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Monday, September 22, 2014

My Personal Top 10 Most Influential Readings

I recently sat down and quickly came up with the ten books (and one article) that has affected me personally over my life (and that I can actually remember something about). Here they are. I think they reflect the arc of my life. 

The list is in alphabetical order by author last name.
  • Carr, Nicholas. "Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is doing to our brains." The Atlantic Monthly (July-Aug 2008.
  • Collins, Jim. Good to Great.
  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov.
  • Friedman, Thomas. The Lexus and the Olive Tree.
  • Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink.
  • Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology.
  • Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible.
  • Kushner, Lawrence. Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians.
  • Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters.
  • Mintzberg, Henry. Managers Not MBAs.
  • The NIV Study Bible.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Monotony of Commuting

I have spent most of the past twelve years commuting at least one hour a day: 30 minutes to work, and usually 40 minutes to return home. I have tried a number of things to avoid monotony, such as taking as many different routes as possible. I may be the only person in the world who uses a GPS to commute home from work because I try new routes and end up in unfamiliar places. To make the most of the commuting time, I have tried a number of things. I have listened to the Bible and prayed, although it seems a little irreverent to interrupt the prayer yelling at someone who has cut me off. I have listened to Christian radio, which means I have heard the song "I Could Only Imagine" over 5,000 times. I have listened to pop radio. I have listened to the music of my youth to somehow re-energize portions of the brain and keep my mind sharp. Sometimes, I switch back and forth between Christian and pop radio, alternating between joy and guilt. I have listened to talk radio and sports radio. I have tried listening to the classic books on radio such as Les Miserables, but I cannot keep the characters or place names straight because the authors all use the original French pronunciations. I have listened to business books such as Good to Great to enhance my career, but seem to be able to only remember only one thing from the books, but I can't even think of that one thing right now. I have listened to sermons by Tim Keller. (I do not listen to my own sermons.) I have listened to books on my Kindle most recently, and am getting used to it, although I don't care for the electronic voice. I do oddly enjoy listening to the footnotes though, almost as much as the text of the book. I have practiced accents, even yesterday imitating the World Cup announcers on ESPN in the Netherlands-Argentina match. I also do a pretty good Vladimir Putin, although it is mostly him talking about the Brooklyn Nets, which I assume is his favorite basketball team.

With all of this commuting, you would think I would drive a nice car. I don't. To me, driving a nice car is boring. I drive a 2002 Mercury Sable. In the past few years, I have broken down a few times times and had to be towed. I find that more interesting than knowing with certainty that you will actually get to work. I have had to park in the parking garage at our office by backing in so I can get a jump start if I need one. For the past year, the a/c in my car didn't work, and the driver's side window didn't work. So during the summer, I would roll down the three windows to keep from overheating. The wind would blow through the car to create new hair styles each day, often something like the lead singer in a Flock of Seagulls from the 1980s. I could change my hair style based on how fast I drove to work. This is very interesting if you ask me, although now my a/c is working again and I don't have to wet my hair down when I get to work.

The car has a stereo, but the volume control has some quirk where sometimes turning the knob left decreases the sound volume, and sometimes turning the knob the same way increases the volume. (I'm not making this up.) I have turned songs that I hate up to full volume, and also turned songs that I love completely off because of this feature. Sometimes it is frustrating, but having a passenger experience this is very interesting. I've also experienced one other phenomena in commuting that I think is a little unusual: car dancing. That's right. Sometimes, on the way home, I will hear a certain song and the old moves come back right there in the car. Since I do have some dignity, I only dance in the car from the chest down so that no one can actually tell I'm going at it. If I was in stop and go traffic and you were next to me in the other lane, you would never notice that I'm actually dancing away to "Disco Inferno" because it's all done below the surface. I can moon walk, do the bump with the arm rest, and any other number of moves incognito. And even though my car is old, it is a luxury car with leather seats. So if I have put Armor All on the leather seats recently, it's ". . . slide, slide, slippity-slide, just forget about your troubles and your 9 to 5" and, if the traffic conditions are acceptable, I might disappear briefly while I drop down for a break dancing spin move before I resurface, hands back on the wheel in the 10-2 position. Car dancing is another thing that has helped break the monotony of commuting for me. What have you done to break the monotony of commuting?

