Saturday, February 28, 2015

Teaching Is My Religion

These are not my students, but they're doing something you can see my students doing almost any day of the week.

If church is the medium, the place and structure upon which and within which we exist as spiritual beings, then religion is what we do within that medium.

That was not an easy definition to write. Like many Americans my age and younger, I've had a love-hate relationship with the word religion, trending more toward hate in the last decade or two. Post-War (World War II, that is) children have increasingly moved away from the clearly defined religion of our parents and grandparents, seeking less institutionalism, less dogmatism, less formality, less pomp, less structure, less of everything we were taught to respect as children. We shy away from titles, resist authority, eschew decoration. We long for freedom, intimacy, inspiration, and we find none of these in the stern, hushed gatherings our elders preferred, where we were expected to be seen but not heard.

All these aspirations for religion existed within me when I was in ministry, but apart from my three years in Estacada, where I was encouraged by my progressive congregation to experiment with worship leadership and theology, I was never really able to express them. Most of my parishioners were elderly, and while they might be tolerant of some of my edgier ideas, there was no question what they wanted on Sunday mornings: traditional hymns within a highly structured format, clearly defined roles for worship leader and congregation, peace and quiet. Then they wondered why young families didn't want to come in and hear what a member of their own generation (me) had to say. As my brief ministerial career drew to a close, I realized I had last the ability to worship, that really I no longer had a religion. Ministry was a job, a job I was intellectually well-equipped to perform, could have written textbooks about, but for which I had lost all enthusiasm. I was leading worship services that would have put me to sleep. I would not want to belong to the churches I was pastoring, anymore than did any of the younger families who dropped by on Christmas and Easter, never to be seen again.

This was the religion I left when I hung up my alb and joined the Metanoia Peace Community.

Metanoians were Christians who were constantly engaged in John Wesley's definition of religion: working out their salvation with fear and trembling. I came to Metanoia seeking many things: comfort, connection, inspiration, purpose, home. And Metanoia delivered: here, I came to realize, was the one community where I could almost feel like a sincere Christian. Almost. In the end, though, as different as Metanoia's religion was from every other Methodist congregation I'd known, it was, at its heart, not a religion I could fully embrace. The religion of Metanoia, the way in which its members most fully lived out their faith, was activism, and as sympathetic as I was to the causes Metanoia embraced, I am simply not an activist. Protesting, marching, martyrdom are just not in my wheelhouse.

I had been a part of Metanoia for almost three years when I finally found what I was looking for, something I would be able to call my true religion: public school teaching.

I know what many of you are saying at this point: teaching's a job, just like ministry! They're both servant professions. And teachers are (apart from parochial schools) supposed to be secular. How could you call teaching in a public school a religion?

It's really very simple: religion, as I'm defining it here, is what liberation theologians call "praxis." It's what we do to make church all around us, the living out of our faith, the exercise of our beliefs. While some branches of the Christian religion include explicit and public evangelism, for most, it is enough to witness to one's beliefs by living according to their principles in the secular world--to live out Google's old motto of "Don't be evil." Many of the Christian public school teachers I know labor to practice their principles in their classrooms, and do so successfully without ever revealing their religious identities. The separation of church and state is alive and well at all the public schools where I teach, but it doesn't keep any teacher from witnessing through compassionately educating his or her students.

If that's all I meant by religion, though, I would be falling short here, for in my mind, such teaching is as purely humanist as it is Christian. The principles I practice in my classroom can be seen at play in schools around the world. Loving and teaching children is a vocation that transcends culture and creed.

No, what I mean by religion is that which I live out every moment I am teaching. It is the full working out of my salvation, the way in which I have church on a daily basis. It was what my former colleagues who stayed in ministry are, I hope, achieving as they engage in the many and varied tasks of their profession. It is what keeps teaching from being a job, and makes it much more, a passion, a call, an impulse so profound that not to express it is to cease being a complete person. It is why my classroom, my curriculum, my students are never far from me, regardless of the fact that, as I write this in my living room, I am more than twenty miles from my school. Like Torah, teaching is ever on my lips, in my ears, hovering on the edge of my awareness, so that whatever else I may be doing, I am also constantly tinkering with lesson plans, perfecting pedagogy, striving always to get my content through more completely, more deeply, to the children who are my charges for half an hour at a time.

How, you might ask, is that different from any workaholic, any Type A executive who can't leave work at the office, but has to be on the phone all through the commute, lets it interrupt dinner, takes files along on vacations, stays up late working on projects in bed, and either dies on the job or doesn't survive retirement because why go on living without a job? And I will grant that there are certainly similarities; in fact, there is probably much more in common between dedicated teachers and driven executives than we who teach are comfortable admitting. But here's the difference, and it involves making a claim of superiority, the kind of thing I carefully avoid doing when discussing matters of faith: the church of music than the church of capitalism.

You may have noticed I didn't call it the church of education, though I do believe there is such a church, and many of my colleagues at school belong to it. As I said in my last post, my church is music. The principles of music have much in common with the principles of education: it's a fundamentally humanist church, a church that strives to mold its adherents into complete human beings, creative, compassionate, communal, connected to themselves and their world. Music brings out the higher self, the self that cares about and seeks connection with other humans. So does education. I'm not convinced that the same can be said about business, however real the "invisible hand" may be, as it's founded on the principle of self-interest, of encouraging others to participate in the economy for the ultimate good of the encourager.

Back to the church of music: as in Christianity, there are many different ways of living out one's faith. Some are called to be performers, some composers, some conductors, some arrangers, some producers, some critics, some simply to be the appreciative audience. While all those vocations (with the possible exception of production) are present in me to some extent, I am most called to be a teacher of music, and that is my religion, the praxis of my faith. It is in the classroom (or, in the case of my private students, whatever passes for a music room in their homes) that I have church. Connecting with my students, coaxing music out of them, implanting kernels of musical knowledge and understanding in their hearts, molding them together into flash ensembles so they can create their own music, their own sacred moment of making something of beauty together--this is my religion. 

I wish I had discovered this religion earlier in my life. I wish I had not sojourned so long in the land of Methodism, laboring half-heartedly at a religion that was wrong for me. However, I'm also aware that ministry, particularly preaching, bestowed upon me a confidence in performance that I had been lacking before, enabling me to teach, play, sing, and even dance with an authority I never could have known in my pre-ministry days. That may be why my initial foray into teaching was such a failure, and why, despite the challenges I've faced in the last thirteen years, I have grown from strength to strength in middle age, working out my salvation in, yes, fear and trembling, but also in joy and celebration. As my Bible Professor William Powers so loved to say (and, from the frequency of quoting him, I clearly enjoy saying, too), God works in mischievous ways, his blunders to perform. I may not have been fully equipped to be a pastor, but doing that work equipped me much more completely to be a music teacher, and that is where I will continue to have church, practicing my religion as long as I am able.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Music Is My Church


Having church in Nashville: the Stacy Mitchhart Band performs at the Basin Street Blues and Boogie Bar.

Music is my church, teaching is my religion. So I wrote in my last post to this blog. Much of my meditation on this formulation was about how I came to it. This post will unpack the first half of the formulation.

