Captain Inertia
Friday, January 30, 2004

Somedays, you get the bear; somedays, the bear gets you. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes your div school applications are complete; sometimes they're not. Sometimes the Cubs win the World Series (especially if it's the early 1900s); sometimes, they're five outs away from going to the World Series and they surrender 8 runs to the Florida Marlins.

Sometimes, you use the restroom in privacy, and sometimes, the superintendent of the building you work in walks in on you in the john. I was reading the bulletin of Duke Divinity School, and dropping the kids off at the pool.

He went into another stall (lock, David! always lock! how many times do I have to tell you?!), and after he'd done his business, he apologized again: "I'm sorry, amigo." "It's OK," I said, from behind the stall door.

"Yeah, it's OK," he said, in heavily accented Nuyorican English. "It's OK, because I am the man, and you are the man, so it's OK." I'm not sure what he meant by that; he may have meant that it was OK because we were both men, which was certainly true. But I prefer to think that he was just paying me (and him) a compliment: you are the man! I am the man! And everything is alright!

Either way, I'm never using that stall again.

It is now unclear whether or not my applications will even be complete by Monday. I forgot to order transcripts (!!!!) until Wednesday, and I had to overnight them to the schools (at a king's ransom of about $25 a pop, thanks very much). The registrar's office has a tracking system, but it doesn't work right, so I have no idea if they a) received my plaintive request to please, please overnight my transcripts or b) actually got them there or not. I'm gonna walk out of work in a little bit not knowing if my transcripts are gonna be there at 4 PM Monday; there doesn't seem to be much I can do about it except accept that I goofed up and see what happens.

It seems alternately sad and hilarious that after so much soul-searching on my part about whether or not I should even apply, so much is left up to chance. If my applications aren't complete by Monday, the seminaries will still let me in (probably), but my shot at very generous financial aid will be diminished considerably. Virtually everyone I met at Princeton when I visited there was going there for free or mostly for free; I had been (arrogantly, perhaps) planning on a similar package for the duration of this application process. It was part of how I sold it to myself: look, this is mostly a commitment of time and energy, not of financial resources. Would I still be willing to go there if I have to pay out-of-pocket? I dunno. Might it not be better just to wait another year and re-apply? I dunno. The overall meaning of all this? I dunno.

I'm trying to apply a sense of perspective to all this, to keep reminding myself that there's bigger and more important stuff going on in the world than applying to divinity school. Sometimes, I'm able to keep that perspective, and the whole process seems tolerable or even fun, in an oh-hey-who-knows-what's-gonna-happen kind of way. Sometimes (e.g., today), it's much less fun, and more, y'know, sad and tiring and frustrating.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

For those of you who are interested...I did put applications in the mail for div school. (Princeton and Duke.) Whether or not I'll go, or even if I'll manage to complete the damn things before the deadline on Monday (curse ordering transcripts! CURSE them, I say!) is anybody's guess.

This whole process has been pretty challenging and emotional for me, and I really appreciate everybody's support. So thank you.

I'm probably going to blog some more about this topic over the next couple of weeks...feel free to respond if you want to, but if you're disinterested/bored by talk of my personal life, just skip it and wait until I post something dumb ("Hey, fried plantains are high in fat! What's up with that?" (sigh)).

The following is a conversation I had yesterday with a bigwig at my company. He was snowed in up in Westchester, and I called him at home (his 4-year old answered the phone). I was working hard on a grant proposal, trying to put it to bed before I left work that day.

Me: hey! how you doing! you snowed in up there?
Him: Yeah, we just dug ourselves out.
Me: Ah, jeez.
Him: Yeah, it sucks. What can I do for you?
Me: Well, I'm working on this grant proposal, and they want the most recent financial audit for [name of one of our subsidiaries]. I've looked around and I can only find the audit from '02. Do we have a more recent one?
Him: Well....I don't think the audited one from '03 has been finished yet...
Me: Huh. Well, do we have, like, an un-audited one from '03? Or is it better to go with '02?
Him: (pause) Can we do this later?
Me: Uhhh....
Him: I might come in later today. Or tomorrow.
Me: Uhhh....
Him: When is this proposal due?
Me: Uhhh...well, we're really trying to get it off today.
Him: Yeah, but when's it due?
Me: It's due Friday.
Him: Oh, fine, OK, so it can wait a day or two.
Me: Yeah, but if we wait until tomorrow to get it together...
Him: Nah, we'll send it FedEx. We can handle it tomorrow.
Me: Uhhhh....OK.
Him: OK. Talk to you tomorrow.
Me: Right. Bye. (hangs up phone) Shit.

Must....learn....assertiveness! I swear to God, that turd gave me just the gentlest brush-off and I folded. The sad fact is that I really lucked out--we were able to send the old report and I got the proposal out that day. If, in fact, it had NOT been OK to send the 02 financial report, I would have had to have called him back and said, "Look, we really need this report, right now," which would have certainly roused his ire. And I, being oh-so-afraid of stirring up conflict, dislike that more than anything. Arghghghghghghghghrhrhrhrhghghg.