Monday, March 10, 2014

My Olympic Moment

A recent Saturday morning, Marcia and I had not even gotten out of bed and we had started a conversation about the Winter Olympics, which has sentimental value to us because our first baby's morning sickness period occurred during the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. And for some reason, during that conversation, I started rattling off the location of every Winter Olympics since 1980. I was a little uncertain about the order of Albertville ('92) and Lillehammer('94), but I later checked and found out I was correct. Even after nearly 30 years of marriage, this seemed to impress Marcia. I told her this was my gift, that I was Google before there was Google. I was the person who could produce reams of useless information just off the top of my head. For those of us with the gift, the smart phone—that disruptive technology—has all but displaced the Google-minded us. I'm now wondering why I was born in such a time as this.

I'm also noticing that as I push age 50, I sometimes cannot conjure up a fact like I used to be able to do. But overall, I can still make lots of connections that seem to be a little out of the ordinary. For example, the first time I heard Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" on the radio, I immediately thought to myself, "That's sounds like Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up," a record I had listened to over and over again when I was in Junior High in about 1978. I later read that there was a copyright infringement lawsuit suggesting "Blurred" borrowed from "Got to Give It Up." Of course it did. And now that there is Pandora and iTunes radio, I can go back and listen to the same songs I did when I was in elementary school and see if it somehow keeps the brain connections intact, or creates new ones. Just last week, I selected a radio station play for "LTD," Jeffrey Osborne's original group, and I felt as if I were right back in my room in 1975 when the song "Love Ballad" played. It was as if a door in my brain opened that had not been opened for many years. I have a feeling I may be doing some sort of neurotherapy on myself, but of course I'm just some guy with no training making excuses for himself to go back and listen to "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" for therapeutic reasons. It's almost ridiculous.

A few days after my Olympic moment, I was at work and went downstairs for a coffee break. I had my steno pad and Kindle, ready to take a few minutes to read, write, and relax a little with a cup of coffee. I paid the cashier for a medium coffee and walked to the atrium to find a seat, leaving my coffee at the cashier's counter. I realized this when I pulled out the chair to sit down. This was after I had walked all the way downstairs to the cafeteria from the third floor only to arrive at the cafeteria and realize I had forgotten to get money out of my wallet. So I had to walk all of the way back upstairs to get two dollars. So not long after my Olympic memory moment, a day of extreme mental ineptitude arrived, the glory now departed while I wonder if all of the Tab, Fresca, and Diet Coke--anything that causes cancer in laboratory animals--that I've been drinking over the years is finally doing me in. Until I figure that out though, I think I'll go put on "Boogie Oogie Oogie" and see if I can connect some old memories in my brain.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Grateful for High Self-Esteem

Truth is, I have struggled with self-esteem issues all of my life. High self-esteem. I know, I know. Sounds counterintuitive but it is the truth. I first remember being in sixth grade in about 1976 and had gone to a Mount Vernon Rams high school basketball game with Becky, who was in high school. She was my, well, I‘m not sure if she was actually related to me or not. She was my grandpa’s (who was technically my great uncle) cousin‘s daughter. We went to the games together that year. It was at one of those games that I knew I was different.

I had left to go to the bathroom all by myself and then to get popcorn and a soda. Looking back, it was a little scary for a sixth grader to go to the bathroom all by himself. I had gone during the third quarter to avoid a big crowd, but there were still plenty of people in the men’s room. Somehow I did it, even though there were old white men with slicked back oily hair going to the bathroom and smoking at the same time. There were also young black men with huge afros using picks to comb their hair in front of the mirrors. A high school basketball game in Southern Illinois on a Friday night was a big deal, and going to the bathroom by yourself in a place like that when you are in sixth grade was a big deal, but I did it. That gave me a lot of confidence.

Then I had to go get the popcorn and soda. This I managed to do also, even though as an introvert I struggle in situations like this, and was on my way back to my seat, which happened to be on the last row of seats under the balcony up an aisle of stairs. I began to ascend the stairs holding the popcorn in one hand and the soda in the other. About halfway up the stairs, I tripped and went down face first, beginning an immediate descent in reverse down the stairs. Somehow, I was able to hold the items straight up and out from my body and when I reached the bottom of the stairs, popped up quickly. Most of the popcorn was still in the box and most of the soda was still in the cup. When I got to my feet, I could feel the heat rushing to my face, which must have been quite red, and I could tell everyone was looking at me and that they were impressed by the grace and athleticism I had displayed in falling down the stairs. Then, as if on cue, the crowd erupted, jumping up and down and cheering wildly for me. It was as if they had stopped watching basketball and were watching me.

After regaining my composure, I started up the stairs again, this time taking two at a time. I reached the top of the stairs and scooted into my seat, relieved that I my ordeal was over. I watched the rest of the game, went home, and suffered no ill effects.

