguin on it, maybe that’s one less battle to fight. What’s it to me to turn my music down? Maybe I do need to think through the movies I’m seeing. I could learn from every question somebody asked me, and maybe I needed to re-think my positions, no?

I also needed to value the legalistic, behaviorally-managed, khaki-wearing, Republican-voting (full disclosure, I’ve voted Republican several times, so please don’t infer my political leanings from my repetition of that, okay?) middle managers. There’s just as much room in the Kingdom for them as there is for me. It’d be a pretty boring Body if everybody thought alike and lived alike. God’s working on all of us on His timetable and I’m glad I was taught that, too. That give-and-take way of life together is a lesson we’d all do well to implement more often.

Lastly, I began to value the importance of community, both large and small, in my life. If you’ve ever been lonely, you realize how meaningful it is. Even when it’s messy. Even when it’s full-throttle disagreement. Iron sharpens iron. And when I was just rolling through life lonely and divorced from any meaningful Christian community. I didn’t realize how much I began to just accept the ways of the world as normative. The Tribe, even at our very worst, well, they’re my Tribe. Warts and all. In all the forms they take.

And, my new community in my new urban setting has more than their fair share of youth and tattoos. There is room for them in the Kingdom. There is room for the more conservative and homogenous in the Kingdom, too. Either we’re all God’s children in our individual and collective beauty, or we’re all just living a lie.

And I have to say that it’s nice to know that I won’t be lonely. Ever.

The Flip Side of My Fear: Alone (Part 2)

Tags

Being busy has become a status symbol. Why or when this became a thing is beyond me.

I know it wasn’t a thing before or after my dad died. Elementary school was an 8-to-3 deal. I don’t remember having anything that could be defined as extracurricular beyond taking off my school clothes, putting on my play clothes and screwing around being all free-range kid until dinner…which was around the table.

Middle school was an 8:30-to-3:30 deal. There were a few sports teams that practiced the last hour of the school day but you had to be finished in time to catch the bus so it never ran long. I took guitar for an hour per week from a guy who just tabbed out Kiss songs and showed me the chords. Still mostly free-range on most days.

Even high school ended practices by 4:30pm or so. Again, practice started during the last period of the day and a two-and-a-half hour practice is good enough for any sport. You could also be a part of several clubs if you wanted which all had a special schedule to accommodate during the school day twice per month. I’m not much of a joiner so I stayed in homeroom during that time because the skirts of Angie Mahan and Tracy McCarver needed to be chased. Mostly we weren’t good at that and played paper football.

Our coaches and teachers knew we had part-time jobs and church stuff and family deals going on so homework was pretty limited. Oh, and being an average high school player with average high school grades was okay. There was little belief that any of us would get scholarships in the sports we played. Except for baseball. We kicked ass at that.

And summer? Don’t even get me started. We actually got bored when Little League ended on MEMORIAL DAY weekend with a tournament. If you made the All-Star team you played in a couple of tournaments if you kept winning, but those were done by mid-June. We got bored. A lot.

But now? Kids are warp speed…and so are parents.

School seems to start with extracurricular practices/meetings at 6:30am. In my community it’s pretty common to see the high schoolers practicing until dinner and sometimes even beyond.

Homework seems never ending…despite rampant grade inflation. I read the other day where in 1980, 7% of students made the “A” honor roll. Today: 41%. In our state, there’s pretty intense pressure to land in the top 10% of your graduating class get some sort of guarantee into the state schools.

Most kids choose a sport or area of focus before high school. They spend most afternoons working towards extreme excellence in their chosen thing. There are private volleyball coaches, music lessons, meetings, games or whatever until well after dinner. The folks who eat family dinner at home are few & far between. Parents are on the go in the SUV to make most of those things happen or support their kid as it’s happening.

Weekends and summer? There are SAT teams. Tournaments. Private lessons. Tutoring. Vacations revolve around whatever “voluntary” practices or meetings teachers/coaches impose (if you don’t go, you will volunteer to sit the bench). Instead of 3 months of vacation time it shrinks to about six weeks as the year ends later and you have to be back first of August to excel. I don’t know of many kids who have jobs. Busy creeps into those times, too.

I just focused on the kid side of things here. We all know that work weeks are expected to be in the 50-55 hour per week range. My grandfather was a big deal for a major U.S. company and he was 9 to 5, Monday-Friday…and my suspicion is the three martini lunch was a thing too. And parenting back then wasn’t as fully engaged as it is now. There were blocks of time where my mom had no real idea where we were.

