Stromboli, Baggage, and Faith

Lately, my wife and I had been talking about ordering a stromboli for dinner. This went on for a week or two, and last night, we finally committed. Wild, I know. It was delicious, too. However, it was the ten minute car ride I took to pick up the food at Little Gio’s (Italian restaurant) that served as the unexpected treat of my dinner hour.

As I backed out of the driveway, I switched the receiver over to 610 AM, a station typically subject to the popular ESPN broadcast “The Right Time with Bomani Jones” at that time of day–a podcast that I have come to thoroughly enjoy thanks to Jones’ authentic, controversial, and highly insightful takes. But yesterday did not proceed as scheduled, a notion that I have recently understood better than ever with the birth of our child and his first three months on planet Earth. Yesterday, as I flicked my car’s turn signal to journey forward, I realized that I was definitely not listening to Jones.

Instead of Bomani’s usual rants that tend to cover popular sports figures and events, social phenomenons, and cultural relevancies, I was listening to a man describe the intense anger and self-hatred he felt when playing adult league softball. I was disappointed to miss my dose of Bomani, but I was growing increasingly intrigued by this man’s story that included the flipping of water coolers, tossing of bats, and self deprecation. After all, as a former athlete, I could appreciate and relate to his frustrations regarding failure–baseball, and softball, are rooted in overcoming mental anguish. Both games are designed to glorify those achieving failure approximately 70 percent of the time or slightly less, so it is no wonder that even the best players show signs of distress and anger.

As I continued to drive, I began to realize that this story was taking a turn that I could not have seen coming. As the man went forward and proceeded to further describe the athletic events, I couldn’t help but find his antics a little bit funny and amusing (imagine a grown man tossing a water cooler at a rec league game). Then, and almost out of nowhere, he began to admit his remorse, his embarrassment, and his personal shame for acting in the ways that he did. He described the low point of his adult league career by sharing the story of nearly hitting his coach’s wife with an object that he had tossed out of frustration–and the kicker was that many people, including children, were present at the game, and he knew they would be left with that image of him.

The man’s subsequent set of comments moved me to the point of discomfort, as the subject matter he was next to explore has always challenged me. As I was expecting him to begin talking about how he has become a better man since those days–a more reserved, less angry man–he instead uttered the words that have met me under so many different circumstances and feelings throughout my life, “It was not long after that experience that I accepted Jesus Christ.”

I have to be honest–the moment that these words hit the radio waves and forced their way through my typically secular radio speakers, I quickly reached for and pressed “MODE” on my steering wheel controls to avoid what I thought would soon become this man’s liturgy, a message cleverly veiled by the cloak of popular athletics. Then, a few seconds after I had shifted my ears from his message to one of greater comfort, I felt pretty terrible. I felt narrow. I felt like I had contradicted the message that I have for so long been quick to project to others, and I had violated a thought offered by Aristotle that I share frequently with adolescents, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” In light of this, I think most people that know me would probably agree that I am a fairly open-minded individual (or at least I hope), and I strive to be mindful of such practice–but I admittedly struggle with this notion when it comes to faith, the concept of god, and what baggage I carry into the equation.

So after what seemed like an eternity but only proved to be roughly 30 seconds, I switched back to 610 radio and thought, “Let’s give this a chance. Let’s see what he says.” If you’re wondering if I found Jesus yesterday or anything like that, I will save you the suspense and definitively say that I did not re-engage my mind with that purpose to begin with. I was now interested in the name of being mindful, open, and welcoming to discomfort–what would come of that, I didn’t know.

So what developed from the experience if it did not prove revelatory in a storybook way? How was it transformative or different than past occasions? In a very simple way, yesterday was different because for the first time, I saw myself through the words and actions of the man that categorically and unequivocally described himself as Christian, devoted his life to Jesus, and found meaning in scripture. Yesterday, I accepted that he and I aren’t very different–and if divine intervention had set out to in some manner to prove a point or send a clear message, I was overwhelmed to learn at the conclusion of the podcast that the interview with this man had been sponsored by Eastern University–the very place I received my undergraduate degree and endlessly renounced the possibility of Christ, dodged conversations relevant to faith, and avoided examining my own when it became inconvenient.

