Present Concerns and the band Joseph

In an interview with Noisetrade, Natalie Closner Schepman, who together with her sisters Allison and Meegan Closner compose the band Joseph, remarked on how our culture tries to motivate us through fear. “We live in a culture that makes money by scaring us. We are constantly being reminded of what peril lies ahead if we don’t buy this thing or move to this place or choose this particular news source as our primary doomsayer.” “White Flag,” Joseph’s first single off their sophomore album “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” is a song about optimistic defiance to this kind of fear:

I’ll be an army, no you’re
Not gonna stop me gettin’
Through
I’ll sing a marching song and
Stomp through the halls louder than
You

I could surrender but I’d
Just be pretending, no I’d
Rather be dead than live a lie
Burn the white flag

Elaborating on the theme of the song, Schepman offered an excerpt from On Living in an Atomic Age — CS Lewis’ essay about how to deal with the sudden, ever-present threat that nuclear war could at any moment wipe all life from the earth. “This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”

In writing On Living in an Atomic Age, Lewis might as well have had Donald Trump in mind. Like the atomic bomb, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the office of the president has fomented a collective existential crisis in both the body politic and the public at large. Donald Trump is “a unique threat to American democracy,” according to the Washington Post. “(Trump’s) contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.” Even conservatives like Andrew Sullivan have described President Trump as, “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order … an extinction-level event.”

Whether such analysis is reasonable or exaggerated remains to be seen, but the paralyzing enticements of fear and despair are in no way new. “In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb,” Lewis argued. “‘How are we to live in an atomic age?'” I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might have cut your throat any night.” That death put on an unfamiliar mask did not give it new power; instead, it shattered our cherished illusion that we are immortal. Lewis continued, “Do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. …you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.”

By echoing the sage wisdom Lewis offered in the face of that more immediate threat, Joseph position themselves as the perfect salve for the persistent chafing of our current cultural moment. “There is plenty to be concerned about!” Schepman adds. “We are a polarized country and there is more division than ever right now, so I have marveled at how much I need ‘White Flag’ more and more.” Joseph meets us in our division and discouragement and offers a joyful antidote.

I’m Alone, No You’re Not” has been well-received since its release last August. While critics have waxed on — rightly — about Joseph’s transcendent harmonies and sharp melodic instincts, I find myself equally captivated by their consistently positive message, an unfolding ideological landscape at least as beautiful as their voices. Take “I Don’t Mind,”* for example, a song about internalizing the belief that you are worthy of love. “I was saying for a while,” recalled Meegan during Joseph’s Tiny Desk Concert, “that it was what I wanted someone to say to me about my own sadness, and it just hit me that I would have to say it to myself first before I could receive it from anyone else.”

I will love you anyway
With all your demons in the way
Nothing can keep us apart
I walk through walls into your heart

*(A simple diagnostic test: if the harmonies at 2:13 don’t give you chills, there is likely something wrong with your central nervous system — consult a doctor immediately. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Closners can sing).

Whirlwind” may be the only musical meditation on the book of Job ever written that isn’t absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know if the members of Joseph identify as Christians — Schepman attended Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school — but they find themselves in excellent company with great musicians like Sufjan Stevens and mewithoutYou as they give fresh life to Christian themes without presenting themselves as Christian musicians per se.

Have you held the mallets drumming thunder
Or filled the clouds with rain?
Have you opened up the skies above you
And seen a desert wake?
Have you given orders to the morning
Or shown the dawn its place?
Can you grab hold of the earth’s four corners
And shake shake shake out the darkness

In “Planets,” Joseph conjures Eisley at their fanciful best without flirting with the adolescent imagery that made Eisley feel, at times, unapproachable. “Planets” is also the best example of free form poetry on “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” the line “The stars are a blanket, I’ll wrap them round these shoulders/Arms spread out wide, turn falling into flight” calling to mind Beryl Smeeton’s autobiography “The Stars My Blanket.”

Themes of care, intimacy, and the resolve to embrace life and love over fear and despair make “I’m Alone, No You’re Not” at once timeless and timely. On Living in an Atomic Age ends with Lewis’ observation that “Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs. Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved. Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.” By setting their minds on higher things, Joseph created a poetic experience that will take on new meaning and persistent relevance as our present concerns shift. “I’m Alone, No You’re Not” is a great record to enjoy with a glass of whiskey and my favorite album of 2016.

