1. Days Like Today

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    There’s a certain and particular searching that comes with every tragedy. A search for answers. Culprits and motives. A search for hope and silver linings. It happens every time, and sadly, more often, as history degrades into nothing but a series of explosions and attacks. We send out prayers and thoughts for the affected. We donate blood and shed tears. We imagine ourselves in the shoes of others and get angry, or sad, or just plain tired. Why do we react this way? With empathy and compassion, no matter how self-centered their origin?

    Maybe it’s the only thing that keeps us going.

    Maybe empathy is our reminder that for every tragedy, there is a legion of good. For every injured, a hundred caregivers. For every death, a nation of mourners. For every threat, an army of defenders. For every act of terror, a thousand calls for justice. For every evil act, a million voices to declare, “No. That’s not okay.”

    And that’s the only thing that gets me by on days like today. We outnumber the rotten. We don’t win every round, but we will always have the numbers. Even on days where answers are few and chaos seems to be holding the reins, the good are still winning. Healing, fighting, sleuthing, guarding, weeping, praying, hugging, and holding each other up. We are living, and for as long as that’s true, we will be winning. And that’s the only thing that gets me by on days like today.

     

  2. Fall 1998. Frederick, MD. 

     

  3. Pasadena, CA. 12.16.12.

    Sunday Night in America

    It had been three days since the shooting. A massacre of twenty. Our most precious twenty. Precious in the way we all understand it - little plots of joy and promise, life beaming from their round little eyes and toothfairy smiles. It had been three days and life had already moved on.

    A buddy and I were sitting behind a platter of chips and salsa, a diet coke and two beers on the table. We were there to watch the Niners play the Patriots and eat wings. This was America. Every table brimming with chicken bones and beer, fat guys in Brady jerseys and plumpy girls slurring between sips. The place was loud and crowded for a regular season game. So too was Foxboro, the field still hazy on TV from the pregame fireworks. I was in my element: propped up on a tall chair surrounded by a sea of tables too small for grown men, each one littered with cardboard coasters and table tents offering Double-Fudge Chocolate Cake to people who’ve clearly never said no to chocolate or cake or double-fudge anything.

    And then the President appeared. First on two screens, then on twenty. The two big screens went to the President last. I slowly bit into a tortilla chip. The place went quiet as he began: “Scripture tells us, ‘do not lose heart…’” There was no movement. There was silence, but one without reverence or reflection. Like the kind a mother receives from a scolded child - a half hearted show of compliance, almost a taunt, really. As the President spoke, I began to feel the twinge of pain in my chest again. The devastation of even one child lost was unimaginable - much less twenty. I welled up and felt a sigh leave my lungs.

    Not more than five minutes into his remarks, one of the big screens switched back to the game. Time’s up, POTUS. A football game on mute on one side, a somber Obama on the other. It was a gradual change in mood and an awkward one. The President’s speech a perverse soundtrack for the first quarter of Niners-Pats. A handful of booths began to murmur. Hot sauce painted hands raised mugs. Waitresses resumed their duties in sync. Eventually, half the place found its legs again. And with game still on mute it let out an unadulterated pigskin-loving, guacamole-sucking roar after every big play - very much to the disapproval of those still tuned in to the memorial service. 

    This was Sunday Night in America. Tragedy and escape. Real world grief and gridiron delight. Had we moved on or just repressed our hurt? Is football a disgrace in the wake of national heartache or a symbol of our best and truest qualities? I didn’t know. I still don’t.

    We live on a tattered spectrum of empathy and impulse. Where hard-earned wisdom goes head-to-head with deliberate ignorance. And the beauty of our country is that a real and honest slice of her lives in every bar, stadium, school, and home on any given night. Our diversity of spirit, values, and culture present in every microcosmic bubble. I wish there was a right or wrong way to spend that Sunday night, but there wasn’t. In hindsight, there still isn’t. It’s gray matter and it damned well might be the definition of freedom - or at least our brand of it. That and every Sunday night in America we’re free to choose who, what, and where we are. We might fight and fiddle over who’s right or wrong, but that’s exactly the point isn’t it? We’re a country that strives to lift up and live out ideals, but find ourselves in limbo more often than not. And though I’m left bewildered that life can run the gamut from unspeakable tragedy to happy hour wings in a matter of hours, it is who we are. Free to deal with life the way we think or feel we should deal with life. So, three days after a national tragedy, when a mourning president and a football game are shown on split screens in front of us we get to lean the way we wish. It’s gray matter. And in no way is that a judgment. If anything, it’s an acceptance.

     

  4. Santa Monica, CA. 10.18.12.
    Contentment is a strange place. I’m sitting on a beach, happy. Healthy. Alive. I used to sit in these spots and yearn. For an old love or a new one. A new job. A new city. New passion. Inspiration. Luck. Change. Anything else to make the present life feel inadequate. Not today. Not now. In this moment, all that self-pity is gone. Happiness is a warm sunset.

    I could still go for some beef jerky though. 