Understanding what I mean by "music is my church" will require a discussion of what I mean by "church." My seminary education and my years both growing up in and ministering to churches  freight the word with countless layers of meaning. Let's start with the most obvious, the symbol that leaps to the minds of most Americans when they hear the word "church": a large brick and mortar (or lumber and siding) structure featuring a steeple and cross, and containing a large meeting room in which religious services are held. My early childhood years in New Hampshire predispose me to picture a white building in the town square. If you grew up in the Northwest, you may be more likely to see shake siding; in the south, bricks.

Of course, church buildings do not always contain faith communities. In the "None Zone" of the Pacific Northwest, many such buildings have been acquired by private interests and turned into restaurants, offices, and even homes. The FX series The Shield located its inner-city police precinct in a repurposed church building. The existence of a steeple, then, no longer implies the presence of a congregation.

That's as it should be, because, as was acknowledged from the earliest days of the Christian religion, the concept of "holy ground," of a building that is uniquely sacred and only for religious use, died with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Like centuries of dispossessed Jews, early Christians worshiped in unofficial spaces, mostly the homes of church members. Some gatherings were held in cemeteries, the better to celebrate the religion's emphasis on resurrection. Only with the declaration of Christianity as the state religion of Rome did it begin to build worship spaces in large numbers. Of course, that was 1700 years ago, which has allowed for plenty of time for the idea of sacred buildings to grow, and many Christians do become attached to their churches, seeing them as places that are more holy than others. They also, though, use them as multipurpose structures, housing not just worship but also education, fellowship, entertainment, and business activities.

In this first sense, I can say that music is my church in that I attach special significance to concert halls. Stepping onto a stage to make music, I find my proprioception--my sense of where my body ends--extending to the far walls. This is the space I will fill with the sounds of my performance, and the people who occupy the seats of the space become partners in my playing. As a preacher, I applied this sense of spacial relationship to my parishioners, working to see that there was a feedback loop between what I said and the ways in which they responded to it, so that we co-created every sermon. In this sense, I can honestly say that a concert space, however small or large, takes on a sacred aspect when it is filled with a musical performance. I have experienced this on the receiving end at concerts that reached into my soul and drew me out, along with everyone around me, to become a living, breathing part of the music; and this is something I've experienced in a multiplicity of performances, including symphonies, recitals, jazz, and rock concerts.

However, as I implied above, "church" means far more than just a building; otherwise, when a church building was sold for use as a law office, coffee bar, or (in the case of the "Old Church" in Portland) a meeting and performance space, that would be the end of faith for the community that sold it. In fact, though, if a congregation is strong, and has a living, growing identity, whatever space houses it is much more tool than definer. Church communities regularly sell their old space and buy or develop new properties as their numbers grow and their identities change.

So here is a second, larger meaning of church: a community of faith. I have participated in many churches in my life, led a number of them, worked for several more, but really only belonged to a few. This sets me apart from the ideal Christian who, upon joining a church, remains a member as long as he or she lives in that community. The only church I can say has served in this sense for me is the Metanoia Peace Community which, as you may know from my previous writings about it, never possessed its own church building. Instead, it borrowed space from other organizations, meeting for most of its years in the living room of the 18th Avenue Peace House, an intentional community made up mostly of Metanoians. Metanoia was a church united by the dedication of its members to take their faith seriously and to live it consistently, though how that played out in their lives differed from one member to the next.

Most churches are, in this sense, more like affinity groups, gatherings of like-minded individuals, couples, and families whose bonds of friendship grow over time to become more like extended family. Those who have grown up in a church are likely to return to it, even after moving away as adults, to be married, to baptize their children and, in some cases, to be memorialized upon their deaths.

As I said, though, most of my experience with such communities has been as a sojourner, one who passed through for a time either because my father was the pastor or, later in life, because I became the pastor; and the one community I did choose to join (and which disbanded a few years ago after the retirement of the pastor who gave it identity and purpose) was more amorphous than one of these more localized churches. Even so, I have returned to the community to honor the passing of several of its members, and invited some from the community to my wedding last summer.

The church that is music resembles the Metanoia experience far more than that of the many local churches I passed through as pastor's child, pastor, or church musician. Musicians speak a common language, even though the music they perform may be radically different from one player to the next. They have a common understanding of what it is to perform, share in the spiritual philosophy of connection with their fellow band members and with their audience, and more importantly, in the spiritual discipline of practice to perfect their art. Practicing music has much in common with yoga: the need for concentration and focus, the need to discipline body and mind in the service of a higher goal, and the vanishing of the self into the creation of art. When musicians perform, whether it is for payment or simply for the joy of sharing, they give of themselves, baring their souls to whatever audience may be present. The sharing of music can be an intense personal testimony, an act that can profoundly move the audience.

For some musical groups, there are fixed locations that function as their worship spaces: orchestras with home concert halls, house bands for jazz clubs, cathedral choirs; but these groups typically perform in other spaces, as well, giving each of them the potential to become sacred musical space. Members of the community that is the group may have little more than a professional relationship apart from the time they spend practicing and performing together; but when they are engaged in playing or singing together, they are as intimately connected as sexual partners. It's not surprising, then, that relationships often develop between musicians who perform together, and that some groups cannot survive the romantic breakup of a couple who were both part of the group.

There is a third, more global sense in which music is church to me. I'm not talking about the institutional meaning of church, something I can dispense with quickly: there really are no musical organizations that come close to being at all like a denomination. Musicians have little patience for bureaucracy, seeing it as the necessary evil for channeling royalties to composers, lyricists, and performers, and for scheduling concerts and selling tickets. If we could find audiences and earn a livelihood without such structures, we'd happily do so.

No, when I think of the global church that is music, I'm thinking of something like the communion of saints, the sense that as a musician, I am a part of a continuously evolving organism that has existed since the first primitive human began tapping rocks together, blowing through a reed, or modulating his or her voice to create melody; and which will continue to grow and change through styles, genres, and enthusiasms as long as humans continue to exist. We are musical by nature, and when we create music, whether it is individually or as a community, we express our essential humanity. Musicians, like priests, are tasked with expressing this fundamental urge in ways that delight and transform others. When I coax a class of fifth graders into becoming part of a drum circle groove, I am connecting them with this history, this tradition, this language that is more ancient, more vibrant, than anything they will do in their math or reading classes.

Being a musician is as sacred a vocation as any form of ministry. And being a music teacher, as I will explain in my next post, is, in my mind, the highest form of that vocation; for if music is my church, teaching is my religion.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My Church, My Religion

I did some of my best ministry in this church, but it was never really mine.

"Journalism is my church, reporting is my religion." --Jose Antonio Vargas on the Slate Magazine podcast The Gist, Tuesday, February 24, 2015.

"The Lord works in mischievous ways, his blunders to perform." --William Power, Professor of Biblical Literature, Perkins School of Theology, c. 1986.

Some people seem to know who they're meant to be from birth. Some have to wait until high school or college for the spirit to move them in the right direction, to hear the call of their true vocation, but once they've got it, they're happy to spend the rest of their working lives answering that call.

And then there are those of us for whom the whole vocation thing is a ridiculous 5000 piece puzzle that takes us most of our lives to put together.

In case you haven't figured it out over the last 300+ blog posts, I'm in the last category.

In high school, I felt pulled in multiple directions: writing, teaching, science, music, public policy. In college I tried to forcibly narrow it down, settling on music education even though I wasn't yet sure it was right for me. For four years I took the classes, did the practicums, student taught, wrote research papers on music history and literature and developmental psychology, and on finishing, went directly to graduate school, knowing I wasn't really ready for the field--or even sure it was the right field for me. At the same time, I dove as deeply into political science as I could without declaring a minor in it (music ed was like a double major in music and education, with no room in my crowded schedule for an actual minor field of study), wrote for the campus newspaper, and was an enthusiastic leader in the Model United Nations. Still, I told myself I was dedicated to music education, and once I had my masters degree, I came back to Oregon eager to lead my first band.

