Type, delete, type, delete, type, delete

During the past week, I keep starting blog posts about serious subjects, and then realize there's no way I can really post them. Then I remind myself that this blog was always supposed to be about the cartoons, not the writing: so screw it. Meet Mr. Miro again! (Don't expect a book by Marcus Borg.)

I'm tempted to tell you about reading comic books, but ironically that would take too much research for the time I have at the moment. But Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay continues to be my favorite novel, and I was very disappointed with this movie. The slightly longer version of that story is that I was captivated by Frank Miller's vision of Daredevil (the man without fear!) but didn't manage to make the jump over to Batman with him.  

(Somewhere, someone is saying, "but reading comic books is a serious subject!")


Endings, beginnings, and gaps

Sometimes I feel like King of the Odd Picture - but that's what happens sometimes when I want to take a photograph on a dismal day. Hopefully it also explains why I don't post more of my "real art" here - the cartoons are still cartoons, but you really need a good photograph to really see my cranes. At least today I used a real camera for the cartoon.

So: I'm once again in transition. It feels as though I've been in some sort of transition for about five years now, waiting for things to resolve. If I had to put a particular point on it, I'd have to say that the tease from a certain university in south-central Pennsylvania, in the middle of August, 2008, was the tipping point. And I've been in a kind of panic since then, even though that's waxed and waned over the years. I haven't had a permanent job since then, and nothing full-time except painting houses. (That's been pretty discouraging.) Things have gotten a lot better in the last year, for various reasons, but things never quite clicked into place. I thought they might - they seemed like they would - but they didn't. I'm okay with that, more okay than I would have thought. Now some of the things that have occupied my time are coming to an end - and ending are always bittersweet for me, even when I know I need to move on. Part of that has been feeling scattered, having my attention pulled in five different directions at once.

Some of my own reactions have surprised me. I mentioned to a friend recently that for the past four years, at the end of each semester, I've wondered if I was going to teach again. Since the summer of 2009, I've taught at five different colleges - which I wouldn't have anticipated - but also I find myself getting burned out, doing too much work for too little money (and every once in a while telling the students that, and then dealing with the fallout). I'm wrapping things up this semester, and although there are things I'll miss about teaching, I'm really ready for a break. And it's not just the teaching that's coming to an end; maybe I'll write more about that later.

I'm excited about what's coming, at least to the extent that I can anticipate what it will be like (and I think I have a pretty good idea at this point) - and a sense that things will be better in concrete ways. As a person who thinks in abstractions and vague terms like "happiness," it's nice to see the concrete once in a while: more money, shorter commute, more focus. I'm not going to worry about the long-term just yet: I need to make it through the next year, then see where things stand. But the next year should be pretty good.

The problem at the moment is getting from here to there: what do I do for the next three months? My current plan is robbing banks in the state directly to the south of where I live now (I'd tell ya which one, but I don't wanna tip off the fuzz). My backup plan is for my dad to win the lottery (he'll have to because I think it's pointless to play). As you might guess, I'm really hoping to come up with a better plan soon.


Last Day of Class

School's out, school's out teacher let the monkeys out!
Was one jailed, one prevailed,
both asked God, 'how have I failed?'

(bonus points for correctly identifying the source)



Last night I wrote a fairly long and detailed blog post, mostly about being aware of one's own emotional state, and communicating that to others around us - that's important in relationships. (I wrote out one fairly detailed illustration from my first marriage.) But by the end of the post, I came around to having healthy boundaries; so you get this instead.

I will tell you about my weekend at a big hospital where I work as a chaplain. We get a lot of bad accidents. I was called to the Emergency Department because we were about to get an accident victim, multiple fatalities, and this was the only survivor that we knew of. My job is mostly to stand at the ready, help deal with family as they come in, and maybe help with the staff if they start feeling overwhelmed. I got there, we're all waiting for the ambulance, and the only thing we know about the victim is age and sex.

Those two pieces of information happened to correspond with someone I care about a lot, but haven't had much contact with recently - and who might plausible have been in the area. What are the odds? Practically zero. But there's a nervousness that built up that I didn't know what to do with. If I ended up talking with the patient, or dealing with the patient's family, I would have had confirmation: this is not my friend (unless of course it is, in which case I would have immediately called for backup).

So: patient comes in, surrounded by EMTs with a neck brace on and I don't actually get to see much of anything except the flurry of activity. I stand outside the room (with curtain drawn) until a nurse tells me that, as far as they know, no one is on the way and I can leave, they'll call me back if they need me. I walk out of Emergency, into the hallway, and slowly feel myself fall apart. Halfway down the stairs (and I always take the stairs), I have to sit down and just start sobbing. Pull myself together, get back to the office, break down again.