     


  5. The One Thing I Hate More Than Politics: People Screaming About Politics

    Political season is about to be in full swing here and I’d like to offer a polite suggestion to everyone I know: please shut the fuck up.

    No matter which side of the aisle you’re on, please shut the fuck up.

    Let’s get this out of the way first: nothing is going to ‘destroy America.’ Do you know why? Because America is not some dainty porcelain candy bowl that will shatter and explode when some other fuckwad is in office. America is a behemoth of a country that can handle its shit. And while we’re at it, you can’t ‘take the country back’ because that doesn’t really mean anything. And there’s no such things as a ‘Real American’ [besides Hulk Hogan], so stop proclaiming to be one because you read Mitt Romney’s wikipedia page once.

    Politics is a dirty game and a necessary evil. We all accept this, yet still argue in terms of ideals and absolute values. Please stop. Like anything else in life, government is inclined to swings and stumbles and changes over time. Regardless of who takes office next January, you’re probably gonna be just fine. Calm down. We have these traits called human decency and reason that have gotten us through several millennia now; we’ll be ok.

    I’m not saying government is unimportant, I’m just asking you to shut the fuck up about it. Nobody changes their mind because of your facebook post. And unless your name was once stenciled on the door of a government building, you truly have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about. You know as much about running a country as you do about banging a porn star; obsessively jacking off while thinking about it doesn’t make you an expert in either.

    There is a time and a place for debate and it usually happens in October, in Primetime, on national television. It typically involves two candidates running for president and a moderator. You were not invited to participate in this event. Your tweets don’t count. In fact, nothing you say ever counts. Ever.

    The only thing you could possibly do that resembles anything even remotely relevant is to vote. Go check your box. That’s all you get. Before and after that is an invitation to shut the fuck up land. Go there. Make yourself at home. Enjoy the fresh mountain air and cloudless skies. Watch football. Eat wings. Find peace in the fact that nobody gives a shit why you’re a republican or a democrat or even more insufferably, neither. And if you catch a friend or foe spewing worthless political noise in the next 2 months, invite him to shut the fuck up land too. Just be polite about it.

     


  6. A Few Words on Fear

    It always comes back to fear. Every decision about who we are and what we do, is driven by fear. It precedes everything from how we dress to who we marry (or why we don’t). We wade through life so damned scared. What will others think? What if I look stupid? What if she leaves me? What if I can’t find something better?

    Fear is why he won’t put a ring on it. Fear is why you can’t leave your shitty ass job. Fear is why your client is being a raging bitch. Fear is why you don’t get what you want. Fear is why committees exist. Fear is why you can’t be yourself. Fear is why. 

    Life is dictated by fear and living is but a series of actions to overcome it. 

    Fear of judgment. Fear of failure. Fear of loss. Fear of uncertainty. This is what we face. And when it comes to life’s big decisions, too often we clam up. We settle on safe and boring because of “what if?” We mistakenly believe life is safe and boring. It’s not. Nothing worth anything is ever safe and boring; besides, maybe, sleep. Life is the stuff that happens between the safe and boring sleeps. Life requires courage, because fear is all around once you get out of bed. 

    Fear itself is neutral; the good or bad is in our response. When facing fear, choose the path that requires stupid, brash, unapologetic courage. It will be rewarded. 

    Lastly, remember that misery will always be there. If you are in misery and afraid to climb out, remember misery does not move. Misery can always be Plans B-Z. Should you fail, you can always go back to her. She’ll be waiting there, her sweaty hands reaching out of her soiled overalls, inviting you to move back in beneath her pale skin folds. That’s gross. 

     


  7. "I Don’t Know What to Do With My Life"

    No one ever tells you how life works after college. Nobody tells you just how boring a well-paying job is and how depressing it is to wait for Friday COB 50 weeks out of the year. No one mentions how much time is actually wasted even in the most intense work environments and how the nagging sense that you’re wasting the prime years of your life never goes away. Nothing can prepare you for this reality. 

    The ones who are really lost are the Creatives. The free and lost souls. The ones who pity friends in med school or dent school or just grad school in general. The ones who have big dreams but are afraid to admit they have them. The ones who want to create and bullshit for a living but can’t find a practical way to do so. They are the ones who really feel lost.

    These are the ones I love. Little lost souls in their early twenties. Maybe I whine so much they see a kindred spirit. Maybe they just need some hybrid uncle-friend who pretends to listen. I tell them all the same thing:

    Don’t be scared and don’t compromise. Not yet, anyway. In the longview, a few weeks, months, even years of searching is a small price to pay for contentment. The only real mistake you can make right now is to be scared and settle. Contentment is life’s great puzzle. Jigsawed pieces made of money, and independence and security and creativity and love and whatever else matters to you. It’s all a delicate balance, you obsess over one and it’s at the expense of the others. Find what really fulfills you and chase it, even if it’s scary. What is it that gives you a sense of accomplishment? What makes the time fly by? The only real mistake you can make right now is to ignore those things. 

