Saturday, March 20, 2010

She Looks Good, She Looks Fine

Last weekend, we were coming out of The Palazzo in Las Vegas after seeing a brilliant performance of Jersey Boys. The night was cold, the lines for the valet were backed up, and right at the top of the escalators was one of the hottest night clubs on the Strip. I stood there with Kevin in my Buckle jeans, Anthropologie top, and Eddie Bauer sweater, which, after watching the women prance out of the hotel, I realized were so NOT what everybody was wearing for a night out on the Strip.

Judging from the outfits, I believe that the outfit de nuit was a bodyhugging, sleeveless, mini-dress with platform, gladiator sandals—the kind with four bondage-looking straps across the foot and a hideous ankle strap that make anybody wearing them if not proportioned like Kate Moss look as if they have cankles. The great thing about this dress was that it was, virtually, a uniform for the under thirty set. Just about every woman I saw was dressed similarly. (This is not a discussion of the fashion industry, so withhold judgment for a second.) Doesn't matter her shape, her size, the winter-pale of her thighs and arms, the fact that some could hardly walk in their gladiator platforms and clomped forward like a parody of Frankenstein. Here they came, down the escalator, hair pomaded into shape, lips glossy, and eyes bright — fancy flocks of women out for a night on the town.

In particular, I remember a group of women (girls really), in their early twenties, none of which, bar an Asian woman, had to be under 200 pounds. Never you mind. One had on a grey-and-pink large horizontally striped mini dress which clung around her really ample middle and didn't quite cover her dimpled thighs. Her friend, shaped like those bodies that look really skinny side-on and then when they turn front-on, the hips are a foot wider on each side than the knees, wore a black, leather mini-skirt with a white tank-top and a wide, silver-buckled belt. Her pointy high-heels reminded me of Ducky in Pretty in Pink. Together with about five other friends, they came down the escalator—owners of the night.

I couldn't help but smile at their excitement, at their struts, at the stumble one to took as she got off the escalator and then clung to her friend's arm, the two of them laughing at both the stumble and the realization that she was not going to be able to walk on her own in those shoes up and down the Vegas Strip.

As I watched them leave the hotel, shivering as the wind met them through the portico doors, I wanted to raise my right arm in the air, pump my fist, and bark that woof! that seems to mean "You go girls!" I marveled at their enthusiasm and their whole-bodied embrace of the mini-dress (or is it the other way around, the mini-dresses gallant embrace of their whole bodies?). I wondered if they looked in the mirror when they went out and actually thought, "Dang girl, I look good!" I hoped so. Because they were just so vibrant and so alive that they deserved to feel as if they were just as good as they hoped they were.

As I was sinking into this reverie about how great it was that there were women out there who didn't listen to what society told them about who got to dress fashionably, one of my friends turned to us, shaking his head at the feathered ladies and said, "What is the world coming to?" I looked at his facial expression. It was a mixture between amusement, disapproval and disbelief. I thought of a passage in a book I had just read, about an injured WW2 soldier in a hospital who received a magazine with the famous picture of Rita Heyworth kneeling on her bed. In his amazement, he shook his head and either he or the narrator commented, "What is the world coming to?"

I looked at this friend of mine, and thought about the contrast between our two reactions. Why had he looked at these women with a mixture of disdain and amusement? Yes, none of those women was conventionally beautiful. They were neither skinny nor pretty. They weren't even really physically attractive. There was maybe a nice nose, a set of collar bones, some bouncy hair between the five of them, but none all on one person. (They all had great smiles, though.) They were just women. Was it the bare flesh? (Which if it had been 125-pound bare flesh would not, I'm convinced, have evoked such a comment.) Was this flesh somehow unseemly or improper? If not, then why would a group of women dressed for a night out signify a threat to the stability of the world's order?

I sat in a Sunday School lesson about the law of chastity a few months ago. What could have been an insightful discussion about what it means to lust, what it means to cleave, what it means to go after in your heart, and why the verses contained language that was gender specific, such as "if a man looketh up on a woman . . ." ended up in a discussion of how we should cover up our little girls in one-piece bathing suits and skirts below the knees. How a principle of emotional and physical self-control and discipline which needs to be mastered by adult men and women to help create a strong union devolved into a list consisting of one-piece bathing suits, no sleeveless tops and stockings on Sundays for our female children, I don't know. Well, I do, but the discussion shouldn't have ended up there.