I lasted ten weeks.

That's a bit of an exaggeration, as after losing that first job I was an almost full-time music sub in the Salem-Keizer School District for the remainder of the year. But the truth is that my career died with that dismissal, and I began groping around for another profession, settling far too quickly for ministry as my rebound vocation.

Counting seminary, that second career lasted fifteen years, finally spitting me out after two failed marriages. I was never really happy in ministry, though there were churches (especially the one pictured above, in Cheadle, Cheshire, UK) where I know I did good work. The thing of it is, though, that it was always work. It was never my religion.

It took me another fifteen years to hear the words that made sense of that mess, and of the hard struggle I've had returning to my first vocation. It was almost three years after leaving ministry before I resumed first substitute teaching, then full-time music teaching. Finding and keeping a music job is far more difficult in this century than it was in the last, as music is often the first program cut when a school district trims its budget. Finding a situation that worked for me was also challenging: I left one school I loved because the 60-mile commute for a 0.8 position didn't make sense, but the much closer full-time job I found only lasted two years before it was eliminated due to the financial crisis. Four years later, I finally was teaching elementary music full-time again, but in a much poorer district with inadequate facilities. It's been especially challenging working with children of poverty in a school that can't provide me with a full classroom of my own, and will likely have me teaching in the gym again next year.

And yet, I wouldn't give this job up for anything.

This afternoon, I came home from an exhausting day to take an afternoon run in the brisk early spring weather. All around me, trees were in bloom, and the chill in the air was not enough to make me question my choice of shorts and a t-shirt, but still enough to exhilarate me for the full 67 minutes I was out. As I ran, I listened to podcasts, as I usually do during a run. Toward the end of the run, I heard journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, interviewed by Mike Pesca on The Gist, say the words quoted above: "Journalism is my church, reporting is my religion." I know the topic of the interview was the tricky question of what to call undocumented immigrants, but I can't remember what that had to do with the quote. I just know that for me, it was a thunderbolt, clearing the air of all the philosophical, theological, and vocational wandering I've been doing as long as I can remember.

It's become clear to me over the nearly two years I've been writing this blog that, for all I owe to it, Methodism was never my church, at least not in the sense of granting me an identity. Of course, when you think about the life of John Wesley, founder of the movement, you realize he was, himself, a lifelong vocational pilgrim, never content in the depth of his own discipleship, always questioning whether he was living his faith adequately. Seminary did teach me to ask the right questions of myself, but then I subjected my parishes to more than a decade of that questioning from the pulpit. Add to that the sense I have that modern Methodism is an amorphous bickering fog of a religion, as incapable of taking a true stand as our new Republican Congress will be of passing any meaningful legislation.

What, then, is my church, if not the denomination that formed me in my childhood, youth, and younger adulthood? I've got a couple of answers to that question--and again, these have emerged through the writing I've been doing in this space.

First and most obvious, my church is the outdoors, and my religion is pushing my body to perform in the outdoors. It's no accident the Vargas quote hit me while I was running. Two days ago, it was a bicycle ride that caused me to find the secret sauce for the lessons I'm teaching at school this week. Moving my body through the outdoors amps up my creativity like nothing else can.

I have another church, though, and it's been mine for far longer than the outdoors, longer, even, than Methodism has been in my life. There are photographs of me in this church when I was barely able to sit myself up. Vargas was, after all, talking about vocation. Many--even most, one hopes--who serve as pastors are called to ministry, and their religion is their vocation. They happily work 60 and more hours a week for wages more appropriate to factory workers than professionals with graduate degrees, live in cheaply furnished shabby homes, move their children from school to school, pour their hearts and souls into building up churches only to be rejected by their parishioners, and yet keep working well past the standard retirement age, some of them taking on new, even lower-paying, pulpits as retirees. This is not their work; it is their religion.

And as I said, it was never much more than work for me.

Teaching, on the other hand, has become my true religion.

In the church of music, there are those who practice their religion by performing. I am a performer, but only part of the time. My true religion is teaching music. Where my brothers and sisters in ministry may pray without ceasing, blessings always on their lips, I am constantly planning lessons, then refining them until, the tenth or eleventh time I teach them, I have perfected them. Part of this is my Orff training, which views every lesson as a performance, filled with passion, creativity, and improvisation; but another part, the much bigger part, is the way in which, when I teach, I find myself in flow, utterly present in the moment, nothing existing for me but my students and the lesson I am teaching them, all other thoughts and concerns falling away. Two and a half hours pass each morning, five classes back to back, and when the last set of students leave my room, I am stunned that it is over.

Being in the moment like this is a goal many religionists seek all their lives. It is the highest form of meditation. To be in that moment for an extended period is a gift I never experienced as a pastor, nor as a Methodist. I had to come back to music education to find it, and now that I have, I can see myself continuing to teach long past the standard retirement age.

This is something I don't see in my colleagues who teach a grade level or a high school subject. Many of them are counting the years to the earliest retirement they can afford. Perhaps it's coming back to teaching later in life that makes me grieve the probable shortness of my career--teaching just 25 years, well short of most early retirements, will take me until 2030 when I will be 69--but, considering the joy I see in my fellow Orff teachers of every age group, the youth they exude well into middle age, I think it's more than we have found our church and our religion, and in them we have discovered a joy that transcends age and work.

With that insight, I must conclude this post. It's a school night, and I've got church in the morning.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Judginess

Judge Whapners (or Judges Whapner, depending on how judgy a grammarian you are).

One of the many gimmicks that makes ComedySportz a delightful place to work is the way we award points in our competitive improv shows. For $3, any "loyal fan" (audience member) can purchase a pair of colored fly swatters called Judge Whapners. Once both blue and red teams have played a round of games, the judges in the audience (at $3, the cheapest judgeship one can buy) vote for the team that gave them the most enjoyment, and points are awarded accordingly. The gimmick is based in a pun that is almost as old as the show--Joseph Wapner retired from The People's Court in 1993, before many members of our audience were even born--but the conceit is so funny that we've held onto it.

Much funnier than the pun is the idea of judging between two improv performances using fly swatters. Taste in comedy is a decidedly subjective thing. From my position at the keyboard in the sound booth, my opinion on which was the better performance is often at odds with that of the official judges in the audience, whose preference is often biased by factors having nothing to do with an objective analysis of the improvisers. Some judges really are loyal fans, CSz enthusiasts who have favorite players and will always vote for the teams they're on. Others are family and friends of particular players, and again will vote that bias every time. Generationally, some will get jokes that others do not. A Miley Cyrus reference may do nothing for a grandmother, while the frequent Five Things clue for Lincoln of giving him a stovepipe hat and shooting him in the head may kill (sorry) with the older crowd but just won't resonate with a 7-year-old. Then there are cultural differences, gender differences, religious differences, and don't forget that some people just like the color blue better than the color red, or vice versa. All of which is to say, quite simply, that taste in comedy is almost entirely a subjective thing, having little or even nothing to do with the competence of the performer.

And honestly, how could it be any other way? Could and of us really embrace any set of criteria for humor that didn't have, first and foremost, "Did it make me laugh?"

