Sunday, September 30, 2012

Post Travel Cleanup.

I've been on the road for a while. I started out in June with a short trip to Oregon. After a weekend in Tacoma, I went to Texas for three weeks. Then from Texas I went straight to Colorado for six weeks. After Colorado I came back here for half a day, and went to Oregon for the weekend. Came back for another day and went on leave to the East Coast for three weeks. Never actually living in my room, I began to treat it like a staging ground, where bags are packed and unpacked and laundry is done in preparation for the next trip, and through it all I had thought I was going to be leaving for a deployment right about now, so I had a box packed and ready to go for that since June.

So I had a messy, messy room.

It isn't even a big room. About 12' X 12' with a small closet and a bathroom shared with the next room. And of my approximately 144 square feet of floor space, about 140 of it was covered with stuff. There was a walkway from the door to my computer desk, enough room (barely) for the chair to be pulled out from the desk, and a walkway to the bathroom door. Since that walkway passes right by the closet, I had access to the closet, which I thought was good planning on my part. However, since all of my clothes were in various piles on the floor, between my bed and my bookcases, and more packed in my backpack and various dufflebags, there was virtually nothing in the closet anyway, so that walkway was rather useless.

Between my bed and my bookshelf there is about three feet of space, and that space had a footlocker full of books, a stack of books against the wall, a dufflebag full of cold weather gear, several pairs of boots, my body armor, my large backpack with all my clothes in it (minus the ditry ones, those were in a very organized heap by the door.)

There was simply no walking south of the bed.

So I said to myself, "I need to clean this place up." Since this is the first weekend I've had since the latest trip, I set Saturday morning as the time for the attack.

I started out at about 9:30, with only four hours before I planned on leaving for confessions (Saturday afternoon, you know. It's a Catholic thing.) Obviously the first thing to do was create some space. So all the stuff, including mattress and box springs, went out in the hallway.

Look at all that junk! Why do I even have so much stuff? It isn't even mine, most of it. It's just miscellaneous gear the army has issued me over the years, and I am expected to maintain it. I hardly even use most of it. I think if the army wants me to maintain it they should pay for a storage unit.

I had a box of books packed to go to Afghanistan with me. It has been packed since June. Since that trip got canceled, I now have to unpack all of those books. There is a ton more books on the ground off to the left, which are my books that I intend to read but haven't yet, and books in odd stacks on the shelves which are books that I hadn't read, but then  I did read them during my recent trips, and so they are now waiting for me to put them where they belong on the shelf. All of that is in the subtext of this photo, but you can't see it in the photo itself because I am not a great photographer. What can I say? I'm a writer.

The actual cleaning process started at the bookshelf end of the room. I took all the books that I had read already, put them on the shelves in their proper places (organized by fiction vs. non-fiction, general subject matter, and alphabetically by author's last name. A little OCD? Heck no! There's like 800 books there. How else would I ever find one? OCD is when I am talking on the phone, and casually glance over at the bookcase, and notice that one of the books is upside down, and cannot continue with the conversation until I have gotten up and turned it right side up.)

Then I took my DVDs and stuck them up on the top of the far left shelf, and then line up my waiting-to-be-read books in no particular order across to the other wall. Now that looks cool!

This is the view from the clean side of the room. All the clean clothes I had just tossed into a pile in front of the closet to make room for the book organizing frenzy that was about to happen. I hadn't even touched the desk, yet. The next target is that little 9-box shelf thingy that I keep drawing and caligraphy supplies (a hobby I have no time for) my letter writing materials, my little black bag with some basic diagnostic medical equipment, and every-thing-that-I-bring-into-the-room-and-don't-know-where-it-goes. That got cleaned off and organized. I now also have room in it for Christmas presents (I stockpile them), paperwork, current college texts, and a whole shelf just for copies of my books, which I need to restock because I am almost out.