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A Valediction

We both knew this. I had my miseries, not hers;
she had hers, not mine. The end of hers would be
the coming-of-age of mine.
– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

iii.

I’ve read that when Grant Achatz, the famous modernist chef, came down with cancer of the tongue, his ability to taste salt was the last to go. I am working from memory, but I believe sweetness faded first, followed by the sour, and then bitter flavors. Saltiness lingered a while, rendering each morsel a monotonous chore, but before long it was all just texture, varied gradients of sand brushing up against his tender tongue. I’ve wondered if that sequence would be the same for everyone, or even the same for every chef. Perhaps sugar would linger for the pastry chefs and bakers. Maybe the garde mangers would cling to bitterness.

It’s worth asking if Achatz felt “less” as his ability to taste eroded away. While his mind and experience and unrelenting creative capacity let him continue to develop celebrated dishes and flavor pairings (the year following Achatz’s cancer diagnosis was widely considered Alinea’s zenith to that point), the inability to taste for himself must have induced some fear or uncertainty. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Fate (or whatever it is) delights to produce a great capacity and then frustrate it. Beethoven went deaf. By our standards a mean joke; the monkey trick of a spiteful imbecile.” But would we elevate Beethoven so high had he never been deaf? The great Swiss mathematician Euler reached the peak of his productivity after he went blind. Frustrated, yes, but not stopped. Taking on water but not yet sunk.

And so I go back to tending my heart’s garden, praying a soft prayer that when this rhubarb ripens I’ll be able to dip a stalk in caster’s sugar and eat it raw, that the magical sweet and sour taste will transport me to some summer morning ages ago when everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
– James Donne, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

Signs and Wonders

Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow
– Sufjan Stevens, “The Only Thing

ii.
It may seem strange, but it is instructive to think of depression as being like a friend. “Dee,” let’s say, is like an old college buddy who’s a great dude but has rather poor hygiene, so you’re reluctant to admit you’ve been hanging out with him. Dee’s the guy who will say, “Hey, man, let’s focus on you tonight. I’ll bring beer and pizza rolls,” and then just sits quietly and stinks up the place while you watch Netflix. Whenever he comes around, he’s making a timely, almost heroic, entrance: everything’s falling apart around you, but here’s Dee, a friend indeed. He’s blunt and brutally honest – he tells it like it is – but he really, really wants you to understand that even though he likes you as a person, he doesn’t think you have what it takes. So you stare at your feet as you say, “Yeah, you’re probably right. Let me get some of those pizza rolls.”

There’s something poetic to the fact that soil erodes most quickly when there’s nothing planted in it. Common sense then dictates that your heart should be a well-tended garden, with healthy diversity like zucchini and a raspberry patch to go along with a row of lilies and sunflowers and three different types of mint. A lucky few have plots that edge up against some old-growth, with some beech or cedar just barely on the other side of the forest edge. When my grandma died seven years ago, I felt the ground shake as that blessed oak was pulled out, roots and all. Now that my grandpa and his brother Elmer have followed, the whole landscape has changed. My secluded garden is now strip-mall adjacent, a little more of that nitrogen-rich soil flowing down the storm drain with each rainfall.

Reflecting on the loss of his mother, Sufjan Stevens was struck by how the trajectory of his grief seemed so unconventional. “It felt really sporadic and convoluted,” he told Pitchfork. “I would have a period of rigorous, emotionless work, and then I would be struck by deep sadness triggered by something really mundane, like a dead pigeon on the subway track. Or my niece would point out polka-dotted tights at the playground, and I would suffer some kind of cosmic anguish in public.”

Nothing. Nothing. Intense pain. My phone buzzes. Dee wants to know if I’ve ever tried Fireball.

“You are an individual in full possession of your life,” says Stevens. “You don’t have to be incarcerated by suffering.”

It’s jarring to realize that it’s as likely as not that I will someday consider suicide again. Dee reminds me that my retirement savings are meager anyway.

“The Only Thing” refers to what kept Sufjan alive as he was contemplating suicide: “The only thing that keeps me from driving this car half-light, jackknife into the canyon at night….” Signs and wonders. The Northern constellation of Perseus cradling the head of Medusa. A random pattern of moisture on a bathroom wall, conjuring an image of the biblical Daniel. The sea lion caves of the Oregon coast giving sight to a blind faith. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing else but intense awe.