I do remember that the question that sparked the list was "How can we teach the law of chastity to our children?" I thought perhaps a really frank discussion of how men and women get turned on, and what works for women and what works for men. Maybe teaching your teenage boys that when you hold a girl's hand, it means far more to the girl than just holding hands. It means, for most girls, an emotional commitment. It means that she thinks the boy really likes her. It does NOT mean that she knows that you just want to hold her hand right now, and that if you feel like kissing her later, you might try to do that, and then when that gets boring, you'll go home to make yourself a turkey sandwich and play NBA Live. I would tell my sons this, and then say, "So, when you reach out, my boy, reach out gently, and honestly." If my boys know how girls work, then they can operate within appropriate boundaries without making promises they don't intend to keep.

I would tell my girl that her body is hers and hers only. That it is a beautiful, strong machine. It can do whatever she pleases it to do. It can hit home runs; it can shoot three-pointers and go up strong for rebounds; it can stride out across red rocks to the top of the canyon rim; it can make love and bear children. It can double-back handspring, and pirouette. It can do all these things without having to have breasts and buttocks a certain size, and it can do it virtuously in tank top and sports bra.

It can go, if it wants, out on the town in a pink-and-gray striped mini-dress hugging thighs that would be great behind home plate because they can generate enough power to thrust up out of the squat and throw out the runner at second base. This body is hers, and it is beautiful without needing a man or a male society to approve it. That is what I would tell my girl about her body.

Then I would give her as many opportunities as possible to find out just what her body can do, no matter its size. Knowing that, she would begin to feel that she controls what her body does and how it is perceived. She would, hopefully, begin to sense that her body is far more than what it looks like, that it is valuable for what it can do, and that she and it are partners (not enemies) in her journey.

I would also tell her that if she wants to kiss a boy, then to go ahead and kiss him. But, to remember, that to her a kiss is more than a kiss, and to him (generally) a kiss is just a kiss. I would tell her that boys are visual, that boys get out of the starting blocks going 60 mph, that boys are pretty simple to keep happy. Knowing that, she is better able to make wise decisions about herself, her feelings and her body.

But, if you're not going to have those kinds of discussions about sexuality, which is the root of chastity, then I guess the best we can do is cover her up. She will probably feel, in some unarticulated place in her soul, that there is something wrong with her body, that it contains feelings and urges and sights that are untrustworthy, even dangerous, but that's what happens when you hang the preservation of our society's moral values on the length of a skirt.

Title: from Manfred Mann, "Do Wah Diddy Diddy."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Asleep in Perfect Blue Buildings

I love Tim Coates. More particularly, I love Tim Coates's English teeth. They remind me that life at lived at 72 degrees Fahrenheit is not normal.

I'm sitting in the dentist's chair this afternoon while he's pounding away at No. 14, an upper molar that had a root canal and now needs a crown. The television screen in the ceiling is turned to National Geographic (only because Fox Soccer Channel's friendly between Brazil and Ireland had its signal blocked). The first program was The Dog Whisperer. The second turned out to be an expose of the Crop Circles that tend to show up in late summer in Wiltshire, an English county home to Stonehenge and other various covens and societies. So, this program is trying to figure out whether these crop circles could actually have been made by humans. Enter Tim Coates, mathematician at Imperial College, London, who has designed an intricate geometric design which will be given to the Crop Makers (They use capital letters to describe themselves) to duplicate in a field of rye one summer night. As he's explaining the geometry involved in creating the design, he smiles, and I burst out laughing, just about skewering my tongue on the drill. His teeth are brilliant. One front tooth crossed slightly over the other. A leaning picket fence occupies the bottom front six spaces on his mouth, as if a horse has leaned against it, and the slats gave way under the pressure. What a wonderful, delightful set of English teeth.

I always know where a film has been made by looking at the extras. Say, for example, there's a medieval battle scene, with badger-fur clad Picts dashing across supposed Scottish moors, faces painted blue and hair strung with chains of bones and bits. For a few seconds, there'll be close-ups of the hordes. If I see in the mouth of extra no. 25 stage left of Celtic general a set of perfectly matched ceramic veneers, all ivory-colored and each fit together with the precision of an Italian stonemason working in granite on the Cathedral of Siena, then I know the movie's actually being shot in Canada, or some Pennsylvanian countryside. If, on the other hand, I see in the mouth of extra no.25 stage left of Celtic general, a gap between the front two teeth, with one yellowed incisor and one chipped, and a lower set that includes at least two out of alignment, then I know these Picts are running across bona fide English, or at the very least, European moors. One doesn't ship in American extras; maybe American leads, but not extras.