There now. Doesn't that look nice? I even have pictures on top of it. A Catechism of the Catholic Church, two Bibles (one of them is just the New Testament, but it is the Ignatius Study Bible), the Quotable Chesterton and the Quotable Lewis, a Korean-English Dictionary, and a Tagalog-English dictionary make a pretty decent handy reference section. Why a Tagalog-English dictionary, since I don't speak Tagalog? I don't know. But it's a lovely book anyway. One of these years I need to invest in a Webster's dictionary, just on the principle of the matter. You know, one of those gi-normous heavy leather ones. I might move my Grey's Anatomy text there as well, and maybe get a Thesauraus.
But I Digress!
Organize the closet. Not exactly dress-right-dress, but I know where everything is. It is not organized by sleeve length, or by color (what would be the point? There are about three colors in the whole dang closet.) It is neat, and all the clothes are clean. And, because I just have so much junk to keep, and only a tiny room to keep it in, I filled up the bottom with bags of army gear and my martial arts gear. 
Save some more space by putting stuff under the bed,
Then put the bed on top of it:
And Voila! My own sister couldn't have done better and my mother wouldn't have.
Home sweet home!
 I thought about putting these photos in in reverse order and making up a story about how I came back to find my room all neat and organized and had to return it to its natural state, but I know several people with OCD who would have been on the floor in the fetal position by the end of it. Better to leave them with a happy ending.
Totally random because that's what kind of day it is. I saw this guy on my way home from Mass this morning. I have no idea what breed of cattle it might be and thought my dad and my brother might like to see it. Unfortunately, I don't think they read my blog. So ya'll can see it instead. ;-)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Late at night the poet wields his pen
Revealing the strange things everybody knows
To eyes that see but do not look, and ears
That hear but do not listen. The sons of men
Cannot survive reality’s hammer blows
Without some armor, but armor only kills
And must be chinked and softened by many tears.
The question is answered, not by minds, but wills.

The Truth will kill you, if you let it reach
All in you that is not true. It does but slay
What is already dead. The image shields
From nail wounds, but one might as well say
That we are shielded from the dance by other dancers.
We will not learn so the poet cannot teach,
Cannot conquer because we will not yield.
So full of questions, but no longer believe in answers

 Perfect love casts out all fear, but there
Is precisely mankind’s dilemma. The apple grove
Is littered with rotten cores snatched down still green
From living trees. The unready, stolen gift
Turns our stomach sour and tears a rift
In the fabric of the cosmos. All this has been
Our curse, that now it is precisely perfect love
I vitally need and most supremely fear.
Oh Rivers clap your hands, ye mountains dance
And by your dance say things too full of truth
To be said with prose; by bright-eyed paradox
Shielding hearts from the Lover’s fiery shocks.
Burning into our hearts. The fire of youth
Hides in ancient patience. We look askance
At giddiness; not all is gold that gleams.
But wisdom hides in foolishness and so we dream.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Change of Plans

Last saturday evening (not the saturday evening that just went by, but the one before it) I was in Front Royal, VA visiting family. Two of my cousins and a bunch of friends decided to go to a swing dance. My cousins had been to one before, at the same place, and said it was a lot of fun: live orchestra, lots of young people and (best part for them) guys who knew how to dance and would ask the girls to dance. This is, apparently, a rarity. Guys wander into ballroom, dragged by their girlfriends, dance an obligatory dance and then, shocked at the sight of people spinning and swinging around the room, wander off to a shadowy corner to stand awkwardly with their hands behind their backs. The two gentlemen who actually know how to dance then have their pick of the bevy of ladies standing in a line along the walls staring wistfully out onto the floor.

Drawn by the promise of dozens (and dozens) of graceful young Fred Astaires, my cousins were able to get a party of five ladies together. Drawn by the fact that these five ladies were going, myself and one other guy decided to go as well.

Unfortunately that was a bit of a disappointment. The half hour lesson at the beginning of the evening taught us exactly three moves, all of which I already knew, and none of which were adequate to maintaining a dance for more than one song. Three moves runs out pretty quickly, and after that Mark Twain's dictum becomes your only life-line, "Just move your feet and keep the conversation good." Although I imagine that worked out better for Mark Twain than it does for the average joe.