To Him alone who does great wonders
For His steadfast love endures forever
To Him who made the great lights
For His steadfast love endures forever
To Him who struck down great Kings
For His steadfast love endures forever
– Psalm 136

Perseus

A Cluster of Words Simulating the Way Steven Macks Had an Existential Crisis at the Dentist Office (Blog Titles Inspired By Sufjan Stevens Songs)

i.
“That doesn’t look right,” she said behind me as I stared up at the ceiling, the treble in her voice deadened by her dental mask. “It could be an occlusion or maybe even a cavity. But the whole root of your tooth is dark on the x-ray.”

When I woke up Saturday morning, an emergency dental visit did not seem to be in the realm of possibility. But when I got out of bed and brushed my teeth, I felt an unmistakable grit on my brush. I spit into my hand and put it under a gentle tap and let the water pass through my shaking fingers like a prospector panning for gold. Soon enough, I found my treasure: sharp flecks of mother of pearl. I ran my tongue around my teeth and found an unfamiliar texture, like a corn kernel made of shale, on my lower lateral incisor.

Shit. I’m going to lose a front tooth.

A quick Google search revealed three dentists within a mile of my house. Fortunately, the one open Saturdays – Bucca Dental – was also in my insurance network. A follow-up Google search told me that “Bucca” is a storm spirit of British yore, a wraith believed to haunt the abandoned mines of coastal regions. That sounded to me like a sturdy, romantic name for a dental office, so I got dressed and walked over.

It has been my experience that all dental hygienists are gorgeous young women, and Bucca’s was no exception. She had orangish-red hair and the slender body of a middle-distance runner, the sort of combination that made me think of a defiant maple still gleaming despite a waning autumn. I also couldn’t help but wonder whether my dental visits growing up have had an impact on my dating life. Meet a beautiful woman. Fall in love a little. Endure a span of pain, and criticism, and judgment. Try again in six months.

At any rate, by this point she had summoned the dentist, a regal and handsome Hispanic man named Edgar Mantilla. He looked like a Mexican version of the actor Ray Wise. “Let’s have a look,” he said, gesturing for me to open my mouth. The exam last less than ten seconds. “This is nothing. It’s a calculus.”

What does this have to do with derivatives? I wondered to myself. Confusion must have registered on my face.

“It’s calcium buildup. We’ll scrape it off and you can go.”

The voice behind me chimed back in. “There’s still the matter of this occlusion, Doctor.” I glanced back to see green eyes shining like traffic lights against her cerulean facemask. I couldn’t help but wonder if occlusions were dealbreakers.

“Ah yes,” he replied in a cadence close enough to Emperor Palpatine’s to be unsettling. He explained that a spiral cavity had cut off the blood flow to my tooth, and it was likely dead. He proposed an experiment to illustrate his point, and disappeared momentarily to retrieve a shard of dry ice the size of a pebble. Instructing me to tell him when it started hurting, he pressed the dry ice against my poor occluded tooth. I felt nothing, and so I shrugged slightly. Then he moved the it to the adjacent tooth and I felt a burst of intense pain. He did it again to drive the point home. Nothing. Nothing. Intense pain. “See? You’ll need a root canal.”

I thought to ask when I’d be able to eat hard cheeses again, but I didn’t think he’d get the reference.

lizlemon2

Vampire Weekend and a Lament for a Lost Friendship

Vampire Weekend is a polarizing band. Some people find their orchestration and energy to a refreshing change of scenery from the sheer gray monolith of top 40 pop; others seem to find pretentious both their wordplay and occasional outbursts in French. For what it’s worth, I remember how I excited I felt when I first stumbled onto them. There’s no doubt they have the sound and feel of a summer’s day, or at least to my ears they sound better with the aroma of fresh-cut grass wafting into my nose the same way that shrimp and oysters taste better when you can hear lapping waves and seagulls. It’s appropriate, then, that I first heard them on a July morning, jogging back from the Dairy Queen across from Lake Josephine to the Northwestern dorm building we called Arden Hall, a gutted out Holiday Inn with a creaky elevator and a mold problem. The song, “M79“, was exciting and frenetic (and other adjectives as well) and renewed my energy to glide across the tarry shoulder of Lexington Ave.

