Advent Brooding

Advent came late this year. It started at the last possible minute, this past Sunday, which means we had a little extra time for post-Thanksgiving activities, like digesting entire green bean casseroles and writing people out of our wills, than in years prior.

Now, though, it’s time to get our collective acts together, and get ready for Christmas. Not by frantically shopping, baking, and shrieking (the traditional “Christmas in America” formula), but by settling in for some quiet reflection.

If you’ve been playing along at home, you know I traditionally stink at Advent. What is meant to be a period of watchful waiting has always been a time of intense, panic-filled, often smoke-filled,* weeks. Our culture makes it extremely difficult to find the quiet required by Advent, seeing as how the holidays arrive in stores on the heels of the 4th of July, and by this point in December, we could construct new dwellings from the flyers and catalogues that have been clogging up the mailbox since October. And don’t even get me started on that manic episode set to music that seems to be playing everywhere, Carol of the Bells…

(*Yes, I do realize that ovens have timers, thanks.) 

But this year, I have vowed to do Advent differently, and began by making the trek to a beautiful service of Lessons and Carols in the company of a dear friend. The choir was amazing, which is no doubt what inspired us to sing 80s music at the top of our lungs all the way home. (My extended remix of Adam Lay Ybounden wasn’t available, obviously).

Then, in the spirit of Advent peace, I chose not to respond to my friend’s text about his NFL team of choice beating my team of choice with the same level of snark that I would usually deploy. Proud of myself, I did feel the need to make sure he knew that I was sparing him the snark in honor of Jesus’ imminent arrival, just in case he failed to note my uncharacteristic restraint… but still, it was an Advent win.

images.jpgThe church teaches us that during Advent, we’re waiting for two things: the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the return of God to this world. Here’s a little something that my friend David wrote some years ago that explains the dual nature of Advent nicely:

This holy season is all about two “comings,” or two advents.

The first advent took place at the birth of Jesus — that great event that we will celebrate in a few weeks. The other advent is the second coming of Jesus into this world. When that will be, only God knows.

Thus, Advent is a time when we prepare to celebrate the first coming, but are also waiting for something else that has not yet come. The first coming, the birth of Jesus, was a message to all humanity that God had entered this world through Jesus Christ , who, because he died on a cross and rose from the dead, will come again. Jesus’ victory over death is what Archbishop Cranmer refers to as “the life immortal,” and what Paul, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, describes as “eternal encouragement and good hope.” Because God loves you and me, God came into the world in the form of a human being. Because God loves you and me, God is going to come again.

And so we wait…. But because of Jesus Christ, we can wait with a great sense of hope and expectation.images-7.jpgIn the creation story of Genesis 1, we’re told that God creates the world by breathing God’s ruach, or spirit, over the formless void of the universe. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (KJV Gen. 1:1-2)

There’s a particular sense of anticipation that exists in the darkness and the deep, the world without form. My Old Testament professor described it as a still, suspended state, the way a bird broods, sitting on the nest in quiet anticipation of the start of something new.

And while we are talking about particularly New Testament events when we talk about the birth of Jesus and the coming kingdom, that same sense of brooding, that quiet and still anticipation, that we find in Genesis 1 is present in our observation of Advent, when, as David wrote, we await the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also the arrival of something new, something anticipated, something not yet arrived.221776-Henri-J-M-Nouwen-Quote-The-Lord-is-coming-always-coming-When-youSo my wish for you, for me, for everyone we know, is that we find it in ourselves this year to celebrate a peaceful, quiet, brooding Advent.

And that we retain that sense of wonder, of expectation, of anticipation, of certainty, that something new and wonderful lies waiting on the horizon, long after the season of Advent has passed.

(In case you haven’t heard it in awhile, here’s Adam Lay Ybounden.)

On the Radio!

Today’s the day!

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Whether you’re cleaning up the mess your holiday houseguests left, lounging on the couch in a stuffing-induced coma, or putting up your Christmas tree, please tune in TODAY at 4:00 pm for a LIVE three hour show about THE RELIGION OF ROCK ‘N ROLL!

The show will be a look at what rock ‘n roll, that secular devil music, as it’s been called, has to say about the Bible. It will be a fun, interesting look at the Old & New Testaments, with music from The Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton…and many more!

Here’s what you need to know to tune in to any of the shows, which are listed in Eastern US time:

  1. Simply go to wwndfm.com 
  2. Click on the red Listen Live! button
  3. Click on the Play/Forward button inside the gray Web Audio Player box.
  4. Sit back and enjoy!

If you like what you hear, you can visit WWNDFM 103.9 on Facebook and leave a comment!

 

You’re Baader-Meinhofing Me.

You’ve experienced Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. It’s that odd occurrence when you hear some obscure factoid — say, for instance, that the bark of the redwood tree is fireproof — and then, bizarrely, find yourself encountering this information again and again.

Everywhere you turn, for no discernable reason, people are talking about redwood trees! Your neighbor casually mentions taking a trip to California to see the forests. Your dentist follows up his reminder to floss with a non-sequitur about tree bark. Your latest copy of National Geographic arrives and it’s all about how the  bark of the majestic redwood tree helps it resist wildfires!

