Monthly Archive for May, 2011


“Sir? Sir…” I called after the man we just saw moments before-hand digging through one of the many garbage cans lining the 16th Street Mall downtown — looking for food, looking for anything. At about 9am, the biting cold of a mid-November morning starts to loosen its jaws a bit, up to 30° give or take a few. Cold, nonetheless. What difference does two or three degrees really make? His hair was exactly as you’d expect it to be; his clothes following suit. No bags. A hollow gait with each trash can his goal. I caught up to him, and… actually, let me back up a bit. This all started with an anniversary weekend getaway, a blueberry muffin, and a very special girl.

Breakfast — the day before… I was craving just a blueberry muffin and a vanilla coffee drink (or grandé vanilla latté with no foam for those of you who only speak metro), but got distracted by the notion of a vanilla custard french toast offering and when we ordered our food at the Corner Bakery Cafe, I still ordered that blueberry muffin. You know those kind of huge muffins with that crumbly topping? Fresh-baked and moist in the middle with a crunchy outer crust? Like this one:


A blueberry muffin from the Corner Bakery Cafe

Well, the muffin was still intact by the time we finished our meals so Jen wrapped it up to bring with us on our adventures and we thought we could share it when we were hungry again. Then I realized I left my phone up in the hotel room. I needed my phone. You need your phone, right? Gotta have your phone. Once back in the hotel room, it made sense to just leave the muffin there and maybe call it dessert and not carry it around all day. So that’s what we did and the muffin sat on the credenza in a bag in the hotel room all day while we delighted in a long day of walking, playing together, filling up our cameras with funny faces and amazing places and things that make Denver what it is, and topped off with a fancy impromptu dinner at Maggiano’s.

One of the threads weaving itself through our weekend was a heightened awareness of homeless people. For the uninformed, here’s a little something about my wife that defines a significant part of who she is — and this in no way encompasses the extent of her traumas and triumphs: she was a teenage runaway and spent 10 days on the streets and dealt with situations and things most people only know about from movies and the evening news. Because of her experiences and the damage and repercussions and the road to healing she’s been on, she now has this incredible gift of tenderness, forgiveness, intuition and the super power to see right through bullshit.

Okay, so earlier this night after our fancy dinner while walking back through the 16th Street Mall on our way back to our hotel room she wanted to give our leftover food from dinner to someone. It wan’t much, but something is better then nothing when you’re hungry. And hardly anything becomes even less if you share it. The streets were thinning out and the nightly chill started its descent on downtown. it was getting kind of late and most places were closed, but she did find a few people who were homeless. She handed me the to-go bag and said, “Go give it to that guy right there.” Timeout — a little something you should know about me: I do not do well with crowds, I will always find the least in-the-way place to stand in a room, and I’m borderline paranoid of talking to people I don’t know. It took a lot for me to look back at Jen and say, “Okay.” I don’t remember how cold it was, but everyone was wearing winter jackets. This was, after all, November in Denver.

The man I walked up to was an older black gentleman, almost like my dad’s age, or maybe life just made him look older like that. He was standing with two or three other older people. I had the food in my left hand and reached out to hand it him. He took it with his left hand and reached his right hand out gesturing to shake my hand. As I was reaching for his hand, he said, “Thank you, I’ll pass it around.” His hand was warm and not nearly as rough as I was expecting. I think I replied with something stupid like, “Stay warm.” or something like that. I thought for a split second about saying something like, “God bless.” which seemed so trite or perfectly insensitive. My force field started to decay. My head started reorganizing. Jen gave me a gift. She probably knew it, too.

By the way, “renting” a movie in your hotel room is a rip-off (thank you Redbox and Netflix for spoiling us all.) We watched what I can only describe as a really bad camcorder recoding of a TV screen that was playing the movie Date Night. Even still, we laughed and ate our pumpkin cheesecake in our pajamas, leaving us in no shape to be eating a muffin. “Let’s bring it with us to breakfast tomorrow and we’ll eat it then.” She suggested. My wife is always full of smart ideas. No, brilliant ideas. She has this knack for knowing the right time for saying whatever needs to be said or doing whatever needs to be done.

Waking up quietly and peacefully is one of the few luxuries in life that I’m sure all parents of small children could just die for. The last bits of our weekend were upon us, and we were so excited to head back to our new favorite place for breakfast.

So there we were, Jen and I, sitting in our front window seats, laughing, reminiscing, loving each other and people watching as if this was our normal Sunday morning routine and we’d been coming here for years. We enjoyed an amazing breakfast for the second day in a row on the last day of our weekend getaway in celebration of being married for 12 years. I can still taste the cinnamon and vanilla custard baked into the french toast. We ate and talked and sat in the restaurant for well over an hour, and I fell in love all over again with my wife.