Then there was the band. The band itself wasn't so bad. The singer was. If you cast your eye over this photograph to the left, you will see a pink, sparkly creature with a really bad blonde hairdo. She looked and sounded exactly like a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Lena Lamont, which got on my nerves after about the first two seconds. Rather a pity, as their selections were great. I like big band music, but what this poor lady did to the music was heartbreaking. Obviously at some point in her life someone told her that she could sing and she started singing with a band. I can imagine the looks the musicians must have given each other, the whispers, "Who is this doll?" "I don't know. She sounds awful, though." "You should probably go tell her that." "Why don't you go tell her? Why do I have to be the bad guy?" "I'm not telling her." "Let's just let her keep going for a bit, maybe she'll get better." And here it is, years and years later, and she is still going and apparently hasn't gotten much better. Or (frightening thought) she has gotten better.

The dancers outside our group were mostly old folks, 60+ years old. Let me tell you, some of them knew their business, especially the men. I plotted a direct correlation between the presence of suspenders and spats and the level of dancing ability. A guy in just slacks and a button up oxford shirt might know a move or two, but most likely he was just fudging his way around the floor. Throw on a bow tie and his skills were likely to improve by about 22%, both in number of moves known, and smoothness of execution. If he was wearing suspenders you could expect moves, smoothness and a little sway in the hips, a touch of spring in the step, some sprightliness in the way he grasped his fair partner's hand. But if he was wearing spats!? Wow. Between dances I stood to one side in my cargo khakis and black polo shirt, and stared in awe at these masteres of style. Someday, when I am sixty and have a totally sweet salt and pepper moustache, I too will wear spats and suspenders and unleash the swing dancing magic!

Unfortunately for the ladies in our party a good number of these fabulous gentlemen were a bit snobby about it, sprinkling cool, condescending compliments or saying things like, "Come on, you can do better than that." My friends were, unfortunately ignorant of the honor being bestowed upon them by such notice, so they decided to leave. And we didn't get our $20 back.

However, it being still early in the evening we had to find another activity. It made no sense to have driven an hour and a half out there for less than an hour of dancing and then turn around and drive back. So a vote was taken and we decided to find a karaoke bar. One of the ladies with a phone that can do things when you talk to it found us a karaoke bar fifteen minutes away that would allow patrons under 21 years old, so we loaded up in the vehicles and headed out. the lady with the intelligent phone was leading the way, but she couldn't find the place. Her phone dropped us right in the middle of a little Korea Town.

As I looked around I thought, "I wonder if this is a noray bong." (That is a really bad transliteration of the Korean word for karaoke, which literally means "Song room".) I looked around the plaza, and sure enough there was a building with the words "Noray Bong" on it in Korean (I took Korean for six months in the Q course). We drove past it once, and the girls got sketched out. We drove past it a second time and they got sketched out even more. One of the girls said, "Wow, this place looks like a really cheap, sleazy strip-joint." And it did.

There was a neon light over the front, and through the windows we could see a counter/bar and a deserted table area. From the front area a psychadelically blue-lit passage led back into a shadowy back area with little doors leading off on either side into individual rooms. The rooms had padded leather benches and mirrors all around the sides, with a table in the center. Oh, and the rooms were rented by the hour. So yes, it did have some resemblance to the sleazy underworld establishments you see on movies and whatnot. The group was about to decide to give it up and find somewhere else to go but I said, "Whoah, guys, this is Korean karaoke. It isn't like American karaoke. In America there is just one karaoke machine in the bar and one person at a time goes up and inflicts his voice upon everyone else. In Korean karaoke the group rents out the room and they go in and sing to each other for as long as they like without bothering or being bothered by anyone else. Plus you can order food and drinks. At least let's go in ask how much it is for an hour." So we did. (The clerks eyes went almost round when I asked him in Korean how much it was an hour.)

It was only fifty dollars an hour, which is not that much divided between seven people. We had some kimbap (kind of like Korean sushi) and some non-alcoholic beverages, and had a good time goofing around with each other. Karaoke is always more fun when you're all friends and everyone can sing pretty well. Although I must say, the group-impromptu-choral arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody could have been better. It was a good laugh for everyone though. And no alcohol was involved. So a night that looked like it was going to be awesome turned out to be aweseome, but in a way that no one at all had expected.