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Here are some redwood trees, resisting fire. Cool, huh? Want to know why they’re fire resistant? Google that sh*t, kids.

You start to think, what the heck am I supposed to do with this information? Why, all of a sudden, is my entire life centered on redwood trees and their fire-resistant bark? I’m just trying to live my life here in inner-city Detroit, and there are no redwood trees here, fireproof or otherwise!

Scientists, as you’d expect, have an answer for us about why this happens.  

The key to Baader-Meinhof, they say, is that our brains seek out patterns in the world. In doing so, they de-emphasize things that don’t uphold those patterns, and overemphasize the occurrences that do. 

Fun fact: According to scientists, an unromantic bunch if there ever was one, this also explains why people in love repeatedly encounter the name of their beloved, or something they associate exclusively with him or her.  (Pffffttttt, science! We all know that happens because our beloved puts those reminders in our path!)

 

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Scientists. Smugly sucking the fun out of phenomena since always.

You won’t be surprised to learn that many scientists prefer the term “frequency illusion” to “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.” I think we can all agree that this is an example of a time when we should ignore scientists, because Baader-Meinhof sounds much, much cooler.  

Another neat fact is that the term “Baader Meinhof” comes from the surnames of two founding members of a West German domestic terrorism group. As the story goes, one of the scientists originally researching this phenomenon heard someone mention the Baader-Meinhof Group twice in a short period of time, and applied the name of the group to the syndrome. Tuck that little nugget away until you can use it in Trivial Pursuit.

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What’s got me thinking about Baader-Meinhof, though, isn’t redwood trees, or fireproof bark, or even scientists and how they keep injecting facts into everything and ruining our cockamamie theories that are much more fun. 

It’s this:

DON’T WASTE YOUR LIFE.

Why? Because I’ve had numerous conversations lately, with people older and wiser than I am, that all riff on this theme. Even the Wall Street Journal got into the act: the front page of the Off-Duty section this past weekend was “101 Things to Do Before You Die.”

As different as all these conversations were, they had some important themes in common. Like what, you ask? Well, that… 

Life is short.

The unexpected happens.

You shouldn’t put off …

making the change,

making the effort,

making the connection,

making the choice

….that you’ve slated for another day, because

tomorrow

simply isn’t guaranteed.

And, furthermore, even if you’re lucky enough to get the tomorrow you’re counting on, it may not look at all like you’ve imagined.

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Buddha. Thinking deep thoughts since the 6th century BCE.

If you’ve had the experience of losing a beloved friend or relative far too early, you already know that nothing — NOTHING — in life is guaranteed.

But what are you going to do with this knowledge? If you know that tomorrow isn’t a given, and your time here is short, and there are no do-overs…what are you going to do about it?

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You might seek a new pasture, even if getting there is tough.
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You might decide to be the driver of your life, not the passenger.
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You might attempt to reach new heights, even though doing so is risky.

This isn’t about advocating change just for change’s sake, or disrupting your life simply to disrupt it, or chasing money or fame or any other meaningless marker of “success.” It’s not about being perpetually discontented.

What it is about is being happy with where you are and what you’ve got, and counting your blessings on a daily basis, but also realizing that sometimes life brings it to your attention that you’ve gotten comfortable with something that isn’t quite right. 

Sometimes, the universe pushes you to the edge of a cliff, or shows you a different way, and says, “Okay, now what are you going to do? Will you retreat in fear, or leap and soar?”

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Look at you, soaring! It’s what you were created to do.

Weighing the opportunity cost of making a life change should begin with the potential upside, not the possible downsides.  

And when the potential upsides are great, the downsides diminish, and so does the fear that too often keeps us in a rut.

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Fear at the wheel: “I took a wrong turn somewhere, but I guess I’ll stay here. I’m used to it….”

The truth is, if you keep putting off going for the things that matter to you, chances are really good that you’re going to miss out.

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James: full of truth, but a bit of a downer as a dinner guest.

We all have areas of our life that need our attention, things we need to change. We all need to the occasional reminder that the “safety” of the known isn’t really safety at all, but rather the deceptively comfortable place where we slowly fade away. 

In the historical perspective of the universe, we’re only given a very short window of time to make our mark, to live well, to love one another, to be what we were meant to be.

That’s my Baader-Meinhof phenomenon of late.

A brain seeking patterns? Maybe.

Or maybe something more. 

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In Search of Stillness

Good grief, it’s hard to be still these days, isn’t it? 

The incessant torrent of bad news makes it hard to find the good in the world, much less focus on it, and with the outside world at Defcon 2 Agitation, it’s incredibly hard to be still.

But as we head into Thanksgiving, the challenge for each of us is to find a way to be still, and in that stillness, remember that there is a tremendous amount to be thankful for — an abundance of good, and plentiful evidence of God, in the world. 

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Could you slide over, Hestia? Persephone just got here.

When I was an undergrad, I had a professor who was passionate about Greek mythology.  In her opinion, there was a goddess for everyone! You could pick a deity from a mythological Greek buffet where goddesses waited patiently, wedged in between the souvlaki and octopus and moussaka, and model your life after her.