All those involvements keep you connected to people, too. We try to cram family time into those engagements. We’re at warp speed. Together. We don’t even slow down for church gathering. It’s just another thing on the schedule…and stats show most folk attends weekly service twice per month these days. We’re surrounded by people during most all that time.

And now, we’re connected even when we’re disconnected. Phones and social media and stuff.

Now, don’t think this is some scorching case of “good-old-days” syndrome, though. I’m not pining for some return to a Deep South catching lightning bugs in a jar way of living. That lifestyle had some major league drawbacks for sure. What I’m highlighting is the reality that there are some unintended consequences of

But as a latchkey kid, you learn a few things when you’re alone as much as I was…sometimes four hours a day after school/extracurricular stuff. Weekends could be from Friday night to Sunday night with nothing on the agenda for me.

And there are some things you learn from being alone and disconnected. Some very good things, too.

Like, I learned to be self-sufficient. There were a lot of things that you had figure out on your own. If poster board were needed for a project, well, mom isn’t home so you’d better figure out a way to go get it. Dinner was done by reading the back of the box or on the label somewhere. Hey, Mr. Stokes, can you show me how to patch my bike tire? Lawnmower needs a new spark plug so you use about 43 tools before you figure out which one fits and/or works and take it to the hardware store.

Sure, there was an awful lot of trial and error (ever been shocked trying to replace a car battery?) but you figured it out.

There were a couple of bonus off-shoots of being self-sufficient: You develop an adventurous spirit of sorts…you give it the old college try and then deal with the failure. Mr. Stokes also had to help me put a dishwasher back together once. But I tried to figure it out before I realized I was in way, way, way over my head.

Also, self-confidence. After a few wins you begin to believe you can do it. You may have to make a phone call to finish the job but you start by saying, “I got this.”

Second, when you’re alone you tend to get creative. There wasn’t anyone around to play these sports board games I had where the dice rolls re-created the on-field performance of players and teams. So, you devised rules so the teams could compete and you could coach both teams.

Or maybe you didn’t have anyone to work on your pitching, so you rigged up some rope and hung a quilt over it, stole a milk crate from behind Western Supermarket and poached tennis balls hit over the fence from the country club (about four miles away via bike). You then could throw about 40 pitches into the quilt from 60’ 6”, pick them up and put them back in the crate and repeat the process. As an aside, your mom will lecture you about the duct-tape strike zone and mud splatters on the quilt Nana made like 25 years ago.

And I engaged in the arts. Granted, it wasn’t like I was listening to Vivaldi or Ravel in the afternoons or reading Hemmingway or whatever. But I listened to a lot of music when I was by myself. I read a lot of books (Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe were big) when I was by myself. I wrote a lot, too. Sometimes in journals. Sometimes giving short stories a whirl, too.

Lastly, I learned that being alone keeps you centered.

What I mean is that I was surrounded by people all day from 8am to 3pm. Surrounded by their ideas and thoughts and whatever current events and such. When you come home you have to deal with the thoughts in your own brain. You have to figure out what you believe and why you believe it…or if you believe it.

You develop the ability to be honest with yourself because there isn’t anyone else to be honest to, with, or about. You develop a way of looking at the world that is uniquely your own because you have time process.

You kind of grow into yourself. You become okay with living in your own skin.

I’m convinced that the busyness and accompanying social demands are part of the reason people have lost their minds. Why these are valued is beyond me.

Being alone helped me find mine.

The Flip Side of My Fear: Anger (Part 1)

Tags

(The last four entries focused on why I fear abandonment. It was kind of gloomy. Starting today I flip those over and look at how some good things came out of those reasons…so maybe these next few will leave you with a bit more hope)

 

“Why do you want to manage sin? I mean, they don’t have adultery management classes.”

My friend Charles spent most Monday afternoons post-gaming the weekend choices I made during my sophomore year of college. What’s weird is he seemed to enjoy his choice to—in the language of my Tribe—“disciple” me and our group of spiritual neophytes. He’d been at it for over a year.

Keep in mind most of the weekend choices I made my sophomore year were—in the language of my Tribe—unwise. The reality was that I wasn’t fuzzy on the good/bad thing. I’d read my Bible. I seemed to create an “undergraduate exemption” from those behaviors. In my way of thinking, the really fun sins didn’t work against you until you got your degree. This was the fine print I’m not sure Charles read when he signed up.

We met at the campus McDonald’s because getting coffee wasn’t a thing yet. Once a week. Charles would patiently wait until the smoke bomb I threw weekly to avoid talking about my—ahem—unwise decisions cleared. In this case, I mentioned that my mom suggested that I might want to look into some anger management classes. Surely there were some in a college town.

