Friday, February 24, 2012

Lent This Year

We go forth on the path eternal, and as condemned,
with downcast faces, present ourselves before the only God eternal.
Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth?
Where then is the glory of this world?
There shall none of these things aid us, but only to say oft the psalm:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
"Funeral Ikos," John Tavener*

As of Wednesday, it is Lent for the Western churches. This year, I am joining a group of friends in adopting the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Lenten fast.

Let’s back up slightly. What is Lent? I’m from a church background that does not observe the Christian calendar very thoroughly; we pay attention to special days like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, but there tends to be little emphasis on the seasons of the year that lead up to those things, the times of preparation for those special days. That is to say: I am probably not the best person to ask about what Lent is. Because Lent is one of those times of preparation.

Lent, to my understanding, is the season when Christians are called to consider and prepare for the death and the Resurrection of Christ, a pair of events commemorated on Good Friday and Easter, respectively. In order to prepare ourselves, we are called to reflect on the meaning of those events in our daily lives, and we do so for the 40 days before Easter. In order to remind ourselves to reflect, we practice self-denial, usually of food like meat (traditional) or chocolate (one popular choice among many). The idea, I think, is that if you are regularly forced to avoid doing something that you normally do all the time, the sudden jolt of unfamiliarity (Whoa, I can’t eat meat today! etc.) will stop your routine mental process and allow you to consider Christ and His sacrifice for the world, and for you.

But Lent, for many people, is something besides that. For me, it has often, I dare say usually, been a simple test of the will. Can I beat a 40-day challenge? Can I really give up something I like a lot (usually soda or meat) and still be happy? I think a lot of folks treat Lent in primarily this way: a contest with themselves. There’s also a certain showmanship or attention-seeking that goes on: people share what they’re giving up with each other and are often proud of it, and this social element becomes a reason to “do Lent” in itself. I also have treated Lent in this way.

So Lent is many things to many people. In fact, in its function as a test of will with external boundaries, it’s at least moderately popular among non-Christians—I know several who are giving up something this year. It’s sometimes tempting to cast disparagement on those who use it for purposes other than its original Christian liturgical purpose of self-preparation and reflection, but I won’t, because I’m not blogging to disparage people. Plus, Jesus said this:

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.

And far be it from me to ignore His advice on this or any matter.


Let’s return to the Eastern Orthodox Lenten fast. First, what is it?
To my understanding, the traditional fast in the Eastern Orthodox church is a fast from meat, animal products, and olive oil. I haven’t figured out why just olive oil, but there you go. There are also portions of Lent at which one, if one is able, fasts from food entirely for as much as several days at a time. The idea behind the fast, in addition to creating an avenue to reflection, is to literally clean out one’s body, to eat the simplest, healthiest fare and become purer physically thereby, in readiness to meet with Christ after the Resurrection. Again, though, I am no expert in these matters.

So, then, why are my friends doing this, and why am I?
A number of my friends have been exposed to Eastern Orthodox practice over the last few years in a couple ways. First, a large number of us have actually been to Eastern Europe on missions trips to places like Russia, Moldova, and Georgia. Those of us who have gone have gotten to see in person a different way of practicing our own faith, to experience the beauty and strangeness of it. One friend actually converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity on this side of the water, so we’ve had cause to consider its practices and rituals through our contact with him.

In being exposed in these ways to the practices of another part of the Church, we see what is missing in our own part. We grew up without things like mandatory fasts, or even things like communion or baptism. Ours is a church without many rituals or sacramental practices. We make a few key outward signs of our faith, but we do not commemorate the most important time of the Christian year with anything particularly special. The specialness, the set-apartness of this time, Lent, for other churches is moving and attractive to us. So we seek to make it our own.

I wonder if the adoption of another church’s practice is a mark of insecurity about our own church, or of dissatisfaction with the way in which our church functions. Perhaps growing up without much in the way of ritual in our faith has made us long for the comforts and beauty and access to meaning that ritual provides. I know that it has made me long for them, sometimes.

*Note: this music is one of the only pieces of music from the Orthodox tradition that I know of. It is also very, very beautiful. The rest of the lyrics are here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

It's My Birthday, Let Me Tell You About It

Music for this week:
Kangding Qingge (Old Timey Dance Party), Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet

It's my birthday today, so I'm going to record what it's been like for me to turn 25.

Every year since a long while now, I've had friends who had birthdays in close proximity to mine, and we've celebrated them jointly. This year was no exception, though the full complement of friends was not there, sadly, since several have moved to the coasts. My roommate and I, however, invited all the friends we could think of to our house to celebrate with us--she a day after, me six days before the actual birthday. We ordered massive amounts of pizza, ate people's baked goods, chips, dips, and other things. I drank about three root beers from glass bottles, my favorite thing. My roommate and I opened all our presents in front of everyone; she got mostly books (typography, visual art, comics), I mostly DVDs (Star Trek VI & Star Trek [JJ Abrams reboot], Venture Bros., Black Orpheus) as is fitting for folks with our interests. We somehow convinced all thirty-or-so people to play a party game together, The Bowl Game (Three Part Charades), and though it only lasted one round, we all had fun.