Be like Athena!” the professor would cry, coils of hair liberating themselves from her messy bun. “Strive for justice and fairness and wisdom! Be like Aphrodite, and own your sexuality!” 

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Nobody puts Aphrodite in the corner.

It was an exhausting class, not because of the requirements, but because of the sheer energy the professor expended at the front of the classroom.  Trying to keep up with her as she hopscotched from topic to topic, whirling and waving like Tigger in a cloud of wasps, was utterly draining.  

I was always hugely relieved to move on to my next class, taught by an esteemed professor of Literature who hadn’t actually moved in 32 years.

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Yeh…if you could dial back the bounce, that’d be great.

I can’t imagine that the Goddess Lover could ever be still, but even for those of us whose energy levels fall within social norms, it can be incredibly challenging to quiet our bodies and minds. 

You often see Psalm 46, verse 10 on plaques and signs:  “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”

The psalms, of course, are lyric poetry meant to be sung: poems of praise, thanks,  lament, and celebration. Psalm 46 thanks God for giving Israel a victory, and verse 10 appears to be a directive from God, instructing the Israelites to put aside their weapons and relax into the security that the Lord has provided.

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“Take five, guys. I got this.” — Yahweh

Ah, if only it were that easy!  Even if we can get physically still, turning off the brain requires disconnecting from the constant flow of bad news coming at us from all sides. 

Disconnecting is a challenge, but it’s also critical, because Defcon 2 Agitation is not only extremely bad for our mental and physical health, it also has a snowball effect out in the world: you’re aggravated by something you can’t control, your interaction with John Q. Public is brittle and edgy, JQP is now aggravated and turns around and takes it out on the next person he encounters, and so on and so on.

 

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So the first step is to give ourselves an intentional break – or at least set limits on – the amount of bad news we let into our lives, not because we want to be ignorant, but because (1) it’s possible to be aware of events without wallowing in them, (2) we have very little control over 99% of things happening in the world, (3) we recognize that smut sells and the media profits from it, and (4) we realize that our calling in this world isn’t to be pigs at the trough of unsavory, sensationalized, excessive stories masquerading as factual news, nor is it to take potshots at one another based on these same toxic treats, dished out by a society that feeds on trash .

Then what?

The seconds step is to remember that, even though our world seems to have gone mad, we are not the first people to feel that things are way, way off track.

The Old Testament, for instance, is full of times when the Israelites faced crippling doubts, disease, famine, captivity, defeat, occupation, drought and destruction. Distrusting Yahweh, they turned to other gods — more often than not, Ba’al, the god of their neighbors.

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Bow down and worship my flowing beard, and I will make your crops grow! #Ba’altweets

While most of us don’t veer off to Ba’al, we definitely wrestle with doubt, and want reassurance that in the midst of this madness, God is actually paying attention to our lives. 

But what if the proof of God’s attention is right under our noses, in all of the things we take for granted? What if we’ve grown so accustomed to the presence of the divine, we’ve forgotten to acknowledge it?

Forgotten to acknowledge the divinity of the human body, for instance, capable of strength and agility and beauty that boggles the mind… the natural world, whose grandeur pales only in comparison to its ability to provide for us….the ability to love, selflessly and grandly and generously, which causes us to risk our own well-being in the service of strangers… the capacity for reason and imagination that sets us apart from every other species and allows us to problem-solve and advance the common good…

Are these not evidence that God is fully invested in us?

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Whenever I need to be reassured of good in the world, I think — of course — of Robert Duvall. But that’s just me.

You might also think of people like Nicholas Winton, a London stockbroker who, in 1938, went to Prague shortly after Germany annexed the Sudetenland.  

Hundreds of Jewish families were living in refugee camps, with no programs or plans in place for the children. Recognizing the danger these children were in, Winton created, through bribes and secrecy and forgeries, a pipeline to get Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia and into safe homes in the UK.  

He organized and funded eight trains to carry the children to the foster parents he had selected. Seven of the trains made it, bringing 669 children to safety.

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Nicholas Winton, with a refugee child

Winton never spoke of his efforts, which had, of course, put him squarely in the sights of the Nazis. His wife only learned of them when she found a dusty record book in their attic in 1988.  Her husband urged her to throw the book and the paperwork it contained away, but she didn’t.  

The BBC did a story on Winton after his wife contacted a reporter.

When you are feeling bad about the world, and about humankind, take the minute and a half required to watch this short clip, and remember that it took 50 years for Winton’s work to come to light: Sir Nicholas Winton, BBC

With all due respect to my former professor, we don’t need goddesses to emulate.

And we don’t need more proof that God is with us, because if you look around, we already have it in the irrefutable truth that we have been granted this journey through life in the company of people like Nicholas Winton,  whose spark of the divine was a beacon to so many.

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Nicholas Winton died at the age of 106. I hope to have the honor of meeting him in heaven.

So when your mind is at Defcon 2 Agitation, and your thoughts are tied in knots, and your faith is as weak as thin ice, think of Nicholas Winton.

