The Wrestlers

On Sunday afternoon, I saw Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. It's the comeback story of an aging pro wrestler, Randy "The Ram" Robinson. "The Ram" is a battered, broke, lonely hero, living in a trailer park when he can pay the rent and his van when he can't. A heart attack hastens his retirement after which he tries to mend his damaged relationship with his daughter, as well as pursue a romantic relationship with his favorite stripper, Cassidy. Both of these attempts fail. Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei give stellar performances. The story is rough, harsh, abrupt, shocking...and tender. The film is a strong R, please hear that.

On Sunday evening, I saw the latest installment in the story of another wrestler. It's the won't die story of an aging megachurch pastor, Ted Haggard. He preached for years that we don't wrestle against flesh and blood, but he sure as hell wrestled with some - his own. A gay sex scandal full of drugs and deceit hastened his retirement a few years back. My gut tells me he's battered and lonely, although not-so-broke; he's not living in a trailer park or a van. The last I'd heard he'd gone through the "steps" of some accountability-group-directed-step-program and was considering days ahead as a counselor; he'd healed and was ready to move on and help others with their damage. Dear God.

The film is a fiction told to tell the truth and as such caused me to care about Randy "The Ram" Robinson. The news story appears to be a truth told to cover lies and as such elicits a radically different response in me: I don't care. The Wrestler is an honest story. The Haggard saga seems to be an ongoing exercise is managing appearances. I'd pay six bucks to see the film again. I'm fine not to ever hear another word about the other story.

As I thought about these two wrestlers, I also thought about us, and me, the other wrestlers. If we're alive, we're all in the ring to some degree. Yes, we're wrestling against principalities and powers but we're also wrestling with our own flesh and blood, ourselves. The choice I, we, have is the same choice "The Ram" and the pastor had: honesty or spin. The latter seeks a bright red bow wrapping everything up nice and tidy. The former seeks something much deeper, much more true and lasting - redemption - and trusts our landing off the top rope is ultimately in the director's infinitely tender hands.

The Long Road Home

Once upon a time, there was ... 'A king!' my little readers will say right away. No, children, you are wrong. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood...

I asked him, my firstborn son, if he thought his mother and I would approve. Through downcast eyes filled with middle school hair he said No, Dad...I just thought you wouldn't find out.

Our arrangement has been I take him to school in the mornings and he rides the bus home in the afternoon. Simple, clean, safe. His mother, my wife, ran an errand one day this week and on the return home saw some boys walking along the road, one of them ours. Not a school bus in sight. The story, which we believe, was he missed the bus and saw these neighborhood boys walking and caught up with them. The further story, which we believe, was that it happened once before, not due to missing a bus, but at the invite of these boys.

Some of you might think good lord, John, what's the problem? But he's not yours, he's mine.

...but then we are in deepest error when we think our children are truly our own.
- Jim Harrison

In my mind's eye, my boy was walking alongside Fox and Cat, those two characters who led Pinocchio astray, telling him to plant his money in the Field of Miracles or something. The truth is my boy was walking alongside a couple of boys.

As we sat in his bedroom, I, also a firstborn who didn't tell my parents everything, said Will, I'd give my life for you, bud, no questions asked. Walking home like that puts you at risk. For a little while longer, I've got the responsibility to at least try and make sure you're safe. And then he started crying. I did too. Two firstborns who didn't and still won't tell our parents everything sitting there in our tears lost in the awkward dance steps of fathers and sons. I'm so sorry, Dad. I hugged my son and felt the broadness of his shoulders and his head tucked up under my neck. It was only yesterday his head barely reached my waist. Damn. Damn. Damn.

My firstborn son is on the long road home. So am I. So are we all.

Later that night, I remembered a time getting into a pickup with Lightbulb. Oh, that wasn't his name, but that's what we called him. I guess we just as easily could've called him Fox or Cat. I was probably my son's age, if not younger. Lightbulb took me on a stretch of highway between two sleepy little towns where boredom grew long like middle school hair. The speedometer reached 80, 85, 90...just a little more, Lightbulb...100 mph. We flew like bats in a black stepside Chevrolet. He held that speed the length of a Field of Miracles. My parents would not have approved. They never knew.

But now I know. The ache, the waiting until he hits that back door.