I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before (because of other Cat 1 trauma victims), and I'd like to think I would have held it together better if I had. But really, have you ever seriously contemplated the mortality of those around you? Even working in a hospital, even working as a hospice chaplain, I can't say that I really thought about what it would mean for this person to die: there's something very specific about it, and it was very immediate yesterday afternoon.

Now I'm listening to Eric Revis' tribute to Kenny Kirkland (and my laundry go 'round and 'round in the dryer), and wondering how you're doing.


Wednes(cough cough cough)day cartoon

Do you really want more self-analysis and allusions to stories from past relationships? Well too bad: today you're just getting a cartoon.


Second thoughts on the coroner’s report

In my last post, I wondered about the single image as a summation of a relationship – and I have two further thoughts. More than two, really, but at least two.

Does the image have to be negative? Maybe not, maybe focusing on the negative is part of my problem. What if I simply declare that the abiding image isn’t the abrupt departure, but instead: hiking at dusk around the lake, listening to the whippoorwills? I’d never heard a whippoorwill before, but it was immediately obvious what it was. That’s a nice image, one that obliquely reveals what was good about that relationship (at some point I may have to write out that story, but not now).

What about flying a kite on the beach – not just any kite, but the box kite I had made by hand for you? That starts to get at the paradox of this exercise: the images of hope are filled with more sadness – because it’s ultimately hope unfulfilled – than the actual disappointments I wrote about before. I still have the pictures of that first day, the kite getting smaller and smaller as you let out the line, eventually fully extended, that kite soaring above all the others, holding up in the stiff breeze off the ocean. Why are so many of my later memories, in the different cities in which we lived, individual rather than shared: things I did by myself, or with friends of ours, but almost never with you? Of course there are shared experiences - you telling me about your catered lunch, in detail, because you know I like Chinese food, but me absentmindedly singing over the top of your description because I had stopped listening and really couldn’t care less? Do you remember what song I was singing? But the burden here shifted, something that was my fault; or maybe even simply revealing of the space that had grown between us. In any case, I’m back to a negative summation. The positive images all seem to be early in the relationship, not late.

Other images offer different problems: repeated across relationships, perhaps as an attempt to regain what was appealing about that first one. The uniqueness fades, and little is left of that first image. Or maybe they’re elusive, hidden in a haze of alcohol. How is it that I remember so little of the specifics of the relationship to which all others are compared?

Maybe they’re embarrassing - “NSFW”- and yet in that fact reveal the essential nature of the relationship: but I’m not writing erotica, after all. That I can’t write anything I’d want my kids to read shows why it was doomed, based on something ephemeral, not really the basis for a relationship at all.

Does the positive image come from the uniqueness, or from the repetition? Maybe it depends on the person. Playing gin rummy every night – seriously, we wore out a pack of “uncoated” cards – served as a kind of anchor in an otherwise chaotic relationship. But standing in the parking lot of the Japanese Gardens, one August afternoon (and that’s a story I will tell again, one day) - really does capture a lot of what I like about you. And the paradox reemerges: that makes me profoundly sad, in a way that so-called “sad” images don’t.

That question, repetition or uniqueness, leads to a second question: does the relationship need to be over in order to provide an image, or can there be an abiding image that serves as a lived ideal? And if so, does it come from a single moment that captures, not the attraction, but the bonding? Or the patterns that emerge out of time spent together, forging a common experience? In either case, I would suggest that the image, whether of a pattern or an ideal, needs to be something shared if the relationship is ongoing. That is, if the relationship is over, I can shape my own narrative to fit my needs. You profoundly misunderstood me, I never trusted you, you never trusted me, I realized that I didn’t really like you that much. But if it’s ongoing, those images are part of the narrative that two people are (maybe not consciously) building together. You and I tell the same story: this is who we are.

On a different – but not unrelated – issue: I’ve been accused of not seeing people as they present themselves, but instead constructing theories in my head. Well, yes. I live in my head, and have trouble translating that to action, and sometimes am so caught up in my own theory that I miss really obvious things in my environment. (I remember a friend – way back when I was still an undergraduate – saying, “Your students will worry about you as you get older, profoundly absentminded, oh, poor professor is really losing it – and I’ll know, nope, he’s always been like that.”) But my theories allow me to see things that others miss: I ask, “when did your dad’s mother die?” And your answer revealed the solution to the long-standing enigma: he’s a jerk because emotionally he’s stuck right there, never got past being an abandoned teenager. And that’s a powerful insight that no one else ever seemed to recognize. My theories aren’t always wrong.