Even as I write this, I know that I've not always been a consistently unbiased cultural critic. It took me until I was in my mid-20s to begin listening to anything that sound even remotely like rock music, and it's only in the last decade or so that I've found a tolerance and growing appreciation for the harder, more expressionistic side of the genre. Only in the last year have I found myself opening up to hip hop and, more particularly, rap, even though this is a genre that has been around since I was in college. (It helps that I'm teaching a hip hop unit to my elementary music students.) It's not just that I didn't have much of a taste for such music; I was unapologetic in my disdain for it. For decades, I judged rock and roll to be not music, but noise. As recently as last year, I curled a lip at hearing a hip hop piece called a "song." Finding the craft, the artistry, and the passion in these and other popular genres took me far longer than others my age.

My judgmentalism extended beyond the bounds of music. As a young theology student and pastor, I was a great exemplar of sophomoric criticism, the wise fool who, knowing a little more than others in the room, uses that knowledge to judge the ignorance of those others. The summer after my first year of seminary, I traveled to Louisiana to attend a college friend's wedding at a Baptist church. Looking around the sanctuary, I quickly seized on the absence of anything resembling a cross. What kind of church eschews the most essential symbol of Christianity? The kind, I decided, that seeks to downplay the crucifixion and to preach only happiness and grace. That church, and any other I encountered in subsequent years that exhibited a similar absence, had earned my theological judgment before any preacher or parishioner had uttered a single word.

Similarly, the one semester liturgy course I took my second year gave me another criterion by which to judge the worship orders of every service I attended for decades to follow. I was taught that the best place for a sermon was before the offering, before Communion, before prayers, as early in the service as it could be placed, so as to downplay the importance of the preacher and enhance the importance of the community. "Best" became, in my mind, "only," even as I encountered liturgical traditions that had excellent reasons for putting the sermon later in the service, even at the end. Some of the best sermons I've ever heard were, in the centuries-old tradition of the Black church, positioned as the climax of the service. Why should the tradition of European Catholicism trump that of African-American Protestantism? Because my professor said so.

I picked this topic because I read a Facebook post by that college friend about his experience of becoming an Evangelical Christian, and my first feeling on reading that post was of guilt. Looking back, I remembered how very many friends and colleagues I had looked down my proverbial nose at (not my literal nose, as that would be, beyond judgmental, rude) because of their preferences for worship order, preaching style, theological persuasion, and matters that have even more to do with personal taste than objective criteria. Who am I to insist that a sermon from one scriptural text is always better than a sermon that uses multiple passages? Or that one must never follow the creed with the doxology? Or sing "Amen" after a hymn? Or, after snuffing the altar candles at the end of the service, carry a flame out of the sanctuary, only to snuff it in the narthex? What's the point of all this judginess?

It's easy to speculate on its source: we know what we like. That's true whether or not we know things about the artform we're judging. Training, knowledge, and experience just make our taste more specific. It takes a remarkable preacher to move me these days, someone who is theologically radical, intellectually stimulating, and packages those qualities in a superb, passionate delivery. Similarly, I'm looking for far more finesse in an improv performance than what used to blow me away on Whose Line Is It Anyway? And don't even get me started on music, literature, or film. My tastes are eclectic, but specific. I like performances and pieces that combine authenticity with virtuosity, and I don't always have patience for works that fall short in those areas.

With all that said, I am also much more open today to the possibility that what you like has merit all its own, whether or not it can reach me. I have no inherent right to judge your taste in comedy, movies, pop music, novels, curios, house paint, perfume. You have every right to appreciate the art that brings you joy, as have I.

For me, that's as far as it needs to go. Ask my why I like a particular work or performance, and I'll give you a list. Ask me what I don't like, and I'll be reticent. I might not like something that really works for you, that has meaning for you, that made a difference for you when you were going through a difficult time. Of course you care about that art. And of course it's not my place to think poorly of you for caring about it.

And with that, I hang up my cultural judge robes. I'd rather live in a like and let like world.

Monday, February 16, 2015

So Young

"Martin Luther King Jr NYWTS" by Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c26559. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS.jpg
Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. He was 34.

I don't feel like a "sir."

I've noticed lately that young adults are calling me "sir," and I don't like it. I don't feel like I'm old enough to have earned this honorific, and frankly, I've just gotten used to being called by my first name by strangers, as happens all the time with customer service representatives, salespeople, doctors, anyone else I encounter who can figure out my name. My school students call me "Mr. Anderson," but my private students call me "Mark," and I'm fine with that. I don't mind that, when I log in at the gym with my fingerprint and phone number, whichever hot young receptionist behind the front desk calls me "Mark," whether or not this is his or her first time seeing me. That almost forced casualness has become a part of American culture, and while I occasionally roll my eyes at the loss of the formal mode of communication, it's what I'm used to, so I don't mind it.

And that's why being called "sir," as one of those receptionists did yesterday as I left the gym, is such a shock.

Looking in a mirror, I see a "sir." I see a middle-aged man with thinning hair, a gray beard, and a face creased with laugh lines and wrinkles. If I were a 23-year-old receptionist at 24 Hour Fitness and saw me heading out the door after a workout, I'd probably say "Have a great day, sir!" too.

Still, not looking in the mirror, I have to say I don't feel old enough to be a "sir."

All around me are signs of how old I really am. My friends from high school and college are becoming grandparents, and while my kids have not yet graced me with a grandchild, they're certainly old enough. I subscribe to AARP Magazine. Nobody checks my ID when I purchase alcohol. My teaching salary is finally starting to look like it should for a man of my years. In many settings, I feel like a receive more respect than I deserve simply because I look distinguished.

And still, I don't feel it.

I know part of what's keeping me from embracing my "sir" status is my perceived lack of accomplishments. I was keenly aware of this last week watching Selma, seeing the young British actor David Oyelowo portraying Martin Luther King, Jr., and knowing that, at 38, he is exactly the right age for the part. King was 36 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, 39 when he was shot to death in Memphis. Not even 40, and he had done more to change the world than most people accomplish in a lifetime twice that long.

Where was I at 39? Freshly divorced for the second time, my ministerial career in ruins, still almost three years away from returning to teaching.

I know it's unfair to compare myself to a giant like MLK, or even to someone my own age who's done great things (Barack Obama, for instance). We know about such persons precisely because they're exceptional. They had the drive, the passion, the ambition, the commitment, the talent to initiate and see through projects that transformed communities, states, nations. Much of their notoriety comes from being at the right place and the right time. It has to be that way, because as much as our culture values youth, its respect is mostly reserved for age. To do something significant at a young age, one must have far more operating in one's favor than just a nifty idea.

I can comfort myself with this truth, and yet still, as my 54th birthday approaches, I have to wonder what I could have accomplished if I hadn't been vocationally floundering for most of my youth. What if I'd listened to all the teachers and professors who complimented me on my writing, and changed my major to English? Or what if I'd followed my keenest interest and chosen political science? What if I'd applied myself to the performance side of my music degree, and become a professional pianist? What if I'd stuck with the novels, really learned how to write fiction with economy and precision, to rein in my tendency to overwrite, and kept perfecting and submitting those pages until I found a publisher and finally saw my byline on a book? As an adolescent, I actually fantasized about being the youngest science fiction writer ever to see print, but took hardly any steps to make that come true.