And know that in him, and in you, and in the world we’ve been given, God was and is and will forever be among us.

And then, resting in that knowledge, be still!

 

The Assbadger speaks!

Here at What’s Left Undone, I give my brother, the Snarky Assbadger, a whole lot of grief. I tell stories about him stealing my Halloween candy, loading my baby self into a wagon and pulling me down the street to leave me for good, running out of gas in the middle of eight lanes of Atlanta traffic, blowing up my Barbies, and throwing Snoopy onto the pool drain. 

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In this pic, I was tired of his shenanigans and thought he needed to get off my sidewalk.

But the truth is, he’s been making me laugh so hard I can’t breathe my whole life, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. He has also patiently gone over the instructions for how to start the weedwhacker /tractor/Jeep/mixer/belt sander/boat/Suburban/riding mower at least 100 times. In fact, I call him so often with “How do I…” questions that he no longer says “Hello,” but rather, “Whaaaaaaaattttt?” like Archie Bunker.

Today he sent me a birthday letter and told me I could use it on my “little blog.” So without further ado — except to mention that I’m older than he thinks I am, it’s not my birthday today (he likes to plan a few days out), and Lily Dale is community of mediums in NY State, from which I was recently ejected for not going along with the vaguely suggestive and leading questions posed by two of the mediums — Ladies and Gentlemen, The Snarky Assbadger speaks!

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It’s about damn time.

If I subtracted you from my life, if you had never existed, then my life might have been bittersweet as an only child, such as I was rightfully destined to be until one fateful ‘oops,’ when an erroneous conception changed history. 

For without you I would have reached maturity as a spoiled, limelighted wonder-kid.  Lavished with ancestral praise, certainly the preeminent main character of that droopy-eyed slocum village into which we were cast, carrying through with all the might of our paternal forebears, fulfilling my charter with all the grand ambitions of the hum-ho adorning any typical Pleasantville.

I do believe that you changed all that.

In our deductive search for That Which My Sister has Wrought Upon Me, let us gaze into that Lily Dalian crystal ball and see where I might not have gone a-wanderin’.  See the people I would not have come across, the true friends I would not have made.  The lovers I might never have had, left in scorched earth. The creations left uncreated, the laughs left unchuckled, the wounds never really healing.  Subtract these ingredients and you’d find a man without Reason, Wit, and Charm. 

I can be funny- which as it may sound boastful, is really more an acute acknowledgement of character (flaws) that I identify as having come from a life in the company of my dear Sister.  No one has shaped my wit more than you. This capacity to turn any thing- no matter the seriousness of the thing- into a belly laugh has sometimes saved our skins.  Sometimes it has gotten us deep in the shit, and sometimes carried us through tragedy but it is a shared wit, understood on a subliminal level and perhaps enjoyed by those around us (although do we always care?), sometimes not. But undeniable is the entertainment factor of making you laugh, from the time you were a snotty nosed baby.  It has been excellent training. It has served me well, and cost me a half-finger too.

Maybe the charm has gotten out of hand, and I’ve paid the price of your scorn in those instances.  But you have wonderful lady friends and I’ve honed my skills flirting with most (ok, all) of them.  I knew where the line was drawn and seldom stepped a toe across it.  That charm led to my beautiful wife, who was ready to marry me on our third date, blissful venture it has been ever since.

What is left, Reason?  I don’t even know how to properly tell this one.  So entrenched is my ability to think straight with what we’ve done, where we’ve been, and how we’ve looked back and pondered what the fuck just happened.  Suffice to say there would be a lot less head scratching and a lot more ass scratching if not for you.

I know at 46 or whatever you are, you feel older than a white dog turd but 46 is the new 42, so you have that going for you, right?  Just as long as you know you are very much adored by me, your OLDER brother.  Who appreciates the fact that life as I know it is infinitely better because of you.

Happy birthday, Bitch!

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This sums up our relationship perfectly.

*If you’ve got an Assbadger in your life — someone who will compare you to dog excrement, throw dirty socks at your head, Rollerblade through Central Park, and take your 3 a.m. “So I’m installing shelves and think I may have drilled into a water line?” calls — tell them how much you appreciate them today! Almost as much as I appreciate my very own Snarky Assbadger.

 

 

Hallowmania!!

This is the first year that I can ignore Halloween, and that makes me both sad and giddy.

Like weddings, funerals, Christmas and Sweet Sixteens, Americans have taken Halloween over the top. What used to be a fun evening — where you slapped on whatever dance recital costume still fit, or borrowed your dad’s flannel shirt to be a lumberjack — is now a festival of excess with preparations that rival an attempt to summit Everest.

 

 

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Oxygen? Check. Water? Check. Ice axe? Check. Costco bag of two thousand bite-sized Kit-Kats? Uh oh….Dammit, Bob! We’ll never make it, now!

Halloween candy has been available in the States since early July, when, promptly at midnight on the 4th, all yard flags and bunting were replaced with candy corn and fake blood by SWAT teams of Oompa Loompas.

And costumes have been available for months — even in stores that have no apparent connection to children, holidays, or dressing up.