Around this time, I’d set up a Gmail account with a friend for the sole purpose of sharing music with each other. When we found some hidden gem we wanted the other to see sparkle, we’d email the MP3 to that account. We exchanged more than five hundred songs in this fashion: windows into our childhood, like “Take On Me” by A-Ha (her) or “All My Life” by K-Ci and JoJo (me); boosts to our indie cred, like the rough demos from Mumford & Sons; even Hannah Montana tracks to devour “ironically,” I guess. There’s something uniquely intimate about getting to know someone through their musical autobiography, to try to understand why certain melodies pluck their heartstrings. Vampire Weekend was one of the earliest chapters in that book.

That project died a slow death. It’s been three years since she shared anything with me, and maybe two since she even checked the account (the Citizens arrangement of “Amazing Grace” she requested of me has been unopened since I sent it in 2013). And it’s been about a year since our friendship ended. But here’s a secret: I still send her songs. Every once in a while, when a new tune quickens my pulse or brings tears to my eyes, I sign into that old Gmail account and I share it. I don’t know why I do that.

To be sure, I know what some of my friends would say. There are those that would think I haven’t let go, that I keep watering soil in the hopes that some long-dead seeds will miraculously sprout. Some might suggest it’s a continuation of that aching need to be known, to write the next chapter of that autobiography, even if it will never  be read. That it’s an answer to the question Sufjan Stevens asked rhetorically, “What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?” My more cynical confidants might say that it’s an extremely passive aggressive attempt to demonstrate my moral superiority (“See? I’ve been giving this whole time.”) But to the extent that I’m allowed to choose my own interpretation for my behavior, I’m deciding to see it as a lament to a lost friendship, laying flowers on its grave. It’s a shoebox to hide away the lingering fragments of that nostalgia, a place to put them so nobody else has to see.

Vampire

No Free Lunch

Please, remember me
My misery
And how it lost me all I wanted
– Iron & Wine, “The Trapeze Swinger

Across the street from the train station, on the south side of 5th street, there was a beggar holding the requisite cardboard sign. I couldn’t really read what it said, but despite the usual club-goers and the traffic on Hennepin, it was quiet enough that night that I could hear his conversations. “I’ll do a dance for you. If you like it, you can give me a dollar,” he’d say to passing pedestrians. Sometimes they’d laugh. Usually they’d ignore him. Before too long, though, a well-meaning young man in a blue Oxford and a black North Face windbreaker walked up with a doggy bag in hand. “Here. I got you a bite to eat.”

The beggar mumbled something in reply – a humble but practiced “Thanks,” perhaps – but accepted the white bag reluctantly, as if he thought there was a fifty-fifty shot it contained scarabs rather than food. He glanced inside before setting the bag beside him, reciprocating a wide smile with a curt nod. He watched as North Face walked away: as soon as the do-gooder turned the corner, the beggar slogged over to the nearest trash can and threw away his free meal.

I considered rummaging through the trash to see what the bag contained, but my curiosity wasn’t strong enough for me to bypass the arriving train. Being late on a Wednesday, the cabin was predictably empty. Two people had their heads down on the seats in front of them, striking the “Heads up, seven up!” pose I learned so well in second grade. (Train travel note: discounting rush hour, you’ll find that most people sit on the last car. It didn’t take me long to realize that this is because the station entrances tend to be closer to the rear of the stationary train and most people can’t be bothered to walk the length of the platform. I, on the other hand, prefer to defer my laziness to end of my trip and board the car that will be closest to my exit.)

That night I wanted a distraction, and as amusing as it was for me to imagine some sprawling city-wide game of Seven Up, it wasn’t about to cut it.

The next station gave me people to watch. I mistook them for a couple at first. They were both attractive: her with sandy-blonde hair and what seemed like green eyes – or maybe her emerald jacket just drew the green out of them? – and him dark-haired with murderer’s thumbs and, despite it being well past five, a square jaw without a hint of stubble . What drew my eyes were his shoes, rich burgundy wing tips without laces. They seemed unnaturally stiff, as though toes had never flexed against the polished leather. Even after I noticed the titanium rod where his ankle should have been, it took a moment before it dawned on me. This man is missing his legs.