For some reason he didn’t wait for me to filibuster that particular smokescreen. He decided to ask a question that would change my entire perspective on the spiritual life. His filibuster had all sorts of phrases in it.

“Doesn’t affect how much God loves you

“It’s really ripping yourself off.”

“Fun and joy are different.”

“That life is not the abundant one you could live.”

“Behavior management won’t change your heart.”

“Aren’t you tired of living with anger yet? It’s been like five years, man.”

Whatever spiritual switch in my brain that moves philosophy to action flipped that afternoon. Right there over the #2 value meal. Super-sized. Maybe I just decided to grow up. Maybe that year investment Charles poured into me paid dividends at that moment. My Tribe would say that the Holy Spirit was at work in me. Maybe it’s all-the-above.

What I do know is that all our weekly meetings changed after that. We talked about grace. We talked about thanksgiving. We talked about fruit of the Spirit. We talked about living abundantly. We talked about the exchanged life with Christ. We talked about the resurrection in 33AD and what it meant in 1985AD.

It wasn’t overnight, to be sure. But the endless lifestyle cycle of wins and losses that behavioral management (which, if we’re honest, is what most members of our Tribe value and teach) leads to was broken.

And most of you know that I’m a firm believer in the Law of Competitive Balance. It’s a baseball term that means the teams that are losers work harder and the good teams stick to the status quo. One of the corollaries is that every form of strength has weaknesses, and vice versa, attached to them. Google Bill James and Law of Competitive Balance if you really care.

Anyway, the anger I lugged around dissipated over time. Sure. It still lurks. But it isn’t a characteristic of my life these days. I learned I could leverage Kingdom business because God wired my personality and gave me interests and talents that are the flip-side of the anger coin. In other words: my weakness had some strength attached.

You know what’ll be fun? I’ll use some of my favorite angry punk lyrics to highlight some of those.

Strength #1:

Frank Turner, “Love & Ire Song.”

Oh, but surely just for one day, we could fight and we could win

And if only for a little while, we could insist on the impossible

Well, we’ve been a good few hours drinking
So I’m going to say what everyone’s thinking
If we’re stuck on this ship and it’s sinking
Then we might as well have a parade
Cause if it’s still going to hurt in the morning
And a better plan’s yet to get forming
Then where’s the harm spending an evening
In manning the old barricades?

 Sometimes there are battles that need to be fought…even if you know you aren’t gonna win. And, manalive. The battles that I’ve fought behind the scenes in some church planning meetings or vision discussions were the right ones to fight, man. I knew I wouldn’t win. But I was right. The ship might be sinking, but I’m going to have a parade and manning the old barricade is honorable.

What’s peculiar to me is that God gives congregations people like this but they aren’t given much credence. That’s a shame because we all need the rabble to get roused.

 

Strength #2:

The Clash, “White Riot.”

And everybody’s doing
Just what they’re told to
And nobody wants
To go to jail. White riot, I want to riot

The status quo needs to be challenged. All the time. Granted, a riot is hardly the answer, but the spirit is there, man. Our tribe would do well to always be asking if what we’re doing matters…and this song from the band Rolling Stone called “the only band that matters” could certainly teach us a thing or two in that regard.

Oh, and you won’t be celebrated for pushing. You might go to any number of various jails but it’s okay to push.

 

Strength #3:

Black Flag, “Rise Above.”

Society’s arms of control
Rise above, we’re gonna rise above
Think they’re smart, can’t think for themselves
Rise above, we’re gonna rise above
Laugh at us behind our backs
Rise above, we’re gonna rise above
I find satisfaction in what they lack
Rise above, we’re gonna rise above
We are tired of your abuse
Try to stop us, but it’s no use

 Change is always initiated from the passionate fringe. When punk broke, the disdain from almost everybody was palpable. I mean, the songs on the hit lists of the late 70’s were highly polished and technical and written for stadiums full of people. Here were clubs full of angry kids stripping it down and cranking it up. Skill was irrelevant.

Things changed. Want proof? Take a look at any list of greatest albums of all time and then make note of how many punk bands are on it. Then look at how many are in the top 10.

But take a look at how major changes take place in society or churches…and those things that were once derided become celebrated…and if you stick around long enough you’ll notice that the celebrated things become derided and the process repeats. We need to pay attention to those on the outside and pressing in. They might be right.

 

Strength #4:

Sex Pistols, “God Save The Queen.”