    Maybe it’s writing a song. Maybe it’s snowboarding. Maybe it’s digging ditches. These don’t have to be hobbies. A true dream job isn’t vacation; that’s vacation. A great job is about improvement: making life better for yourself and whoever else cares. That’s it. Pursue those things without fear, chase contentment. Do work that drives you crazy when someone else is better at it than you. Do work that makes you proud. That’s how we improve.

    Just don’t be scared. You are smart, honest, and kind. You’ll be fine. Go ahead and fail. Get used to it (P.S. you never get used to it, but you get real good at getting back up). It’s ok to suck now. You’ve gotta start somewhere. Just start. Shut up and start.

    And please remember me when you’re happy and rich. 

     


  8. The King’s Hands

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    One day, B.B. King is going to die. I say this because everyone dies, eventually, and B.B. King is 86 years old. One day, B.B. King is going to die and pages and pages of words will be written about him. College boys who say they love “real music” will write “RIP B.B.” on Twitter and charm girls in the quad with If You Love Me on repeat. Pasty white baristas will say how much they loved Lucille and how B.B. was at his prime in 1970 - before they added strings to The Thrill is Gone LP. Proper journalists will chronicle his illustrious career, his brutal touring schedule, and his rags-to-riches story as the son of a Mississippi Delta sharecropper. Rock critics will note his undeniable influence on early guitar gods (Clapton, Hendrix, Richards) and the staggering soul in his left index finger. All of these tributes will be predictably reactionary: “legendary old guy dies, now let’s pretend he was the best thing ever,” but for me, all of it will be 100% true. No single musician has meant more to me than B.B. King. 

    When I was 15, I wanted to play guitar so I could serve God. I’m not kidding. I knew who Clapton and Hendrix were, but I also knew they were drug addict hippies headed for hell, or in Jimi’s case, already there. I wanted to play guitar and sing songs about how much I loved Jesus. Jimi or Eric never did that. It wasn’t an electric guitar I wanted anyway. In church, we only used big fat acoustic Yamahas and “soloing” was unwelcome in Praise music. I was a quick study, learning chords from a book and picking up pointers here and there. Three months later, near my 15th birthday, my parents ponied up $299 for a brand new Washburn D12. It was nothing but church songs and major scales for me. 

    A few weeks later, I don’t remember how it happened or where, but someone saw me playing guitar and told me to listen to a song called The Thrill is Gone. I found it on Napster and illegally downloaded the first secular song in my library. I hit the Play button on WinAmp and my memory goes blank from there. I was spellbound. What the fuck was this? How can something sound so sad and sweet and pure and filthy? That was it - whatever it was, that’s what I wanted in my ears all the time from then on. 

    I downloaded everything. I knew what I was doing was wrong, so I sought the most innocuous sounding song titles: Sweet Little Angel, Let the Good Times Roll, Why I Sing the Blues, Lucille, Paying the Cost to be the Boss, Blues Man. I listened and I listened and had no idea how he was doing it. How can two notes sound like three and a half? How can one note sound so sad? Thinking back, I wonder what might have happened if I had the option of watching B.B. King tutorials on YouTube in my room back then. The fact of the matter is, it wouldn’t have made a difference. The magic wasn’t in the notes, it was in the hands.

    B.B. King was born Riley B. King. He was born on a plantation in 1925. A fucking plantation. He was given his first guitar around age 12 and he hasn’t put it down since. He moved away to Memphis in the 1940s, playing churches and street corners. Riley B. King eventually came to be known as the Beale Street Blues Boy and then just Blues Boy, and now just B.B. Somewhere between being raised on a fucking plantation and playing on a Beale Street corner, whatever was inside Mr. King came out through his guitar, Lucille. Lucille is big, black, and beautiful. Yup. She plugs straight into the amp - no pedals, no compressors, no overdrive, no nothin’. Whatever you hear coming out of that loudspeaker is Lucille singing straight into the mic. Like B.B. says in his song Lucille, “like the way Sammy sings and I like the way Frank sings, but I can get a little Frank, Sammy, a little Ray Charles, in fact all the people with soul in this. A little Mahalia Jackson in there.” Look out. 

    50 years later, the Beale Street Blues Boy is blaring from the stereo of an Electron Blue Pearl Honda Civic Si piloted by a 16 year old Korean boy in rural Maryland. Rice rockets and B.B. King Live at the Regal defined the better part of my teenage years. The Washburn D12 was now collecting dust in the corner and a white Epiphone Les Paul was connected to a Crate practice amp beneath my desk. Every day I sat and copied. A phrase here, a note there. Most nights I’d quickly become frustrated and give up - cursing my ears, my equipment, and God himself. I wish I had known that it was all in the hands - there was nothing to decode because the actual notes were secondary.