You see, I have the same set of teeth as bona fide European extra no. 25 and mathematician Tim Coates. The top row is near to perfect, with a little graying on one bicuspid from something I took to the face a few years ago. But, color variances aside, they are as perfectly straight a row of teeth as you hope to find in any American high school year book. On the other hand, the bottom row has one tooth which, as Seth said one day when he was about three and was taking a close look at my mouth, "Mom, that tooth's got no parking place." He's right. It's squished backwards at a slant, just like Steve Buscemi's top row, only it's my bottom. A boyfriend once said to me, in his good-natured Australian bluntness, "Your teeth are strange. The top is perfect and the bottom is all crooked." And just what do you say to that? Thank you? I hadn't noticed? My parents were too poor to afford orthodontia? Which they weren't. We just lived in a different aesthetic, one where a little crooked didn't spoil perfectly healthy, functional teeth.

I'm sitting in the balcony of our town's Tabernacle, in a church meeting of multiple congregations. Luckily, my sister Laura is sitting next to me. Ever since some ecclesiastical gerrymandering a few years ago, we no longer attend the same congregation even though I can see her bedroom window through the field when I sit in my office chair. But at regional meetings, our families find each other on the south balcony one row from the railing. Laura and I spend a good portion of the two hours talking out of the side of our mouths, eyes on the pulpit, shoulders pressed together, heads cocked toward the other so we can hear our conversation better.

This particular meeting, I'm counting lights in the ceiling and then wondering why the dust pattern in the air conditioning vents in the ceiling of this nineteenth-century beauty arranges itself in such consistent patterns, like a valance, down the center of each panel on each four-sided vent. Soon I will move onto examining the stained glass windows. The noise level is amusing, even threatening, and watching the congregation is like watching the seals at La Jolla Cove. There's never a still moment, always somebody up, walking, rolling, stretching, child running, mother sidling with reverently folded arms after the culprit who's making a break for the spiral staircase in the corner towers. Laura asks me why my head is tilted back at such an angle. I tell her "I'm counting, and soon I will try to calculate how many sermons these stained glass windows have heard."

Just then we hear the speaker talking about happiness being the beginning and end all of our existence. I make some comment about the problem with thinking that this life is supposed to be one long bout of happiness is that then you need uppers and downers to keep you consistently happy. Laura wants to make sure the description about being a plan of happiness is actually correct. We turn to the scriptural texts sitting on the pews. We find one reference to the "great plan of happiness." More often and consistently, whenever a plan is referenced, it is called "a plan of redemption" or a "plan of mercy." In other words, a saving plan, one in which we turn from wrong to right, and do it over and over again. At the center of the plan sits a Redeemer, one who buys us back from our wrongs. Underneath his presence lies the assumption that we will, despite our best intentions, get it wrong. We sit and think about the implications of casting this as a "plan of happiness" or even a malapropistic "plan of great happiness."

Our conversation goes something like this: "You know, there doesn't seem to be this great emphasis on happiness in the early generations." "Yeah well, they didn't expect to be happy. They were cold all the time, and if they tried to get warm, they got smoked out. They lost all their teeth, and some of their children, and died before age forty. And then the king took the harvest and threw them a bone." "So, I suppose when there was a good harvest or a child who lives past their first birthday, the party's on." "Yes, we'll dance, we'll eat, we'll worship the sun, and we'll lay gifts at the altars of the gods for the good fortune." "The problem with living now is that we don't even know what season it is. If you don't go outside, you would think that the temperature is 72 degrees all year round. That's normal. That's what you would expect . . . 72 degrees all year round in your life. No days, months, years where things are just rough . . . even bad."

We sit for a while thinking about what your life would have to be in an expectation of constant happiness. "Straight teeth . . . ha!" We both stick out our bottom jaw to show our crooked ones. "No children would ever fail out of middle school because their homework's stuffed into the bottom of their locker." "All my chickens would still be alive instead of eaten by the neighborhood dog." "Adam would never shout, 'I hate you; everybody in this house hates you.'" "Our boobs wouldn't be down around our waist. No drooping upper eye-lid." "I wouldn't have to have a pacemaker right after I turned 40 and ran a marathon." "No miscarriages." "No bulldogs that pee on my carpets every winter." "No flooded basements." "Our kids would get asked to every dance by the cutest kids." "No dirt bikers on the hill behind the house for hours every spring afternoon." "No PMS." "No birth defects." Or, if you're Tina Fey, screenwriter and Oscar announcer, you'd get virtual actors who can be digitally manipulated on a computer screen without ever having to interact with them in the flesh. In other words, "No hurricanes, no earthquakes, no tsunamis. Just 72 degrees, balmy with a slight breeze. . . . And a pool boy."