People watching. We tried to guess the stories of the people we saw. Jen kept pointing out people who were homeless, explaining how she knew based on various clues I’d never pick up on. We watched a lady have an entire conversation with the thin chilling air. We watch a different lady move from one table to the next in the restaurant making up various stories trying to convince people to give her money. We saw a rich man (you can tell by the shoes, the overcoat, and the way he wore his baseball cap) walking around with and talking at what could have very much been his son who’s all grown up, but probably feels lost and unsure of himself. We watched a handsome man standing outside, patiently standing, nervously standing and watching in all directions; checking his phone every other minute, waiting for someone to show up. He was early, or maybe she was late. We guessed at his story and figured this was a moment in the making. She finally showed up. “It takes time to make yourself look nice. And he better appreciate her cause she looks pretty for him.” Jen says with a smile in her voice.

We finished our breakfast and continued to sit and watch and talk. We never got to the blueberry muffin. Once again, we ordered too much food. “We can just take it home and the kids can have it.” she said. We talked about our dreams and wishes. We held hands and watched the world spin itself up around us. And we watched the same guy that went down the other side of the street work his way back up on our side stopping at each trash can looking for something. Looking for anything. Without missing a beat, Jen grabs the muffin out of her bag, along with three dollars in cash that we had left and handed it to me. “Go give this to that guy.”

I’d like to say that I responded immediately with, “That’s what I was just thinking!” But, no. I challenged her. I started reeling with reasons why that was a bad idea to give someone in need a bit of food and a few bucks… “He’ll just buy alcohol with it.” I started to spew out and quickly realized what I was saying and tried to take it back. Words have this amazingly linear trajectory. There is no reverse. As I was trying to not say what I was saying, I got out of my seat, took the muffin bag with her three dollars and sped out the cafe doors. During my insolence, he managed to make it to the corner of the block. I went from a brisk walk to a hasty jog to catch up.

“Sir? Sir…” I called after him. He turned slowly, cautiously, perhaps incoherently. I must have caught him off-guard, calling after him like that. I handed him the bag and the money. He reached out to take it from me with both of his hands. I know I looked into his eyes then, but now recalling the story I barely remember them. They were so hollow and light.

“Thank you, brother. Thank you.” I can still hear his voice. Smashing what was left of the stale, hard candy-coated shell I’ve been constructing around my heart for most of my life. Going to work the next day and sitting at my desk and organizing electrons never felt so meaningless. The newly exposed, raw flesh of my heart was not ready to be so contained so soon. It still isn’t. Almost every day now for the past six months I’ve thought of this weekend and I’m finding myself more and more unsettled with what I spend my time doing everyday.

I have an idea, and I’m going to need a lot of money, or a miracle, or both.

A Robot On The Rocks, or The Perfect Storm, or Monsters Bawl, or We Are Phoenix

I couldn’t decide on a sufficient title. I’m still not satisfied with any of them.

“You’re in robot mode. Again.” she said with disappointment. To think things is one thing. To speak them out loud can be a completely different thing for some things which seems to transform that which could have hope into something… less. Not just less, but sorrowfully less. I suppose it’s the combination of the pause and the word “again” that spawned this transformation.

For the un-indoctrinated, robot mode is the endearing term (yes, sarcasm) my lovely wife (not sarcasm, I really think she’s lovely) uses to describe me when I’m walking around as a ghost in my own home; a hologram of my self; a shell masking the labyrinth of emptiness lying just beneath. Floating from one obligation to the next without vigor or effect or affect — alive, but only according to the scientific definition of life, yet for all intents and purposes dead; on auto-pilot. Things don’t have taste. My normally very active sense of smell goes dormant. Smiling is facade and thinking (on just about any level) is mirage. I’ve tried to figure out how this happens and so far it seems to be the apex of a distinct collection or sequence of events with impeccable timing. I suppose robot mode is a form of self preservation or a defense mechanism when I’m unable to make sense out of things; or when I’m facing questions with any number of plausibly debilitating, yet paranoia-laced answers; or when I’m coming down from an extended professional and intellectual climb upon completion of a task or project of substantial caliber — a sort of post-project depression; or when I start feeling unimportant and alone and forgotten… or worse, intentionally ignored; or when work is seeming more and more like a waste of time because my voice has been stolen by… the vacuous thieves of never-land.