Skippin' out my door is the black sheep boy
And whichever way he runs he's gonna make a lot of noise
And I'm startled by the silence the minute that he's gone
And I pray for his protection and leave the porch light on
For my black sheep boy...

- Pierce Pettis, "Black Sheep Boy"

It Has Begun

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp...

- "Praise Song for the Day" by Elizabeth Alexander

I was grateful that poetry was given a place in yesterday's schedule. As the poet read the words that I'm sure auditioned before her many times, I watched the people gathered on the mall talk and laugh and rub gloved hands to stay warm. The words were not so much spoken to them as over them, like a prayer.

any sentence begun...

Some heard the word "sentence" drop from her lips and they thought of what judges hand down to guilty brows. Some believe our days ahead will be a prison sentence, that we have chosen poorly and will suffer.

Others listened to the word "sentence" and saw visions of verbs and nouns holding hands, dancing, achieving the poet's desire: hope.

Maybe yesterday's hope was wrapped in inaugural wool and circumstance. But hope is hope, my friends. And I will raise my candle to anyone or anything that can instill it, arouse it, remind us of it. Hope has only one author, one older and sweeter than yesterday's poet.

any sentence begun...

Today is today, it has begun. We are on the cusp. We, the people.

What Matters

Two of our three kids and I went to the movies last night. Miss Middle was at a sleepover and my girlfriend was hosting this thing called Bunco, so we needed something to do for a couple of hours while the ladies, well, bunc-ed.

Anyway, we went to see Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler and that ever handsome Keri Russell. I recommend it. It's not Gran Torino or anything, but it's a good story with some laughs and a few tears, reasons I go to the movies in the first place.

As we exited the theater to walk down the long hall toward the lobby, I noticed a couple in front of us; no, make that I noticed a man in front of us: hair nicely coiffed, long wool carcoat, polished Allen-Edmonds or some such nonsense. He was chatting with the lady who held his hand; she was holding his, not vice-versa - can you see it? I don't know how else to say it, other than the man gave off the air of importance. I immediately hoped some hyper kid would turn around and run into his groin or spill his Icee on his slippers.

As we walked through the lobby toward the front doors to the night air, he and his compadre were still directly in front of us. My youngest daughter was about a step ahead of me, walking and turning back to tell me her favorite parts of the movie. As Mr. Importance walked through the first set of doors, he didn't hold it open for the person behind him, in this case, my six-year old little girl. The Dad radar kicked in and I jumped ahead to catch the heavy glass door. The same thing happened as this man opened the final door. He didn't look back or hold the door open for those behind him.

Now, maybe this guy had just witnessed Defiance and was so engrossed in reflection that he was just, well, engrossed. Or maybe he'd just weathered Benjamin Button and was exhausted to the point of non-awareness of anything around him. And yes, dear reader, I am very aware of my own prejudices in this; namely, it's like a burr under my saddle when folks emit the vibe that they're Jesus H. Christ and their poop doesn't stink like the rest of ours. But to not hold the door open for the person behind you? Especially when the chances are good to great that the person just might be all of six years old and not yet adept at handling heavy glass doors? Heavens to mergatroyd.

The regulars here at The Dirty Shame uphold certain standards, like holding the door open for the person behind you. We even advocate men holding the door open for ladies. We say please and thank you; we also say dammit quite often, but it's never gratuitous. We drive slowly in neighborhoods because they're full of neighbors, whether we know 'em or not. We believe that at the end of the day, all that matters is how you treated folks, especially those smaller and less coiffed than yourself.

About halfway home, my youngest said thanks, Dad, for taking us to the movies. I loved it! And I said you are welcome, my dear.

This is a tough old world, full of heavy glass doors and all. Be sweet to folks.

You know, maybe nobody ever told that guy a bedtime story. That's no excuse, but it might be a reason.

Wednesday Night

Have you ever seen a one-legged man trying to dance his way free?
If you've ever seen a one-legged man then you've seen me.

- Bruce Springsteen, "The Wrestler"

My girlfriend and the kids and I went to church last night. Wednesday night church. Mid-week service. Do you know how long it's been since I've gone to church in the middle of the week? Well, let's just say a long time.

Have you ever seen a one-legged man trying to dance his way free?