So here’s my question for you: where am I stuck, and why am I stuck there? My brain, the size of a planet, doesn’t seem to be able to turn that telescope around in this instance.

Sorry, no cartoon today!


Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

It’s not fair, summing up a relationship in a single image. A year, six years, ten years – reduced to one interaction that can’t possibly capture the complexity and nuance, the reasons you liked the person and the reasons you you’re not together any more.

But it functions as sort of shorthand. Can I really tell the story of a slowly developing friendship, going to prom, spending all my free time with you, when what I really remember is being told that you couldn’t be yoked to a non-Christian? I know it’s not fair, and that one sentence can’t by itself capture why it defines that relationship. But there you have it.

Sometimes I tell the story to see how someone will react: she told me that I didn’t like jazz.  I can tell a lot about a person in their response to that single statement.

Other times I’m giving a warning of sorts: she threw herself headlong onto the couch and started bawling, because the pie crust had crumbled. That’s not fair as a summation – truly fails to capture the bulk of that relationship and what it was really about – but, for me, clearly shows why I couldn’t stay, and what my expectations for mature behavior are.

Sometimes I’m giving myself an out: I really tried, I worked at this relationship! But the anger, the rage she showed while driving down the highway after I mumbled, “there’s the Oscar Meyer Weiner-mobile” shows the pervasive levels of mistrust and paranoia. The manic laughter that followed my belated, clear restatement, “we just passed the Oscar Meyer Weiner-mobile,” was just icing on the cake. There are many, many other stories I could tell, but this woman was just nuts.

What does it mean when someone disappears for a week after I discovered her secret? It was a dark secret –although not as dark as some of the other things she had already shared – but once again, there was no way of establishing a level of trust. I was dating a wild animal whose instincts would always be in control.

I can’t seem to write the story that’s on my heart this week; and there are other stories I’ve left out, maybe the most important ones. But today I’m struck by the vividness of the idea of the single image, how it captures something important and broken at the heart of each relationship, even as it leaves out so much.

And I wonder, what will be the next image? How will the next relationship be summed up? For once, can’t it be something good, something positive? Or is it only possible to find that image after the fact, a coroner’s report – in which case, I don’t want the next relationship to be summed up.


Social Animals

One of the things I talk about occasionally on this blog is our essentially social nature: we need other people in order to be fully human. 

What I don't typically talk about - maybe because it's obvious - is the problems we have with that. So, Aristotle recognizes that "honor" isn't a proper goal of life, because people's opinions are fickle: we can't allow ourselves to be dependent on the value-judgments of others. At the same time, Aristotle is also one of the few philosophers who talks at length about the necessity of friendship. We really do need other people in order to be fully human.

Why is this? Simone de Beauvoir writes, “If I were really everything there would be nothing beside me; the world would be empty.” There's a  paradox there, that one's self-importance taken too far can lead to a vacuum: we need not just to have other people recognize our worth (and I won't get into Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic today), but also recognize the worth of others. But not just that, either: both people have to recognize that they contribute to what is necessarily an asymmetrical relationship. What do I bring, what do you bring? Those two things are unique, never equal, but both vital to the relationship. 

When this goes well, the combination of support and receptivity we give one another expands our capacity to support and receive: in feeling supported, I am able to better support, in receiving from another I am better able to receive. I focus here on receiving rather than giving, because giving is often problematic: our motives are mixed. Sometimes I give you what I have, not what you want; or I give you what I think you need, ignoring your stated desires. Or I give you something that I value - a lesson in philosophy! - but I give it in order to show my mastery of a subject, maybe even my superiority (in a particular realm), rather than giving it as a gift. 

And so I focus on our receptivity: can we really listen to others? What are they trying to convey? That can be the bigger challenge: I've seen people come together, each say their piece without listening to the other, and part feeling unvalued by the other, because they were more interested in talking than listening. I've done that; I sometimes worry that's all blogging is. A lot of times, I've found that what people really need is just someone to listen, without judging, without trying to fix, just listening. Why do we have so much problem with that? As I've said in a different context - correcting John Lennon - it's not easy, but it is simple. But I think we don't listen because we're worried that, in taking a receptive position, providing support for someone else, we won't get our own needs met. If I'm worried that my needs won't get met, I can't be fully present to your needs. To state it slightly differently, if I'm operating out of an economy of scarcity, rather than an economy of abundance, scarcity becomes the norm and becomes self-reinforcing. 