I’ve often reflected on this event over the years. An ordinary person would have been crushed. A traumatic life event like falling down the stairs at a basketball game holding popcorn and soda would send many people reeling, maybe even affecting them well into their adult years. However, I’ve realized that I am unaffected by these types of things because I have high self-esteem. When a traumatic or humiliating event happens to me, my esteem slips down into the normal range for a time before it builds back up.  (See figure below.)


Chris's Self-Esteem Ranges from High to Normal

I’ve seen this pattern over and over through the years. Poor employee evaluations at work, writing horrible poems, always burning the popcorn when I try to make it at home, inability to stop scaring our cats, or bad hair days at least three or four times a week--none of those things seem to faze me. So now, when something bad happens to me, I’ll look over at my wife and say, “Thank God I have high self-esteem.” I‘ll probably say it a time or two today, especially since it is Thanksgiving Day.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Fall Poetry Festival at Leonia Library at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 20, 2013

I will be reading this Sunday , October 20, 2013 at 2:00 p.m. in the Leonia Library Poetry Festival with Fred Stern, an event that will feature some of Northeastern New Jersey’s best poets reading from their works. (I am grateful that Mr. Stern lets me read in these events. I am uncertain if the $26 bill I always mail him when I find out there is an event influences him or not.)

I plan to read a few new, unpublished poems written over the past year that I hope to publish in a forthcoming collection whose working title is Passages of Time.

Open microphone will follow if time allows.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Praying with Sartre and Foucault on My Birthday

Recently I picked a little French restaurant in the NoHo section of New York City for us to go to on my birthday called Le Philosophe. It turned out to be quite an ironic choice, albeit an accidental one. Earlier in the same week, I had attended my daughter's middle school soccer game in Haledon, New Jersey. I arrived in the second half to find our team well ahead and to find the other team with two players on the other wearing Islamic headscarves, including the goalkeeper. (I am uncertain if there is any connection to the headscarves and our soccer victory.) I do not recall thinking to myself, "Well, if we were in France, I don't think they would be doing that!" although earlier in the year I had read the first chapter of a book called Why the French Don't Like Headscarves, which is about the ban on Islamic women from wearing the hijab, or headscarves, in France. I guess it turns out that having a secular society doesn't necessarily correspond to having more freedom, although it would be fun to see what would happen in France to a cleric walking around with a big mitre on his head. (I think I recall a man saying to me once that he had considered the priesthood, and he thought he could have lived with celibacy but not having to wear that big funny looking thing on his head.) Anyway, I doubt if there is a ban on that in France.

I really hadn't given much thought to the French at all that week despite the soccer game. However, a residual, subliminal thought must have slipped in because when I went to pick a restaurant for Sunday afternoon on my birthday, I chose a French restaurant for a late brunch. It may also be that I know that Sunday brunch is cheaper than Sunday not brunch, but again I think it was a subliminal thing rather than a full blown, conscious decision.

By the time we finished at our church and arrived home by about 1:15 p.m., I had one of my world-class Sunday migraine headaches. For some reason, I get them on Sundays more than any other day of the week. While I have sometimes wondered with all of the headaches whether or not Christianity agrees with my constitution, or that Pentecostal church music is just a little too loud for me, in the end I keep plugging away at my faith, inconveniences and all. But that day, I needed to lie down for about half an hour to let the Excedrin Migraine do its magic after I got home. (I also lie down for a half hour on Sundays I don't have the headaches for other reasons.) But the half hour rest made us late for the reservation, and as a result we had to pay to park instead of driving around the block several times looking for free parking on the street like I usually do. This is the kind of thing that can nearly ruin a night out for me. I drive old cars so I can park on the street and not have to pay or worry about the car getting hit, bumped, or dinged. But on this afternoon, there was my 2002 Sable being dropped off at a parking lot with an attendant that would later ask for $28 for us to get it back. Bummer.

The most striking thing about the restaurant when we walked in was a large mural with black and white photographs of people that I did not recognize. Not one. We figured the pictures must be of French people, given this was a French restaurant (although the owner was Japanese). At that point I started lamenting my educational gaps, which apparently included nothing on the French. (I also have a big Shakespeare gap as well and know next to nothing about his plays.) The only Frenchman I could remember was Yannick Noah, the tennis player (not on the wall) and Alexis de Tocqueville (also not on the wall I don't think) who turns up frequently because of Democracy in America, which I like to quote from although I have never read it because it is a really big book.