After four years of attending an Anglican church in Colorado Springs (a twenty minute commute), we decided we had to have something local; a church full of kids our kids know and people we see at the grocery store, that kind of stuff. We decided to say to hell with the quest for the perfect church; let's find one in the place where we live and commit, warts and all.

So, after visiting the locals, we're now attending Trinity Lutheran Church. My roots are Southern Baptist, I spent a year with the non-denominationals, then four years lovin' the Anglicans, and now find myself in the arms of those tuna-hot-dish Lutherans from Lake Wobegon. My lord.

Have you ever seen a one-legged man trying to dance his way free?

The Lutherans were starting a mid-week series on the seven deadly sins. I figured they might need an object lesson for each one, so I decided to go, help 'em out you know. It was a good evening for all of us. Folks introduced themselves to us, probably thinking we need to pray for this guy with a ponytail. Hell, I'll take all the prayer I can get. When the evening was said and done, I thought it felt like, well, home. My girlfriend agreed. The kids were in some classroom making s'mores while a teacher kept reminding them God is love, so they were slap-happy. I may go with the kids next week.

I don't know what church looks like for you these days; it may not even be a category in your life. That's fine; the grace that keeps this world is deep and wide. But a lot of folks, maybe even you, are disgusted with the gathering of God's people: the criticisms range from it's nothing but entertainment to isn't there more? Trust me, I've lobbed those same critiques myself. Some of you are searching for that pure expression of the New Testament church. Good luck. I believe the New Testament church was a room filled with folks chock-full of the seven, maybe even eight, deadly sins, and the folks back then knew it, so they prayed for one another, especially those with ponytails. Their saving mantra was God is love; they made sure to teach their children well. As to entertainment, well I'm sure things got a little interesting at times (read the New Testament). And as to isn't there more?, well, I've got a hunch they said sure, we've got more s'mores; there's plenty to go'round.

Have you ever seen a one-legged man trying to dance his way free?

It was a good evening in our little Lake Wobegon church. We didn't leave having witnessed those frequently sought after signs and wonders. Then again, maybe we did.

Diet for Madness

I mentioned Jim Harrison as my favorite writer the other day. Wes commented that he'd never heard of him; maybe that describes you as well. I read Harrison with a pen in hand. Here are words or phrases I've underlined in my current read - The Road Home. I don't know that I'm encouraging you to read Harrison, for the practice can lead to a kind of madness; it makes you uncomfortable with television and politics and people who believe talking is thinking. But it's a relatively free country, so go for it if you choose.

...but then we are in deepest error when we think our children are truly our own.

How irreparably changed the world becomes when the loves of one's life are dead. It is always the last day of Indian summer. We are caught out in the cold and there's no door to get back in.

My father often railed against "common sense" which he viewed as most often an essentially petty mixture of greed and self-interest, the inanity of the "Onward, Christian Soldiers" attitude that propelled millions of nitwits westward, utterly destroying much of the earth and all of the Native cultures.

I suspect the wild calls the loudest when it has largely disappeared from our lives...

A Spanish poet, whose name I don't recall, wrote that we leave small pieces of our hearts here and there until there is not enough left to give away and stay alive.

I had begun to think it was central to my character and number of years to ache.

To the white people, whom I helplessly number myself, life is a very long and high set of stairs, but to my mother life was a river, a slow and stately wind across the sky, an endless sea of grass. is arguable whether anyone ever truly recovers from anything.

The stars are the most soothing objects for the claustrophobe.

It takes a great deal of strength to keep January out of the soul...

These were not Methodist Indians but warriors with a lineage that owed nothing to the white man. We did not live upon the same earth that they did and we flatter ourselves when we think we understand them. To pity these men is to pity the gods.

With age I need not make judgments about their comparative merits, having lost the impulse to be right.

Places In The Heart

Not long ago, I acquired some mail enhancement: I became a member of Facebook. I must admit, it's been an interesting experience so far. I currently have 172 friends, a fact that I've now added to my current resume.

One of the facets of my experience has been reconnecting with people from high school, many whom I haven't seen since we graduated in that very good year of 1985. Of the people I've reconnected with, some of them have been females, and of those females, some of them were girls that made concentrating on things like algebra or history rather difficult, if not entirely impossible. Human anatomy was a different matter, but I digress. I'm quite sure some of these girls knew I had a teenage crush on them; some of them didn't know I existed. Regardless of how conscious they were of me, they captured a place in my young heart; I felt affection for them, for they affected me. Make sense?