That detail, perhaps morbidly or unfairly, piqued my interest in what I’d brushed off as a run-of-the-mill date night. But by then it was too late to eavesdrop. “Well, this is my stop,” he announced.

“Okay.”

“This was a lot of fun. We should do it again.”

“Yeah,” she said, somewhat flatly. “We should.” He gave her a side hug and shuffled out the door.

I glanced over at her and I felt anger swell up. Have you ever been irrationally angry at a total stranger over something completely innocuous? It’s a good sign you’re projecting. How could she? I bet it’s because he’s an amputee. Just how shallow is this woman? It always says more about you than it does about them.

I don’t remember what she said that interrupted the self-analysis of my contempt. With how much time I spend speaking to strangers – and just how often people ask me for my favorite ice breakers – you’d think I’d have a more natural memory for conversation starters. But the best conversations seem to flow from something said off the cuff. I wish I remember what she’d said. All I can say is that one second I was fuming, and the next second we were talking. Detached from the immediate context of such events, it seems remarkable to me that people open up to strangers on public transit, or that they’d deconstruct elements of their lives in the apparent hope that a fresh set of eyes could help them reassemble in a more comfortable arrangement. All that to say, at some point she asked me in some arrangement of words, “Why do men ask women on dates if they know there’s no future for their relationship?”

I could think of three reasons. “Either they don’t know that they don’t have a shot, or they think they can change your mind, or they see inherent value in going through the motions and issuing the invitation regardless.”

(She scoffed at the third possibility. When I told her I’d done it, she pressed me for an explanation. All I could think of was baseball: if you’re at bat, in the bottom of the 9th with two out and a full count, a certain type of man will always swing at that next pitch. Although she nodded her head, I’m not sure she could relate.)

“Is that what happened tonight?” I asked. “You don’t think you have a future with that guy?”

She nodded her head.

I often finding myself asking the wrong question. What followed was a discussion of why she didn’t think he was right for her – a conversation I had no way to contribute to, not knowing him at all. What I should have asked but didn’t was, “Believing that there was no future, why did you go on the date?” Maybe hers would have been a disappointing and banal reason (“I didn’t have any plans” or “I couldn’t think of a good excuse” or “Well, he asked, and I have a rule about that”). Maybe it would have been something interesting like, “I didn’t want people to think I was shallow for turning down an amputee.” Perhaps the presumption that had me fuming was, in fact, her whole motivation for going out with him in the first place. I’ll never know.

Past her sandy-blonde head I saw the familiar sight of the Lexington Aldi. “Well, this is my stop,” I said as I stood up. “It was nice meeting you.”

She sat up straight. “Actually, we haven’t met yet.” Then she thrust her hand in mind and told me her name.

About That Time I Almost Died

1.

I almost died Friday night. Trying to catch an arriving westbound Green Line train – and ignoring all traffic laws, convention, and common sense – I ran along the parallel eastbound tracks. My head was turned to the right, watching for my opportunity to duck behind the last train car and sprint up the ramp. Anyone who’s ever stood near a passing train knows that in those moments it’s difficult to hear anything else, which is a really generous way of saying I didn’t notice the approaching eastbound train until it was mere feet from me, replete with blaring horn and squealing brakes and panicked conductor. I instinctively jumped to my right, the nose of the train brushing the sleeve of my jacket.

In retrospect, this was not the ideal choice, as it put me on icy road between two moving trains. But I held my balance and, moments later, boarded the westbound train.

If you were sitting with me at the back of that rear cabin, it would have been hard to tell that I had almost been hit by a train. When the conductor scolded me on the intercom, I joked about it with my fellow passengers. I quoted “O Brother, Where Art Thou” to myself: “The only good thing you ever did for the gals was get hit by that train!”
“I wasn’t hit by no train!”

I even checked my radial pulse. Not a beat above 70.

2.

Despite what stand-up comics would have you believe, “What women want” isn’t some grand mystery, at least in terms of dating and attraction. Evolutionary psychologists have long argued that men are predominantly attracted to traits that imply high reproductive potential (hair color, hip-to-waist ratio, and breast size are all heuristics for reproductive potential), whereas women respond to traits that showcase a high level of survival potential. According to that theory, women who showed a preference for men with high survival potential were more likely to produce offspring who subsequently survived and passed along those preferences for future generations. Therefore traits like age, strength, social status, and the like were (and are) valued highly.