We start laughing. The idea seems ludicrous. That you could expect to live your life at 72 degrees every day, that it would contain all of the good and none of the bad. How would you know then that the good is good, if there is no bad? What if, just to throw you for a loop in your air-conditioned life, you encountered really rough, just really, really rough? Sort of like Matthew's rain that falls on the just and the unjust. You'd have to medicate to get that 72 degrees feeling because you'd feel like your life is seriously, egregiously, God's not keeping his promises, out-of-whack.

In an artistic composition, the contrast between values serves to focus a viewer's attention. (Value is the whiteness or blackness of a color). Our eyes perceive the world via values. If there is no contrast, there is no picture. Contrast is most evident when black is next to white. On a painting, the area where the darkest dark and the lightest light come closest together is the most visually attractive. The greater the difference, the more attention the area attracts. In life, just like in art, the most interesting part is the part where dark meets light. That's the place where the eye begins its journey around the piece. That's the intersection where our eyes and hearts linger, where our minds mull, where we know the light, looking out or back to or even from the dark.

We're sprawled in the living room reading at seven in the morning. It's a verse I've read and heard many times before, only I thought it said "there must needs be opposition in all things." I've thought that to mean that in every encounter there's a good versus bad dichotomy, or, if there is no easily identifiable good and bad, there's another choice that serves as the opposition to the path you choose. But, I notice this morning that it actually reads, "There must needs be an opposition in all things." The language strikes me differently that morning: "an opposition" present in all things, something against which my experiences can lean so that I can see the difference. Experience that allows me to know good from evil, dark from light, joy from sorrow, pain from peace. Without the opposition, or contrast, I don't have a way to know that I know. If there is no dark, there is no way to know light. If there is no sorrow, there is no way to know and appreciate joy. If there is no heartbreak, there is no way to recognize and sink into peace.

There is nothing more beautiful to me than a perfectly calm spring day in the Rockies spent at a noon soccer game. In the background, the mountains are still covered with snow, which is brilliant white against the blue. The grass is spring green. The sun warms my shoulders through my long sleeve t-shirt. The boys are eager to play from the off-season and we've trained hard for this game. We do the cheer in the huddle, their fists clenched, their gap-toothed grins looking up at me. "Play hard, Play clean, Pride." They sprint onto the field. During the game, Niles manages to execute the ball fake he's tried over and over again at training to perfect; from center back Grayson distributes the ball up the right wing and the left wing rotates to cover as Grayson provides the drop. Adam sprints away from his defender into the open space of the corner to which Josiah has sent the ball. Cross back to center, Jake's running in, finds the ball in the air and delivers a strike that is . . . stopped by the goalie. Perfect. Great ball movement, great attack, great defense. Just perfect. It doesn't get much better than that.

How do I know? Because just yesterday, I sat huddled underneath the suggestion of an umbrella on ice cold bleachers clad in everything I could find in the car, including a really ugly Denver Broncos beanie and one glove, in a freezing, driving sleet storm, watching Christian play. There is nothing worse than spring soccer in the Rockies when winter decides to reappear. Those days are bad, just downright bad. They're "one of those good, miserable, days" that I know will be mine because we live where we live and our boys play soccer. But, the whistle blows after 90 minutes, and after a few hours, we're warm again.

So, when that perfect spring soccer day shows its face, I know. And the knowing is all the sweeter, knowing what it could have been and still might be.

Title: Counting Crows, "Perfect Blue Buildings."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Replaying It Over and Over Again

The Ballad of Delroy High Basketball

(or your approach to raising your fourth child;

or marriage after fifteen years;

or devotion after four decades)

I've spent the past four months in the bleachers watching a basketball season. All three sons play on basketball teams; some play on multiple teams. So I have watched, between the five leagues and the local college team, on average, about ten games a week since October. That's a lot of bruised-butt bleacher time. I've come to the conclusion that, as much as I would like to think that my children are spending time with stellar individuals, that coaches are, for the most part, quite ordinary, even mediocre.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing, as most of us are really just average in most areas of our lives, and down right disastrous in others. There's a certain strength and patience that can be developed by being coached/led/taught/parented by the average and the bad. And, an important realization that hopefully dawns somewhere along the line that sometimes my best is actually bad compared to what somebody else could do. I would do well to extend that Average One the patience and tolerance I would hope from others in the moments where even my best is not good enough.

But that's not the most significant realization of the season. This season I have seen play out in my children's lives and the lives of their teammates the consequences of interacting with adults who, for so long, have made no changes to their life and the way they operate. Because they have run practice a certain way for twenty years, that's the way practice should be run. It can be run no other way. Because they use an inside game that takes time to set up the big man, there can be no transition basketball. They walk the ball up the court, even if there is no defense set up at the other end. Every possession takes 90 seconds.