As I've seen their faces on Facebook and read snippets about their lives, I've been surprised to feel that old familiar pain (Dan Fogelberg). Evidently, they still hold places in my almost 42 yr old heart. I thought I had moved on. But, as another guy named Blaise said, the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.

One of these girls-now-ladies mentioned something in a Facebook comment about the difficult times she was going through during those days. She was one of the ladies-then-girls that I thought was just beautiful. But when I knew her, I always believed she was hurting; in the language I now use as a 42 year old - she fought a lot of demons. When she mentioned this reality in her comment, it was a strange confirmation; somehow I had been able to really see her when others would not, could not. And it pained that small, but viable place that she had so long ago captured in my heart. I wished I'd of followed my heart's hunches and at least been a better friend to her, maybe even gathered up the courage to tell her I thought she was a vision on legs. It might've made a difference. Then again, maybe not.

In the interest of open communication in my current marital status, I mentioned this to my wife. She'd had the same sensation at being be-friended by someone who had shown her young heart attention years ago. The weight of his memory had surprised her; he'd had an affect on her. We, as husband and wife, had a good little face to face about feelings like this. We finished our brief conversation (because the Beagle was eating somebody's Polly Pocket) being reminded, yet again, that the heart is a mysterious thing indeed and that being an alive, large-hearted person means having room for many people and memories and being able to be moved by them all. Those feelings could generate jealousy, but they need not.

I realize there's a smidgen of a chance that Facebook chatting with old girlfriends like this could lead to a Motel 6 rendezvous in Amarillo by morning, with forty-something year old bodies going at it like, well, forty year olds. But that's not where my feelings were leading me. Besides, my '97 Stratus would never make it to Amarillo. No, my feelings were a good indication, I believe, that my 42 year old heart is still in pretty good shape. It can still feel like a 15 yr old. It's good to remember those places...(helluva segue, eh?)

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain

All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all

The Brave Ones

Some of you commented with answers to those questions from the last post. You're a brave bunch; that's why I like you so much. That self-worth stuff is a tough one. I can go for weeks feeling a sense of confidence in who I am and what I'm to be doing and then bam! one word from the right (maybe wrong) person and I'm three steps back. Please know I'm not talking about thinking that I'm God's gift to the planet or anything; I'm talking about believing that I belong, that I matter, that my self has worth.

Another tough aspect of the self-worth thing is that there may be a consensus of voices out there conspiring against me, but many days the chorus of voices within are the ones shouting the loudest. I've said it before and I'll say it again, self-hatred is a monkey on the backs of us all. And some days, it's a jungle in here.

As to that second question, I really believe the advice I'd give to graduating college seniors would be: choose your life. Maybe it's more clearly stated as know the things you love, and go after them, so that when you lay your head on the pillow at night and you re-collect the day, you're able to say when I had the choice today, I chose the things I love.

I know that gets shaky and like someone commented, our vices can be rather, well, vicey. But even beneath those vices, I believe lies desire, albeit screwed-up a little, but it still can reveal something about us and the longings of our heart. It takes some wrestling to get beneath those vices, maybe the length of a lifetime; that's why courage is so very, very important, both for ourselves and those we call friend.

There are days when it just seems I cannot choose or something or someone is choosing otherwise for me. I trust you know what I mean. Foggy Blogger (always appreciate your comments, my friend) mentioned the classic predestined/freewill debate. FB, I'm at the point in life where instead of Calvin and Arminius, I'm putting my money on Calvin and Hobbes, wherein I find such truths as these: Some days even my lucky rocketship underpants won't help and What fun is it being cool if you can't wear a sombrero?

Some days, life'll choose for you, but if you get the chance to sit it out or dance, I hope you'll wear the sombrero.

Adios, amigos.

Q & A

(Taken from an interview with Jim Harrison, my hands-down favorite writer. I've italicized the last few lines of his answer as there is much there to be pondered. You can take out the word "writer" and insert whatever is appropriate, e.g., "river guide" or "guitar hero" or "stay-at-home-mom." Even "human being" works quite well if you're somewhat undecided.)