Today, I still wrestle with the idea of a god, let alone a particular faith and set of corresponding beliefs. But one particular idea from yesterday’s podcast truly resonated with me in a way that I had not previously entertained: the speaker suggested that scripture describes man as the only one capable of inciting his own anger–that no person could actually be responsible for making another angry. Sure, others can do things that anger us, but that is because we choose to become angry. I certainly recognize that this idea expands well beyond anger and into realms of self-control and inner-peace, but we’ll save that for another day. Yes, we choose to exert our actions and behaviors–and so I’ve chosen to be more open to topics that stir discomfort in my loins, for it is not the topic or person that has the ability to make me feel uneasy; instead, I choose to react in that manner. After all, being receptive to only that which strikes cords of comfort is really not that receptive at all. Engage in conversations regarding and including thoughts other than your own–that’s when you’ll truly grow and experience perspective–and whether or not you elect to agree is hardly relevant to the truly enlightened person.

As always, thanks for reading. And if you’ve made it this far, I appreciate the time you’ve taken to entertain my ramblings–I hope you’ve found something of interest or meaning as it may be pertinent to your life and experience.



Some Admittedly Obvious Advice and Self-Reflection

Over the years, one of the most common conversations I’ve had during parent/teacher conferences is centered on the idea of children communicating with their parents. I believe that much of a child’s success often rides on their ability to feel safe, comfortable, vulnerable, and open with others. When children experience these feelings around those responsible for raising and educating them, they have a far greater likelihood of attaining, developing, and maintaining social and emotional success than children who feel they aren’t safe, cannot be vulnerable, and shy from open conversation due to fear of what others will think. I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or doctor of any sort, but from experience, I can offer one very real solution to a parent incessantly begging their child to share their feelings and thoughts.

We all want people close to us to feel like they can say and share anything–that we won’t judge them or react in extreme ways. However, the traditional notion that a child who places trust in their parent will tell that parent what is on their mind is simply not always true–at best, it is only part of the grand equation. In fact, many children (in my experiences) that have asserted genuine and strong trust in their parents still felt disconnected–feeling safe and vulnerable was not always enough for them to open up and share their feelings and thoughts. The basic and primordial sense of security and love provided by parents did little to help many of my students feel like they could tell those parents about things like: their feelings for the opposite sex, what happened at school that day, who was treating them poorly, or if they were failing a class. It has also kept them from sharing some great achievements, and the reason is quite simple: security, safety, and love will provide a net for a child, but understanding, connectedness, and shared experiences can help plug openings in that net and create a more natural flow of communication between children and their parents.

The best example I can provide is two-fold. Take parent A, a loving mother or father that makes sure their child has everything they need in order to make it through their day. They even ask their child probing questions, but they often feel frustrated because they do so much and simply want a better connection–they want their child to feel like they can say and share anything with them, yet a common response from their child is along these lines: “Good,” “It was fine,” “Yes,” or “No.” These types of responses then lead parents to a commonly over-utilized comment, “You know you can talk to me about anything, right?” As a teacher, I’ve learned that when I find myself uttering this statement, it is most likely because I’ve already failed to establish a true and meaningful connection. By suggesting that a student can talk to me about anything, I have probably already defined my role among our relationship in a way that communicates to them that they actually cannot or should not tell me certain things. I might truly mean what I say, but if the claims feel hollow to the child or student, then my intentions are unlikely to be realized.

Now take parent B, a loving mother or father that makes sure their child has everything they need…sounds similar, right? In reality, there is a great deal of overlap and consistency between the two types of parents I am referencing–but there is one distinct difference that I have experienced which has driven me to a far greater understanding of what it means to connect with a child. Parent B takes time, let’s say 30 minutes every day, to do absolutely whatever their child wants to do. Think about this for a moment. This doesn’t necessarily mean providing options for a child–this means giving your child complete control for 30 minutes. Do they want to play pirates in the backyard and run around the house 48 times? Do it with them. Do they want to make a fort out of pillows and destroy and rebuild said fort 96 times? Do it with them. Do they want to read a science fiction book together even though you don’t like science fiction books? Do it with them. You get the point. If they understand, even if it is only for a brief period of time, that they have a sense of agency and independence, traits you will want your child to build and exude anyway, and you are part of that dynamic, then you have helped instill character traits while simultaneously demonstrating interest in what they want to do. And who do we share our most intimate thoughts with? Generally, we share those thoughts with the people we bond with–the people that do the things we like doing. If you do this with your child, you loudly and clearly establish that you value them, and you will begin to understand them in ways you never have before–and vice versa. When this begins to happen, you will probably find that you no longer have to state, “You know you can talk to me about anything, right?” They will have already begun to share their world with you because you have allowed them to do so, shown interest in their passions and hobbies, and given them room to grow right before your eyes.