God save the Queen
The fascist regime,
They made you a moron
A potential H-bomb. 
God save the Queen
She ain’t no human being
There is no future
And England’s dreaming

 The music of anger was about something. You might not have liked the fury of it. You might not have agreed with the points. You might not like their anti-authority stance. But you couldn’t deny that it wasn’t like the fluff of Peter Frampton or Jimmy Buffet or Abba. Substance mattered. And if you needed to shock to get attention, then you might want to use hyperbole to make that point.

As Wayne said in “Wayne’s World,” “Led Zeppelin didn’t make music that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.” You might not like it, but you’ll have to deal with it.

Whoever told you spirituality had to be polite lied to you.

 

And there are more and I could go on…

…but what I learned that the way God wired me is okay. My Scotch-Irish molotov cocktail heritage. My thick skin developed from being on the fringe. My understanding of the role He has given me to play. The beauty I see in fighting for principle even if you know you’ll lose. The constant questioning of the status quo. The passion of caring about stuff that matters. My tribe calls it “prophetic leanings” if that makes it more palatable for you.

 

That matters.

It matters to me.

It matters to the Church.

It matters to God.

To be less and straighten up and fly right would be to deny Him. I am needed. I am wanted. I am loved. I am a masterpiece even if others don’t get it.

So it goes. When you don’t try to manage sin but focus on letting him flip it over and on how He wired you and step into that…isn’t that beautiful?

Reason Four I Fear Abandonment

Tags

“If we were in a war, I’d want you beside me in a foxhole,” he said.

In a past life, I did informal family counseling. That particular afternoon was tense. His wife was loud and emotional, but I kept calm, cool, and collected. Despite her attacks and complaining about my supposed failures in this long-term situation, I directed the family to stay focused. That long hour-and-a-half left us all focused on how to make the most loving choices for all involved so I took his statement as a compliment.

“But,” he continued, “I don’t think I’d want you dealing with my platoon in the aftermath. You were pretty linear and factual. You dismissed her feelings and emotions, not to mention mine. This is the relationship between a mother and child, and a husband and a father. There is passion and pain involved and you kept pushing past all of it. You may have given us a strategy—and a good one, at that—going forward but I’m pretty sure she feels like you don’t really care. I know I feel that way. You might want to work on your bedside manner, Brent.”

I didn’t argue.

Honestly, I couldn’t. He was right.

I’ve been fantastic and disengaging from my emotions since I was about 8-years-old. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s over four decades of choking back all the good things and bad things that life has thrown at me.

See, my mom and dad were born behind older siblings. This meant that their graduations, weddings, home purchases and baby-making were all at least 10 years behind. All the grandparents got their nicknames by older cousins and family traditions were laid down before my parents got married.

This also meant that death came into my life earlier than it did for my relatives. My grandfather had achieved mythical patriarch status and died when I was 8. Later, it was great aunts & uncles. Then my dad’s heart attack five years later. By the time I was 25 I didn’t have a grandparent living. By the time I was 40 my sister and I were adult orphans. I got a nice callous regarding death.

Add to that whatever it was that I told myself about being the man of the house and needing to be strong. Nobody asked me to do that. I somehow assumed that was what I was supposed to do. My mom cried a lot and I guess I felt like I shouldn’t give her anything to worry about so I just bucked up.

Mix in some degree of whatever passed for Southern Manhood strength and teenage testosterone and late-70’s/early-80’s movie tough guy and, well, there’s that.

Combine that with a teenage broken heart and you can add another layer of callous. Don’t ever say a teenager can’t be in love or dismiss those relationships as “puppy love.” That pain might be age-appropriate but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

As an added bonus, we had a steady slew of coaches who were telling us to control our emotions. Have short memories. Stay in the moment. Win the next play. Even when something good happened, there’s a lot of game left. Act like you’ve been in the end zone before. Stay poised. Stay confident. Keep your head in the game.

Lastly, throw in my mom’s two signature responses to life. First, she was like a Dane by nature. You know, from Denmark. The Dane’s are generally regarded as the happiest people on earth because they have such low expectations from people or life that anything positive that happens for them sends them over the moon. My mom was an expert at keeping the bar of expectation low. “Don’t count on making the team. There’s lots of good players at your school.” If you made the team, you were happier because you had already resigned yourself for the worst.

Second, her drug was staying busy. She woke me up the day after my dad’s funeral by saying, “Wake up. It’s time to get ready for school.”

“We’re going to school today?”

“Yes. We have to get up and get moving. If we don’t get going, we’ll stay here.” She said “stay here” so that the only possible interpretation was negative. My guess is having something to focus on—besides figuring out a way to pay the bills and raise two kids on her own–kept her from her own personal mental death spiral.