The moral of this story is that we all sing better than the sequined lady, but she gets paid for it and we don't. But we have more fun with it, I bet, so all in all I would rather be us. Wouldn't you?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Fear and Love in Homeschooling

In life there are only two paths: the Path of Love and the Path of Fear. They begin from the same place and travel very close to each other at first, but the farther a man travels along them, the more spearate they become. In the end they diverge so sharply and irrevocably that they lead to opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm. On one side is life in all its fullness. On the other is death in all its emptiness.

I grew up in a homeschooling Catholic family and I know many homeschooling families, both Catholic and Non-Catholic. I know enough about it to know that no two families choose to homeschool for the same reasons, or in the same way. Some have religious reasons, some have primarily academic reasons. There was a time, when I was a teenager, and a little bit into my early twenties, when if you had asked me how I intended to educate any children I might ever happen to have, I would have said "Homeschool," hands down and given you a half dozen or so well-articulated reasons for that conviction. Since then, however, I have had the good fortune to meet and become very close friends with a number of families, young and old, who have homeschooled some of the time, or most of the time, or all the time. Some used curricula programs, some created their own curricula. Some went alone, some worked as co-ops with other families. Some homeschooled up until highschool, and then sent their kids to the public school or to private schools. I know of two groups of unusually ambitious families who pooled their resources and created their own Catholic schools, one in New York and one in Louisiana.

We can quote statistics about how well homeschoolers do on standardized testing, or invoke stereotypes about the sheltered, socially awkward homeschooler going hog wild on sex, drugs and rock'n'roll in college. No matter how many "outcomes" I have seen I can see very little in the way of a pattern. (Even the evaluation of outcomes must be undertaken very carefully, taking into account that every human being is different and makes his or her own choices.) I do, however, see a pattern in the foundations, so to speak. The motivation behind the choice to homeschool is really a choice between two opposite reasons. The choice is made either out of fear of evil, or out of love of the good.*

Too many homeschooling families that I have known chose homeschooling out of fear, fear of the experience they had in highschool being replayed in their children's lives (with good reason). The choice to homeschool was a reaction against that, a flight from the evils of the world. This attitude of fear is very powerful, but also very posionous. This attitude of fear becomes a prevalent undercurrent in the life of a family, and then in the life of a young person who grew up in that environment. The fear of making mistakes, of failing, of not being the "perfect Catholic" family, of somehow being corrupted by the evil world, all of these attitudes are based on fear. This is the fear that keeps Catholic young people from going to secular colleges for fear of being corrupted, from entering the military for fear of being dragged off to the strip club, from asking that girl to dance for fear of being led into sin or having everyone think you are going steady. It is the fear that keeps men from trying out the seminary, because they might fail. It is the fear that keeps men in the seminary after they have decided it isn't for them, because they don't want to be seen to fail. This fear prevents good Christian boys and girls from spending time together because they fear temptation more than they trust grace. This fear prevents good Christian young people from being friends with atheists, for fear that their faith will be stolen. Fear, fear, fear. We become so enamored of the homely ideals which really only exist in our minds that we run away from the real world, and consequently it goes to the devil. What do you expect when the salt of the earth is horded for our own private recipes, and the light of the world is put under a shade to make it a convenient night light for scared children?

The opposite motivation is love. Some people homeschool because they believe they have a gift to give their children which the world cannot give them. They want to share this gift of life with their children, in the hopes that their children will then go out and share that gift with the world. So they allow their children to ask questions, even challenging or disrespectful sounding questions. They allow their children opportunities to learn from anyone and everyone who has something good, true or beautiful to offer. Perhaps most importantly of all, they allow their children room to make mistakes. They do not try to shelter them from the responsibility to make their own choices, they do not prevent them from meeting people who think differently. They are available to answer questions and aware of the questions that their children are asking, but they are willing to be pushed aside, ignored or not listened to. They applaud the good, no matter how immature it might be, without ever condoning or encouraging that immaturity. These parents are humble enough to realize that they are not in control. They are simply tools in the hands of God, so they can make themselves available but not grasp at control when things don't go the way they planned.