Now, this admittedly unoriginal yet critically important idea of spending time with children under their circumstances is not to suggest that we let children jam peanut butter sandwiches down the garbage disposal and scream profanities while doing so just because they want to–far from it. It is an opportunity for them to be creative and to learn how to work with others, and you–the parent or teacher–have the ability to dictate how that relationship will blossom. You have the ability to teach them how to be responsible, how to set and manage boundaries, and how to communicate when these are broken. Will you teach them how and when to lead and follow effectively? Or will they learn simply to take orders? Will they learn compassion and humility in these experiences, or will they drift through childhood and learn these concepts in later stages when the stakes are much higher? That is what it all comes down to: what type of relationship do you have? What are you teaching children? How are you relating to them? Is your existence entrenched in survival and obedience, or is it one of mutual learning, respect, and growth?

Understanding that I have likely already come off as a man standing on a soap box while telling others how to parent their children, teach their students, and live their life, I will refrain from further speculation. After all, I have limited experience as a father–but I should tell you that such experience is deeply rooted in trial, consistent practice, and self-reflection as a teacher of children for the past eight years. My greatest hope is that you might find something of interest or worth among the aforementioned words. Perhaps you will offer some views of your own, even those that run counter to mine–for as Aristotle said best, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” And isn’t our greatest voyage in life to educate ourselves the best we can in hopes that we may evolve in ways that we cannot yet comprehend? I guess I’ll just have to invest the time and energy to find out.

Day 1: Baby Steps

I went to bed last night around 9:30 after declaring sometime earlier this past weekend that I would begin waking up before work and exercising–starting today. Monday–what a splendid day to start anew. Specifically, I told my wife that I was going to begin another round of P90X–approximately six years after the last round I completed! The truth of my fitness and health is one of great flux, a trend I’d like to rectify.

4:45 a.m. Beep. Beep. I slid the red “X” across my Samsung immediately, silencing its alarm, and for a moment, I contemplated sleep. I offered myself the idea that I could exercise after work, which is a dangerous promise that presents obvious pitfalls for any working adult. So as I laid in bed for another 30 seconds or so, I asked, “How many times have you told yourself that you would ‘just exercise after work?'” Then I awoke from my slumber, moved toward the chair adjacent the bed, and proceeded to gear up and lace my shoes. Sensing that I was outside of my comfort zone, our yellow lab followed me from the bedroom–but then again he follows me everywhere. Yet I digress.

Returning to the notion of my fitness, health, and the great fluctuation of both in my 31 years of life, it is essential to say that when motivators and goals have been part of a consistent and intentional regiment, I have prospered in attaining a body and level of health desired. However, when I have questioned my motivations for exercise, justified poor choices, and sought excuses, then I have found predictable results that have left me unhappy and dissatisfied. I am never happier than when I am fit, as consistent exercise and moderate food choices and intake has always generated confidence, self-esteem, and a desire to improve. When my body is out of whack and ill-prepared, it affects my mind in negative ways. And for years, I have searched for what would hopefully reveal itself as the best workout plan, but in this quest I failed to make sacrifices. I failed to schedule the remainder of my day in a manner that would compliment and make possible my athletic endeavors–and maybe this was a product of being fit for years without giving great thought to diet, sleep, rest, and other habits. But now, when I go to bed too late, drink a few too many beers, consume foods high in fat, salt, or sugar, or fail to plan my next day, then I am typically subject to its will when the alarm clock calls. And isn’t that the lesson to be learned? “Woe is me” is often an attitude adopted by those willing to accept circumstances rather than defining them in the first place.

On a heavier note, bringing a child into the world has rocked my own existence, and it has started to bring my wife and I closer than ever before. And yesterday, as he rolled from his belly to his back for the first time, I knew I had to do everything in my power to be present in his life for as long as possible. I knew I could not be severely overweight and expect to play basketball with him. I knew I could not be hypertensive and expect to serve as his role model for positive and healthy food choices. I knew these things almost in an instant–and I also knew that I could change the way I live with deliberate planning and moderation. I knew I could still plan for some weekends of old–weekends of burgers and beer, cigars and golf, and things of the sort. But I knew these could no longer be my consistent habits. These days need now to be the exceptions to more meaningful and investment-based choices.

I’m on the grind, homies–rolling over a new leaf like my boy be rolling over on his play mat. Protein shakes and fish bakes, homies. I’ve found real and true purpose, and I plan to make it my greatest symphony yet.

Craft Beer: Love Those Hops

Lately I’ve written about some heavy topics. Lately I’ve been thinking about some heavy things. And lately I’ve found great solace in a nice IPA after a long day of work. While I gain great perspective from reflection and introspection, I need to reveal a different side of myself from time to time. Today, I indulge in the matter of craft beer, namely IPAs (India Pale Ale).

