Category Archives: Culture

Buzz Bissinger, upping the ante, and the God of redemption

In a miraculous twist of fate yesterday, my children were napping during NPR’s program Fresh Air. I was in the kitchen making a meal for a friend who has a new baby, but when I heard the show’s guest, I was immediately disappointed: it was Buzz Bissinger, Pulitzer Prize winning author, writer of the Vanity Fair cover article on Caitlyn Jenner, and author of many books, including Friday Night Lights, which has a 25th anniversary edition coming out. I thought to myself, What do I have in common with this man? I haven’t read his books, I am not interested in sports, ugh. But out of a sense of obligation to the fates that allowed me this precious time cooking early enough in the day to have an hour to LISTEN TO NPR WHILE MY BABIES SLEPT, I kept it on. And I was glad I did.

Mr. Bissinger is a fascinating, intelligent, incredibly articulate gentleman. He answered the interview questions about his experience researching Friday Night Lights and the response over the last 25 years with conviction, passion, and integrity. It only took me about 5 minutes to warm up to him and start thinking, I need to read this book!friday night lights

He is a compelling figure. Who has surely written compelling pieces, even though I haven’t read them. Yet.

The second part of the interview moved into his personal life; he has recently been treated as an inpatient at a rehab facility for a shopping addiction. But as he talked, it became clear that the shopping addiction, which primarily involved leather clothing, was a symptom of something even deeper. He says, “…the admission of the shopping addiction was just a, you know, a cover in a sense for some deep, deep-seated, you know, sexual habits.” His official diagnosis was “complicated sexual addiction.” After a childhood with a difficult mother (who always wore leather gloves), he grew into a man with some gender confusion, who enjoys cross dressing, has had all of his body hair removed, and has indulged in dangerous S&M activities.buzz bussinger

At this point in the interview, my heart was heavy. Bissinger is very open with his story and speaks very highly of his supportive children and wife, who decided to stay with him throughout the addiction and recovery. But I couldn’t help but think, This is just one more story of brokenness. The sadness is not worth it to me.

And then Bissinger said something so profound: “My life was guided by shame. And that’s what I learned most of all in rehab. I was ashamed of myself, so you find an addiction, but it’s not enough, so you up the ante, you up the ante and you up the ante.”

Wow.

YES!

There it is—the human condition. An articulation of my own heart—he could have been speaking for me. Bissinger explains that the road to rehab was full of dangerous behavior, “the search for an identity that will probably never quite come.”

In my head, I know that my identity has indeed come, although this side of Heaven I won’t experience its fullness. I also know that my identity has nothing to do with my sexuality, my past, my successes or failures, my race, etc. My identity is that which God has named me. And yet, do I live out of that identity? Do I walk around in joyful confidence of God’s love for me? Or do I look for ways to cover up my shame and numb the lies that threaten to swallow me up? Do I find my own way of upping the ante, my own form of a shopping addiction? Bissinger is articulating my functional theology.

At the end of the day, Bissinger is describing you and me. All of mankind. Granted, our search for identity may not lead us to rehab or gender confusion, anonymous sex, or infidelity. Etcetera. Yet we all struggle against the shame, against the voices that tell us we aren’t good enough; in fact, forget good enough—how about the voices that tell us we aren’t enough, period?!

Bissinger says he has made peace with his search for identity. He says he is happier. I think that’s where the disconnect is for me—I don’t want to be happier; I want to be hopeful. I don’t want to accept that my search for identity will never be conclusive; I want to relish in the confidence of who I am because of my relationship to The Great I Am. Bissinger says, “You have to strip yourself bare, and once you strip yourself bare, you build yourself up.” But my experience tells me something different—shame strips me bare and only Jesus can build me up; only the unconditional, sacrificial love of Christ can change me, convince me, coax me into believing the truth of who I am and experiencing the peace that comes with that.

I can assert with all confidence that Mr. Bissinger will wake up tomorrow and struggle. As will I. What will I do in the midst of that struggle? Will I trust the God who promises redemption or fall back into my shame, looking for ways to up the ante? Will I believe that vicious, manipulative voice in my head or the kind, gentle voice of God who only asks for my trust?