A month from 54, I must acknowledge some things about myself: I have not, by and large, had the ambition to really make a name for myself. I've been mostly concerned with paying my bills and providing a home for myself and my loved ones, and have never really taken the risks necessary to explore an artistic vocation. I have found work that is fulfilling and rewarding, but it's work I trained for as a youth and gave up on almost as soon as I first tried it. Had I stuck with it then, rather than running back to university, I could now be counting the days to retirement. Instead, I will probably be working at least until I'm 70--which is only sixteen years away--to be sure there's enough pension to keep Amy and me housed and healthy for our twilight years.

These are hard thoughts to have, thoughts that can generate more regret than is really necessary. I know for a certainty that I would not be who I am today without the experiences that shaped me--the studies, the work, the marriages, the many stumbles along the journey that has brought me here--and, I must admit, that have kept me from feeling that "been there, done that" sense I see in so many of my colleagues. Teachers in the their 50s are usually sliding into home, with three-plus decades of experience under their belts. They're hardened veterans, masters of the profession who know almost instinctively what to do in any classroom situation. I still have to think through a lot of what I do, and when a class goes south, I can't always improvise my way to a satisfying conclusion. That has me feeling like more of a journeyman than a master, like a 30-something rather than a gray-hair.

And that's a good thing. I remember many years ago hearing a recording of Martin Luther King preaching his "Mountaintop" sermon, the one in which he talks about coming to the end of his pilgrimage, seeing the promised land in the distance, yet sensing that he won't get there with his people. He was 39 when he preached that. Daniel Oyelowo portrays him as weary, burned out, beaten down by the struggle to grant basic Constitutional rights to people who have suffered centuries of abuse simply because of the color of their skin. I know that, at 39, I was also at an end, ready to leave ministry, but terrified of what would come next.

Unlike King, I got to have a second act. I got to start over, a new teacher with old degrees, and this time I patiently lived through and learned from those hard early years, finally growing into a sense of competence and occasional mastery. The full mastery of being in a job for multiple years and watching students grow up is still elusive to me, though I intend, a year and a half into this position, to stay with it through at least one generation of children. Because I came back to teaching after 40, I have a hope that it will never seem old to me, that even when I finally do embrace retirement, I'll feel like I just started teaching. There'll be no sag in my shoulders, no dimming of the sparkle in my eyes. I may even feel too young to be walking away from this job.

My grandmother wrote one best seller that has seen multiple printings in several different languages. The title was Don't Put On Your Slippers Yet, and it was about starting a new life in one's golden years. She wrote from her own experience of becoming a college professor and writer in her 50s. And while she was always a grand old lady who merited every ounce of respect she received from the young adults around her, she never did relax into full retirement, continuing to travel, study, and write well into her 90s.

So what if I didn't earn a Nobel in my 30s? So what if I have yet to publish a single word of fiction, to perform as a soloist rather than background music, to scale the proverbial mountaintop? I may just be at the perfect age to start doing great things--or to simply acknowledge that great things are happening all the time around me, whether or not they go viral.

So yeah, stop calling me "sir," kid. I just got here.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

They Can't Handle the Truth

Once and future Presidential candidate Rick Santorum doesn't like hearing about Christianity's dark side. He's not alone.

Nine days ago, in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama committed blasphemy: he spoke about the atrocities committed by terrorists in the name of Islam--this wasn't the blasphemy--and then made note of Christianity's long history of waging campaigns of violence against unbelievers, persons of other faiths, and even against other Christians who differed from the majority in terms of skin color, language, or interpretation of the Gospel.

The President was not slandering the faith. All the crimes against humanity he referred to--and he did it in as diplomatic a manner as it is possible to say such things, short of simply not saying them at all--are well-documented historical truths, some of them taking place within his own lifetime. Truthful and diplomatic though these remarks might be, simply saying them was enough to stir up a hornet's nest of controversy on the Christian Right. Criticizing the faith I grew up in--though in the President's case, it was simple acknowledgement--is, to many members of that faith, an unforgivable sin.

I can understand where some of these Christians are coming from. In my adolescence, as I began wondering about the validity of the claims made by the religion into which I had been born, I took offense at criticisms that came from outside my comfort zone. I had been raised intellectually liberal, taught that asking questions about my faith was not just permissible, but to be lauded and encouraged. Even so, my own personal faith was so tenuous that any critique hitting too close to home rocked me into doubt, so that instead of questioning truth claims I was questioning my own grasp of them. If, I reasoned, I was doubting the Resurrection, then perhaps I had lost my faith entirely, and without that I was, as the Apostle Paul put it, "of all people most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15:19)

Perversely, such challenges to my faith became, in college, challenges to my intellect. I began seeking out stories of confrontations between believers and unbelievers. Taking the popular C.S. Lewis seminar (an evening course, offered by the Religion department at Willamette, that was always too full for a normal lecture room, and had to be held in a small auditorium), I was drawn to the "righteous skeptic," a character appearing in most of his novels, and wrote my final paper on this archetype. Taking "Soviet Political Systems," my final paper was on Christianity in Communist China. This fascination continued on into seminary, where I found myself confronted on a regular basis with information about Christianity's conflicts with and oppression of other world religions, as well as the intramural wars fought over doctrine. The religion of the Prince of Peace, I came to realize, had drifted considerably from the practices prescribed by its founder.

I've written about much of this before in this space, so I'll just mention briefly the church's centuries-long oppression of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust; the abomination that was the Crusades; and the interminable wars Christians have waged against each other over differences of opinion on whether the Bible should be translated, whether Transubstantiation makes sense, and how much authority the Pope should have. I don't want to spend any more time on these things because the main focus of the rest of this peace is much more recent history. I'm talking, of course, about Jim Crow.

As Jamelle Bouie writes in Slate, racist Christians of the Jim Crow era couched much of their hate-mongering in the language of Scripture, and created whole rituals around lynching, race-bating, and other acts of terrorism. When George Wallace cried "Segregation yesterday, segregation today, segregation forever," he did it in the rhythms of Southern preaching. Christians of the American South didn't just inherit racist ideas, they recast them in the language of their faith. The Ku Klux Klan burned crosses to associate the Church Militant with the suppression of persons of color. Organized racists claimed to be members of the "Christian Identity" movement, a prettified euphemism for institutional bigotry. When white teenagers screamed racial slurs at African-American children pioneering school integration, they did so with the sanction of their pastors. Police officers and their posses who ended the first march from Selma to Birmingham with a horrendously violent assault on people seeking to exercise their right of free speech were in church the following Sunday, thanking God for helping them put down a demonstration.

And as I said, these events are not buried in our distant, barbaric past. It's been just 50 years since the brutal suppression of Selma, and the legacy of Jim Crow is still poisoning the social mobility of African-Americans throughout the United States. In a report released five days ago, the Equal Justice Initiative documents 3959 racial terror lynchings that occurred in the South between 1877 and 1950--700 more than previous estimates--and this is just the murders reported by newspapers. The great Black Exodus to Northern cities, it seems, was far less about opportunity than it was escaping a region of the country in which God-fearing white Christians viewed Black lives as cheap and expendable.