This is the pattern throughout life. The slightest good attempted by the grace of God, even if it "fails" by our standards, is of more value than any amount of evil avoided. Remember the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-29), and tremble if you were given great gifts. Tremble, but rejoice, for you have been given the opportunity to do great good. Invest everything you have and everything you are in the mission that excites your heart and sets it on fire. Do not fear the naysayers, whether they wish you well or ill. Listen to their fears, and recognize them as fears. Take whatever truth they offer, and let their fears pass you by.

For we were not given a spirit of slavery to fear, but a Spirit of adoption by which we cry Abba! Father!

Fear not! He has conquered the world. He who is in us is stronger than he who is in the world.

* For the purpose of this blog I have artificially separated and contrasted the two motivations, but in real life they are never that simple. There are very, very few people in the world who are completely motivated by love and never by fear. There are some people who are motivated almost entirely by fear, but I hope not very many. There is a little bit of love in everyone, just a little spark of fearlessness. So don't expect to see real human beings entirely in one camp or another, and don't expect to see homeschooling families entirely in one camp or another either. The distinction is meant to enable us to see which direction we ought to be going. When we start using it as a set of boxes to stick our fellow Christians in, then I think it has become a trap and should be discarded.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

How to Laugh at the People you Love

As a follow up to my last two posts here and here, I offer this set of rules I have come up with for laughing at people you love. Essentially this is what I have learned through trial and error (mostly error) about how to tease someone the right way. Essentially it comes down to two very simple and obvious principles which are simply and baldly ignored by most people most of the time:

1) Know yourself

2) Know the other person

That's it. That's all you have to do and, not only will it guarantee your learning how to use teasing correctly, but it will also solve 99% of your relationship* problems. And it's free! I am posting it right on the internet for absolutely 0.00 dollars down, and then only three easy payments of $free.99.
Of course, there is always the part where I actually have to do what I have thought of. That is the hard part, and, far from being free, it may well cost me everything I have. It remains to be seen whether the sacrifice is worth the pearl of great price.

How do you know yourself, in the context of friendly teasing? This is primarily a matter of internal awareness of what you are really saying. Loving teasing is shaped by primarily two factors internal factors. The first is the overall context of how your relationship with that person is. Loving teasing can exist only in the context of a loving relationship. How you really feel about this person is the single most important factor in determining whether your banter is loving or not, so if your relationship is shaky or twisted in some way, don't even try it. Heal the relationship first. Teasing is strong fair, only digestible by strong emotional stomachs. If there is an underlying tension in your relationship and you try to tease someone without acknowledging that tension and bringing it to light, it will come out in hidden form in your teasing.

The other factor in knowing yourself is an awareness of your emotional habits and patterns. Granted that your relationship with the other is healthy, we all still have long standing habits, learned from our earliest childhood on, that shape how we deal with conflicts and tension. Some people withdraw, some people hide, some people stick their head in the sand (not the same as hiding), some push, some go straight for the throat, some just try to force the other to submit. There is no one, not one person alive, who does not inherit some unhealthy pattern for dealing with conflict. Patterns very often can be traced from generation to generation within families. You do what your parents did or you react against it in the opposite direction. This is not doom and gloom. It is simply being aware of human beings (seen through the lens of my own behavior) as they really are, i.e. wounded with an existential wound.

These patterns are not the whole story, but they do come into play very strongly when there is conflict within a relationship. Even in a healthy relationship, human beings will not always agree with one another. This is not a bad thing, it is how we grow. The problem comes not from disagreement, but from how we handle that disagreement. If you have a habit of using sarcasm to attack, or light banter to hide, then these are tactics you should avoid. You must also practice being aware of what you are really feeling, the deeper meaning behind that joke. It doesn't have to be malicious to be poisonous. Simple irritation, impatience or annoyance is enough to cause an unbelievable amount of hurt. Even if the relationship is such that you really do love and trust each other, this does not make the hurt less. If anything it makes the hurt even greater because it is dealt out by someone who is trusted, and is therefore a betrayal of that trust.