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Look, Bob! I went in to buy Gam-Gam a replacement basket for her scooter, and got this adorable Grim Reaper costume for Bob, Junior!

I used to love Halloween, as a young kid. The Snarky Assbadger and I would dress up (as hobos. Every year.) and trek around the neighborhood.

As a 70s kid, you could count on certain things:

  1. That one weird, patchouli-smelling house where the Mom, who was “finding herself” and would soon run off to Vermont with her best friend Dorothy to live in a commune and throw pots, answered the door in a clay-splattered painting smock and gave out miniature boxes of raisins,
  2. The neighborhood Dudley Do Right who had decided to collect pennies for UNICEF instead of candy, and who acted all smugly superior about it until the neighborhood teenagers cornered him and stole his pennies to buy smokes, leaving him crying on the corner, staring miserably as his empty blue can,
  3. The neighborhood Dad who got hammered, put on an Evel Knievel jacket, and drove the family golf cart into a drainage ditch at top speed, only to be hauled out by the very same teenagers, who were indebted to him because he turned a blind eye to the fact that they routinely stole twelve-packs from his garage refrigerator.

Some folks gave out oranges, which was a bit of a let-down, given that our neighborhood abutted a citrus grove and we could have as many oranges as we wanted, all day any day, but mostly we got candy.

The old couple across the street, though, made doughnuts and apple cider for the kids every Halloween. But if you wanted some of that delicious cider and those sugary, warm doughnuts, you had to brave their snapping Chihuahua (the ironically-named “Sweetie,” a four-legged terrorist if there ever was one), and go into their living room to explain your costume. 

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“What are you this year, dear?”

This posed a creative challenge, because your mind wasn’t really on public speaking at the moment, and you’d forgotten to prepare any talking points, but you sure as heck didn’t want to miss out on the doughnuts.  So you did your best extemporaneous remarks:

“Well, I’m a hobo again, but this year, I’m a hobo who lives in a van down by the river, eating government cheese. Last year I was a hobo, too, but one that lived in an abandoned railroad boxcar and mainly subsisted on squirrels cooked over an open fire when the yard boss wasn’t looking. See the difference?”

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“Can I have some doughnuts now?”

After the candy-gathering was through, the Snarky Assbadger and I returned home to dump the spoils of our pillage into two enormous mountains on the living room carpet. Thus commenced what the Assbadger termed “Swap Shop,” but what I like to call, “A Grossly Unfair Advantage-Taking of A Younger Sibling Who Possessed Only a Murky Understanding of Economics.”

Typical trading went like this:

Assbadger: “Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m going to take this full-size Hershey Bar of yours, and give you these two Circus Peanuts. I don’t want to do this, because you’re getting two things and I’m only getting one, but I will.”

Me: “But I hate Circus Peanuts.”

Assbadger: “No, you hate Hershey bars. You said so last Halloween.”

Me: “No, I don’t! I love them.”

Assbadger: “Look, it’s almost your bedtime. You’re tired and not thinking straight. Let’s do this trade, and then move on to the Sweet Tarts before you get in trouble for staying up late. Mom said you couldn’t have Sweet Tarts, so what I’ll do is, I’ll take them from you so you don’t get yelled at.”

Me: “Wait – when did Mom say I couldn’t have Sweet Tarts?”

Assbadger: “I don’t know, it was part of some larger conversation about you not being her real kid. Whoa, look – wax teeth! You can have those and I’ll just add the M&Ms and Caramels to the Sweet Tarts I’m taking to make it fair. Here, give your bag to me and I’ll keep your candy safe while you go to bed. You’re welcome.”

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Circus peanuts! Now with colors not found in nature, and a texture that will make you question the existence of God!

When my own children were small, we lived on the Greatest Street Ever. Every house was occupied by families we loved, and on Halloween, we had a neighborhood supper, which — given the madness that ensued — was like NFL players eating before the Super Bowl: Carb-loading for endurance.

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Hurry up and pass the pasta, I hear kids.

To say that we “celebrated Halloween” on that street is a wild understatement. The amount of candy we gave out could have filled a Mack truck. Every yard was decorated to the nines, and packs of feral children roamed the neighborhood well past dark-thirty, as did their cocktail-toting parents. I loved Halloween then, even thought it was exhausting.

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A typical scene in an American home, post-Halloween madness.

I suppose, like so many things, my Halloween phase of life has passed. I’ll console myself by settling into my chair to watch It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, complete with surround sound and the bottle of wine I can afford to buy now that I’m not buying Halloween candy….

Some day, maybe I’ll muster the energy to be that old lady with the homemade doughnuts, demanding a back-story and a character arc from every kid in the neighborhood, but in the meantime, 

Happy Halloween, to all the parents out there!

Oh, she totally does!

I recently started reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, What the Dog Saw. One of the book’s essays is about the first ad campaigns for at-home hair color, and how those campaigns represent a significant shift in advertising to women.

As we all know, marketing to women used to be generally about shame.

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“My whorish painted lips are such a turnoff for Pete! If only I could find a color never before seen in nature, with the alluring texture of spackle…”

 

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“If my plane loses both engines, it’s important to me that a fetching young lass with a voice like a melody be the one screaming ‘Assume the crash position.'”
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“You unhappy, ugly, infertile women better resign yourselves to beating your laundry on rocks, because you’re not getting a damn thing.”