There is something refreshing and palatable to a nice, hoppy, and sometimes bitter IPA. There is something a great deal more satisfying of a citrus-infused, high-octane, kick-in-the-pants brew than a lager, pilsner, pale ale, or even sour can offer–in my humble opinion. IPAs are certainly not my only beer of choice, but when given that choice, they remain my favorite and go-to brew. Some people like porters or stouts, and to those people, I applaud their love of beer. For as Ben Franklin once suggested, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Isn’t that an interesting take on a highly controversial substance? Either way, I like it. Consumption is a matter of personal responsibility, a basic argument I believe most might agree with.

Regardless of your perspective on responsible consumption, this post would be incomplete without the mention of a few choice IPAs. My recent favorite? An old classic brewed by Bell’s Brewery, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Two Hearted Ale. What stands out most to me about this American style IPA is its timelessness. Bell’s has brewed this IPA for years, and unlike many of its contemporaries, Two Hearted Ale is a beer that I can come back to at any stage of the year. Whether it is snowing and 10 degrees outside or 85 and sunny, this beer sits well with me. It has a fair hop to its taste, though it finishes crisp and offers a mid-range ABV (alcohol by volume) of seven percent. When seeking a balanced IPA, I often look no further.

Well, you’ve probably heard me drone about beer for long enough at this point–so I’ll keep this entry relatively short. In response to Franklin’s notions regarding beer and its purpose, I offer one final bit: beer may not be universally loved, so I’ll have yours if you don’t like it!

Golf and Faith

There was a time in my life when I was pretty bad at golf. I mean, I used to hold an iron like a baseball bat, lift my front foot, and carry the club head through impact like I was trying to punch a line drive to center field. This mostly resulted in severe slices, and while I paid to play from tee to green, I frequently spent a good bit of time in the forest. Still, my ineptitude for the game never bothered me so long as I was playing baseball. But then one day, I stopped playing.

From the time that I was or six or seven years old, I played baseball every spring and summer, and I also played a fair amount of fall ball. I loved the game for a long time, but some serious injuries coupled with introspection drove me from the diamond just one year before finishing my college career. So like many other athletes that defined and measured part of their existence by their contributions to sport, I was left with a void to fill upon graduation. I was left considering my options, and over time, that which became most apparent was the game that had left me so perplexed and confused over the years: golf. Almost overnight, I became determined to rectify my game and post respectable scores.

When trying to improve my baseball skills, I always sought help–a lesson my dad had instilled. So I took a golf lesson. The club pro watched me smack a bucket of balls around the driving range before lending any insight or instruction. I guess he needed to see how hopeless the cause was before devising a plan. Next, he changed the way I held the club, explained how I should approach the ball (foot positioning mostly), and told me to keep my lead arm locked through the entirety of my swing. I played the next day and struck the ball more consistently than ever. It was amazing how a few adjustments made a vast difference–a truth that I had learned of baseball, too. From that point, so much of golf’s great riddle began to explain itself to me (or so I think!). It also helped a great deal that I no longer swung my club like a baseball bat. I began to understand why I hit the ball well; conversely, I began to understand why I struck the ball poorly. Prior to that lesson and continued examination over the course of the last six or seven years, I was left dumbfounded by poor play, frustrated by results, and mentally drained.

And so began the real process of improving my golf game: the mental aspect. I don’t know that I will ever master the game of golf like I truly would like, but I do know that I can master my mind. I can say with great confidence that I approach the game in a vastly different manner than I used to, and because of this revelation, I am able to enjoy the days spent on the course. I am able to make peace with a double or triple bogey, and because I am inclined to learn, I am able to recover from poor play and minimize damage. I am able to make informed decisions, take appropriate risks, and live with the outcomes. The process of learning how to better manage my golf game has taught me much about myself, and it has revealed a level and appreciation for faith that previously claimed dormancy or was altogether missing. Like I must display faith in myself, other people, and circumstances outside of my control, I must also display faith in habit when punching out of the sand, delivering a blind shot from the fairway, or waiting for the break on a challenging putt. I must also know, just like human relationships, my faith will not always produce desired results–if it did, it wouldn’t have the same appeal.

In short, I’ve found much of my soul on the golf course. Where I used to let frustration run rampant and overcome my ability to improve, I now rise to the challenge and accept failure with a caveat that I will do better the next time. Maybe I could have learned these lessons anywhere, but I am convinced that my initial frustrations with the game presented opportunities to establish a relationship with the game that might not have been so rich or revelatory had I experienced them at an earlier point in my life. Then again, maybe I should give my inner-child a little more credit–some of the greatest truths I have ever heard have come from the relatively unaffected minds of youth.