    B.B King taught me soul. He showed me the power and sophistication of simplicity; how one thing can sound like everything. B.B. King is the first musician to make me feel music more than hear it. He unlocked feelings I didn’t know I had. It sounds trite now, but at sixteen, who else could teach me things like that? And as the world grows overwrought with gadgets, trends, and gimmicks, I’m reminded of the truth of B.B. King: you don’t need anything but a good pair of hands and a little soul to be whoever you want to be. 

    What I needed to know at sixteen, living as a yellow alien among white folk, was that emotions are universal. Soul translates to any language. Soul is colorblind and ageless. I didn’t have to look like B.B. King to love B.B. King. Again, it sounds obvious now, but this is earth-shattering to a sixteen year old who sees the world in absolutes. He taught me that soul is truth and truth is universal. Truth is simple and it doesn’t require a leap of faith - just a good set of ears. So, while the preacher preached and the choir sang, it was B.B. King that opened my eyes to the truth that really set me free. And my for that, I’m forever grateful to the King’s hands.

    (photo: Mike McGregor for Esquire)

     


  9. Scotty Mcreery and the Savages

    During the Season 10 auditions for American Idol, I fell in love. It was a special kind of love. Not the kind of love worth singing or crying about. It wasn’t homo or hetero - it wasn’t sexual at all. It was a different breed of love. Not like “I Will Always Love You” love or even “The Greatest Love of All” love (that would be inside of me). It was more akin to the love one feels for a child or a puppy. A proud, nurturing love. A caretaker’s love. A father’s love. I loved a boy, an Angelboy as a matter of fact. His name was Jacee Badeaux. He was 15, from Lafayette, Louisiana. 

    For his audition, Angelboy sang Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” His voice, so pure and pristine, rang like heaven’s handbells on christmas morning. His fat little cheeks pinched his eyes puffy and his tousled hair was what happens when Mom tries the Bieber Cut at home. He breathed much too heavy for a 15 year old, but then again, all that soul don’t come easy. Angelboy.

    Oh Angelboy. He was a shoo in for Hollywood Week, but it was only a matter of time before the darkness would corrupt him there.

    A few episodes after Angelboy, another young singer was showcased. Scotty, a gangly country bumpkin, 16 years old, from Garner, North Carolina. He described himself as an All-American Kid, singing since before the age of one, retelling his doctor’s tale about coming out of the womb humming “Bye, Baby Bunting.” It was apocryphal. He played baseball and had smirk lines tattooed on his face.

    His voice was deep, in tone only. He sang Josh Turner’s “Your Man.” Admittedly, it was the right choice of song. It showcased his style: overtly hick with a tinge of rapist, and he got to do his George Strait head bobs at the end of every phrase. Scotty made it through to Hollywood and oh yes, he went on to win Season 10 of American Idol. 

    As far as reality TV competitions go, Idol’s Hollywood Week is right up there with eating a donkey shit covered cockroach while amazing racing through Sri Lanka with a Kardashian sister and 8 kids. It breaks people. And the absolute nadir of human existence is broadcast on network TV as the hotel lobby at 4 AM during the Group Stage of Hollywood Week. Nineteen year old demi-divas with their weaves a mess and voices hoarse, singing motown, acapella, while the white girl struggles with leaning right on the “1 and 3 and 1 and 3 and” choreography. 

    It is in this world where our two contestants meet. Angelboy, the beloved, so pure and so rare, joins a group called the Guaps. As they begin to assemble, we hear the faint echoes of carnage in the background. It soon becomes an incessant 3 second stream of noise: “baby lock them doors and turn the lights down low… baby lock them doors and turn the lights down low… baby lock them doors and turn the lights down low…” It’s Scotty. He’s singing the opening line of the Josh Turner song, on repeat. Robotically. Like some kind of twisted singing cowboy machine used to tell redneck fortunes in Alabama. Scotty couldn’t find a group and was now whoring himself to anyone who’d listen. He finds his way to the Guaps, gazes off into nothing and shows em what he can do, “baby lock them doors and turn the lights down low…” It is Angelboy, the merciful, inviting him to join their ranks. Angelboy the Merciful.

    There they stood, side by side, until Sabatoge! The Guaps have mysteriously decided to reduce their quintet by one. Such a sudden change. Why? What demonry of black magic and destruction, Mcreery? Scotty Saboteur! Saboteur! I hiss at the screen. Young Angelboy is asked to leave the group. Abandoned by the ones he came to save. The cold shoulder from some unimportant dipshit named Clint with obnoxious white glasses. Angelboy’s beauty replaced by a rival who looks like the slow-witted younger brother of the MAD magazine coverboy. It is hard to watch. Hard to fathom. Angelboy is fighting back tears, but pain comes so flush in the face of one so pure.

    "It’s ok. Y’all have fun, ok? It’s ok. It’s ok," Angelboy says to the ones who spurn him. He means it. His kindness knows not irony. He walks idly through the lobby. Lost and bewildered. And then he begins to weep.

    What happens after this no longer matters to me. What’s lost is lost forever.  