So, I’ve got a nice little recipe of externals that make for quite the emotional robotics.

Supposedly, studies have been done on adolescent teenage brains after traumas that show that the areas of the brain that deal with emotions don’t develop in whatever ways “normal” is supposed to be in teenagers. My sister sent me a medical study once that listed all these semi-abscesses and their resulting behaviors. Most of what I remember is that you’re out of touch with your emotions.

And, that’s even in the good things.

We had sports success in high school and I remember thinking the wins were pretty cool and high-fives all around but we have to work on getting ready for next season starting Monday.

Seeing my wife on our wedding day for the first time (back when you didn’t see her until she came down the aisle and made everyone wait a half-hour for your picture taking session)? I made a dumb joke about angels and how low they apparently flew.

Birth of kids? Stayed busy even though they both took my breath away. Focus on Tracy and if she’s okay and getting food after labor. Take the baby to the baby aquarium so the grandparents can get their first look. Call all the friends. Keep moving.

My kids had plenty of success in their various childhood extracurriculars. Kid1 started a rally to upset a great team and they won the city rec-league championship. They were jumping around and going crazy and I smiled and winked at her but that was about it. Kid2 stole more than one show in ballet and got standing ovations from people who knew why she was good and got into prestigious summer programs. Same reaction. Sure, I’d tell them I was proud and give real hugs but when it came to my emotions they were subdued.

A university graduation with honors for Kid1. Hugs and winks. Same for the Kid2 giving the valedictory address at her school.

Wedding day? I had a game of catch with Kid1 so I could stay loose. There was an open bar which certainly kept me on an even keel.

Stand in an internally displaced people’s camp in Congo? Spend an afternoon with young women rescued from sex trafficking in the Philippines? Stay busy. There aren’t words and there are too many emotions, so you just listen to the guide or find some neutral activity to enjoy so you don’t have to deal with that kind of emotional impact.

My team makes the world series and a home run in a crucial moment and I’m there? High five my wife and friend and say, “That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” My college football team kicks and field goal on the last play of the national championship game and I hugged my wife and smiled. They lost the national championship on the last play three years later and I said, “Their kid made a great play. What can you do?”

Never too high. Never too low.

It’s a great survival skill and all…no matter if it’s learned behavior or even has some brain wiring gone sideways.

But try going through life being the guy that’s wanted in a foxhole…

…but can’t empathize with folks who are going through the real stuff—the good and the bad–this world can dish out. And you know if you fake it, well, that’s even worse, IMHO.

Want to be that guy? Didn’t think so.

Reason Three I Fear Abandonment

Tags

(as an aside…I know the recent slew of entries has been a bummer of sorts. I’m aware…and you should know that there will be a corresponding amount of entries about how each of these reasons has been flipped over. Just got one more reason I fear on Wednesday and those will commence)

 

I heard a memorable line in a forgettable movie that the greatest feeling in the world is to be “gotten.”

That means that somebody really understands you. What you dig. What you don’t. What sets you off. What shuts you up. What your Starbucks order is. They intuitively know when to dive in with insight and when to shut the hell up. The kind of person that makes you a playlist and it’s perfect. The kind of person that would bury the body with you. The kind of person that knows the you behind social-media you.

You can’t explain it. They just “get” you. Manalive.

The reality is the converse is true, too. The worst feelings are when you aren’t “gotten.”

I discovered this not long after my dad’s casket was wheeled out of the church then driven to Elmwood Cemetery where it would be lowered into the plot my grandparents had purchased back when they got a sweet deal on a block of four. It was understood that whichever of their kids went first got the other two.   My mom’s maiden name—Childress—was already on one side of the headstone honoring my grandfather. My own surname showed up on the other side.

It was at the graveside that well-meaning pop-culture theologians felt the need to say something—anything—to me.

“Your dad’s in a better place.”

“God has a plan for your Dad.”

“You’ll see him again one day.”

Granted. A funeral isn’t the best place to expect folks–the kind of folks who knock off work to pack a church and sit Protestand Shiva and bring too much food to your house—to say the right thing. There isn’t a right thing.

But these strangers-to-me shook my hand as they spoke sunshine. They put their hands on my shoulder as if to emphasize the importance of their happy-talk. They made a world of promises about being there for my mom. They told us both that if we needed them for anything they would be there for us. My family was surrounded by nice people trying their best to show us they cared and backing it up with their presence and food…

…and I’d never felt so lonely–which, if you’re asking me, is wildly different than being alone. It’s the difference between sympathy and empathy.