Behavioral psychologists have narrowed down and categorized these traits into two broad categories: status traits and interpersonal traits. Status traits consist of things like strength, confidence, ambition, and self-worth. Interpersonal traits are things like looks, grooming, authenticity, and the ability to form emotional connections. The former category consists of traits that shows the man can survive a hostile world, whereas the latter consists of things that create interpersonal bonds and thus confer their survival advantage to the woman. Or so the theory goes.

A while back, I asked ten of my closest female friends to tell me what they found attractive about me (not that I thought any of them were particularly attracted to me). I have long believed that many of my more attractive qualities are hidden away, difficult to discern from a glance. Things that have to be teased out, and then only in the right circumstances. So I set out to test that hypothesis. As a result, I got some wonderful feedback. I found that most of the women in my life see me as intelligent, humble, confident, and affectionate. One friend noted that I seek out opportunities to serve the people I care about, rather than waiting for them to come by way of happenstance. Another remarked, and I believe she was quoting Nick Offerman (which can never be a mistake), that I have a “chin thicket that makes women swoon when they countenance my visage.”

Most of them commented on my strength, both physically and morally, and their belief that I can protect them from immediate physical danger and be there for them when they face more subtle and spiritual ones. One said, “It’s impossible to not feel safe around you.” Several remarked on my personal style, one waxing philosophical about “an eye for captured beauty and significance.”

As I compiled the replies, and itemized them by category, I noticed a disturbing trend. Every box had multiple entries except for one: goals and ambition. If I ever look to the future, not a single one of my friends was picking up on it.

3.

As the train left the Fairview station, I started thinking about the people in my life. My parents would be the first to find out, sure. How long would it take for everyone else? (My guess was two days. If I died on Friday, it wouldn’t be until Sunday that most of the people I care about would know about it.) But then I started thinking about my future, and the things I want to accomplish that would never happen. My list was surprisingly short. That realization, more than anything else, left me shaken.

It’s okay to not become a Nobel Prize winner or reach the pinnacle of a profession. It’s okay to strive to be, as Fleet Foxes so eloquently put it, “a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” And don’t get me wrong, being content with life’s circumstances, no matter what they are, is a worthy goal. But there is rocky chasm between contentment and ambivalence, and right now I’m on the wrong side of that precipice. A few years ago, I asked a friend what she thought I should do with my life. She told me she always pictured me doing something too difficult for other people to do. That stunning vote of confidence has been left unmet ever since.

When I finally reached my destination, Little Caesar’s pizza in hand, I waited at the locked apartment door with another man. He was wearing a gray winter cap and a somber expression. “Let me call my wife,” he said. “She’s upstairs.” My friend Mel (yes, Mel, that word choice was deliberate: you have arrived) reached the door first and let us both in. I was eager to tell her about my harrowing experience. “Mel! I almost died tonight!”

The other man overheard my remark. “You almost died? Man, you’ve got to get that fixed.” I didn’t know how to reply to that, so he kept talking. “My brother died last week. Right upstairs. He came over and lied down and the next thing we knew he was gone.”

“I’m sorry,” I murmured helplessly.

“You’ve got to get that taken care of,” he repeated. “It’s not fair to your family. You can’t let that happen.”

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An Empty Church

Historic St. Anthony Main always smells like rotting fish. Being near the Mississippi would be bad enough on its own, but all of the canals and rivulets they created in order load Pillsbury flour onto barges only amplifies the problem. If you walk down the trails below Father Hennepin Park, you can sometimes get a glimpse of a gull tearing apart a catfish behind the obscuring mantilla of a man-made estuary, the carcass fermenting and baking in the summer sun. Minnesota’s own katsuobushi.

That’s about the only complaint I could make about St. Anthony Main. The brick boulevard – or are they cobblestone? – gives it an idyllic quality, one that’s only enhanced by the view of the Stone Arch Bridge and the distant lights of downtown Minneapolis, a view that gets sweeter as the evening turns into night. And there’s always something to watch: dedicated joggers with fluorescent shoes and awkward running motions; dog walkers, sticking out for their attempts to be inconspicuous, as they bag up their civic duty; and couples, some stalked by photographers, others trailed by posers, all in search of the perfect façade.