The Christian Right doesn't want to hear about religious complicity in the century-long systematic campaign to keep African-Americans indentured, segregated, and politically powerless. They don't want to be reminded of how many American churches divided along pro- and anti-slavery lines before the Civil War, divisions that continue to haunt even the reunified churches to this day. They don't want to know that Sunday morning at 11 a.m. is the most racially segregated hour in America, again a legacy of church complicity in the exploitative genocide that began with the arrival of white Christian conquerors in the Americas five hundred years ago. Nor do they want to be reminded of the racist, xenophobic motivation of the Crusades, or that Muslim culture in the Middle Ages was far more civilized than its Christian equivalent. And above all, don't try to tell them how the roots of the Holocaust can be found in the Gospels of Jesus Christ.

What all this denial tells me is that the Christian Right has a lot in common with my teenage self: they can't handle the truth about their faith. They've got nagging suspicions that it's too simplistic, too paradoxical, too superficial, too literal, suspicions they're afraid to voice because they feel disloyal and even blasphemous. They're afraid if they give their faith the scrutiny it deserves it will evaporate and they'll be left of all people most to be pitied. And they're right.

It was in my third year of ministry that I cost a middle-aged Welshman his faith by exposing him to the truth.

The Williamses were some of the first people I met in Britain. They reminded me of Archie and Edith Bunker, working-class people with broad accents, good hearts, and unsophisticated faith. When I began teaching a Bible study at Trinity Church, they were some of the first to attend. I drew my material from my scriptural studies in seminary, introducing them to literary and historical criticism. We started in Genesis, where I unpacked the many layers of editing that resulted in two contrasting Creation myths presented side by side. People loved it: the apparent contradictions had long bothered many of them, and finally having an explanation for it, seeing how each story served its own purpose and revealed something different about the faith of early Judaism, helped them reclaim this book for themselves. I moved on from Creation to the Flood, giving it the same critical treatment, parsing out the parallel passages and the presence of at least two sources, not to mention a far more ancient mythical level, in the story. And this is where Alan Williams went ballistic.

Alan's faith, it turns out, was based on a belief that the Flood really happened.

I'm not sure what fed that belief. I can remember watching a documentary in the 1970s called "In Search of Noah's Ark" that claimed it had been located through satellite photography, and yet never explained why no expedition had ever confirmed that the boat-like image was, in fact, the remnants of a huge ship. (I believe Leonard Nimoy narrated that documentary, lending it authority to my Star Trek-obsessed 13-year-old self.) And I knew that there had been, in the 1800s, much speculation that a stratum of debris found by geologists in many parts of the world had been called evidence of the Flood, though I believe it's now considered proof of the meteor collision that ended the age of the dinosaurs. Whatever tabloid science Alan was drawing on, it was vital to his faith that the Flood actually occurred. If he couldn't believe that, then everything else he believed would come tumbling down.

So that evening in the parlor of Trinity Church, Alan did the only thing he could to protect his teetering faith: he exploded at me for casting doubt on it, and stormed out of the building. He and Joyce stopped attending Trinity, choosing a different Methodist church where they could pretend they'd never heard the frightening words of the young preacher.

There were probably others whose doubts were stirred up by my insistence on digging deeper into the mythology of the Bible. It ultimately cost me my own faith, as I could no longer relativize the abominations both recorded in and inspired by this book, or the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity, Protestantism, and even Methodism. I found that, to handle the truth, I had to accept it and permit it to change me. I had to give up being a Christian in order to become a better child of God.

That's a choice no one on the Christian right wants to make, even though, if the outcry over President Obama's careful remarks is any indication, there are plenty of them who are afraid they'll eventually have to make it.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Been There, Done That, Got the Minivan

Was it really just a month ago? John Kitzhaber kisses his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, after being inaugurated for a very short fourth term as governor of Oregon.

I really liked this guy.

I wasn't alone in liking him. The state of Oregon was so fond of John Kitzhaber that we elected him governor four times. If he'd wanted it, he could easily have won Mark Hatfield's Senate seat when it opened up in 1996; instead, it went to Gordon Smith, the last Oregonian Republican to win a statewide election. Had he entered and won that race, Kitzhaber might well have been in the running for President. But he loved Oregon too much to leave it, as any national politician must. So he finished his constitutionally-limited first two terms as governor, took an eight-year break, and ran again (while the state constitution specifies a two-term limit, there's nothing in there that prohibits rebooting after four or more years). He easily won that third term, even more easily coasted to reelection, and had he stayed in office all four years, would have had the second longest governorship in US history.

Instead, he resigned yesterday, a month after being sworn in for the fourth time.

He resigned in disgrace. That's a hard thing to believe about our down-to-earth, blue-jeans-and-cowboy-boots-clad, straight-talking, hard-working governor. He was brilliant, gifted, dedicated; how could his life of public service be brought down by a scandal?

It was simple, really: his heart led him astray.

Before I go on, a disclaimer: Since giving up my subscription to The Oregonian in 2008, and even more since shifting my primary news source from OPB to podcasts soon after that, I have not followed local politics anywhere near as much as I should to be fully informed. The details of the Kitzhaber scandal have, thus, mostly eluded me, as I heard only occasional mentions of them, or glimpsed them in my parents' newspaper when visiting them in McMinnville. I was genuinely shocked, then, to learn yesterday that the governor had resigned over issues involving his domestic partner and first lady, Cylvia Hayes. Most of what I know about their relationship I have learned in the last hour from Wikipedia and Oregon Live.

I didn't know, for instance, that Kitzhaber was, like me, divorced twice. I still don't know if Cylvia Hayes played any part in the end of his second marriage. I do know that she is twenty years younger than he is--47 and 67, respectively--and has three previous marriages to her credit, the last of which may have been illegal. During Kitzhaber's third term, she apparently used her role as first lady to garner her a $118,000 paycheck as a consultant for a private firm. This is the conflict of interest that led to Kitzhaber's resignation.

I'm not going to make any arguments about how that sum is minor next to the millions former politicians rake in as lobbyists. The simple truth is that Kitzhaber's partner peddled influence for profit, and he knew about it. He would have been well within his ethical rights to break off their relationship--to throw her under the bus, as most politicians do when someone in their inner circle endangers their campaign or office--but instead he stood by her, in the same way he chose to stay in Oregon rather than going to Capitol Hill. It's the kind of integrity that won him so many elections. And still, resigning is the right thing for him to do, because it is the natural and proper consequence for a the colossal error in judgment that got him into this spot.

I can say this because I've made the same kind of mistake, and suffered consequences of my own. As bitter as Kitzhaber is about his consequences costing himself and, much more importantly, the state of Oregon so much, that's what happens when affairs of the heart trump common sense.

My worst fumble happened on a comparable monetary scale, though the price I paid is dwarfed by what Kitzhaber is facing. In the spring of 2005, two years after restarting my teaching career, I found myself in a horribly stressful place: I was fighting to keep my children from being moved 700 miles away from me. As part of my struggle to keep them with me, I looked into changing jobs from the Vancouver Catholic School where I was teaching to something closer to Sherwood, where I lived and my children went to school. Looking for that job actually cost me the Vancouver job. In the midst of this turmoil, I began dating a woman who was going through a messy divorce that was driving her into bankruptcy. She was told by her lawyer that she had too much equity in her car, and needed to trade it in on something else, but couldn't qualify for a new loan. She asked me for help with that loan. I assumed she meant cosigning--and yes, I know that in itself would've been a stupid move--but when I got to the dealership with her, I discovered it was much more than that. I was taking on the entire loan.

My intuition screamed at me not to sign those papers, but I didn't want to leave her, and her kids, hanging. And I'd promised to do this for her. I'm a man who keeps his promises. So I did it.