Q: Critics have wonderful things to say about you. For example, The Sunday Times (London) has said that "Jim Harrison is a writer with immortality in him." How do you keep such praise from going to your head? What do you consider to be your shortcomings as a writer?

A: I don't have any problem of keeping critical comments from going to my head. Much of my most extreme critical praise comes in France and I don't read French very well, so it's easy. There is no problem in that I've never paid much attention to reviews because by the time they appear I'm already working on something else. It's also very dangerous to base your self-worth as a writer on a media consensus because frequently the media isn't thinking about you at all which would then mean you don't exist. Thinking about your shortcomings as a writer should probably be avoided, as it would be quite paralyzing...I don't worry about that because I'm living the life I chose. (italics mine)


Q: Are you basing your self-worth on a consensus of some kind? It could even be the consensus of one person.

A: (this is where you come in)

Q: Are you living the life you chose? Granted, some days life will choose for you, but for the most part, are you choosing your life?
A: (again, the ball's in your court)

One word of encouragement as you answer: try and keep it grounded. For example, if you answer the first question with something like well, John, I'm living for an audience of one (meaning God), then I believe you're taking the easy way out. It sounds incredibly spiritual; it also sounds like a bumper sticker. The same thing applies to the second question. If you answer with well, John, I'm living the life God chose for me, then again, I'd say you're not wrestling with the question.

These are not questions to answer quickly and then move on...

I Am Resolved

My first exposure to the word resolve came via a hymn sung in my father's church:

I am resolved no longer to linger/charmed by the world's delight/things that are higher, things that are nobler/these have allured my sight.

I liked this hymn primarily because of a rollicking bass line in the chorus, where the men who were not tenors would essentially walk down a flight of notes to the words hasten so glad and freeeeeeee. It's probably one of those "notes to self" how the song's emphasis was on things that are higher but it was the things going lower that allured me. In a very real sense, they still do.

So, here on Friday, the second day of 2009, I want to change those lyrics just a bit to suit my resolve: I want to linger/charmed by the world's delight. Please hasten a moment as I try to explain.

There's something knock-the-breath-out-of-you-lovely about the words in my rewritten first line. Just say them out loud, slowly, and let them sit on the air a moment: linger...charmed...delight. Aren't they just beautiful? I believe those three words point to a living that is higher and nobler than what most of us live, something to hope for in days to come. It'd be something if aliens touched down and took a survey of the population and came up with this evaluation: these earthlings are a charming lot.

There is a delight that the Grace that keeps this world is trying to offer us. But the charm only works if we linger.

Just last evening, the first evening of this new year, I sat delighted by my daughters' feet. The two of them had iPods stuck in their ears, dancing around the den wearing t-shirts, blue jeans, and no shoes. I set my Jim Harrison book down a moment, or lingered, and found myself, well, charmed. It wasn't some sugary, chicken-soup delight I was experiencing; it was actually quite bittersweet. I watched their feet move and realized, yet again, I don't have little girls anymore. I saw the feet of girls that will tan in the summer sun and fill flip-flops with painted red toes and turn the eyes of lingering boys. I don't know that I'm necessarily ready for all that, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

And just yesterday afternoon, the first afternoon of this new year, we packed up the truck and went to see The Tale of Despereaux. Before the coming attractions even began, my girlfriend and I got all sideways about something and I honestly wanted to just go sit in the lobby and eat one of those big pickles until the show was over. But I didn't. I lingered. And in the dark of that theater, there came a moment when she slipped her hand in this old fool's and I found myself, well, charmed. We, the two of us, gradually got all un-sideways and found ourselves delighted to sit next to one another while Kate Dicamillo's story unraveled before us; a story that reminded us of the great need for courage and the gentle-man and forgiveness.

And then just late last night, the first late night of this new year, I made my usual final walk through the house and started the dishwasher, turned off the kids' radios and nite-lights, made sure the Beagle was breathing, that kind of stuff. And before turning off that last light, I lingered a moment, as is my resolve, and said thank you for the day's delight; I'm not too charmed about that wart of the bottom of my foot right now because it hurts like hell, and we cooked those potatoes in the stew for hours and they were still crunchy, but it all goes together I guess, so thank you. That was probably not the most higher and nobler prayer voiced by an earthling on New Year's Day, but it's the notes that come from us rollicking bass singers, all allured and such.

I pray you a charming 2009...