In the book, Gladwell tells the story of Shirley Polykoff, a junior copywriter in New York. Polykoff’s hairdresser had been lightening her hair since she was 15, and by the time Polykoff reached working age, she was fully blonde. She went to a Passover meal at the home of her boyfriend, and while the boyfriend’s father was warm and friendly, Polykoff received an icier reception from her boyfriend’s mother. Safely back in the car, Polykoff asked her boyfriend why his mother didn’t seem to like her.

Polykoff’s boyfriend told her that his mother thought Polykoff “painted” her hair — something no nice girl did! He repeated the question his mother had posed in Yiddish, which, translated, was: “Does she or doesn’t she?”

 

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“WHAT? No they don’t.”

You may recognize that as the tagline of the first campaign. To overcome the idea that only harlots and starlets colored their hair, the ad company went out of their way to use wholesome looking women to sell their product.

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“A mother and child on a bed of flowers? Gee, Bob. Maybe we ought to reconsider our stance that only whores use hair color?”

Some years later, L’Oreal was coming to America, and knew that gaining market share from Clairol wasn’t going to be easy. They needed a tagline that would elevate a woman’s decision to color her hair into something more than just a desire to look better. In a stroke of brilliance, their ad company decided to tie haircolor to self worth, and the “Because I’m worth it” campaign was born.

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“I will use anything — ANYTHING — as long as it’s expensive. Because I’m a superficial, shallow woman.”

If you’ve been reading along, you’ll know that here at What’s Left Undone, we are firm believers in dousing ourselves in Lysol every day in order to keep our hair smelling fresh. Furthermore, we fret all day long about our dishpan hands, and how they’re keeping romance at bay.  (Advertising our worries)

But Gladwell’s point — that at-home hair color marked a dramatic shift in how products were marketed to women — really came home to roost when I saw, for the first time, the new Dove campaign for deodorant.

 

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Have you seen these ads? Have you heard them?!  The voice over for the TV spots goes something like this:

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“Arm pits are amazing! Stupendous! Absolutely brilliant! In fact, armpits are the only reason to get up in the morning. And you, lucky consumer, you have TWO of them! Wow! You should be CELEBRATING your armpits EVERY MINUTE OF EVERY DAY, because they are truly the very best things ON THE PLANET!”

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ERMAHGERD!! ERMPITS!!

Really, Dove? Let’s dial it back a notch, shall we? 

There are plenty of things to celebrate about the human body. Like how it gets out of bed in the morning, even after you’ve thoroughly abused it with way too much beer and Indian food. Like how it allows some of us (not me) to run marathons and climb mountains. Like how you can give a kidney to a friend, and carry on living with only one, like you never wanted that other one in the first place. Like how you would rather stab a fork in your eye than go to an Aerobics class, but think nothing of jumping up and down for four and a half hours at a rock concert.

But armpits?

I thought I might be missing something, so I decided to do some research.

I asked myself that critical question: Should I be celebrating my armpits? And then I asked the corollary question: Are other people celebrating their armpits, and if so, how?

Herewith, my findings:

  1. My friends are not celebrating their armpits. They are working, raising children, and actively making the world a better place, but not one of them is celebrating her (or his) armpits.
  2. Taylor Swift occasionally celebrates her armpits.    images-11.jpg
  3. There is a website called Arab Armpit Lovers. I do not recommend it.
  4. There are numerous websites celebrating hairy female armpits. You do you, honey.
  5. Armpit tattoos are a major thing. I don’t know how I missed that.

 

I’m glad advertisers are no longer shaming women (for the most part), but I do think the whole ‘celebrate your pits’ campaign is a bit odd. What’s next? Celebrate that rough patch between your toes that doesn’t respond to any sort of cream, even the expensive, prescription-only steroid ones?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that even Dove realized it went too far, when the decision was made to pull the following piece of the current campaign:

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Maybe the good people of New Jersey were just too busy celebrating their own, personal armpits to appreciate the goodwill of this statewide ad celebration! That’s the only thing I can think of.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to tend to these hideous dishpan hands…

 

Feed your neighbor, or your ego?

It’s hard to feel happy these days, isn’t it?

The world seems to be in disarray, hatred and violence are the rule, and everyone on the planet seems to wake up feeling brittle and prickly and exhausted. We’re all stuck in our own little corners of certitude, demanding recognition out of one corner of our mouths, and lobbing verbal grenades out of the other. The connectedness and community that we all need has been replaced by individual silos constructed entirely of disdain, fear, and generalized derision.

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“Here comes my opinion! If you don’t agree with it, you’re obviously an idiot.”

I’ve been a silent observer to at least twenty different conversations in the past few weeks with people who cannot fathom, much less tolerate, that others might have legitimate and considered reasons for thinking differently than they themselves do. They’re willing to end friendships, isolate themselves from neighbors, and go to great lengths to avoid interacting with anyone they suspect — or know — might have a different way of seeing the world, possess a different set of values, or hold a different set of priorities.