I owe you one. Love, your bro.
Thursday, January 22, 2004

1. There's this woman who works in my office that makes a noise. A weird one. All the time. It's sort of a combination of a coughing sound with, like, a gag sound or a spitting sound. The first time I heard it I was worried she was actually choking and that I'd have to perform the Heimlich Maneuver (or, er, get someone more confident to perform the Heimlich Maneuver). I can always tell if she's at her desk, because there's The Sound. Sometimes when she walks by my desk, she'll say "Hi, David," and then make The Sound.

This is driving me totally insane.

2. Today, when I walked into the bathroom at work, there was a strange man in a thick coat repeatedly swatting the
radiator with a feather duster. I felt like I was in a David Lynch movie.


Wednesday, January 21, 2004

I don't even have a joke here. Via Josh Newman.

I came across a quotation in Michael Lewis' fine book Liar's Poker that struck me. He's talking about the ruthless, take-no-prisoners atmosphere on the bond trading floor at Saloman Brothers in the 80s, but I think it works as an interesting reflection on theodicy stuff as well:

"More different types of people succeeded on the trading floor than I intially supposed. Some of the men...were truly awful human beings. They sacked others to promote themselves. They harassed women. They humiliated trainees. They didn't have customers. They had victims. Others were naturally extremely admirable characters. They inspired those aroudn them. They treated their customers almost fairly. They were kind to trainees. The point is not that a...[bond trader] was intrinsically evil. The point is that it didn't matter one bit whether he was good or evil as long as he continued to swing that big bat of his. Bad guys did not suffer their comeuppance in Act V on the...floor. They flourished...goodness was not taken into account on the trading floor. It was neither rewarded nor punished. It just was. Or it wasn't."

I've been such a wuss in re blogging. Div school stuff is sucking up a lot of my time lately, but applications are due very soon. Hopefully we'll see a more productive Captain Inertia after February 1.

On a purely non-political level, if I found a guy who looks like this hiding in my closet, I'd freak out.
Friday, January 16, 2004

Doesn't ANYONE in the Cubs organization see why this is a TERRIBLE idea?

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

One of the downsides of living alone is that I've begun talking to myself. Like, a lot. I mean, it's not like I'm arguing with people who aren't there--it's more like I feel free to narrate my own stream of consciousness a little bit.

For instance, this morning, while I was shaving, I was thinking about something. Here's what I was thinking about: the time during my junior year of high school when we got visited by some reporters from--I'm not making this up--Cosmopolitan magazine. For some reason, they decided my high school was 'hip,' so they came to do a story on us, and they picked out five or ten cool people to interview, who would be photographed and appear in the magazine. (I have no idea what criteria they used to pick out people; I think it's safe to say that neither me nor any of my friends were considered.) But my girlfriend at the time decided that come hell or high water, she was going to get into Cosmopolitan.

Our high school had a monthly news program called "Newscene" that ran on cable-access television. And my girlfriend was one of the anchors, and she, being a clever girl, recognized an opportunity. So she drags one of the cameramen along with her, and goes down to the area where Cosmo was interviewing people, and started interviewing them. What a meta-moment!: she was interviewing the interviewers! And of course everyone at Cosmo was like: oh! wow! we didn't realize this high school had a news program! will wonders never cease! and who's that attractive girl that's doing the interviewing! we should interview her as well! So she ends up in Cosmo, of course--a tiny, blurred photograph, but in it, nonetheless.

That was what I was thinking about--about how it was funny that Cosmo was even at my high school, and the clever subterfuge that my girl used to get into the magazine. But all that someone standing there watching me shave would have heard me say (apropos of nothing) was: "ah, Newscene! Clever! (long pause) Cute." And then I chuckled.


Verbatim quote from the liner notes to Thin Lizzy's Jailbreak: "It was therefore significant that The Jailbreak represented a freedom for so many yet to those involved at the time it was a series of events, the outcome of which no-one could have foreseen."
Friday, January 09, 2004

Fried plantains are high in fat.
Wednesday, January 07, 2004

How could anyone think that bananas are better than plantains? Plantains rule the roost.

I've been thinking a lot about this terrible, terrible earthquake in Iran lately. (Prompted, in part, by more timely posts like this one from Sursum Corda.) He's quite right: getting your mind around the scale of something like this is pretty hard to do. 9/11 killed about 3,000 people; try imagining something ten times as deadly as 9/11 and you're getting there.

Yannis, my co-worker and interlocutor, who's of a skeptical/atheistic bent, is pretty aggressively curious what I think about this. Where, he's asked me, was God? Did God not care? Was God punishing the people of Bam? Was he impotent to stop the earthquake from happening?