See, these true and nice folks didn’t “get” what I was going through. They couldn’t “get” it because they hadn’t been through it. You know they’re trying but there you are:

The cheese. Standing alone. In the way you see the world. In the way you experience the world. In moments like…

…failing to realize how much damage an untrained impromptu theology lesson would do to a 13-year-old’s spiritual progress. They’d have just showed up, hugged me, said, “I’m so sorry and I care about you” and worked the room instead. You feel alone in your existential self.

…when my friends would back off the Friday plan to sneak in to see the “R” rated Halloween movie because their “stupid parents are making me go to my sister’s recital” you’d think that you wish you had stupid parents to make you do stuff instead of having all the time in the world to screw around. You feel alone in your family self.

…when your buddies use all sorts of expletives and make fun of your punk tribe when you try to introduce them to the music that means so much to you and you want them to listen. The all-in-good-fun crap they give you is a gut punch to your very identity…and you can’t understand what’s so great about Molly Hatchet or Lynyrd Skynyrd or Foreigner or Loverboy or Def Leppard. You feel alone in your social self.

…when you are out and about and the guys are trying their first beers and you get laughed at when you say you aren’t going to because your mom will cry if she smells beer on your breath…you can’t really explain how much your mom cries to them in that moment and don’t have words to tell them why not wanting to be the reason she cries matters so much. You feel alone in your emotional self.

…when there is a father-son tournament and you have to call your uncle to go with you. And even though you know he really is thrilled to stand in for your dad you still feel like you’re imposing. You introduce your uncle to the other guys’ dads and you are alone in your keen awareness of life-station.

…when it’s parent’s weekend at the fraternity house and your mom comes but gives you all the reasons why it’s scary for a single lady to drive that highway by herself but she’ll figure something out…and when all the other guys’ dads go golfing with them you just go to lunch with your mom. You are alone in your pragmatic self.

…when you opened your diploma from Auburn with your mom and you know how much your dad would’ve loved that moment. You are alone in your celebratory self.

…when you glance at your bride walking down the aisle and take a glance at your mom and Charlie Mae (remember our family’s housekeeper I mentioned earlier? Yep. That one) sitting where your dad should’ve been. Or when the kids are born. Or when they graduate university or as a valedictorian. You are alone in your life moment self.

…when you are with friends at a party and they’re all talking about how their grandparents are starting to get sick and they don’t know what they’re going to do “when they actually go.” Grandparents? I haven’t had grandparents in 20 years…and my own mom has been gone almost 10 years now. You are alone when surrounded by real friends with real problems self.

Look.

I get it.

But I’m not looking for a pity party here. And if you are pitying me, well, that only reinforces the point.

I’m just explaining that not only was I alone as a kid, I was also pretty lonely, too.

And that loneliness…that feeling far afield from my fellow man…still flares up all the time. You can be in a room full of people and be lonely.

But see, my current life station is that I have family and friends who do understand me. They know what I dig and what I don’t. They know what sets me off and what shuts me up. They know to order a caramel macchiato. They dive in with insight and shut the hell up when that’s the best course of action. I have friends who could make the perfect playlist for me and then refuse to listen to it with me. I have people that would bury the body with me.

It took a long time to find these folks. My life is more abundant with these folks, no matter how often I see them or how far we live from each other or even if they live in my house and/or have genetic links to me or if I see them every freaking day. I’m always on the lookout for more of them, man. I’ll take as many folks who get me (and I them) as I can get.

And that’s reason three that I fear being abandoned. I know loneliness.

And, that might be the worst feeling in the world.

Reason Two I Fear Abandonment

Tags

I wasn’t the only kid coming home to an empty house.

Divorce had become a thing in my Generation X upbringing. The two couples that lived across the street both wound up with them and lots of kids at school were having it happen. I remember my 8th grade French teacher lost it in class because her husband told her he was leaving her. Moms were hitting the workforce in bigger numbers but that wasn’t all that prevalent in my neighborhood. As far as I knew, all the women in my neighborhood were homemakers.

Media even came up with a term for us: Latchkey kids. I like that one better than “day orphans.” Supposedly we were the least parented generation in history but I don’t buy that. I don’t think my grandfather or great-grandfather were into relational parenting. You can be there and not be there, you know?

Before my dad’s death things were a 60’s family sitcom. We walked home from school in a pack. When I walked through the back sliding-glass door I’d drop the book bag, put on my “play clothes,” and hit the neighborhood. Wars were fought. Games were won or lost. Trees climbed. Forts built. Playboys discovered. 360’s and 180’s were attempted. G.I. Joe even had his hair set on fire and thrown from a roof simulating an ejection from his plane and parachuted down. Near-death experiences were fairly common but never spoken of in front of grown ups.