After I prayed to thank God for the meal—I usually pray when we are out in public places although I try to do it discreetly, unlike my mother's second husband who would stand and lift his hands in the air in a restaurant while I crawled under the table—we ate a nice brunch with good food and great service. We then asked about the pictures on the wall. A server brought us the laminated print of the mural with the names of the people. I did not recognize most of them even with the names. I had only heard of Joan of Arc, and then I found two names that I did recognize: Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, two of the preeminent philosophers of the twentieth century. Both of them were atheists. And it was a little later, while waiting for the Blue Man Group show to start, that I realized another ironic moment had occurred with the French: We prayed together in a French restaurant on my birthday while Sartre and Foucault looked on, certain that they would not have approved of such a thing.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Head of the Line

When a person’s last living parent dies, there is not only a profound sense of loss and finality, but also another aspect of the grief that may not be so readily apparent: the end of being someone’s child. After waiting in the family line for a lifetime, the grieving son or daughter now moves to the front of the line. And it is as this point that he or she realizes that the next train into the station will be coming for them.

I think the grief of losing a parent is not just the pain of losing a mother or father, but it is also grief at the loss of one’s own youth to the throes of advancing age. The mist of our lives is evaporating, and nothing like the loss of a parent can make it any more apparent. Mortality is on full display when our last living parent departs because each of us knows our own death must also be lurking out there in the murky waters somewhere.

I am not yet fifty, yet I have been standing at the head of my family line now for several years. It is a burden that has something of a “patriarchal” feel to it, as if I am the one that people are looking to even though I feel as if one of my feet is always on a banana peel. I have never felt as sure of myself as I felt in adolescence. Now firmly planted in middle age, I feel a certain precariousness that makes getting my through each day seem as if I’ve gotten away with something. I feel unqualified for this phase of my life, but if you live long enough, you will eventually reach the head of the line. So here I stand, waiting . . . hoping someone will cut in front of me.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Formless Void

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at an outdoor table at a Hilton Resort in Orlando, Florida, occasionally looking up from reading and writing. I found a quiet, unoccupied area overlooking the pool. I am like a cat and will try to find a corner wherever I can to be alone in the quiet. It is just after 7:00a.m. and there is a glorious stillness before the sun climbs its ladder into the sky and heats up the day while frenetic activity resumes. Because these twin summer deities—sun and activity—know people will attempt to squeeze every minute out of vacation, the two will triumph over mortals trying to relax a little on vacation. Haven't you noticed vacationers always return home exhausted? I will be no different after getting up early each day to watch the sun rise over the cow pasture behind my in-laws' Florida home where we stayed most of this trip. Getting up early to watch the sunrise is something I believe is worth letting go of a little sleep for.

Since we were at the pool last night and I saw the disarray of the lounge chairs pulled out of alignment by people in bathing suits and the discarded towels strewn all around that were used to towel off or to save an empty lounge chair, I marvel at the transformation that has taken place before I even got up this morning as a man named Eweka cleans and picks up the final misplaced pieces. His work is now nearly complete: order is restored poolside. The truth of what I am witnessing becomes clear to me while I am writing on my steno pad: Eweka is doing God's work, which I tell him a few moments later when he ascends the stairs and wipes down the tables in my area. What do I mean?

Work is what God was doing at creation, bringing organization and order to the chaos of the formless and void earth. Work is taking the existing raw materials and forming them into something useful or beautiful. So whether it is preparing the pool for another day of vacationers, organizing a business's administrative processes and work-flows, building a home, composing a song, or painting the lines on a roadway or parking lot, work is part and parcel with what God was doing at the beginning. The earth was "formless and void . . ." (Genesis 1:2) and needed further work, so God spent the rest of the week of creation filling in the details and organizing it: light, vegetation, land and sea creatures, sun, moon, and stars, and finally human beings. Then God rested on the seventh day.

I myself love taking random words and disparate thoughts and organizing them together to create essays, curriculum, procedure manuals, or poems. I am most fulfilled in my work when I get to do those types of things. But what I realized is that there are a number of other ways to work in a way similar to what God was doing in the creation. Even a teacher takes the formlessness of a young mind and helps fill and organize it with knowledge, skills, and abilities. So there is not just one way to work:  Society needs all kinds of people to bring their gifts and talents for the common good, even something as seemingly insignificant as cleaning up the poolside for vacationers. It certainly meant a lot to me that day.

Now I need to finish this entry and take on another aspect of my work: the formless void of the dirty laundry!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Memorial Day Parade at Flat Rock Brook

When I sit by a stream, I start to remember who I am. The sunlight shines a spotlight on the water in certain places and you can see the rocks clearly on the bottom of the brook. The liquid facade hides what is below in most places, except where the brightness brings clarity. And the same brightness seems to shine in my soul when I am at Flat Rock and I somehow remember who I am.