    Angelboy, 15, from Lafayette, Louisiana has learned of betrayal. Pain. Pain of the heart. Is this who we are now? A group of savages ripping apart the innocent boy? All for what? For Hollywood Week? For sport? For making it through to the Top 13 and holding the microphone like some god damned one-handed piccolo while you awkwardly bobblehead your way through ruining another country classic? How fitting you’ve become the American Idol, Scotty Mcreery. Savage. This is who we are now - savages. And for that, I will never forgive you.

    -Epilogue-

    I still think of him often, Angelboy. Our Angelboy, 15, from Lafayette, Louisiana. I’m reminded of him when I see betrayal. I’m reminded when I see kindness. I’m reminded whenever I see a fat white kid with maple colored hair. And every time I witness pain of the heart, I think of him, how purity is lost, not at the hands of time, but by the cruelty of others. All it takes is a little singing competition. 

     

  10. Me Too Often
    Too often I wait for permission, needlessly.
    Too often I ignore the freedom around me; only to obsess over restrictions. 
    Too often I observe meticulously, but from the outside. 
    Too often I climb inside and regret it immediately.
    Too often I put my hands behind my back, voluntarily.
    Too often I exercise restraint. 
    Too often I stand so close to the door that only I can open it.
    Too often I stay tight lipped. 
    Too often I choose to stay put.  
    I love hoodies. 

    and I creep!

     


  11. Feeling Write

    It dawned on me the other night that I actually don’t know how to write. I only feel. This is a strange realization for someone who thinks himself a writer and hopes to earn a living writing someday. But the reality is, I don’t really write; I feel.

    A few weeks ago, I watched “Page One: Inside the New York Times” and walked away thoroughly impressed and grateful for all the true journalists in the world. Journalists full of integrity and talent and complete badass grit. Journalists who wrestle with deadlines and grind at a merciless pace that would certainly kill any mortal man. Above all, it was their unrelenting need to get the truth that struck me most. They want to get it right. They have to. They put their feelings and prejudice aside [as best they can] and they dig and dig until they get it right. They write on command about anything, really, and they’re able to translate mountains of data from head to print with such ease and balance. That is real writing. That’s not what I do.

    I watch or read or experience and something inside needs to come out. I just feel it. Usually I don’t know what it is and so I force myself in front of a white screen and a blinking cursor and just let shit out. I have no recorded interviews or notebooks filled with research, I only have my feelings. And even if I did have all that other stuff, it would still take me weeks to put it together in a cogent way unless I had some strong feelings about it. This lack of skill and logos makes me feel incredibly inadequate at times, but feelings are all I’ve got. It’s who I am. So, maybe I’ve been wrong to consider myself a writer all this time. I only feel. I consume and consume and consume and then write down what I feel. What do you call someone like that?

    Well, “amateur” comes to mind. Or how about “raw” or “unpolished”? That would be a fair assessment of my character. It’s pretty spot on, as a matter of fact. It explains a lot; my taste in music, for one. I like things that sound honest, whether it’s a warbling poet or a drunken, hot mess diva, certain songs and singers and tunes just sound more honest than others. I’m all about shit that comes from the gut (where else would shit come from?). I value honesty in art and everything else. I think I’m ok with that. I’d never want to write something I didn’t believe or just to appear contrarian. The people I love most are also this way. They may be utterly sweet or harmless pricks, but they are who they are. Honest to themselves and loyal to others. Keepin it real.

    I’ll keep writing; probably forever. Because that’s how I stay honest. Whatever it is I can’t say for fear of hurt feelings or appall or ridicule, I can write. This is probably why I write so much about religion and parenthood and career and angst and other things that tend to get bottled up. It’s my way of staying honest - setting the record straight. However far that takes me, it’ll be enough to keep me satisfied - knowing that I did the best with what I had and held onto some integrity of self along the way. It may not get me onto Page One of the NY Times, but it’s all I’ve got. And I think I feel pretty good about that.*

    *is it me or is all of this starting to get a little too “Sex and the City?”

     


  12. Chinks in the Armor

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    One morning, when I was 12, I stood waiting for my school bus at the bottom of the hill where Granalta Circle meets Kemp Lane. It was a crisp Maryland morning, still early enough to see the white fog of breath and the light grey sheath of morning dew atop the fields across the street. I was alone at the bus stop each morning as I was the oldest kid in the neighborhood (there were only 4 of us), and I usually just stood there fidgeting in my Redskins Starter jacket, pushing my glasses tight up against my face. This was the only method for keeping my glasses in place on my fat, flat, Asian face.

    My fat, flat, Asian face.

    I wasn’t aware of any of this at the time, my fatness or flat facedness or Asianness. Well, not in a self-conscious way, anyway. I knew I was different, but I was just a goofyass kid. I had scored some major cool points in 6th grade by writing an original horror story about a family that had their limbs cut off and stuffed into pizza boxes and delivered to their relatives as free pizza (because, hey, who doesn’t love free pizza?). Not only was I writing for an audience, I was also performing quite a bit in the classroom. I once received a written referral citing my creation of “250 paper missiles and other spitball projectiles positioned in a threatening way to fellow students.” Another time I was made to sit out in the hall during science class because I kept pointing to an empty chair next to me and telling my friends to “come shit over here.” I once spent an entire math class miming as “Michael Jackson in a Box” from my desk at the back of the room.