Because the varsity runs a high-low post scheme, the junior varsity, which has no big men, and consists of eight greyhounds (and a couple arthritic bulldogs) who can run the court like a racetrack, must play the high-low charade. Ball in, ball swatted away; ball waiting to go in, three second call while smallish big guy tries to establish position; ball on the wing wide open, no shot because our school plays the inside game. Then, in the fourth quarter, when we're down 15 with four minutes to go, the coach lets loose the dogs. "Push it, push it," we can hear coming from the bench. They run, they cut, they penetrate, the defense has to collapse to protect the basket, the ball gets dished outside, three pointer. They get the ball up the court in two dribbles and a long bounce pass, lay up. The boys pull to within 2 points, but time runs out. They lose.

Parents and players are left to wonder why "push it" shows up only in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. If it had showed up at the tip off, the opposing team could not have kept up. But no! Transition basketball is not Delroy High basketball. So, we do not play it, even though the only players available to play on this particular team are six-foot tall sprinters, jumpers and cutters. We're left with yet another game where the players are told in the locker room that they "just didn't want it bad enough," where the blame for the loss is placed on their inability to "get it to the post"--never mind the post player is only 6' 4" and should be playing three-man. In part, or in whole, the loss should be placed squarely on the coaching staff, for their refusal to look down the bend and actually "see" their personnel, for their inability to change their plan and to coach the game that needed to be coached with the players that were available.

I sat on Friday evening watching our school lose in the state tournament semi-final game, a game Delroy had no business losing. On the team was the state player of the year from last year and most likely again this year--a man amongst boys. Unstoppable unless, of course, he's the only person shooting and the defense can afford to sag four in the key to stop his penetration. The other team, Lakeshore, was anchored by a 6'10" tower, slow but with a great shooting touch who could make his free throws. One would think, in a rational world, that if the player giving your team the biggest fit and preventing you from scoring the way you like to score is clogging up the key, you would try to score without him there. In other words, you would push, use your speed, get your guards out on the wing, fill the lanes, and make the Tower huff his 260 pounds up the court to catch you.

But, no. Delroy basketball, for the past 25 years, has always been about slow, controlled possession, a minute for every shot, reduce the risk, reduce the errors. Score in the 30s. Play tenacious defense to take the other team out of their rhythm. So, last Friday afternoon, they walk the ball up the court, let the Tower set up in the key, pass the ball around the perimeter while our skinny big tries to post up against Him. Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, don't you dare dribble or penetrate the key to break down the defense; and don't set a screen to spring your shooters free. This approach works if you have a big guy who's really strong, really big. This works if the other coach doesn't have a plan to break down your defense, and to shut down your inside game. This works only if you have guards who can get open for the shot on their own, and the opposing team hasn't scouted you to know your patterns. But, if you don't, and if they do and if they have . . . this doesn't work.

Watching this season was like watching the fifth Mexican restaurant open up in the very same place that four others have failed in. It didn't work last year, and it didn't work this year; and it won't work next year, unless a 6 foot 8 inch center with soft hands and an unstoppable up-and-under "transfers" into the boundaries.

A coach's responsibility, particularly a high school coach who cannot recruit the kind of players he would prefer, is to find what will work with what he has. And, if, during the second quarter, the game plan doesn't seem to be working, the coach's responsibility is to adapt, to adjust, to try something else. This year, something else would have worked really well, something different than what's been done in the past. But no, that's not how Delroy does basketball. And so, like the ANZAC mates in Gallipoli, those poor boys go down, coach's ego and tradition blazing, in a cloud of fouls as the players do exhausting battle with the Tower and his supporting guards.


One of the greatest lies is that "there is no other way." Language like "it's always been that way," "this is tradition," "our system's been successful in the past" is language that assumes no other way. Programs based on these unyielding, unchanging assumptions will fail just as regularly as they succeed--unless the tradition itself is centered on change and adaptation, and on timeless principles like moral character, respect, hard work, smart work, and paying the price. Sooner or later, about every four years as players cycle through the system, there won't be the same combination of players, of characters or personalities, and opponents that created the successful seasons of 1989 and 1998 and 2004. What then?

Well then Coach, you look down your roster, you see what you have and you devise a new plan (patterned after the old one in a way perhaps) that makes these boys with their particular talents and skills (and their just as eager and willing hearts) as capable of success as the players you wish you had. That's work, yes. Hard work, but it's the price of greatness. It's not a price most are willing to pay. Like the woman who always buys her husband a tie for Father's Day, most settle for what worked, once upon a time.

Title: From Tim McGraw, "Over and Over Again."