However, knowing yourself is not yet enough. You must also know the other person, because whether or not they are hurt by what you say depends as much on how they take it as on how you meant it. People misunderstand each other all the time, and misunderstanding causes as much tension and pain as actual malice.

This starts out at the most basic level simply by paying attention to the other. Learning to read body language and conversational cues will go a long way to letting you know how your humor is coming across. Some people are natural at this. I am most definitely not so I have had to devote a lot of effort to this study, but it has been eminently worth it. It also has required a lot of paying attention to people who have a talent for making other people laugh, and imitating their style. (Yes, the whole process sounds rather laborious, but that's how I learned to socialize. The biggest step was learning not to take myself too seriously. It doesn't come naturally to me.)

The second step is learning to tease the way the other person wants to be teased. Which doesn't mean that someone is going to say, "Hey, would you poke fun at me about x, y or z? I really enjoy it when you do that." That would violate the essentially modest nature of teasing. (In fact, I almost feel like thinking this much into it violates that nature. I intend to forget the whole thing as soon as I have written it.) You have to pay attention to how they respond. If you have learned to pay attention to how much fun they are having, rather than how much fun you are having, it shouldn't be too hard to figure out what things are fair game for making any particular person laugh (your mom or dad for instance) and which are off limits.

The next step is to realize that people, especially women but also men, have moods. This means that even though you may have found a way to joke around that is acceptable most of the time, that doesn't mean that it is automatically acceptible if the person is in a bad mood. Even when you know a person really well you still have to be aware of their particular mood at any given moment.
Finally, it has to be mutual. It doesn't do for you to be one who is teasing all the time, but they can't say anything back. Of course if they know you as well as you know them, they should have plenty of material for jokes (if you haven't found something teaseworthy about someone, you don't know them yet.) You absolutely have to laugh at yourself.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes, learn from your mistakes. If you accidentally hurt someone apologize immediately, acknowledge how and why it happened, and take that into account next time.
Knowing another person, however, is problematic because on the deepest level a self is unknowable by another self, at least in this world. Even a husband and wife who have loved each other dearly for sixty years cannot be said to know each other totally. Not yet anyway. There remains a part of the will for which the individual alone is responsible. The key to another's heart is always in the hand of that person and there are places within that heart which can be known only by God. No human being is big enough to fill another's soul.

This may seem like an academic existential distinction but it is of immense practical value because it means that, no matter how well I know the other, I might be wrong. A joke meant in kindness might hit an unsuspected nerve. How damaging this is depends on the overall context of how that relationship stands day to day. It also provides the philosophical basis for a certain humility in our search for knowledge of the other. I can never know her totally (in this life. I leave off discussion of the next), and that, far from being a source of regret, should be a source of joy. It means that no matter how long this friendship lasts I will never run out of friend to know and love. It means that the source of this relationship is quite literally inexhaustible. This humility is essential to healthy relationships because nothing will kill a relationship faster than idolatry, the demand made on a human being to be all in all, to fill a place he or she can never fill.

The language of humility is laughter. It is infinitely far from being the self-deprecating, gloomy "I am a miserable worm of a being" talk of some overly religious types. Laughter alone acknowledges the truth of our limitations, and allows us to rest secure in the knowledge that our limitations, for all their illusions of grandeur, are not the whole story. Not even close.

I will glory in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Psalm 34:2 If you are afflicted you are eligible for the "hear and rejoice" club. And which of us is not afflicted?

*Throughout this post the term "relationship" should not be understood to be speaking exclusively, or even primarily, about romantic relationships. I am instead speaking of the entire gamut of human relationships. Wherever one human being comes into contact with another, there is a relationship of some sort in existence and these principles come into play within the context of that relationship and its nature.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Laugh With Me! Part 2

In Part One I talked about teasing people and how it can so often be abused to hurt people or used to cover up an underlying malice or jealousy the person is unwilling to deal with in a more honest way. However, I don't want you to think that teasing is inherently malicious.