A little over a month later, I started getting calls from the loan company. She wasn't making payments.

Three months after that, she moved to Las Vegas, leaving the car behind.

That's how I found myself trying to sell a Honda Odyssey with touring package, a minivan with a book value of maybe $24,000, but on which I owed $30,000, and which I wasn't going to be able to get more than $20,000 for.

And that's how I wound up, after months of trying to get Chase Bank to stop calling me and call her instead, I called them back, had the van repossessed, and filed for bankruptcy myself.

Bankruptcy is no fun. I owned my car, a 1998 Accord, free and clear, but there was too much equity in it, so I had to come up with another $2500 to keep it, but that was more of an inconvenience than the abject humiliation I had in store for me. In this country, having a bankruptcy in your history is a far more scarlet letter than adultery, and it follows you everywhere. I had to tell every potential landlord, and many a potential employer, that when they checked my credit, they would probably find a bankruptcy on it. I know it almost instantly caused my auto insurance to go up, even though I was the same driver the day after I filed as I was the day before. When I changed cars in 2007, I had to do the loan through Santander, a company that specializes in credit recovery car loans and treats its customers like they're on probation--which, of course, we are. When Amy and I applied for our mortgage last summer, I again painstakingly explained to every bank, escrow, and title agent involved that I had been through bankruptcy in 2005, and it might still be showing up on my credit reports. I'll probably keep on doing that for the rest of my life, because whether or not it's supposed to come off your credit report after a certain amount of time, credit bureaus have a way of forgetting that rule.

All this is a digression (if an awkwardly confessional one). My point is simply this: when the heart (or some other part of the anatomy) trumps your brain, you can wind up in some very hot water. John Kitzhaber fell in love with a woman whose personal history and professional ethics were not what one normally seeks out in a first lady, and that decision led him to end a distinguished career in an awkward, humiliating way. I got involved with someone I didn't know enough about--and no, I'm not calling it "love," because I don't think it ever got to that point--and threw away a credit rating bolstered by never missing payments and usually paying off debts early.

There is one positive thing I can say about weathering a self-generated crisis: hubris loses all its appeal, and humility becomes far easier to practice. I hope this is as true for Dr. John Kitzhaber as it has been for me, but we'll have to wait on that prognosis. For now, it's enough to have heard the grief in his voice as he announced his decision to resign. As angry as he may be about the media lynching he's endured, he knows what his decisions have cost him, and that regret will, I hope, make him an even more down-to-earth human being in the years to come.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

To Live

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. 11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.--Ecclesiastes 9:9-11
The race is not always to the swift, but to he who keeps running. --Motivational poster from the 1970s
Prior to 1984, this would never have been me.
As a child, I was a couch potato. There wasn't much to watch on TV in those days--just three or four channels, depending on where we lived, all of them black and white on our 19-inch screen--but it still drew me in. Even in high school, I was hurrying home to catch Loony Toons, subjecting myself to Speed Racer, because that's what there was.
I had other activities--art, writing, building models, practicing the piano and trumpet and, of course, homework, not to mention working on Scout merit badges and my first regular paying job, typing bulletins and newsletters for my father's church--but none of them was a truly active activity. Once I'd completed my two-year PE requirement, my only regular exercise was walking to and from school. I was fine with that all through college and graduate school.
Then, at 23, fresh out of grad school, I went to my doctor for a checkup, and was told I was going to die.
That's not exactly how he put it. What he said was that my blood pressure was remaining stubbornly high for someone of my youth, that this did not bode well for me surviving to middle age, and that losing thirty pounds could make a big difference. He recommended walking.
I didn't have much to do that summer other than look for a teaching job, so I decided to give it a try. I started small, exploring the countryside around Monroe, Oregon, where I was staying with my family. When I went on job-seeking trips, I explored the towns where I had interviews, trying to imagine myself living in them. 
On one trip to eastern Oregon I stopped at Multnomah Falls and, on a whim, climbed to the top of the falls. I had to stop at every switchback on the trail, gasping for breath, but once I got to the top, I felt like a champion.
By the end of the summer I was walking for 2-3 hours a day. I knew I couldn't keep that up as a full-time teacher, so soon after I moved to La Grande to begin that first (and last, for far too long) job, I began mixing short intervals of running into my walks. I hit on the run-walk method all by myself, gradually lengthening the running intervals and shrinking the walking intervals, pushing myself more and more, until I was up to thirty minutes of uninterrupted running. It was still hard work, and I was still flabby--on one run, I was taunted by teenagers singing the Jello jingle at me ("Watch it wiggle, see it jiggle...")--but I was doing something I never would have thought myself capable of just months earlier, and I felt great. The running stopped with the first snowfall and, soon after that, the loss of that job, but I resumed walking, knowing I needed to maintain my fitness as best I could. 
A few months later, now relocated to Salem, I started running again in Bush Pasture Park, and something new kicked in: I was no longer just running to stay alive. I was now running to live. Pushing myself up the one hill in the park, gasping all the way to the place where I could descend back toward my apartment, smelling the damp wood chips of the trail, watching the meadow slowly shift from grass to wildflowers as spring set in, I realized I was feeling more alive on these runs than at any other time of the day.
It's been thirty years since that epiphany. In that time, I've accomplished more things with my body than my teenage self would've thought possible for such a sofa tuber as me. Two years after those runs in Bush Park, I ran in my first race, a 5K. A few months later, I was in a 10K. A year after that, I completed my first of seven marathons. As a hiker, I've been to the top of every major trail in the Columbia River Gorge, most of which make the Multnomah Falls climb look like a warmup.
I'm not writing these things to boast about my fitness accomplishments. I've done some very stupid things, too: sunburns that took days to heal, dehydration, falls that left me bloodied and bruised and miles from home, repeated ankle sprains, heel spurs, injuries that I made worse by pushing myself to keep running, wrong turns that got me so lost in the wilderness that, not having told anyone where I was going, I could easily have died of exposure had I not finally stumbled on the right trail.
But here's the part I have to proclaim: somewhere on that quest to longer life, I found real life. I learned that it's not just about finishing; in fact, it's not about finishing at all. It's about the race itself. The goal is not to get there, but to be on the road. I remember my teenage self seeing the poster of the runner at the top of the hill, with the long road ahead of him, and thinking, "Ugh. That guy's so far from home. Why does he do that?" The incredible thing to me now is that I ever had thoughts like that, because now, I can't look at that image without feeling envy.
I want to be that runner, to have just crested that hill, to see the road stretching ahead of me, to know I'm going to cover all that territory, love every inch of it, and feel just a little disappointed when it's over, because I want to keep running. Because I know that when I'm out there, running, hiking, climbing, racing, I'm as fully alive as I can be. I breathe more deeply, smell and see and hear more clearly, think more creatively, feel more profoundly, than I can sitting on any piece of furniture.
I began this lifestyle to buy myself some more decades, to give myself a future with a partner, children, grandchildren, perhaps even great-grandchildren, and with more time to enjoy the finer things of life. And then I discovered that one of the finest things in life is to be outside sweating, exerting myself, logging miles of road and trail.
And when I'm not? When I'm home, at school, in the grocery store, at the theater, at a keyboard, in bed: I am still more fully alive, more completely present for my wife, my children, my students, my friends, than I could ever hope to be in my youth.
So I will keep running, as long as my body permits; and when I can no longer run, I will walk; and when even that fails me, when I am become too frail to move myself through the paradise just outside my front door, I will sit by my open window, still more alive in my dotage then I ever was as a teenager, because at 23, I made the choice to get up off the couch and live.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Hundred Yard Altar


Last Sunday, I performed an annual ritual. At the end of a liturgical year, my family and friends gathered for a seasonal celebration that was bursting pageantry, inspirational messages, and sacrificial offerings. The spirit of the event was overwhelming at times, as both the celebrants and we worshipers were overcome with emotion, moved to ecstatic utterances. As with any such celebration, the conclusion and aftermath were a letdown. We left disappointed, disillusioned, but certain just the same that we will gather again next year for another Super Bowl party.