I haven't said anything to him, and I'm not going to. Partly because I don't think he has ears to hear what I'd have to say anyway, but mostly because I don't have any answers myself. Theodicy (a.k.a. the problem of evil, a.k.a. Dostoyevsky's Lil' Problem, a.k.a. something you cover in theology 101) is a problem that's been gaining a sharper and sharper edge for me as the years go by. The thing that makes this problem both so devestating and so fascinating is that it only has teeth if you actually believe in God.

If you're a materialist, and you see the universe just as matter in motion, and that's all, so what about this earthquake? Yes, terrible, but terrible things happen all the time. No problem. But if you're a Christian, and you believe God is both all-powerful and benevolent, then what? And--this is the kicker--the more you've experienced God's presence and power in the past, the more the lack of that presence and power galls you. Why did the God who healed my mother when she was sick fail to respond here? Why did the God who comforted me when I was hurting fail to respond to so many in dire need?

A friend of mine in college told me a story about a college theology professor, who took a boat ride on a lake with his family. And one of his kids accidentally threw his beach ball over the side of the boat, and it floated out of sight. And the kid was pretty distraught, and kept saying Dad, Dad, can't we pray to get the beach ball back? And finally the father relents, and says, OK, let's pray. And they pray for God to return the beach ball. And sure enough, ten minutes later, the beach ball comes floating back to the boat! Miraculous!

Monday comes, and the theology professor goes back to school, and shares his experience with his fellow faculty members. Isn't that amazing!, he says. God does answer prayer! But to his amazement, the faculty do not respond with delight--instead, they get angry. Why the hell would God answer a prayer like that? Don't you realize what kind of world we're living in? Christians are being murdered in the Sudan! People all over are starving and dying! War! Pestilence! Disease! And your stupid kid gets his goddamn beach ball back?

It's a story, obviously, I've remembered.

The question becomes not "does God exist?" but (to paraphrase Philip Yancey) "What is God good for?" Right? (I realize I've now merely re-defined the question...sorry.) The seeming conclusions you can draw from this are that a) God does not exist, and that life is fundamentally random and meaningless, b) God does exist, but is not of good will or benevolent (which, for Christians, is heretical), or c) God does exist, but is not omnipotent and is unable to prevent certain events from occurring (which, for Christians, is heretical). (The biggest proponent of c) that I know of is A.N. Whitehead, but I haven't read any process theology.)

I actually find events like the earthquake in Bam more troubling, in some ways, than the Holocaust or other man-made horrors because those events are, well, man-made--humanity did them, and ultimately humanity shares some responsibility for them. Something like the Bam earthquake is more troubling because humanity has no mediating responsibility--it just happened, wham, and 30,000 people under the rubble. It's a sign that we live in a universe that's governed by randomness, at least on some levels. People can frequently deal with death if the death is meaningful--if a person sacrifices themself for a good cause, or if they die helping someone else, or if they die in their bed after a long life. But events like these challenge us because, hey, there is no meaning. It's the equivalent of someone walking down the street and being hit by a falling brick and dying. There's no rhyme or reason to it; it just happens. And it's a challenge to me as a Christian, because I'm not sure how to live in such a world: I believe that God exists, and that he loves me, but I also know that I live in a world where things like the Bam earthquake happen, and meaninglessness can reach out and get us at any time.

It's not a problem I'm going to think my way through anytime soon. (EDITED TO ADD: Not that I'm terrifically emotionally distressed about it. I just think it's a problem I have to sit with for a while.)
Monday, January 05, 2004

Apologies to Sally.

I'm back from Seattle, where my cousin got married. (My cousin's name is Dave, my name; my cousin's brother's name is Steve, my dad's name. If I name my children either Dave or Steve, smack me.) Some impressions after my first-ever trip there:

1. JFK is, in fact, an armpit of the universe. My morning featured the following events: 1. Waking up at 5 am; 2. a solid hour spent waiting in lines. 3. A nice, invigorating sprint to the gate to make my flight (the whole way, my 30-pound copy of the Stanley Hauerwas Reader jabbing into my spleen). 4. All of the above....with no coffee.

2. Starbucks, does, in fact, own Seattle. It's not quite to the point where the Starbucks logo is on top of the Space Needle, but it's getting there. You know that spot on Astor Place where you can stand on a corner and see three different Starbucks? All of Seattle is like that...

3...which is probably just as well, because Seattle is so grey and damp that after a few hours you need a triple-espresso just to keep the serious existential ennui at bay.

4. 50% of the stalls at Pike Place Market feature t-shirts that say "Pike Place Market" on them.

5. Groom reading the following Ogden Nash poem at the reception: "To keep your marriage brimming/with love in the wedding cup/whenever you're wrong, admit it/ and whenever you're right, shut up."


Hope there's not too much snow in Bend.

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