Guess what, folks?

This isn’t a sustainable position, if we actually want to see things improve. We’re going to need to scoot over and make room for other people at the table.

And, furthermore, we’re going to need to check ourselves on what we’re putting out into the world. If we spend all day believing, and promulgating, the notion that people who hold different views than ours are idiots, or crazy, or unenlightened, or subhuman, or a**holes…well, we should anticipate a good bit of return on the investment we’ve made in being hateful. 

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Not all of these people agree with me, but yet they still find the will to live. Crazy, huh?

 

I’m not advocating in the least that we give up our desire to see change in the world. God knows, we need change, in about a hundred different venues.  

But the way to work for positive change doesn’t begin, or end, with taking potshots at people who don’t share our perspective. When we lob insults, pick and choose the facts that support our positions while ignoring anything that might add nuance to the context, and assume the worst of anyone who sees things differently than we do, we’re not actually working for change. We’re working for our own egos. 

 

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So, maybe we should come out of our bunkers, and acknowledge that other people exist. Admit that the universe didn’t begin in your birth or mine, and won’t end with either of our deaths. That you have a right to be here, no less than the trees and the stars, as Max Ehrmann wrote in the Desiderata, but so do I, and so does everyone else — even the people who don’t agree with you or me.

There are battles that are 100% worth being fought right now, but these fights cannot be won without finding common ground, and using that commonality as the foundation of further growth.

How do we find common ground?

Well, first we stop lobbing grenades. And then we focus our energy on positive engagement with our fellow man, which requires that we stop seeing the world as a zero-sum game, in which I win and you lose, or you win and I lose. When we value our neighbor — who is as flawed and scared and scarred as we are —  as much as we value ourselves, we all win.

History has taught us that progress requires connection, not isolation. Social progress requires mutual respect, acknowledgment of our interconnectedness, and open communication — not respect limited only to those who fall in line with our thinking, and connectedness only with those who echo our own beliefs, and communication only with those who see the world as we do. 

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Are you contributing to a solution, or exacerbating the problem? In other words, are you feeding your neighbor, or feeding your ego? 

But maybe you’re really bogged down, and have stock-piled so many grenades that you can’t imagine leaving them unused.

If that’s true — if you can’t, or won’t, see that your own dignity, not the recipient’s, is being actively compromised by hateful rhetoric or snide remarks or pejorative online commentary, then reconsider your contribution to the current toxic fog for selfish reasons:

Every day you spend in hate and anger is one less you spend in joy and love.

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Thankfully, today is a new day. A day when we can resolve to actively seek the good in others. A day when we can listen, rather than speak. A day when we can step out into the world without fear that our neighbor’s differing perspective makes ours any less worthwhile. A day when we can lower our defenses, and reach out to someone in compassion. A day when we can disassemble our silo, and re-establish community.

Give the Desiderata a read; there’s some good advice in it. And for God’s sake, put the grenades away. They’re not helping.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Read it. Heed it.

“It’s not enough to read the writing on the wall. You also have to heed it.” 

This is the phrase that’s been running through my head lately. I’d like to tell you that it was said by someone great — a poet or statesman or Robert Duvall or at the very least Oprah — but I said it. (However, if Bob Duvall wants to take credit, that’s fine by me. Call me, Bob.)

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Sometimes the writing on the wall is complicated, and requires a stepstool.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because, in the last week, I had to make a difficult decision to cut myself loose from more than one thing I’d thought was going to be great.

Deciding to change course is a painful process, isn’t it? We put so much hope in a particular job or opportunity or place or relationship, and then… things just don’t work out. The writing on the wall — those words that say, “This isn’t going to end the way you wanted it to” — become clearer and clearer, until, finally, the message is unavoidable. We can’t help but read it. 

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Sometimes the writing is large. And terrifying.

“The writing on the wall” comes to us from the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel. In Daniel 5, Belshatzar the king is giving a huge banquet using the golden goblets and plates and chalices his father stole from the Temple in Jerusalem. 

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Here’s how Frans Francken painted Belshatzar’s feast. So sumptuous! (Editor’s note: Frans Francken would make a great band name.)

 

In the middle of the feast, a hand appears out of the ether and begins writing on the wall of the banquet room. Belshatzar, understandably, is a bit taken aback. Check out his face, as Rembrandt painted it:

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“What the what?”

He freaks out, and, knees knocking, calls in his soothsayers and magicians to interpret the writing. But they can’t make anything of it. Belshatzar freaks out a bit more, and then he queen comes in, all reasonable and calm. She tells Belshatzar to be cool, because she knows a guy.

Daniel, captured by Belshatzar’s father in Judah (along with the plates), is a prisoner.  The king orders him to come in, and Daniel interprets the writing to mean that the king’s reign is coming to an end:  “This is the interpretation of the matter: mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; tekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Dan.5:26-28)

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Here’s an icon of Daniel. Please admire his righteous mullet.

None of this was good news for Belshatzar, and thus, “the writing on the wall” has been handed down to us to mean signs and omens that don’t bode well for a successful outcome. 