    And that morning, waiting for the bus at the bottom of Granalta Circle, I was just another goofyass 7th grader waiting for the bus. The bus was a crazy place. My middle school shared a parking lot with my high school and so, the district thought it only made sense to pack petrified 11 year olds alongside 19 year old redneck ‘super seniors’ who’d had their driver’s license revoked for conducting ‘hillbilly drive bys’ with their BB guns, all in one yellow school bus. This is all true. And for the fifth year in a row, I was the only non-white person on the bus.

    When the bus finally arrived that morning, I climbed aboard and found it unusually quiet, even for a Monday. Our bus driver, Mehrle DuVall, usually had country radio playing in the background, but he was in no mood that morning. I quickly surveyed the scene: the eighth grade girls doing their hair up front, as usual; the 6th graders huddled three to a seat hugging their clarinets; the high school couples dry humping at 6:47 in the morning; and the aforementioned super senior rednecks in the last three rows. I usually sat with my friend Colin somewhere in the teens, but that morning, I saw Colin’s pale arm shoot up and wave me to the last row - he had been accepted by the rednecks! My face lit up as I made my way back; there was always unspeakably awesome mischief taking place beyond row 25, or at the very least, candy. 

    I sat down next to Colin and kept quiet. I had no idea how he got the invite back there, but I wasn’t gonna blow it. I fidgeted some more with my jacket - it kept puffing up in the middle, and I cleaned my glasses with the Redskins shirt I had on underneath (we had just beaten the Giants on Sunday). I still couldn’t help but wonder what Colin had done to move up (back?) the social ladder so fast. After silent deliberation, I decided it was the condom-as-a-skullcap bit he did on Friday that put him over the top. Yep, condom as a skullcap, it’s exactly what it sounds like. The hicks LOVED that.

    So there I was, wedged into row 28 with my knees up against the back of row 27, listening to Alpha Redneck talk about how he was building a wall of beer (“burrr”) cans in his shed. He had fresh welts on his face and arms; apparently from a game of paintball war he plays with his brothers except instead of paintballs, they shoot copperhead BBs at each other. “Paintball is fer pussies,” he said. He looked hungover.

    The bus hit the wavy part of Shookstown Road and Alpha Redneck slowly turned his neck a full 90 degrees to stare straight at me while keeping his shoulders awkwardly square with the seat. I avoided eye contact at first, but flashed a bashful smile and raised my eyebrows.

    "What’re you doin back here (‘hurrr’)?” he asked.
    I just shrugged, unable to speak as my mouth was suddenly deathly dry.
    "This bus is white man only, don’t you know?" 

    His tone was obnoxious and laced with a hint of sarcasm beneath it. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, he always sounded like that. Like Stifler making the jerk off gesture.

    And suddenly, before I could respond, he said it: “no Chinks allowed.”

    I gave a nervous chuckle and looked away. I was scared and I immediately sensed my brain trying to process the situation. The only thing I could surmise was that I had somehow never known the meaning of the word “Chink” until now. Why did I think it applied to Mexican people? Was it ‘Chico’ that I was confusing it with? Chicano, maybe? Wasn’t A.C. Slater Chicano? Is ‘Chink’ supposed to imply that I’m Chinese? He knows I’m not Chinese, he’s asked me before. In fact, just last week he kept referring to me as ‘Koreanese.’ I distinctly remember not knowing how to feel because I had no idea what the intended effect was. Is he joking? Is he gonna pick me up by the collar of my puffy Starter jacket with his huge, hay-bucking hands and kick my Koreanese ass? I knew it wasn’t the “N word,” but I knew it was derogatory. At least, I thought it was meant to be derogatory. No one had ever called me that before. Could Alpha Redneck really be that unabashedly racist and stupid?

    So I just chuckled. That’s all I could do. Chuckle like a harmless, cowardly, little Chink. Chinks don’t fight back. Chinks act like they didn’t just hear that word come out of your mouth. Chinks sit there and chuckle, quietly. Stupid, scared, little Chink.

    Alpha Redneck looked right between my eyes, at my fat, flat, Asian face and he said, “yeeaaah I thought so.”

    Then, suddenly, he shot up like a prairie dog and pointed to the window, “Holy shiet! Look at that buck! Thas at least a 10 pointer right thurr!”

    I was saved by a fucking deer. Durrrrrr.

    image

    Almost 18 years later, I think back to that morning and what it meant. I remember wanting to cry in the moment, but not because it hurt me; I just didn’t know what to do with it. Maybe it was the impetus for my fascination with words and my irreverence towards race. Maybe it was the day I started classifying everyone in the world as either “stupid motherfuckers who don’t know what they’re doing and saying” or “cool people.” Maybe it was just another one of a billion odd and wonderful things that happened to me in Frederick, MD.