Quantifying the mundane

Quantifying the mundane

Last night my husband and I crawled into bed at 1:30, anticipating a few things for the morning: sore muscles, a smashed television, and a sense of pride. We laughed at how our life has changed since becoming homeowners and parents—we are never up that late anymore, and when we are, it’s not like it used to be when we had no cares in the world and didn’t mind an early morning because after work, we could just crash on the couch in each other’s arms. Now my work starts at 8a when my babies are ready to get up, and it doesn’t stop until 7:30p when they’re ready to go back to bed.

Two of our three expectations were met this morning: sore muscles and a sense of pride. Thankfully, we haven’t experienced the horror of the sound of a tv falling off the wall; as we were hanging it last night, I jokingly asked my husband if he were high. Here in Colorado, we have commercials that remind us all that while it’s now legal to smoke marijuana, it’s not legal to drive after we’ve done so. One ad shows a man whose television has come crashing to the floor—it’s legal to smoke pot and then hang your tv, but it’s not legal to drive high to get a new one.

No, my husband was not high. And we were too exhausted to experience much excitement after the 2-hour process of hanging that Vizio on a lath-and-plaster wall in our home that is 87 years old. And actually, hanging that television was one of the most stressful things my husband and I have ever done together in our 8 years of marriage. Holy cow.

But hanging the tv was the icing on the cake—we have spent hours repainting that room. It used to serve as our church’s praise team’s rehearsal/storage space, but with the addition of a studio in Westside’s new office, we have this little room back. It’s an inglenook, and I love it. So we borrowed a ladder, bought some paint, and I spent stolen hours here and there painting the beams on the ceiling. Then this weekend, we painted the ceiling and the walls. And mounted the tv.

Juggling a 3-year old and a 1-year old while trying to do this project was almost impossible. At least it felt that way. And when it was done, I took a quick picture and uploaded it to Instagram. LOOK! I wanted to shout. LOOK WHAT WE DID!! DO YOU KNOW HOW HARD IT WAS TO DO THIS?! And then I wanted to list all the challenges: babies, sick babies, 12-foot ceilings, vertigo, limited time, having to move the stinkin ladder every three feet, etc.  001As I was posting (thought not screaming my frustrations for my followers), I recalled an article in the Winter 2015 edition of Mockingbird that addressed exactly what I was doing. In “Optimization Nation”, David Zahl says, “Even the most mundane task can, when quantified, become a venue for comparison. That’s the allure of all this previously unknown information, after all—to chart ourselves (and others) to find out how we’re doing, whether we are improving or getting worse” (10).

So true. Here I am shouting my accomplishment to the world, and while the world may not care, I have at least graphed my work for my own sense of satisfaction. But to what end and at what cost? What standard am I setting for myself when even my most mundane tasks are under the threat of being measured and then, if not compared to my neighbor’s tasks, at least compared to my last mundane chore to see if it measures up.

But measures up to what? What am I telling myself when I quantify mundane tasks, when I tweet or IG or FB my every chore, meal, mood, or milestone? What pressure does this create for myself? What performance-based standard does quantifying the mundane create?

If only this were a Voscampian method of being grateful and counting my blessings…but I know it’s not. I see that sometimes, I am just so excited about finally finishing painting our inglenook. And that’s okay. But sometimes, I am looking for validation in the keeping track of the little things I do because sometimes I feel overlooked and unnoticed. I live a quiet life in our quiet bungalow and I wonder if anyone sees me or wants to know me. And oh, my heart yearns to be known! I want to be recognized and delighted in. So I try really hard. I try really hard to convince everyone around me that I am worthy of their love and pursuit. That I would be a really neato friend.

who are youI try to convince God of that, too. I miss the old days when I believed—trusted—his love for me. When I didn’t have doubts creeping in all the corners and cracks. Maybe if he could just see how hard I work or how much I endure or how clever I am…Maybe if he followed me on IG and saw my sweet house and beautiful children…

Typing it out weakens my resolve. I don’t really believe that God’s noticing my inglenook will catch his attention. I know that there is nothing I can do to catch his attention. Because I already have it—unwavering, uninterrupted love. Furious love. Love that can’t be quantified even knowing the sacrifice he made.