We recently learned at church about Jonah. It’s such a tragically beautiful story of rebellion and restoration, forgiveness and provision. I can see why the story takes place mostly in the sea. Where else does the notion of drowning feel even more prevalent and hopeless? Sorrow and depression very much feel like the deep beckons for a moratorium on trying, and begs for an effortless downward trajectory. It’s hopelessly overwhelming. I’m reminded of stormy days when I used to surf a spot called South Garbage. Paddling out against the breakers was the embodiment of futility. Next to the ocean, there aren’t many places on this earth that are incredibly adept at stealing your progress faster than you can make some. This surf spot is at the bottom of a treacherous cliff. The reef and rocks just a few feet below the surface give the waves amazing shape and unexpected power.

Robot mode is a complex, infinite loop of overlapping, broken analyses that never resolve. I heard someone once describe jazz music this way — that it never resolves; it does not have a natural progression to a logical ending. It has to be ended. Robot mode is the jazz of whatever you call that gap between the head and the heart… you know, that place where things go when they don’t make sense. Robot mode is a reactionary state to an overflowing bucket of seemingly disconnected and senseless things. Enter melancholy, enter numbness, enter mediocrity: the leading roles in this act while fear, loathing and unjustified anger trail, no… lurk, behind. No, that’s not right… It’s more like the fear, the loathing, the resentment, the frustration and anger — all stemming from an inability to resolve things — conceal themselves in the trough of the wake of this ill-fated jazz. They ride out the numbness until the right moment when they can weave chaos and havoc onto the stage, creating prime conditions for a perfect storm.

For Jonah, the perfect storm was a literal storm that was a result of his own choices. He fled from God heading in the opposite direction from where he was told to go. The story says God sent the storm, and it affected everyone on the boat, yet Jonah slept through it until some one had to wake him up. The other people on the boat were tossing overboard everything they could think of to try to prevent the boat from getting ripped in two by the waves. Jonah explains to the others it’s his fault the storm was upon them and he tells them to throw him into the sea to die, yet God provided for him a fish. A sanctuary. A place for Jonah to have no distractions from what the real problems in his life were: himself. He was given time and space to sort through things he never would have faced otherwise. On the surface, the story seems like a bad joke. But if you peel back the layers and read what’s really going on and look past the whole giant fish or whale or sea monster or whatever, therein lies God’s incredible gifts of provision and redemption: people who were otherwise agnostic towards God see first-hand how real he is, a city full of wicked people get saved, and a broken man gets a shot at restoration.

My perfect storm arrived last week. On top of an already stressful time, all the crap I was stuck fruitlessly trying to sift through and resolve converged into one horrible moment. A defining moment for almost all of my important relationships. A defining moment for my own definition of myself. The aftermath of this incident has been and still is surreal and amazing and harrowing… an emotional melting pot. I never thought myself to be the monster; to be capable of hurting others. My birth name means “healer” and what happened last week is so far from that, it makes me sick. I don’t know what the opposite of breaking is, but this, it definitely is not. I look in the mirror and I’m shocked that my reflection looks so normal because I’m expecting to see something hideous and grotesque and repulsive. I’m expecting to see a monster on the verge of sobbing with remorse for simply just being. I’m startled that people still talk to me in a normal fashion. Undeserving is my new name. I was in such denial that I could ever be like that. Other people can be like that, but not me. I’m supposed to be invisible and blend into the walls and slip through the cracks and bring peace and … and now I feel paralyzed and humiliated in the center of the room, vulnerable, and ashamed and on another planet. I scared myself and never thought before about how much capacity I have for what happened. I’m very much aware now of my own depravity, which I’ve always been in denial about. Oh, sure, I’ve sort of always known that I needed God, but that was head knowledge. That was just information. But now, I’m experiencing something much more. Something much deeper and messier and more meaningful it makes what I grew up with seem hollow and trite and pretend.

I set into motion a chain of events last week that still have a course to complete. It will not soon be over, but has already illuminated God’s grace and mercy in my life in ways that I’ve never experienced. The relationships I jeopardized are stronger than I gave them credit for. I know what it is to read these words and absorb them as nutrients for my soul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I never noticed before how the story of Jonah abruptly ends with an open-ended and slightly rhetorical question from God; an unresolved stanza of biblical jazz. The story gets ended. I’m banking on my story to not be like that. I’m determined to not make Jonah’s mistake and wallow in self pity, arguing with God over the value of my own life (when I have no right to set my own value in the first place) essentially nullifying everything he can do through this time in my life.

As the myth of the phoenix goes: born and reborn from violent, blazing fire, out of the mess of its own ashes, it begins life again. So too, we monsters are destined to fail upwards despite ourselves, our circumstances, our denials and mistakes. We are lifted up in spite of our undeserving selves by a God who writes the stories and their endings and knows all there is to know and a God who can see around time and a God who loves so deeply he sends or allows the storms so we’ll call to him and learn from our mistakes and help each other find the right paths to travel.

As man or monster (what’s the difference?), we are phoenix — and robots must die.