    Last week, ESPN.com went with the headline, “Chink in the Armor,” when the Knicks lost and Jeremy Lin had a bad game. I chuckled. It was the first time I’d heard the word since 7th grade. The first time I recall, anyway. I wasn’t offended. In fact, my first instinct was to laugh my ass off. And when my wife heard about it the next morning, I told her I was certain the writer made an honest mistake as “Chink in the Armor” has become a rather boring, but common idiom in the American sports vernacular. (I swear this was my reaction! My wife will vouch for it! PLEASE BELIEVE ME!!) Anyway, over the next few days, the requisite media shitstorm invaded my internet universe and even conjured up some of Jay Caspian Kang’s best writing. I still chuckle at the whole thing.

    I’m not 12 anymore and I don’t chuckle because I’m scared or confused. I chuckle now because I think a headline featuring an Asian basketball star that says “Chink in the Armor” is a pretty damn funny mistake to make. It’s better than a chuckle, in fact, it’s worth a full-throated laugh. Of course it’s not ok. Of course he should be fired. Of course we shouldn’t teach our children such words or values. Of course it’s hurtful and ignorant. Of course. But we’d all get on so much better if we’d just accept that racism happens. Yes, we’ve come a long way and we’ve all evolved so much in the last 20 billion years (Eminem! Obama! Tiger! Lenny Kravitz! Larry Bird! Jeremy Lin! ALF!!), but stupid racist shit still happens and it always will. Do you know why? Because there will always be somebody dumb enough to be ignorant or hateful, or both. There will always be stupid motherfuckers who don’t know what they’re doing or saying.

    But there doesn’t always have to be somebody on the other side being offended by them.

    In the case of words, victims are voluntary. They called him Chink. So what? Give em the finger and move on. It is beneath us, all of it: the chatter, the fight, the “one step forward, two steps back” essays. I’m more offended by the amount of time and credence given to the word than the actual word itself. It wasn’t wanton (wonton?) discrimination. Jeremy Lin wasn’t denied the right to vote or told to use the Yellows Only bathroom. It was just a stupid word. Laugh it off and move on. Just laugh because it’s all so absurd, especially in this day and age. Laugh, and it loses its power. Laugh, not because you approve, but because it’s so stupidly wrong that anyone who attempts to hurt you with such words looks utterly stupid and wrong. Laugh, and make it “Chinks in the Armhair.” Laugh, and it loses its power. Laugh, and we become bulletproof. Laugh, and we eliminate chinks in the armor.

     

  13. This is me. Well, no, those are my feet, but you get the picture. This was me five years ago at the southern edge of the Grand Canyon. I was driving cross country with a friend from LA to MD after quitting what I had foolishly considered a dream job as a youth pastor. I was 24 years old and recently engaged. I had a useless bachelor’s degree in sociology and the only marketable skills I had were making delicious cold cut sandwiches and bullshitting.

    I was penniless, blowing my $2,200/mo paycheck on a $1200 apartment in Anaheim, $450/mo in car payments and a mountain of school loans. I was unemployed, moving back in with my parents, and applying to fine food establishments like Joe’s Crabshack and the Cheesecake Factory. Thank god for Cheesecake Factory. My goal was to make $200 a day by working both lunch and dinner shifts. I never made that much, ever.

    I had no idea what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to teach, but couldn’t afford to take time off for another degree. The wedding date was already set. I was a reluctant commodity at my local temp agency who sent me through half a dozen cubicle spaces in a span of 8 weeks. Somehow I wound up at a great consulting firm that’s provided more than enough these last four and a half years.

    The strange thing about that time 5 years ago? I was never scared. I wasn’t stressed. I can’t explain it now and I couldn’t explain it then. I just knew things would work out. Because when you find yourself on the edge, you jump and hustle your way back up. You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you. I’ve learned that whether I’m serving strawberry lemonade at Cheesecake Factory or evaluating hospitals with the former Under Secretary of the VA, it’s hustle and kindness that get me through (contrary to the notion popularized by the movie, hustle and flow are pretty useless outside of the music and prostitution industries).

    There’s no reason to be intimidated. Whether the pursuit is creative or corporate, grind it out. Do work. Hustle and I’ll be just fine. Be a decent human being in the process and sky’s the limit (Sky’s the Limit is an example of a song that has both hustle and flow). I’m on the edge again and I’m ready to jump to another bottom. I’ve got more to lose this time and the fall feels steeper, but I’m not scared. There’s more fear dangling on the edge than there is looking up from the bottom. I don’t fear the bottom. I used to [barely] live off $2,200 a month in Orange County. I used to live with my parents and serve cheesecake to 15 year olds before homecoming. I once bought an engagement ring on a credit card with a 5 year payment plan. I can still hustle. I can still work. I can still create.

    Just jump.