I'm sure you got the joke long before you finished reading that paragraph. Given the football-related title of this post and the picture pasted above, there really can be no doubt what I'm talking about. I've also written many times in this space about the religious aspects of football (most notably here and here), as well as the ambivalence of my mutual fascination for and repulsion from the sport. Like many of the congregants who fill churches on Christmas and Easter, I'm only an occasional partaker of football, getting most of my viewing in from whatever's on the TV screens in the bars where Amy and I shoot pool. Most years, the Super Bowl is the only game I watch from start to finish.

So why write again? Three reasons: Bill Maher, Radio Lab, and my ankle.

The first two reasons actually go together, though I experienced them on different days. Last Friday on his weekly show Real Time, Bill Maher raised the topic of health issues in American football by saying that enjoying a football game is increasingly like watching Cosby Show reruns: he just can't separate the fun from the discomfort of knowing too much. A similar issue was raised on last week's Radio Lab in an episode entirely about football that both made me want to embrace the sport and shrink from it in horror. The story of how Pop Warner's Carlisle Indians created modern football is fascinating and informative, and helped me not only understand why the football rulebook is so incomprehensible, but how much beauty there is in this brutish sport. What followed, though, was an excellent corrective, reminding listeners of how many players' lives are compromised and shortened by participation in football. Watching the Super Bowl, I saw this play out on a national stage, as one player, clearly suffering from a concussion, was permitted back on the field with only a cursory examination.

The bitter truth of football is that millions of young men risk injury and early death to participate in a sport that rewards only a handful of players with professional careers that are far too short to compensate for the lasting damage they do. The collision of heavy bodies, the limbs twisted at wrong angles, the tumbles to the ground again and again, and most of all, the impact, even through the most protective helmets the industry can create, of brains against skull cases, all feed into the flow of sacrificial blood on the huge green altar of America's true national church.

And now my ankle.

At the end of the Super Bowl, a poor coaching decision led Seattle's quarterback to throw an interception in the end zone rather than running the ball across the few inches to a winning touchdown. The play cost the Seahawks the game. Overcome with the passion of the moment, bursting with testosterone, the Seattle players began a spontaneous brawl with their New England adversaries. The fight lasted less than a minute, and the commentators made no mention of it, but it made a deep impression on me, leading me to think more about that Radio Lab story, how football in America began as a post-Civil War release for the unspent blood lust of young men born too late to kill and die for their country. It was a sport of hitting, scratching, eye-gouging, biting, of Ivy League students transformed into berserkers.

That was never me, I told myself. I've never let my hormones talk me into doing something stupid and violent.

And then Tuesday, two days after watching those players of a violent sport make it that much more violent in the end zone, I went to the gym.

Tuesdays and Thursdays, I like to take Peter's spin class at the Beaverton 24 Hour Fitness. Peter's old for a spin instructor--I think he just turned 70--but he's an inspirational coach, and he always gets more out of me than any other instructor. Lately I've been going directly to the gym from school, and prefacing the 5:30 class with a run. This Tuesday, I changed into my running gear, headed out the door, and just a block from the gym, turned my left ankle on a flaw in the sidewalk.

I'm no stranger to twisted ankles. I've had them all my life. But it's been several years since I had one, and I was becoming convinced that finally, in my 50s, the muscles of my weak ankle were strong enough and nimble enough to keep me from tearing any more ligaments. I was wrong.

This roll of the ankle was a bad one, and I knew it. I cried out in pain, staggered to a signpost, and was asked by a passing delivery man if I was okay. "It hurts like hell, but I'll be all right," I said through my teeth. I walked a few yards and decided I could run on it if I was careful.

I ran for 75 minutes, and it felt fine.

I finished my run at 24, and could barely walk to the locker room.

No problem, I told myself. Spin will be different. I put on my cycling shoes, limped to the spin room, got on a bike just as Amy arrived to work out beside me (when we're apart all day, it's nice to at least be together at the gym). Peter started us on our warm up, and I stood up on the pedals--then unclipped and got off the bike. My ankle was screaming at me.

Instead of completing my double workout, I went grocery shopping (leaning on the cart the entire time), then picked up an ankle brace at Walgreens. I've been wearing it for two days now, and the ankle is feeling better.

What's not feeling bitter is my frustration with myself. Why did I keep running? Why, knowing how badly I'd hurt myself, and with decades of experience with injuries like this one, didn't I cancel my run? It's not as if it happened three miles from home: I was a block from the gym.

That "why" is completely rhetorical, because I know the answer: as liberated and enlightened as I like to think I am, I'm still an American male at heart. At 53 (almost 54), I've still got testosterone running through me. Despite my wimpish start (I didn't exercise in earnest until I was in my mid-20s), I love to push myself physically. I hike farther into the wilderness than I should, forcing myself to find my way out in the dark. I bicycle higher and farther into Portland's west hills than I should, forcing myself to ride home, again, in the dark. I long to return to marathoning, knowing how much that will push my body to its limits, wring every last bit of resolve out of me, leave me sobbing, but victorious, at the finish line. At the gym, I put more weight on my squat bar than anyone else taking Body Pump, and I do all my pushups with my feet elevated on my bench. Whenever I can, I do double workouts, both running (though it'll be awhile before I can safely return to that) and cycling. And in spin, I know I've got more tension on that bike than is really required. But I simply don't know how to work out without pushing myself. I'm disappointed with a workout that doesn't cause me pain or exhaustion or both. I'm as competitive as any man, but unlike most, it's almost always with myself.

And when I score any of these little victories--finishing a Tabata, running up the hill to Skyline, dropping my barbell to the floor after the squat set--I feel like flexing my entire body, throwing my head back, and roaring. Sometimes I do, though it's a muted roar, more of a "Whoof!" It feels good to conquer my rival, to beat down the soft lazy teenaged me that still lives under my graying exterior. "Ha! Take that, you little bastard!"

This is the same urge that leads those young men to wring every last bit of celebration out of a touchdown that the NFL will permit, and caused both those teams to empty the benches and start slugging out their pent-up fury Sunday afternoon.

Most days, I channel this energy into the flow of teaching, keeping myself both authoritative and empathetic as I put out pint-sized fires in my classroom, primary school dramas about who's friends with whom and what feelings were hurt when so-and-so did such-and-such. But for an hour (sometimes two or three) a day, I can let that same energy burst forth, challenging my body to stretch itself and do things I never imagined myself capable of when I was the age of those brawling football players.

And that's why, however oogy I feel about all the injuries these athletes are subjecting themselves to, I'm going to continue participating in the annual celebration, as well as the glimpses I keep catching while shooting pool: because I get it. I did something like that to myself just two days ago. And I probably will again, several more times, before I die. I'm a man, after all.