The streetlight would come on we’d hit our houses for dinner around a table. We talked. Then we’d watch Fonzie be cooler than Richie but the Cunninghams loved him anyway or we’d watch Charlie’s Angels trying to hide the only way teenage boys could watch Charlie’s Angels from our parents or some dumb show called “Battle of the Network Stars.” Then we’d bathe and go to bed. This was pretty much every day of my life as I remember it.

I earned my key in 1980 after the tectonic shift of my dad’s death but the reality is things were starting to change, anyway. Some of my neighborhood tribe had already started high school. The rest of us were riding the bus home from the new middle school that opened when we were in 8th grade. The neighborhood afternoon fabric had already started to fray.

She wasn’t far behind my opening the latch. My job was to make sure my little sister, who was still walking home from the elementary school, got in the house safely. My mom would roll in and ask about our days and do mom chores until about 5:30pm. Then she was off to work on her Master’s degree and wouldn’t come home until around 10pm.

Once I’d checked in with mom and was free from assigned chores, and since the neighborhood had fallen victim to age-related dissipation, I got my boom box (did I mention it was 1980?), loaded the backpack with punk cassettes and a thermos of water, wedged my bats on the handlebars and rode the 10-speed to the batting cages.

The unlimited pass my mom purchased gave me about two hours a day of self-therapy. Two hours of pounding baseballs with punk rock providing the soundtrack was all the therapy I’d get…and I looked forward to it. My mom later told us she didn’t think of getting us professional help. “Therapy had a very different stigma back then,” she said. I believe her.

The streetlight rule still applied, and I’d fire up the microwave or toaster oven and forage.

And I was alone. (To this day, I don’t have any recollection of what my younger sister did during that time)

For four hours.

Every day.

In my room.

I listened to a LOT of punk music. I started reading Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe. I journaled. I created solitaire rules to play board games that statistically simulated college football teams and professional baseball teams so the dice rolls caused them to perform like they did in real life (look up Bowl Bound and A.P.B.A. baseball…I still have the football game). I watched our new cable television that had all sorts of re-runs of old TV shows. I watched baseball if it was in-season. I don’t remember doing it much, but I’m sure whatever homework was assigned got half-assed done.

Things could get dark, too. What’s going to happen if my mom had a heart attack and died. Do we have any money now and are we going to have to move in with Mama Jeannie? What do I do if the power goes out? What do you mean, tornado warning? I can’t figure out how to half-ass my homework there isn’t going to be anybody to ask until about 10 or so. How do I keep my mom from crying so much? How am I supposed to get the money to Tim so his dad can buy us Kiss tickets? Probably sneaking into Halloween wasn’t the best idea and now every creak in the house is Michael Myers. My mom already said she can’t take me to the end-of-school dance and Angie is going to be there and I have to find a ride. How do I turn off the noise in my head?

There’s a reason solitary confinement is a punishment. Over time it wears on you, man. And it wore on me. Like Dr. Suess said, “Sometimes you’ll play lonely games, too.  And they’re games you can’t win ’cause you play against you.”

In my room.

Every day.

For four hours.

So, you want reason two that I fear abandonment? I know what it’s like to be truly alone. And it’s way worse that coming home to an empty house.

Reason One I Fear Abandonment

Tags

I am a Molotov cocktail of a person.

When God knit the masterpiece that is me (His words, not mine), included were a short fuse, an indiscriminate flash-bang and a slow burn. I’m not much for initiating a war but more than happy to riot when I’m backed into a corner. I fit the profile of my Scotch-Irish heritage, that’s for sure.

God also made sure that I was a first-born with a healthy understanding of the difference between mischief and trouble. It was a nice check-and-balance for me. If I’d been a part of the Boston Tea Party it’s likely that I’d have been at the Green Dragon rousing the rabble and then signed up for the role of lookout when it came to time dump the tea. I want to get my point across but I really don’t want to go to jail or get shot if I can avoid it.

Now, I know my dad didn’t intentionally abandon me. He didn’t choose the heart attack. In fact, he’d prepared for his demise with a will and life insurance and all sorts of wise choices in the event of an untimely demise. Doesn’t change the fact that he untimely left and never returned, though.

Anger became the primary emotion. That’s how it works when you feel cheated.

When expectations, unrealistic or otherwise, aren’t met the natural reaction is to take it out on somebody. Gunslingers in the Wild West killed over palmed cards. Kids howl when they don’t make the team. We all get edgy when the texting driver next to us swerves into our lane. Punks riot when the band they paid to see cuts the set short and won’t be giving refunds. So it goes.