She’d wanted to meet down at Aster Café, so that’s where I waited for her arrival, watching couple after couple gaze wistfully at each other with the Guthrie in blatant view behind them. She was running late. “My phone has been dead all day so I’m gonna let it get a bit of juice and then I’ll be heading out real soon.”

“Okay,” I replied. “You’ll narrowly miss happy hour, but that’s okay.”

“Poop. Did they have apps on happy hour? No, don’t tell me. It will be better if I don’t know.”

I checked my watch: fifteen minutes til last call. So I motioned that waitress over and ordered two cheese plates and a flatbread. I asked her to wait as long as possible before putting in the order. She ignored the last request, and the food came out within minutes.

My phone buzzed again. “Perhaps I’ll get some sweet potato fries….”

Bzzz.

“If they have them….”

Bzzz.

“Which they probably don’t.”

They did not.

Aster

I thought I’d be feeling nervous or excited, but I wasn’t. I felt nothing, just an emptiness where I anticipated a feeling. Confusion found itself sucked into that vacuum. History was screaming at me to feel something, anything at all. Seeing her was never without jitters of some kind: even if it wasn’t always excitement, there would at least be a sense of anticipation. But now, as I waited for (…my friend? It felt like an abuse of the term. My ex? I could never get comfortable with that expression, either…) this woman I hadn’t seen in months, ambivalence was all I could summon to feel.

One Sunday this last January, before all the college kids came back to school, I decided to sleep in on Sunday morning expecting to be able to hit up the evening service at church. It was one of those blistering winter days where the temperature dipped to 20 below before the sun went down. I took the 16 to the Metrodome station and walked the half mile to the Hope East building, but when I got there all the lights were out: I’d forgotten they don’t have a third service over winter break. Expecting the warmth of both the building and people who cared for me, I found instead an empty building, cold and dark. So I trudged back to the Metrodome and waited under heat lamps for the next 16 to take me home.

None of that is to say our dinner was bad. It wasn’t. It was all pleasant, and sometimes exceptional. We laughed together in a way we hadn’t in months, maybe years. But my stomach didn’t rise into my throat when she finally walked up to the table. My hair didn’t stand on end when she brushed up against me on our saunter over the bridge. My heart didn’t flutter when she hugged me goodbye. The only emotion I felt was a vague sadness that this person, once so special, so primary to me, was now just another person.

There’s a scene in the movie Swingers, arguably its climax, where two friends are talking about how to move on from a relationship. Rob, played by Ron Livingston, tries to point Jon Favreau’s Mike to the future. “You gotta get on with your life. You gotta let go of the past. And Mikey, when you do, I’m telling you: the future is beautiful, all right? Look out the window. It’s sunny every day here. It’s like manifest destiny. And everything that is past is prologue to this.”

Mike, though, is preoccupied with the hurdle instead of the finish line. “How did you get over it? I mean, how long did it take?”

“Sometimes it still hurts,” he admits. “You know how it is, man. It’s like, you wake up every day and it hurts a little bit less, and then you wake up one day and it doesn’t hurt at all. And the funny thing is… this is kinda weird, but it’s like, it’s like you almost miss that pain.”

“You miss the pain?”

“Yeah, for the same reason you that you miss her. Because you lived with it for so long.”

Ellen Goodman, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, said, “There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over – and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.” That’s in every way beautiful and optimistic. And yet it’s still so confusing to expect to feel and feel nothing, to long for an ache of nostalgia that’s nowhere to be found. Maybe emptiness is another word for the readiness to be filled.

Perfectionism and Ranch Dressing

In Malcolm Gladwell’s fabulous New Yorker essay “The Bakeoff,” he tells the story of the development of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing.

The couple who owned Hidden Valley Ranch, near Santa Barbara, had come up with a seasoning blend of salt, pepper, onion, garlic, and parsley flakes that was mixed with equal parts mayonnaise and buttermilk to make what was, by all accounts, an extraordinary dressing. Clorox tried to bottle it, but found that the buttermilk could not coexist, over any period of time, with the mayonnaise. The way to fix the problem, and preserve the texture, was to make the combination more acidic. But when you increased the acidity you ruined the flavor. Clorox’s food engineers worked on Hidden Valley Ranch dressing for close to a decade. They tried different kinds of processing and stability control and endless cycles of consumer testing before they gave up and simply came out with a high-acid Hidden Valley Ranch dressing — which promptly became a runaway best-seller.