So we have to step out in faith. One of the things I've found myself saying, in different contexts, is that we're all broken, and we all need each other in our brokenness. We all fail, we can feel like failures and blame others for being failures, but in the end we come back together in acceptance of the limitations, because that's the only way forward. Our hearts have the potential to grow larger as we find the ability to let more people in, and in those connections we find the beginnings of healing. Because we're social animals. 

No cartoon today, sorry.


Now with 40% Less Vagueness!

I would post my Holy Saturday sermon (such as it was) but mostly it was me talking about why we shouldn't be having one at all, shouldn't be singing songs - not yet. Holy Saturday is when we contemplate the absence of God. Yes, we have the promised Light of the resurrection, but it's not there yet. I think we have a desire to skip the tomb, go straight to Easter, and avoid thinking about the absence of God. Anyhow, that's it in a nutshell, and it's not particularly timely on the Tuesday after Easter anyhow. 

So let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a man - scratch that, there was a boy - who didn't contemplate failure. He applied to college with no sense that he wouldn't get in, no sense that there wouldn't be money to pay. And lo, he got in, and lo, there was money. Then came struggle - relationships, academics - but he triumphed over adversity. So far, so good.

This story would be tedious if I kept going like this (and maybe you already find it tedious - but I've included a cartoon). So I'll skip the details of the setbacks, because what I want to emphasize is the background is optimism, if not outright idealism (in the non-philosophical sense). So what happens when a basically optimistic person hits a wall?

That could just be a rhetorical question, but it's not. I've told bits and pieces of my story on this blog, but I suspect that most of my regular readers know there was a hope for an academic career, among other things, that never materialized. I worked as a house painter, I worked as a law librarian, I tried to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. (For those of you who doubt that I actually want to grow up, I will refer you to my autobiographical song, "Hey Blue Fairy.") At one point, further back than most people know, I had this idea that I could be a pastoral counselor or something like that; several years (and a significant shift in religious understanding) later, I was in seminary, and hoped that my life was getting back on track. (I started this blog in seminary, and even if many of my posts were really vague, I've written extensively about what was happening in my life at that time: I'm not going to cover that ground again today.)

At that point - five years ago! - everything seemed to be heading in the right direction: my book was coming out, I was in what seemed like a really healthy relationship, I was getting actual job interviews for jobs that I was excited about! Finally, finally, finally, things were falling into place. 

Except of course they didn't. And as in a story by Kafka (he did write things other than the Metamorphosis, but of course that's the one I mean) - things went from bad to worse, and while I traveled out to Portland in search of a job, the entire economy collapsed. So, what happens when a basically optimistic person hits a wall?

Have I been a happy, optimistic person, full of energy and able to bring my attention to those around me who deserve it (including but not limited to my children - or my friend, Jack Good)? Nope. I've felt stuck, unable to get any traction anywhere, for years - YEARS! It's really sucked, and I've (I almost wrote "probably," but strike that) been a drag on the people around me. That's what happens when a basically optimistic person hits a wall. 

What's my story now? Well, I'm still not quite where I'd like to be; but I'm finally doing the work I started thinking about twelve years ago. I can see a path forward; a huge part of that is seeing employment opportunities around the corner, if not yet in-hand. I'm sleeping better; I have more energy than I did. I still feel bad about not being fully present to Jack, and to others around me in the past few years. But lately I've been able to actually pay attention to people around me - Steve and Jeffrey, and Paul, and others. And that's been nice. I feel like I'm starting to get back to who I was.

It's still cold outside, but the sun is shining and it seems like spring is finally on its way.



I don't know if it's more awkward to write for a "generic" audience - I don't know who you are, whoever is googling me in Russia! - or to write for a discrete number of individuals who I think visit this blog.

This morning's frustrations are, as with most mornings, with myself: things I said, things I didn't say, things I get worked up about that I wish wouldn't provoke that kind of reaction. More particularly: things I quoted sufficiently out of context that they probably either made no sense, at best. Questions put to me by various people that I evaded without grace. Terse answers to legitimate questions, when even a tiny bit of etiquette would have gone a long way.

One of the things I like about painting is to focus on color, on shape, and let the thoughts float around as they will. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes not so much. It's always a bit of a jumble in there, and trying to straighten things out usually makes more of a mess. Anyhow, I'd rather be painting right now than preparing to teach (oops - I'm obviously posting on my blog rather than preparing to teach). And with that....