And my unrealistic expectation was that my dad would live to hold his grandkids and be at my next little league game. You bet I felt cheated even if I wasn’t thinking that far forward when I was a kid. I mean, you expect your dad to come home from work when he left that morning, right? Not irrational or unreasonable, but you can see it’s unrealistic, right? Bad things are out there, man. We’re all one phone call away from a very different life than the one we currently live.

Compounding matters was that there wasn’t one lone villain to exact vengeance on. The doctors? The hospital? My mom? My dad? My God? The effects of “The Fall?” The world’s being an imperfect place where screws fall out all the time? The answer was “all the above” and “none of the above” at the same time. Frankly, it would’ve made my life easier if anyone or anything wore the black hat.

Instead I got angry and everything and nothing all at once. It wasn’t like the guy in Inside-Out who had the full-time job of being angry. No. Anger can’t maintain that pace. Anger has to rest but it’s a light sleeper.

You’re walking around being 13—and every single thing that entails—with your friends and that kerosene soaked fuse on my Molotov cocktail would ignite…

…Poster promoting the father/son golf camp out.

…My mom crying because Jimmy has a dad that can pick up at the arena after the hockey game downtown but he commandeered the daylight drop-off shift instead.

…after the game all the parents were there but your mom had school and, oh, yeah, Frankie’s parents tell you they will take you home and you get to sit at the pizza place with their family feeling all third-wheel for an hour while knowing you’d find the house empty when you got there.

…when you’re heating up hot dogs in the microwave or making soup or Mac & Cheese or Steak Umms (old school reference there, kids) or grilled cheese to eat by yourself for who knows how many nights in a row after a lifetime of family meals together.

…when Danny’s dad would be giving us advice on how to score points with the girls before he dropped us off at the skating rink on Friday night.

I won’t go on. I’m not trying to get pity (that sets my hair on fire, too), only trying to give you a few examples of what ignited the fuse.

This is where I remind the newbies here at The Diner that my family’s life changed dramatically from late November 1979 until late 1982. My mom went back to school to get her teaching certificate up-to-date and get her Master’s degree…and my Cleaver life disintegrated (more on that with Friday’s entry). This would include any church attendance—which was fine by me since I’d made a deal with God.

The theologically accurate/practically benign statements of church folks at my dad’s funeral ensured that even though God’s plan put my dad in a better place, well, my view was that the plan had a few holes in it and his current location wasn’t near me. I’d be okay if God stayed on his side of the universe and I stayed on mine. Interesting to this day that I never doubted His existence through all that.

A bit more for the newbies: When you’re mad at everything and nothing all at once, all the time, you seek out ways to blow off steam. Booze and drugs were out since first-born me was sure my mom would find out and she’d cry some more. Too young for girls (this is what those of us who weren’t good with interpersonal relationships with the opposite sex say). No car. But I found a tribe of angry folks in the punk scene. That music sounded like the way I felt, and a night of moshing (fun fact: it was called mashing until the singer of the seminal band Bad Brains—who was Jamaican—said it and people just repeated what they heard) to music that was about something gave anger a sleeping pill.

That’s the rub, though. Remember? He’s a light sleeper and whatever valve the steam came through would get shut. Booze/pills. Sex. Stuff. You can induce naps for him that way, but he remains a lather-rinse-repeat deal for everybody. Anger was a lifestyle for me. A lifestyle that’s hard to maintain even if you have the check-and-balance of being a first-born.

Insider truth: That makes it worse.

See, as a first-born, you don’t want to evoke pity so you never answer with the truth when they ask how you’re doing. You tell everyone what they want to hear because you’re tired of creating awkward pauses. You stay composed when you feel like bashing someone’s/anyone’s head in because everyone is waiting see when/if/how you’re going to lose it. You can’t dissolve and stay in the fetal position sucking your thumb because then they’ll see you’ve lost it. You second-guess almost every emotion you have.

So, first-born me found a punk tribe outlet that was rabble rousing but at least accepted within the framework of society…this means grown ups would put this in the category of “teenagers rebel” and let it go. Well, as long as you didn’t bring it to school or drag their perfect kid into it and for god’s sake please turn down that noise.

Here’s reason one I fear abandonment: If I’m abandoned, anger is a guaranteed side effect.

If you’ve ever lived with the Molotov cocktail of anger as a way of life—let me emphasize that again—as a way of life…

…you know how hard that life is. If you throw the bomb there will be consequences. If you hold on to it, it’ll explode in your hand. Crazy about those options?

Yeah.

Me, either.