I am comforted and encouraged by Zahl’s conclusion:

What we learn is what we never quite learn, the message that is as bottomless as our need for it: God does not relate to us on the basis of how well we stack up…but on the largeness of his generosity, the gift of his Son, who ‘by his one oblation of himself once offered a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.’ (19)

Halloween communitying

The babies and I just got back from a ten-day trip in which I met up with my younger sister at my older sister’s house for a visit. That doesn’t happen often, and every single moment was precious to me. I felt like Jim and Pam taking mental pictures at their wedding—so many images remain in my heart of my family fellowshipping, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that time.

We got there Halloween afternoon after a long—long—day of airplane travel. After warm greetings and lots of hugs, we put the kids and babies in costumes to head out for trick-or-treating. Baby V was supposed to be Buzz Lightyear, but he wasn’t convinced. IMG_0586

Baby A was content as The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

IMG_0587

My sister lives on a small street with few children, so we drove to a neighboring neighborhood. My, was I overwhelmed.

We live downtown, but in a modest area. We don’t have driveways—we have alleys. And we typically get only about half a dozen trick-or-treaters, but we treat them very well with lots of candy. Each year I wait with eager anticipation to ooh and ahh over the children who ring our doorbell.IMG_0589But this was unexpected. In this neighborhood, decorations were almost Claire-Dunphy elaborate. We didn’t ring a single doorbell; the candy-hander-outers all sat in their driveways, most with firepits and caldrons full of candy. Many had music playing and many were dressed in costume to greet the children.

I teared up at the sense of community I felt half a country away from my own community. This American tradition was bringing together people of all shapes, colors, beliefs. All in the name of candy. But really, all in the name of community, of wanting to share something special with their neighbor, of wanting to know each other and be known. The sounds of chitchat and laughter astounded me and caused me to talk a bit louder and laugh a little more. By the time we got back to my sister’s house, I was energized by being a part of this neighborly effort to be kind and a blessing to one another. I lay awake that night thinking about it.

IMG_0590And almost 2 weeks later, I’m still thinking about it. How do I translate that experience to my own neighborhood? How do I engage my neighbors instead of retreat into my community? How do I teach my children the importance of being warm and welcoming to people who may be different instead of finding refuge in people who are just like them? How do we, as a family, participate instead of isolate?

How do you navigate these waters?

IMG_0588

Smitten Mouse mish mash

Like many bloggers and as I did on my last blog, I think it would be fun to occasionally post links to neato sites and blogs I come across in my perusing. I follow more than 100 blogs, so I find a lot of fun things, but I promise to only link to the ones that are spectacular. :)

When I think of Albania, I automatically think of Albi the racist dragon. So I had no idea that after WWII, Albania was one of very few countries that actually had more Jews than when the war started. I wish this article told more personal stories, because this is amazing and inspiring!

This is a very fair and insightful article on two Christian families’ callings to adopt. I love how it gives a clear picture of their situations–both the good and difficult sides. I can’t imagine adopting special needs children, but one of the mothers in the article says if she had known what she was getting into at the time, she would never have made the decision to adopt. And yet, of course, she wouldn’t change anything for the world.

I thought about devoting an entire blog post to this article. It talks about women being sexually short-changed in hookups. Because I believe in monogamy and sex as a gift of marriage, I would argue that this situation modern women are finding themselves in is not surprising–that it points to God’s design of sex being for one man and one woman for a lifetime; in that capacity, a woman (and a man) could actually be fulfilled sexually. Of course, I would have to define my terms, like “fulfilled,” which would be fun, but it would take forrrevvver.

This is a spectacular piece of literary criticism, which I usually (i.e. always) only find in literary publications. How fun to read such an article in a mainstream publication. Anyway, the author is looking at the question of the marriage plot and whether or not modern marriage (and the ease of divorce) has made using marriage as a plot frame outdated because of the lack of societal and even personal consequences for a woman from divorce.

At my parents’ funeral, my creative writing professor (whom I’ve mentioned before…) handed me a journal and said, “I hope to hear some powerful poetry from you at the poetry reading next month.” Her expectation, void of even a trite expression of sympathy, angered me. Not only was I unable to write for many years, I was unable to read poetry as well. The writer of this article experienced something similar when her mother died. In the years since, she has found her voice again as well as some others’ who have poetically explored death and grief.