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MENE, MENE,  TEKEL, UFARSIN. In other words, pack your bags, Belshatzar.

How many times have you seen the writing on the wall, but dithered about heeding it?  “Well,” we tell ourselves, “If I overlook the first and third words, and move the fifth in front of the fourth and reverse the letters in the ninth, maybe things won’t be so bad.”

That’s the wrong way to go about it, because you inevitably end up looking back from a place of regret, wishing you’d pulled the plug earlier, or changed course, or seen things as they really were, and not as you wished them to be.

When the writing’s on the wall, the trick is to read it, and heed it.

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Another representation of Daniel. I like the cherry on top of his head sundae.

If what you are giving your time, or money, or love, or life to isn’t working, it’s time to re-evaluate. And as you do, remember this story from Australia, and “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying:”

Bronnie Ware, the book’s author, worked in palliative care, where the primary aim is relieving the pain and stress of dying. Based on the experiences of her patients at the end of their lives, Ware compiled the five biggest regrets her patients admitted:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. According to an interview Ware, this was the most common regret. Ware said, “Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.”

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship,” Ware said. “All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. Ware said, “Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. “There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved,” Ware said.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. “Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice,” Ware said. “They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

 

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Is the writing on the wall warning you away from any of these regrets? If so, it’s time to take heed!

Lizard Lessons.

I just re-watched The Night of the Iguana, a film based on a Tennessee Williams play. The first time I saw this film, I had pneumonia (the walking kind, which is nice, since I like my illnesses to be mobile).

Minus the fever, I like the film even more. There are mariachi-wielding, hot-blooded Latin men, lovely scenery, great actors, a superb script, and yes, an iguana.

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Oh, look! There he is!

 

Richard Burton plays an Episcopal priest who is in serious trouble for having an affair with a teenager. He’s recently been released from a psychiatric hospital and found employment leading a tour group. He’s a pretty awful tour guide.

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Before, when he was still a man of the cloth. You can tell he’s teetering on the edge, can’t you? 

Suffice to say, the tour group doesn’t think much of Burton, and Burton himself is having a bit of a mental breakdown. What’s nice is that he’s made his way to his old friend Ava Gardner’s seaside hotel in Mexico, which turns out to be a good place to fall apart.

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Palm trees make a lovely backdrop for a personal unraveling.

Due to his outlandish behavior, and for his own safety, in one scene Burton gets trussed to a hammock. He’s whining, playing the victim, lamenting how heavy his burdens and how tough his life are, but Deborah Kerr, who’s a guest at the hotel, is having none of it.

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That’s Richard tied up like a Turducken. Deborah Kerr is in the flowing dress with the fetching bow at the neck.

Deborah Kerr obviously likes Burton, but he can’t imagine why she does, since he’s such a mess. He says something to the effect of, “I’m broke, spooked, and unemployed; what could you possibly see that’s good in me?”

(Here’s where it gets profound.)

Deborah Kerr answers,”Why, those are just your circumstances — not who you are.”

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Her words are kind, but her face says,”Snap out of it before I flip this hammock!” Never mistake a Peter Pan collar for weakness.

Let that sink in: Those are just your circumstances, not who you are.

 

 

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Ava Gardner’s character is in dire straits. She’s a widow, her hotel is falling apart, she loves Richard Burton’s character, and her house band plays aggressively sexual mariachi. Although, come to think of it, that’s last one’s not much of a problem for her…

It’s often so difficult to see beyond our circumstances, and to remember that they don’t define us. Illness, divorce, un/underemployment, natural disasters, financial concerns, accidents, betrayal, family woes, spiritual poverty, legal troubles….these things get us in their merciless grip, and make it hard to remember that we are more than whatever is going ass-end-up at the moment.

When I was in elementary school, my best buddy’s mom had cancer. She lost the fight, and her funeral, the first I ever attended, was gut-wrenching.  I visited her grave years later, and this is what’s written on the center of her headstone:

I am this, and I am more.

It took me thirty years to understand what I think she was trying to say: that none of the circumstances of her life — including the horrible cancer that ended her time on Earth — were who she was. They were just her circumstances, and they didn’t define her. 

It’s discouraging to hear so many young people today defining themselves by their various ailments and woes. Yes, some of them have been through seriously trying times…but wouldn’t it be better to rejoice in the fact of survival, rather than dwell on the difficulties?

Wouldn’t it be better to realize you are more than the worst thing that’s happened to you — and that nothing that happens in your life, not even the very worst thing, defines who you are, or how you should interact with the world?

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Rejoicing that you are strong, resilient, and ALIVE may involve mariachis. You do you, sweetie.

Deborah Kerr and Richard Burton and Ava Gardner are all long gone, as is Tennessee Williams. But take it from them, and spare yourself being tied to a hammock: You are not defined by the circumstances of your life.

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Ava Gardner making the best of her  mariachi band burden.

Yes, life can be unfair. Unkind. Unbelievably difficult. 

But this is your one go-round here, and none of that crap makes you YOU.

You are this, and you are more.

And that’s something to celebrate!

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I swear to God, Frank, when I find the mariachi-playing idiot who tied me up like this…