Customers had never tasted the original Hidden Valley Ranch dressing. As such, they were oblivious to the fact that the high-acid version tasted different. The important factor was that Hidden Valley Ranch dressing tasted better than what was already available on supermarket shelves. The fact that it couldn’t match the “ideal” fresh version was irrelevant.

This anecdote came to mind when I read through some of my old writing. There are more than a dozen such offerings that I never posted because they didn’t live up to what I intended, and there are at least as many that I’ve posted that, at the time, seemed substandard or disappointing. Going back and reading again with fresh eyes – and no memory of whatever wordplay I was aiming for – made some of those formerly disappointing entries seem adequate. Some passages I thought were clunky, muddled, or unclear got the point across perfectly. (At the same time, some of the writing that I found exciting at the time was forced or stilted or maybe just didn’t age well. A step back cuts both ways, I suppose. Also, my use of parentheses seems overbearing in retrospect.)

Creating something – whether it’s writing essays, stories, or poems, cooking a new recipe, or crafting something elegant from sandalwood – is a difficult, often heart-rending process, and it’s understandable to want every effort to be perfect. Perhaps the best thing a person can do, rather than endlessly reworking and editing and adjusting, is to say, “Good enough” and then try again with something new. In all likelihood, you’re the only person who’ll be able to tell the difference.

 

Hidden Valley

Glass Cases

“The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to miss the train before.”
– G.K. Chesterton

I hope you’ll bear with me as a craft a dubious distinction. I want to differentiate between “value” on the one hand and “worth” on the other. Whether or not such wordplay survives past the end of this blog post doesn’t much matter to me; I just can’t think of another way to express what’s on my mind. If it strikes you as the literary equivalent of building sandcastles at low tide, so be it. But let me have my fun.

I’m not sure I can tease out this nuance without giving a relatable example and abstracting from there. Think of a custom-built acoustic guitar made by a famous luthier, one with a Brazilian rosewood body, the finish so perfect and lustrous you can see your reflection in it. Its value would be easy to identify: it’s whatever one would pay for such an instrument, likely several thousand dollars. Its worth, though, is somewhat harder to pin down. If a person buys such an instrument only to lock it in a glass case – to see but not to touch – if it is only used for its image, then its worth is the same as a photograph of the same guitar. A guitar is often made to be beautiful, yes, but more than that it is supposed to generate beauty and captivating vibrations. It’s designed to convey a beauty that is independent of its own existence. Its worth is in how it is used: it can play a song that will tickle your ears for the rest of your life, or it can be trapped behind glass – or worse, never taken out of its case.

This distinction came to mind when I was thinking about my mom’s recovery from cancer. As I prayed for her remission and recovery, I found myself oddly uncomfortable with finding relief in that. It’s easy to recognize as an abstract truth that we will all die someday, and my mother is no exception. Any recovery is only temporary. Whether cancer is her ultimate undoing or it’s something else entirely, dying will always be part of life. The value of  my mother’s life is defined by being alive, but her worth is separate from that definition. Her worth comes from how she touches and inspires the people around her. Her worth comes in how well she functions in the role God’s given her: to point to God and give Him praise.

Three nights ago was the first time I’ve ever laid awake in bed worrying about the future. A case could be made, of course, that the two tequila palomas and the can of Day Tripper played a role in my insomnia, but it seems to me that a milligram of worry is more discomforting than a stone slab of a bed. And worry is what I felt. Worry that the cycle of debt and repayment will be the only state I’ll know. Worry like I’m squandering my life and my talents. Worry that ten years from now everything will be the way it is now. It felt like being harnessed to a wall and told to run away from it.

Though it’s common and even natural to yearn for comfort and ease, it’s also the equivalent of a guitar asking to be forever locked in its case. There’s a famous quote from Lou Holtz: “Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.” I think he’s onto something, although I would amend it slightly. My worth doesn’t come from avoiding challenges or adversity. Nor does my worth come from overcoming adversity. My worth comes from how I handle those trials. Difficulties, setbacks, adversity… those are just words for the opportunity to play a captivating tune, and to point to God while doing so.

Olson