This is a heartbreaking collection of abortion stories–short, paragraph-long explanations of why mothers chose to end their pregnancies. It’s not easy to read, but it gives insight into how and why a woman would make this decision.

I found a new poet

He’s not new, but he’s new to me. Here is a taste of his work. Enjoy!

poem I wrote sitting across the table from you
by Kevin Varrone

if I had two nickels to rub together
I would rub them together

like a kid rubs sticks together
until friction made combustion

and they burned
a hole in my pocket

into which I would put my hand
and then my arm

and eventually my whole self–
I would fold myself

into the hole in my pocket and disappear
into the pocket of myself, or at least my pants

but before I did
like some ancient star

I’d grab your hand

Mark Strand interview

I have mentioned that I am a feminist critic when it comes to literature; that is the school of criticism that most resonated with me as an undergrad. I did an independent study with my favorite professor in which we researched early children’s lit and approached it from a feminist perspective for a class she taught the next semester. In graduate school, I continued my research; however, for my English elective courses, I took creative writing classes. And instead of doing a research paper for my graduate thesis, I did a creative thesis instead, at the encouragement of my poetry professor.

Poetry has a special place in my heart, and while I consider myself a poet, I do not consider myself a profound poet or even a good one. But I can steer you in the direction of good, profound poets, one of my favorites being Mark Strand. Here is an old interview of his in which he explains the purpose of poetry and what he considers good poetry.

“…you have to be willing to read poetry; you have to be willing to meet it halfway—because it won’t go any further than that if it’s any good. A poem has its dignity, after all. I mean, a poem shouldn’t beg you to read it; it’s pathetic, if that’s the case. Some poets fear that they won’t be heard unless they flatter the reader, go ninety percent of the way, do it all for the reader. But that’s pathetic.”

“There is no master here.”

If you have any interest in Russian culture, enjoy Russian lit, or are curious about the country simply because of the 2014 Olympics, you’ll certainly appreciate and be intrigued by this article. It is quite long, so give yourself some time. There are lots of pictures and even some video as well.

 

My first five

I recently read an article about five essential books every “lady” should read. I put lady in quotes because the article was not clear what the author meant by that word. Visions of fancy, white gloves with buttons and feathered hats and Vera Bradley bags fluttered through my head when I saw the word, and I expected books like Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch to be on her list; however, it was actually quite a diverse little list, even including feminist titles (gasp!). It got me thinking…

People ask me for book recommendations all the time. I mean, all the time. Even strangers–when the lamp suitcase for our daughter’s jaundice was delivered a couple of weeks ago, the delivery man saw our living room bookcase and started conversation about reading, which ended in his asking me for recommendations. To me, it was an impossible question: “Even though I’m a perfect stranger, can you recommend a book that you enjoyed on a personal level that you think I would like?” All I knew about him was that he was in his 50s, he had been delivering these lamps for more than 30 years, and he had a killer beard. The pressure to recommend a title that would change his life and add some spice to the monotony of delivering lamp suitcases to new babies caused me to fold: “Oh…I don’t know…there are so many good books out there…”

Thankfully, he didn’t pursue it and instead he started talking about Don Quixote; I muttered a feeble reference to “Man of La Mancha” and then he cordially took his leave.

I find the task of recommending books nearly impossible; to me, books are so personal. They are like friends (but not in a weird Brick Heck kind of way) in that I form a specific relationship to each one depending on what’s going on in my life, and a certain attachment develops for whatever personal reason. I recently recommended a book to my own sister–I just KNEW she’d love it–only to find out her response was, “meh.” I felt lame and like I had no discernment–much like when you make a new friend that you adore only to have none of your other friends like her and then you find out that she really only befriended you to recruit you to sell Amway.