I've never managed to bring multiple groups of friends together to one party; I'm not a great party host (yet) and when I do have parties, it tends to be for just people I know from work, or from church, or from school. This party was the first real exception, and it was awesome. Making an introduction where you know each person is going to be happier for knowing the other is a fantastic feeling, and this party was the place for that. That feeling alone made turning 25 feel special.

Here are some other things that has made this birthday great so far: friends who realized they couldn't make the party all collaborating to take me out to a delicious dinner, cards from the grandparents, a joint valentine/birthday card & gift (traditional) from my parents, cupcakes and books to borrow from a friend at work (some long-form non-fiction, which I've been meaning to read more of but needed suggestions for), and the anticipation of a short road trip to camp with a friend this afternoon, of seeing my non-Chicago-residing sister at camp this evening, and of a bro-sis movie night with my Chicago-residing sister next week. Truly, it is good to be 25.

I'll end with this, a great thing a friend wrote about me for everyone to see; it made me feel special on my birthday (warning, minor inside jokes ahead):

Here are some facts about James:
1. FACT: James writes sweet lists about his friends and family on their birthdays. I am shamelessly stealing this idea from him.
2. FACT: James used to sit in the elevator of our dorm on Saturday nights with his guitar and play beautiful music for drunk people. Whenever he got a request, he would say mysteriously, "I don't play songs, only music." It was badass.
3. FACT: James is a seriously funny guy (cf. The Shea Butter Joke Incident of 2010).
4. FACT: James has a gift for the epigram. For example, he once consoled me by pointing out that "every breakup is different; each one is its own unique snowflake of pain."
5. FACT: James has impeccable taste. Without him, no one in Hale House would have discovered the crazy magic of Andy Palacio's "Watina."
6. FACT: He's a straight-up, all-around, off-the-charts nice guy. James, you're a swell dude and we're lucky to know you. Happy birthday, buddy.

Note: The Shea Butter Joke went as follows. What the heck is a shea, and how does it give us butter? Is it a sea creature? It sounds like a kind of shellfish to me. I can see it now, the traditional shea farmer/diver, speaking to his child, "Come, son, it is time to rise, don your wetsuit and scuba gear, and go forth into the sea to milk the mysterious shea of the deep, that we might have its butter to rub on our hands." This I generated on the spot at my friend's house on the sight of a bottle of shea butter soap, to the surprise and amusement of both of us.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Love is a Challenge: An Identity Crisis in Four Reels

Hey, you ain't never met a fool like me before,
You ain't never met a fool like me before,
They told you all romantic fools had died,
I'm here to tell you that they lied.

You can't be always right my friend,
Come on and tell me I got it wrong again.
"Fool Says," M. Ward

This week has been madness, so instead of penning some ruminations on life as it is, I will instead share a story that I wrote for the open mic at my friend's house this week. Enjoy.


The trouble all starts with the second date. The first date was awesome. We went to the coffee shop in the student center, got tea, talked about the things college kids talk about. I gave the guy at the counter my ID in exchange for some billiard balls, and we set up a game of pool. You ask, did she do the thing where she was all “I don’t know how to shoot pool…”? Yes. She did do that thing. And I did I do the thing where I was all “Let me show you…by putting my man arms around you to demonstrate”? Yes, I did do that thing. We had a great first date.

The second date, as I say, things start going haywire.

We go to The Snail for dinner. The Snail is the local Thai place (okay, it’s one of three Thai places in within literally a block of each other—and it’s the best one [chew on that, Thai 55 and Siam!]). It’s two blocks from my dorm, and whenever I’m too lazy/hungry to go to campus for food, I order crispy pad thai with chicken on the phone, walk over, and pick it up, bringing it back to my dorm to be eaten out of the box with a fork, accompanied by a Dr Pepper. I’m 19, and The Snail is the source and ground of all that is good. It’s a natural place for a second date with this pretty girl I met at a folk dance. It’s also closed today.

I salvage the date by proposing a viewing of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable.” It’s 2006, so Shyamalan’s record does not yet include the increasingly obtuse travesties Lady in the Water, The Happening, or Avatar: The Last Airbender. No, all he’s got are Signs, Unbreakable, the Village, and the Sixth Sense, each at least a solid film with some redeeming qualities, some actually pretty great, and all of them have super twisty McTwist endings that are so cool, man. “Unbreakable” is particularly dark and awesome, and the twist ending is going to blow this girl’s mind.

We watch the film. The twist ending happens. The credits roll. “Wasn’t that ending great? Didn’t it take you totally by surprise?” No, it did not. She figured out the twist ending less than an hour into the movie. She knew. And her mind is not blown. The date is not ruined, per se, but it wasn’t great, either. Next time, I think. We’ll have a great movie experience next time. I’ll pick something that’ll totally wow you.