For many people I know, teasing, or back and forth teasing (which we could call banter) is a very real expression of affection. Joking, practical or otherwise, can be done in a spirit of mutual fun which makes it a good time for everyone. For instance, when I tease my sister about her college degree and how she must be looking down on all of her brothers now because she is the only one of us with a degree, I am not for a moment suggesting that she actually is looking down on us. I know that, she knows that. What I am doing, however, is pointing out in a comical, indirect way, that she has accomplished something none of the rest of us have accomplished.

I can remind my brother of the time we did such and such and he face planted on the tile floor from the top bunk and broke his tooth. Or make fun of the overbite he used to have. It made him substitute the "f" sound for the "ch" sound. Great Grandma used to make him say the "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck" rhyme when he was little and thought it was hillarious. I can laugh at him for turning north out of the driveway instead of south because he was too busy dancing in the front seat of the car to pay attention. He can make fun of me for going off trail on a hike and taking a harder way down than he did. We can laugh at each other almost constantly, but there is nothing malicious about it at all.

Teasing someone can be done in a loving fashion. Some might say, "Well, why an indirect compliment? Why not just say it straight out?" Well, there are a lot of psychological reasons for that. Without going too deeply into the existential roots of this dilemma, love is a very shy thing, even among old, old friends. When you compliment someone you make yourself vulnerable, and when you accept a compliment you acknowledge vulnerability. Phrasing a compliment in a roundabout way provides it just a little bit of privacy. There is an inherent modesty in teasing someone lovingly, a modesty that allows you to see, admire and love, without being completely emotionally exposed. Human beings cannot stand to be emotionally naked very often. This is why we wear clothes in the first place. Banter and teasing, or flirtation as a friend of mine calls it (she uses the term regardless of the nature of the relationship, my definition is much narrower) allows us to be affectionate without being promiscuous.

There is also a certain mystery about a roundabout compliment, something that requires a little bit of work, a second thought, to understand. It isn't simply handed baldly from one person to the other, but exists in the interchange between them. This makes it a relational thing, since both have to cooperate in making it what it is.

But I think by far the most common reason for teasing people (for me at least) is simply to make them laugh.

People are such odd creatures. Every single one of them is unique, absolutely singular among all the people that have ever existed. We are have quirks and foibles and flaws, we make mistakes and we do silly things. Some of these things are very serious and hurt other people. Some merely hurt ourselves. Some don't really do much harm, but definitely make us look like idiots. The only proper response to a silly mistake that makes you look like an idiot is a laugh. I delight in people. I delight in their uniqueness, their incomprehensibility, the ability they have to surprise the heck out of you even after you've known them for years. I love the unpredictability of people, and the predictability of people. I laugh out of sheer delight that God should create such wonderfully clumsy creatures. I laugh at the divine foolishness of creating little sparks of spiritual light to shine through blobs of clay. I mourn the ugliness and hatefulness of ignorance and sin, but I also laugh at its idiocy, its banality. It is so pathetic, so useless, so obstinate and childish. I know that Christ has conquered sin, transcended death and redeemed even me! Why should I not laugh? Life is beautiful!

I laugh in the darkness and hardship of deployments or military training because I have hope. I laugh despite even my sins because I have hope. I laugh at my own sins (eventually) because they are opportunities for grace. There is some need in all of us for the laugh of the "cheerful beggar," who knows that he is unworthy and only laughs at it because it highlights God's generosity all the more.
I want people to laugh with me. When I poke fun at someone I am not condemning one of the traits that I despise, I am rejoicing in one of the quirks that makes them unique and inviting them to join in that rejoicing. I want you to join me in laughing at yourself, and I want to join you in laughing at me.

That kind of laughter can heal the world.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Laugh with Me!

I like teasing people. Most people don't get that about me right away, because I have to be pretty comfortable around someone before I start teasing them, but I really enjoy it. I don't think I am so unusual in that regard. Everyone likes teasing other people once in a while, but not so many people enjoy being teased.