My life feels like it is a mess today. If I think this thought through rationally, I would conclude this is not true. But I emphasize that it feels this way because the feelings are so powerful and desperate that I cannot shake them off at home or church or work. But they are only feelings. No events or circumstances in my life demand such desperation, but inside me is turbulence and chaos. I am on the verge of tears but they never come. I long for the gentleness of the brook's waters that glide by to somehow jump the bank and enter my tempest-tossed soul. A woman who was walking across the wooden bridge just got a cellphone call, and the phone rang a loud, old-fashioned ring. She looked over at me, the contemplative mystic sitting on the bench by the brook, and apologized as she went ahead and answered the call.

My soul is settling in with the rhythm of the gentle waters. Great, now a Korean couple walks by. She is carrying a hand-held radio and blasting a Korean pop song that strikes at my serenity as she passes. Now a family with three noisy children . . . okay, now it is various other hikers going by as if the Memorial Day parade is here! Now what? A power walker flailing her arms in an absurd-looking manner passes by. I am feeling the pressure in my head return. The boom-box couple pass by again and cross over the wooden bridge, another pop song blaring. And why not this: A guy carrying two five-pound dumbbells comes by for the second time. Who knew? A Korean man who looks a little like Tim Conway, maybe because the balding pattern was similar, makes his way past. My serenity has by now been subverted by people constantly walking behind my back and then in front of me as I sit on bench. My serene bliss has been overrun by a Memorial Day Parade. The power walker goes by flailing her arms again. I notice her face is angry and tense, which makes me even more angry and tense.

The waters, ever so peaceful below, are unfortunately out of reach today. Although Memorial Day should be about those who departed, the living are out in full force today, parading past me as I sit on a wooden bench with a steno pad in my hand waiting for the muse to come and give me words to write down. I have found tranquility and inspiration so many times at Flat Rock Brook, but today the muse will not come because she only comes to a quiet heart. Two middle-aged woman now walk by, one complaining about her daughter's purple hair and reinserted lip ring. "What kind of job are you looking for with purple hair and a lip ring?" she asks. Her friend did not say a word as they crossed the wooden bridge.

I will not feel the calm in my soul today. Sometimes He calms the storm, and sometimes He calms the child. And sometimes, just knowing your daughter doesn't have purple hair and a lip ring has to be enough. I take consolation in this thought today. Once again, Flat Rock Brook has given me a glimmer of encouragement.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Devil Doesn't Wear Prada . . .

He wears a hoodie, and this is why wearing a hoodie is wrong. Point of clarification: I'm talking about wearing hoodies and actually putting the hood up on your head. This is the point where it crosses the line. You don't have to agree with me, but this is how I see it. So if you're driving a car with a hoodie on, hood over your noggin', I'll think you're planning to do something illegal and the hood will conceal your identity. Wearing a hood while you walk down the street? Got my eye on you, even though I've noticed people wearing hoodies will not make eye contact with me. Is it 90 degrees outside? You're wearing a hoodie with the hood up in that weather? You are obviously up to no good because a hood holds heat in and in that kind of weather, it's cooking your brain and making your skin oily, which causes pimples. Yuck. But I digress from my main point: wearing a hoodie with the hood up is oh-so-wrong! Know how I know? Like I said: The Devil doesn't wear Prada, he wears a hoodie.

Did you see The Passion of the Christ? Who was there in the crowd? That's right—El Diablo. What was he wearing? Uh huh, a hood draped over his head! Did you see the The Bible miniseries on The History Channel recently? You know, the production by Reality TV pioneer Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey of Touched by An Angel? Did you see old Slewfoot in that series? I did, with a pasty-looking face and a hood on his gourd! I guess Satan himself finally realized, probably from focus groups or his marketing department, that he really needed to cover up those horns to reach more people. Enter the hooded one!

So you want to counter my argument and say, “Well, Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie, and he's the founder of Facebook and a billionaire?” Good point, but you are playing right into my argument. Mark Zuckerberg obviously works for The Devil and may actually be The Devil. That's how The Devil works, masquerading as something good, and no one would have ever suspected that a red-headed guy from Dobbs Ferry, New York would be The Devil himself. But he couldn't help wearing the hoodie with the hood up, and that gives away his true identity as an associate of you know who. My recommendation: lose the hoodie and show us there's no horns under there!

And if you're a girl, you might want to read an earlier post about the dangers of big hoop earrings in Confessions of a Girl Wearing Big Hoop Earrings. If you see a girl wearing a hoodie with the hood up and big hoop earrings sticking out, run! Danger is imminent.