It’s a month later. We’ve gone on a few other dates and done other cool things. I need an experience which will cement us together, the bond of some joyous, exciting thing that will make this girl think This guy is so great. We should hang out all the time. I need to seal the deal with the girl.

Much more than that, though, I need to salvage my reputation as a picker of high-quality date films. I grew up watching movies all the time. They were how I entertained friends, spent time with the family, or passed time by myself on nights or weekends. Being good at picking the right movie for a given social situation is something I pride myself on; it’s part of my identity. I need to redeem myself.

I see a movie listed in the schedule for the on-campus movie theater at our university. The movie is called “A Fist Full of Dynamite,” and it has everything I need to win the heart of a young woman for all time. First off, it’s got James Coburn, one of the coolest dudes anywhere (he was in “Charade” and “The Magnificent Seven,” playing a seriously kick-ass dude in both). Next, it’s directed by the legendary spaghetti western director Sergio Leone, of “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” fame, along with his best collaborator on the score, Ennio Morricone. Finally, it’s about the Mexican Revolution, which, as revolutions go, was pretty rad. What better way to seal the deal than with this obviously great date movie?

As it turns out, there are many better ways. “A Fist Full of Dynamite” is not a high-quality film. Its failure is in encapsulated nicely in the first scene of the movie. In it, a poor man hitches a ride with a really ritzy stagecoach. Instead of making sense, or finishing quickly, this scene spends a good three or four minutes focusing the camera on the rich people in the coach eating. Not just eating, but being really kind of disgusting, with juice dripping down faces and open-mouth chewing. It was gross. It was long. It was weird. And it was kind of boring. And so was the rest of the movie. (Sidenote: the soundtrack is awesome, if really, really weird. I listened to it all the way through while writing this.)

So the deal remains unsealed. The thought This guy is so great. We should hang out all the time does not pass through the girl’s head. But worst of all, I fail again to be a picker of good date movies. This must be rectified. A part of my identity is still at stake, and that cannot stand.

Soon after, the girl and I finally start seeing each other seriously. One night, I sit on a swinging bench with her and say, “Hey, would you like to, you know, go steady?” Later, we attend a throat singing concert on campus, holding hands in the dark auditorium, and I walk her back to her dorm, where I kiss her. (My memory tells me that I might have asked if that was her first kiss, and, getting the answer yes, I then apologized that her first kiss was from a guy with a beard. I sincerely hope that my memory is wrong. I don’t want to have done that.) In spite of our budding romance, the niggling thought remains: we still haven’t been on a good movie date, and it’s my fault.

Soon after, the girl has to go see a movie in French as an assignment for French class. There’s this movie in French that’s playing at the campus movie theater, and everyone says it’s supposed to be really good, so I suggest we go. This will surely break the trend in our movie watching, I think, some classy, elegant French cinema. It’ll be romantic, right? The French are all about romance. The string of bad movie dates is about to be broken. I can reclaim my rightful status as a picker of good movies.

The movie we end up seeing is Michael Haneke’s “Caché.” What I don’t know about this film is this: Michael Haneke is mostly known for making really, really unsettling movies that are very, very tense, with occasional flashes of brutal violence. “Caché,” it turns out, is no exception. The whole movie is about a man who gets these video tapes of his house, filmed on a hidden camera. The tapes come to his house, day after day, with no explanation. Over the course of the film, his family life begins to unravel and a forgotten conflict with a childhood friend comes to light. At the climax, he confronts his childhood friend, whom he has not seen in several decades, in the friend’s apartment, where—without warning or explanation—the friend kills himself on screen. To put it another way, this is how bad of a date movie this is: there is a scene in the film where my date curls up in the fetal position because of what happens on screen. It’s three tries in, and I have still not picked a good date movie.

More months pass. Our relationship consists mainly of sitting on the grass of the quad and reading out loud to each other, solving crossword puzzles, and playing two-person Risk, which is more fun than it sounds, but only just barely. I am happy. Or I would be, if I could just get this one thing right, and pick a doggone date movie worth watching. I give it one last shot.

It’s Oscar season, and we want to see something that’s been nominated. I pick, for reasons that remain obscure to me, “Brokeback Mountain.” While it is not the worst movie we ever see together, the fact remains that there is no good reason to take your girlfriend to see a movie about doomed gay cowboy romance. After this movie, we must have made an unspoken pact with each other never to go to the movies again: I, want to avoid further shame, and she wants to be spared, finally, the agony of my choices. Unspoken pact or no, we never see another movie together again. And I think that that was probably for the best.

Photo source:

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Story Lab Recording

Part of a series of Live Story Recordings.

Art by my friend Alex

Hey, everybody. Remember how a couple weeks ago I talked about reading a story of mine at Story Lab, and really enjoying it? I now have the recording of that performance, so if you want to listen in and hear the story, this is the place to do it.

If hearing this story sparks your interest, and you want to know more about the event that hosted it, check out Story Lab's website, where you can find out about upcoming shows, performers, and the growing Chicago storytelling community.