     


  14. Atheism 2.0 and The Common Community

    Christianity, and other collective mythologies founded on faith in a mystical deity are flawed. (<- Early contender for the most obvious sentence of 2012 award) The highest form of faith is believing in something that can ultimately be disproved. The more impossible the belief, the stronger the required faith. This is irrational and certainly not a virtue. For the purposes of this screed Faith = faith in a god. 

    Faith is not a virtue - simply having it doesn’t make one a better person. For many, their morality is steered by faith and religious doctrine, but in no way is faith a prerequisite to moral living. Faith, however, does make one more hopeful. Faith spurs a hope that something bigger and smarter and better is in control or has the power to change our present or future reality. Faith may lead to hope that we’ll all somehow get what we deserve after death. In that hope, people find comfort, but it is not truth. Faith enables hope (good) but it also requires us to believe that which may or may not be true (bad). The Apostle Paul affirms this in Hebrews 11:1: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

    Hope can be a positive life force when we strive towards the improbable (e.g. beating illness, trying hard at anything worthwhile, etc…), and it can show itself in many forms, but it is certainly not exclusive to faith (in god) or spiritualism.  

    For the past several years, I’ve been struggling with this question of why I still attend church and participate in my religious community despite my apostasy. I don’t believe in the Christian teaching of God or soteriology. And while I’m open to the possibility of anything and everything existing in the unseen realms of energy and death, I certainly don’t have much belief in a heaven or a hell or reincarnation or all of us returning to planet Melmac. Upon death, we may become worm food or wormholes, I really have no idea.

    But the church is what I know and what I love. It’s where I’ve met some of the best people in the world (and some of the worst). It’s where I’m comfortable and accepted. It’s a place that makes me feel needed and useful. It’s somewhere I can ponder bigger things in life and establish deep, meaningful relationships with others. These are the reasons that keep me coming back, despite hearing things about “relationships with Jesus” and how “God is in control” that make me want to claw my eyes out. 

    So, imagine if churches, in their current structure, were to acknowledge that faith was flawed and our own mythologies were no more “truthful” than anything else. How do things change? What does a church look like without the doctrines of our collective mythology? What if we kept all the undeniably positive aspects of religion and threw out the mysticism? Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a community like that? 

    The 5 C’s: Things I love about the church now.

    Constancy: knowing who will be there, the routine and order of service, steady location, consistency of environment and atmosphere, knowing what I’m getting into
    Comfort: comfortable surroundings, old friends, welcoming, non-judgmental environment where I can be and express myself, a place to be away from burdens of the workweek - a place to unplug
    Connection: seeing familiar friends, meeting new ones, a perfect level of interaction for “acquaintances,” eating together, familial support, collective joy/grief, a place where it’s not weird (rather encouraged) to make a “deeper” connection with people - generally unavailable in the workplace, a safe place to bring children and meet like-minded parents, sharing/venting concerns and helping find solutions for them, having the sense of a shared, collective purpose/cause 
    Creativity: opportunity to hear and play live music, learning through lectures/talks/stories/sermons, hearing new ideas and reaffirming old ones, high-tech showmanship (sound systems, computers, projectors, etc…), artistic expression/interpretation of shared values/beliefs, challenging intellectual discourse, 
    Collaboration: working on projects as a group to tackle a problem or organize an event for the common good, having an elected, hierarchical leadership structure that leverages individual talents/passions, sports/games/activities bonding through conflict/adversity

    If we were to build a formal community that cultivated the 5 C’s I’d be all in. I already am, we just have that whole “Jesus is God” thing that irritates me. A community like this would not be immune to all the negative characteristics of any group: discrimination, gossip, conflict, etc…, but with the right alchemy and leadership it could evolve into a community that seeks the common good. I wouldn’t call it a church either, I’d call it the Common Community. Imagine attending a TED conference every Saturday. TED is the first thing that comes to mind when visualizing the Common Community. Someone like Chris Anderson would be the “Pastor.” The cultivator and leader. The facilitator. The Pastor is integral to the success of the community, but he is not the sole source of knowledge. He curates more than he creates. A true communal learning experience. Ok, I’m getting excited now. 

    Elements of the Common Community:

    1. No more sola scriptura: Eliminate reliance on the Bible or any other religious doctrine as the sole source of truth. Lectures/talks can reference anything that holds observable truth or otherwise presents itself as theory. 
    2. Love Rules: Exploration of love and compassion as the highest principles and virtues - not faith
    3. Observation, not explanation: Exploration of science and the beauty and mystery of our world through observation - not mysticism
    4. Speak Well: Compelling speakers, experts in various fields speaking with authority
    5. Get Real: Discussion of real societal problems and how our community can help
    6. No Such Thing as Blasphemy: Irreverence for dogma, reverence for our community and shared values
    7. The 5 C’s: cultivate all the great things about religion, without requiring faith

    _____

    Update (1/17/12): So I wrote all of that ^ while suffering a bout of insomnia last week. Today, TED (speak of the devil), released a brilliant talk by Alain de Botton who is making way more sense than I am. Atheism 2.0. So brilliant.