It is quite true, teasing can be "taken too far" as they say. I have seen personally family situations and both friendly and romantic relationships in which one person was always teasing the other. Sarcasm, sharp jabs, personal jokes shared in front of strangers or casual acquaintances. Sometimes it is simply ignorance. The person telling the joke or making the remark may simply not see how it is affecting the other person. This happens all the times with parents and their kids. Many parents have no hesitation telling embarrassing stories about their children to other grownups, often in front of the children themselves. They either do not notice (because the child refuses to show it) how much this bothers the child, or they dismiss it saying, "Oh, honey, it's all right. We're all friends here." Certainly very bad psychology, and of questionable value in teaching children to "lighten up." Grownups may be very dismissive of their children's pains, because with the benefit of age and experience they can see how minor their troubles really are. There is some truth to that, and it is of course a parent's job to facilitate their child learning that perspective. What they don't realize is that the child is very small, so a small pain is proportionally just as serious as a large pain to an adult. Also, perspective can only be gained so fast. Children age in God's good time, not at the prodding of impatient adults. In my experience attacking someone's psychological vulnerabilities is not the approach most likely to get them to relax.

Another common scenario for this type of abuse is a situation in which a boy and a girl are old, familiar friends, meeting with another boy who is good friends with the boy, but not with the girl. Because the two boys are close friends, he may well be comfortable sharing jokes and stories about the girl. She however, because she does not know this other guy, may not be comfortable with these stories being shared.

Just as common as this type of ignorance, however, is malice. So many times I have seen "humor" and "good natured banter" used as nothing more than thin veils to disguise very real malice. Hatred in fact, and we have all seen it and experienced it. Indeed, if you have not yourself done it more than once, you are blessed beyond belief. For my part I know that I have been guilty of it.

You can see it in couples putting on the "loving couple" show, but secretly loathing each other's guts. Who has not been at a party or barbecue and seen a couple arrive together, holding hands, smiling and constantly insulting each other. "Oh, did you hear my genius husband's latest exploit? He tried to save us money by fixing the toilet himself instead of hiring a plumber. Next thing I know I hear water splashing in the bathroom and this guy is cursing up a storm. He got sprayed all over with toilet water. Man all of a sudden he couldn't get to the phone book to find a plumber fast enough. Tracked water all over my floor."

Then the husband laughs and says, "Yeah but the best part is I had to leave for work so guess who cleaned it all up? Yeah, joke's on you honey." Or after a mocking comment the mocker laughs and says, "Oh don't be so serious, I'm only joking." But he isn't joking at all. He just can't take responsibility for what he really wants to say.

Everyone watching and listening hears the hatred, the intent to cause pain. It is so palpable it makes you cringe, but the couple cannot seem to find any other way to manage whatever issues they have.
This isn't limited to couples with extreme marital issues. It isn't limited to couples at all. Parents do it to children, children to parents, sibling to sibling, friend to friend. Even the healthiest relationships are relationships between broken human beings, and when broken human beings get angry we very easily resort to hate, or at the very least stop keeping track of what the other person is feeling. With our proclivity for very ordinary selfishness, it doesn't take much to make us nasty, even if we instantly regret it.

With these possibilites it is no wonder if some people I know consider any teasing at all intrinsically ill-natured. "Who would Jesus tease?" They ask, not as the rather interesting hypothetical question that it really is, but in a rhetorical fashion. The implication is that Jesus would never tease anyone, that it is irreverent to think of Jesus joking at all, and that even if you must tell jokes (as a concession to human weakness) they must never be at someone else's expense. That's like saying you must never eat or drink at another's expense. However, if we followed that rule literally there would be no hospitality. There has to be a legitimate way to laugh at another's expense in such a way that it makes them richer, just as these is a way to allow someone else to pay for your meal in such a way that they are richer for it. I believe there is such a way, and tomorrow I will post about that.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Courage, Dear Heart

Be not afraid, my Dove, the ancient hawk

Has had his talons gloved, his wingtips trimmed,

The putrid wings, with feathers full of death.

He sits upon his perch, these days, with rattling breath

And calls across the desert he lately skimmed

In petulant rage. Impotent. Empty squawk.


And you, my Dove, my gentle little one,

Hidden in the rocks for far too long,

Must trust your wings. Never mind your fears

And plucked out feathers, and rivers of dried up tears.

You may not sit and mourn. Get up! Be strong

With wings made whole, and glide beneath the sun.