Anyway, I liked the idea of a list of must-read books for ladies, but before I get to that point, I thought maybe I’d simply post a list of five books that ignited and encouraged my love of reading–books that made me want to read them again and pick up other books as well.

ramonaThe first is Ramona the Pest. My older sister recommended the Ramona books when I was in first grade; I was not interested in reading, and she couldn’t understand that. She made it her mission to help me find something I loved, and she did. I gobbled up all the Ramona books–she was the first character I could relate to on a deep, personal level. When Ramona raised her hand in school and asked about Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel going to the bathroom, I felt like I had met my soulmate.

margaretIn fifth grade after reading the Fudge books, I came across Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I am sure that a huge percentage of women of a, ahem, certain age would include this on their lists of influential books. Having a mother who laughed at me when she read my note asking for a “braw” and thinking that maxi pads were for women who couldn’t control their bladders, I needed Margaret. Everything I know about increasing my bust and strapping on a menstrual belt comes from Judy Blume.

jane eyreWhen I was 13 and bored and too cool for school, I picked up my sister’s copy of Jane Eyre and read it while on family vacation. It was not the first grownup book I had read, but it was the first grownup book that thrilled me to my toes–it appealed to me on many levels. There was the sad orphan story, the scary woman in the attic story, the passionate love story, the tragic fire story. Etc. This book gave me the confidence to move from books such as Anne of Green Gables to books with more mature themes.

beloved2In college the first time around, I had a professor who was mean. Super mean–like, write-nasty-comments-on-your-paper or make-fun-of-your-poetry-in-front-of-the-entire-class mean. She was so mean and nasty that a couple of years ago when I heard she was dying of pancreatic cancer, I couldn’t send a get-well note–everything I composed in my head was mocking and included the word “Pulitzer,” which she pronounced “Pooooo-lit-ser.” But other than scar me for life, the other thing she did was introduce me to Toni Morrison. Never before (and maybe never again) had I read such a powerful book as Beloved, and that summer I read everything that Morrison had written to that point. I can’t possibly recap the book, much less my feelings about the book, in one sentence, so instead I’ll tell you to read it if you haven’t.

The-House-of-the-Seven-Gables madI realize I’m listing two books here, but they lent to the same purpose at the same time. I was 23 or 24 and had gone back to college to finish my degree. I was learning how to truly critique literature–not just finding symbolism and foreshadowing, etc.–under the teaching of a challenging professor who was never impressed by anyone or anything. I trembled each Wednesday as I turned in my papers on whatever book we had read that week–they always came back marked in red. Then one week, not only did I actually get an A, but the professor had made copies of my paper on The House of the Seven Gables to hand out and discuss with the class. That was the moment I knew I had found my calling as a critical reader. I knew for the first time that I had something intelligent to say and maybe I could have new ideas. That’s the same semester that I started reading literary criticism and rather than being confused or bored, I felt my brain light up with appreciation of critics’ insight, and I started having more and more original ideas of my own when critiquing pieces of literature. And The Madwoman in the Attic was the first essay I read that excited me. I went on to write three senior theses in college (one on Jane Eyre) and then continue my research in feminist criticism in graduate school.

I HAVE to ask–what are the books that turned you into a reader?? What books influenced you the most and made you love reading??

Learning to listen

If you didn’t already know, I am a piano teacher. My first student was my little sister more than 20 years ago. My parents paid me $20 a month, and I took my responsibility very seriously. I’m not sure if I did any good or laid any kind of foundation for her, but I can say with confidence that she is a gifted pianist with diverse musical ability. She uses her music to serve others–most notably, her family.

I recently read this story in the New York Times. We’ve all heard the studies that correlate taking music lessons to better math skills, increased self-discipline, good grades, etc. But this article emphasizes the connection between very successful people and their musical abilities; who could forget President Clinton playing his saxophone on “Arsenio Hall”?

I just have a handful of students. I teach for the simple love of teaching (oh, and to pay my student loan payment…). My students’ abilities and potentials have a vast range, and yet each student has his/her own specific strengths. It amazes and awes me to see their little brains figure out theory, chords, intervals. One is particularly good at rhythm while another has a truly musical ear. I strive to find these areas in each student so we can cultivate what they’re good at and not simply work on what they’re not. I’m all about helping them not only succeed but feel like they’re succeeding.

I realize that a small percentage of students take lessons as long as my sisters and I did. One of my kids was shocked to hear that I actually took lessons as an adult–he figured once I had grown up I should have arrived somehow. I reassured him that he wouldn’t have to take lessons that long. I don’t require my students to compete like I had to growing up, and I don’t know how many will be on music scholarships like I was. My goal for each student is simple, regardless of how long they take lessons or how talented they are: to become quality listeners of music. Even if they don’t grow up to be President or Secretary of State, oh, how their lives will be enriched if they learn to listen well!